Three years later
Weak, rain-drenched sunlight filtered through the lace curtains at the window of the Pacific Express passenger train, casting a dappled pattern on the white sheet of stationery that Eden Paxton clutched in her hand. As the luxury car chugged along the track to crest yet another steep grade on its way to Denver, she reread the words written on the paper for at least the tenth time in a week. Assimilating their meaning gave her the same sense of vertigo she often experienced when she looked down from high places. In short, her whole world had been tipped off its axis, all her hopes, dreams, and plans drifting away from her like pollen in a high wind.
Her fiancé, John Parrish, had ended their engagement, not because he no longer loved her but because his highfalutin parents, San Franciscans of considerable social prominence, disapproved of Eden's lineage. According to them, she lacked a "purebred" pedigree and therefore was unsuitable to be John's wife or the mother of his children. John hadn't even had the courage to tell Eden in person but instead had sent her this dreadful letter.
Five years of my life, she thought bitterly, wasted on a pampered milksop who lacks the backbone to defy his father and mother. Even more telling to Eden, John had failed to stop his parents from vilifying her reputation in order to gain public support for him. It was unseemly for a man to end his engagement to a respectable young lady without just cause, so the Parrish family had whispered the ugly truth about Eden's illegitimate birth to anyone who would listen, not caring a whit about the embarrassment they might cause Eden or her mother, Dory. Every time Eden thought about it, she burned with anger. Yesterday morning she and her mother had left the city in disgrace, scorned by lifelong friends, snubbed in places of business, and turned away from houses they'd visited for years. They were now pariahs in San Francisco, a place they had both considered home. The humiliation had been complete and as sharp as a stiletto.
How could John have allowed his parents to behave so shabbily? Eden didn't care so much about the consequences for herself. All the fussiness of city life had set her teeth on edge at times, and she'd grown impatient more than once with her flibbertigibbet friends who cared more about their appearance than anything else. But it had broken Eden's heart to see her mother mistreated. A stiff-necked butler at the home of one prominent family had glared down his nose at Dory Paxton as if she were a cockroach and ordered her off his employer's porch. Dory had handled this dismissal like a grand lady, holding her head high as she quit the property, but Eden would never forget the pain she'd glimpsed in her mother's eyes.
As if guessing her daughter's thoughts, Dory curled slender fingers over Eden's wrist, forcing her hand and the letter to her lap. "Please, darling, no more fretting on my account." A delicate blonde with gentle blue eyes, Dory flashed an overbright smile. "I've wanted to live closer to your brothers for years. Truly I have. Every time we've visited them at one of their ranches, my heart has broken a little when it came time to leave. I thought about relocating. The only reason I never acted on it was because I couldn't bear the thought of leaving you behind. You were so in love with John. Your future seemed to be all mapped out. I couldn't be in two places at once, so I decided to stay put."
Eden no longer felt certain that she had ever truly loved John. She'd shed a few tears after receiving his letter, but then anger had taken over. Where was the heartbreak that she should be feeling? Why wasn't she devastated and filled with despair? When a woman truly loved a man, she surely felt something besides outrage and secret relief when he walked away.
The thought troubled Eden. How could she have misread her own feelings so completely? Even more worrisome, why had she never seen how weak and spineless John was when it came to displeasing his parents? She considered herself to be a fair judge of character. With four older brothers to educate her, she'd learned at an early age that not all men could be trusted. And yet she'd trusted John, accepting all his flimsy excuses for postponing their nuptials, never once suspecting that he no longer wanted to marry her. Perhaps that was why she felt only anger—because he'd made a complete fool of her. If Eden possessed one trait in goodly measure, it was pride. Being made to look ridiculous didn't sit well with her.
"Everything will work out fine," Dory went on. "You'll see. Remember how wonderful it was when we lived on the ranch in California before Ace started winning big at cards? Despite the struggles, we pulled together after Joseph Senior died, and we all became so close—a real family."
Privately, Eden couldn't help but think the term ranch was a little too grandiose for the scraggly patch of land and three-room shack that they'd been forced to call home when they finally reached California. But her mother was right otherwise. As a family, they had made many wonderful memories during those lean, trying years—target-practicing, going on hunting trips for meat, playing games in the yard after the day's work was completed, and then gathering for evening meals, grateful to have food, no matter how simple the fare. Later, when Ace began winning at cards, their circumstances had drastically improved, a rags-to-riches story, but when Eden revisited some of her fondest childhood memories, she often recalled the shack and the wondrous love that had warmed every drafty room.
Sticking to her subject, Dory chattered away. "Ace has made some very sound investments on my behalf over the years, you know. Soon I'll have the proceeds from the sale of the house in San Francisco. There will be plenty of capital to start over fresh. No Name is such a friendly little town. I'm sure we're both going to love it there."
Eden hoped that would be the case, but deep down, she doubted it. For one, her mother was accustomed and well suited to living in a city where she could enjoy art museums, a well-stocked public library, shopping opportunities galore, and a variety of social activities. No Name, Colorado, offered few of those amenities. There was also the fear that Eden's remarkable resemblance to her sister-in-law, Caitlin, would raise suspicion. People in No Name might snub Dory once they realized the truth about her past—that their town drunk, Connor O'Shannessy, Caitlin's father and now deceased, had taken wrongful advantage of Dory twenty-four years ago and left her pregnant with Eden, his bastard daughter. The fine citizens of No Name might not dress as richly as Dory's faithless friends in San Francisco, but under the homespun, they could be just as self-righteous and narrow-minded. None of them would want to associate with Eden or with the woman who had given birth to her.
Keeping her thoughts about that to herself, Eden stuffed John's letter back into her beaded reticule and snapped the bag closed. Over the last week, Dory had endured insult after insult, and Eden didn't have the heart to deal her yet another blow by playing devil's advocate. Besides, maybe Eden was wrong, and the good people of No Name would welcome them into their midst with open arms. If not, Eden would deal with the problem when it arose. For now, it felt good to see her mother smiling again.
"I'll love being able to see my brothers on a daily basis," Eden said with forced cheerfulness. "Little Ace is over two years old now! Can you believe it? I'll bet he's absolutely darling."
"About the age of our little towheaded traveling companion," Dory replied.
At mention of the child seated behind them, Eden glanced over her shoulder to smile at his mother. The slender brunette had done a remarkable job of keeping the toddler entertained during the journey from San Francisco, reading him stories, playing games with him, and helping him to draw pictures. Occasionally, though, the little fellow escaped into the aisle and raced madly back and forth to burn off excess energy. Whenever he stopped near Dory's seat, the older woman plucked interesting objects from her reticule and allowed him to handle them. He was particularly fond of her little mirror and heavily laden ring of house keys.
Returning her attention to her mother, Eden said, "As much as I've missed my brothers, I'm excited about seeing the little ones. I have a niece I've never clapped eyes on! In Ace's last letter, he said she's already smiling and trying to make sounds. It'll be so much fun to play with her." Born in December, Dory Sue Keegan was the newest addition to Ace's growing family. Eden didn't approve of parents naming children after living family members. To her way of thinking, the practice created unnecessary confusion for the children. But she was pleased that it made her mother happy to have the baby named after her. "If she's as beautiful as Ace claims, she'll be a delight to behold. Do you suppose her eyes may change from blue to brown when she gets older?"
Dory nodded. "It's possible. But I'm hoping not. With Caitlin's fair complexion and Ace's black hair, she'll be truly breathtaking if her eyes remain blue." Dory studied Eden's face, a slight frown furrowing her brow. "If the baby resembles Caitlin as much as Ace says she does, she also looks exactly like you. How are you going to feel about that? The first time you met Caitlin, I know it gave you a start."
Meeting Ace's wife the first time had given Eden far more than a start. It had been like seeing her own reflection in a mirror and had shocked her to the marrow of her bones. Caitlin was a bit shorter than Eden, but otherwise, they looked enough alike to be twins, sharing the same fine features, wide blue eyes, and flame red hair. Until meeting Caitlin, Eden had accepted on a superficial level that Connor O'Shannessy was her biological father, but the reality of it had never been driven home until she stood face-toface with her sister-in-law and saw the undeniable evidence of her parentage with her very own eyes.
"I'll be fine, Mama. I've come to love Caitlin. You know that. She isn't to blame for what her—for what our father did." Eden patted her mother's hand to reassure her. Immediately after being told the truth about her real father, Eden had been furious with Dory for lying to her for so many years, but over time, she'd come to understand that her mother had meant well. Bastards weren't welcomed into polite society, and Dory's deception had spared Eden untold heartbreak during her childhood. If people in San Francisco had known of Eden's illegitimacy and that her father was a land swindler and murderer, they would have made her life a living hell. "I'll enjoy having a little niece who looks like me."
Settling back in the plush leather seat, Eden turned her mind to other possible topics of conversation. Revisiting the past always upset Dory, and little wonder. The poor woman had lived through trials that many females wouldn't have survived. "I'm feeling a bit parched. I wonder if they have any lemonade on board."
Dory glanced at the gold watch pinned to her pleated silk bodice. "It's nearly midday. We could adjourn to the dining car a little early. I'm hungry already."
"That is a grand idea." Eden reached up to straighten her hat, an awkward creation bedecked with a riotous fan of red feathers and a fake canary. One nice thing about moving to No Name was that she would no longer have to follow fashions she felt were absurd. Her brothers would have a good laugh when they saw her with a bird perched on her head and wouldn't hesitate to poke fun at her high-necked choker collar and bell-shaped skirt. Pushing to her feet, she offered her mother a hand up. "If we're early, we can have our choice of tables."
"And perhaps we can save a place for that young woman with the towheaded little boy," Dory suggested. "He is such a sweet child."
Eden glanced over her shoulder to smile at the young mother again. The toddler was squirming in his seat and rubbing his eyes with one plump fist. Eden sympathized. The train ride from San Francisco to Denver was always fun and exciting at the start, but the novelty soon wore off, even for adults.
"Would you and your little boy care to join us for dinner?" she asked the brunette. "My name is Eden—Eden Paxton. My mother's name is Dory. We'd greatly enjoy the company."
"Helen Rodericks," the brunette said, leaning forward on the seat to briefly clasp Eden's outstretched hand. "And we'd love to join you. Thank you so much for the invitation."
Eden chucked the little boy under his chin. "And what is your name, young man?"
The child muttered something indecipherable. Helen clarified with, "Timothy."
"Hello, Timothy. I'm delighted to meet you." To Helen, Eden added, "Perhaps over lunch, we can keep him entertained so you can enjoy your meal for a change."
Helen laughed and flashed a grateful smile. "That would be fabulous. He's getting very restless, and I'm running out of ideas to keep him distracted."
"I'm getting restless, too," Eden sympathized. "According to The Little Giant Cyclopedia of Ready Reference, modern-day trains travel at an average speed of just a little over forty-eight miles an hour, but this one definitely isn't."
The brunette laughed again as she set Timothy off her lap and vacated her seat. "If only we were traveling that fast. We would have reached Denver sometime early this morning."
"Instead we won't be arriving until late tonight." Eden smoothed her silk skirt. "My traveling costume will be hopelessly stale and wrinkled when we finally reach our destination. After we get to Denver, we have to take another train south from there to No Name."
"It's all these steep grades," Dory inserted. "No train on earth can consistently travel at forty-eight miles per hour up all these inclines."
Just as Eden turned to collect her reticule, the passenger car lurched violently. The sound of tearing metal filled her ears as she was thrown against the back of the seat in front of her. The impact snapped her forward at the waist, and she barely managed to catch herself from becoming airborne. Her blasted hat, securely anchored to her head with pins, went flying, taking some of her hair with it. Concerned for her mother, Eden groped for Dory's elbow.
"Timothy, are you all right?" Helen cried from behind them. "Did you bump your head?"
"Dear God!" a man somewhere at the back of the car shouted. "We must have hit another train!"
"Or there's some sort of debris on the tracks," another man grumped. "I swear, as much as I paid for my fare, you'd think I'd get better service."
"Mother, are you hurt?" Eden asked, helping Dory to regain her balance.
Dory collected herself with brisk efficiency, righting her plumed hat and tugging on the cuffs of her leg-o'-mutton sleeves to straighten her velvet traveling jacket. "My goodness, what a fright! I'm fine, dear, just fine." Dory cast a worried glance at the crying toddler behind them. "Is little Timothy okay?"
Bent over her son, Helen replied, "He's got a goose egg on his forehead, but I don't think any serious damage was done."
"I wonder what on earth we hit," Dory mused aloud.
Eden was about to reply when a distant popping sound came from outside the train.
"Oh, sweet Jesus, have mercy," a woman across the aisle bleated. "It's a holdup! We'll all be killed!"
Helen grabbed her towheaded son into her arms. "Perhaps it's only a mechanical malfunction."
Eden had been around weapons too often to believe that. The muted popping sounds were gunfire, no question about it. The train was about to be robbed.
Eden quickly switched places with her mother.
"What are you doing?" Dory cried.
Eden knew better than to confess that she wanted to be in the aisle seat in case the situation became violent. Dory was older and frailer. Eden would recover from a physical injury far more quickly. "I just want to see what's happening." As she spoke, Eden sat down, spread a lace handkerchief over her lap, and began unfastening the diamond pin from her bodice. "Remove your jewelry, Mama. If it's a robbery, they'll want all our valuables. If we cooperate, we should be fine."
Dory clucked her tongue. "Not my wedding band, surely. It's not worth much, and it has a great deal of sentimental value to me."
"Tuck it inside your bodice and give me everything else then," Eden replied. In a louder voice, she addressed the other passengers. "If you want to survive this spot of trouble without any mishap, bundle all your jewelry and money in a handkerchief and stand ready to hand it over without argument."
"Oh, dear God," a woman cried.
Another woman snorted in disdain. "I refuse to hand over my ruby bracelet! It cost a fortune!"
"Is it more important to you than your life?" Eden dropped her timepiece and gold locket onto the handkerchief. Then she reached into her reticule for her engagement ring, which she'd stopped wearing after receiving John's letter. The large emerald, encircled by diamonds, was ostentatious and had never been to her liking, but John had selected it and she'd always worn it with pride. It was one piece of frippery she would never miss. "Hurry, Mama."
Eden heard footsteps on the platform at the front of the car and the faint sound of screams coming from the car behind them where other passengers with less coin were packed together in more Spartan accommodations.
"We must be ready to hand it all over," Eden pressed. "That's why they're here, for our valuables and any gold or cash that may be on board. If we draw no attention to ourselves, perhaps they'll pass us by without a second look."
The door burst open and three disreputable-looking men spilled into the car, all of them wielding Colt .45 revolvers, Eden's own sidearm of choice. As a youngster, she'd spent countless hours learning to handle all types of weapons, a skill her eldest brother, Ace, had deemed highly important, even for a girl. But young ladies in the upper echelons of San Francisco society had no need to carry a gun. Though Eden still target-practiced on a regular basis to avoid getting rusty, she'd fallen out of the habit of keeping a weapon on her person.
Eden took the measure of the robbers and was instantly filled with dread. They were the filthiest creatures she'd ever seen, their clothing rank, their unshaven faces gray with grime. But what truly alarmed her were their eyes. Her brother Joseph had taught her to size a man up by searching his gaze. Eyes are windows to the soul, he was fond of saying. Look hard and look deep, little sister. If you can't see into a man, run like hell. These men's eyes resembled gray marbles—cold, glassy, and expressionless. The hair at the nape of Eden's neck prickled. Unfortunately, running like hell wasn't an option. She could only send up a quick prayer that no one on board would be harmed. The men seemed well practiced in the art of robbery. One rushed to the back of the car, a second covered the middle, and the third took a stand near the front door, brandishing his weapon as he thrust out a soiled drawstring bag to collect the passengers' valuables.
"Jewelry, timepieces, money!" he barked. "Keep your traps shut and hand it all over if you want to stay alive!"
A finely dressed gentleman at the front of the car pushed up from his seat. "Here, now, there's no need for violence!" he cried.
That was all the poor man had time to say before he was shot dead center in the chest. The bullet's impact sent him careening backward onto his wife's lap. The woman began to shriek hysterically, pressing her hands over the hole in her husband's shirt, which oozed blood.
"Morrison!" she cried. "Morrison?" She looked up at the robber, slack-jawed with shock. "You've killed him!" she screamed. "You've killed him dead!"
The bandit leveled his gun at the woman's forehead. "And I'll kill you dead if you don't shut up." He tore a necklace from around her throat and stuffed it in the bag. "Give me the rings. Now. Or I'll hack off your fingers to get them. Don't think I won't."
The woman tugged at her blood-smeared rings, trying to pull them over badly swollen, arthritic knuckles. "Morrison, Morrison," she chanted softly. "Oh, dear God, dear God."
Eden sat frozen in her seat. She'd never seen anyone die. Ace and Joseph had always tried to shield her from the ugly aspects of life, and they'd been mostly successful. For a seemingly endless second, she could only stare in horrified disbelief at the murdered man's sprawled legs. How could a life end so quickly?
The towheaded child behind them began to cry again. Eden heard Helen frantically trying to shush him. The bandit who manned the middle of the car waved his gun in a threatening manner.
"Jewels and money, and be fast about it if you don't want no holes in your hide!" He extended a bag toward an older woman two rows forward. "I said everything!" he barked when the matronly lady failed to hand over her earrings. Then, without waiting for her to comply, he jerked the gold loops from her ears, tearing the flesh of her lobes in the process. "Your fault, not mine. Stay quiet, hand stuff over, and there'll be no trouble."
The woman's husband surged to his feet. "Dad-blast you to kingdom come, you miserable excuse for—"
The robber fired his Colt, burying a bullet right between the poor man's eyes. And just that quickly, another person was dead. Eden was now trembling violently, one litany repeating in her mind: God help us, God help us, God help us.
To her horror, the robber's attention shifted to the shrieking child behind her. Timothy. Eden's heart caught. She heard Helen's breath snag in terror.
"Shut that little shit up!" the gunman snarled. "Or I'll plug him, too!"
Glancing back over her shoulder, Eden recognized Helen's paralyzing fear because she felt it herself. Instead of soothing the little boy, Helen clutched him rigidly to her bosom, her eyes as large as nickels, the pupils dilated with terror. Frightened by his mother's stiffness, the child screamed more loudly. The bandit stomped closer, raising his Colt as if to shoot.
"I told you to shut him up!"
Helen began petting the boy, the flutter of her trembling hands frantic, her softly uttered reassurances unconvincing. The child shrank closer to her torso and let loose with an ear-piercing wail. The robber stopped and took deadly aim at the back of the toddler's head.
Eden sprang up from her seat, spun, and threw herself over Helen and the boy. "No!" she cried. "He's only a baby!" Spreading her arms and legs to provide the mother and child with more cover, Eden heard heavy footfalls advancing on her. "Please, no! Don't hurt him. We'll make him be quiet. We will. Just give us a moment."
The next instant Eden's scalp exploded with pain as the gunman's hand closed over her chignon and jerked her erect. She stumbled and nearly fell backward into him. As terrified as she was, she shuddered at the stench of his unwashed body, a nostril-burning blend of urine, soured sweat, and whiskey. The force of his grip on her hair inflicted such pain that she turned to relieve the sting and found herself looking up into his unshaven countenance and hard gray eyes.
"Well, now," he sneered, running his gaze from her face downward to take measure of her person, "ain't you a purty little thing. Be nice to me, and maybe I won't kill the squallin' little snot."
Bile surged up the back of Eden's throat. This animal had just killed two men. She wanted to spit in his face, but fear tempered the urge. As if he guessed her thoughts, he twisted his fist in her hair and rammed the barrel of the Colt against her cheekbone. Eden braced herself, convinced that he meant to pull the trigger. In some distant part of her mind, she registered that the little boy had stopped screaming, and thanked God that his mother had managed to silence him.
"Don't… hurt… her!" Dory pleaded, her words interspersed with sobs. "Please, mister, don't… hurt… her. She's done nothing to you, nothing. Just… take the valuables and leave her… be. Please!"
Eden straightened her shoulders and met the man's gaze. She saw no mercy in those stone gray depths, and in that moment, she knew she was going to die. Fear made her legs quiver, and she almost wet herself. She wished her mother would be quiet. This man would kill Dory with no more regret than he would feel swatting an insect.
"Don't hurt her!" Dory cried again.
Another gunshot rang out at the back of the train. Eden flinched. Some poor woman's wails told Eden that someone else had just taken a bullet. Afraid her mother might be next, Eden cried, "Our valuables are on the floor. They're worth a small fortune. Take them and go."
Tightening his meaty hand over Eden's hair, the bandit bent his head and slurped his tongue over her lips. Only by sheer force of will was she able to keep herself from gagging. His front teeth had rotted into little brown snags. His spit tasted like vinegar. When he straightened, his battered gray hat sat askew, revealing greasy brown hair gone pewter gray at the temples.
"You're more valuable than a handful of trinkets," he informed her with a leer. "Across the border, a little redhead like you will bring top dollar."
The man at the rear of the car yelled, "We gonna keep her, Wallace? Hot damn! We'll have a fine time tonight!"
Oh, how Eden wished for a gun. Ace had taught her well. With her Colts at her hips, she could have taken on all three men and been the only shooter left standing when the smoke cleared. Instead she could only remain there with her neck twisted to ease the pain of the brutal grip on her hair.
"Why not?" her assailant replied with a laugh. "If nothin' else, she'll give us some fun."
Before Eden could react, the man bent at the knees, tossed her over his shoulder, and started back up the aisle. "Collect the rest of the loot!" he barked. "We need to make tracks!"
Grabbing for breath, Eden made fists in the tails of the robber's filthy jacket, her head spinning from the rush of blood to her brain. She heard Dory screaming and could only pray one of the bandits didn't silence her with a bullet. Relief swamped her when no shots rang out. Her rump collided with the door as her captor drew it open. Then the cold May air cut through her clothing, its iciness nipping at her skin.
It hit Eden then. These horrible men planned to abduct her. She needed to do something to save herself. Only what? Physically, she was no match for them, and she had no weapon. Her upper body bounced with each fall of her captor's feet as he descended the steps from the platform. Then she heard gravel crunching beneath his boots.
Oh, God, oh, God. If he got her on a horse, her chances to escape would be nil. Frantic, she pummeled his spine with knotted fists. When that didn't slow his pace, she grabbed hold of his jacket and walked her hands up his back until she was nearly upright. Then she went after his head, knocking off his hat as she cracked him in the temple with her elbow. He grunted and staggered.
"Leave off, bitch!"
Eden's temper, always the bane of her existence, flared hot. Bitch? Hissing air through clenched teeth, she clawed at his ear and tried with everything she had to bury the sharp toes of her Dongola kid boots into his groin. He roared with rage, grabbed her arm, and threw her to the ground. Eden rolled and scrambled to her feet, but before she could run, he was upon her. She nailed him square in the eye socket with her right fist and was about to slug him again when he retaliated in kind, his bunched knuckles coming at her so fast that they connected with her jaw before she could duck.
Black spots danced before Eden's eyes. She blinked and staggered, determined to remain on her feet. But her knees turned to water and down she went. The world had gone strangely gray—a swirling eddy of earth, trees, and sky that sucked her into a black vortex.