Scoundrel for Hire
Book 1, Velvet Lies
A gentle “Eh-hem” and the captivating whiff of lavender distracted Rafe from his worries about Fred’s mining hoax. To his surprise, he found Silver Nichols standing companionably by his side. The corner of her mouth curved in a half-smile.
“I suppose,” she murmured, “the gentleman with the, er, diamonds is a friend of yours?”
The velvety timbre of her voice claimed his attention more thoroughly than a clap of thunder. He hadn’t expected a mining heiress to sound like she looked: rich. Sinfully rich. He was entertaining a delicious vision of hot fudge and cherries, when the full implication of her words slammed into his brain.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The man in the top hat. I daresay he’s your accomplice?”
Somehow, Rafe managed not to choke on his tongue. “My dear young woman, I fail to understand—”
“I rather doubt that,” she cut in smoothly. “You look much too intelligent. Canny, in fact. However, I am willing to believe that you are naive about the swift justice that mining juries dole out.” She turned once more to watch Fred’s con, playing out so flawlessly before them. “So let me give you a tip. The geologist you’re impersonating is about two-thirds your height, twice your weight, and his pate is just shy of bald.”
Rafe entertained a vision of throttling Fred, who had assured him that Bartholomew Markham, the renowned Pennsylvania geologist, hadn’t set foot in a western mining town since the war.
However, Rafe hadn’t spent the last fifteen years as a professional flimflam artist to let some cheeky millionaire’s daughter get the upper hand now. He eyed Silver with a nerve that he’d honed at fourteen, bluffing his way through Shakespeare’s Juliet, while all-male audiences had pelted him with tomatoes.
“Good heavens.” He chuckled. “Uncle Bartie and I look nothing alike. Now I’m beginning to understand your confusion, Miss Nichols.”
He could feel her appraising gaze poring over him with the same attention that a bookkeeper might use on accounts. He couldn’t help but lament the irony. Here he was, standing thigh to thigh with an unmarried heiress, and he was insisting that he was some middle-aged greenhorn with a paunch!
“So you claim to be Mr. Markham’s nephew,” she said slowly, an unmistakable lilt in her voice. “You must be from Philadelphia, then.”
“The Cradle of Liberty itself.”
“How delightful,” she drawled. “I’m from Philadelphia, too.”
“Yes, well, I, er, was merely born there,” he recovered as gracefully as he could. Damn her anyway. Was she really from Philadelphia?
Unable to take that chance, he hastened to add, “I spent most of my youth in…” Hesitating, he cast her a sideways glance. Where would a lawless sport be safe from female busy bodies? “…Abilene. And later, in Dodge City.”
“Dodge City? Oh my.” Her eyes twinkled like twin stars as they laughed up at him. “A geologist in a cowtown. I can just imagine what you must have dug up.”
He glowered at her.
“So tell me Mr. Kansas geologist,” she purred, “in what sort of rock formation might one find bituminous coal?”
Their eyes locked.
Rafe’s heart sank. He didn’t have the vaguest idea.
“I believe, sir,” she said quietly, having the poor grace to smirk, “this is where you might say ‘The jig is up.’ Would you like to call off your hoax, or shall I?”
A muscle twitched along Rafe’s jaw. She’d backed him into a corner, and she knew it. He glanced at his accomplice. Fred, the wily old cheat, was still talking a mile a minute and casting impatient, but furtive, looks his way.
“Before I answer your question, madam, might I ask one of my own?” Rafe murmured, deliberately shifting closer so that the heat of his breath blew in tantalizing gusts against her ear. He was gratified to glimpse the flutter of her pulse. “If you’re so sure I’m a footpad, then why didn’t you alert Sheriff Crow the moment we were introduced? One cannot help but wonder why an upstanding young woman would risk being charged as an accessory to a crime.”
It was her turn to redden. “I… wished to be certain of your character, of course.”
“You mean the character you think I’m role-playing?”
He straightened, returning her stare boldly, hoping his audacity would rattle her nerve. As far as he was concerned, she’d already tipped her hand.
Silver Nichols was playing some game of her own.