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Authors: Kathleen Y'Barbo

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BOOK: Anna Finch and the Hired Gun
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“I was.” Jeb rested his palm on his Colt. The room was warm, his gun cold. Holliday was fast, but Jeb knew he was faster. In a fraction of a second he could easily dispatch this man to meet his Maker. Earp might send him there right on Holliday’s heels, but Jeb didn’t care. Not at that moment. Not with Doc Holliday in his crosshairs.

A half-hearted grin crossed Holliday’s face before disappearing. “Might I be of some assistance?”

Jeb stared into the face of evil and realized this man bore only a passing resemblance to the Holliday he remembered. The features were there, to be sure. Consumption could be the only explanation for the change in him.

“Yes,” Jeb said as evenly as he could. “You got the time?”

The gunfighter reached into his vest pocket, and Jeb half expected him to pull a pistol just for sport.

Instead, he consulted a gold watch, then returned his attention to Jeb. “A quarter past one,” he said as he replaced the watch in his pocket.

Time hung between them a second longer than it should have as Jeb memorized the killer’s features and corrected the image in his memory. As he decided whether or not to end it all right there.

His trigger finger found its place. A quick tug, one shot, and Ella’s death would be avenged.

A murder for a murder
.

If he pulled the trigger, Jeb would be no better than the man standing in front of him.

With a curt nod, Jeb turned his back on Doc Holliday and walked out of the dining room before his need for revenge trumped his sense of morality.

Once he crossed the dining room threshold, Jeb forced his hand off the weapon and into his jacket pocket. With each step, he made another promise to Ella. The investigation would continue. Proof would be found. And then he would put Doc Holliday in the grave he’d earned long ago.

A flash of blue caught his attention, and he knew he’d found the next fugitive on his list: the woman who’d put a bullet in him. Jeb headed her direction.

What he’d do with her when he caught up to her was another question entirely. As he recalled, she still had one more bullet in that gun of hers.

He would no sooner be out of one scrape before he was in another …


Bat Masterson, regarding Doc Holliday,
from Gunfighters of the Western Frontier, 1907

Anna walked out of the Windsor Hotel’s dining room with a story and no idea what to do with it.

My readers
. Had she actually said that? She’d had no readers since the last time Mae saddled up, but she aspired to reaching a whole new audience.

She tucked the pages under her arm and descended the stairs. It was a heady assignment, this righting of the wrong against the Earp name. Even Mae’s story paled in comparison to the reality of the life of Wyatt Earp.

There had to be a way to gain the attention of the press. But how?

Papa had friends at both the
Denver Times
and the
Rocky Mountain News
, but neither would likely publish a story written by a nobody like her. Besides, Papa would never stand for any female bearing his good name giving the appearance of being employed. Especially in the mood he’d been in of late.

His good name
. Anna stopped in the middle of the staircase. That was it. She just needed a new name.

Anything but Finch.

She’d not had to make this decision when writing the Mae Winslow books. All of them had Anonymous listed as the author, which was fine by her, but a factual piece would never be printed without some kind of credit.

Anna began to run through names in her mind.

“My favorite little birdie!” called the familiar and despised voice of Winston Mitchell as Anna reached the lobby. “I’ve been waiting for you, Miss Finch. I wondered if you might tell me what’s going on at your neighbor’s house, though I’m willing to listen to anything you might want to tell me about your lunch as well.”

From the top of his bowler hat to the tips of his freshly shined shoes, Winston Mitchell was a study in fashion. His jacket matched his cravat, which coordinated with his vest and likely his undershirt and socks. Were he not as well known for his ability at fisticuffs, the middle-aged journalist might have been considered too unmanly to survive in a town such as Denver. Despite his popular gossip column “Perish the Thought” at the
Denver Times
, Mitchell’s British accent was the object of much speculation. Some said he only affected the accent to hide his true background, while others said he was a lost or wandering nobleman who came to Denver to keep from being found.

Anna didn’t really care where he’d come from. She just wished he’d go back there. Over the last few years, he’d made her his favorite subject, documenting in embarrassing detail her failed attempts at
securing a husband. It was hard enough dodging all the men her father threw at her without having Winston Mitchell mock her every move.

Little bird
. That’s what he called her in print as a thinly veiled attempt at keeping her identity secret while making sure she and most others who counted knew exactly to whom he referred. Just this week, he’d mentioned her in a column she’d been unable to forget.

What little bird refuses to leave her finely feathered nest despite her longsuffering parents’ best efforts? This reporter knows all too well the travail associated with the lengthy process of sending the fifth and final hatchling forth, as he has reported on many of the events created for this very purpose. Perhaps, as Papa Bird was overheard suggesting, the little one’s wings have grown weak from flapping. Oh, perish the thought!

Biting her lip against the words she longed to speak, Anna put on a smile. She’d learned the hard way that angering Mitchell was never a good idea. The entire city read his column.

“Is that so?” she said. “Then you’ll be waiting a long time, for I’ve nothing to say.”

“Of course you do.” He smiled. “So, about the Becks. A houseguest arrived via private rail car. What can you tell me?”

“I’ve no idea what you’re asking,” she said. “Perhaps you should go to Mr. Beck with your concerns.”

“I have, but he refuses to comment.”

She shrugged. “As do I. Now if you’ll excuse me—”

Anna darted around the column at the base of the stairs, but unfortunately so did Mr. Mitchell. With a shake of his head, he fell in step beside her.

“Mrs. Beck spent a brief amount of time in the dining room with you. And she handed off a letter.”

“Aren’t you informed?” Anna picked up her pace. “I suppose you know I also had business at the post office. I intend to write letters, and unless the rules have changed, the postal service requires stamps.” She gave him an exasperated look. “Am I wrong? After all, you seem to know everything that goes on in Denver. If there’s anything you miss, well, perish the thought.”

There
. She felt slightly better, except Mr. Mitchell still kept up with her.

He frowned. “There’s a story here, and I’m going to find it. If you helped me, I might consider it a personal favor.” He paused. “And you a personal friend and valued source. Have I mentioned I have a rule regarding personal friends and valued sources, little bird?”

Little bird
. Looking straight ahead seemed the best and safest response. It also allowed Anna to see that the exit was not as far as it seemed.

“Personal friends and valued sources rarely appear in my column, Miss Finch. I find that a conflict of interest.” The vile man chuckled. “Thus you might wish to attain that status. So, about this mysterious visitor. I’m told his trunks bore a royal crest, though not a single one of my sources could say what it looked like with any certainty.”

Anna giggled. “Then perhaps you need a better quality of valued sources. Oh, and personal friends too.”

“You’re quite funny, Miss Finch,” he said in a voice that held no humor. “I’m certain you must amuse yourself to no end on those long, lonely nights at home with your mother and father. And with that view of the Beck home out the window.”

She ignored the jab with an effort worthy of Mae Winslow.

“I fail to see why you protect him, considering in all the years you’ve been in love with him, he never looked twice at you.”

“Of all the nerve.” Anna stopped short, blood pounding at her temples. “How dare you? I have overlooked all the awful things you’ve said about me in your wretched column. Until now.” She took a breath and let it out slowly, hoping it might give her time to rethink her feelings. It didn’t. “So,
Mr. Mitchell
, I will have an apology from you immediately or I will have to seek further recourse. I assure you, you will hear from my attorney before the end of the day.”

She had no attorney, but likely Papa did. As angry as she felt, Anna would walk the length of Eighteenth Street until she found one.

When Mitchell merely stared at her, she swallowed hard. That they stood in the very public Windsor Hotel lobby was not lost on Anna. But the fact that she had finally stood up to the horrible fellow who wounded her for sport felt exhilarating.

Thus, she couldn’t help saying one last thing. “I see you’re not of a mind to make the apology I demand. Very well. I have a question of my own.”

He looked amused. “And what might that be, Miss Finch?”

“What part of England are you from again? I’ve traveled extensively on the Continent as well as in Great Britain, and I can’t quite seem to place your accent.”

The color drained from his face, as did a good portion of his bravado. “Yes, well, we moved around quite a bit, my family and I.”

“You’re not misrepresenting yourself to your readers, are you, Mr. Mitchell? Your name
is
Mitchell, isn’t it?” She paused to enjoy his obvious discomfort. “For a journalist to bend the truth—well, perish the thought.”

“All right, then.” He sighed heavily, then made a great show of bowing before her. When he straightened, the amusement had returned to his face. “Miss Finch, I intended neither to offend nor to upset your delicate sensibilities in any way.” He paused and glanced around the lobby before his gaze met hers. “I am asking your forgiveness, though I do not deserve it, wretch that I am. Would you do me the great and glorious honor of accepting my apology?”

When she merely crossed her arms in response, unwilling to let him get away with mocking her yet again, the awful man fell to his knees. All around her, people stopped to stare. Some whispered comments to companions while others merely indicated displeasure with a raised brow or a frown. Still others seemed amused.

“Get up this instant,” she demanded. “You’re making a scene.”

“Forgive me, Miss Finch!” Mitchell cried loudly. “I beg you!”

Wishing she’d just ignored him from the moment he appeared, Anna turned to flee and slammed into a wall of buckskin and brawn. The man, obviously fresh off the trail and far out of his element in this place, grasped her by the shoulders to keep her upright.

“So sorry,” she said as her gaze collided with eyes the same smoky gray as a Colorado winter sky.

A jolt of recognition hit her. She had looked into those eyes before. How could that be?

The mountain man said nothing, but his grip remained firm, his stance unwavering. When he released her, Anna stumbled backward. Once again the stranger saved her from landing anywhere but on her feet, this time by wrapping his arm around her back and hauling her against him.

Anna looked up. The vantage point was familiar, as was the feel of muscle beneath rough cotton. The stranger, his face covered with a month’s growth of whiskers, looked down. He had saved her from hitting the floor, but he couldn’t save her from her shaking knees.

Or from losing her brand-new hat in the scuffle. She looked down at the creation, its feathers hopelessly ruined by the oversized boot that had stomped it nearly flat.

The mountain man gently released her, though his palm remained at her waist as he reached down to sweep up the remains of her hat and offer it to her. “My apologies, ma’am.”

That voice. She knew it, had heard it yesterday morning at the river when it bristled the air with words of surprise then made quick amends by soothing her fear that she’d done him in with her panicked shooting.

Anna stared at the man’s midsection.

Him
. It had to be.

Anna braved another glance at his face and found the scar on his chin. The lobby began to spin. “You.”

She blinked hard, remembering what lay under the layers of clothing, the damage her Smith & Wesson had done.

Looking for a way—for words—to right the wrong she had inflicted on him, she pressed her hand against the spot where she’d drawn blood. His quick intake of breath told her she’d either shocked
the poor man or hurt him once again. Even through her glove she could feel the bandage.

His hand covered hers, and she froze. Her gaze trailed up the length of him, darting across a shirt that deserved to be thrown in the rubbish bin rather than washed one more time, up the tanned skin of his neck. Finally she met his gaze. The mountain man lifted her hand and held it, then released her.

The man she’d shot.

BOOK: Anna Finch and the Hired Gun
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