The Gunslinger and the Heiress

By: Kathryn Albright


  San Francisco Bay, 1883

  “Look lively, Scrapper. We be dockin’ soon. Need you on deck.”

  Caleb opened his eyes, letting in a sliver of light.

  In response, Squid squared a hard boot to his side, rocking the rope hammock in a violent arc.

  “Back off!” Awake now, Caleb stretched his back against the stiffness that had taken over his body, and then swung his feet to the plank flooring. He rubbed the remaining sleep from his face, wincing when he discovered his bruised and cut bottom lip.

  “Gor. Look at you.”

  “Trask and Corcoran deserved everything they got,” he muttered. He’d only protected what was his.

  “Good thing you’re getting off. Corcoran is fair anxious to have you gone.”

  “That makes two of us. I didn’t sign on to dance with him.” All he’d been lookin’ for when he’d boarded the clipper in Windham Bay was to work his way south. It had been the captain who had offered a bonus if he’d stay on. The permanent crew, namely Trask and Corcoran, had taken offense. Last night their petty jealousy had turned on a new tack, bypassed annoying and headed straight to ugly when they’d learned he’d had some luck in the gold fields. It wasn’t information he bandied about, so how they’d come across it was a mystery. Whatever the case, they’d come out of the scuffle in worse shape than he had. Gingerly, he touched his lip again. Scabbed over. He’d heal. He always did.

  Squid gave him the once-over, apparently decided he was up and moving and left.

  Caleb walked to the porthole and surveyed the shoreline. The ship maneuvered through the deepest channel of the harbor toward the docks. Shipyards and warehouses lined the waterfront in a familiar pattern like every other port he’d ever entered. But this was San Francisco, which made all the difference. It wasn’t home. Not once in his twenty-four years did he remember having a true home, even though his sister, Rachel, had tried her best. He let out a long breath. No, Frisco wasn’t home, but when her letter had finally tracked him down, he’d known he had to come back. He’d read it in the spaces between her words. With her first baby on the way, she was scared—scared things might be the same for her as it had been for their mother the night he was born. Heck, he was worried, too. Rachel had always been there for him. It was time he returned the favor.

  * * *

  A thick border of red and blue flowers bobbed in the summer breeze, issuing a light scent along the stone path to the front door. Rachel would know their name. She’d planted them on his last visit, talking on and on about how they’d look when he came back in a year.

  That had been four years ago.

  And that was why he stood before the cottage on Sand Pebble Road with his canvas duffel bag slung over his shoulder, bracing himself for the meeting ahead. A tongue-lashing was to be expected—and not the enjoyable kind with a willing woman. The scolding wouldn’t change a thing, but it would make Rachel feel better, make her feel as if she had done her duty as his stand-in mother.

  Either way, a place like this—a place he could hang his hat—just hadn’t been in the cards for him. Too much gunpowder inside, one black-eyed Sitka woman had said. That had been true once, but he might try staying put—for a while or possibly longer. Rachel would be plumb tickled at that prospect.

  He pounded on the door, stepped back and listened for sounds from inside. Silence.

  Briefly, he considered heading back to the bar he’d passed on the waterfront. He could come back later—when Rachel or Stuart was home. Trouble was, Trask and Corcoran were probably there by now. Better to sit that one out. He tried the door latch, sure it’d be locked tight, only to feel it give under his hand.

  Striding inside, he dropped his duffel on the parlor floor. Sunlight through the window turned the sitting room and entryway into a yellow and rust-red kaleidoscope of color, but the house was eerily quiet. He’d expected Rachel to be home. After all, it was near time for the baby to come. Wasn’t she supposed to be sitting in a rocking chair knitting socks or blankets or something? Course, he hadn’t sent word ahead that he was coming. There hadn’t been time.

  A scrap of paper, blown from the tea table by the breeze he’d created on entering, floated down to the dark plank flooring. He crouched and picked up the note, his gaze falling on a familiar name. He rose to his feet, smoothing out the crease as he read. Hannah’s birthday. He’d missed the date by a few days, but apparently a party was happening even as he stood waitin’ for company. No doubt he’d find Rachel there.

  Hannah. If Rachel had had to take over being his mother, it was Hannah he thought of as his kid sister. She’d been a skinny mite the last time he’d seen her. Rachel had mentioned Hannah didn’t come by anymore, didn’t have much to do with Stuart either, no matter that the man had been a stand-in father and raised her those years at the lighthouse. When her grandfather finally found them, he’d insisted she live in the mansion as her birthright.

  Guess he might as well head there and see what she looked like after all these years. It was as good a time as any to give her that trinket he’d been carrying around. Taking a small leather pouch from his duffel bag, he stuffed it into his vest pocket and set off for the Lansing estate.

  * * *

  The property encompassed the entire crown of a prominent hill. He stopped before entering the wrought iron gate and checked the view of the harbor below. A long, low whistle escaped. Several sailing vessels with their tall masts lined the wharves beside smaller fishing boats. Beyond them, a swath of deep blue water glistened under the setting sun. Hannah must have felt like a queen to see this every day.

  He turned and strode up the long cobbled drive. Around a tree-lined bend, the mansion emerged—elegant white stucco surrounded by an expanse of green grass. The place hadn’t changed much since the last time he’d seen it. Five black carriages were parked in front of the estate, and more conveyances had pulled off under the trees. Gas lanterns spilled light along each side of the marble staircase leading to the front entrance. At the base of the stairs, a large fountain sprayed sparkling water into a shallow pool.

  He swallowed, feeling wholly out of his element. At the door, the butler pursed his lips, but reluctantly allowed him in. He stood in the entryway under thick cherrywood beams that crisscrossed the white domed ceiling. Down the wide hallway came the sound of deep voices interspersed with high twittering and the smell of something sweet baking—cookies or maybe a cake. The flash of a dinner jacket at a doorway had him looking down at his leather coat and canvas pants. Guess he was a bit underdressed for the occasion. He wore his Stetson—the only new thing he owned.

  When someone finally emerged to meet him, it wasn’t Hannah or even Rachel. It was Dorian Lansing. Leaning slightly on the cane that had always been a statement of his power, he strode down the hall decked out in a stiff new suit. The ruffles at his collar seemed out of place on such a man. His appraisal was quick, but Caleb felt as if he’d been turned inside out and inspected thoroughly for bugs.

  Dorian nodded briefly. “Mr. Houston. It’s been a while.”

  “I’ve just arrived in town. Thought I’d let my sister know I was here and say hello to Hannah. Don’t mean to interrupt anything.”

  Dorian peered at him with those piercing blue eyes. The years might have watered them down some but hadn’t blunted their sharpness. “You’ll understand if I don’t invite you in. This is an exclusive gathering. I will inform my granddaughter you stopped by.” Without waiting for a response, he turned back toward the party.

  Caleb hadn’t expected to be treated like royalty, but then he also hadn’t expected to be treated like dirt. He took two steps following Dorian. The butler blocked him from going farther, so he called over the man’s shoulder, “I’ll see Rachel. Just to let her know I’ve arrived safely.”

  Dorian paused halfway down the hall. He didn’t look back. “Very well. I’ll send Mrs. Taylor out.”

  Caleb tried to corral his retaliatory thoughts. He’d better not be waiting until Christmas.

  Sudden movement from a nearby doorway caught his eye. A young woman stood there, frozen like a deer in the woods before it breaks and runs. Recognition hit him like the wallop of finding gold at the bottom of the Indian River. Hannah. Last time he’d seen her, she’d been in braids and wore a pinafore to her shins. Now her fancy white dress hugged curves of a waist he’d never seen before—and her shoulders were bare. Bare! Where had he been while all this came about? She wasn’t quite a woman yet—but she was close, mighty close.

  He tipped the brim of his hat and then signed her name. Hannah?

  A smile transformed her face, dimples forming on both cheeks. She ran toward him, her arms stretching wide to hug him the way she always had.

  “Miss Lansing,” the butler said, and coughed discreetly.

  Immediately Hannah slowed, and the smile disappeared into tightly pressed lips as she lowered her arms. The transformation cautioned him. Guess she was a young lady more than a girl now.

Also By Kathryn Albright

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