Authors: Elaine Barbieri
“You win, Samantha.”
Samantha stopped short as a figure stepped out of the shadows to tower over her. He walked close. She drank in the height and breadth of Matt, the thick dark hair underneath his weathered Stetson, the light eyes that were presently earnest, the strong features and generous mouth that raised such wild longings inside her. Her heartbeat escalated to thunder as he whispered his next words.
“I told myself that I came to see you tonight so we could talk. That sounded reasonable. But, everything changed as soon as I saw you. I want you now more than I have any right. You’re all I’ve thought about since I first met you.”
His naked flesh brushed hers and he stifled a groan. He moved instinctively and his passion echoed inside her, sending her senses reeling. She accommodated his mouth and his kiss sank deeper. His tongue caressed hers. Her heartbeat thundered as he tasted and explored the aching flesh she offered him with a hunger she could not deny.
The heat intensified. The sweat of their mutual fervor bound them. She gasped when he suckled her breasts with gentle ferocity. Her need became a mindless hunger that matched his, and she wrapped her fingers in his hair to clutch him tight against her.
The torment accelerated.
The ecstasy heightened.
Their gasps were simultaneous when he entered her at last.
She wrapped her legs around him, drawing him closer, raising herself so he might sink more deeply
inside her, exhilarating in the moment with a frenzy that she did not recognize as her own.
Colors flashed before her closed eyelids as their lovemaking became red-hot heat.
She held her breath as climax neared—but he paused. He looked down at her, his gaze passionate yet suddenly uncertain.
Why was he waiting? She loved him. Hadn’t she proved that to him? He was everything she had ever wanted, everything she had ever needed.
Then came the ultimate question. Was this the solution she had been seeking?
New York City, 1866
Samantha Rigg smarted inwardly as she closed the office door of the Pinkerton Detective Agency behind her and started toward the staircase. She was determined not to show her resentment as she descended rapidly toward the street with a stiff smile.
She had entered Allan Pinkerton’s office only a half hour earlier. It appeared he had just moved into the office, so stripped was it of any personality with its barren walls and functional furniture, and with the large piles of files lying on his desk. She had learned quickly, however, that the space reflected the fact that she had entered a branch office of “The Eye That Never Sleeps,” as well as the personality of a man dedicated to his work. Unfortunately, she had also learned that although intelligent, that same man was stubbornly dedicated to outdated Scottish notions.
Samantha stepped down into the lobby of the building, thinking that Allan Pinkerton had seemed
happy to see her at first. He had smiled, his face alight at the sight of her. The Rigg name was the password. Her father, Thomas Rigg, had been one of his most successful operatives.
“Welcome to the Pinkerton Agency.”
Unfortunately, those were the last truly pleasant words that Allan Pinkerton had spoken to her.
Samantha’s lips tightened as she walked toward the street door, her heels clicking noisily. Her widowed father had been driven to the Pinkerton Agency because of his abhorrence for the lawlessness that seemed to be overtaking the country. She had adored him, and the feeling was mutual. He had refused to allow her slender stature, her delicate appearance, or her sex to influence her ambition while growing up. Her ability to outride, outshoot, and fight better than most boys her age had pleased him. He had seemed especially gratified when she was able to outsmart most of them, too.
Samantha’s step faltered as she recalled being notified of her father’s premature death from an outlaw’s bullet when she was fourteen. That day was the worst in her life because she had known she would never see her dear father again. It was the best because her vocation was born.
Unable to withhold a frown, Samantha pushed open the door of the building and stepped out onto the busy New York sidewalk. The hectic city with its tall stone buildings and paved streets was unfamiliar to her, a young woman from a small upstate town.
Yet she ignored the crowded walk, as well as the carriages, wagons, and pedestrians all appearing to have an urgent destination in mind. She automatically joined the intense throng, her mind on the unintended harshness of Allan Pinkerton’s response to her request.
She had traveled a long way to hear it. She had silently vowed never to forget it:
The Pinkerton Detective Agency does not hire women who have no background in detective work, or women whose goal is to avenge their fathers’ deaths—no matter how sincere they are.”
That last addendum was meant to soften the blow of a refusal to employ her, but it did not. She realized now that she needed to prove to Allan Pinkerton that inheriting her father’s ability to outsmart the average male, as well as the many hours she had listened intently while he explained every investigative detail of his many successes, was her unofficial training. Her own inborn tenacity provided the rest.
She also needed to show him that her desire was not to
her father, but to
She knew only one way to do that.
The bobbing of Samantha’s blonde curls belied her strength of purpose as she started down the street in the direction of her lodgings. She was sure she could accomplish what other Pinkerton operatives could not because she had an advantage that Allan Pinkerton had considered a drawback.
That advantage was simple.
She was a woman.
Samantha leaned back against the bar of the Trail’s End Saloon, her present place of employment. Winston was more humid than she had expected, and her purple satin dress did not suit the temperature. She attempted to pull the fabric away from her moist skin to afford herself more comfort. In doing so, she inadvertently lowered an already generous neckline even farther.
The male contingent at the bar stirred.
Samantha smiled at the realization of those fellows’ thoughts. She would allow none of them to succeed in what they were thinking, of course, despite her knowing grin. She had used the tool of playing one male against another since childhood. She intended to use it wisely.
But she was still hot and uncomfortable.
She had learned from Sean McGill, a close Pinkerton friend of her father’s, that a bank-robbing spree in Texas had decimated the profit of the Landover Syndicate, a well-known eastern consortium that had invested heavily in Texas. When the law failed to gain the proof needed to bring the thieves to justice, the Landover Syndicate hired the Pinkerton Agency to do it. Unfortunately, Pinkerton had failed also.
With Allan Pinkerton’s response to her employment in mind, Samantha had made the decision to use part of the money she had inherited to travel to Texas, where she intended to show Pinkerton that
could get the proof he needed.
It had not taken her long, however, to reach the conclusion that Winston, Texas, was uncivilized in comparison with bustling New York City. It was even a step back in time from the diminutive upper New York State town of Bristol, where she was born. To her mind, it was the last place a successful bank robber would choose to make his base. Yet in the time since, she had done her homework, and she now understood the reason.
She had doubted her decision to come to Winston for the first time a month earlier when after a dusty, bumpy, hot journey, she had stepped down from a dilapidated stagecoach to find the town boasted a total of two unpaved streets—and nothing much else. Even Main Street was littered with potholes that she had learned the hard way would fill with ankle-deep mud after every rainstorm.
The first establishment that had met her disapproving eye had been the Trail’s End Saloon, which she had discovered was the town’s only source of entertainment. The structure had been difficult to miss since the gaudily painted, false-fronted building alone had any traffic in the heat of midday. A single mercantile where ranchers bought their supplies sprawled nearby, and a livery stable that housed
and offered horses for hire was located a distance away. The old fellow named Toby Larsen who owned the business had become an instant friend.
A stagecoach office—where a coach arrived weekly, if it arrived at all—was sandwiched between a small bank that served the entire community and an apothecary where a pharmacist of questionable ability presided. The doctor’s office next door had been unoccupied since the demise of the town physician two years previously.
She had met the muscular fellow named Horace Trimm who owned a blacksmith shop where he sweated on a daily basis and watered nightly at the Trail’s End. She had found him to be an honorable man. She had thought to patronize the small “French boutique” in the vicinity until she met the owner, a woman with a dubious accent and a decidedly haughty manner. A nondenominational church where a part-time preacher expounded on the penalties of sin each Sunday was situated at the far end of the street.
“Howdy, Samantha. How about letting me buy you a drink?”
Samantha’s spontaneous smile flashed at the young fellow at her elbow. She had become the newest female attraction at the Trail’s End Saloon. Her quick mind and saucy quips—plus more obvious female assets—had made her an instant success. It was her job to
the customers. The extent of that
was at her discretion.
“Howdy, Jim. You’re a bit early today, aren’t you?” Her smile widened.
“Yes, ma’am, but I’ve been waiting to come here to see you since the sun came up this morning. I guess you’re just about all I think about these days.”
Samantha remained cynical of that remark as she studied him more closely. Jim Sutton was average in height and weight and had average coloring, but he was a sincere, hardworking fellow without a deceitful bone in his body. She intended to be at that establishment only a short time and she didn’t want to lead him on.
She responded with a broadening of her smile. “I’m glad to hear that you consider me a friend, Jim, because I enjoy your company. But between you and me, I figure you ought to direct your attention more favorably toward Helen over there.” Motioning toward the slender, young brunette who was obviously new to the game, she winked. “Helen’s been talking about you a lot lately. Something tells me she sees something special in you that it would pay to cultivate.”
Helen took that moment to glance their way, as if confirming Samantha’s whispered confidence, and Jim raised his brow.
Samantha gave Jim a light shove. “I’m not here officially for a while yet, but Helen is, so make the best of it.”
“But I came here to see you, Samantha.”
“Maybe so, but like I said, I’m not here yet. So skedaddle!”
Appearing uncertain, Jim responded, “All right, if you’ll promise to save some time for me later.”
“That’s a promise.”
Samantha looked back at the street as Jim walked away, preoccupied with her thoughts. Since the Trail’s End was the rumor mill of town, she had known it would be the best place to get situated. It didn’t hurt any that it was also the most likely place for her to come into contact with the man she sought to bring to justice.
His name was Matt Strait.
A familiar tremor moved down Samantha’s spine at the thought of him. There was something about the man that set her pulses racing. She mused unconsciously that perhaps it was the way he walked with unconscious male confidence. Or perhaps it was the intensity behind his all too brief smiles, or the hidden but potent quality in his gaze when he looked at her. She didn’t like the fact that his light eyes seemed to burn wherever they touched her. Nor did she appreciate the feeling that—filled with amusement one moment and fierce the next—his gaze seemed to speak directly to her without an utterance of her name. The effect left her mouth dry.
Forcing herself to ignore her personal reaction to him, she had confirmed that Matt had been born and raised on a vast but practically bankrupt ranch just outside town left to him by his father. To hear
the locals tell it, Matt was a hard worker who barely scraped by in his effort to save the ranch. It did not take her long to also learn that the ranch was the reason Jenny Morgan, his fiancée and a neighboring rancher’s daughter, had not yet married.
Matt Strait had been an unpredictable, motherless boy with a wild streak, according to the townsfolk. They were now convinced he had changed as he matured, but she knew he had not changed at all. Matt Strait had simply chosen to lead a double life and support his failing ranch with the proceeds from his robberies.
Yet an inability to find proof of his actions had kept the law and Pinkertons at bay. Matt Strait had outwitted the best of them, but she was determined he would not outwit her.
Samantha’s attention grew suddenly acute as the saloon’s swinging doors opened.
Speak of the devil.
Samantha’s heart began a gradual pounding as Matt Strait approached the bar with a few nods of acknowledgment at familiar greetings. The strange heat inside her stirred and she was intensely aware that her trembling when his gaze briefly caught and held hers had no relation to fear.
Samantha’s breathing quickened. Yet she somehow resented the blatant, natural masculinity that had worked its way into her consciousness. She disliked her appreciation of the broad stretch of her quarry’s shoulders, his narrow waist and male hips.
She found the gun belt casually strapped there as objectionable as her thought that he could handle any opposition without a problem. It annoyed her even more that the bulge just below his belt fascinated her.
She concluded with forced objectivity that Matt Strait’s appeal was his appearance of being hardworking but slightly untamed. She was forced to concede, however, that in him she faced a danger she had not considered.
Watching him openly, Samantha knew that in a few minutes Matt would take his drink to a table in the corner to wait for an opening at the poker table. He made no pretense of being interested in her or in any of the other women at the Trail’s End despite any advances made. He gave every appearance of being completely loyal to his fiancée.
Balderdash! She was certain there had to be a chink in his armor—and only a woman with her unofficial training could find it.
“That ain’t the way to get your man, Samantha.”
Samantha jumped at the voice beside her. She realized for the first time that Toby, the thin, bowlegged, gray-haired old man with the kind eyes who was the owner of the livery stable, stood beside her.
She responded with a wink. “Am I that obvious, Toby?”
“I’d say you are.” The old fellow’s gaze narrowed as he assessed her expression. “If you don’t want to be
no more obvious than you are, I’d say you shouldn’t look at that fella that way.”
“At Matt Strait, you mean?”
“Who else? I figure he’s the reason you haven’t given any of your admirers here a tumble.”
“What do you mean, Toby? I’m nice to everybody.”
“Yeah…nice, when fellas like Jim Sutton, Randy Jacobs, Lefty Morse, and a few others who aren’t worth mentioning would like a little more than that.”
“Toby,” Samantha said jokingly, “you didn’t mention yourself in that lot.”
“Well, Samantha, it’s like this.” Toby’s smile quirked. “If I was a few years younger and a heap prettier, I figure I might stand a chance. But the fact is, I know my limitations. You ain’t looking for an old fella whose best days are behind him. All I got left in me now is real affection for you and some good advice, which I can offer freely.”
Samantha replied, “So what is that advice, Toby?”
“Forget Matt Strait if you know what’s good for you.” Toby was suddenly sober. “I know the kind of man he is. He’s sincere, and any interest you might stir up in him won’t be for the long run. He’s engaged to a real fine woman who will make him a good wife when his ranch is solvent. She’s as plain as a church mouse and you ain’t, but you can’t compete with her when it comes to what she can offer a fella like Matt.”