Diamond in the Rough

Chapter 1

April 1861

Eureka, California

“They’re dying, Hodge!” Lily burst through the door of the general store. “I don’t know what’s wro—oomph.” She jerked to a stop as her hoopskirt caught in the door. Again.

A handful of choice phrases leaped to mind, but she settled for inarticulate grumbling as she reached back with one hand to wrench the flexible metallic hoops free. As she staggered forward, her skirts belled out, knocking over a display of stacked baking soda tins. She stooped to prevent the cans from rolling willy-nilly across the floor, only to have the back of her skirt swing in the opposite direction and make contact with something solid.Hodge wiped his hands on his apron as he hurried around from behind the counter.

“Just leave it, Miss Lily.”

Lily straightened, shifting the cumbersome flowerpot she held in the crook of one arm. With her free hand, she swept the loose tendrils of hair from her eyes and tucked them behind her ear. “You really need to widen that door.”

Hodge cocked his head and planted his hands on his hips. “You really need to wear skirts that don’t endanger life and limb.”

Lily narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth to correct him, but she snapped it shut again when she noticed a man leaning against the counter. His dark hair stood up in spiky patches, as if he’d run his fingers through it repeatedly since removing his hat. His craggy complexion was saved from severity by the quirk of a dimple at the corner of his mouth and the glint of humor in his green eyes.With a barely perceptible nod, Lily turned away from the stranger’s amused glance and squared her shoulders. She wasn’t above arguing with Hodge, but she couldn’t afford to antagonize him right now. She needed his help.

She thrust the flowerpot she carried at the shopkeeper. A feathery purple peony drooped listlessly over the side, its leaves marred by irregular black spots. “Can you tell me what’s wrong with this thing?”

Hodge plucked off one of the saddest-looking leaves and rubbed it between his fingers, then lifted it to his nose and sniffed. “You’ve got blight.” He tossed the leaf back into the pot.

“Blight?” That sounded bad. And pervasive. Whatever it was hadn’t afflicted just this particular plant. Half the peonies in the greenhouse looked the same. Mama was going to have a conniption when she got back from San Francisco. “What did I do?”

“Don’t flatter yourself. It’s caused by a fungus.”

“Oh.” That was some small consolation. “Is there any cure?”

“Sure, there is.”

Lily tamped down her irritation, forcing a smile instead. Getting information out of Hodge was more tedious than pulling weeds from the garden. “And what might that cure be?”

“Steep a handful of elder leaves in hot water with some Castile soap, then rub it on the leaves.”

“Castile soap?”

“Yep. I’ve got some in the back.” Hodge held up his hand, halting her attempt to follow him. “Oh no, you don’t. Not in them instruments of destruction.”

Lily sniffed and raised her chin. Hodge didn’t know the first thing about fashion. Granted, she hadn’t quite gotten the hang of these hoops yet. But, when she did, all of Eureka would be impressed with her grace and style. And Mama would finally be happy.

With great care, she glided across the room, mindful not to knock over anything else. No use proving Hodge’s point. She halted at the counter and picked up a seed catalog. Maybe Mama need never know. Lily could order replacement seeds, or bulbs, or whatever these plants came from. Only, how long did they take to grow?

The black-clad stranger stood only a few feet away, studying a sheaf of paper in his hands. For some reason, his dimple still showed. Lily flipped the catalog page. If he thought she’d come over here to speak with him, he was sorely mistaken.

“You’ll need root cuttings to plant peonies.” The stranger turned his head and offered her a roguish smile.

Lily nodded once. They hadn’t been introduced, but a lady wasn’t rude without reason.

“I don’t think they’ll carry them in that catalog.”

“Where might I get some?” The question crossed her lips before she could frame it in her mind. Her hand jerked to her mouth, as if she could catch her words and snatch them back before they reached his ears.

“Special dealers, horticultural friends, botanical gardens.” The words rolled effortlessly off his tongue.

Lily blinked. He looked so…rough. What did this sort of man know about frivolities like flower gardens?

He pushed away from the counter and turned to face her fully, giving her an accurate picture of just how tall he was. She was now at eye-level with the clerical collar encircling his neck. Her jaw dropped a notch. A clergyman? Mindful of Mama’s opinions on good breeding, she pressed her lips together again, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from that stark white square.

Hodge bustled back in from the storage room. “Here you go, Miss Lily. Had to open a new crate.” He held out a bar wrapped in paper.

“Thank you.” Lily accepted it, then glanced at the stranger again. The way he looked at her made it feel as if the room were ten degrees warmer. Resisting the urge to press her palms against her cheeks, she fumbled with the clasp of her reticule. “How much do I owe you, Hodge?”

“A dime’ll do it.”

The preacher put on his hat, tipped it at her, and headed outside.

Lily found the coin and handed it over without bothering to quibble about the outrageous price.

“See you were talkin’ to Reverend Crew. He’s fresh from out East. Sent by some missionary society, think he said.”

Lily’s head jerked up. “Missiona—oh, no!” Snatching up her flowerpot and bar of soap, she whirled around and strode toward the door, heedless of the destruction she wrought in her pursuit of the stranger.

***

The smell hit him first. Pinkerton Detective Carter Forbes covered his mouth and nose with his handkerchief. His mare, Friday, hesitated, and he patted her neck. “It’s okay, girl. Whatever caused this should be long gone by now.”

She whickered softly in response, then moved forward with cautious, delicate steps, her muscles bunched and ready to gallop if necessary.

Enormous redwoods stood like sentinels protecting the smaller denizens of the forest. Around the next bend in the trail lay a covered wagon toppled on its side. Carter scanned the area. The horses that had been hitched to it were nowhere in sight. One wagon wheel had caught against a tree. Leaves covered the frame and littered the torn canvas. Nothing moved.

Senses jangling, Carter dismounted and looped Friday’s reins over a nearby tree limb. The birds overhead ceased their chattering, and even the breeze stilled, as if the whole forest held its breath in anticipation. The rustle of his footsteps through dry leaves sounded remarkably loud in the hush. His fingers grazed the butt of his pistol.

When he twitched aside the flap of the canvas, the stench redoubled, nearly knocking him off his feet. He staggered back, letting the fabric fall closed again. Gagging, he sucked in a gulp of relatively pure air, but the foulness refused to be purged from his lungs. Over and over he inhaled, pressing his nose against his shirtsleeve in a futile attempt to mask the disgusting odor. At last, he clamped one hand over his mouth and, with the other, wrenched the canvas away with a terrible rip.

The dead man lay on his back. Carter swore under his breath. Why did he always give in to his infernal curiosity? A prudent man would’ve ridden on by. Minded his own business. But not Carter Forbes. Oh, no; he had to see. The quality made him a good Pinkerton, but it could be downright inconvenient.

He squatted and moved closer to the man. The scurry of tiny, clawed feet against the wood made him flinch. The corpse had lain exposed to the elements and scavengers long enough to make identifying the fellow impossible. Carter shook his head. The poor man hadn’t had anyone on hand to mourn his loss.

Sighing, he backed away. The least he could do was dig the man a decent grave. A shovel was still tied to the outside of the wagon. He grabbed it and began digging. The rhythmic thump of the blade biting into the earth sounded a primitive lament.

How much would this set him back? He had made up a lot of time by riding hard. Still, Diamond probably had almost a day on him.At last, the hole was large enough. Panting, Carter put aside the shovel and scrabbled out of the pit. He removed his coat and vest and slung them over Friday’s accommodating back. Now for the worst of it.

He ducked inside the wagon again. He couldn’t bring himself to touch the body’s decaying limbs, so he grabbed a fistful of pant fabric and another of jacket. The corpse was heavier than he’d expected as he dragged it to the edge of the makeshift grave.

Lord, keep me from such an end. Carter glanced back and a smear of dark red where the body had lain caught his eye. He rolled the corpse over so that it lay facedown. A small round hole penetrated the back of the jacket at about the level of the heart. The area around the hole was stained with blood, but death must have been nigh instantaneous.

Murder. He stood and pushed his hat back from his forehead. Why hadn’t he passed on by when he’d had the chance? Blast. Maybe God was punishing him for leaving his sister alone for so long.He maneuvered the body so that it was face-up again and then methodically searched the pockets. He needed to figure out who the victim was. Then he would ride to the nearest town and turn the matter over to the local sheriff.

Inside the inner breast pocket of the dead man’s jacket, his fingers found something hard. He plucked out the item—a locket on a gold chain. Could it be? He opened the tiny silver clasp to reveal the serious-eyed gaze of a striking young woman.

Triumph tasted bitter—too tangled up with the scent of death. Could it be that he’d finally found Grant Diamond, the murderer?

His search intensified, as though the evidence might begin to vanish if he wasted any time. He turned up a pocketknife, a handkerchief, a twist of string, a pencil stub, and a thin packet of letters. No gun. Carter frowned. A man wanted for murder wasn’t likely to travel unarmed. Whoever had killed him had probably stolen his weapon.

Carter sat down on an overturned bucket and took up the packet of letters. He pulled on the end of the faded satin ribbon that bound them together. The pages were scarred with soft, fuzzy creases, as if they’d been folded and unfolded many times.

Grant, my love, I will wait for you in the conservatory at midnight.

More confirmation that the dead man was Diamond. After three years of near misses, Carter finally had his man. Now he could collect his bonus, return to Emily, and get her started on her new treatments.

So why didn’t he feel any sense of accomplishment? His fingers caressed the worn paper. These letters would be enough proof for anybody. But it was wrong—all wrong. The body was damp, as if it had been outside during the rainfall two days ago. The letters weren’t. They were almost entirely dry.

And the body was far too decomposed for the man to have been dead only a day or two. This man must have been killed at least a week ago.

Carter pinched the bridge of his nose. He’d been after Diamond for so long, and he wanted nothing more than to close the case and go home. But he couldn’t. Not yet. There was more to this thing than met the eye, and Carter had to see it through, no matter where it led.

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Taken from Diamond in the Rough by Jennifer AlLee and Lisa Karon Richardson. Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer AlLee and Lisa Karon Richardson. Use by permission of Whitaker House. www.whitakerhouse.com.


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