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Authors: Connie Mason

For Honor’s Sake

BOOK: For Honor’s Sake
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“I WON YOU IN A POKER GAME.”

Rod paused for her gasp of outrage and was not disappointed.

“A young man named Kevin O’Brien paid your way to San Francisco. He and I met in a poker game several weeks ago. O’Brien lost heavily and in the end wagered the only thing he had left of value … you. His hand was good. But not good enough.”

“You were the man Kevin O’Brien lost to,” Julie whispered. “Did you cheat the poor man out of his possessions?”

Rod exploded in a whirlwind of anger. “I do not cheat at cards! Kevin O’Brien was a young fool who wagered a fortune on a turn of a card. As it turned out, you were the one to come out the winner. O’Brien was not the man for you.”

“And I suppose you are?”

Rod turned thoughtfully, suddenly certain that he was exactly the right man for the little hellion. She needed someone to match her fire, a man capable of taming the wild streak in her. He was convinced their coming together would be more like an explosion than an act of love, and his tense body yearned to be the first to elicit those cries of ecstasy from her full red lips.…

For Honor’s Sake

Connie Mason

© 1987, 2012 Connie Mason. All rights reserved.

To Jerry—
Because he deserves it.

PROLOGUE

San Francisco—September 1851

The noise in Casey’s Pleasure Palace was deafening. Though the evening was still young, the crowd pressing around the gaming tables and cheering at the scantily clad dancing girls as they high-stepped about the stage could barely be contained within the four walls of the huge, gaudily decorated saloon. Yet the five men seated around a circular table in a far corner of the room seemed oblivious to the revelry erupting all about them.

In San Francisco in 1851 a man’s fortune could be made or lost in a poker game. A lucky turn of a card meant a stake to another backbreaking year in the gold fields. An unlucky draw could send a man back from whence he came, penniless, broken, all his hopes and dreams of elusive riches shattered.

It mattered little that the average yield of gold was one-half ounce per day per man, for before each prospective miner dangled the lure of the big vein, the mother lode just waiting for the right man to stumble upon it.

Don Rodrigo Delgado fanned his cards out, holding them close to his body. His darkly handsome features were expressionless; not even a blink of a thickly lashed eyelid gave a hint of his thoughts. On his left, Brute Kelly, so named because of his size and ugly features, gave a noncommittal grunt and eyed Rod narrowly. To his right, Digger Walker, one of the first prospectors to
reach California, spat contemptuously into a spitoon, wiped the brown stain dribbling down his chin with the back of a grimy sleeve and slapped his cards face down on the scarred table.

The young man across from Rod chewed his bottom lip nervously, his bright blue eyes intent upon the cards in his hand. His expressive face registered first disbelief and then joy, as if he couldn’t believe what he saw. A shock of rusty hair blocked his view and he swiped at it impatiently as his eyes darted around the table and then dropped to his cards once more. Kevin O’Brien’s future hung on the outcome of this hand. Down to his last grain of gold dust, Kevin could not disguise his optimism as beads of sweat gathered on his brow and trickled down his freckled face. The outcome of this hand was his last chance to win the stake he so desperately needed to see him through the winter, and it appeared his fervent prayers were about to become reality. Hoping his eyes hadn’t played tricks on him, Kevin fanned out the three queens and two tens, suppressing a sigh of relief when he saw he hadn’t been mistaken.

Beside Kevin, Bud Morley quietly folded his hand and sat back, his eyes shifting to each of the other four players. “I’m folding,” Bud announced morosely as he silently contemplated the huge pot building up in the center of the table.

All eyes turned to Kevin. Fearing that his voice would give him away, Kevin pushed his last remaining grains of gold forward and then looked expectantly toward Digger. Digger spat again, this time missing the spitoon by a good foot and said, “Damned if I can find a reason to stay. Count me out.”

A hint of a smile touched Rod’s black eyes and just as quickly disappeared. It was obvious by the pile of nuggets and dust in front of him that he had no cause for complaining about his night’s work. “I’ll call and
raise,” Rod announced calmly, noting the crestfallen look speading over young O’Brien’s face.

Brute Kelly cursed loudly, slamming a ham-like fist on the table and rattling the clutch of nuggets. “Damn you, Delgado! How in the hell you do it is beyond me! If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were—”

“Careful,
amigo,
” warned Rod ominously, his voice soft yet deadly. “To finish your sentence might prove fatal.”

“Aw, come on, Delgado, he didn’t mean nothin’ by it,” soothed Digger. “Everyone here knows you ain’t a cheater. What do you do, Kelly?” he nudged, “are you in or out?”

“Shit!” exploded Kelly. “I’m out!” His mutterings were ignored as Rod turned his attention to O’Brien.

“Looks like it’s between you and me, O’Brien,” Rod said, smiling affably. “Are you going to see my raise?”

His face a vivid shade of red, O’Brien made a frantic search of his pockets but came up empty. “You cleaned me out, Delgado, I ain’t got a speck of dust left,” he moaned, disheartened.

“Well, then, I guess the pot’s mine,” Rod shrugged as he reached out to rake in his winnings.

“Wait!” cried O’Brien, staying his hands.

Rod looked up, frowning as a piece of white paper fluttered from O’Brien’s hand to rest atop the glittering pile in the center of the table. “What’s this?” Rod asked, picking the folded sheet of paper up gingerly.

“It’s all I have left of value,” O’Brien offered apologetically.

Rod opened the folded sheet, his straight black brows knitted together as a number written in bold letters and bearing an official stamp leaped before his eyes. “What in the hell good is this worthless piece of paper?” Rod asked, willing to give the youth the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s not worthless,” O’Brien insisted hotly. “I … I was one of the lucky men to draw a numer in the lottery.
I’ve been offered a lot of money for this piece of paper.”

It was obvious Rod still had no idea what O’Brien was talking about. “Lottery? What kind of lottery?”

“You mean you ain’t heard?” amazed O’Brien. “Why, a boatload of women are arriving next week. The woman holding number thirty, the number matching mine, is to be my wife.”

Rod was incredulous. “What kind of fool do you take me for?” he scoffed, openly skeptical.

“He’s tellin’ the truth, Delgado,” Digger assured him. “The drawing was held months ago. Hundreds of men vied for the chance to draw for a wife. Looks like our young friend here was one of the fortunate few to win a bride. Each man who drew a number paid for the woman’s passage to California. Were he to sell his right to a wife he could get ten, hell, twenty times what he paid for her passage.”

“Bah!” spoke up Morley who already had a wife and children back east. “Who wants a whore for a wife.”

“These women ain’t whores,” spoke up O’Brien indignantly, “They’re good women recruited by reputable people.”

“Well, I ain’t vouchsafing their reputation,” chuckled Digger, “but any woman brave enough to venture to California, where I hear tell only eight percent of the population is female, is okay in my books.”

“Why are you so willing to part with your woman?” questioned Rod, his dark eyes fixed on O’Brien’s reddening features.

“If I lose, it ain’t gonna do me no good anyway. There ain’t no way I could support a wife. Guess I’d have to head back home. It won’t be difficult, what with the sailors jumping ship when they reach California, to find a berth back east. My family was against me coming out west in the first place.”

“And if you win?” Rod asked quietly.

“I aim to win,” bragged O’Brien, tapping his cards confidently. “Then I’ll collect my winnings and my bride and have enough to stake me until I strike it rich.”

Rod almost felt sorry for the green youth, ill-equipped to deal with the harsh realities of life in the west, especially since gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill on the American River. Rod had little use for a bride since his own
novia,
his fiancée, Elena Rodriguez y Montoya, a fiery woman whose Castillian blood was as pure as his own, awaited him at his father’s
rancho.

But something within him compelled Rod to give the boy a chance. If O’Brien won, then so be it. But if the youth lost, Rod would go home much the richer. “All right, O’Brien,” Rod finally said, tossing the paper he had been holding back onto the pile of nuggets and dust. “Your bet stands. Show your hand.”

One by one O’Brien turned up his cards, his eyes searching Rod’s face for some sort of reaction. “Very good,” allowed Rod, his expression unreadable. Jubilant, O’Brien’s hands moved shakily toward the pot, a broad grin splitting his features. “But not good enough.” Rod’s last words startled O’Brien and he watched with stricken eyes as one by one Rod revealed his own cards.

A collective gasp arose from the men seated around the table as well as from onlookers who had gravitated toward the action. “I’ll be damned,” said Digger, scratching his shaggy head.

“Four kings,” acknowledged Bud Morley reverently as he sneaked a glance at O’Brien, whose face had turned pasty.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” exclaimed Brute Kelly bitterly. “Leave it to a damn greaser to have all the luck, if that’s what you want to call it,” he insinuated nastily.

In the time it took to exhale, Rod had his gun unsheathed
and aimed at Brute’s midsection. Brute drew in his breath sharply, paling beneath his deep tan. “What were you saying against my race,
amigo
?” Rod asked with quiet menace.

Several people nearby began drifting toward the table, always ready to witness a good gunfight, even one so obviously one-sided. “Aw, hell, Delgado,” began Kelly, gesturing wildly, “I ain’t got nothin’ against your race. Why, you Spanish dons own half of California. Can’t you take a little joke?”

Before Rod could answer, O’Brien, finally over the shock of losing, cut in. “Mr. Delgado won fair and square, Kelly, I got no call to fight with him and neither have you.”

“Don’t aim to fight,” grumbled Kelly, squirming uncomfortably as he stared down the barrel of Rod’s gun.

“Get out of here, Kelly,” Rod warned, waving the gun toward the door, “before I forget I’m a man of honor.”

Relaxing visibly, Kelly turned without another word and strolled off toward the bar, silently vowing to one day get even with Rodrigo Delgado for the affront to his pride. The crowd that ringed the table, disappointed by the peaceful settlement of the argument, melted away in search of livelier entertainment.

Rod turned his full attention back to his winnings. Drawing a leather pouch from his pocket he quickly scooped the nuggets and dust inside, knotting the strings securely. At first, Rod considered returning to O’Brien the money he had lost. He soon discarded the idea, aware that the youth was ill-prepared to deal with the harsh realities of western civilization, especially since the gold discovery had brought every type of scoundrel and criminal to California in search of wealth and fame. He would be doing O’Brien a favor, Rod decided, by allowing him to return east to his doting family who no
doubt would welcome him with open arms. Who knows, he might even be saving the young man’s life.

“What will you do now?” Rod asked the drooping youth.

“I aim to be on the Flying Sally when she sails out of San Francisco Bay tomorrow morning,” O’Brien said grimly. “Maybe it’s for the better. What … what are you going to do about the young lady who expects to find a bridegroom waiting for her?”

The question startled Rod. Until that moment he had given little thought to the woman represented by the folded slip of paper now in his possession. “Her ship is the Westwind out of New York, due next week. It’s your problem now, Mr. Delgado,” O’Brien shrugged carelessly. “Mine is getting myself back to Boston.” Abruptly the youth whirled on his heel, leaving Rod more than a little disgruntled by the turn of events fate had dealt him.

Sliding the slip of paper into his vest pocket Rod headed through the crowded room toward the door. He had had enough of Casey’s Pleasure Palace for one night. A voice at his elbow stopped him in his tracks.

“How much do you want for it, Delgado?”

“What are you talking about, Kelly?” Rod asked, turning to face a leering Brute Kelly.

“The woman. The idea of a wife pleases me. There ain’t nearly enough whores to go around and the thought of a woman around when I needed her suits me. What are you asking for the kid’s lottery number? You probably have one of your own kind somewheres so I’d be willing to take this eastern woman off your hands.”

Rod realized that now was his chance to rid himself of an unwanted responsibility as well as collect a tidy sum. But, strangely, his code of ethics prevented him from allowing an innocent woman to fall victim to an abusive, mean-tempered man like Brute Kelly.

“Sorry, Kelly,” Rod said nastily, “I wouldn’t entrust
a dog to your keeping, let alone a helpless woman.”

“Why you son-of-a—” Brute never got to finish his sentence as Rod, catching the man off guard, slammed a well-aimed fist into his midsection. Brute doubled over in pain, gasping for breath.

“I warned you about calling me names,
amigo,’”
Rod said contemptuously. Kelly was in no condition to reply as Rod calmly turned on his heel and disappeared through the swinging doors.

BOOK: For Honor’s Sake
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