Riding slowly down Main Street, the man on horseback reflected that the sleepy town of Columbia had certainly known better days. A dozen years ago, it had been heralded as the “Gem of the Southern Mines,” the largest and most prosperous of all the towns that had sprung up during the rush for gold in the Sierra foothills. More than fifteen thousand boisterous people had lived here, making and spending fortunes in Columbia’s thriving gambling palaces, saloons, fandango halls, theaters, restaurants, and bawdy houses. Stores were stocked with merchandise delivered by a constant stream of freight wagons from Stockton. Stagecoaches rumbled down Main Street morning and afternoon, dislodging a colorful variety of eager newcomers, including a French chef who charged outrageous sums of money for gourmet meals and imported champagne. The town’s four theaters had hosted Edwin Booth, Lola Montez, and circuses with elephants and lions. Columbia even had a Chinese theater for the particular benefit of its immigrant citizenry.
In the town’s first decade, more than $87 million worth of gold had been discovered in its diggings. The scales at the Wells Fargo office weighed an average of $100,000 of gold a week, and in the heady decade of the 1850s, it seemed that the supply would never run out.
However, those days of unrivaled prosperity had passed.
On this dusty afternoon, the man on horseback rode into a town of fewer than five hundred people. Tucked behind hills that staggered down to the dramatically beautiful Stanislaus River, Columbia had acquired a haunting serenity lacking in its heyday. Delicate trees of heaven lined Main Street, and many of the homes were embowered with climbing roses in full bloom. The clamor was over, yet the traveler felt a surge of respect and fondness for this tenacious community. It had had its share of challenges, but it simply refused to die, adapting instead to change.
Farther ahead down Main Street, the traveler spied MacKenzie’s Saloon. Hot, tired, and in need of friendly conversation, he decided to stop for refreshment.
At the far end of the polished mahogany bar, Katie MacKenzie was perched on a stool, drying glasses and reading Jane Eyre at the same time. It was a quiet afternoon. The shafts of sunlight that streamed into MacKenzie’s Saloon were mellow and golden, scented with roses. The corner tavern was large, with a magnificent carved mirror behind the bar and numerous tables ringed with chairs. Once upon a time, MacKenzie’s had echoed with the laughter and raucous conversation of men from all walks of life. Now, the place was an ornate mockery of a golden age long since passed. Katie looked up to see two lone, grimy miners, clad in red shirts and dungarees, who slouched at a distant table, dozing before their empty bottle. Farther down the bar, Brian MacKenzie poured a whiskey for his third patron, then approached his daughter.
“I’m thinking this is a fine way for you to celebrate your twentieth birthday,” he murmured, his ruddy face and curly white hair reflected in the twenty-foot mirror behind them.
Katie gave him a sweet smile. “Nonsense, Papa! You sent all the way to Boston for this book and you gave me these beautiful flowers.” Lovingly she fingered the vivid bouquet of blue larkspur and orange Humboldt lilies that filled a vase at her elbow. “It’s a perfect birthday!”
Brian wrapped her in his bearlike embrace and smiled. “You’re a blessing, Kathleen Elizabeth. Why don’t you put away the towel and glasses and go outside? It’s not a day for chores.”
“I’m fine, Papa.” Already her attention was wandering back to Jane Eyre.
Sighing, Brian studied his daughter’s profile. It was almost a shock to realize, daily, how beautiful she had become and how much Katie resembled her mother who had died eight years before. She had inherited Mary’s lustrous ebony curls, her striking deep blue eyes, her delicate features, and radiant smile.
However, Katie’s temperament mirrored his own. If only Mary had lived to teach their daughter ladylike ways! Growing up in the rugged atmosphere of a mining town, Katie was used to working hard, but otherwise she dressed and behaved to please herself. Today she wore a faded rose calico dress with one petticoat, but she was just as likely to be clad in trousers and a shirt if the mood struck her. Worst of all, Katie had declared that she had no interest in marriage. And she did indeed seem to prefer helping him run the saloon or writing articles for the Columbia Gazette. Women were at a premium in the foothills, especially beauties like his daughter, and Brian prayed nightly that she would come to her senses one day soon and begin acting like a woman. Hadn’t he a right to grandchildren?
“Quite a romantic hero in that book, eh?” he inquired slyly. “What’s his name?”
“Edward Rochester.” Katie gave him a fond smile, familiar with his ways.
“Indeed? Why, seems to me that that name alone would be enough to turn a maiden’s thoughts to love!”
The swinging door creaked to announce the arrival of a customer and Brian trundled back to work. He squinted as the man approached the bar, then smiled broadly as recognition dawned.
“Why, it’s Jack, isn’t it! Where’ve you been these past weeks?” He set a shot glass on the bar and reached for a bottle of whiskey.
Settling onto a stool, Jack spread a tanned hand over the glass. “Save your whiskey for someone who’ll appreciate it, MacKenzie,” he said in a husky voice underlaid with ironic amusement. Surveying the dazzling array of decanters, squat vases of cigars, and jars of brandied fruit reflected in the mirror, he ventured to ask, “Do you servewater?”
“Ah, that’s right!” Brian laughed, remembering, as he poured spring water from a pitcher into a larger glass. “You don’t drink liquor. Tell me, do you belong to that Dashaway Society that’s been promoting temperance in these parts?”
Jack’s answering laughter was sufficiently roguish to make Katie look up at last. “Lord, no,” he replied. “I’ve just never seen the point in drowning what few wits I have in liquor.”
His expression and manner made it clear to Katie that Jack’s wits were far more considerable than he so modestly implied. His looks were noteworthy as well. Katie’s first thought was that he reminded her of a mountain lion. His hair, wind-ruffled and dusty, was a few shades darker than his sun-bronzed skin, and a two-day growth of beard glinted against his lean cheeks. There was something appealing about the slightly bent shape of his nose, the smile that lingered on his mouth, and the grooves on either side that hinted at dimples. She was most intrigued by his eyes, though, and wandered down the bar for a closer look.
Cat’s eyes, she decided after a few moments. A clear, sage green dusted with gold, slightly hooded, as if a bit weary of surveying the world, and framed by laugh wrinkles and sandy brows. Katie was disarmed by the sight of his roguish smile and the sound of his frank, husky laughter, but she sensed that, like the mountain lion he resembled, this man could be dangerous.
“Ah, here’s my girl,” Brian announced, wrapping an arm around her slim form. “Katie, have you met Jack Adams? He’s new to these parts. Came in here the first time just a couple months back. Jack, this is my pride and joy, my daughter Kathleen.”
Seeing the appraisal in his eyes, she put out her hand and smiled. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Adams.”
He smiled back. “The pleasure’s mine, Miss MacKenzie,” he said in his appealing, rough-edged voice. “Call me Jack.”
“I’m Katie.” As their hands met, she glanced at the surprisingly clean, well-tended nails. It was a strong hand, tanned against the faded blue shirt he wore but only slightly callused. She wondered what he had done before coming to the gold country. “Where are you from, Jack?”
He shrugged. “Nevada, lately. Placerville last week. I have my eye on a couple different claims, but can’t decide whether they’re worth working. One’s near here.”
“Just because the boom’s past and so many miners have moved on to Nevada or Canada, that doesn’t mean our gold’s gone!” Brian declared, seizing on one of his favorite topics. “A man with a bit of patience can still get rich and live a more civilized life in the bargain!”
“Columbia does look permanent these days,” Jack agreed. “Until last fall, I hadn’t been in the foothills for years. The towns were all wood and canvas when I was here in my youth; a mixture of imported luxury and make-do. A lot of them are gone now that so much of the gold’s been mined, but what’s leftis more civilized.” His eyes crinkled at the corners. “Maybe the miners left because they missed the wild life.”
“There’s still enough wildness up here for any man,” Brian snorted. “And enough challenges. They’re destroying the land with that new hydraulic mining now!” He frowned. “As for the town looking more civilized, you know it was the fires that forced us to build brick buildings. The others kept burning down.”
“You must admit that Jack’s right, though, Papa,” Katie remarked, pouring more water into Adams’s glass. “Times have changed. The people who came here looking for wealth and adventure a dozen years ago have either moved on or settled in to more permanent lives. Columbia’s a different town.”
“Quieter, that much is true.” Brian sighed, gazing around the nearly deserted saloon. By evening it would begin to fill up, and the gaming table where miners gathered to play faro would turn a tidy profit. But Brian no longer expected his saloon to make him a rich man.
Deftly, Jack changed the subject. “Missouri Dan rode down from Placerville with me, and we spent last night just north of here. I didn’t get much sleep, though, because Dan made me dig most of the night....”
Katie responded to the gleam in his eyes. “Dig?”
“Seems that last fall Dan discovered some gold over near Fraser River and brought it here to be weighed. There was more than five thousand dollars’ worth, but he decided to put it away for safekeeping rather than take it along to Placerville—”
“Or have it stolen by the Griffin!” Katie exclaimed.
“I think the Griffin specializes in stagecoaches, lass,” her father murmured.
“Anyway,” Jack continued, “Dan chose a clump of five pine trees near a stream, and buried the gold there. The winter in Placerville wasn’t financially rewarding, so Dan was anxious to get to his pine trees last night and dig up that treasure.” The corners of Jack’s mouth slowly turned up as he paused to sip his water. “The stars were out as we came over the crest of the hill, but instead of lighting up Dan’s clump of pine trees, they shone down on a vast, cleared field and a newly built cabin.”
Katie gasped. “Someone had settled there!”
“That’s right.” He nodded, more than a little amused, his eyes twinkling as they met hers. “They’d not only cut down Missouri Dan’s pine trees, but they’d also planted grain. Of course, he wouldn’t give up without a fight. Made me dig alongside him all night long until that field of grain was covered with holes. I just prayed that the farmer wouldn’t wake up! As it is, I shudder to imagine the look on his face when he saw his field this morning.”
“Don’t suppose you found the gold?” Brian asked hopefully.
“Of course not! Dan’s in the blackest of moods. I left him digging one last hole before dawn, but I heard that he was at Big Annie’s this morning—” He cut himself off, realizing that he shouldn’t have mentioned Big Annie’s bawdy house in front of Katie. “Well, no doubt Dan’ll be appearing here any minute to drown his sorrows. He was ranting all night about the good old days when people didn’t go around cutting down trees in these parts. According to Dan, a man can’t depend on anything now.”
“He should have put the money in the bank,” Katie said.
“Now there’s a civilized suggestion! Not Dan’s style, I’m afraid.” Jack laughed lightly as his eyes wandered over her face and settled on the thick braid that hung down Katie’s back. “You’re an uncommonly pretty girl, Miss MacKenzie. You’d have men lining up outside just to look at you if you’d changeyourstyle. Why not free your hair?”
Katie took a step backward, bumping her elbow against a decanter of brandy. “I prefer to wear it this way. It’s cooler.” Her cheeks felt hot. “And neater.”
“She’s a stubborn girl,” Brian told Adams.
“I don’t give you men advice about what clothes to wear or how to comb your hair, so I suggest that you show me the same courtesy,” Katie said, recovering her composure. “Besides, why would I want to be examined by a lot of strange men?”
“I can’t imagine.” Jack bit back a smile. “I humbly apologize.”
“Apology accepted. If you are starved for the sight of female beauty, you ought to visit the new German dancing girls at Darling’s Dango Hall.” Picking up Jane Eyre, she turned to her father and said, “Papa, since you have urged me to do as I please today, I believe I’ll go over to the Gazette and write an article about Missouri Dan’s adventure. I think our readers might find the story very entertaining.”
“Wouldn’t you rather spend your birthday seeking some entertainment foryourself?”
“I love to write, so that is entertainment.” Katie kissed his cheek, then smiled politely at Jack. “Meeting you has been very interesting, Mr. Adams. Have a safe journey.”
“That’s kind of you, but I’m not leaving Columbia just yet, Miss MacKenzie. I feel certain we’ll meet again.” He gave her a lazy smile. “Happy birthday.”
Jack watched Katie cross the saloon and stride out into the sunshine, idly noting her slim back, narrow waist, and gently curving hips. When he turned back, he discovered that Brian was contemplating him thoughtfully.
“I don’t know what to do with that lass,” MacKenzie said, sighing. “Twenty years old today and she’s acting like there’s no hurry to marry. I don’t think it even crosses her mind! Not that any of the men around here are worthy of her. Many of the best are off fighting in the war between the North and South.” He shook his head. “It’s a difficult bride who’s not only beautiful but also smarter than most men. She’s hardworking and has a mind of her own, but she’s quick to laugh, too, and—”
“MacKenzie,” Jack put in softly, his expression knowing yet amused, “why are you telling me this?”
He looked down the bar at the bouquet of lilies and larkspur. “Well, I—I’ve no idea!”
“Neither do I.” He patted the older man’s shoulder, then stood up and brushed the dust from his smooth buckskin pants. “I’m off to have a bath and a shave, get my clothes laundered, and take a room above the U.S. Bakery and Coffee Saloon.” He put some coins on the bar. “Thanks for the water and conversation, MacKenzie. Buy Missouri Dan a drink for me when he comes in, will you?”
“Be glad to.” Brian picked up the coins and looked at them for a moment. “If you want a clean bed and home cooking, you’re welcome to stay with us. I like you.”
Jack stopped at the door and glanced back, his wide shoulders and lean hips outlined against the sunlight. “That’s a kind offer. I’ll consider it.”
Katie made her way down Columbia’s dusty Main Street which was shaded by trees of heaven, their spreading boughs abuzz with bees. She waved to the blacksmith and greeted an elderly couple coming out of the Cheap Cash Store, but otherwise the street was quiet. Constructed since the fires of 1854 and 1857, the handsome brick buildings had sturdy doors and windows with tall, green shutters made of fire-resistant iron. Many of the facades boasted fancy ironwork balconies cast in Troy, New York, and brought by ship around Cape Horn.
She looked over to see her friend Lim Sung emerging from his father’s Chinese laundry. Lim was a thin, wiry boy of eighteen whose cheery smile never failed to brighten her spirits. “Hello, Lim! Can you come to the Gazette with me? I have to write a story.”
He fell in beside her, his smile fading. “I don’t think they like me there.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Katie said, dismissing her friend’s comment with a wave of her hand. “Besides, I doubt anyone will be there now.”
Lim Sung and his parents were among the handful of Chinese who had been allowed, grudgingly, to remain in Columbia after the fire of 1857. Prejudice against them was rampant throughout the gold country. People insisted that the Chinese were sneaky and untrustworthy, blaming them for thefts, fires, and other crimes. The customs and beliefs they had brought from China made the miners all the more mistrustful, but Katie knew that their prejudice was rooted in ignorance and jealousy. The Chinese people she knew were hardworking, industrious, and patient. Indeed, it was their infinite patience that maddened the other settlers. Many a miner had given up on a claim only to have it taken over and worked painstakingly by a Chinese family with successful results. Now that the gold was playing out, a great deal of general frustration was increasingly being taken out on the Chinese population.
As they passed the D. O. Mills Bank Building, Katie glanced over at Lim Sung. In a fresh white shirt and loose black silk trousers, he looked alien and out of place. His hair was drawn back into a long queue, which accentuated his high cheekbones, and his uptilted eyes were dark and fathomless. To others he was a foreigner, an outcast to be feared and rejected. But to Katie he was just Lim—her childhood companion, her trusted friend.
Lim met her gaze and smiled. He couldn’t imagine life without Katie. She was his bridge to the white world, his friend, teacher, and counselor. When they were little children, they had sat under the trellis of morning glory in front of the MacKenzie house while she shared her lessons with him, teaching him not only to read and write in English, but to speak the white man’s language without a trace of his parents’ accent. He would never forget the debt he owed her.
“Look what my father gave me for my birthday,” Katie said now, holding up her book. “Jane Eyre. It’s a wonderful, haunting romance that takes place in England.”
Lim grinned as they turned up Washington Street toward the Gazette office. “How can a romance be both wonderful and haunting?”
“This one is! Charlotte Bronte is a very talented author.”
“A lady wrote this book?” he exclaimed in surprise.
Opening the door to the Gazette’s cramped offices, she was about to reply when Gideon Henderson called to her from his desk. “Katie! I’m glad you’re here. I need you to take over Owly Shaw’s duties. He’s ridden over to Murphys to talk to the stage driver.”
“The stage driver?”
“Haven’t you heard?” Gideon’s glasses slid down his nose as he sorted through the papers littering his desk, perpetually in search of the one that wasn’t there. “The Griffin robbed the Sonora stage this morning! Took a thousand dollars in gold off one of the passengers, but left the others in peace. He’s the confoundedest stagecoach robber I’ve ever heard of!” As an afterthought, Henderson picked up a piece of white linen from among the papers and tossed it to Katie. “Care for a souvenir?”
She stared down at the snowy handkerchief, its corner embroidered with the figure of an animal that appeared to be half eagle, half lion. Katie swallowed hard and whispered, “It’s a griffin....
Carrying a chicken, freshly killed and plucked, and a bag of potatoes, Katie approached the white frame house she shared with her father. Located on a quiet corner of Jackson Street, it was not as grand as some built with gold fortunes, yet she loved it for its cozy charm.
Beneath the profusion of vivid blue morning glory blossoms that spilled over the porch roof, Katie saw that the front door was ajar. Juggling the chicken and vegetables, she gently pushed open the door with her hip, passed through into the kitchen, and stopped, staring.
A man stood gazing out the back window, his physique framed by lace curtains and sunlight. Katie took in the damp hair that curled slightly across back of his head and grazed his tanned neck. A freshly pressed white shirt set off straight, square shoulders and a tapering back. The man stood with his hands on lean hips encased in faded dungarees. His feet were bare.
An unfamiliar sensation rushed through Katie’s body, settling in her midsection as she regarded this vital figure. The image of the curls against the male neck and the line of his shoulders and back burned into her brain. The sack of potatoes slipped from her grasp, rumbling upon impact with the scrubbed floorboards.
The man turned, and a thoroughly disconcerted Katie met the green eyes of Jack Adams. Before she could speak, he was crouching to retrieve the potatoes.
“I must have startled you,” he said, glancing up to smile into her eyes. “Your father invited me to stay here, but perhaps he should have consulted with you?”
“Oh, no....” Katie glanced away, saw the taut muscles in his thighs as he rose slowly, and murmured, “Here? You’re staying here?”
“If this poses a problem...” Jack set the potatoes on the table which was covered with a cheerful yellow-sprigged cloth. He tried again to capture her gaze.
“Of course not!” She laughed brightly. “Why would it be a problem? My father and I frequently entertain house guests.”
“I just thought perhaps I might be the problem. You don’t like me, do you?”
“You flatter yourself, Mr. Adams. I have no opinion about you one way or the other.” She put the chicken on the table and crossed to get a pot from a cupboard under the pine dresser. Glancing back, she saw that his eyes were twinkling. “As it happens, I have more important matters on my mind.”
“Yes. The Griffin has struck again!”
“Your tone of voice seems to indicate that this is dramatic news. Isn’t the Griffin just another stage robber?”
Katie’s eyes widened with disbelief as she opened the back door. “Don’t you read the newspapers, Mr. Adams? But then, maybe you can’t read at all. Most of the miners of my acquaintance are not intellectually inclined.”
“Oh, I can read,” he replied laconically. “A little.”
“Well, perhaps you should consider practicing with the Columbia Gazette.”
Smiling, Jack followed her into the neat backyard. Bordered by a white picket fence, it boasted a row of fruit trees and tidy flower and vegetable gardens. Katie paused to cut yellow roses, then bent beside the small plot of fresh herbs.
“Are you hoping that I’ll enlighten you about the Griffin?” she asked, not looking up as she broke off fragrant sprigs of tarragon.
“Miss MacKenzie, don’t make me beg for the favor.”
She stood, her cheeks pink, and found him gazing at her in a way that made her uneasily aware that he was a man and she was a woman. Nervously, she turned and walked back into the house.
“The Griffin is very different from the other stage robbers, Mr. Adams. There has been an air of mystery which has surrounded his every move ever since he first stepped in front of the Sonoma stagecoach last autumn.” Katie put the tarragon in the pot with the chicken, lit the stove with practiced ease then sat down and handed Jack a paring knife. They both peeled potatoes as she continued. “It’s said that the Griffin is a gentleman. He’s clean, well-spoken, and has never resorted to violence.”
“The mystery, I gather, must be that the drivers continue to turn over their gold to such a peaceful soul,” he remarked in ironic tones.
“Well, he does carry a rifle, but it has never been fired. He wears a long linen duster and a hood with holes for his eyes. When the stage comes into view, he steps out of the trees holding his rifle and says, ‘Would you mind stopping for a moment, boys?’”
“Do you suppose the Griffin cares if they do mind?”
“Well, no, obviously not, but people are absolutely intrigued by the idea of a hold-up man with breeding. It’s said that he often appears to be rather amused by it all, and he’s displayed rare consideration for his victims. In fact”—Katie leaned closer, lowering her voice in conspiratorial tones—“the real mystery is what the Griffin is after. So far, he has only robbed stages containing either Aaron Rush or Harold Van Hosten as passengers, and he only takes their money and valuables.”
Jack’s brows elevated slightly. “Rush and Van Hosten. Aren’t they the owners of the big mine near here?”
“That’s right. They aren’t well liked. They bought out a lot of claims for prices well below their value and then used hydraulic equipment to get the fortunes still hidden in the limestone and marble. Miners who have settled here with families are now forced to work in the Rush Mine for miserably low wages. They hate Rush and Van Hosten. Some speculate that the Griffin actually might be one of those miners... except that he doesn’t behave like any miner I’ve ever seen in these parts.”
“Hmm...” Jack leaned back in his chair and stretched out his legs. “Perhaps the Griffin just doesn’t like their looks.”
Katie gave him a dubious look as she rose to add the potatoes to the pot. “Don’t you think, Mr. Adams, that there must be a bit more to it than that?”
“What? Revenge? You said he only takes their valuables. What about the box?”
“Well,” she allowed, “he has taken that once or twice, but always later some of the poorest families in town have found envelopes of money under their doors. Needless to say, the Griffin’s legend has grown, and he’s become something of a folk hero in Columbia and the surrounding towns....”
“Ah!” Jack laughed huskily. “The Robin Hood of the Sierras. He keeps none of his ill-gotten gains for himself?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so—” She broke off in midsentence. “This is ridiculous! I don’t need to defend the Griffin to you. I am not saying that I think he’s a hero, but you see, I’m a newspaperwoman for the Columbia Gazette,” she said proudly. “I have been privy to all the details of these hold-ups. I wouldn’t be human if I weren’t a bit intrigued.”
The corners of his mouth twitched in amusement. “Confess now, Miss MacKenzie. Aren’t you the least bit caught up in a romantic dream about this outlaw? Perhaps you’re hoping that the Griffin will rob the stage you’re riding and carry you off instead of the box!”
Katie’s cheeks burned as she whirled on him. “How dare you say such things, even in jest? And, for the record, I do not have romantic dreams!”
“You don’t?” He feigned astonishment.
“Just how long do you intend to remain in Columbia, sir?”
The sound of his laughter was almost seductive. “I hate to disappoint you, Miss MacKenzie, but my business shouldn’t take more than a week.”
She walked over to the table and set down a white earthenware pitcher filled with roses. “That long? I am disappointed.” Then, her long braid swishing off to one side, Katie swept from the room, the sound of Jack’s low laughter ringing in her ears.
Nightfall did not bring peace to the town of Columbia. Instead, men of all shapes and sizes clad in flannel shirts of red or blue filled the saloons, fandango halls, and bawdy houses lining Main Street. A mixture of tinkling piano tunes and raucous voices filled the night air, invading even the parlor of the relatively secluded MacKenzie house.
Katie sat curled on the faded tapestry sofa, an oil lamp glowing near her elbow and Jane Eyre open on her lap. Usually she feasted on the chance to read in solitude, but tonight her mind wandered restlessly. Supper was ready, but neither her father nor Jack Adams had come home. Jack had gone out soon after she retreated to the parlor with her book, his only farewell a maddening smile in her direction as he went out the door. Although Katie found herself brooding about their conversations and the intensity of her own reaction to him, she finally decided that it was his sudden invasion of her territory that caused her to feel unnerved. If she could just avoid his eyes, it would be simpler to maintain her distance.
Katie tried to read again, but her thoughts drifted back to the Griffin. What sort of man was he? Jack Adams would laugh if he knew of her secret feeling that the Griffin was a true gentleman at heart, reckless yet fair and compassionate. She imagined that he held up stages because he was righting a wrong. He had probably traveled widely... and was dangerously handsome...
“Pardon me if I’m intruding again—”
She looked up in surprise to find Jack Adams leaning against the kitchen door, his hooded eyes watchful in the half-light. “I didn’t hear you come in!”
“I used the back door. You shouldn’t leave it unlatched, Miss MacKenzie. Someone less friendly might drop by uninvited.” A current of amusement drifted into his husky voice. “The Griffin is at large, you know... but then, perhaps you would enjoy a nocturnal visit from him.”
She pressed her lips together and tried to smile. “Your concern for my safety is touching, Mr. Adams. However, it is not only unsolicited but unnecessary. I am perfectly capable of looking after myself.”
Jack approached and, bending, touched her tight smile with a fingertip. “Careful!” he chuckled. “You might hurt yourself.”
“Are you here to annoy me or is there a logical reason for this mid-evening visit? If it’s supper you want...”
“Am I annoying you? It’s hard to be certain—”
Katie cut him off with an cool stare, then stood up and smoothed her skirts.
“All right,” He wore an expression of mock contrition. “I’ll behave myself. I’ve come over from the saloon to deliver a message from your father. He’s too busy to come home for supper and asks that you bring a plate over to him.”
Katie went past him into the kitchen and assembled a fragrant dish of chicken and vegetables, then covered it with a napkin. Turning, she discovered Jack standing behind her. “Must you lurk so often?” she burst out.
His brows shot up. “You’re the first woman who’s ever asked that of me,” he said in tones that suggested he was flattered. “I’ll try to comply... if you’ll make a plate for me, too.”
Exasperated, Katie shook her head. “I think you’re capable of doing that yourself, Mr. Adams. And I won’t mind a bit if you stay right here to eat your supper.” With that, she picked up the covered dish and swept out the front door.
The night air was cool. Katie, having forgotten her shawl in the drama of her exit, hurried down Jackson Street and had turned onto Main Street when she sensed that someone was following her. She quickened her pace, but the feeling persisted. Finally she looked over her shoulder and recognized Jack’s shoulders silhouetted in the moonlight as he walked toward her carrying his own covered plate.
“I should have known it was you!” she cried in relief.
His teeth flashed in a smile. “Was I lurking again? I didn’t mean to, but for some reason I thought that you preferred to walk alone.” He nodded toward his plate. “Your father suggested that I join him for supper.”
Katie sighed and nodded, and they walked the rest of the way to the saloon together. Jack seemed interested in the activity that spilled into the street from Darling’s Dango Hall and the saloons lining Main Street, while Katie tried to pretend she didn’t notice. Her own father’s saloon was one thing; she had grown up with it, and the patrons always treated her with deference under the stern gaze of Brian MacKenzie. However, Katie looked with mild disgust upon the boisterous, drunken goings-on that took place elsewhere in Columbia.
As they approached MacKenzie’s Saloon, she noted with satisfaction that there was neither raucous laughter nor shouting going on inside. Jack held the swinging door for her and Katie entered to sudden pandemonium.
“Happy Birthday!” everyone shouted. Stunned, Katie surveyed the sea of grinning faces. There was her father, pink-cheeked and beaming behind the bar, and Lim Sung, his dark eyes sparkling with pleasure. Lim Sung’s father stood amidst a group of bearded miners, and many of her neighbors were present as well, including Victoria Barnstaple, a talkative sparrow of a woman who had been Mary MacKenzie’s best friend.
Victoria hurried forward to embrace the speechless girl. “Why, I do think we surprised you, dear! Are you pleased?” She took the dish from Katie’s hands and passed it to Jack without looking at him. He set Brian’s plate on the bar, got a fork for himself, and retreated to a corner table to eat his own supper and watch the celebration.
Katie had intrigued him from the moment he’d first seen her that afternoon at the bar, her scrubbed, pretty face bent over Jane Eyre. She piqued his curiosity not only because she was an incongruity in the gold country—especially in this saloon—but also because he soon realized that Katie possessed a unique mixture of personality traits, many of which were rare in the women of his acquaintance. She was independent, intelligent, capable, adult beyond her years in many respects—all due, Jack supposed, to the responsibilities she had assumed after her mother’s death. In addition, Katie was blessed with a lovely face and form. With those qualities, she could have become the toast of the Sierras by this time, attracting men of quality from miles around. It was entirely possible that she could have married a rich man from Sacramento or even San Francisco. Yet Kathleen MacKenzie claimed that she did not yearn for romance, love, or marriage. Passion, it seemed, stirred not within her breast.
Jack smiled slightly as he stared across the saloon and pondered the enigma that was Katie. She seemed slightly ill at ease as she stood among the group of well-wishers, as if she were embarrassed by this display of affection and uncertain how to respond. Mrs. Barnstaple and the few other women who had deigned to come into the saloon tonight for Katie’s sake were clad in fine dresses with wide-hooped petticoats, and they wore their hair in carefully arranged ringlets or smooth chignons. By contrast, the guest of honor’s frock of faded calico and her long, lone braid seemed strikingly inappropriate. Jack took a last bite of chicken, pushed his plate away, and wondered whether Katie’s apparent lack of interest in her appearance and in men was evidence of courage—or cowardice.
Having opened and admired an array of modest gifts, Katie was now gazing at the cake that Mrs. Barnstaple had baked for the occasion. “It’s really too pretty to eat,” she remarked, touching one of the candied violets that decorated the smooth white icing.
“Don’t be silly, my girl!” Brian exclaimed, handing her a knife.
“It’s even prettier inside,” Victoria encouraged her.
Katie winced as she cut into the elaborate confection, discovering that bright candied fruit studded the interior. “Oh, my, it’s much too beautiful! I’m embarrassed that all of you have gone to so much work on my account.”
Lim Sung couldn’t hug her in public, but he did lean in close to whisper, “We love you!”
Overcome, Katie blushed as she served the cake. She felt very warm... and out of place, somehow. This party, and the emotions that appeared to be behind it, were more than she deserved. She didn’t know how to behave. What did all these people expect of her? Should she have wept with joy?
“Darlin’, why don’t you take a piece of cake to Jack?” Brian murmured, leaning across the bar. His breath smelled of celebratory whiskey. “Ask him to join the party. After all, he had a hand in the success of your surprise!”
Puzzled, she met her father’s eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Jack had to lure you over here without arousing your suspicions.” Brian chuckled at the memory. “When we asked him, he assured us that you were already irritated by his presence, and that he was quite sure he could keep you too annoyed to suspect that he might be delivering you to a party in your honor.”
Katie lifted her chin, staring across the saloon to where Jack Adams reclined on a chair, apparently dozing. “That man really is insufferable.”
“Because he speaks his mind?” Brian teased. “You’re used to that; the men around here don’t waste time with manners. I think that Jack’s found your sore spot because he doesn’t back off from you. You can’t outtalk him and put him in his place.”
She smiled grudgingly. “I shudder to think where his ‘place’ really ought to be.”
“Kathleen, don’t be unkind. Take the man a piece of cake and try to remember that he’s our guest.”
Secretly glad for the respite from her party, she accepted the place. Across the crowded, noisy room, Jack appeared oblivious, slouched in his chair, bronzed hands folded against his white shirtfront. His strong body was graceful in repose, legs stretched out and head tipped to one side. As Katie drew nearer, studying his face, she began to suspect that his eyes were open just a fraction....
“Missing me so soon?” he asked softly, moving only his lips.
Now Katie could see that Jack was watching her from beneath his lashes. “Papa insisted that I bring you a piece of cake.” Her tone was cool as she set the plate before him. “Has he overestimated the extent of your domestication, Mr. Adams? Perhaps you’re not yet able to sit up straight and use a fork.”
He arched one eyebrow and grinned slowly in appreciation. “I never could resist a challenge,” he replied, stretching and shifting upward on the chair.
She watched him take a bite of cake. “Well, I wouldn’t want you to overtax yourself on my account, sir....”
“I should remind you that I spent last night digging for gold in a field of grain. I’m too tired right now to match wits with you.”
“Oh, dear, that’s right!” Katie exclaimed, remembering. “Where’s Missouri Dan?”
“He’s gone to bed, which is what I would have done if—” He broke off and stifled a yawn.
“If you hadn’t been persuaded to lure me here for my birthday party,” she finished for him, watching as he stood up beside her. She found herself trailing after him toward the doorway while all around them groups of miners loudly discussed the Griffin’s latest stage robbery. Katie scarcely heard, though, more intent on catching Jack’s sleeve before he exited the saloon. “Why, after you went to so much trouble, didn’t you join in the party? You were welcome to join the guests—”
He turned to look down at her, one hand on the door, and smiled lazily. Unaccountably, Katie felt a disconcerting shiver race from her scalp to the base of her spine.
“No,” he said softly, “I couldn’t join in the party because I didn’t have a present. At least... not one I could give you in front of your friends and neighbors.” His gaze dropped to her parted lips. “I suppose I could give it to you now—but you’d have to come outside with me.”
Heart racing, Katie stepped backward and swallowed hard. Instinctively, she pressed her hands against her flushed cheeks, then quickly removed them when she saw Jack’s knowing smile. “No. No, I’d rather not.”
“Well, then, I’ll just keep it for you, Miss MacKenzie, and you can tell me when you’d like to collect.” Halfway out the door, he glanced back over one straight shoulder. “Good night, Kathleen. I’m glad you were surprised on your birthday.”
She was too confused to be angry—yet—or to be sure what he had meant by his parting remark. Dazedly, she could only whisper, “Good night,” but Jack Adams had already gone.
“Do you suppose Jack really went to look at a claim?” Katie wondered aloud. She was cleaning the surface of the saloon’s mahogany bar with a vengeance, rubbing so hard with her soft white cloth that Brian worried she’d strip the varnish.
He looked up now from refilling the liquor bottles. “What else would the man be doing?”
“Well, he said it was just a few miles east, and he’s been away a day and a half!”
“Good Lord, child, are you complaining? I thought you couldn’t stand Jack Adams!”
“I can’t.” Katie rubbed harder, staring at a barely visible stain. Although it was only nine in the morning, the saloon was already stiflingly warm, and damp tendrils had escaped her braid and were curling about her face. “I just wonder what he’s up to. I don’t trust the man.”
Brian laughed. “Oh, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Jack’s indulging in something more pleasurable than just investigatin’ a claim. Women fancy men like him, and men like him fancy women! Betsy Cartwright over in Shaw’s Flat was widowed last autumn, remember? She’s a handsome young woman, and it seems to me that—”
“Shaw’s Flat is south of here, Papa,” Katie interrupted, her voice rising.
“Oh, I don’t imagine that Jack would mind ridin’ a few miles out of his way for a beautiful woman....”
“Truer words were never spoken, MacKenzie!” A husky voice laughed softly from the doorway.
Katie froze in the act of pushing wisps of hair off her moist forehead. Slowly she lifted her head and beheld Jack Adams casually entering the saloon. Unlike normal mortals on a crushingly humid day, he appeared freshly bathed and unaffected by the heat, his hair brushed back from a tanned, engagingly attractive face. His boots were shined, and his faded red shirt and blue dungarees looked as if they had just come from Sung’s Laundry. Katie, on the other hand, was certain that she was the picture of dishevelment.
“Darlin’, don’t just stand there gaping!” Brian boomed happily. “Get the man some coffee!”
Blood rushed to her cheeks. “I—I was just wondering if Mr. Adams always returns from his trips at such an odd hour, and how he has managed to look so immaculate.”
Jack smiled at her as if he could read her mind, took a stool at the bar, and accepted the mug of coffee Katie placed before him. “I was up early and didn’t have far to ride. And, as a matter of fact, I stopped at home for a bath before walking over here.”
“Home?” she echoed.
His eyes twinkled. “Well, it feels like home, thanks to the warm hospitality bestowed upon me by you and your father.”
Only Katie seemed to be aware of the irony in his voice. Brian, on the other hand, appeared on the verge of offering to adopt Jack. Reaching across the bar, he patted the younger man’s shoulder with hearty affection. “We couldn’t ask for a better houseguest, could we, Katie love? You’re a pleasure, Jack, and we’ve missed you since yesterday mornin’. Why, just before you came in, Katie was saying—”
“I was saying that you had been rather mysterious about your errand away from Columbia!” she interjected hastily. “If we hear that the Griffin has been active again, I might begin to suspect you, Mr. Adams!”
“Indeed? Why, Miss MacKenzie, I’m flattered! Knowing the exalted opinion you have of the Griffin, I consider it an honor that you could imagine I could be so fine and brave a hero....”
Brian looked at his smoldering daughter in confusion. “What’s all this? Have you romanced the notion of that outlaw, Katie? You’d do well to remember that men like Robin Hood are only in books. And if you do harbor any sympathy for the Griffin, keep quiet about it. Harold Van Hosten is in here almost daily, and it wouldn’t be good for my health if he thought my own daughter was out singin’ the praises of the highwayman who’s been humiliating him and Aaron Rush for nearly a year!”
She glared at Jack. “I think this is just Mr. Adams’s misguided attempt at humor, Papa.”
“Hmph. Take my advice, both of you, and choose another subject for your taunts. The Griffin’s dangerous sport.”
Jack drained his coffee and set down the mug with a dull thud. “Believe me, MacKenzie, there’s nothing I’d rather discuss less! As a matter of fact, I have an ideal distraction in mind.” He leaned closer. “I’ve thought of a plan to improve business here at the saloon.”
“This should be fascinating,” Katie muttered, returning to her polishing but staying within earshot.
“Where are your manners?” Brian exclaimed. “Hear the man out.”
A smile brightened Jack’s countenance. “This notion is so obvious that I’m sure you’ve thought of it yourself, but were unable to find the right person for the job. You see, MacKenzie, what this saloon needs is a female to serve the patrons. A pretty, friendly girl whom the miners could look upon as a friend, yet who would also provide a welcome respite from the other men they toil, beside all day long in the mines. I was thinking—”
“Mr. Adams,” Katie interrupted, “this saloon is not a hurdy-gurdy house or a dance hall. Those are the only places that use women to lure unsuspecting men for the purpose of getting them to pay outrageous prices for their drinks. I am shocked that you would propose something so... so base to my father!”
Jack replied evenly, “I wouldn’t consider proposing anything even remotely base to a respectable man like your father, nor am I suggesting that this saloon become a hurdy-gurdy house or a dance hall.” He looked at Brian. “The men are already used to seeing Miss MacKenzie working here, so it’s not as if women are forbidden in your saloon. It simply makes sense to me that it might improve business in these less-than-prosperous times if one of your employees was a pretty girl who enjoyed dressing accordingly and being friendly to the lonely, unmarried men of this town.”
Katie seethed, more conscious than ever of her plain braid and modest, faded dress. She was further outraged to hear Brian reply, “Well, what you say makes sense to me, too, Jack. But I wouldn’t want someone of questionable character, if you take my meaning, and I couldn’t pay as much as the girls make at some of the less respectable places here in Columbia. Who’d want the job?”
Jack was on his feet in an instant, grinning broadly. “I was hoping you’d ask me that! Wait just a moment.”
As he hurried outside, Katie whirled on her father. “Have you taken leave of your senses? How could you encourage such an immoral scheme?”
“Settle down, girl. Let’s hear the lad out.”
“Lad?! Papa, you mustn’t be swayed by that devil’s charm! He’s up to no good, I just know it!”
“Nonsense.” Brian waved her off with a chuckle. “I’m a pretty fair judge of character after all these years. Jack just enjoys life—and, in turn, people enjoy him.” He paused. “I’m thinking that you just might be jealous.”
She paled. “That’s a ridiculous thing to say. Why should I be jealous?”
He shrugged. “You’re used to being the only female in the saloon, and the men adore you. It’d be natural for you to worry that another girl might take your place in their hearts.”
Katie laughed, relieved, but broke off at the sound of footsteps across the room. Turning, she saw Jack walking toward them, one arm wrapped protectively around a petite, buxom young woman with curls the color of burnished gold. They stopped a few feet away.
“Abigail Armitage, I’d like you to meet Brian MacKenzie and his daughter, Kathleen,” Jack said almost gently.
“It’s a great pleasure to make your acquaintance,” the girl said in a high voice. “Jack has told me so many nice things about you both.” She smiled at them nervously, then looked back up at Jack with huge brown eyes.
Katie decided that Abigail appeared to be infatuated with Jack, but she managed to hide her unreasoning irritation behind a smile. “Welcome to Columbia, Miss Armitage.”
“Hear, hear!” cried Brian. “Sit right up here and have something to drink. What would you like, uh...”
“Abby,” she supplied. Holding up her wide pink hoop skirt, Abby perched on one of the stools with Jack’s assistance. “Call me Abby. And I’d truly enjoy a small glass of sherry. It’s very kind of you to offer, Mr. MacKenzie.”
Katie blinked, glancing at the clock, but said nothing as her father poured the sherry and heartily insisted that Abby call him Brian. “So,” he inquired after she had taken a few sips, “what brings you to our humble town?”
“Well, to tell you the truth, Jack said that I should come.”
“Did he?” Katie said sweetly, avoiding Jack’s narrowed eyes.
“I met Mrs. Armitage last autumn,” he explained, “just after her husband was killed in a rather questionable accident in the Rush Mine. They had a little cabin between here and Springfield, and I decided to stop by yesterday and see how she was doing.” He ignored the delicate arch of Katie’s eyebrow. “To make a long story short, Abby’s had a hard time making a go of it. I thought that if you could give her work, Brian, both of you might benefit. She not only needs the income, but it would do her good to be among people again.”
“Consider yourself employed, Miss Abby!” Brian declared, refilling her glass.
Her large round eyes pooled with tears, and she leaned against Jack’s arm in relief. “You’re all so kind. Jack’s visit yesterday was like a miracle. He’s saving my life....”
“Yes, Mr. Adams ought to be a candidate for sainthood,” Katie murmured, looking away. She didn’t like the way she was feeling or acting, but kindness and charity seemed beyond her at the moment, and she was convinced that somehow Jack Adams was responsible. Certainly she’d never behaved like this before! He seemed to have the ability to needle her in ways that weren’t apparent to anyone else, which infuriated her all the more. Katie glanced back at him now and found him watching her. He gave her a barely perceptible wink, then returned his attention to Abigail Armitage, who beamed up at him with frank adoration.
“Now then, Miss Abby,” Brian said, “when would you like to start work?”
“I’d be glad to begin today if someone can teach me what to do.” Shyly, she looked toward Katie, who averted her eyes and began polishing the bar again.
“Unfortunately, I have an article about the Griffin to finish for the Gazette today, but I’m sure my father would be happy to instruct you,” Katie said stiffly.
“Did I hear you mention the Griffin?” demanded an angry voice from across the saloon.
All four turned their attention to the tall, thin, well-dressed blond man who walked up to the bar. His mouth was set in a hard line that was accentuated by a jutting nose and cheekbones. Small, deep-set pale blue eyes stared at each of them in turn.
Brian splashed whiskey into a shot glass and set it on the bar. “Good morning, Mr. Van Hosten. Beautiful day, isn’t it?” He cleared his throat. “Uh, my daughter was just sayin’ that she’s composing a piece about the Griffin for the newspaper. She works there, you know.”
Harold Van Hosten smiled thinly, downed the whiskey, then inquired, “It will come as no surprise to you, Miss MacKenzie, to learn that I am rather interested to hear if any progress has been made toward discovering the Griffin’s true identity or his whereabouts.”
“None as far as I know,” Katie admitted. “My story merely explores various possibilities of identity and motive—who he might be and why he turned to this way of life.”
“If you hear anything, even a rumor, I would appreciate it if you would come to me. I’ll be glad to reimburse you for your trouble. As long as that outlaw is at large, my very life is in danger.”
Katie wanted to say, “Not to mention your money!” but instead replied politely, “I appreciate your concern, Mr. Van Hosten, and I’ll remember what you’ve said.”
“Good.” He drained his second whiskey, looking at Jack and Abby over the rim of the glass. “You’re Adams, aren’t you? I think we were introduced a few months back.”
“That’s right.” Jack’s voice was low, his gaze even. “It was at the Wells Fargo office in Sonora, I believe. I trust you had a pleasant journey that day?”
“On the contrary, I was robbed by that cursed Griffin!”
Jack’s brows lifted. “I’m sorry to hear that. It was fortunate for me that I took the stage to Sacramento instead.”
“The criminal only took my valuables. It’s a vendetta of some sort, but I assure you that I mean to even the score! Rush and I are posting a reward that should bring out a Judas among the miners who revere, and doubtless protect, that outlaw.” His blue eyes glittered coldly, then he blinked, regaining his composure. “I seem to recall that you were in search of a profitable claim to work, Adams. Any luck?”
“Not the sort I’d hoped for. I’m here to investigate a claim I heard is up for sale a few miles east.”
“Well, such pursuits are risky business at best these days. If you’re disappointed again, come and see me at the mine office. I might be able to provide more reliable employment.”
The smile that curved Jack’s mouth didn’t quite reach his eyes. “That’s very generous of you.”
“Pragmatic, my good fellow,” Van Hosten replied coolly. “You’re strong and able-bodied, but those qualities are easy to come by here in the foothills. What is harder to find is a man with a quick mind. You’re intelligent. I can see it in your eyes.”
“You’ll understand if I don’t demur.” Jack’s voice was dry.
Brian was growing increasingly uneasy as he listened to this conversation. It worried him to think that Jack might go to work for Rush and Van Hosten. Glancing over at his daughter, he saw that she was watching the two men with an expression of open contempt. He decided that a distraction was in order.
“Mr. Van Hosten,” he interrupted, “I’ve neglected to introduce you to Columbia’s newest resident and my newest employee! This is Mrs. Abigail Armitage. Miss Abby, say hello to Mr. Harold Van Hosten, one of our most prominent citizens!”
She smiled at him warily and extended her hand, which Van Hosten lifted lightly to his lips. After amenities were exchanged, he murmured, “Armitage... that name sounds familiar....”
“I believe that you were acquainted with my husband, Ben, Mr. Van Hosten. He worked in your mine. You may recall that Ben staked a claim of his own near Springfield, and it looked very promising. I believe that you were quite interested in purchasing it from him, but he refused, and shortly after that he was... killed in an accident in the mine.” Abby’s rouged lips trembled as she spoke.
Van Hosten put some coins on the bar and stood up. “Of course, I do remember your husband, Mrs. Armitage,” he said absently. “He was a fine man, a good worker. Mr. Rush and I were saddened by his death. Unfortunately, mining is hazardous, and I know that Ben was aware of the risks. You have my sincere sympathy, madam, and my best wishes for the future.”
Abby could only nod, after which Van Hosten made his farewells and strode out of the saloon. Longing to soothe the obviously distraught young widow, Brian poured more sherry.
“Thank you,” she whispered. Her tiny hand shook as she lifted the glass to her lips.
Katie felt the stirrings of genuine compassion. Ignoring Jack and her father, she reached over to touch Abby’s arm. “I have to go to the Gazette for a few hours, but I’ll return here later this afternoon and help you learn what will be necessary to perform your job. All right, Abby?”
“You’re very kind.”
“I thought Miss Abby might stay in that spare room upstairs,” Brian remarked. “The bed’s good, and there’s a balcony overlooking Main Street. With a few female touches, it ought to do quite nicely. Why don’t you let me show it to you, m’dear, and you can freshen up if you’d like, and lie down for a bit.”
Jack stood up. “Abby’s things are still at the Wells Fargo office. I’ll go get them.”
To her dismay, Katie found that he was walking behind her out of the saloon, and she could feel him watching the gentle sway of her hips. Out on the dusty street, she whirled to face him.
“I wish you would stay away from me!”
Jack feigned surprise. “I thought I was doing that! You can’t accuse me of lurking, either, since I announced my intention to leave.”
Katie was unnerved by the way his eyes danced as they stared into her own. “I can’t bear your proximity,” she said, then turned and walked away.
Jack kept pace. “That’s unfortunate, since we’re heading in the same direction. And I had the impression that you had something on your mind that you might wish to say to me....”
Goaded to the breaking point, Katie stopped. “All right,” she replied in poisonously sweet tones, “I’ll tell you.”
“Good!” He broke into a grin and she narrowed her eyes in return. “I’m sure you’ll feel better afterward. Why don’t we just step over here under a tree so that we don’t attract a crowd.”
When Jack’s fingers closed around her arm, as if to guide her, Katie wrenched free and walked ahead of him to the shelter of the spreading branches of a tree of heaven.
“Here I am,” Jack invited, standing before her, “a willing target. Please begin.”
“I don’t mind if I do! First of all, you needn’t look as if my anger is cause for amusement.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better.” He strove to settle his features into a mask of sobriety.
“And I am well aware that you are presently being nice only to entertain yourself!” When he blinked in mild surprise, Katie was unaccountably pleased. “Everything you have done today, Mr. Adams, has made me furious! I feel a great deal of sympathy for Mrs. Armitage, and she seems to be a good person, but you had no right to manipulate my father into providing employment for her!”
“Was that what I did?”
“It certainly was! Oh, you were very canny, like a cat with a mouse, explaining the situation to my father in such a way that he was bound to agree! He is kind, warm-hearted, and impulsive, as well you know, for you have been the recipient of his generosity yourself. But, if you were a person with any scruples, you would not have played upon his good nature to achieve your own ends!”
Jack’s brows arched slightly. “And what might those be?”
She wished he would be quiet and just listen to her. Casting about for a response, she exclaimed, “I’d rather not sully my mind with the sordid possibilities.”
Unable to contain himself, he gave in to husky laughter, eventually taking a breath and murmuring, “I’m sorry; I couldn’t help it. Sometimes the things that come out of your mouth are simply delightful!” He smiled down at her angry countenance. “Is it so difficult for you to believe that my motive was simply to help Abby?”
“Perhaps it was in part, but I also know that there is more to it,” Katie said stubbornly.
“Do you imagine that I did it to aggravate you?”
That was precisely what she thought, but when he said it aloud it sounded ludicrous. “Of course not! But you had no right to interfere in the business of the saloon. We have worked hard to establish a certain reputation for quality—unlike the establishments in Columbia which cater to a more... lascivious clientele. Now that reputation will be at risk!”
Jack leaned against the tree trunk and folded his arms. “Your father is only at risk to make more money than he’s seen lately. Abby likes men, and they’ll like her—therefore, they’ll come to the saloon to see her.”
“You can try to whitewash this, but the fact remains—”
“That you’re jealous. You’ve been the only female in that saloon, and even though you claim to be above feminine vanity, the fact remains that you’ve gotten all the admiring looks from the men without having to curl your hair or wear a pretty gown or lower yourself to wearing powder and rouge.”
Katie longed to slap him, but the curious glances of passersby held her in check. “I do not wish to discuss this matter any further, Mr. Adams. Obviously you are far too rude to listen to reason or admit that you have erred.”
“It seems I am quite hopeless,” he replied agreeably. “Are we finished?”
“Not quite!” Her eyes were flashing, her delicately sculpted cheeks were rosy, and she was breathing hard. The conviction that Jack appreciated even the physical effects of her fury only made Katie angrier. “I also would like to inform you that, if I did not already have enough reasons to disapprove of you, your conversation with Harold Van Hosten gave me another.”
The laughter went out of Jack’s eyes. “Indeed?”
“It was unpleasant enough to see you being polite to a man I have told you is corrupt, and who you know may well have been responsible for the death of Mrs. Armitage’s husband. But when you began discussing the possibility of going to work for him, I was filled with revulsion!”
Jack opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to think better of it and sighed instead. A muscle in his jaw tensed before he finally replied evenly, “Unlike the Griffin, whose courage you so admire, I cannot wear a mask in the presence of Van Hosten. I must introduce myself by name and show my face, which I happen to be quite fond of. I haven’t forgotten Ben Armitage’s death; it holds a lesson, reminding me what is necessary to stay alive. If that makes me a coward, then so be it.”
Katie steeled herself against the spell of his eyes and his soft, serious voice. “We have nothing left to say to each other, Mr. Adams.”
Slowly, he reached out and smoothed a stray curl from her brow. Gentle irony infected his voice as he murmured, “Somehow, Miss MacKenzie, I doubt that....”
Her heart thudded and she tried to swallow. Pressing her lips together, Katie turned away. She had gone only a few steps when the pull of his eyes caused her to pause for an instant, but then she continued walking, not looking back until she was safely inside the white frame office of the Columbia Gazette. Leaning against the door, she pressed shaking fingers to her burning cheeks.
“Odious, odious man!” she whispered. She had no idea why Jack Adams stirred up such vehement, conflicting emotions within her, but she wished fervently that he had never come into her life.