December 15, 1893
"Blast it," Zara muttered. Her foot was bleeding again!
Holding on to the corral post for balance, she scowled at the lacerated flesh on the bottom of her left foot. The rags she had tied around her shoe hadn't protected her wound, and the rocks on the trail coming down from the foothills had done their worst. Even though it was bleeding again, she couldn't be bothered with it now. She was too close to reaching her goal. She quickly shifted the rags to cover the cut, then paused a moment to catch her breath and look at the large adobe ranch house a hundred feet away. It rose out of drifts of snow and only glimpses of its red-tiled roof could be seen through the heavy white mantle atop it.
Killara. The house was more imposing and intimidating than she had imagined. For a moment she felt a thrill of fear at what she was about to do. These wild inhabitants of Arizona had no more liking for housebreakers than the people in her native Ireland and were reputed to be much more violent in dispatching them.
Nonsense, there was no reason to fear. From a high lookout she had watched people depart and was sure the house was deserted now. It was well after midnight; the servants and ranch hands slept in the village over the hill and would not venture out on so frigid a night. She had ascertained before she left Hell's Bluff that afternoon that the savage was planning on indulging his lustful appetites at Garnet's bordello and would pose no threat. She had all night in which to search for and find the treasure--and get away with it, of course.
The icy wind quickened, chilling her to the bone yet bringing with it the faint musical jingle of wind chimes from the front porch. Comfort flowed through her as she realized they reminded her of the chimes during the Mass at Father Timothy's cathedral. Surely this was a sign that what she was doing was not unforgivable and all would be well.
She darted toward the front door, her heart pounding, her breath visible in the clear cold air.
Green eyes glared malevolently at her in the darkness! She stopped short in shock and then drew a relieved breath. It was only a huge black cat curled up on the doorstep.
"Have you no sense?" she whispered. "You're no guard dog. You'll freeze out here. Go to the stable, where it's warm."
She stepped forward and the doorknob turned easily under her hand. She had learned the doors of Killara were always left unlocked. Who would dare to steal from the all-powerful Delaneys?
The cat leapt to its feet, arched, and hissed at her.
"Go away. That man is not coming back tonight, and he does not deserve your loyalty if he left you out here in the weather to fend for yourself."
The cat's paw darted out and raked her ankle.
She bit her lip to keep back the cry of pain. The animal's claws were exceptionally sharp.
The cat hissed again, its eyes glittering in the moonlight.
"You're cursed with a foul disposition and a foolish nature." She was the one who was being foolish, she realized, talking to the dratted animal to avoid taking this final step. She must not waver at this crucial moment. She could feel exhaustion seeping into her muscles, the throbbing in her foot increasing with every step. The deed must be done quickly or not at all. What did she care if the stupid feline froze to death? He was clearly as much a tomcat as his master and every bit as wild. She opened the door, hesitated, and then motioned impatiently. "I suppose you might as well go in."
The cat immediately abandoned the attack and ran ahead of her into the hallway. She slipped silently into the house and closed the door. Not softness but good sense had inspired her to let the cat in, she assured herself. Now the animal would not be outside howling. How that dreadful noise would wear on her already frayed nerves!
She identified the scent of lemon wax, pine, and oak in the darkness. She pulled a candle and matches from the deep pocket of her skirt and knelt; the light from the candle seemed bright in the large foyer. A massive copper chandelier hung above her and fine pictures filled the wall space. She had taken pains to learn everything she could about the interior of the ranch, but hearing was not seeing. It was truly a grand and wondrous place. She felt another jolt of fear. The fineness of her surroundings compared to her own ragged attire and dirty face made her all the more aware she did not belong there. What if someone--
She did belong there. At this moment and for this purpose she did belong at Killara. She straightened her shoulders and marched toward the beautifully wrought oak staircase.
At the head of the staircase she paused uncertainly, peering down a long hallway. She knew most of those doors led to bedrooms, but there should be a small door in the alcove to the left. . . .
There it was!
Stale, damp air assaulted her nostrils when she opened the door to the attic.
Darkness. Cobwebs. Dust.
She drew a deep breath and braced herself, suddenly feeling very much alone as she started up the long flight of stairs. This attic held more than the treasure; it held memories and perhaps even ghosts of those who had gone before.
She crossed herself and muttered an incantation at the thought. What if the vengeful spirit of Malvina Delaney waited for her at the top of those steps? Who knew what caused a spirit to linger. The old woman had died over six years before but she had possessed a strong soul and would have been fiercely opposed to what Zara was about to do.
She paused on the fifth step as she heard a hiss from behind her. She looked back to see the cat crouched at the bottom of the stairs, glowering at her.
"Well, aren't you coming?" She tried to keep her voice from trembling. "Not that I care, you understand, but there are probably some fat mice for the taking up here."
The cat didn't move.
"You might even get a chance to claw me again."
The cat glared at her in the darkness.
"Suit yourself." She started up the stairs again. "I have no use for your company anyway, you stupid animal."
Soft fur brushed her ankles as the cat darted past her up the steps.
Relief and hope surged through her. If there had been ghosts in the attic, surely the cat would have known. Everyone knew cats were canny creatures blessed with knowledge of ghosts and the little people that common folk did not possess.
There were neither ghosts nor demons guarding the attic, and she had nothing to worry about but finding the treasure and getting away from Killara before the servants came back from their village at dawn.
Hells Bluff, Arizona
"You must stop this foolishness and go home, Kevin." Silver Savron jerked her head at the pretty, fair-haired strumpet in the bed beside her cousin. "Leave us."
Kevin Delaney sighed in resignation as he lifted his tousled dark head from the pillow. His indomitable relative stood in the doorway. "Hello, Silver."
"Who are you to bust in here?" The strumpet glared at her indignantly. "Get out!"
"Hush." Silver closed the door. "This doesn't concern you. Run along. He has no further need of you."
"That's hardly a decision for you to make, Silver." Kevin raised himself on one elbow. "Did it ever occur to you that you might have interrupted a very delicate moment?"
"Did I?" Silver's glance raked his face. "Nonsense, you've obviously had enough of her for the moment. She looks content. You're not content but the edge is off." She plopped down on the chair by the door. "I must talk to you."
"At a whorehouse in the middle of the night?"
"Where else could I see you? The first thing I heard when I got to town was that you've not left this place for the last
"Who is this shrew?" the harlot demanded.
"Easy." Kevin's soft drawl suddenly held a biting edge. "I can see how her intrusion may have annoyed you, but I can't allow you to abuse her." He smiled at Silver. "I reserve that privilege for myself."
"Who is she?"
"My esteemed cousin, the Princess Silver Savron." Kevin waved his hand at the naked woman. "Miss Hester Jenkins."
Hester Jenkins's eyes widened. "A real princess?"
"Oh, very real. Sometimes she makes other realities pale in comparison."
"I've never noticed you paling," Silver said dryly.
The strumpet studied her before nestling closer to Kevin. "Princess or not, she's too old for you. Send her away and I'll show you a way to--"
"Old?" Silver shot the woman an outraged glance. "Get her out of here before I scalp her."
"Out." Kevin patted the woman on her round behind. "She means it. She may be a Russian princess by marriage, but she's also half Apache. I'll call you after my dear cousin has the courtesy to depart."
"Don't count on him," Silver said as the woman reluctantly scooted out of bed and wrapped a shawl around her naked body. "You'd do better to find another client to fill your coffers tonight."
Hester Jenkins ignored her and smiled at Kevin. "Don't be long. I'll wait for you."
Silver should have expected that reaction. Whether they were soiled doves or respectable ladies of the town, they all chose to wait for Kevin. "Women spoil you. I'm sure it's not good for your character," she commented as the door closed behind Hester.
"I'm a rich man and pay well for my pleasure." Kevin smiled crookedly as he sat up in bed and leaned back against the headboard. "Hester's a very greedy lady and knows she won't lose by waiting."
It was the first time since she had entered the room that she had seen that jaded cynicism he showed the rest of the world. It was a natural armor for the heir apparent to a vast fortune, but she still felt a pang of regret. She could have told him it wasn't the money that drew women to him, not even the classic perfection of his face or the whipcord strength of his body. It was the reckless intensity, the flashes of wicked humor . . . and the hunger. The hunger had always been there since he was a small child. He had always had a tremendous appetite for learning, for affection, for living. Now that he was a man, his hunger included a voracious appetite for the carnal pleasures.
He was wild, hard, and sometimes bitter, and yet Silver's husband, Nicholas, said he saw many of her own qualities in Kevin and perhaps that was why there existed this special bond between them. Why else was she there when she should have been home with her own children waiting for Nicholas?
"Does Nicholas know you're here?" Kevin asked as he tossed aside the sheet and got up. He crossed to the table opposite the bed and poured himself a whiskey. He still had an Indian's lack of shame in his nudity, she noticed with approval, and his dissipation had not as yet had any effect on his physique. His body was as tight and muscular as when she had last seen it two years ago on the day they had bathed in a stream at the tribal encampment.
"Nicholas is in San Francisco." She added quickly, "Not that it would make a difference. He never interferes with what I want to do."
He lifted the glass to his lips and drank deeply. "Not in any obvious manner. However, I can't imagine him letting you come here alone."
"Nicholas knows I can take care of myself." She shrugged. "But I admit I was glad he was out of the picture. Nicholas believes you should be allowed to sow your wild oats."
"And you do not?"
"You've sowed enough wild oats in the past three years to cover half of Arizona with fields. You drink too much. You've had four gunfights in the last year, and you spend more time in this whorehouse than you do on Killara."
Kevin took another drink and then made a face. "Well, I won't be drinking much more of this whiskey. Lord, it tastes foul."
"How can you tell? It must all taste the same when you drink as much as you do. It's time you tempered that Delaney wildness with good Apache discipline."
He chuckled. "Only you would claim it was my white, not my red blood, that's troublesome."
"I am a half-breed too. I know the conflict you face." She met his gaze. "And I know what Malvina and Joshua tried to do to you. But you did not let them succeed. You are not a false-faced white. You are yourself, Kevin Delaney, and there will always be people who hate you for your Indian blood. It does not mean you have to shoot all of them."
"I don't shoot all of them. Just a selected few." He lifted a brow. "Is that what this is all about? Plainfield deserved to be shot."
"So I understand. I hear Jud Plainfield is a terribly unpleasant man." She frowned. "But you handled it very poorly. If a man deserves shooting, he deserves killing. You only wounded him, and as soon as he heals he will come after you again."
He threw back his head and laughed. "Lord, there's no one like you, Silver. It's not every lady who would chide me for not killing a man. I assure you, it was purely a miscalculation. I was drunk at the time."
"I told you that you drink too much."
"Perhaps." He smiled mockingly. "Or maybe it's my Indian blood. You know we heathens can't handle our fire water. I did pretty well considering my condition. Plainfield has been laid up for over a month."
"But any day now he will be well enough to come after you."
He smiled coldly. "Good, I hate to leave loose ends dangling."
"I thought that was why you were still here. I want you to leave for Killara tonight."
"And I will do what I choose. I'm no longer a child you can order about, dear coz."
No, there was nothing childlike in the fierce man who was glaring at her now. He was totally adult, totally male, and frustratingly stubborn. "I never ordered you about and I never treated you as a child."
His ferocity vanished. "No, you never did. You shouted at me, you showed me, but you let me choose." He set his glass on the table and fell to his knees in front of her chair. "Which brings up the question of why you're not letting me choose now. Are you, by any chance, worried about me, Silver?"
Excerpted from The Delaney Christmas Carol by Kay Hooper, Iris Johansen and Fayrene Preston. Copyright © 2004 by Iris Johansen. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.