Kansas City, June 1872
Morgan Evans pushed the signed bank draft across the desk to Halpern and sat back, taking a deep puff on his cigar. The stout man didn’t quite snatch the paper up but it seemed to leap into his hands all the same. No man would let the payment for one hundred custom-made ammunition chests slip by.
Morgan hid a smile and stood up, stretching as he strolled over to the window. Once he, too, would have been just as impressed by a sum that large. Now it was just another purchase for Donovan & Sons, one of the most prominent freighting houses west of the Mississippi.
He was almost as accustomed to buying for Donovan & Sons as he was to the two Colts that he’d worn since he was fourteen, or the Bowie knife against his thigh. He flexed his fingers automatically and rolled his shoulders back, the habitual motions of a pistolero keeping his muscles ready for the next quick draw.
Paper crackled sharply in his breast pocket, rasping against his vest’s silk lining and making him stiffen. The telegram’s words burned in front of his eyes, as alarming as when he’d first read them this morning.
AUNT EULALIA BROKE LEG STOP NEED HELP STOP CAN YOU FIND JESSAMYN STOP GONE TO VISIT ARMY FRIENDS STOP UNKNOWN DESTINATION AND DURATION STOP MAY BE IN KANSAS CITY STOP GEORGE
Morgan’s mouth tightened and he drummed his fingers on the window frame, ignoring the busy street below. Here, men came for a quick taste of civilization before returning to the wilds of Texas or Kansas, or parts even farther west. Cattle bellowed from the dockyards a few blocks west, their rich stench reminding all comers of this town’s foundation. Gunshots cracked in the distance, while a train whistled sharply. Brilliantly colored posters touted the dubious delights to be found inside local establishments, while gaudily dressed women paraded up and down in a vivid display of their personal wares. Barkers shouted encouragement and drunks staggered out of the saloons found on every block. The wild vitality normally would have made him grin.
But now he focused on personal affairs. Cousin George could deal with Great-Aunt Eulalia very well on his own, as he had many times before. But where the hell could the nearly penniless Jessamyn have disappeared to? She was barely surviving on her pension as an Army widow, the only one of his relatives — however shirttail — not to ask money from him, and had been living in Jackson, Mississippi, with Great-Aunt Eulalia. He’d seen her briefly in Omaha a week ago but she’d vanished before he could locate her. After receiving George’s cable, he’d cabled the Donovan & Sons’ office there but they couldn’t find her in any of the hotels or lodging houses.
Despite intellectual certainties, now he found himself staring out the window, looking for a slender, black-clad female with a lissome glide. Folly to think George’s suggestion made it likely she’d be here. Jessamyn with the green eyes like a forest glade and the red mouth made to drive a man insane. Jessamyn, who deserved to be throttled — or locked in his bedroom — as repayment for what she’d done to him.
“It’s certainly been a pleasure doing business with a genuine Southern gentleman like yourself, Evans,” Halpern said sincerely, as he finished locking up the draft. “Would you care to join my family for dinner again this evening? Just a simple meal, which my daughter Millicent prepared with her own hands. She’s an excellent cook, as you know.”
He glanced significantly at the pictures behind him. They’d been rearranged since Morgan’s first visit, so Millicent’s image now held pride of place. Blond, pretty, amiable — any sane man would be glad of a wife like her. On the frontier where Morgan spent most of his time, and where men outnumbered women by twenty to one, she’d have been married within a week of her arrival.
God knows he should be married by now, with a brood of youngsters. Familial duty required it, society expected it, his wealth anticipated it. Even satisfying his strong carnal desires could be done most discreetly within his marriage vows.
So why the hell didn’t Millicent Halpern make his cock twitch at all? Or was she another one of the females he was polite to, simply because he didn’t give a damn?
Hell, he needed to be married, with or without passion.
Perhaps if he had dinner with the Halperns again, he’d find something in her that would interest him enough him to make an offer. He didn’t have to stay too long, since he was meeting the Donovans and Lindsays later for drinks. Morgan hesitated.
Halpern, a very sharp man, read him accurately. “No need to give me an immediate answer, Evans. Millicent will always be glad to set another place at the table for you. But it’s a hot day and I’m feeling rather parched. Larrimore’s Hotel across the street makes an excellent mint julep. Would you care to join me?”
“That would be a pleasure, sir,” Morgan accepted, his Mississippi drawl sliding across the other’s flat Bostonian accent.
Outside, the late afternoon traffic rushed up and down the street in clouds of dust, and pedestrians bustled up and down the boardwalk. No sign here of a gliding black-clad female on whom he’d sworn vengeance. He could not imagine her lingering amid this wild tumult, since Kansas City held few attractions other than as a place to change trains for places west. As an Army officer’s widow, she had friends aplenty at Fort Leavenworth or Fort Riley, or further west in Kansas, Colorado, or New Mexico.
So why did Cousin George think she was here now, when Morgan had seen her in Omaha a week ago? For a woman to shuttle first north along the Missouri River from Memphis, then back south again to Kansas City, implied almost a distracted state of mind. Such a frenzied journey would be so uncharacteristic of the disciplined female he’d known all his life that Morgan dismissed the possibility out of hand. Jessamyn Tyler Evans would not be found in this town.
Having reached that conclusion, he was able to anticipate an iced mint julep with a sense of relief and rubbed out his cigar in the street.
Larrimore’s Hotel was a luxurious establishment catering to the area’s wealthy businessmen, complete with marble columns and steps at its entrance, Brussels carpets and brass spittoons throughout its lobby, velvet-covered furniture and flocked wallpaper, and crystal chandeliers and gas lamps. It also rented rooms by the hour, with complete discretion, for any activity a gentleman wanted to perform, as Morgan knew very well.
Halpern headed for the bar with the ease of long habit. Crossing the lobby behind him, Morgan automatically searched his surroundings for threats, as his years of fighting on the frontier and during the War had taught him.
Little to worry about from the fat burghers scattered among the chairs and sofas on the first floor.
A great staircase led up to the second floor and the private parlors there. A man was taking those stairs gracefully, with the ease of an animal in perfect health.
Morgan grinned as he recognized the fellow. Jeremy Saunders, a Consortium switch and an excellent street fighter, as well. Simply put, he was an extremely well-trained and well-paid gigolo, able to play the predator or the recipient in the carnal fantasies popular among Consortium members. Why, only two nights ago, Morgan had seen him excite at least two women into ecstatic paroxysms with his hands and mouth.
Years ago, William Donovan had sponsored Morgan into the Consortium, a highly secretive network of private clubs for wealthy men and women. Morgan had enjoyed the training and the companionship he’d found there. But he’d also never forgotten that experience nine years ago which made him seek out the formal discipline offered by the Consortium.
Smiling slightly as he recalled some of the wilder sessions at Consortium parties, Morgan quickly scanned the balcony above the lobby but saw no one suspicious.
By now Saunders had reached the second floor. Morgan started to rejoin Halpern, envying Saunders his late afternoon diversion.
A flutter of black silk next to a white marble balustrade caught his attention. A chill raced up Morgan’s spine and he spun back.
The woman raised her hand to Saunders before stepping back from the balcony. For that instant, Morgan could see her face clearly in the gaslight. Dark eyes in a pure cameo face, red mouth created to drive men insane…
Jessamyn was meeting Saunders here in a private parlor? Everything primal in Morgan roared in denial.
He said something to Halpern, he never knew what. It must have made some sense because the man didn’t raise an objection. At least, not one loud enough to force Morgan’s attention.
A second later, he was taking the stairs two at a time, a growl vibrating in his throat. Dammit, why did Jessamyn always have to rattle his concentration?
Jessamyn Sophia Tyler Evans stood with one hand on the sofa in the parlor, uncertain what to do next. This was not, after all, a situation covered in any etiquette manual. She had to explain what she wanted and how long it would take.
She wished to God, yet again, that Cyrus were still alive. Not dead and buried, leaving her to fight for those trapped in a desperate, plague-ridden city, after a terrified Richard Burke and his sister had fled Tennessee when she refused to help them sell out. Aristotle, Cassiopeia, Socrates, Plato, and the horses. Dear God, they’d told they’d stay to guard the horses, no matter what happened, no matter who tried to steal them in the grips of yellow jack’s madness. Until she could return and take them all to safety.
When they were children, Morgan would have called this rendezvous a wild prank. He’d have known exactly how to help her, without a word of explanation from her. But she wouldn’t trust him now with a plugged nickel, let alone information about a fabulous treasure.
So she’d have to hope that this stranger’s honor would prove as strong as Cousin Sophonisba had promised.
Cousin Sophonisba, technically Cyrus — and Morgan’s cousin, had spent decades investing in real estate located in riverfront boom towns. She was also an incredible miser and Great-Aunt Eulalia’s best friend. Jessamyn had spent three days with her in Omaha, trying to obtain a loan. This hotel and the stranger facing her were the result.
The hotel’s private parlor was as snobbishly respectable as Cousin Sophonisba had described, with lace-edged cloth on every well-polished surface and hand-stitched Biblical mottoes on the walls. But Cousin Sophonisba’s miserliness had provided barely enough money and recommendations for this lodging and the gentleman escort to admit Jessamyn into the reading of Uncle Edgar’s will. She’d emphatically refused to loan Jessamyn any larger sums, nor details on exactly how she’d learned of the gentleman escort.
The highly polished mantel clock ticked imperatively. Fifteen minutes before three in the afternoon. They had to reach Abercrombie’s office by three or else all of this was for naught.
Jessamyn fell back on the most basic conventions of polite society as a bridge. “Would you care for a cup of tea, Mr. Saunders, while we talk?”
“Certainly, Mrs. Evans.” Mr. Saunders, a very well-mannered and well-dressed gentleman, moved toward the chair beside her.
The door burst inward with a single splintering crash and Morgan Evans sprang into the room. He was elegantly dressed in a formal black frock coat and gray trousers, neatly tied black cravat, crisp white linen, with the gaslight glinting on his chestnut hair. He might have looked every inch the handsome, wealthy cavalier, except for the naked Bowie knife in his hand and his expression of completely murderous intent.
Morgan? Here in Kansas City? Dear God, why did he have to be so much more attractive than the very well-mannered Mr. Saunders? Jessamyn snarled, wishing she could once again sneak cod liver oil into Morgan’s maple syrup.
Saunders spun to face him. His fingers twitched, as if reaching for a weapon, then stilled.
Was Morgan about to ruin something else for her? “Gentlemen!”
They both ignored her, deadly fighters very ready to come to blows.
Jessamyn sprang to her feet, trying not to shriek curses at Morgan. As a frontier soldier’s wife, she’d seen too much violence on the Kansas plains. Bloodshed was only a hairsbreadth away here.
Morgan lifted his left hand slightly. His fingers flashed briefly and he tilted his head, in the barest excuse for a nod Jessamyn had ever seen.
Something like surprise washed over Saunders’s face. He lifted his right hand in a similar gesture and also nodded, a trifle more deeply.
Was this some strange new form of game?
“If you weren’t Consortium, you’d be dead, Saunders,” Morgan announced, his gray eyes like chips of ice as he watched the other. “Since you are, we’ll play this by Consortium rules. I claim first rights to her.”
“First rights? Who the hell are you, Morgan Evans, to talk about first rights?” Jessamyn demanded, wishing she could hurl lemonade into Morgan’s face as she had when she was six and he was ten.
Morgan’s eyes ran over her briefly before returning to Saunders. Dammit, he was still as deadly as a mountain lion and handsome as a dream of sin.
Why was she thinking about that now?
“Are you denying that I was the first man to have a taste of you, before you married my cousin?”
Jessamyn flushed but squared her shoulders. “What does that matter? I’m a widow now and responsible for myself.”
His voice deepened. A darker note crept into it, full of carnal remembrances. “Do you deny that I taught you the power of the darkness to focus your senses on pleasure? The delights of chains?”
Memories that she’d hoped to forget, that she’d fought to wipe out, flooded back in. Her lungs tightened as shards of lust raced through her veins. She flushed scarlet.
Saunders didn’t, quite, whistle.
Morgan growled and tossed the big knife between his hands, before gripping it more firmly. He could gut the other in an instant, given that hold.
Saunders stiffened at the primal, wordless warning and bowed deeply, lowering his eyes. “Please forgive me, sir, I had no idea of your relationship. You must believe I wouldn’t have agreed to meet her without your permission, if I’d known.”
Morgan relaxed subtly, although he continued to watch the other. “Understood. Given the circumstances, you will understand if I ask you to leave immediately.”
Jessamyn bristled, furious at being treated like a piece of property. She’d arranged this meeting, not Morgan — the scapegrace who called himself head of the family! “Now wait a minute, gentlemen…”
They both ignored her.
“Of course.” Saunders bowed again and turned for the door.
Morgan sheathed his knife. “Saunders,” he murmured and shook hands with the other. Jessamyn could have sworn money exchanged hands.
But where did that leave her? She still needed a man to accompany her to the lawyer’s office.
Morgan ceremonially closed the door’s remains behind Saunders, blocking the gaping hotel management and guests. He turned back to her. “Now, cousin…”
Too furious to think straight, she slapped him. “How dare you throw him out! What am I to do now for a man?”
His eyes flared and he grabbed her by the shoulders, his fingers biting into her. “If you want a man, then by God, I’ll be that man! Nine years I’ve waited, Jessamyn, and no two-bit gigolo can handle you.”
She tried to hit him again but all she could do was pummel his arms. Trying to kick his shins only ruffled her skirts, without affecting him in the slightest. “Damn you, Morgan, let me go!”
His grip was remorseless but his voice held all of whiskey’s secret fires. “Like hell. Remember what I said nine years ago? The next time we were alone together, I’d be the one handling you. This is the first time we’ve been alone together since then, Jessamyn.”
Her jaw dropped. “What? You can’t mean to hold that over my head now.”
“Why not?” He watched her narrowly, iron determination in his gray eyes. He was immovable, both his intent and his form.
She stared at him, appalled to think he still carried a grudge that old when both of them had changed so much.
Morgan was stronger, broader of shoulder, deeper of chest, his arms and legs more heavily roped with muscle. The gray eyes were sharper now, not those of a wary young man. His nose had been broken more than once in the intervening years, giving him a piratical cast. He’d shaved off his mustache since she’d glimpsed him a week ago in Omaha, which allowed the hard lines of experience bracketing his mouth to be clearly seen.
He wore a subtle hint of menace, well hidden under finely tailored broadcloth and immaculate linens. He’d looked and acted the perfect gentleman at the very few family gatherings she and Cyrus had encountered him at, since the War.
But the man who held her so implacably was no gentleman. The guerrilla of nine years ago hadn’t been, either, but he’d lacked the power to carry out his threats. This man would, and could, carry out those threats. Or were they promises?
Held this close to him, she knew the strength in his arms and shoulders. Knew that he would brook no nonsense from any woman he chose. His legs were solid against hers, even through the layers of her skirt, as if he needed to take only one step to press her against the wall and have his way with her…
She’d always known he was a shady character, who performed deeds no decent fellow would know of.
Her breasts tightened, as fireflies darted over her from his hands. Dammit, the old fire was starting to burn, as it had the last afternoon in the attic.
The mantel clock began to chime.
Her head flashed around to stare at it before she looked back at Morgan.
She fought back her body’s awareness of him. “I needed him as my husband, you fool! For two hours, starting now.”
“Husband?” Jealousy swept over his face.
“In a lawyer’s office,” she snarled back. “I have to be there with a husband in fifteen minutes, or all is lost. Damn you, let me go!”
The clock chimed again.
His eyes narrowed before he pulled her up to him. His grip was less painful but just as inescapable as before. “A bargain then, Jessamyn. I’ll play your husband for a few hours — if you’ll join me in a private parlor for the same span of time afterward.”
She gasped. A devil’s bargain, indeed.
“Nine years ago, I promised you revenge for what you did. Two hours won’t see that accomplished but it’s a start,” he purred, his drawl knife-edged and laced with carnal promise.
She wanted to accept the bargain, lose herself in his arms — but then she’d be a loose woman like her mother, consorting with a dishonorable man. He was the only man she’d ever wanted to be disgraceful with and he could destroy her.
Her fears stirred, honed by seven years as an Army wife on the bloody Kansas prairies. She reined them in sternly: No matter how angry he’d been, surely Morgan would never harm a woman, no matter what preposterous demands he’d hurled nine years ago when she’d held him captive.
Her fingers bit into his arms as she desperately tried to think of another option, something respectable.
If she took him with her, he could steal the map and she’d lose everything she’d come here to gain.
But if she didn’t appear with a husband, she’d lose her only chance of regaining Somerset Hall…
She was an adult woman now. Surely her nerves would not be overset by two hours in his arms. Surely…
The mantel clock sounded the third, and last, note.
She agreed to his bargain, the words like ashes in her throat. “Very well, Morgan. Now will you take me across the street to the lawyer’s?”
Excerpt from The Southern Devil by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2006 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved