Rachel leaned against the frozen, grimy brick wall and fought to catch her breath, the air so cold that it seemed laced with icy blades. Thanks to the low lying smoke from the railroad workshops and the commotion in the dining salon over Maitland’s prone body, she’d managed to escape the private Pullman, dodging the few remaining sentries.
She panted softly, fighting to listen for pursuers — heavy boots pounding down the railroad tracks, flat Bostonian accents muttering to each other. . .
She heard nothing like that. But they could be muffled by the fog. Foul language about card games and women poured from the buildings ahead. A woman in the shack next to her was entertaining a man carnally, obviously for money: She was insisting that he either hurry up or pay more.
Rachel shuddered, pressing her hand to her stomach, her fingertip catching one of the jewels sewn into her corset her corset. Nothing Charles Dickens had ever written had prepared her for the harsh, deadly reality of this slum. She needed to escape quickly or be condemned to the same fate as that woman. Or worse.
Her stomach was flopping like a codfish on a fisherman’s hook. If she saw all of the bloodstains on her clothes, she was afraid she’d disgrace herself.
Stiffening her spine, she forced herself to move toward the street, carrying her carpetbag. She needed to make her way through this slum and into the main city. Then she’d have to find someone who could tell her how to find the Donovan & Sons depot.
“What the hell you mean, Annie, by movin’ out on me? You been seein’ somebody else?” The man’s words were slurred with drink but still vividly laced with anger and violence.
Rachel froze, barely two steps back from the street corner. Was another woman about to be beaten?
“No, Billy, I haven’t,” a girl’s voice quavered. “But I couldn’t, I just couldn’t stay, Billy.”
She shouldn’t help her, she really shouldn’t, not when Maitland’s men had to be following her. Maybe the situation wasn’t really immediately dangerous to the girl. She’d look it over quickly, then move on.
Rachel crept forward, peering between the rapidly increasing crowd.
Billy was a narrow-eyed thug, flaunting a pair of six-guns, while Annie sported two black eyes and a face so bruised it would be a wonder if she could eat. He knocked her to the ground with one ham-sized fist. “I told you, you were mine!” he roared, standing over her, and drew back his booted foot for a kick. The reek of rum coming from him was amazing, even at this distance.
Annie promptly curled herself into an all-too-practiced ball. Rachel edged forward to help her, completely forgetting her own need to escape.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” another man observed, his deep voice slicing through the crowd’s whispers. A very, very beautiful, masculine voice. A commanding voice, one to obey and yet take pleasure in.
Rachel froze, startled by its familiarity.
Even Billy was struck by its force. “Who the hell are you to talk to me? Annie’s mine and I’ll deal with her, any way I want,” he growled.
“No lady deserves to be beaten,” the newcomer remarked. Or was it a warning?
An odd ripple in the throng, of a man half-turning aside to make a bet, propelled Rachel forward like a pea in a peashooter. She started to move back, shy of catching too much attention, then caught sight of the newcomer for the first time.
He was a tall man, broad-shouldered, who carried himself with a relaxed confidence that screamed of arrogance, of the utter sureness that he could accomplish anything and everything he chose to do. He wore a caped, black wool greatcoat, high leather boots, and a broad-brimmed, black-felt hat, all thickly sparkled now with snow blown from the rooftops.
His thick, straight black hair just touched the base of his collar. His features were commanding and aristocratic, of the sort meant to be carved into gold coins and marveled at generations later as belonging to a great conqueror. His aquiline nose, strong jaw, and high cheekbones confirmed the impression of strength and power. His incredibly vivid blue-green eyes watched Billy from under the broad-brimmed planter’s hat with the same icy intensity as the Missouri River used to force its way to the ocean. A wide mouth, now firmly compressed, was the only hint of more sensual emotions.
He seemed the very embodiment of a devil borne on the north wind, with his eyes the color of the light striking fires deep in the heart of an ice berg.
Rachel gasped, hope starting to warm her bones. She’d first seen him in a daguerreotype with other dashing young cavalry officers, their long, curved sabers held so casually ready at their sides. And he’d been the embodiment of kindness at her wedding, when he’d been the only aristocrat generous to the tradesman’s granddaughter who was marrying the Boston Brahmin.
Lucas Grainger. Thank God he was here.
Billy glared at him. “Annie’s mine!” he roared. “An’ I’ll do what I want wit’ her.”
“No. Because if you harm her, I’ll kill you.” Grainger’s voice was deadly calm, without a hint of bluffing, despite the absence of any apparent weapon.
Was she about to see violence dealt? A whimper built in the back of her throat but didn’t escape. She forced it back, recognizing Billy’s threat to the broken Annie.
The crowd shifted backward. Somebody muttered a new, larger wager. Rachel allowed herself to be carried with them.
Billy stared at Grainger, clearly trying to take his measure. Grainger watched him, as unblinking as a cobra ready to strike. Annie never moved. Rachel held her breath, hoping somebody would show sense.
“You’re only bluffin’,” Billy growled and aimed a kick at Annie.
A bullet splatted into the mud beside Billy’s foot. He yelped and leaped back. His hand hovered over his gun but didn’t quite touch it.
Smoke curled lazily up from Grainger’s Colt’s muzzle. His eyes studied Billy pitilessly. “Ready to reconsider?”
Billy looked around the throng for supporters but found none. He reluctantly came back to Grainger. “Yeah.”
“I suggest you take your drinking elsewhere, in that case.” There was no leeway in the offer.
The crowd almost audibly held their breaths before Billy uttered an even more drawn-out assent.
“Leave your gun.”
Sullenly, Billy obeyed and turned to leave.
Grainger took a step forward toward Annie. Rachel started to draw her first deep breath in far too long.
Billy whirled and a derringer popped into his hand from his sleeve. He aimed it at Grainger, a much taller — and therefore higher — target than Annie.
Tongues of flame stabbed through the falling snow. Billy crumpled onto his face, blood running out of his throat.
Rachel closed her eyes, gagging. It was the first time she’d seen violent death meted out.
A woman ran out of the crowd to Annie. They clung together, crying. All around them, the crowd departed, blatantly happy at having seen a bloody fight.
Rachel fought to control herself. She wanted desperately to restore logic to her life, not this insanity. Billy had tried to kill Grainger so Grainger had had to save himself, since there’d been no police around.
Grainger couldn’t be a thoughtless barbarian. He couldn’t be, or he wouldn’t have been Elias’s trusted subordinate and dear friend.
She swallowed hard, wishing once again she’d had the chance to study Latin at Mount Holyoke Seminary. Life was so much simpler in a library.
“Hey, girlie. Wanna have some fun?” A man, attired in an odd assortment of sweaters, coats, and scarves against the chill and reeking of whiskey, reached for her. Just behind him, two more men smirked greedily.
She flinched but drew herself up, ready to defend herself with words.
“Get out of here, boys. The night’s young yet.” Grainger’s deep voice sounded behind her, sharp with command. Wonder of wonders in this appalling milieu, he smelled of honest scents, including leather and wood smoke.
The three cringed and edged backward. “Yes. Yes, of course. Sir.”
An instant later, the only sign of their presence was the sound of their departing footsteps. Everyone else, including Annie and her friend, had also disappeared down an alley or inside a filthy building.
“Mrs. Davis? Mrs. Elias Davis?” He half-crooned her name, as if he was coaxing a skittish mare.
Rachel shuddered, facing the limits of her own abilities. If she was to stay alive and free, she needed a man’s help. On this raw frontier, with people like Billy around, she’d probably be safer if he was a killer.
Something deep inside her, feminine and totally illogical, simply wanted to rest against him.
She stiffened in surprise but forced herself to smile up at him. “Mr. Grainger.”
He offered her his hand, as gallantly as if they stood in the gardens at Anglesey Hall, the Davis estate.
Rachel ran her tongue over her lips, shaking a little. Cautiously, she laid her hand in his, wary of the slightest attempt to grab her.
Grainger’s fingers shifted to a protective, light grasp, which barely brushed her glove. He lifted her hand and kissed it. “My pleasure to find you safe at last, Mrs. Davis.”
Tears touched her eyes, of joy and agonizing relief at being treated like a lady for the first time in so very, very long. “The pleasure is entirely mine, Mr. Grainger,” she managed, finding unaccustomed delight in the simple phrase when spoken to a true gentleman.
Dear heavens, she was so cold from her skin through to her bones that she was shaking suddenly. She made a small noise in the back of her throat, not even a word, and leaned toward him.
Grainger dropped her hand, she started to protest, and he wrapped his arm around her.
“I can manage, truly I can.” The words were good enough but their utterance would have been better if she hadn’t been trembling so very much.
“Of course you can,” he soothed in a deep rumble that seemed to sink into her bones. “Please carry your carpetbag for a little while longer.”
He spun on his heel and strode off at a very fast pace, so that she was compelled to almost run to keep pace. She opened her mouth to insist that she could move much more easily if he wasn’t holding her — even if she wouldn’t have been as warm.
Around them, the slum’s sounds were slowly returning to their earlier discord — men calling for whisky, women offering themselves to men. . .
Booted footsteps pounded along the railroad tracks toward them.
Grainger simply swept her up in his arms, carpetbag included, and ran.
Excerpt from The Northern Devil by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2007 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved