Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1887
Holden Tae Wyndd flopped back on the bed and drew the pillow over his head. Not that it could block out the yelling in the hall outside this room, at least not as long as the door was wide open. Damn, but he should have delayed leaving Denver one more day and taken the North Line.
The voices rose again, the one keeping his attention, though, was mostly begging and pleading. But it sounded nice with that lilting accent. He could risk it and cross the room to either close the door or grab his pants, maybe both. He peeked from beneath the pillow. Damn, that view, though. His line of sight was even with the prettiest arse he’d ever set eyes on. If only he could see it without the obstruction of that ugly nightgown.
“Mr. Salary, you will fetch the sheriff now.”
Tae sat up at those words. Judge Hooper was known for making his own law and applying it however it suited him. Tae went out of his way to stay out of his courtroom anytime something the agency did had him crossing the circuit judge’s path.
“This is America, you little tramp, we don’t do that here,” Hooper all but screamed, causing Tae to sit up and toss the pillow aside. Whatever the woman said, Tae missed.
“Sir,” that lilting voice cracked this time, “my family’s consent—”
“I’d wager you didn’t have their consent to spread your legs for a stranger, either,” the judge snarled, causing the girl to gasp.
“Now wait a damn minute,” Tae yelled from the bed in the room at the end of the hall. “The lady and I didn’t do anything either immoral or illegal, and you’ve no call to accuse her of such. It was nothing but an honest misunderstanding.”
“The sheriff, Mr. Salary,” the judge snarled, and with a glance toward Tae, Sal turned and fled down the stairs. “You can just make yourself comfortable in the jail until the next train to Yuma.”
“Sir, please,” the woman pleaded again. Hooper’s answer was the slam of his door. “If I’d a gun, I’d shoot you,” she snarled, coming back through his, no, her, no, his door, damn it. It was his room. She turned to glare at him, though the heat he might expect to see wasn’t there. “And why haven’t you dressed yourself?” She waved her hand at him, indicating all he had was the very corner of the blanket covering the very minimum of his person. And if she kept standing there, dressed only in that nightgown, talking to him with that delicious lilt, the corner wouldn’t be enough to cover anything.
“Look, miss,” Tae started, then had to tug more blanket over himself when she turned her eyes toward him. “It wasn’t nothing but an honest mistake and—”
“An honest mistake? An honest… it was nothing but a low down coward’s act, you sneaking in here and—”
“I didn’t sneak in,” Tae yelled and, getting to his feet, gave the woman her second full frontal view of his body. She spun away from him, but it took her a bit longer than it should have.
“You need to be dressing yourself, sir,” she said, her accent on the same full display as his rising cock.
Stalking across the room, he snatched his pants off the chair where he’d tossed them. That they landed there in total darkness was only a matter of habit. He always used this room in this boarding house when he stayed in Colorado Springs. Shoving his legs through, he tugged them up, wishing now they were the looser fitting pants he more often wore and not the denims he wore when the job required more physical labor. He had to adjust his cock twice in order to get the buttons done. Maybe he should stop staring at the woman’s arse.
“Look,” he said, grabbing his shirt and turning his back when he saw her look over her shoulder. “It was nothing but an honest mistake. I didn’t know Sal had anyone in this room. I always use it when I’m here and…” What else could he say? Nothing, given her sniffling.
“That judge out there is threatening to put me in jail because of your honest mistake. Prostituting without a license. Prostituting? Jesus, Joseph and Mary. I can’t go to jail,” she said, turning around to face him at the same time he turned to face her. “I don’t even know where Luma jail is. My freedom, and my reputation, are all lost because you didn’t think to light a lantern.”
“It’s you-ma,” Tae corrected the pronunciation, leaving off before telling her Yuma wasn’t just a jail, it was a hell hole of a prison.
“Yuma, Boston, Belfast, what matter does it make?” she snarled. “I can’t go to jail. If anyone needed to be arrested, it’s you, for all your slipping into a lady’s room,” she yelled, setting her fists at her hips which thrust out her heavy breasts. “He sent for the sheriff.” Her voice hitched up a notch with each of the last four words.
“No, Judge Hooper has a dislike for women,” Tae said with a sigh, “and he doesn’t care for me.” The look she gave him told him she understood that sentiment. Judge Hooper really didn’t care for anyone who entered his courtroom with a grasp of the law. Tae’d had the misfortune several times. It was one of the reasons he wanted to leave the Pinkerton Agency. No more having to testify. He was certain too, if the sheriff was getting roped in, this would only get worse. Local law didn’t care for Pinkerton men. There was a quiet war between the badge carrying men and anyone who thought to do their jobs for them. It was hardly like a badge prevented a man from being corrupt. It certainly didn’t prevent them from abusing the power some gave to it. Having a known agent in town always seemed to say to those carrying a badge that they were incapable of doing their job. Never mind Tae worked primarily on the rails, keeping the high valued passengers safe. He only went out on cases specific to one client served by the agency, in between making sure no one working on the train was setting it up to be robbed of payrolls or mail.
But he was all but done with that now. After years with Pinkerton, Tae was done running all over the country trying to catch thieves and outlaws who had the audacity to steal from the railway owners. He was done bringing someone to stand before a judge and jury only to see them strung up without trial. It was one thing to draw down on a man all fair like; it was another to gather up a mob and drag a man unable to fight back into the street without so much as one minute before an honorable judge. He’d given notice and was only still officially with the Pinkerton Agency to investigate some occurrence at a specific mine in the area he was headed to. He’d promised he’d stay on until he made Willow Springs and could look into the issue.
A loud sniff drew his attention back to the woman with her back turned to him again. Letting his eyes roam down her body, he didn’t miss the way the stiffness in her spine contradicted the slump of her shoulders. If she was defeated right now, she wasn’t going to show it. She’d a strength about her, though he suspected it was being tested at the moment.
“I’m not going to get locked up because of your carelessness. I have someone to find and I’ll not be having him stay lost because you can’t light a match.”
“A husband?” Damn, but why did that thought disappoint? It wasn’t like he knew this female. Though, the more she spoke, the more his body reacted. It wasn’t at all normal for a woman to have such an effect on him. He was hardly an untried youth, and while he’d passed these last several months on the offers from the women at the boarding houses and saloons he’d visited on his way to Colorado, he knew he could find those pleasures easily enough. But if she was already married, Hooper couldn’t force them to wed. Though, knowing Hooper, he’d be quick to send her to the women’s prison for adultery.
And while her head shook, saying it wasn’t a husband she sought, her expression said whoever it was meant the world to her. Perhaps a suitor, come west ahead of her to make things ready. Or a man who only told her he was coming to make things ready.
“Maybe I should speak with someone. It was a mistake; nothing happened. I’ll see if I can get this worked out, and in the meantime, you can dress,” Tae told her as he reached back for his coat and turned toward the door. “This here’s a fairly respectable establishment. I’m sure Sal will explain it was a mistake. I’m sure the judge will understand. Maybe he was only upset by the screaming.” He offered her a smile, but she narrowed her eyes and frowned at him. He smiled again and left the room, hopeful he’d be able to get them both back on track. He’d certainly not done anything criminal; neither of them had.
Autumn Wild pressed her fingers into her temple, willing the pounding to stop. With the unexpected stop, she was still optimistic she’d find her brother. Patrick’s last letter came out of Freemount County. She could find Patrick and then work. She’d certainly no intention to return to Boston. Not if she was to remain under her cousin’s thumb.
Her position teaching music to Boston’s elite paid well, but respect for tradition prevented her having her own life and making her own choices. She’d given up her chance at marriage and family to ensure Patty got started well in life. Only he’d get started but never finish. It forced her to take a less socially accepted kind of work, to support them both. But a need to escape an extended family who wanted her out of their home, even if it meant a marriage of convenience, sent her westward.
The decision to find Patty came on the heels of Sean O’Hare, her cousin’s husband, informing her she’d be doing more than considering marriage. Mr. O’Bannon, a widower with a small house and five children was also owed quite the debt by Sean. What no one wanted to say was that Mr. O’Bannon also had a problem at the gaming houses and no ability to hold his drink. His first wife was often seen with a black eye or fat lip. He wasn’t just a scoundrel, he was a bully. Autumn had no intention of marrying him even with her welcome in her cousin’s house wearing thin. Leaving was simply the best option. Now she had to catch up to her brother.
She’d expected it’d only be a day or two more. But it’d already been months since she’d heard from him, and in that time, he might have gone anywhere, as he was wont to do. If she could locate him so he could claim her as his sister, she might avoid jail. But she didn’t know how to contact him.
But she wasn’t going anywhere at the moment. The fact she sat on her trunks which were no longer on the long gone nine o’clock southbound train said she might not be going anywhere soon. She took a moment to count them again, reassure herself her every belonging, especially those most precious to her, were still accounted for. She let her fingers trace the bright stickers still attached from when the trunks were put on the ship in what now seemed like a lifetime ago. Setting her elbows on her knees, she set her chin on her fists and turned to look at the majestic peaks rising up before her, some snowcapped, even in August, beckoning with the challenge of climbing to the top to look out over the world, to get so high that one’s fingers might brush the sky or pluck stars down from the heavens. And while the ocean had its own kind of beauty, this place seemed to be personally crafted by the creator to inspire. It could be a wonderful place to teach music. She could almost hear the way her bow would resonate against the combination of jagged, rocky peaks and softer rolling valleys.
She couldn’t guess what Patrick was doing to make his way. His last letter mentioned he might soon have what he needed to be completely independent, give them both a chance to be happy. She hadn’t been bothered he didn’t consider she enjoyed teaching music, would have used her savings to open a music school, had he not been steadily asking her for it. She rather hoped it would allow him the chance to find a good wife and settle down, to stay settled in one place, and care for his family as a good man should. Of course, she hadn’t thought she’d need it to escape a scoundrel.
A good man. She turned to look back at the group of men who’d been arguing fervently at the other end of the boardwalk for better than an hour. Normally, she’d be right in that fray, being more than capable of holding her own against scoundrels and rogues. Only the deputy standing behind her kept her from going anywhere. She could only guess what they discussed, given the members of the group included that judge whose outrage made this whole affair more than it was. Certainly, waking to find a man in her bed scared her, but she’d already armed herself with the club she’d kept under the bed by the time the owner of the establishment burst through the door followed by Judge Hooper. She’d have run this scoundrel off in good time. She’d only been distracted by the man’s fine form.
Shaking off both those memories, as they still caused a heat to rush through her lower body, she focused on the others in the group. Mr. Salary, who owned the boarding house, the sheriff, who was too willing to cow to the judge, a man she didn’t know but who seemed to stand firmly with the scoundrel who’d started this entire mess. And of course, the scoundrel himself. Again, heat flashed through her. She returned to considering what it might take to simply run off into those jagged peaks.
“Miss?” Autumn turned again to see the scoundrel and the man who’d stood with him standing next to her. She couldn’t even manage to frown at them now. The entire situation was absurd. She simply raised a brow to the inquiry.
“Miss,” the scoundrel called again, bringing her eyes back to his devilish blue ones. He cleared his throat and lifted a hand to tug at his collar. For all his bullishness this morning, he suddenly seemed rather uncomfortable.
“Pardon us for this… situation,” the second man said, looking as uncomfortable as the man next to him. She nodded, but that was all. “My name is Jim McParland, Mr. Wyndd and I work for Mr. Jason Gould—”
“The Roxbury Goulds?” Autumn asked. She knew the family in passing, from Boston. The man was a modern day robber baron, but his people were loyal enough.
“Yes, miss, you know them?” McParland asked.
“I’m familiar with them,” Autumn said, not giving out any information that may land her in worse circumstances. It was either love or hate with that family.
“Well, yes, as I was saying, Mr. Wyndd and I are employed through the Pinkerton Agency and it’s come to my attention that—”
“Fine detective work,” Autumn grumbled and watched both men flush red.
“It seems that due to unforeseen events, you’ve been quite displaced in your circumstances.”
“Unforeseen?” Autumn said, getting to her feet so these men weren’t looking down on her quite so much. Not that they still didn’t, given their height compared to hers. She’d have to stand on her trunk to really be eye level with at least the scoundrel. “It wouldn’t have been so unforeseen had Mr.,” she said, her voice growing louder, “Wyndd bothered to strike a match at least, before entering a room in a public boarding house without so much as a knock.” She folded her arms across her chest and tried to stare the men down. “Such great detective work, as the world has never seen, I’m sure.”
“Ma’am,” her scoundrel started. “I use that room habitually. The key was left at the desk, I’d no reason to suspect anyone was occupying it. It was quite late and other than… sleeping, nothing else occurred.”
Autumn wasn’t quite sure why the man worked not to grin as he spoke. She might sleep hard through, but she’d know if she’d been molested. “And as you and I know, none of that did anything to prevent what is happening to me,” she said, her voice tight as she tried not to start swearing, “Your nothing,” she hissed, stepping up to poke a finger in Mr. Wyndd’s chest, “will cost me everything. I’m heading to prison.”
“That’s not going to happen. That is… I…” her scoundrel started, then again worked his fingers around the collar of his shirt. “I mean I have, or I mean I might have—”
“Miss, an acceptable solution has been proposed if you’re of a mind to accept.”
Again, all she could do was raise a brow at them. She couldn’t even think what the solution might be.
“Miss… Wild?” She noted a bit more of that devilish confidence he had so proudly displayed this morning. “Miss Wild… if you might give consideration to an… my… offer—”
“Miss Wild, you need to marry Tae, and you need to do it before Judge Hooper boards the three-o’clock train to Denver.”
“For the love of God, Jim,” Mr. Wyndd shouted but stepped forward and, taking Autumn by the hand, stepped so he occupied her entire view. And damn, if the view wasn’t as dangerously beautiful as the one of the mountain range behind her. “Miss Autumn Wild, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
“Become your… you think I should marry you?” Autumn asked, even as the ringing started in her ears, making it a bit hard to hear what was said next.
“Ma’am,” Mr. McParland’s voice finally penetrated. “I’d like to assure you Mr. Wyndd is capable of ensuring your reputation and security as well as your financial stability. You’ll be well settled with him.”
Autumn stepped back and eyed the men suspiciously. “And I’m sure you’ll be expecting me to take your word on such matters as are pertaining to me self.” They both shifted uncomfortably. “You,” she waved her finger between the men, “who I don’t know from the pope, think I should take your word on how settled I’ll be finding me own self. Not even giving it a thought as to if I wanted to be settled at all. Jesus, Joseph and Mary,” she swore, spinning and pacing away a bit before spinning back to look at the men standing before her on the boardwalk. “The lot’a ye, want me to be believin’ in him.” She stepped up again and poked her would be husband right in the chest. “Trusting he’ll be doing right by me? On the spot? Without a proper courtship? Without the banns being read?” She set her hand on the top of her head. “He couldn’t even decide to light a candle and now you want to… Heaven have mercy on me soul.”
“Miss Wild, please,” Mr. Wyndd pleaded, though, again, he was fighting to not smile, maybe to not laugh. “I realize I’ve placed you in a terrible predicament, and I’m willing to do what I can to make it right. I ain’t going to make demands on you if you’re—”
“Well, how bloody kind of you,” she snapped, and the man lost control and burst out laughing. “What on earth are ye finding so funny?”
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Wyndd said, still trying to stop laughing. “I beg your pardon.”
“You’ll be beggin’ for your head if—”
“Your accent is just so—” he went on, even as the other man joined her in glaring at him.
“My acc—” Autumn started then slapped a hand over her mouth. Damn his bloody soul. She always did her best to speak like any other American, but despite living in this country for seven years, she couldn’t always suppress the brogue, especially when she couldn’t control her emotions. She should have tried to move out of the Irish enclaves in Boston.
“No.” Mr. Wyndd stepped up and took her hand away from her mouth, holding it in his. “No, it’s very delightful. I’ve certainly never enjoyed being called a fool as much as I’ve enjoyed you saying it.”
“You won’t be charming me,” Autumn started, only to clear her throat and remind herself to speak with more care. Still, for all the force she put behind that statement, she couldn’t deny the way his hand warmed hers. That hers was completely engulfed by his could be why, but when he stepped closer and she felt the heat leap from her hand to her stomach, she wasn’t as sure.
“If you’d allow,” he went on, more serious now, “I’ll do my very best by you for as long as there’s breath in me. Please, let’s find a seat and we can discuss the specifics. I promise I won’t do wrong by you.”
Looking around him at the judge, who was checking his watch, and the sheriff, who looked more than ready to have her as a guest in his jail, what choice did she really have? “Do not, sir, and you will wish for the ease of death had by Mr. Moses Worms.”
Still, she felt the need to protest the way it happened. It was barely more than a handfasting for all the ceremony done. Not even a man of the church was involved. The judge performed the wedding. All she was left with was the hope that once she found her brother, he’d be able to put an end to this blarney.