Authors: Andrea Parnell
“You’ve forgotten the diamonds,” Loo said, and went quickly to the dressing table, where she opened Delilah’s embossed leather jewel case. Loo lifted out a necklace containing a central tear-shaped diamond centered in a setting of twenty smaller stones. With deft hands Loo fastened the gold chain of the necklace around Delilah’s neck. “Now you’re ready,” she said, smoothing a tier of fire-red curls back in place.
A knock sounded from the door. “And not a minute too soon. Newell’s here. I can’t wait to have the old coot squirming.” Delilah again squeezed her hands into fists. “I keep picturing Papa that night—”
“Hush,” Loo said, placing a finger to her mouth. “Watch your temper. Don’t lose it before the job is done.”
Delilah laughed lightly and pressed Loo’s hand. “You’re right. Now you’d better go.” Quietly she opened the door behind the screen. “And don’t forget to turn the light out in there.”
Loo smiled. “I know what to do.”
Giving her cheeks a pinch and taking a deep full breath, Delilah moved quickly to the door, where another soft knock sounded.
“Come in,” she said to the man in the blue suit, at the same time giving a nod to the two tall young men who accompanied him.
They nodded back in understanding. A handsome pair, blond, brown-eyed, with attractive regular features and full, luxuriant mustaches, they made a marked contrast to the older, much shorter Newell.
“Todd, you and Seth stay by the door and see that we’re not interrupted,” Delilah instructed. Almost soundlessly the pair left. Delilah turned her eyes on Newell and gifted him a look full of promise. “I’ve ordered supper for us, Mr. Newell.” The words rolled out slowly, like honey pouring. “I hope I haven’t been presumptuous.”
Taking Newell’s hand, she drew him toward the settee. No doubt he had been a handsome man a decade or more ago, but now his too-strong jaw had softened to jowls. A decided paunch hung at his middle; his dark hair remained as little more than a circle at ear level. Newell’s deep-set eyes, however, still bore a hint of the ruthless vitality of earlier days.
“Not at all, Miss Delilah. Nothing would please me more than having supper with the most beautiful woman in California.”
Newell smiled at his good luck. Not many conquests were left for a man who had carved an empire out of this rugged land. Not much challenge at all. Running for governor offered a little excitement. But hell. He was a shoo-in. What popularity couldn’t get, money could buy. He’d already put his money where the votes were—in the right pockets. Yes, by God, he would be the next governor. But in the meantime, Delilah would be a mighty fancy pastime.
“You flatter me, Mr. Newell,” Delilah said, and followed with a light little laugh. “I hope you won’t stop.”
“Call me Hoke.” Newell settled his large frame onto the velvet-covered settee and leaned his head against the crocheted antimacassar. “And don’t you worry, madam, I won’t stop until you tell me to.”
“Why, Hoke, honey.” Her voice smoldered and Hoke Newell felt the heat of it stirring his passions in the hot, quick way of his youth. She went on, “I believe we are beginning what will prove to be a long and delightful evening.”
Hoke Newell agreed. It had been too long since he had felt arousal such as this Delilah made him feel. Years had passed too since women had offered him any challenge. He found most of them all too willing to tumble with a man of his means. For him things that came too easy were hardly worth having.
His eyes dropped to the necklace that dangled a diamond pendant on Delilah’s porcelain skin. She’d done well for herself. Not a simple woman like most. She had an amazing way of making him feel he was in the presence of a great lady. He was certain morning would find him in Delilah’s bed. He was just as certain nothing would be usual or dull about the preliminaries.
When Todd served their supper of roast partridge, venison, boiled potatoes and carrots, and fresh-baked bread, Hoke had already consumed nearly a full bottle of wine. Delilah fussed over her guest, tucking the linen napkin into his collar, adding a second serving of venison to his plate, and keeping his wineglass full whenever he drank it down. For dessert she served him fresh strawberries and insisted on feeding him each plump berry with her fingers.
“Delicious, madam,” he said as she offered him the last of the berries. He bit into the red morsel, letting the juice dribble onto his lips and chin. “But not the tastiest delicacy here, I daresay.”
“Perhaps not,” she answered, dabbing his chin lightly with a napkin. “I’ll call Todd to take these dishes away and then we can get on to more stimulating activities.”
“About these boys you travel with—is there any...?”
“Todd and Seth?” Delilah smiled seductively. She knew what Newell thought, what anyone might think, having seen the two men who, along with Loo and Dinah, traveled with her. If only he knew how wrong he was, he wouldn’t be giving her that hopelessly lecherous smile. “Now, aren’t they handsome young men?” she went on. “They’re brothers, you know. I must have interviewed a hundred performers before I found the perfect two. Don’t you think Seth and Todd add a distinction to my acts?”
Hoke snorted. “I don’t think they’re part of the attraction at all. When you’re onstage, nobody’s eyes are on anything else. Don’t see why you use them.”
Delilah thought she detected a note of jealousy in his voice, and it pleased her. To have Newell feel possessive would make it much easier to do what she intended.
She thanked Todd as he loaded the soiled dishes onto a tray while Seth stood guard at the door. Todd’s face betrayed no emotion. He was well-coached. Both were, not only for the acts in which they portrayed Indians or other characters, but also as bodyguards.
Slowly sipping her wine, Delilah thought more about Newell’s comment. The acts, to be sure, were not Todd’s and Seth’s most important function. Delilah needed her privacy to carry out her plans. And on such occasions, she preferred not having even the hotel staff in her room.
Todd and Seth, handsome, muscular, and strong, were handy with guns if necessary. Best of all, both were loyal, and even if they didn’t know just what went on in Delilah’s rooms after performances, understood it was in their best interest to do as instructed and make sure she was not disturbed. Neither brother actually aspired to gracing the stage, but had been persuaded by Delilah’s promise that the pay they received after three seasons of performing would be enough to pay for the ranch they wanted.
For that promise the brothers agreed to do whatever she asked. For her own protection she told them as little as possible. Seth and Todd asked no unnecessary questions of Delilah. Even the brothers didn’t know her other identity. After months of travel together, however, the pair regarded Delilah and her female companions with brotherly affection that went beyond the bonds of the working agreement.
The lock clicked shut as Todd closed the door behind him. Delilah turned her gaze fully upon Newell.
“You really must tell me about yourself, Hoke. I particularly want to know what your passions are.”
She offered Newell an imported cigar from a wooden box and struck a match.
Hoke laughed and leaned forward for a light. He was right. Nothing usual about Delilah. Briefly he told her how he started in California with little more than a pick and a tin pan and built one of the largest mining and cattle empires in the state.
“Of course some figure I don’t have a legitimate claim to my land. Some say I got most of it claim-jumping and running off squatters. Back in those days a man owned what he could hold on to. If somebody stronger came along and took it, a fellow got what he deserved for not being man enough to keep what he had. I keep what’s mine.”
“A remarkable story,” she said when he finished. “But you haven’t told me about your passions.”
“I believe, madam, I have only one passion left. That is to be governor of California.”
Delilah poured two brandies from the crystal decanter. “Surely, Hoke, for a man of your experience and with the ambition it must have taken for your accomplishments, there must be more you want than simply to be called governor.”
Newell drank deeply and puffed smoke from the cigar. “You are perceptive, madam. Truly perceptive.”
Delilah smiled and insisted he have more brandy. As she turned to pour it, she cautiously opened a tiny snuffbox and sprinkled a white powder in his glass. “I hope you’ll tell me what it is you’re after as governor.” She handed him the brandy, waited until he downed a swallow, then patted his hand and smiled. “I can be very discreet.”
“Of course you can,” Hoke agreed, slurring his words slightly. “It won’t be a secret much longer anyway. There’s quiet talk of a new rail line in this territory. I want it run by my ranch. Got a big stake in beef cattle. A rail line would triple my profits.”
“And as governor you would have the means of assuring the line goes where you want it.”
“As governor I would have the means of assuring everything in California goes where I want it.” Newell took hold of Delilah’s hands and tried to look her in the eye. He found it difficult to focus. “I’m a man who gets what he wants,” he said thickly.
“I’m sure you are,” Delilah remarked sweetly, slipping her hands free. Her voice turned chill. “And I haven’t a doubt you’ll get everything you deserve.”
* * *
Tabor Stanton heard the door of the room next to his close for the third time. She must be having a parade march through, he thought irritably. What lousy luck he was having today. After missing his chance at spending an evening with Delilah, he had had the misfortune to occupy the room next door. He could just visualize what was going on with that bald bastard she had singled out in the saloon. Through the wall he heard muffled laughter and even detected an occasional word, neither of which painted as clear a picture as his imagination.
Stretching out on the bed, he cursed Delilah and cursed himself for lacking the foresight to bring up a bottle. When laughter rang out anew after a few moments of silence, Tabor angrily arose and headed back to the saloon. Apparently he wasn’t going to get any sleep for a long while. That being the case, he needed something more than his thoughts to occupy him for the night.
* * *
Hoke rubbed his eyes, embarrassed a little that the lady held her liquor better than he did. He lit a second cigar, hoping a few draws of the pungent tobacco would revive him.
“I believe I’d enjoy it, madam—” Newell paused and cleared his throat “—if you would tell me your passions.”
“Unlimited,” Delilah responded. “I love song and dance, the applause of the audience, handsome men—but my greatest passion is for cards. I love a game of poker above all else.” Her lids dropped slyly over her blue eyes. “You can’t imagine the things I have lost.” She sighed. “Would you care to play a game?”
Newell nodded. “After that enticement, how could I say no?”
“I expect I should,” she said as she opened a fresh deck of playing cards, running the smooth, cool surfaces slowly through her hands. She never broke a new deck without thinking of old Sulley. Over the years she had continued practicing the tricks Sulley taught her, had even added a few of her own. Her lids fluttered flirtatiously. “I’m sure I’m no match for an experienced player.” With deliberate awkwardness, her delicate hands shuffled the cards.
An hour later Hoke laid another winning hand on the table. Delilah spread her cards across from them and let her shoulders slump a little. Another losing hand. Hoke Newell looked as pumped up and pleased as a new rooster in the hen yard.
“I tell you, honey,” he said as he made a second stack of gold pieces on the table, “I don’t feel right winning all this money from a woman. Kind of grates on my honor to take it.”
“Now, Hoke, you won it fair and I insist you keep it. It’s only the night’s receipts, and I don’t suppose I’ll miss that too much,” Delilah said, stretching back in her chair so that the little silver buttons strained on her snug bodice. The diamond around her neck bobbled on the chain and caught the lamplight so that it briefly reflected muted rainbow colors on Hoke’s starched shirtfront. After a moment Delilah got up and refilled the brandy glasses. “Here,” she said lifting her glass for a toast. “Let’s drink one to luck.”
“And to ladies,” Hoke added.
“Why, thank you, Hoke,” Delilah whispered as she eased open the third button on her bodice. “My, I’m getting warm.” She fanned her bosom with a card. “I just know you’re going to give me a chance to win back my money.”
Hoke followed her movements as best he could, his mind filling with thoughts of unfastening the remaining buttons. He took a swallow of brandy and nodded. “Why, madam, I believe you told me you’ve already lost all the money you have with you.”
“But, Hoke, dear,” Delilah leaned close and whispered to him, “I have other things of value.”
“No.” Delilah shook her head slowly and cast her eyes at the double bed across the room. “I will wager a few hours of my personal attention against all the money you’ve won. Oh, and, say, all you have in your pockets.”
Hoke’s eyes opened wide. “Why, I’m carrying more than five thousand dollars.”
That would just about cover the payroll he’d stolen from her father. Delilah opened a fourth button and leaned forward. A trace of perfume wafted up from the warm flesh uncovered.
“Such high stakes ought to make this an exciting hand. You aren’t afraid to play one more, are you, Hoke?”
Newell breathed in the exotic scent. “Afraid? Hoke Newell?” He could hardly hold back his laughter. Delilah must be drunker than he was after all. A bet like that, and she hadn’t won a hand all night.
“My deal, I believe.” Delilah dealt out the cards with a new expertise Hoke was too dazed to notice. A wide but false smile covered her hatred for the pompous man across from her. She’d endured just about as much as she could stand of Hoke Newell. Cards fanned out, Hoke discarded two and took the replacements. Delilah did the same. “I believe my luck has changed, Hoke. Look at this.”
Hoke dropped his cards to the table. He held a pair of nines and a pair of fives. Florid color rushed into his face when he saw Delilah’s hand.