A month before her thirteenth birthday, Hope McElroy had a family and a home. Her brothers worked the cattle with her father, her sisters ran the homestead with her mother, she had a dog named Pearl and a horse named Peat, and she had been happy. Three weeks and six days before her birthday, the Callihan gang had ridden onto her family’s land. On the day she had turned thirteen, she had arrived at her uncle’s townhouse in Sacramento without a family or home and with a wicked, angry wound spanning from collarbone to ear.
Now she was nearing her thirty-third birthday, and she sought to rid Josiah Callihan from this world.
The hotel bed covers were soft under her clenched fingers, but it was the softness of too many washes. Mr Wade had chosen their accommodation, and she was certain it was better than the lodgings to which he was accustomed. She had said nothing, however.
The journey from Freewill had tired her, but she’d kept her spine straight, her step purposeful and her gaze forward. The train had pulled into the station as the sun rose in the sky, and the grey light of early morning had followed them as they’d made their way to the hotel. At her door, he’d tipped his hat to her, wished her a restful morning, and she’d watched his strong back as he’d disappeared into his room.
Though basic, her room was comfortable, the bed welcoming. Sinking onto the edge, she’d allowed her shoulders to slump. She was so tired, and yet she couldn’t rest. She’d jumped when there was a rap on her door, and Mr Wade’s voice informing her he was leaving to ‘get a head start afore the day broke too much’.
That had been an hour ago.
She stared at the door. While she ran the transport and logistics company she’d inherited upon her uncle’s death, she had no experience with hunting a criminal. That was better left to marshals and gunslingers. Mr Wade was both.
He’d come highly recommended. Her secretary had obtained references from several of his previous clients and not a one had been dissatisfied with his work. All had cited his dedication and work ethic, and above all, his persistence…which was completely at odds with her own observations. Upon her arrival in Freewill, she’d taken the time to acquaint herself with him. He’d barely left the saloon in the three days before she’d approached him, a bottle of whiskey at hand while he’d played cards or read a book. She’d been heartened by the books—that he’d chosen to pass time with words—but any goodwill had soured by his complete dedication to inebriation once the sun slipped from the sky. However, she’d given him the benefit of the doubt and employed his services, though he had refused at first. The newspaper advertisement had forced his hand, and she was moderately pleased with the outcome.
She would have thought as a subordinate, he would report to her. So far he’d reported nothing, with no outline of what he hoped to achieve or how he would achieve it. On the train she’d attempted to discern his plan, but he’d dodged and equivocated, and offered less than nothing. She knew only they were to travel to Cheyenne, which they’d achieved, she knew he had knocked on her door and claimed he would start his investigation, but she had no idea of his methodology or his next movement. The uncertainty was…disquieting. Her days were usually structured, every minute accounted for. She had a mountain of tasks and precious little time, thus efficiency was key. Mr Wade, to her mind, was not interested in efficiency.
Hope balled her hands in her lap. She should trust his methods. She’d investigated him thoroughly, determined he was the best of her choices. There was no reason not to trust him. He had said he was gathering information, though it was barely two hours past sunrise and surely most miscreants would be abed, sleeping off the excess of the previous evening.
She clenched her hands tighter. She had to trust his methods. She convinced herself of such for another ten minutes. Then she departed to find Mr Wade.
The concierge pointed her in the direction of a row of saloons, located in what was clearly the more disreputable part of Cheyenne. Three saloons yielded no trace of Mr Wade, but through the window of the fourth she spied his lanky, now-familiar form, seated alone with a deck of cards and a bottle of whiskey.
White-hot, fury howled through her. Closing her eyes, she swallowed and imagined a sea, one she returned to often. Grass stood tall around her, brushing against her outstretched palms. Her toes curled into damp earth as a cool breeze bathed her face, carrying with it the faint sound of laughter.
Familiar calm settled over her. She took one moment more and then opened her eyes. Mr Wade sat at a table, legs sprawled before him, hat pulled low shadowing his face such that only his strong jaw was displayed.
Accusations could only be based upon fact and all she had at present were suspicions. She, of course, could not enter the saloon without drawing attention, and it may be he would not act as he intended if he knew of her presence.
Three lads admiring the tethered horses gave her opportunity, and the weight of her purse gave her the means. Approaching them, she arranged a smile upon her face. The expression felt foreign, and judging by the boys’ expressions, was not wholly successful. “Which of you would like to earn two dollars?”
All three of them regarded her warily. “What is it you want us to do, ma’am?” one finally asked.
Hope nodded to the saloon. “There is a man inside I wish you to observe. Simply enter the saloon, watch him for a period of time, and then report back to me.”
They glanced amongst themselves.
“If you wish to discuss it, I can wait,” she said.
Still clearly hesitant, one stepped forward. “I’ll do it.”
“Excellent.” She held out a note. “One dollar now, the rest when you come out.”
Snatching the dollar from her hand, the boy nodded as she gave a brief description of Mr Wade, and she watched as he disappeared inside the saloon.
The other two boys regarded her warily. She smiled again, and it still felt odd upon her. The boys seemed to agree, as they turned back to the horses and their discussion.
By the reckoning of the timepiece pinned to her chest, their friend emerged twenty minutes later. “What did you observe?”
The boy’s brows knit. “Huh?”
She waved a hand at the saloon. “What did the gentleman I set you to watch do?”
“You did not see him conversing?” The boy again looked confused. “Talking with anyone,” she amended.
“He ain’t doing nothing, miss, just sitting at a table playing cards with hisself.” His face brightened. “He’s drinking whiskey.”
Wild rage tore through her. Sea. Earth. Breeze.
Exhaling, she murmured her thanks and paid him the rest of his money, turning to regard the saloon as he scampered off. So. Her suspicions were confirmed. Squaring her shoulders, she headed for the saloon.
The inside of the saloon was surprisingly quiet. She would have thought it would be raucous no matter the hour of the day or night. The tables were mostly empty, and those that were occupied saw only one of their chairs filled. A duet of women stood by the long bar, elbows on the counter as they stared out with bored looks.
Mr Wade still sat alone, dealing himself cards with a half-empty bottle of whiskey to the side. How…disappointing.
“Mr Wade,” she said.
His gaze remained on his cards, his hat still disguising his eyes. He didn’t respond, though his jaw tightened.
Seating herself, she laid her hands in her lap and waited.
Long moments passed. She was aware of curious eyes lighting upon them, but she would not become distracted. She would not lose this battle.
“Miz McElroy,” he finally answered.
Triumph was brief. His eyes were still shadowed, his attention still on the cards in his hand. “What did you hope to achieve here, Mr Wade? You say you are beginning your investigation, and yet I find you in a saloon holding cards and with whiskey on your breath. They said you were the best. They said you always get your man. From my observations, this is not the case. Indeed, it appears quite the opposite.”
“‘They’, huh? They always know everything, don’t they?”
Ignoring his comment, she continued, “I cannot see how this is constructive. You appear to have no plan or course of action and have instead taken the first opportunity to drown yourself in liquor. Tell me I am wrong.”
“Are you questioning my methods, darlin’?” His husky drawl dragged along her skin. Suddenly, she was aware of his outstretched leg, her skirts brushing against his calf. If she moved even a fraction, her stockinged leg would brush his.
Whatever ludicrous emotion he engendered, she ignored and focussed on the facts. “You are seated, alone, in a saloon. It is early morning. There are seven patrons, including us, a bartender, and two women who I presume are ladies of the evening. You are dealing yourself cards and appearing as if you are passing time. There is little else one could conclude.”
Tipping his hat up, he looked at her through his lashes. She drew in her breath sharply. Dark brown eyes burned into hers, belying his relaxed form. She’d always had the courage of her convictions. She would not allow him to sow doubt.
She lifted her chin.
The corner of his mouth lifted into a lazy grin even as his gaze intensified. “You know everything about me, do you, darlin’? You know my methods and how to go about collecting information. You know the best way to do that is through observation, and even this early in the morning, there’s much to be learned. You know becoming a regular fixture, becoming a body people expect and look past, is the best way to discover things. You know all of this, do you, darlin’?”
Doubt grew stronger. “I—”
“Do you think a prissy, uptight city dweller sitting at this table is going to make me unmemorable? Do you think this is the best way to learn information in a way that won’t get back to Callihan?” He paused. “If he’s even still living.”
“Insulting me is not going to—”
“I’ve been doing this a long time, darlin’. You hired me to do a job. I’m doing it.”
Pressing her lips together, she folded her hands in her lap. Smirk still playing about his mouth, he watched her, elbow hooked on his chair and cards dangling loosely in his hand.
“I do not deal well with no information,” she said stiffly. “It may have made me overzealous. I apologise.”
“I have my way of doing things, darlin’, and you’re disturbing that. Go back to the hotel. I’ll discover more without you here. Men behave differently around women.”
She glanced at the bored, half-dressed women.
“Women like you,” he amended
“You realise that’s ridiculous.”
He shrugged. “Don’t make it any less true.”
Uncertainty crept through her, and with it tendrils of emotion like panic and fury and helplessness. Ruthlessly, she denied them purchase. “I am not one to wait. I would appreciate more information than what you are currently offering. It will help….” She raised her chin. “It will help me.”
Liquid brown eyes regarded her. Faint lines fanned from their corners while straight brows slashed above them. His arms, crossed over his broad chest, pulled his shirt tight, lending suggestion of hard muscle beneath. Grey-flecked stubble darkened his strong jaw, framing surprisingly full lips. Would the stubble scratch her skin, the softness of his lips sooth it?
The thought occurred to her, unbidden. A strange pulse began within her, a tingle beneath her skin. No. She would not feel such. She couldn’t.
Their gaze broke. Recovering her breath, Hope turned. A woman stood beside them, wearing trousers and a gun belt.
The woman’s hand caressed the handle of her gun. “I told you if I ever saw you I’d hafta kill you.” She smiled, and the chill of it made Hope shiver. “Guess what, Wade? I see you.”