New Mexico Territory, July 1877
“The whores are much prettier up that way.” The toothless Mexican smiled wide as he pointed up Pacific Street.
Logan Ryan considered the comment as he tied off his horse and approached a two-story building with the name WHITE DOVE SALOON painted with flowery white flair on a red background. He hitched a boot at the bottom of a well-worn step and rested hands casually on his hips.
Claire Waters couldn’t possibly be here.
Maybe the Mexican, reeking of whiskey, had misunderstood him. You lookin’ for a Waters woman? Sí, you find one there. Logan was sure this was the building the man had fingered.
He pushed his hat back, aware of the fast approach of nightfall, both by his weariness and with the increased activity inside the saloon and behind him on the dusty street. Cigar smoke and the unruly voices of the men inside filled the air.
Las Vegas was a bustling town on the Santa Fe Trail, last stop before reaching the town of Santa Fe, and with so much traffic—traders, merchants, ranchers and the military from Fort Union—an abundance of saloons and dance halls was to be expected. Maybe the Mexican had simply assumed Logan was looking for a good time.
He climbed the steps, keeping his exhaustion at bay with the anticipation of finding Claire Waters. He’d ridden in record time and had stopped for only a few hours at Fort Sumner to check up on Lester Williams, the ranch hand who had brought Claire home after her brief stay with Logan’s folks at their SR ranch. Lester’s telegram—stating that he was too ill to return—had prompted Logan to check on the older man who’d been with the Ryan family for years and was more than a ranch employee. Thankfully, Lester’s health was much improved and he’d soon be able to return to Texas, but he’d been bedridden with a fever for more than a fortnight. It concerned Logan that Claire might also be sick. What if she was wasting away from some mysterious illness at this very moment?
The batwing doors to the saloon flew open with a piercing squeak. A blur of black silk and bare flesh slammed into Logan. Before he could steady the sweet-smelling bundle, the woman fell back on her rear end with a firm thump.
With curves in all the right places and an eyeful of cleavage that would tempt any man, Logan’s eyes slid over the woman in silent approval. Although he’d never been one to dally with saloon girls the thought suddenly had merit; the intensity of it surprised him. He leaned down and offered to help the woman—obviously one of the pretty whores the Mexican had mentioned—to her feet.
“Sorry, miss. Are you all right?” He glanced into the saloon, half expecting a randy customer to be right behind her.
As the woman raised her eyes to his, the green depths triggered recognition and shock. Air drained from Logan’s lungs as surely as if she’d barreled into him again.
“Claire?” He was stunned. The black hair had thrown him. Claire Waters had long tresses the color of the sun.
Her eyes widened. “Logan? What are you doing here?” Her panic was plain to see.
“Looking for you.” He ignored the sharp stab of disappointment over what her attire and disguise implicated—that she wasn’t the quiet and reserved woman he’d come to know at his folk’s ranch. Truth was, he hardly knew her at all. But he’d wanted to see her all the same and had come full of worry and expectation.
“Why? Is something wrong? Is Molly all right?” She ignored his hand and stood on her own. Logan watched as she hastily smoothed the tight bodice that showcased her attributes in a way that set his teeth on edge. What had been nearly irresistible to him a moment ago was now displayed for any and all to see. He didn’t like it.
Logan reached up to brush aside the long dark strands impeding his view of Claire’s face but she hastily shifted the wig herself. Reluctantly he let his hand drop.
“No, nothing’s wrong,” he answered. “And Molly’s fine. But we got word at the SR that Lester was ill, and I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Lester’s sick?” she asked. “I had no idea. He was perfectly fine when he…dropped me off in these parts. Does he need medical attention?”
Logan frowned. When he’d spoken with Lester, the man was uncertain of Claire’s exact whereabouts—he’d dropped her outside of town three weeks ago at her insistence then had headed southeast to Fort Sumner. He said Claire had convinced him all was well, with her home only a short distance away; so he’d let her go, not altogether certain he should have, but soon after he’d begun to shake and shudder, barely able to sit his horse before succumbing to the fever.
Logan should have been the one to accompany her back to Las Vegas but when Claire had decided to head home the timing couldn’t have been worse. His pa and the ranch were gearing up for the spring roundup and Logan couldn’t shirk his duty to his old man.
“No. He’s doin’ fine.” He couldn’t understand why he was both glad and bothered by her concern for Lester, a flash of jealousy surprising him.
Claire stared at him from under a hideous black mop and a dress he suspected would have to be cut and peeled from her body to remove it. Was he volunteering for the job?
Swearing under his breath, he took a moment to decide how to proceed. The facts were plain to see—Claire was a prostitute. He should be able to accept that. Many women sold themselves to survive. But it didn’t make him feel any better that other men had touched her.
“Are you alone?” she asked.
“Yeah. Cale rode with me until Fort Sumner, but then headed to Arizona Territory.” He hadn’t seen much of Cale Walker since their young days in Texas; Cale had joined the army at the same time as Logan’s brother Matt. Although Logan had returned home more than a year ago—leaving his post as a deputy in Virginia City—Cale, no longer a U.S. soldier, had remained in the territories bounty hunting. The revelation two months ago that Cale was in fact the brother of Molly Hart—Logan’s sister-in-law—had drawn their lives back together.
“I hope he’s well.”
“You came all this way to find me?”
“I came to check on Lester.” He looked into her apprehensive eyes, framed with dark lashes despite her natural blonde hair. He’d forgotten how lovely she was, how much he had enjoyed suppertime at the ranch simply because she was sitting across from him. “And I came to check on you, too.”
She watched him; her graceful lips parted as if to say something while uncertainty played across her face.
The loud roar of men arguing about a card game made Claire jump.
“Is someone bothering you?” Logan asked.
With a hand to her chest, she appeared bewildered. “No. Why would you say that? Actually, I’m really in a great hurry. It’s been wonderful to see you. Please send my best to Molly.” She ran past him and disappeared around the corner.
Logan stared after her, shocked by her sudden departure.
Knowing he couldn’t return home with so little information—Molly would tan his hide for not visiting longer, although he had no idea how he would break Claire’s situation to her—Logan strode forward to find her. He nearly fell backwards when she appeared on horseback from around the side of the saloon.
“What’re you doin’?” he demanded. “Molly’s gonna want more than a hello and a goodbye from you.”
“I don’t mean to be rude,” she said, attempting to control her gelding, the old horse looking a might cranky. “But one of the women inside is in trouble. I need to go for help.”
“What kind of trouble?” It wouldn’t be the first time he’d gotten into the middle of something he shouldn’t.
“She’s sick. Bleeding.” Claire’s gaze flicked from the street to the saloon. Logan wondered why she was so worried someone would see her. And there was that god-awful black wig. His instincts told him the woman inside wasn’t the only one in distress.
“Her condition is beyond my abilities,” Claire added. “I need to go for someone.”
“The town doctor?” Logan could accomplish that.
Claire shook her head. “He won’t come here. None of them will. There’s an Indian woman who lives in the hills. She’ll help.”
“I’ll go with you.” He retrieved Storm. The brown mare moved eagerly despite the days of riding she’d already endured.
“You don’t have to,” Claire replied. “I’ve been there hundreds of times.”
“With the way you’re dressed I’d be surprised if trouble didn’t find you and knock you on your pretty backside again. I think once is enough for tonight.” He swung atop his horse. “I’ll follow you.”
Logan wasn’t certain, but he thought he saw a flash of gratitude in Claire’s gaze when she realized he wouldn’t take no for an answer. With a nod Claire kicked her animal into a gallop and led them into the dark alleys behind Pacific Street then quickly into the moonlit wilderness of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
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