On this fine Tuesday morning, a mere three days from the release of The Treasure Hunter's Lady, I present to you the first chapter. Enjoy!
Boston – 1884
Abel Courte leaned against the straight-as-a-pin picket fence and stared up at the stars, brilliant white against the black curtain of sky. Night hid the fragrant summer roses blossoming around the backyard of the cottage. The scent masked the pungent aroma of people living too close together and garbage left to rot in the alleys.
A thousand miles away, the same stars were shining down on San Antonio, Texas. Homesickness rolled over Abel like ocean waves. He'd give anything to be back there helping his aunt tend her garden, working side-by-side with his uncle or playing a game with his twin cousins. On a map, Boston wasn't so far from Texas, but it might as well be another world.
A shuffling noise made him reach for the Bennett Special laser pistol tucked into the holster beneath his canvas duster. The hammer fell into place with a quiet snick, followed by the high-pitched whine of the magnetic core warming up. Not a stealthy device, but he liked that the gun let opponents know that he wasn't unarmed. It was so much lighter and easier to use than a traditional firearm—unless he was faced with a gunfight. He swallowed the idea. There was no reason for anyone to suspect what he was doing here except the man he'd come to meet.
The voice belonged to a tired old man, not the adventurer Abel was expecting. But there was no mistaking the British accent.
“Dr. Farrington.” His statement exuded confidence he didn't feel.
A match flared before Farrington lowered it to a candlewick. Soft light illuminated the immediate area while keeping the meeting discreet. Harsh shadows darkened the archeologist's face like a death mask. “Maggard, if you please.”
Abel nodded. His eyes fell on a package wrapped in brown butcher paper in the doctor's hands. “Just Abel then.” He reached for the parcel automatically, but drew back short of snatching it. “Is that it?”
He didn't miss the tremble in the older man's hands as he held out the offering. His own hands almost matched shake for shake. Maggard transferred the parcel to Abel. The package was lighter than it looked. Not as thick either, though he couldn't rightly say what he expected.
Maggard peered into the darkness, maybe deliberately ignoring the exchange. “Is it with you?”
As hard as his heart was beating, he'd have sworn a herd of cattle was tearing through town. Like something with a power of its own, the talisman beneath his shirt seemed to throb.
“I couldn't leave it in Texas.” He didn't want to say the thing urged him to take it back to where it had come from. That was ridiculous.
“I understand,” Maggard answered. Something about his face told Abel he meant that. “How is the marking?”
The dark tattoo curling around his bicep and along his shoulder seemed to squirm against his skin. He resisted the urge to scratch at it. “Slow moving, but on a steady course. You?”
“Nearly reached its destination.” Maggard let out a ragged sigh. “If I had any idea of the consequences, I'd have told that bastard where he could—” His voice cracked. The lines on his face deepened. “Everything I'm doing now is to protect my daughter. I'm afraid he'll try to use her in this. I only want her to be safe. I'm sure you understand.”
Abel thought of his family back home and nodded.
“One of us has to end this, Abel. Now you know everything I know. Though I wonder if he knows something we don't.”
“I'm going to find out,” Abel promised. He paused. “Do you think it's really out there? The lair, I mean?"
“The venom came from somewhere. After all the oddities and wonders that have crossed my path, it seems entirely possible that the Horned Serpent exists. There are many tales of serpents in hundreds of cultures. I think we've all discovered this is something more than a story. Only a fool would deny what's happening to him.”
Abel fought a bout of skepticism. It seemed surreal that he was having this conversation with a man he'd never met before. “I guess.”
The candle flickered and died. “Be careful, young man. You've just made a powerful enemy.”
Romy Farrington feared she’d suffer from a permanent squint if she didn’t get out of the overly pink parlor soon. Pink cushions, pink silk walls, pink floral accent rugs and—heaven forbid—pink horsehair settees. If one enjoyed strolls in the parks during summer sunsets when the pinks were burning brightest, one might be able to endure Imogen DuGuard’s parlor. Romy didn’t have an issue with sunsets, just the eight by ten foot room where she was currently trapped. The colors distracted her and made it difficult to remember what she’d been talking about.
Imogen stared at her over her teacup. “I don't understand.”
“You don't . . . understand?” Romy repeated.
A troubled look settled over Imogen’s horse-like face. “I can't fathom your obsession with wading knee-deep in water filled with bloodthirsty parasites. In trousers, no less. How do you ever hope to marry well if you don't present yourself as a lady?”
Romy looked to her other companions, Imogen's daughters, Sara and Wincie. Both avoided her eyes. They were plain, spiritless creatures who looked almost identical despite a year's difference in their ages. Romy wasn't sure which one was older. Wincie refilled her teacup while Sara feigned interest in a nearby vase of flowers. Not that she'd expected any help from them.
Neither woman ever acted out of the ordinary—perfect ladies through and through. If she had been raised like them, she might feel shame at the mention of dressing like a man. As it was, she only felt frustrated that she was forced to endure their company. To brush up on her manners, to learn proper etiquette for holding teas, to discover the art of attracting wealthy bachelors so she might someday marry well. Twenty-one years old and her father, Dr. Maggard Farrington, sent her to study up on such things. Even though he knew Imogen despised her. Romy had the suspicion money was changing hands for these “lessons”.
“We weren't always wading through water. Sometimes it was sand or snow,” she defended.
Imogen's right eyebrow lifted a fraction. Her skeptical face didn’t change.
Determined not to fold under the stare, Romy continued. “Manners aren't important in the wilderness. The discovery is at the heart of the matter. One never knows what one will find—a new plant species, a mother spider monkey caring for her infant, even a long-lost treasure. It's worth the small discomforts to see your name on a placard in the Smithsonian Institute.”
Imogen dabbed at her wide mouth with a linen napkin. “How many placards bear your name, Romancia?”
Sara tittered, but the sound died at her mother's slight frown.
Romy opened her mouth, but her throat clogged. The question was designed to put her in her place. Her hostess already knew the answer. “Well, none, but Papa—”
“So you see, a lady has no business in adventuring,” Imogen interrupted. “Her heart should be in her home. When you marry, your main concern will be preparing a comfortable, soothing environment for your husband.”
The sisters nodded in unison like marionettes. Romy suppressed a shudder. There was not one particular place she felt comfortable calling home. Her home was the world, free for the taking. Trying to get women like her companions to comprehend her life before the move to Boston was like trying to teach a bull to walk upright. Hopeless.
Wincie looked up from her tea. “I understand when Andrew Christensen returned to town, he brought his nephew, who is also the heir to his business empire. I suspect he's every bit as dashing as his uncle.”
Dashing to the DuGuards meant obscenely wealthy.
Imogen nodded. “Samuel Woefield. He’s the sort of man you ought to set your sights on, Romancia. Think how proud your father would be to introduce you as Mrs. Woefield.”
Romy's mouth went dry. She couldn't imagine spending the remainder of her life with a boring businessman entertaining throngs of elitists clamoring for Woefield's attention and money.
Sara sighed happily. “Can you imagine marrying a man as rich as Mr. Woefield? It would be like marrying royalty. Oh, the wedding and all the guests!” She pressed her hand to her breast as if to calm her pounding heart. Romy resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
Wincie shook her head. Wisps of hair, a dull shade of blonde, swirled around her face. “Sara, it's our duty to introduce Romancia to Mr. Woefield. Her father is an important man in England and just as popular with the intellectuals in Boston. We must see to her needs. There are plenty more successful men in the world.”
Sara looked ashamed and offered an apologetic smile to the room. “Of course, Wincie. Romancia is an honored guest.”
Because of Papa. If she'd only been born a son, no one would question her desire to follow in his footsteps. No one would order her to marry a stuffy old goat. It was a pity that her mother had given her father a daughter.
The clock announced the hour. Romy counted the chimes and her agitation dissipated. Before the last percussion faded, she rose from the horsehair settee. She hoped the smile she pasted across her face reflected regret, but more likely it gave away her relief.
“I must be going, ladies. Madame Claire expects me to pick up my gown for this evening's festivities.”
Sara and Wincie adopted identical looks of disappointment. Imogen frowned with unmasked disapproval.
“You could send a servant to fetch it,” Wincie suggested. “Stay a bit longer. You have the most interesting stories.”
Imogen glared daggers at her daughter.
“I believe she needs to adjust the hem the tiniest bit.” The lie hadn’t completely formed in her mind before she got it out.
“Have you considered another seamstress, Romancia?” Imogen asked.
Romy frowned. “Should I?”
The older woman eyed Romy's current gown. “Madame Claire seems to be stuck in the past by several decades.”
Sheer strength of will kept Romy from inspecting her dress for discrepancies. The pattern had come from her mother's things. Helena Farrington, a famous pianist in her time, had designed many gowns before her passing. While Madame Claire argued the color clashed with her client's red-gold locks, the sketch had shown it dusky pink and Romy would have it no other way, though she considered herself lucky not to have gotten lost amid the décor in Imogen’s parlor. She couldn’t help running her hand down the damask. Maybe the gown's hoop skirt and rows of drop lace—sans bustle—were a bit out of date, but if she had to wear a dress, it would be on her terms.
Imogen and her daughters wore dresses cut to fit their slender forms. Bustles rounded out their figures and emphasized their whittled waists. The latest fashions from London and Paris. Pretty yes, but no less difficult to get around in than the one she wore. Given her way, all the dresses in the world would be burned and the ashes dumped in the ocean, but Papa insisted on a neat appearance. And Imogen would have fits if Romy dared come to her door in trousers.
“I'll consider your suggestion.” For about ten seconds. She forced a bright smile. “Thank you for having me, ladies. Until this evening.”
She wiggled her gloved fingers at them and as soon as she closed the parlor door behind her, she took off at a steady trot, lifting her skirt in a way that no doubt revealed her ankles. The butler gave her a bemused frown, which she ignored.
Would Papa believe her if she were to feign terrible stomach pains an hour or two before the ball? He’d all but demanded her presence at Andrew Christensen's party. In her opinion, one ball was as good as another, but none of them compared to the theater of exotic places.
The Farrington's hired carriage waited in the drive. A short ginger-haired coachman sat atop the bench in the late summer sunshine. He perused a local rag that often withheld important truths and made up gossip to amuse the gentry.
The paper collapsed like a dying butterfly. Gardner peered down at her. “Yes, miss.”
“I'm on my way to Madame Claire's.”
“Of course,” he responded, one foot already on the step to swing down from the bench.
She held up her hand to stop him. “No, no. I'll walk. Have the carriage in front of her shop in about two hours, won't you?”
Gardner glanced down the street with its immaculate lawns and flowerbeds. “Walk, miss?”
She’d expected him to question her desire to go alone, but after enduring two hours with the DuGuards, her patience was wearing thin. “Have you developed a hearing problem in the last few hours, Gardner?”
He rubbed the back of his sunburned neck. “No, miss. In front of Madame Claire's in two hours.”
She nodded, satisfied with his response. “Good man.”
He removed his hat and ran his finger around the brim. “I'm supposed to escort you to the seamstress. You know what your father said, miss.”
Wretched rules. She ground her teeth and tried to stamp out her growing anger. “I know what Papa said, some foolish thing about not letting me out of your sight. Be that as it may, was I not inside this manor without you? Did I sneak out and escape your vigilant watch? Am I not standing before you, prepared to pick up my gown for this evening?”
“Well, yes. There's no need to—”
Romy smiled, widened her eyes and assumed her sweetest tone. “Of course there's no need to alert Papa to this minor change of plans. I know you'd never betray my trust that way. If I'm going to be on time, I must set off right this second. I’ll see you shortly, Gardner.” She gave him the same little wave she'd given the ladies, spun on her heel and fled down the walk.
A quick glance over her shoulder revealed the coachman stationary on the bench with his mouth open in silent protest. Romy chuckled. Poor man would still be trying to figure out what had happened when he rolled up in front of the dress shop.
Several blocks down, she cut through a debris-strewn alley to avoid the Saturday crowds at market. The stench of decaying food hit her nose and bits of discarded paper and cloth dotted the muddy path.
Sparrows picking through the trash fluttered out of her way. They were dreadfully dull little birds that reminded her of Imogen and her kin. An oriole soared from one rooftop to another; its bright orange foliage vibrant among the smaller birds. The sparrows flew away, but the oriole landed on an abandoned crate and cocked its head at her.
“If I were a bird, I'd fly away from this place and go anywhere I wanted.” A deep sense of envy settled around her as the bird flitted to a garbage pile, pecking for scraps.
A year and a half ago, her father, world-renowned archeologist Dr. Maggard Farrington, put together a team of men to explore the Amazon River Basin. At his right hand, Romy helped catalog new species of flora and fauna. For a month they traversed the mighty river without a hitch in their plans. With one rash decision, she'd not only destroyed Papa's work and her life, but the lives of several loyal men who dedicated themselves to the archeology trade. Men who never returned home to their families.
She’d watched Papa toss out all of their exploration paraphernalia. Her protests that they might someday need those things fell on deaf ears. The moment they had escaped from South America, he insisted she take up the mantle of a proper lady, something he'd never pressed on her before.
She longed for things to be the way they once were. After spending most of her life in exotic countries without rules or restrictions, she'd come away spoiled. They'd spent a brief time in London recovering, as much as one could recover from seeing men she'd known most of her life die horribly, but in the end, Papa had settled on retiring to Massachusetts. He worked part-time for the Smithsonian, writing articles and studying artifacts, leaving once or twice a month to lecture at colleges or geological societies.
Papa ignored her less-than-subtle hints that they explore parts of the state with few human inhabitants and often walked away when she brought up the past. She thought it would be better to continue the life they once had rather than pretend to be something they were not. He didn't subscribe to her theory.
He insisted she visit the city and make friends. While he never came out and said it, she knew he wanted her to marry and have babies to occupy her time rather than nurse old memories.
No matter how pleasant he made city life sound, she felt trapped. It was as though he expected manners and parties to wipe away a lifetime of freedom. Sometimes she considered running away, but it would break his heart. She couldn't do that to Papa.
On the street, merchants haggled with an assortment of customers. Their voices pulled her from dark thoughts and dumped her in the dreary alley. The oriole was gone; she felt foolish for standing about like a halfwit.
Down the street a short distance, Madame Claire's brick shop begged for attention with its bright blue door. A man stood in front of the glass windows. Tall, lean, and broad-shouldered, he wore an odd felt hat, a Stetson, she thought it was called, and faded denims tucked into calf-high leather boots. The hat was pushed up far enough to let the sun shine on his bronzed features. High cheekbones, fair brows and a firm jaw covered with golden stubble. The cut of his wrinkled shirt and denims were different than those of the locals in their business attire. He looked like an honest-to-goodness cowboy. A slight grimace twisted his mouth and his eyes narrowed at an old woman dressed as a fortuneteller brandishing a crystal ball. When he spoke, Romy saw a flash of white teeth. His posture went rigid as though the woman surprised him with her divination.
She itched to discover what a cowboy wanted in a city as dull as Boston. A bell clanged on the door at Madame Claire's and a plump woman bustled out, skirting the gypsy and the cowboy.
Romy's shoulders slumped as she recalled her mission to retrieve the party dress. Besides, Papa would suffer an apoplexy if he learned she'd talk to someone like that. Heaving a sigh, she stepped into the cobblestone street and cast a yearning look at the cowboy.
The hem of her skirt stuck out, caught on a nail head protruding from the side of a wooden building front. A tear several inches long gaped in the material. Romy groaned. Britches would never have caught on the nail. Out of spite, she thought of letting it continue all the way to the hem. A sharp tug would set her free. But the dress cost a pretty sum and guilt wouldn't allow her to be so careless.
“Dashed merchants can't even manage the upkeep on their own shops.” She bent over, her bottom sticking up in the air as she fumbled with the lace snagged around the head of the nail. Soft kidskin gloves kept her from getting a grip on the metal. One or both of the pins holding her hat to the froth of curls piled atop her head slipped. The feathered contraption dropped into the dirt and with it, every hairpin holding up her curls. A tangle of locks spilled over her face.
“Oh, I hate you! I wish I'd taken the scissors and sheared you off.” All her hair ever seemed to do was get her into trouble. She batted at it, pushing a few strands behind her shoulder.
A rumble filled the air. Tendrils, still tangled around her face, obscured her vision of the street. The ground trembled beneath her feet and a nearby horse let out a frightened whinny.
Grabbing a handful of hair, she peered out from beneath it and her heart lurched when she saw one of those new cog-work automobiles chugging toward her at an alarming speed. The glossy black body looked like a coffin on wheels. As it approached, the panicked horse broke free from the railing. The animal veered closer to the building, clearly out of control.
“Move outta the way, lady!” The driver halted the vehicle in the center of the road and squeezed a bulb that let out a long bleep.
Odd how the horse seemed to float on air instead of tread over the ground, owing to the feathery hair on its pasterns.
A singular thought pushed its way to the front of her mind. Trampled in the street of a bloody city by an over-glorified pony instead of sacrificed to native gods in the jungle. If she survived, Papa would expect her to go to the party anyway. Life wasn't fair. Not at all.