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Authors: Francine Rivers

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BOOK: Redeeming Love
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Lord? Did I misunderstand? I must’ve. This can’t be the one.

“I’ve put up the ounce of gold a time or two to get my name in a hat,”

Joseph said over his shoulder. “That was before I found out it took more than that just to get your name in the right hat.”

Michael banged the barrel down hard. “She’s a soiled dove? A girl like that?” He didn’t want to believe it.

“She’s not just any old soiled dove, Michael. Angel is something real fine, from what I hear. Special training. But I can’t afford to find out for myself.

When I’ve a need, I see Priss. She’s clean, does things plain and simple, and she doesn’t cost too much hard-earned gold.”

Michael needed some air. He went back outside. Unable to help himself, he glanced down the street again at the slender girl in black. She was coming back down the other side of the street and went right past him again.

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His reaction was worse this time, harder to take.

Hochschild unloaded a crate of turnips. “You look like a bull who just had a club put to his head.” His smile was wry. “Or maybe you’ve been down on your farm too long.”

“Let’s settle up,” Michael said tersely and went inside with the last crate.

He needed to get his mind back on business and off of her.

“You’ll have enough gold to meet her once we square up,” Hochschild said. “More than enough.” He emptied the crate and set it aside before putting his scale on the counter. “Fresh vegetables are worth a fortune up here. These young gents get up on the streams and live on little better than flour, water, and salted meat. Then they come into town with swollen, bleeding gums and swelling legs from scurvy and think they need a doctor.

All they need is a decent diet and a little common sense. Let’s see what we got here. Two barrels of apples, two crates each of turnips and carrots, six crates of squash, and twenty pounds of venison jerky.”

Michael told him what he wanted for the wagon load.

“What?! You’re robbing me.”

Michael smiled slightly. He wasn’t green. He had spent the better part of

’48 and ’49 panning gold and knew what the men needed. True, food was only part of it, but it was a part he could supply. “You’ll make twice that.”

Hochschild opened the safe behind the counter and took out two sacks of gold dust. He slid one across to Michael and measured a portion out of the other into a hide pouch. Tossing the bigger sack back into the safe, he kicked it shut and checked the handle.

Michael emptied the dust into a belt he had crafted. Hochschild watched, his mouth tipping. “You’ve got enough for a good time there.

Wanna meet Angel? You ought to go down and talk to the Duchess with some of it. She’d usher you right upstairs.”

Angel. Just her name affected him. “Not this time.”

Joseph saw the set of his jaw and nodded. Michael Hosea was a quiet man, but there wasn’t anything soft about him. There was something in his look that made men treat him with respect. It wasn’t just his height or the strength of his body, which were both impressive enough. It was the clear steadiness of his gaze. He knew what he was about even if the rest of the 55

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world didn’t. Joseph liked him, and he had seen clearly enough the effect Angel had on him, but if Michael didn’t want to discuss it, he would respect that. “What’re you planning to do with all that gold dust?”

“I’m going to buy a couple head of cattle.”

“Good,” Hochschild said in approval. “Breed ’em fast. Beef is worth more than vegetables.”

On his way out of town, Michael drove by the brothel. It was big and fancy. The place was overflowing with men—mostly young, some bewhiskered and some smooth-cheeked—nearly all drunk or well on their way to being so. Someone was fiddling, and men were making up bawdy verses to the tune, each cruder than the last.

And she lives there,
he thought.
Up in one of those rooms with a bed and little
else.
He flicked the reins over his horses and kept on going, frowning heavily.

He couldn’t get his mind off her, not all the rest of that day, back down out of the mother lode to his valley. He kept seeing her walking up that muddy street, a slender girl, dressed in black, with a beautiful, pale face of stone. Where had she come from?

“Angel,” he said, trying her name on his tongue. Just testing. And he knew, even as he said it, his waiting was over.

“Lord,” he said heavily. “Lord, this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

But he knew he was going to marry that girl anyway.

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Three

I can endure my own despair, but not another’s hope.

W I L L I A M

W A L S H

Angel washed, put on a clean, blue silk wrapper, and sat on the foot of the bed to wait for the next knock on her door. Two more and she could call it a night. She could hear Lucky’s laughter in the next room. Lucky was full of laughter and fun when she was drunk, which was most of the time. The woman could lose herself in a bottle of whiskey.

Angel had tried drinking with her once to see if she could lose herself, too. Lucky poured and she tried to keep up. Before long, her head swam and her stomach lurched. Lucky held the chamber pot for her and laughed with sympathy. She said some people could hold their whiskey and some couldn’t, and she guessed Angel was one who couldn’t. She took her back to her room and told her to sleep.

That night, when the first man had come knocking at the door, Angel told him, in less than polite terms, to go away. Angry, he went to the Duchess and said he wanted his gold dust back. Duchess came up, took one look at Angel, then sent for Magowan.

Angel didn’t like Magowan, but she had never been afraid of him. He had never bothered her. He was just there at her side when she went for her walks. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t do anything. He just made sure no one approached her outside the Palace. She knew it wasn’t as much for her 57

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own protection as it was for the Duchess. He was there to make sure she came back.

Mai Ling never said what Magowan did to her when he had been sent to her room, but Angel saw the look of fear in the Chinese girl’s dark eyes every time he was near. All he had to do was smile at her, and the girl turned white and broke out in a sweat. Angel sneered inwardly. It would take more than words to make her afraid of any man.

That night, when Magowan came in, Angel was only aware of a dark shape standing over her. “You’re not going to get your money’s worth,” she said. She focused. “Oh, it’s you. Go ’way. I’m not going for a walk today.”

He ordered her tub filled. As soon as the two servants left, he bent over her again, grinning viciously. “I knew sooner or later we’d have to have a talk.” He caught hold of her. Sobering, she struggled, but he lifted her and dumped her into the icy water. Gasping, she tried to get out, but he grabbed her head and forced her under. Terrified by the iron weight of his huge hand, she fought. When her lungs burned for air and she was losing consciousness, he dragged her up. “Enough?” he said.

“Enough,” she rasped, dragging in air.

He shoved her down again. She bucked and kicked, clawing for escape.

When he pulled her up again, she choked and vomited. He laughed, and she knew he was enjoying it. He stood in front of her, feet planted apart, and reached for her head again. An irrational fury rose, and she swung her fist straight and sure. When he dropped to his knees, groaning, she scrambled out of his reach.

When he came after her again, she screamed. He caught hold of her. She kicked and scratched, gasping with effort. He had a hand at her throat when the door burst open and the Duchess sailed in. She slammed the door behind her and shouted at them both to stop it.

Magowan did as she commanded, but he gave Angel a malevolent look.

“I’m going to kill you. I swear it.”

“Enough!” the Duchess said, furious. “I heard her scream from the stair-way. If the men heard, what do you think would happen?”

“They’d hang him,” Angel said, crossing her legs and laughing at him.

The Duchess slapped her. Angel fell back in shock. “Not another word, 58

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Angel,” the Duchess warned. Straightening, she looked at Magowan again. “I said sober her up, Bret, and have a talk with her. That’s all I want you to do to her. Do you understand?” She yanked on the bell cord.

The three waited in pulsating silence. The slap had silenced Angel. She knew Duchess had barely reined in her devil. She also knew after one look at him that another foolish outburst on her part might snap his leash.

When someone knocked discreetly, Duchess opened the door enough to order hot coffee and bread. When she closed the door, she crossed the room and sat down on the straight-backed chair. “I sent you to do something very simple, Bret. You do just what I tell you and nothing more,” she said.

“Angel’s right. They’d hang you.”

“She needs a good lesson,” Magowan said, eyes black on Angel. All her bravado had evaporated. She’d seen clearly enough that something dark and evil shone in Magowan’s eyes. She recognized that look. She had seen it on another man’s face from time to time. She had never taken Bret seriously before, but he was serious, indeed. She knew also that fear was the very last thing she could show. It would feed his blood lust until even the Duchess couldn’t stop him. So she was calm and still, like a mouse in its hole.

The Duchess looked at her for a long moment. “You’re going to behave now, aren’t you, Angel?”

Angel sat up slowly and looked back at her with grave, sardonic eyes.

“Yes, ma’am.” She shivered with cold.

“Give her a sheet before she catches a chill.”

Magowan snatched one from the bed and flung it at her. She wrapped the satin around herself like a royal robe and didn’t dare look at him.

Helpless rage and fear feasted on her.

“Come here, Angel,” the Duchess said.

Angel raised her head and looked at her. When she didn’t move quickly enough, Magowan grabbed a handful of blonde hair and yanked her up. She gritted her teeth, refusing him the satisfaction of crying out. “When she tells you to do something, you do it,” he snarled as he shoved her.

Angel fell to her knees before Duchess.

The woman stroked her hair, and the calculated gentleness after Magowan’s brutality destroyed Angel’s defiance. “When the tray arrives, 59

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Angel, eat the bread and drink every last drop of the coffee. Bret will stay to see that you do. As soon as you’re finished, he’ll leave. I want you ready to work in two hours.”

The Duchess stood and went to the door. She glanced back. “Bret, not another mark on her. She’s our best girl.”

“Not a mark,” he echoed coldly.

He kept his word. He didn’t touch her, but he talked—and what he said chilled Angel’s blood. She forced the bread and coffee down, knowing the sooner she was done, the sooner he would leave.

“You’re going to be mine, Angel. In a week or a month, you’ll push Duchess too far or demand too much. And then she’ll give you to me on a silver plate.”

She had been good since that evening, and Magowan had not bothered her. But he was waiting, and she knew it. She refused to give him the satisfaction Mai Ling did. She always smiled at him mockingly when he came into the room. As long as she did what she was told, Duchess was happy, and Bret Magowan could do nothing.

But the walls were closing in again. More each day. The pressure inside her was building, and the effort to maintain the calm facade was draining her strength.

One more tonight and I can sleep,
she thought. She held out her hands and looked at them. They were trembling. She was trembling all over. She knew she was losing control. Too much pretending for too long. She shook her head. All she needed was a good night’s sleep, and she would be all right tomorrow.
Just one more,
she thought, and hoped he’d be quick.

The knock came and she rose to answer. Opening the door, she took in the man standing there. He was taller and older than most, and well-muscled. Other than that, she noticed nothing special about him. But she felt…what? An odd uneasiness. An increasing of her shakiness. Her nerves were jumping, almost out of control. She lowered her head and breathed slowly, pushing the strange reaction down with every ounce of will she had left.

One more, and I’m free for the night.

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4

Despite his twenty-six years, Michael felt like a callow youth, standing outside Angel’s open door in the dim lantern light of the brothel hallway. He could scarcely breathe, his heart was racing so fast. She was even more beautiful than he remembered, and smaller. Her slender body was clearly outlined in the blue satin wrapper, and he tried not to look below her shoulders.

She stepped aside so he could enter her room. All Michael saw was her bed. It was made, but visions came to him unbidden and, unnerved, he looked back at her. She smiled slightly. It was a worldly, seductive smile. She knew everything that was in his mind, even what he didn’t want there.

BOOK: Redeeming Love
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