Leavenworth, Kansas, 1880
If that arrogant pig thinks he can get away with this, he's sadly mistaken. Rebecca's hand tightened around the bill that had been returned to her several minutes ago, along with only half the payment due. Not that Caleb Adams couldn't afford to pay. The man's father owned the Adams Express stagecoach company, Leavenworth's only form of public transportation. It was bad enough that Caleb Adams had come to town three weeks earlier with his mistress in tow, but now he refused to pay Rebecca for the elaborate gown the woman had ordered. He'd sent what he thought "the gown was truly worth."
The gown was worth a small fortune in labor alone! Sabrina Leslie had taken nearly an hour to look at all the fashion plates, then decided that not one of them really appealed to her. Rebecca had spent the next three hours drawing sketch after sketch until Sabrina declared it was "Perfect!" Rebecca thought it just plain tawdry. The gown was blood-red with a nearly nonexistent bodice, the sleeves mere threads of silk covered by matching feathers.
Feathers! Contrary to Sabrina's beliefs, not every seamstress had red feathers just floating around in case some man's mistress wanted them on a dress. Rebecca had been forced to buy a chicken from a farmer outside of town. Thank God he'd killed it for her before she had to pluck it and dye the feathers to match the gown's material.
If that isn't worth a few measly dollars of Caleb Adams's family fortune, Rebecca thought, I'll eat my shoe! Which was now getting very dusty as she stomped down the main street of town toward the Adams Express office.
For a Saturday afternoon, Leavenworth was fairly busy. Most days there were no more than half-a-dozen people on the sidewalks. But in mid-June, the local ranchers sent their cattle to be sold. That left the small town crowded with herds being brought in every day by men who needed a good night's rest and a hot meal before moving on to Kansas City, where they would ship the cattle east by railroad. The cattle drives would continue throughout the summer, making Leavenworth a bit of a boomtown.
Rebecca's mind was not on the visiting cowboys, however, but on the man she was about to see. Don't let his wealth intimidate you. Remember, you've seen richer men than Caleb Adams with their britches down around their ankles. He's no better than you are. You not only need that money, you deserve it.
Rebecca's quick footsteps echoed on the boardwalk as she stormed into the Adams Express office, letting the door slam open and swing back on well-oiled hinges. Built all of oak, the walls were covered with maps, stagecoach designs, and schedules. A marred but freshly polished counter stretched the length of the room, separating the ticket seller from those waiting on the available bench for their stage.
Holbrook Adams, a gentle-looking, gray-haired man in his fifties, stood behind the counter, his black waistcoat pulling tightly across his thick middle. He had always been very amiable, and Rebecca thought that if she could choose a father, it would be someone as gracious and good-natured as Holbrook Adams. She was sorry he would be witness to the tongue-lashing she intended to give his less impressive son.
"May I help you?" he asked, bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows lifted curiously.
Rebecca swept the room with a glance, spotting the dark figure of Caleb Adams sitting behind a desk in the small back office. "I'm here to see him," she said and started forward. Holbrook made no move to stop her.
Caleb's tall form was bent over the table, scrutinizing the work in front of him. His suit coat was slung haphazardly across the back of one of the extra chairs in the room, leaving him in a wrinkled white shirt. A loosened black string tie hung miserably around the collar as if it was about to give up all hope of surviving and plunge to its death. A tuft of his pitch-black hair fell forward, covering one of his dark-lashed eyes.
She was sure he heard her entrance, but Caleb Adams had yet to look up. Rebecca stopped in front of the cluttered mahogany desk and waited. She thought about slamming the office door for emphasis but decided against it; she wanted his attention, she wanted her money, but she did not want him to think she was addlepated.
Taking this opportunity to study him, she wondered how she ever could have found him the least bit attractive. When he had brought Sabrina to her shop to be fitted, Rebecca's first impression of him was that he resembled an Arabian stallion. He stood half a foot taller than she, and in her mind she could easily place him running wild across a night desert, his dark coloring mixing with the shadows, his deep brown eyes flashing, reflecting the glow of the moon and his desire to be free. But whether or not Rebecca found him handsome was a moot point. She had no intention of ever getting involved with a man.
"Mr. Adams?" Rebecca forced through clenched teeth.
Long seconds passed as he finished what he was writing and, with aggravating slowness, set the pen aside and lifted his head. "Yes?"
"Mr. Adams," she said again in a calm, businesslike voice, holding the bill out for him to see. "You brought Miss Leslie to my home two weeks ago to be fitted for a gown, instructing me to send you the bill. I did that. But in this morning's mail I received only half payment. Would you mind paying me the rest of what you owe?"
Caleb Adams reached across the desk and took the crumpled papers from her hand. "Did you read the letter I enclosed?" he asked with cool diplomacy.
"Yes, I did, and I must tell you that the gown I made was worth every penny I charged."
"I beg to differ, Miss ... uh, what was it again?"
"Well, Rebecca," he said, smiling lazily, his eyes glittering. "I've bought many gowns for Miss Leslie--some even more extravagant than the one you made--and you must understand that I won't pay more for a gown out here than I would in New York City."
Rebecca pressed clenched fists into her hips, stifling the urge to throttle the arrogantly handsome man who stared up at her as if she were the one who didn't understand the value of a dollar. "Mr. Adams, may I remind you that in Kansas things cost a bit more, because supplies have to be transported from larger cities. The silk used for Miss Leslie's gown, for instance, I ordered from New York. So, you see, it most likely would cost less if you had the dress made there."
"Still, the price you're asking is outrageous. I won't pay."
"You will," Rebecca said calmly, though her blood was boiling.
"I will not," he repeated, smiling that maddeningly complacent smile once again.
"Oh, but you will," Rebecca insisted, stepping forward until the edge of the desk pressed against the front of her thighs. "If I have to be your shadow every day for the rest of your life, if I have to haunt you, even after death, you will pay me for that dress."
"Be my shadow? Haunt me?" A deep, sardonic laugh filled the room. "Would you really go that far, Miss Rebecca?"
"Mr. Adams," Rebecca said, tilting her head forward a bit, "you have no idea how far I would go to collect what is owed me."
Caleb leaned back in his chair, ease radiating from every pore of his body. "That could be very amusing. You haunting me through all eternity over a silly gown Sabrina will probably wear only once."
Rebecca bit the inside of her cheek, expecting to taste blood. She tried to breathe evenly, waiting until the urge to kill Caleb Adams passed. "Do you have any idea how long I worked on that gown or what I had to do to please your Miss Leslie?" She could feel her body turning hotter with every word. "I had to pluck a chicken. Do you hear me? A chicken!"
"Why would you want to do something like that?"
Rebecca gave in to her fury and kicked the foot of his desk, succeeding only in redirecting her anger from Caleb Adams to his equally despicable furniture. "I did not want to pluck the damn chicken! I did it because Miss Leslie guaranteed me that you would pay generously for my trouble. Otherwise, I assure you, she could have gone without those blasted feathers!"
Not waiting for a response, Rebecca swung around and stormed out of the office and through the front door--a little less gracefully than she had entered. Without a glance, she passed people on the street she normally would have stopped to talk to and brushed off their concerns over her noticeable limp.
How dare he refuse to pay her! She had slaved day and night over that dress, sewed until her fingers bled. And for what? Half of what the wretched thing was really worth.
Rebecca didn't slow her pace until she reached the peace and solitude of her home. She slammed the door behind her as hard as she could and went directly to the stove to put on a pot of water for tea. Now what would she do? How would she ever break even? Rebecca mumbled a curse under her breath, damning Caleb Adams to eternal hell.
Caleb watched the angry sway of Rebecca's skirts as she left. Then he turned to stare at the crumpled papers in his hand, noticing that his letter was much more wrinkled than the bill. She must have given it quite a beating. His eyes scanned the numbers written in a neat female hand as he tried to recall the many dressmaker bills he'd paid back in the city. When he calculated the difference between some of those and the one Rebecca had sent, he realized she wasn't really asking that much more. And he doubted any of those city seamstresses had ever plucked a chicken.
His mouth curled up on one side. A chicken! Good Lord, he'd never met any woman who would do that.
He tried to envision Sabrina with a dead chicken in her hands, pulling feathers for a dress. With an amused chuckle, he realized Sabrina would never dirty her hands with anything so lowly, not even if she was starving.
He could, however, clearly see Rebecca bent over a lifeless fowl, strands of her brown hair coming loose from her chignon, her nose crinkled in distaste, plucking for all she was worth, just to satisfy a customer. Of course, a woman like Rebecca wouldn't let anything go to waste. She had probably eaten chicken for a week.
Caleb grinned. When he'd first seen Rebecca, she had been crouched on the floor behind a mannequin, hemming a gown, a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles teetering on the tip of her nose. Pins stuck out of her mouth in every direction, and she'd pricked herself trying to hurriedly remove them. He still remembered the curse she'd muttered, thinking she'd said it too quietly for her unexpected visitors to hear. Sabrina hadn't heard. She had been too preoccupied, frowning over Rebecca's tiny shack of a house, which was also her seamstress shop. Caleb had heard, though, and he'd had a hard time biting back a laugh.
She was a scrawny, homely thing, her light brown hair pulled back in a too-tight bun at the base of her neck, the faded calico day dress hanging from her shoulders like a well-worn rag doll's. He remembered thinking she ought to wear more attractive clothes if she expected people to order gowns from her.
But she hadn't looked homely today. He had hardly recognized her when she first burst into the station, not without those spectacles teetering on the tip of her nose. When he realized who she was and what she had most certainly come for, he'd kept his head down, implying he had far more important things to do than deal with an irate dressmaker. It was a tactic he had used often in New York while running his maternal grandparents' newspaper.
Caleb could still see her in his mind's eye when he'd finally deemed it appropriate to acknowledge her presence. He had to smile. He could tell she was trying to stay calm; though her cheeks were rosy with anger, her teeth remained clenched when she spoke. Her hair was still in a bun, but looser this time, and piled atop her head. Caleb wondered what it would be like to remove the pins from her chestnut hair. He could almost feel the long, silky tresses running over his warm fingertips. At this thought, his stomach muscles tightened suddenly, and the smile disappeared.
The woman who had stormed into his office was quite pretty, if the truth be known. Her peach-and-white gingham dress fit nicely--maybe a bit too nicely. It had been snug enough to accentuate the firm roundness of her breasts and the tapering curve of her waist.
Caleb's fist closed around the bill as he pushed back his chair and stood. It was only fair that he pay her, he decided. He would just have to make it clear to Sabrina that she was not to order such extravagant dresses any longer. He strode out of the cramped office toward the ticket counter, where his father stood.
"Is there a problem, son?" Holbrook asked solemnly, his crooked grin giving away his amusement.
"You couldn't help but hear the lady's tirade," Caleb said in answer to his father's question. He straightened his collar and tried to fix his uncooperative tie. "I suppose she's right. I think I'll go over there and pay her."
His father nodded. "Good idea, son. A very good idea." Holbrook's stomach jiggled as he laughed and then broke into a fit of harsh coughing.
Caleb frowned in concern and waited for his father to regain his breath. Finally Holbrook waved him off, and he left the Express office, heading down the sidewalk toward the opposite end of town where Rebecca's house was located.
As he passed the Wilkes Hotel, he glanced up at the second-story window farthest to the right. Sabrina was probably there now, napping. All that simpering and pouting must be exhausting, Caleb thought with a shake of his head. Sabrina was beginning to get bored with Leavenworth. She had told Caleb, after their first week in town, that she tried to make friends with some of the local ladies, but they all sniffed rudely and ignored her, wanting nothing to do with a fallen woman.
Caleb had planned to return to New York at the first opportunity, but now it looked as if he would be staying in Leavenworth a while longer. His father's recovery from the illness that remained a mystery to Doc Meade seemed slow. Maybe he ought to send Sabrina back to her apartments in the city. She would, be happier there, and he would no longer have to listen to her complaints about being so far from "polite company." He could give her enough money to keep her occupied until his return--if he returned.
Caleb had just passed the post office, which doubled as a telegraph office, when he heard someone calling his name. He turned to see a tall, reed-thin young man coming toward him.
"Oh, Mr. Adams, am I glad to catch you." The man wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve, disturbing his adequately greased and combed blond hair. "This just came over the wire from New York. It's for your father, but it sounds mighty important. I thought maybe you could take it to him."
Caleb took the paper the man held out and read it. "Damn!" he swore, instantly turning and starting back across the dusty street toward the Express office. Once there, he smacked the telegram onto the counter. "She's missing," he told his father.
"Who?" Holbrook asked.
"Megan, that's who. Mother says she disappeared two nights ago."
"Dear God," Holbrook whispered, picking up the paper. "What are we going to do?"
"I'll tell you what I'm going to do," Caleb said. "When I find her, I'm going to--"
"How are you going to find her when we don't even know where she went?"
Caleb had already been thinking about that. Why would his sister have run away in the first place? She was only sixteen, not interested in any young man that Caleb knew of, so she hadn't run off to get married. So where could she have gone? Her only family was Mother in New York and he and Holbrook here in Leavenworth.
Caleb nodded decisively. "She's on her way here."
"What?" his father asked, obviously confused.
"When Megan found out I was leaving, she cried for days. She begged me to bring her along, but I wouldn't."
"Whyever not? I'd love for her to come here and live."
"She has school, Dad. Besides that, Mother insists the city is a better place for a girl her age. She'll make friends and, with Mother's influence, be right in the heart of society."
Holbrook's face fell. "True," he said. "Not that I wouldn't rather she were here."
"If I'm right, she will be. Probably today or tomorrow." He stepped outside, waiting for his father to join him. "I'd better telegraph Mother. She'll be worried sick. When does the next stage pull in?"
Holbrook took out his watch and checked the time. "Any minute now."
"I won't be surprised if Megan just happens to be on it." Caleb took a few steps, then turned back to face his father. "If you decide to thrash her, don't be too harsh." He started away, muttering, "Leave some skin for me."
Rebecca stood at an open window with a cup of tea in her hands. She watched Caleb Adams walking down the main street of town in her direction. Her heart leapt as she realized he might be coming to pay the rest of her bill. She flushed, taking back every mean, nasty name she had called him only minutes earlier.
And then, as she saw him stop, speak to the telegraph operator, and turn to walk back across town, she called him all the names again--adding some new ones and even inventing a few. She stomped her foot, sloshing tea over the rim of the cup and burning her stomach through the material of her dress.
"Now look what you've done, Caleb Adams," she said, brushing at the hot stain. She looked up and saw the afternoon stage barreling into town, stirring up a great cloud of dust. "I hope that thing runs you over. You deserve it."
The Kansas sun beat down on the roof of the Concord coach, baking its tired, dusty passengers. Between the heat and the ruts the stage kept hitting, Megan Adams didn't think she had a chance in Hades of making it to Leavenworth alive. Trying to keep her hair from matting to her sweat-dampened forehead, she ran her fingertips through the dark strands. She would surprise her father and brother, all right--when they were forced to drag her lifeless body out of the stagecoach.
Megan shifted slightly on the hard seat, tugging at the front of her blouse to pull the silk away from her sticky skin. She forced herself to smile at the couple in the seat across from her. They had been staring at her, not saying a word, since they all boarded the stage together. It was like traveling with two corpses.
If she didn't get out of this oven soon, Megan knew she would go mad. Her body felt on fire, every layer of her expensive clothing like another log thrown on to build the blaze. Her mother had always filled her closets with dresses, skirts, and blouses made of the finest materials, but she would rather wear a flour sack for a trip halfway across the country. She smiled secretly, reveling in the knowledge that she had thrown her frilly, annoying hat from the train as soon as they'd pulled away from the depot.
"Leavenworth!" the driver yelled. "Comin' up on Leavenworth, folks!"
Finally, Megan thought, mentally preparing herself for coming face-to-face with her father and brother. It wasn't her father she was worried about so much as Caleb. Papa would be too glad that she was safe to scold her, but Caleb would ream her up one side and down the other--and then threaten to send her home.
Well, she wouldn't go. She just wouldn't. She might be only sixteen years old, but she was certainly mature enough to know she didn't want to live in New York City with Mother any longer. Megan was tired of being treated like her mother's favorite china doll, dressed up and dragged to society parties.
Megan's fingers clenched into a fist around the drawstring of her silken purse. This was all Mother's own fault. If she had been faithful to Papa, Megan and Caleb and their parents could still be living together as one big, happy family.
Megan looked out the stagecoach window at the flat, never-ending horizon. But now Mother lived the life she adored in New York City--and she could do that without Megan--while Papa was happy in Leavenworth, running his stagecoach company. His life seemed infinitely more appealing.
The coach came to a rough halt, and Megan heard the driver jump to the ground. She took a deep breath, hoping she could at least get a little acquainted with the Kansas town before Caleb tied her to the back of the next outgoing stage and sent her home.