A Stranger Comes to Stockton
Chapter One: Queen of Diamonds
Night was falling as the woman got off the train in Stockton. She carried her suitcase down the street, pausing by the churchyard. She gazed over the gate, then opened it and walked down the rows, searching. She knelt down by a grave and brushed fallen leaves off the tombstone, dry-eyed but solemn. Six years. Could it really have been six years? It seemed an eternity. It seemed like yesterday. She ran her hands over the letters on the stone. Beloved. Yes, certainly that, if not by the one who had it carved there. She stood and walked out of the churchyard to the hotel. The clerk there gave her an odd look - they probably did not get many women traveling alone in this cowtown. She went to her room and freshened up, changed her dress, carefully styled her hair. She ate dinner in the hotel dining room - the food was only passable, but plentiful. She began to wonder what a girl could do for fun in this town. She needed some fun, before her difficult task on the morrow.
She strolled down the street until she came to a saloon. She stopped and peered over the swinging doors. Some cowboys were playing poker at a table in the back. Ah, yes, that would do nicely, if this town was not too backwards to allow a lady to play. She pushed the doors open and sauntered over to the table.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," she said, putting on her most charming smile, "but may I join you?"
The cowboys all looked up at her. One, apparently the leader, said, "Do you know how to play poker, ma'am?"
She regarded him appreciatively. Tall and dark, the way she liked them, with sparkling hazel eyes and a boyish way about him. "Of course," she said, "or I wouldn't be asking."
The tall cowboy asked, "What's the higher hand, a straight or a flush?"
She smiled broadly. "A flush, of course."
He pulled out a chair. "Then it's fine with us, isn't it boys?" He glared around the table, daring anyone to contradict him. No one did. She sat down and opened her purse. "Table stakes," the tall one said, "dollar ante. That fine with you?"
She nodded and put her money on the table. "I do like to know who I'm playing with," she said. "My name is Samantha Crawford."
"Nick Barkley," the tall one said, and she was so startled she failed to catch the names of the other men at the table. Barkley. Not the one she had come to find, though. A brother, perhaps?
She recovered with a smile. "Nice to meet you, gentlemen. Now let's play."
It was a good night. Samantha and Nick were close to evenly matched in skill and soon drove out the other players. They traded pots back and forth most of the evening. "I'll see you, and raise you fifty," Nick said, pushing the last of his money into the pot.
"I'll call," Samantha said. "What do you have?"
"A full house, kings over queens," Nick said, turning over his cards.
"Oh dear," Samantha pouted, "I only have a straight."
"I'm very sorry about that, ma'am," Nick said, and started to rake in the pot.
"A straight flush, that is," Samantha said, showing her hand, all hearts. She smiled mischievously.
Nick glowered, then threw back his head and laughed. "Well played, Miss Crawford. Well played. You've entirely cleaned me out, so if you don't mind, I'll call it a night."
"Oh, don't go yet," Samantha said. "Since I've taken all your money, at least allow me to buy you a drink."
As he regarded her, she smiled coquettishly. Finally, he tipped his hat in agreement and signaled the barkeep. "So where did you learn to play poker like that?" he asked.
"On the riverboats."
Nick frowned at her. "You're a professional gambler?"
Samantha laughed. "Heavens, no. My gambler friends would laugh to hear you say that. No, I just got lucky, that's all."
"So when do I get a chance to win my money back?" Nick smiled.
"Sorry. I'm not planning to stay long. I have some business to take care of tomorrow, but I've got no reason to stick around after that."
Nick shoved his hat back. "Well now, that's a disappointment."
Samantha set down her glass. "Good evening, Mr. Barkley. It's been most pleasant."
Nick stood as she did. "My pleasure, Miss Crawford." His eyes followed her as she sashayed out the door, as Samantha was only too well aware. Not a bad night, not a bad night at all.
Chapter Two: Queen of Clubs
Samantha braced herself as she stood outside the office door. She had dressed herself soberly for this interview, and she reminded herself, somber, but not grim. She knocked on the door. "Come in," a warm masculine voice responded.
She opened the door to find an office in disarray. A man in rolled up shirtsleeves was packing books into boxes. He was tall and dark, not as tall as the other one, but with vivid blue eyes that riveted her attention. Perfect. Even better than his photograph. "Mr. Barkley?" Samantha asked. "Mr. Jarrod Barkley?"
"Yes, I'm Jarrod Barkley," the man said, "but I'm not taking on any clients right now. I've just been elected judge, and as you can see, I'm moving my office into the courthouse. I'm sorry."
"I'm Samantha Crawford," she said. "And my business is personal, not professional."
Jarrod raised an eyebrow. "This is not about Nick, is it? My brother told us all how you bested him at poker last night."
"Did he?" Samantha asked, pleased. Then she sobered again. "No, Mr. Barkley. I'll come straight to the point. Beth Randall, your late wife, was my sister."
Jarrod staggered, then sat down in an empty chair. "Forgive me, Miss Crawford. Please sit down." He put a hand to his forehead. "Beth never told me she had a sister. Why have you not come to me before now?"
"Because I've been in prison," Samantha said, taking the offered chair.
"What?" Jarrod said, stunned.
"For fraud," Samantha said. "I was what is known as a confidence trickster."
"Did Beth know that?" Jarrod asked.
"Yes, she did. She was often my partner."
Jarrod glared at her. "I don't believe you," he said vehemently.
Samantha opened her purse and pulled out a small bundle of letters. "Read these," she said, holding them out. "They're the last few letters I had from Beth."
Jarrod stared at the proffered letters for a long moment, then reached out a reluctant hand and took them. Samantha stood. "I'll leave you alone to read them," she said. "I'll come back in half an hour." She opened the door and went out, closing it behind her. A satisfied little smile crossed her face as she walked down the street.
Jarrod opened the first letter, which was stained and limp from much handling. He began to read.
En route to Denver
My dear Sam,
I hope this letter finds you, and finds you well. I have taken to the trains again after the Delta Star fiasco - I hope you are staying at least one step ahead of the sheriff, but then, no one has ever quite been able to catch you, have they, my dear?
I have found a nice, plump pigeon, less than a day out from Washington, although he is a shrewd one, I think - not easy pickings, but then I always did enjoy a challenge. This one is young and handsome, too, so the game becomes all the more enticing. I used my good old 'reading the same book' ploy to get his attention - the one you always used to make fun of, dear Sam. Really, dear, a course of improving reading can be most profitable, if you know how to use it. You should try it sometime.
We are coming up on the next station where I want to post this, so I must hurry. He has asked me to dinner, so wish me luck, dear Sam.
As always, I remain your most affectionate,
En route to Denver
My dear Sam,
I cannot say when I have enjoyed a dinner more. My pigeon is so charming, so witty - he can make the hours seem to fly by.
And we did talk for hours. Although I did learn more about him - he is a successful attorney on his way home to California - he seemed far more interested in learning about me. What man has ever done that? He is certainly different from the kind of man you taught me about, Sam. Of course, I spun him a tale - I am a schoolteacher on my way to Denver - for I could not possibly tell him the truth, could I?
Still, I think I shall refrain from plucking this one. Maybe I'm growing soft, Sam, but most of the men I have taken have deserved it in some way - this one does not. I hope this does not make you think less of me, dear, but that is what I choose.
I also hope that you are still well and safe, dearest Sam.
En route to Denver
My dear Sam,
I have had such a headache today - it is so difficult to travel when one is ill, but my pigeon has been very attentive, supplying me with cold compresses and soothing drinks. He has even made himself hoarse reading to me - he has such a warm. smooth voice, Sam.
I do not think I have ever known anyone so kind, who seems to expect nothing in return - not since Mother died, anyway. Oh, I know what you always say, dear, that no one gives something for nothing, but I think we should amend that "no one" into "few." I have certainly never known anyone like him.
We are pulling into the station, so I must hurry. Stay well, dearest. Stay safe. Your most affectionate
En route to Denver
Oh, Samantha, I don't know what to do - I seem to have got my foot caught in the door. Yes, I have fallen for my pigeon, and I don't quite know how it happened. Ah, well, I guess I do, but I am sure you will be very disappointed in me - I have violated your first lesson.
I find myself wishing I were the person he thinks I am. Or that I could become her. Is it possible to shake off the past, Sam?
It seems he really cares for me too, or at least the sunny little fiction I have spun for him, and yet. . .when he looks at me, I think he sees me better than I do. Could that be true, or is it just wishing on my part?
No one has ever made me feel this way, Sam. I'm quite beside myself. Still, the train arrives in Denver late tonight - I shall get off there, he will continue on to California. I don't suppose we shall ever see each other again. That is for the best, I am sure, but I wish. . .oh, Samantha, I cannot tell you everything I could wish.
Until I see you again, dear, I remain your affectionate
Dear, dear Sam,
I have gone and done it now, and what the outcome shall be, I have no way of knowing.
He followed me off the train at Denver. He asked me to marry him, and oh, Samantha, I did! He has taken me home to his family and what a warm welcome they have given me. Who knew such wealthy people could be so kind? And they are wealthy, Sam, although I did not know that when I married him, you must believe that. You will think I have landed on the gravy train, dear, but it's not like that, really it's not.
I do not know how long I can keep this up - I have never had to play the same role for so long - I find myself saying the silliest things. And it hurts - he looks at me with those loving eyes, and I know it would kill him to learn the truth about me. And yet, I cannot keep lying to him - his is such an honest soul, he deserves an honest wife.
I should not have married him, I know, but I do love him - I never knew what it was like, before. I shall have to tell him, I know I shall, but it will all be over when I do. Just let me have a few more days, a few more weeks, perhaps. Then I shall tell him. Let me taste happiness for once in my life.
So, Sam, for the first, and possibly the last, time, I shall sign myself your most affectionate
Mrs. Jarrod Barkley
When Samantha returned, she opened the door without knocking. Jarrod was sitting in the chair, letters in hand. He looked up at her with red-rimmed eyes. "Why have you done this?" he asked.
Samantha sat down. "I've debated with myself for six years, Mr. Barkley, but it seemed that Beth's dying wish was that you know the truth about her. I don't know if it was the right thing, but I had to honor that. She was my sister."
Jarrod nodded. "I see. May I have these?"
Samantha shook her head. "They're the only thing I have of Beth's. The last thing she ever sent me. I didn't even know she had died until months after it happened."
"If I had known about you, I would have come to you," Jarrod said. "I still have Beth's things in the attic. You're welcome to anything of hers you want."
Samantha regarded him. "You're very kind," she said, puzzled. "There was a locket Beth wore - it belonged to our mother. I would like to have it."
"I know the one," Jarrod said. "Come to the ranch for dinner. You can go through Beth's things then."
"You can't mean that," Samantha said.
"You're my sister-in-law, Samantha," Jarrod said. "That makes you family."
Samantha gasped. "You don't want felons in the family, I'm sure."
Jarrod smiled ruefully. "The Best Man at my wedding was a felon. My second wedding, I should say."
"You've married again?" Samantha asked, perturbed.
"Yes," Jarrod said simply. "And we have children. You'll meet them when you come for dinner."
"I haven't said I'm coming to dinner. I'm sure your wife won't appreciate you inviting me."
"She's not like that," Jarrod said.
"What's she like then?" Samantha asked.
Jarrod unbuttoned his shirt and pulled out a miniature on a ribbon around his neck. "Like this," he said, offering it to Samantha.
Samantha took it and looked at it a long time. "She's lovely," she said at last. "Such warm eyes."
Jarrod took the miniature back and dropped the ribbon around his neck. "What are you planning to do, Samantha?" he asked. "Now that you've done your time?"
Samantha looked up at him. "I don't know," she said. "I don't really have any skills."
"Perhaps we can help you," Jarrod said.
"Why would you want to?" Samantha asked.
"Because you're family, like I said. Come to dinner. Meet the rest of the family. I'm sure if we put our heads together, we can come up with something. We can't let you go back on the con, now can we?"
"All right," Samantha said. "I'll come. Tell me how to get there."
Jarrod gave her directions and Samantha stood to leave. As she closed the door behind her she thought that things had gone nothing like she had expected. Not as she had expected at all.
Chapter Three - Full House
"Molly!" Jarrod yelled, walking into the Barkley foyer.
His mother came in, holding his two daughters by the hand. "Daddy!" his younger daughter Vicky cried, running into his arms. Emma followed more sedately, putting her arms around her father's neck.
"Molly's upstairs feeding Georgie," Victoria said.
"All right," Jarrod said, "I'll give her a few minutes." He led his daughters into the parlor and sat one on each knee. Vicky began babbling about all she had done that morning. Jarrod listened patiently, then said, "All right, Vicky. Now remember, you have to be quiet and let Emma talk."
Vicky nodded and leaned back, resting her dark curly head on Jarrod's shoulder. "And what did you do this morning, Emma?" Jarrod asked.
"Went riding with Grandmother," Emma said.
"And what else?"
Emma related the events of her morning under her father's gentle coaxing. Jarrod stroked her hair, grateful for this blessing. Finally, he stood and returned his daughters to his mother's care.
“Is something wrong, Jarrod?" Victoria asked, concern on her face.
Jarrod paused halfway up the stairs. "I just need to talk to Molly, Mother," he said. He turned and continued up, but Victoria's worried eyes followed him the whole way.
Molly was seated in the rocking chair in the nursery, her infant son on her lap. Jarrod paused a moment to look at them, such a tender picture. Molly looked up at him standing in the doorway, and held out her hand to him. He walked into the room and took it. "How's he doing?" he asked, looking down at his son sleeping in his wife's arms.
Molly smiled. "You just saw him a few hours ago, Husband. He's still fine." She looked up at him. "What's wrong, dearest?"
Jarrod took Georgie in his arms and looked down at him, tears in his eyes. He put the baby in his crib, then took Molly by the hand and led her into the bedroom, closing the door. He sat down on the bed, pulling Molly down next to him. He opened his mouth to speak, but erupted into tears, sliding down to the floor and burying his face in Molly's lap.
"Oh, my dearest," Molly said, leaning over and embracing him. "What has happened?"
Jarrod shook his head, wracked with sobs. Molly stroked his head and held him a long while, until the sobs subsided. She took him by the hand and helped him lie down on the bed. She went to the basin and wet a cloth, then gently sponged off his tear-stained face. "There," she said. "Better?"
Jarrod nodded. "I'm sorry, Feather. I didn't intend to do that."
"It's all right," Molly said. "How many times have I done that to you? Are you ready to tell me what's happened?"
"Samantha Crawford," Jarrod began.
"The woman Nick was going on about at breakfast?" Molly asked, puzzled.
Jarrod nodded. "She came to see me this morning. She's Beth's sister."
"You didn't know?" Jarrod shook his head. "Where's she been all this time?" Molly asked.
"In prison," Jarrod said. He reached into his pocket and took out the letters he had failed to return to Samantha. "Read these, they'll explain it. I can't."
Molly gasped as she began the first letter, then read on in silence. When she finished, she rested her head on Jarrod's shoulder and wrapped her arms around him. "Oh, love, I can see why you're hurting."
"It was all a lie, Molly," Jarrod said. "Every bit of it, just a con."
Molly frowned. "I don't see that, dearest. It's obvious she loved you."
Jarrod shook his head. Molly handed him back the letters. "I think you should read these again," she said. "Think how Beth felt writing them, not how you feel reading them. Can you do that?"
Jarrod took the letters back. "If you think it'll do any good, Feather." He sat up and began reading, slowly. Finally, he put the letters down and sighed. "All right," he said, "maybe not all of it was a lie. But she wasn't the woman I thought she was."
"She wanted to be," Molly said. "Maybe in time she would have been."
Jarrod leaned over and kissed her. "Don't think I don't appreciate the irony of all this, Feather."
Molly waved a hand. "That. Dead and buried. Don't think of it, dearest."
"I've invited Samantha to dinner," Jarrod said.
Molly sat up. "Why?" she asked.
"It's complicated. So she could go through Beth's things. Because she's family. Because I wonder what she's up to. Because I want to help her be an honest woman, if that's possible."
"Do you think she's up to something?"
"I don't know. I don't think I'm clear-headed enough to judge. Maybe you can feel her out and tell me what you think."
"Gladly," Molly said. "I'd do that without being asked, love."
"I don't think I'm up to going through Beth's things - not today. Would you help her with that, too, love?"
Jarrod kissed her, long and lovingly. He stroked her hair and said, "Have I told you how glad I am that I married you?"
"No more glad than I am, love," she said, hugging him. "It was the wisest decision I ever made. I'd be less than myself without you."
Nick was coming out of the barn when Samantha galloped up, cheeks flushed and hair escaping from the ribbon binding it. "Hello, Cowboy," she said brightly. She slid nimbly down from the saddle and proceeded to unbuckle the girth.
"Here, let me help you with that," Nick said, stepping forward. Samantha moved aside and let him remove the saddle. "I didn't know you could ride," Nick said.
"I haven't, really, since I was a girl," Samantha said. "But since your brother invited me to your ranch, I couldn't resist the temptation to get on horseback. I hope that's all right." She looked down at the riding skirt and boots she wore.
Nick grinned and led the horse into the barn. "Certainly. But this is a real nag. Where did you get it?"
"The livery. Best they had."
Nick proceeded to brush the horse down. "You know, if you want to ride, we have better horses than this. Maybe tomorrow. With me?"
Samantha's face fell. "Your brother didn't tell you, did he?"
"That you're Beth's sister? What difference does that make?"
"That I'm a felon. That I've been in prison." Samantha watched hungrily for his reaction.
Nick paused in his brushing. "No, he didn't," he said. "Why did you?"
"Because I'd rather tell you now than later."
Nick rested his arms on the horse's back and regarded her for long moments. "What were you in prison for?"
"Fraud," Samantha said. "I ran confidence games all up and down the Mississippi."
Nick winced. "Oh," he said.
"Too much to stomach, Cowboy?" Samantha asked.
"Well, at least you're being honest about it now," he said, continuing to brush the horse, thoughtfully. He put the brush away and silently escorted Samantha into the house.
Jarrod was waiting in the foyer. "Welcome, Samantha," he said. "I'm glad you came." He handed her the letters along with Beth's locket.
She put the letters in her pocket, and gazed at the locket, teary-eyed. She blinked, dropping the chain around her neck and tucking the locket inside her shirt. "Thank you," she said.
Jarrod indicated the woman descending the staircase carrying a baby. "This is my wife Molly. Molly, this is Samantha." The two women regarded each other. Not as lovely as the picture, Samantha thought, but there was something about the eyes. Nobody's fool.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Samantha," Molly said, graciously. "Would you like to freshen up?"
Samantha nodded. "Yes, thank you." Molly handed the baby to Jarrod, who smiled down at it. The baby smiled and cooed back, causing it's father's eyes to gleam. Samantha followed Molly up the stairs to the facilities.
When she came down later, she overheard raised voices in the parlor.
". . .Should have told me." The Cowboy.
"It was her story to tell, not mine." The Lawyer.
"It's better she told you herself, Nick." A woman's voice, not the Wife's.
There was an embarrassed silence as Samantha stepped into the parlor. "Forgive us, Samantha," Jarrod said, still holding the baby. He ushered her to a chair. "Just one of our little family squabbles."
"About me," Samantha said. "I knew I shouldn't have come."
"Nonsense," Jarrod said. "You've been honest in difficult circumstances. That's only to be admired." He cast a glance at Nick. "Allow me to introduce my mother, Victoria," he indicated the older woman who Samantha had not yet met.
"Welcome, Samantha," Victoria said, taking her hand. "We're only sorry we didn't meet you long ago."
"My sister Audra is away at college," Jarrod said, "and my brother Heath is on a cattle buying trip. I'm sorry they're not here to meet you."
Molly came in with the other children, a boy and two little girls. Samantha was confused - if those two had gotten married the moment Beth was buried, they might have managed to have the two girls and the baby, but the boy was too old to be their son. Another puzzle. The children had very pretty manners, although the older girl talked too little and the younger girl talked too much.
It was the most awkward dinner Samantha had ever sat through. The Cowboy was brooding, the baby started crying so the Wife had to leave, the Lawyer and the Mother tried to keep the conversational ball rolling, but so many topics seemed taboo that they mainly ended up talking to each other and the boy.
Finally, mercifully, it was over. The Wife returned, and after handing the baby to the Lawyer, led Samantha up to the attic.
They searched until they found the trunk marked "BR." Molly fumbled with a key ring until she found the key and handed it to Samantha. Samantha knelt down and opened it, then laid her hand on the contents, tears filling her eyes.
"It must have been horrible for you," Molly said, gently, "in prison and losing someone you love."
Samantha turned her face away. The problem with these people was that they kept getting off script. Rich people should be greedy and selfish. She needed them to be greedy and selfish. "Not 'someone' I loved," she said angrily, "the only one I had left. You have no idea what that feels like."
"Yes, I do," Molly said softly. Samantha glared up at her. "My husband, all my brothers - everyone I had - were all killed in the War. It was fifteen years before I found someone else to love. So, yes, I do."
Samantha felt her face flush and her heart pound. "Well, you've certainly done well for yourself now," she sneered.
"Do you think that because Jarrod married me it means he didn't love Beth?"
"He didn't love her," Samantha said. "He loved the story she told him. He didn't know her."
"He loved the woman," Molly said.
"You don't know that."
"I'm sure of it. Shortly after we were married, one of Jarrod's enemies tried to frame me. The evidence was pretty convincing, and for awhile - a short while - even Jarrod doubted my innocence. But he still loved me - even though he didn't believe my story anymore, he still loved me."
Samantha covered her face with her hands. "He took her away from me. Even if she had lived, do you think I'd have been welcome in this house?”
"You are welcome in this house, Samantha. You're part of Jarrod's family, whether that suits you, or not."
Samantha wiped her eyes. "Well. I had no way of knowing that, did I?"
"And Beth died. And you were locked away with nothing to do but read her letters and think how to hurt the man you held responsible."
Samantha looked up at her. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Molly snorted. "Come now, Samantha. We're not stupid. You wielded those letters like a bludgeon. Maybe it was all true, but you used the truth to suit your purpose, and your purpose was to hurt Jarrod."
"If you think that, if he thinks that, then why invite me here? Why pretend to be kind to me?"
Molly knelt down next to her. "We're not pretending, Samantha. We know what it is to hurt, to grieve. We know what it's like to desire vengeance. We want to help you, if we can."
Samantha said nothing, and after a long pause, Molly got to her feet. "All right. I'll leave you alone to go through Beth's things." She walked to the door.
Samantha said, "All those kids can't be yours."
Molly turned and smiled. "Yes, they're all ours, but you're right that I didn't give birth to them all. Jarrod rescued Lucas and Emma from working in a mine."
"They were orphans. Now they're our children."
"Beth and I were orphans." Now why did she say that? But she found she couldn't stop. "They separated us, adopted us out to different families. It was awful - all they wanted was someone to do the work. We finally managed to run away together and never looked back."
Molly looked at her sympathetically. "I'm sorry, Samantha. Would you be willing to tell Jarrod? Tell him everything about Beth?"
"Why would you want me to do that?"
"I'm not jealous of Beth, Samantha. Jarrod and I have both loved before, it doesn't take away from what we have now. Beth has haunted Jarrod - I think the truth, the entire truth, might be what it takes to finally lay her ghost to rest. And it might help you, too, to be able to talk about her to someone else. Someone who loved her, too."
Samantha shook her head and started sorting through the trunk. Molly watched her for a few moments, then left. Samantha laid her head down on the trunk and wept.
She came downstairs carrying an armload of books. The boy was playing chess with his grandmother; the Cowboy was listening to the older girl read haltingly from a book. The Lawyer was bouncing the younger girl on his knee and singing some nonsense, while the Wife was tickling the baby and listening to it laugh. They all looked up as Samantha entered the parlor.
"Did you get everything you want?" Jarrod asked.
"Just Beth's books - she really was a bookworm. That was true." Jarrod smiled as though he'd just been given a gift. "I might even read them," Samantha said. "Well, I'd best be going."
"I'll go saddle up," Nick said, and stalked out.
"Please stay longer, Samantha," Jarrod said. "We've hardly had a chance to talk."
She shook her head. "But thank you for a lovely evening."
"I know it's been awkward," Jarrod said, "but it will be better the next time you come, I promise."
"I'm not staying in Stockton - I doubt I'll ever be this way again."
"Don't feel that way, Samantha," Jarrod said. "Please know you can call on me whenever you need to. Or want to."
Samantha gave her head a small shake. "Good-night," she said, and walked out the door.
Jarrod sighed. "Lucas, would you watch your sisters for a few minutes?"
Lucas said, "Sure, Dad."
Jarrod, Molly and Victoria adjourned to the study. "Well, Molly," Jarrod said, "you were up there with her a good long time. What do you think?"
"I think she's on the edge of a razor, Jarrod," Molly said. "She was clearly full of anger and resentment toward you, but I think you've managed to disarm a lot of that. She could go either way, love, and I have no idea which way she's going to fall."
"It's probably best if she falls as far away from you as possible," Victoria said. "That woman radiates trouble like a lamp. You could be making a big mistake taking her in."
"She's family, Mother," Jarrod said. "If there was a mistake made, it was made when I married Beth. I have an obligation to her now."
"We do," Molly said, taking his hand.
Jarrod smiled down at her. "Thank you, Feather. So what do we do now?"
Samantha went into the barn to find Nick putting a saddle blanket on a second horse. "You're not going with me, Cowboy," she said.
"I can't let you ride all that way back in the dark by yourself," he said.
"I can take care of myself." Samantha tucked her books into the saddlebags.
"That's not the point," Nick said.
Samantha led her horse out and mounted it. Nick followed her. "Wait, Samantha." He put a hand on her boot. "You never said whether you want to go riding tomorrow."
Samantha looked down at him, startled. "I didn't think that offer was still open," she said.
"It is." Nick looked up at her. She could see his eyes sparkle, even in the dark.
Did she really want to spend more time in this nest of do-gooders? But then, the Cowboy didn't make her feel as though all her skin had been peeled off, like those other two did. "All right," she said, "but I don't want to come back to this house. Meet me somewhere."
"The road forks about half a mile from the house. There? Six o'clock?"
"All right," Samantha said, and gave the horse a kick. Nick watched her as she rode away, then went into the house. He found Jarrod, Molly and Victoria in the study.
". . .we do now?" Jarrod said.
"Just so you know, and I don't want any argument about it, Samantha is going riding with me tomorrow," Nick announced.
Victoria frowned, but Jarrod and Molly smiled. "Excellent, Brother Nick," Jarrod said.
Nick was startled. "You approve?"
"We were just discussing how we might help her," Jarrod said.
"I'm not aiming to help her," Nick said. "I just like her. All right, I know what she was, but I'm willing to give her a chance."
"Really, Nick? That's not usually like you," Molly said.
"Well, Molly, maybe you've taught me not to judge so harshly."
"Have I?" Molly smiled. "Good, then. Well, I need to go get the children ready for bed." She kissed Nick's cheek. "Have a good time tomorrow, Brother."
"I'll help," Jarrod said. "Good night, Mother," he said, kissing her cheek.
"Good night, Mother," Nick said, following Jarrod and Molly out.
Victoria stood alone in the study. She thought that the Barkleys had faced plenty of danger before, and she supposed they would again, but she still worried about her sons.
Chapter Four: Wild Card
The sun was just rising over the hills when Samantha met Nick at the fork. Nick held the reins of two horses - a handsome bay and a pretty filly, midnight black with a white blaze. Samantha slid down from the back of her livery horse and stroked the filly's nose.
"She's beautiful," she said, reaching into her pocket for sugar.
"I thought you'd like her," Nick grinned. "Her name's Miranda."
"Sounds more like an old girlfriend," Samantha teased.
Nick blushed charmingly. Samantha laughed. "So where's the original?" she asked.
"She's leading a revolution in Mexico," Nick answered.
"My," Samantha said, "you certainly have interesting taste in women."
Nick tied up the livery horse and began taking off its saddle. "I thought we could ride out to the north ridge," he said. "It's a nice gallop, if you're up for it."
"Try me," Samantha said, putting her foot in the stirrup and mounting the filly. She patted the horse's neck as she took up the reins. As Nick mounted up she said, "Try and catch me, Cowboy," and kicked the filly into a gallop.
Nick grinned and pursued. His larger stallion overtook her easily, but he held the horse back so that the two ran pace for pace.
Samantha felt the wind on her face, in her hair. She reached back and untied her ribbon, letting her hair flow in the wind. Freedom. She had forgotten freedom.
They galloped until the horses lathered, then slowed to a trot, then a walk. They dismounted and Nick held the reins as they walked to cool the horses. He took Samantha's hand with his free one, and she felt a little frisson even through their gloves. "You ride very well," Nick said, "especially for someone who hasn't ridden in awhile."
"Beth and I used to race all over the countryside when we were girls. We'd take on anyone," Samantha smiled.
"You, I can believe, but that doesn't sound like Beth."
"You didn't know Beth - none of you did."
"Well, you make me wish I had."
Samantha looked up at him. "Thank you," she said.
"So what happened?" Nick asked. "Why did you stop riding?"
"Our parents died, the bank took the ranch, Beth and I were farmed out to different families."
They came to a spreading chestnut tree on the top of the ridge. Nick tethered the horses and leaned his back against the tree. "That's too bad," he said. "I can't even imagine what that would be like."
Samantha looked up at him, grateful for the lack of fake sympathy. She gazed into his warm hazel eyes, and before she knew how it happened, found herself wrapped in his arms, kissing him. He smelled of horse and leather, soap and sweat. She could almost feel his strength flowing into her - she wanted him to protect her, she wanted him to guide her. She turned her head away, "No, Nick." So this is what had happened to Beth. The Lawyer and the Cowboy - no, Jarrod and Nick - each so different, yet both so honest. Both so. . .sweet. "I'm no good for you."
"You could be," Nick said. "It wouldn't be that difficult."
She tore herself out of his arms. "I have to go." She reached up and untethered the filly.
"What, now?" Nick said, ruffled.
"There's something I have to do in Sacramento." She swung up into the saddle. "It won't wait. If I hurry, I can catch the early train." She kicked the horse into a gallop.
Nick swore and mounted his own horse. He took off after her.
Samantha looked back, and slowed her horse to a canter. It seemed there was no shaking him this time - she found she was rather glad.
She would have to go to Sacramento alone, though - there was no way around it.
Chapter Five: Jack of Diamonds
Samantha burst into the hotel room. "I'm calling it off, Jack," she said.
Gentleman Jack Darby looked up at her from where he was lying fully clothed on the bed, smoking a cigar. "Samantha, darling," he said. "Where have you been? I was supposed to hear from you yesterday."
"I got held up," she said. She regarded him thoughtfully. He really was the spitting image of Jarrod Barkley, right down to the vivid blue eyes and the mole on his cheek. And yet, the difference in manner and attitude was such that no one who knew either of them well would be fooled by the other. "Did you hear me?" she said. "I'm calling it off."
Gentleman Jack sat up and straightened his waistcoat. "I heard you. I'm disappointed in you, Samantha. I've never known you to give up before. Why now?”
Samantha paced about the room. "Because it wouldn't work. These people are not easy marks. They're shrewd and they stick together. The last thing I want is to get caught and sent back to prison."
Gentleman Jack stood up and took her by the arms. "No need, Samantha. I was never enamored of your Byzantine revenge plot. I've plucked your pigeon for you in a much simpler way."
Samantha stared up at him, aghast. "What have you done, Jack?"
"I did a little asking around. It seems the Barkleys have bank accounts all over northern California. I just walked into the bank here, the teller said, 'Why, hello, Mr. Barkley, how are you today?' I said, 'Fine, thank you, and you?' He said, 'And what can I do for you today?' and I said, 'I need twenty thousand dollars,' and he gave it to me, easy as pie. Your trouble, Samantha, is that your mind is like a labyrinth. So much simpler my way." He smiled and puffed on his cigar.
Samantha grabbed his lapels and shook him. "Give it back, Jack."
"Not on your life, dear. Why should I?"
"Because the Barkleys know I've been in prison. They know I was coming to Sacramento today. When they find twenty thousand dollars missing, they're going to draw a line straight to me."
"You had nothing to do with it."
"But I did, Jack. I'm the one who set you onto them. It's called conspiracy - I'm as guilty as if I took that money myself."
Gentleman Jack frowned. "I don't see how that's possible, but if you want to give back your half, I won't stop you."
"They'd send me to prison for ten thousand just as much as for twenty. I'd rather die than go back to prison, Jack." She twined her hands around his neck and nuzzled his ear. "Please give it back. For me?" She looked up at him wide-eyed.
Gentleman Jack laughed. "Very pretty, Samantha. But no. Take your half and go. Do whatever you want with it, but I need mine."
"There's a high-stakes poker tournament in Denver next week - it's ten thousand dollars just to buy in. I promised to meet Bart there."
"Bart? Will Bret be there, too?"
"No idea. I hope so - I'd like to meet the fellow."
"You and Bart have been friends all these years, and you've never met his brother?" Samantha asked.
"No, I've never had the pleasure." He picked up a carpet bag and put it on the bed. "Do you have something to put your share in?" he asked, opening the bag and revealing several bundles of bank notes.
"I’m not touching that money anywhere in the state of California," Samantha said. "If I get caught with it, it's all over."
He snapped the bag shut. "Don't be such a coward, Samantha. That's not like you."
"You've never been to prison, Jack. Believe me, it's the closest thing to Hell you'll find here on Earth."
Gentleman Jack's eyes softened. "I'm sorry, Samantha, I'm sure it was vile. All right, then. Where do you want to divide it up?"
Samantha thought for a long while. "You sure you won't give it back? It would be the simplest thing."
"As I said: not on your life."
Samantha sighed. "All right then, meet me in Carson City tomorrow. It's on the way to Denver, so you won't be held up. Now I'd better go - that money gives me the shakes."
Samantha made her way to the telegraph office. If she was going to get that money back, she was going to need help. And she was going to get that money back, if it was the last thing she ever did.
Chapter Six: Ace of Spades
Gentleman Jack was awakened in the middle of the night by a soft rapping at the door. He got up and put on his robe. "Who is it?" he called.
He opened the door and Samantha slipped in, closing the door quietly behind her.
"Where have -" Jack began, but Samantha put a finger to his lips.
"Sh," she said, whispering. "Don't turn on a light."
"Where have you been?" he whispered. "You're two days late. I was about to go on without you."
"I'm being followed," she said, sidling over to the window and peering around the curtain. "See that man on the corner? I think he's a U.S. Marshal."
He stood behind her, looking over her shoulder at the tall dark figure. "Why do you think that?"
"I saw him flash a badge at the conductor. And he's got handcuffs in his pocket. I've been trying to shake him for almost three days. I've changed trains and doubled back more times than I can count, and he's always there." She turned and clutched at Jack's robe. "You have to take the money back, Jack. Can't you see that? It'll be prison for us both if you don't. And I'll die before I go back to prison, I mean it, Jack."
"Now, now, Samantha," Jack said, "no need to panic. We'll find a way out of this."
Samantha collapsed on the floor, tears running down her cheeks. "Please, Jack, just give it back. There'll be other poker games. You don't have to do this. It's not worth it."
Jack took her hand and pulled her to her feet. He wrapped his arms around her. "I don't get many chances like this, Samantha. I'm not going to just give it up."
She twined her arms around his neck. Kissed him. "I'll do anything you want, Jack. Anything. Just give it back."
Jack pushed her away. "Sorry, Samantha, they don't call me Gentleman Jack for nothing."
Samantha stamped her foot. "I'm talking about my life here! And you're worried about my long-lost reputation?"
"You're quite delectable, Samantha, but you're not worth ten thousand dollars. Sorry."
She covered her face with her hands. "What am I going to do?"
"Take the first train to Denver in the morning. Find Bart - he's staying at the Brown Palace. His mind is almost as twisty as yours - I'm sure between the two of you, you'll come up with something. I'll take the late train so we aren't seen together."
"What choice do I have?" Samantha said. "Don't let the Marshal see you. One look at that face and he'll know everything."
Jack scratched his chin. "Hm. A disguise might be in order. How do you think I'd look with a beard?"
"Dreadful," Samantha said. She turned and stomped toward the door. "Damn you, Jack Darby, for putting me through all this." She opened the door and slipped quietly away.
Gentleman Jack rapped at Bart Maverick's hotel room door. A dark-haired man answered the door and stepped aside to let Jack enter.
"Terrible beard," Bart said.
Jack ignored the comment and looked around. "I was half hoping to find Samantha here," he said. "I do admit I'm rather worried about her."
"And well you should be," Bart said sternly. "Do you have any idea how terrified she is because of you?"
"I'm sorry about that," Jack said, pulling out a cigar and sitting on the bed. "But this is too good an opportunity to pass up. I was sure you could think of something." He struck a match and lit his cigar.
"I have," Bart said. "It's for you to give the money back."
Jack looked up at him. "Surely you jest."
"I've never known you to resort to outright theft before, Jack. And to risk Samantha, that's pretty close to unforgivable. Just give it back."
Jack raised an eyebrow. "Are you going to call the sheriff on me?"
"I may not have to. That Marshal is still hot on Samantha's trail."
There was a knock on the door. Bart answered it to admit Samantha, looking severely disheveled with dark circles under her eyes. "Have you talked him into it yet, Bart?" she asked.
"I'm trying, Samantha," Bart said sympathetically, leading her to a chair.
"Forgive me, my dear, but you look awful," Jack said.
"I haven't slept for days," Samantha said. "Everywhere I turn, there's that Marshal. Why doesn't he just arrest me and get it over with?"
"He's probably waiting until he has proof you have the money," Bart said.
"But I don't have the money. Jack has the money. I'm asking one last time, Jack - give it back."
"I can't believe that two great schemers such as you are can't come up with a better plan," Jack said.
"Well, we can't," Samantha said. She opened her purse with trembling hands and pulled out a Derringer. "I'm through asking, Jack. Now I'm telling. Give back that money."
"Samantha!" Bart said. "There's no need for that."
"She wouldn't shoot me, Bart," Jack said.
Samantha raised the gun and pulled the trigger, putting a bullet into the wall eight inches from Jack's head. "The next time I don't miss," she said.
"Shooting me won't keep you out of prison, my dear," Jack said. "They'd just put you away for life. Now give me the gun and let's discuss this rationally."
Samantha stood up. "You're right," she said. "But I'd rather die than go back to prison." She turned the gun towards herself. Bart gave a yelp and dived for the gun, wrestling her for control of it. The Marshal burst into the room; Samantha jerked the gun out of Bart's hands and turned toward the door. The Marshal saw the gun in her hand and drew his own, firing it almost point blank. Samantha dropped the Derringer and put her hand to her side, drawing it away sticky with blood. She fell to the floor, putting her other hand to her mouth and coughing. That hand, too, came away filled with blood. "Oh," she said, weakly. "Tell Nick. . ." She fell over, eyes staring blankly and breath stilled.
Bart fell to his knees beside her and felt for a pulse. "She's dead," he said, shocked. He reached up and closed Samantha's eyes. He covered his own with the other hand for a moment and then looked up at the Marshal. "You didn't have to kill her," he said, his eyes red and streaming.
The Marshal holstered his gun. "You saw," he said. "She had a gun pointed at me. I had no choice."
"It wasn't supposed to end this way," Bart said.
"How was it supposed to end, Bart?" Jack asked.
"She was just trying to scare you into giving the money back. There was only one bullet in the gun.”
The Marshal looked at Jack. "So you're the one."
"Thanks a lot, Bart," Jack said.
The Marshal pulled out a pair of handcuffs and walked over to where Jack stood. "You're under arrest." He snapped one cuff around Jack's right wrist. He looked down at Bart, reverently straightening out Samantha's body. "You, too."
Bart looked up. "Me? Why?"
"You knew about the robbery and didn't report it. You're an accessory." He pulled his gun and pointed it at Bart. "Come on, now, get up." Bart stood, still looking down at Samantha. The Marshal snapped the other cuff around Bart's left wrist. "Now, where is that money? The judge is likely to go easier on you if you tell me now."
Jack sighed. He reached into his pocket with his free hand and took out his room key. He tossed it to the Marshal. "It's in my room." He stared down at Samantha. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"All right, let's go," the Marshal said, waving his gun. "There's a westbound train in half an hour and we're going to be on it."
"You can't just leave her here," Bart said.
"I'll tell the hotel to send for the undertaker," the Marshal said.
"You're a cold-hearted bastard," Bart hissed.
The Marshal shrugged. "She was a con artist and a thief. She won't be missed."
"She damn well will," Bart said.
"Yes, she will," Jack agreed as the Marshal hustled them out the door. "Good-bye, lovely lady. Good-bye."
Chapter Seven: Queen of Hearts
"I need to use the facilities," Bart said, when the train was about half an hour out from Denver.
The Marshal scowled, but said, “All right. Come along." He picked up the carpet bag full of money then stood aside for the two handcuffed men. The three made their way to the washroom at the rear of the car. Bart held out his wrist, but the Marshal said, "Not on your life. Those cuffs don't come off until you two are safely in jail."
"Have a heart," Bart said, "there's not room for both of us in there."
"Make do," the Marshal said, holding the door open.
Bart frowned, but he and Jack crammed themselves into the tiny washroom and closed the door.
Jack tried to turn his back, but Bart said, "Don't worry about it, I just needed to talk to you alone."
"So what was all that charade with the handcuffs?" Jack asked.
"I had to make it look good. I was sure he wouldn't take them off. Listen, I think I know how we can escape."
"I don't want to," Jack said.
Jack looked at his feet. "Samantha's dead, Bart, and it's my doing. I should have given it back when she asked me to - don't you think I should pay for that, at least a little?"
"Fine time to develop a conscience," Bart harrumphed. He held up his shackled wrist. "All I did was try to get you to do the decent thing - I don't think I should go to jail for that. Are you going to drag me down with you?"
Jack sighed. "All right, I'll help you escape, but the moment we get these handcuffs off, I'm turning myself in. Got that?"
"Whatever you want, pal. Now listen, there's a steep curve a few miles outside of Idaho Springs. The train will have to slow down, and we can jump off. There's an abandoned mining camp a few miles north where we can hole up for a few days."
"That Marshal will have a posse on our tail in no time, Bart."
"The mine is in a blind canyon - you pretty much have to know where it is to find it. There'll be water nearby, and we can snare rabbits for food, but if you're planning to turn yourself in, I don't think they'll bother to come after me anyway."
"How do you know about it?" Jack asked.
"Been there before. We don't have much time, we're almost there. Are you with me?"
"What about the Marshal?"
"We'll have to rush him. Listen, the train's slowing down. It's now, if we're going to do this."
"All right," Jack said, "but let me go first. If one of us is going to get shot, it should be me."
Bart looked at him in surprise, but said, "All right, Jack. If you say so. On three. One, two, three!"
They thrust open the door and rushed at the Marshal. Before he had time to draw his gun, Jack elbowed him in the gut. The Marshal bent over and Bart elbowed him in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious. The carpet bag fell to the floor and Jack gazed down at it a moment before grabbing Bart's wrist. "Let's go," he said and the two men opened the rear door of the car and leapt into darkness.
The Marshal stood on the platform at Idaho Springs waiting for the next train. When it pulled into the station, he boarded and walked down the aisle until he found an empty seat. "Pardon me, ma'am," he said to the woman sitting next to it, "but is this seat taken?"
She grinned up at him impishly. "Of course not, Bret," she said.
Bret Maverick smiled and sat down. He patted the carpet bag. "It worked, Samantha," he said. "Like a charm."
"Would you hold on to that for me, like a dear, until we get to Stockton?" Samantha asked.
"You really are going to give it back?"
"Of course. I told you I was."
Bret put the bag under the seat. "You told me a very pretty story, Samantha, but you've told me a lot of pretty stories over the years."
Samantha pouted. "If you didn't believe me, why did you help me?"
"Well, now, I've always had a bit of a soft spot for you, Samantha. I don't know why. You're cunning and ruthless. . . "
"And charming," Samantha interjected.
"But if you're really intending to be an honest woman, well, I guess I thought that was worth a gamble."
"I'm going to try. I hope Jack won't be too awfully angry when Bart tells him the truth. But I certainly gave him plenty of opportunities to do the right thing."
"What are you going to do if he is?"
"Don't worry, I think I can handle him. If I can't, I know someone who can."
"Would that be the 'Nick' you spoke of with your 'dying breath'?"
Samantha grew serious. "I hope so," she whispered.
"Ah," Bret said. "I thought there had to be a man mixed up in this somehow."
"Not just one man, a whole blooming family." Samantha sighed. "I just hope they believe me. You are coming with me, aren't you, Bret? To back up my story?"
"Darlin', I don't think I'd miss this for the world."
It was well after dark when Samantha and Bret pulled up the buggy in front of the house. Nick came storming out before they had even come to a standstill. "You have a lot of nerve showing your face around here!" he raged.
Samantha thought she had never seen anything so enchanting - sparks were practically shooting off of him in the dark. She alighted from the buggy, carpet bag in hand. "I'm happy to see you, too, Nick. I brought the money back."
"The money you stole in the first place!" Nick's hazel eyes flashed. Really quite charming.
"But I didn't," Samantha said. "I've been chasing all over trying to get it back from the man who did."
"Is that true?" Nick bellowed.
"Yes, it is," Bret said.
"I'm not asking you, whoever you are," Nick said, still looking at Samantha, "I'm asking you."
"Yes," Samantha said, and found herself swept up in Nick's arms, his lips on hers in a burning kiss. She dropped the money and threw her arms around his neck. She surrendered to his embrace, melting into his arms. She could feel the blood singing in her veins. She had never been so thoroughly kissed.
"Ahem," Bret said.
He was ignored.
He was ignored a while longer until they finally came up for air. Samantha panted, her face flushed, her hair disheveled. "My goodness, Nick," she said, "what brought that on?"
"You came back," Nick said, grinning. "You're not a thief, and you came back." He put an arm around her shoulder and led her into the house. Bret picked up the money and, still unintroduced, followed.
Victoria, Jarrod and Molly were waiting in the foyer. "She's back," Nick said. "She didn't take it."
"I'm glad to hear it," Jarrod said. "So where in God's name have you been?"
Samantha took the money from Bret and handed it to Jarrod. "First of all," Samantha said, as the group moved into the parlor, "I want to say I'm sorry. Your wife - Molly - was right: when I first came, it was with the intent to hurt you, Jarrod. Not just with Beth's letters - I also meant to con you out of whatever I could get. But after I met you all, I just couldn't go through with it. I went to Sacramento to meet my friend who was helping me, to call it off, but it was too late. He'd already taken matters into his own hands. I've spent all this time chasing him down."
Jarrod dropped the bag on the table, not bothering to look at it. "And who is this?" he asked, looking at Bret.
Molly had been staring at Bret all this time, a puzzled look on her face. "Bret Maverick?" she said.
"Do I know you, ma'am?" Bret said.
"It's been a long time," Molly said. "I'm not surprised you don't remember."
"Wait a minute," Bret said. "Molly?"
"So you know him, Molly?" Jarrod asked.
"I knew him a long time ago," Molly said. "Right after the War."
"This is one of the friends who helped me recover the money," Samantha said. "I brought him along to back up my story."
"And just how did you recover it, Samantha?" Jarrod asked.
Samantha narrowed her eyes. "All right, if you must know, I conned it out of him. What else could I do? I begged and pleaded for him to give it back, but he wouldn't."
"You should have let the law handle it."
"And send him to prison? I've been to prison - I wouldn't send a dog, no, I wouldn't send a rat there, much less someone I know."
Jarrod sighed. "And just where were you in prison, Samantha?" he asked gently.
Jarrod winced. "I can't say I blame you for your attitude, Samantha, but Mother and I are both on the Prison Reform Committee. Believe me, things are not that bad here. We try to see that prisoners are treated humanely. But if you couldn't trust the law, you should have called on us for help."
"And would you have?" Samantha asked.
"Of course," Jarrod said.
Samantha collapsed in a chair, hands covering her face. "It seems I've done everything wrong."
Nick put a hand on her shoulder. "It's all right, Sam," he said.
Samantha looked up at him. Only Beth called her "Sam," but it felt good coming from Nick. It felt right. She reached up and took his hand.
Jarrod knelt down and took her other hand. "You have to understand, Samantha - we weren't worried about the money, we were worried about you. If you've gone back on the con, it's all over for you. We didn't want that to happen."
Samantha looked into his eyes. "I haven't," she said. "Just this once, and for a good reason. I'm done with all that, I swear."
"Are you going to tell us who your confederate was?" Jarrod asked.
"I didn't think so," Jarrod said.
"Well, if you don't need me, I'll be off," Bret said. "Samantha, it seems I leave you in good hands. Molly, it was good to see you again. I'm glad you're doing well." He turned and walked out the front door.
"It's late," Victoria said. "Let's continue this discussion tomorrow. Samantha, you're welcome to sleep in Audra's room."
"I'll show her," Molly said. She led Samantha upstairs to the bedroom.
Samantha fell backwards onto the bed. Molly knelt and helped take her boots off. "I don't think Jarrod approves of me," Samantha said.
Molly looked up at her. "Well, we Barkleys seem to spend half our time arguing about right and wrong. You did your best, that's what matters."
"Really?" Samantha said. "I thought you people had a book or something with all the answers in it."
Molly laughed and stood up. "It's not that easy, Samantha, I wish it were. Now Jarrod, he'd have gone to the sheriff, then made sure your friend had a good lawyer. Nick, he'd have chased him down and beaten the money out of him."
"Well, my way, no one got hurt, and no one went to prison. What would you have done?"
Molly looked down at her. "Asked for help," she said. She put Samantha's boots down and went to the basin. She took the pitcher. "I'll fetch you some water."
"So how do you know Bret?" Samantha asked.
"Oh, that. When I left home after the War, I worked my way down to New Orleans on a riverboat. . ."
"Really? Doing what?"
"As a housekeeper," Molly said. "Anyway, Bret was a passenger and he didn't treat the staff as though we were invisible. He always spoke to me when he saw me, asked me how I was. He was sweet. One day he got cleaned out playing poker, so I lent him five dollars."
"And I'm sure he repaid you," Samantha smiled.
"More than that," Molly said. "He said he considered it a stake, not a loan, so he split his winnings with me. I got back almost two hundred dollars."
"That sounds like Bret. I couldn't have got the money back without him and his brother."
"I'd better go fetch that water," Molly said. "There's a nightgown in the bureau, and I'm sure Audra's dresses will fit you. We'll talk about means and intentions tomorrow. And probably for many days to come. Welcome home, Samantha." She smiled and went out the door.
"Don't go, Sam," Nick pleaded.
"Nick, we've been over this," Samantha said. "I have to go. The railroad is expecting me. Jarrod really went out on a limb to get me this job - I can't disappoint him. He'd lose all that bond money he put up. Besides, I need to do this. I've been a chameleon all my life - it would be easy to stay honest here, in this house, but I have to know I can do it out there, in the world, surrounded by temptation."
Nick took her in his arms and kissed her. "My girl railroad detective. At least stay through Christmas. It's just a few more weeks."
"Christmas is high season for con artists and thieves, Nick. All that good cheer makes people gullible. And more tempting. At least I'll be using my talents for good for once. And your sister will want her room back when she comes home, I'm sure."
Nick sighed. "Oh, all right," he said, "when will you be coming back?"
"I'm on the San Francisco to Denver run. I'll take my days off in Stockton whenever I can, I promise. It's not like you're getting rid of me."
It was Christmas Eve and the train pulled out of Sacramento, en route to Denver. Samantha looked up from the book she was pretending to read at the tall dark figure standing in the aisle next to her. "Nick! What are you doing here?"
He sat down next to her and handed her a package. "Now, I couldn't let you spend Christmas alone, no matter what you said. Here, I've brought you a present."
"I have nothing for you," Samantha protested. "I was going to pick something up in Denver."
"It doesn't matter," Nick said. "Go ahead, open it." He grinned.
Samantha untied the ribbon and opened the box, revealing rich hand tooled leather. “A bridle? It's beautiful, Nick, but I don't have a horse."
"Yes, you do. Miranda is yours. She'll be waiting for you whenever you come home."
"Thank you," Samantha said, tears in her eyes. "It’s the best gift anyone's ever given me."
"There's more," Nick said. "Dig down."
Samantha dug down under the tissue paper and pulled out a bit of greenery. "Mistletoe?" she said.
"I thought it might come in handy," Nick grinned crookedly.
"Nick, I'm working," Samantha said. "I shouldn't even be talking to you right now."
"Just a quick one?" Nick asked, flashing his hazel eyes.
"All right," she said, "but just a quick one."
But it wasn't quick. It wasn't quick at all.