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Authors: Karen Robards

Morning Song

BOOK: Morning Song
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PROLOGUE

Clive McClintock was playing stud poker. He sat sprawled in his favored, back-to-the-wall chair at a round table in the smaller of the three public salons of the riverboat
Mississippi Belle.
A thin cheroot dangled from the side of his mouth, his neckcloth was loosened, and his long, booted legs stretched negligently out before him. The woman behind him, full-figured, scantily dressed, and beautiful, ran her fingers through the crisp black waves of his hair.

"Stop it, Luce, you're ruining my concentration," he drawled, flicking her a glance over his shoulder. She grinned down at him, a sly meaningful grin that drew envious looks from the other three men around the table. Luce ignored them. Her attention was all for Clive.

"Nothin' ruins your concentration, sugar." She ran her fingers caressingly down a dark-stubbled cheek, but then, as a concession to his protest, withdrew her hands while still retaining her position behind him. Her robin's-egg-blue eyes narrowed as she studied the hand he held. His eyes, an even paler, more arresting shade of blue, flicked back to the cards, expressionless.

"Damn it, McClintock, what are you gonna do?" The man to his left, whom Clive knew only as Hulton, was on edge, as well he might be. Most of his greenbacks lay in the center of the table. The few left in front of him would not, in all likelihood, be enough to allow him to stay in the game. He had already tried to add his pocket watch to the pot in lieu of cash and had been declined. This was professional poker, played for high stakes, and it was a cash-only game. Hulton had been allowed in because he had the necessary ten thousand dollars to ante up. When 3

he ran out of money, as he seemed certain to do within the next minute or so, he would be out of the game. It was as simple as that, and Hulton, like the rest of them, had known the rules before he ever sat down.

But the man's nervous desperation stirred an odd, faintly contemptuous pity in Clive. It had been clear from the man's wild bidding that he had, or thought he had, the hand of a lifetime, and he wasn't going to be able to make it pay off for him because he wasn't going to be able to stay in the game. It was a situation in which Clive had found himself a few times, and he could sympathize with Hulton's frustration. Still, the man shouldn't gamble. If he couldn't lose with a shrug and a smile, he had no business at a card table. Clive only hoped there weren't a wife and a passel of kiddies somewhere counting on the money that Hulton had just gambled away. Though why it should bother him one way or another Clive couldn't figure.

He'd been a professional gambler for twelve years now, since he'd boarded his first paddle wheeler as a downy-cheeked youngster of sixteen. Such distracting emotions as pity for an opponent—especially such a one as Hulton—should have been far behind him. At that moment his attention should have been focused on one thing, and one thing only—the game. But lately his vaunted concentration had had a tendency to wander, which was not a good sign. Maybe, after this game, he'd take some time off, maybe even go on a trip. And not by riverboat, either. He was getting as tired of riverboats as he was of poker. The realization, coming as it did when he was on the verge of winning, and winning big, worried him. Clive frowned almost imperceptibly, then mentally took himself in hand. He could not afford to think about that now. He had to focus on the game. 4

As near as Clive could figure it—and his head for figures was nearly as good as his head for cards— forty-one thousand two hundred and six dollars now lay in the center of the table. It was a fortune, and if luck went his way just a little longer—and he could keep from dissolving into tears over Hulton's plight—it would be his.

"I'll call your hundred and raise you two hundred." Without responding directly to Hulton, Clive addressed his remark to LeBoeuf, who sat on his right, suiting the action to the words as he did so.

It was Hulton's turn. He glared at his cards for a minute, then threw his hand on the table with a curse.

"I'm out," he said bitterly, scooping up the few greenbacks that remained to him while eyeing the mound in the center of the table as if he would like to grab that, too. He stood up, moving clumsily. His chair toppled with a crash. He started to turn away, then turned back, bending forward, his hands braced flat on the tabletop, his eyes blazing hatred as they moved from one to the other of the three remaining players. A murmur went through the gathered crowd of onlookers, and a few stepped out of Hulton's way.

Clive's eyes were deceptively lazy as they lifted from his cards to focus on Hulton. Killings over a gambling loss much smaller than the one Hulton had just suffered were not uncommon, and over the years Clive had seen his full share. Despite the prohibition against wearing arms onboard, which the captain of the
Mississippi Belle
zealously enforced, Clive was, in fact, prepared. A tiny custom-made pistol was tucked snugly into a holster in his boot.

5

If Hulton made the wrong move, he would be history in a matter of seconds.

But unlike Clive, Hulton was apparently unarmed. He merely glared around the table, mouth working, then cursed viciously and turned away again. The onlookers parted for him. Clive watched him intently. Hulton had looked desperate, and desperate men could be dangerous. But if Hulton had intended violence, he had apparently thought better of it. Snatching his hat from a nearby hat rack, Hulton slammed it on his head and stormed out of the salon without looking back. As the doors swung shut behind him, Clive's eyes slid back to his hand. The play continued without further ado.

When it was over, Clive was, as he had expected to be, some forty-five thousand dollars richer.

“On a pair of treys!" Luce crowed in his ear as she bestowed a smacking victory kiss on him. With the game over, Clive allowed himself to relax.

“It’s not so much what you've got, but how you use it that counts," Clive responded with a suggestive grin, his hands finding and squeezing two well-rounded buttocks as a means of illustration. As she giggled and nuzzled his neck, he tucked a wad of bills into the tempting cleavage that pressed against his chest.

"Oh, Clive," she breathed, feeling the cool prickle of the bills. Instantly she let go of his neck to fish out the money.

"For being my good-luck charm," he said, and pinched her satin-clad fanny. She squealed automatically, kissed him again, and turned away to count her money. Clive grinned, watching her. Luce had a head on her shoulders that was at least as hard as 6

his. She liked men, himself in particular, but she liked money better. Just touching it gave her a thrill.

Clive accepted congratulations with a nod and a jest, conscious of being watched by nearly everyone in the salon as
he scooped his winnings into his hat.

It was a good win, and a clean one. He'd learned to expertly palm aces and deal off the bottom and employ all the other tricks of the trade years ago. An ability to fuzz the cards was necessary to a gambler's survival. He did it when he had to, but he didn't like doing it. He hadn't needed to tonight, and as a result he felt exceptionally good about the win. A few more like this one and he could buy some land and get off the damned river and away from the smell of Mississippi mud forever.

He was not fool enough to keep such a large sum by him for any longer than he had to. Leaving the salon, he looked carefully both ways along the deck. It was late at night, or rather, early in the morning, and most of the passengers had long since retired to their staterooms. There was a lone man, unknown to Clive, standing a little way farther along, his hands gripping the rail as he looked toward the river's east bank. It was December 1840, and the river was rain-swollen and smelled peculiarly of worms. The night was clear, with a full moon casting enough light to reveal the muddy brown water, the pristine decks. The rhythmic sloshing of the paddle wheel churning and voices from the salon he'd just left were the only sounds. Everything looked just as it should, but Clive had not lived as long as he had by taking chances. Reaching down, he pulled the pistol from his boot and placed it atop the money in his hat. Then he proceeded to his cabin. In the morning he would take his winnings to the purser's office, where the money would travel the rest of the way to New 7

Orleans in the
Mississippi Belle's
safe. Once in New Orleans, it would go directly into his bank, where it would more than double the tidy little nest egg he'd been accumulating. Someday, not so far distant now, his gambling days would be behind him, except for the occasional gentlemanly wager. He'd earn his living by a means that would allow him to stay on dry land.

A few hours later, Clive was sleeping soundly in his stateroom when a sense of something being dangerously wrong woke him. He came instantly awake, his senses honed by years of precarious living, to the knowledge that someone else was in the room. Not Luce, who was curled up in luxurious naked sleep beside him, but another someone else. Someone who, if his senses did not mislead him, was even now creeping toward the bed.

The cabin was dark as pitch. He couldn't see a thing. Clive's hand snaked beneath the pillow, closed over his pistol, pulled it forth, and leveled it at the presence that was still more sensed than seen.

"Whoever you are, stop right there or I'll—" He never got the rest out. Even as his eyes at last picked out the darker shadow creeping through the gloom, even as he released the safety on the pistol and spoke, all hell broke loose. Another shadow leaped to life from the floor beside the bed where he'd thought there was nothing, looming up out of the darkness with no more warning than a hoarse curse. Startled, Clive reacted reflexively. He jack-knifed into a sitting position, jerking the mouth of the pistol toward the new danger. But before he could orient himself, before he could recover from the shock of this second threat enough to find the target and pull the trigger, a 8

glancing sliver of light caught on the glinting blade of a knife as it plunged down, down . . .

"Ahhhh!"

Clive cried out as the knife sank through the flesh of the hand that held the pistol, feeling the blade first cold as ice, then hot as fire as it drove his hand down to pin it, palm down, fingers quivering, to the mattress. . . .

"Clive!" Beside him, Luce awoke with a start.

"Come on!" With silence no longer a necessity, the man closest to the door jerked it open and sprinted through it, calling to his partner, who abandoned the fight to run after him. By the lighter gray of the near dawn as it spilled in through the opened door, Clive glimpsed the second man, and recognized him as Hulton. Then he saw the silhouette of his own tall boot held tightly in Hulton's hand—his boot, where he'd hidden his winnings.

"Damn it to hell and back!" he swore, not hearing Luce's frightened cries as she scrambled off the bed, not aware of any sensation of pain as he grabbed the still vibrating hilt and yanked the knife out of his hand. The money; he had to get his money back. . . .

As soon as his hand was free, Clive hit the floor running, snatching up the pistol from where it had fallen on the mattress with his good hand, his left hand, and running after the would-be murdering thieves who'd robbed him. Blood poured from his wounded palm, splashed warm against his legs and feet. He was oblivious to it, just as he was oblivious to pain and his own nakedness. Pounding after the absconding pair, he leaped down stairs two at a time as they fled to the lower deck, toward where the paddle wheel roiled the water. He was shouting, but he wasn't aware of what he said. Behind him, Luce was screaming 9

BOOK: Morning Song
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