Authors: Rachelle Morgan
Honesty peered at Jesse through lowered lashes in what she hoped was an inviting manner. “I don't think your li'l ole tub is big enough for the both of us.”
She pulled free of his hold, and his hot, hungry stare bored into her back as she crossed the room. Honesty put a saucy swing into her step, hoping he couldn't see how badly her knees knocked together.
At the dresser, she quickly pulled her chemise back up, releasing a pent-up breath. How had the tables turned so quickly? She was supposed to have been seducing him, not the other way around! It was definitely time to put an end to this little charade.
As Jesse closed his eyes to rinse his hair, Honesty slipped a trembling hand into her skirt pocket and pulled put a packet of powders. “I'll bring you another whiskey,” she said, stirring the powders into his glass.
As she approached him, a devilish smile appeared on his fallen-angel face and a wicked promise glittered in his eyes. Men like him were dangerous as sin.
She handed Jesse his glass, lifted her own in the air, and, hoping he never knew how dearly she regretted what she was about to do, proposed a toast. “To an unforgettable night.”
Accept no bribes.
Never compromise with criminals.
Partner with local law enforcement agencies,
Refuse divorce cases or cases that initiated
scandals of clients.
Turn down reward money.
Never raise fees without the client's pre-knowledge.
Apprise clients on an ongoing basis.
Never fall in love with a suspect.
Last Hope, Colorado
he didn't know who looked worse: the man, or the horse he rode in on. Both carried the mark of miles of weather and wear in their slouched postures and dust-caked hides, both looked as if they hadn't seen a meal in ages, and both seemed incapable of taking another step without toppling over.
From her room above the saloon, Honesty McGuire squinted through the window for a better look at the lone rider as he drew closer, stirring up dust on a street that hadn't seen traffic in weeks. To her dismay, the worn brim of the Stetson pulled low over his brow cast most of his
face in shadow, and the heavy whiskers around his mouth and jaw hid the rest. A filthy duster covered him from neck to spur, and dirty, matted hair fell past his collar. He was a bit too scrawny for her tastes, too, but often what a man lacked in brawn he made up for in speed.
All right, so he wasn't the knight in shining armor she'd been hoping for; considering her choices to date, he was by far the most promising of the lot. At least he was young. And sober. And breathing.
And who knew? His disreputable appearance might even play to her advantage, giving her the opportunity to search places she wouldn't dare explore alone. If Honesty had learned anything in her twenty years, it was never to overlook an opportunity.
No matter how pitiful it appeared.
So that left only one question: since the mines had played out, only two kinds of people ever showed up in Last Hope anymoreâthose looking for someone, and those running from someone. Which was he? The hunter? Or the hunted?
A drink, a meal, and a bed. Jesse Justiss craved all three so badly he'd have given up his four-dollar boots for just the sight of them.
Navigating around yet another pot hole in the road, he directed his horse toward a warped hitching rail and forced his weary body out of
the saddle. A sharp hiss tore through his lungs the instant his boots hit the ground and a spear of agony shot through him from heel to heart. His knees came close to buckling.
Jesse dropped his sweat-drenched forehead against the saddle skirt and cursed ten ways to Sunday through gritted teeth. Twice before, he'd found himself at the receiving end of a bullet, and he couldn't remember taking this long to recover.
Maybe he should have heeded the doc's advice and given his shoulder a couple more weeks to mend before tearing up one side of the Rockies and down the other. Maybe then it wouldn't now feel as if hot railroad spikes were being driven through his chest. But Jess never had been very good at taking advice.
Once the pain finally subsided to a dull, tolerable ache, he pushed away from Gemini's side and circled the horse. Fresh blood on the animal's foreleg caught his eye. “Hell and damnation,” he swore under his breath. “What have you done to yourself this time, old pal?”
Gem nickered and bobbed his head.
Crouching low, Jess ran practiced hands along the black stocking, careful to avoid the ragged gash just below the kneeâa fresh cut, more than likely from the trip down the mountain where sharp limbs and scrub littered the aspen-populated slopes.
Well, he couldn't detect any swelling. That was a good sign. But it didn't mean the animal hadn't pulled a tendon or suffered an even more ruinous injury. It just meant Jess had caught it in the early stages.
He wiped his hand down his sunburned face and cursed again. So much for making it to Canon City by nightfall. The last thing they could afford was another delay, but neither would he risk riding Gemini now and crippling him for life. The mustang had been a gift from the prettiest horse thief he'd ever had the pleasure of knowing. Jesse had laughed when Annie Corrigan had told him he'd never find a finer mount or more faithful friend, but over the last eight years he'd lost count of how many times Gem had proved her right.
Jess brushed his hands together and straightened, then squinted into the sunlight to give the townâif it could be called thatâa full sweep. It looked like any of a dozen there-then-gone mining communities he'd passed through, with false-fronted structures lining either side of the road. What windows weren't busted through or covered with boards wore a layer of grime so thick he couldn't see through them. Paint peeled from signs that creaked on rusty chains. Patches of weeds had sprung up between cracks in the boardwalk and were taking over
sections of the packed dirt road, and a general odor of defeat had settled over the area.
“We picked a helluva place to land in, didn't we, Gem?” Jesse grumbled.
With a sigh as dismal as his surroundings, he turned toward one of the only establishments still open, a two-story lumber structure with
THE SCARLET ROSE GAMING PARLOR AND SALOON
painted in bold, sweeping strokes of red across a whitewashed backdrop. It couldn't have been more appropriately named, for the building stood out from the others like a perfect blossom in a row of tumbleweed.
As if to remind him that even the most perfect blossoms had their thorns, the hair along Jesse's arms suddenly stood on end. The cords in his neck went rigid. Prickles of unease danced up his spine.
He shifted his left hand to the holster at his hip and scrutinized the street behind him. It remained as empty as it had been a few minutes agoânot a soul in sight. But just because he couldn't see someone watching him didn't make it any less true. That sixth sense had saved his hide too many times for him to start mistrusting it now.
An ambush? One deft flick of his finger popped the safety strap. It wouldn't be the first one, that was for sure. No matter how many
times he changed his appearance, there always seemed to be one dog in the pack who recognized him.
When nothing untoward stirred in the street, Jess turned his attention to the saloon. He glanced up, searching the second floor balcony. A flutter of curtains had his sights honing in on the last of four windows set into the false front. Jesse pulled his Colt from its holster and gripped the nickel-plated handle with swift familiarity.
Several seconds passed with no further movement. Jesse pressed the barrel of his revolver tight against his thigh and sidestepped onto the boardwalk. He pushed the door open and stood half in, half out of the double wide doorway, his nerves stretched tight as sunbaked rawhide, his senses kicked into full alert.
As he scanned the interior of the Scarlet Rose, the old adage “seeing red” took on a literal meaning. The brazen color dominated everything: the skirting around a stage at the south end of the room; the printed drapes flanking tall windows set high on either side; the balustrade rimming a staircase and the upper balcony. Even the dozen vacant tables scattered about wore red mats.
A flicker of movement near the bar had Jesse arcing his arm and taking aim. The woman who appeared in the doorway gasped and slapped
her hand to her breast. Mid-twenties. Upswept hair frizzing around an oval face lightly powdered with rouge. Curvy in all the right places.
“Land's sakes, you scared the fooley out of me!” she cried.
Obviously not his spy, he decided from the genuine surprise in her tone. Jesse slowly re-holstered his Colt and touched his fingers to the brim of his hat. “My apologies, ma'am.” He kept his hands in sight and a good distance between them, letting her know he posed no threat. “Are you Scarlet Rose?”
“The one and only. Who's askin'?”
Still wary. Smart woman. “Nobody who means you any harm.” With a final sweep of the room satisfying him that no danger lurked in the corners, Jesse strode with feigned casualness to the polished mahogany bar that ran the length of the north wall. Bottles in all shapes, sizes, and colors sat upon ceiling-high shelves built around a scroll-framed mirror that many a poker player had no doubt used to his advantage.
Scarlet Rose, recovering her surprise, brushed her hands down the trademark red fabric stretched tight across her midriff and took up a position behind the bar. “Now that I've got my heart back in my chest .Â .Â . what's your pleasure?”
Still edgy with his surroundings, Jesse
hooked one spurred heel over the brass rail below. “Whiskeyâif you've got it.”
“That's about all I've gotâfor five cents a shot.” She plucked a bottle from beneath the bar and filled a squat glass with two fingers of whiskey.
Jesse plopped down a few nickels dug out of his vest pocket, then tossed back a swallow. The first taste stung his cracked lips and scored its way down his throat; the second washed through weeks of accumulated dust and sent a blissful fire spreading through his belly.
“We don't get many visitors around here since the mines ran out.”
He didn't miss the inquisitive gleam in her green eyes or the subtle question in her statement.
Fishing for answers without outright asking.
He liked her style. He also knew the game well. Hell, he'd been playing it for years. “My horse pulled up lame.” He pushed the glass forward. “Any idea where I might find a good hostler?”
“In Last Hope? You'd have better luck finding gold.” She tipped the bottle and poured him a refill. “Folks expected this to be another Leadville. Miners hit color twice, but the shafts played out within a year. Then everyone pulled up stakes and moved on to richer pickin's.”
“You're still here,” Jesse pointed out.
One shoulder lifted in a shrug. “Stubborn, I guess. There's still a couple of prospectors up in
the hills who swear they won't leave till Last Hope becomes Lost Hope.” A crooked smile played on her rouged lips. “Can't seem to bring myself to give up till they do.”
“Persistent as well as beautiful.” He saluted her with his glass. “Now that's a combination a man finds hard to resist.”