“He’s late. Are you worried?”
For a whisper of a moment, Amanda Carston entertained her friend’s question—then promptly slammed a door in her heart, shutting it out. She linked arms with doubt for many things, but never—ever—on account of Joseph Blake.
“He’ll be here.” She rose from the settee, smoothing wrinkles from her gown. “Come away from the window, Mags. Watching for Joseph won’t make him appear any sooner. Let’s bundle up so we may leave for his aunt’s as soon as he arrives.”
Maggie turned from the glass, letting the sheer fall back into place. “But it’s your engagement dinner. And the Pioneer Press photographer will be there. How can you possibly be so calm?” She drew near and pressed her fingers against Amanda’s forehead. “Are you feeling ill?”
“Don’t be silly.” Amanda batted her hand away, frowning. “I’m sure his aunt is used to stalling off a meal even with important guests in attendance. A city attorney’s schedule is rarely predictable.”
“Ahh, but it’s not his aunt that concerns me.” Light from the gas lamps glistened on the pity filling Maggie’s eyes. “What of your father, dearest?”
This time doubt didn’t knock. It barreled in and sat, pulling Amanda’s high spirits down along with it. Must something always thwart her efforts to please her father? He would be disappointed at her tardiness. But truly, they all would have been late if he’d had to swing by from the office to pick up her and Mags. She whirled and strode from the sitting room to the foyer, leaving her friend’s question to die an unanswered death.
Maggie’s footsteps echoed behind her, and by the time they slipped into their cloaks and secured their hats with a final pinning in front of the big mirror, the knocker pounded against the door.
“No need to trouble yourself, Grayson.” Her words halted the butler’s trek down the grand staircase. “I’m certain it’s Mr. Blake. Don’t expect us until late.”
Ignoring his scowl and his “Highly improper,” she winked at Maggie then swung open the door to the man of her dreams—
And a police officer.
“Joseph?” she murmured.
A smile flashed across his face, brilliant in the dark of the October eve. He reached for her hand and pressed a kiss against the back of her glove, the heat of his mouth tingling through the fabric. “Don’t panic, my love. I shall explain. But first, allow me to introduce Officer Keeley. Officer, my fiancée, Miss Amanda Carston.” He leaned in scandalously close, breathing warmth into her ear. “Soon to be Mrs. Joseph Blake.”
She arched a brow, unsure if she ought censure him or wrap her arms around him. Instead, she nodded at Keeley. “Pleased to meet you, Officer.”He tugged the brim of his hat. “The pleasure is mine, Miss Carston.”
Behind her, Maggie cleared her throat.
“My apologies, Miss Turner.” A sheepish grin curved Joseph’s mouth. “May I introduce you as well? Miss Turner, meet Officer Keeley. The officer won’t be joining us for long, ladies. I’ve a short piece of unfinished business to attend to on our way to dinner. Now then, shall we?”
He offered his arm and Amanda wrapped her fingers around his sleeve. Unfinished business? Whatever it was must be important, but tonight, of all nights? She puzzled over the mystery, until the feel of his muscles riding hard beneath her touch drove her to distraction. Inhaling his familiar fragrance of sandalwood and ink, she was hard-pressed to figure out which made her more weak-kneed—the intimacy of knowing his scent, or his husky voice caressing her ear.
“You look lovely tonight,” he whispered.
Her cheeks heated. Good thing Maggie and the officer walked ahead—and what a pair they made. Him tall. Her short. A canyon of difference between a suit of blue and the golden gown of a railroad tycoon’s daughter.
Joseph helped her into the carriage, and she settled next to Maggie, the men on the opposite seat. The driver urged the horses from the circular drive on to Summit Avenue, and just as she was about to ask Joseph for his promised explanation, the carriage turned left.
She peered out the window. Indeed, they headed east, not west, rolling past the old Grigg’s place. Despite being in the company of a strapping fiancé and a lawman, she shuddered at the eerie sight. At the front of the Grigg’s lot, half-burned timbers reached into the black sky, dark on dark, like bones trying to escape from a grave. Beyond the remnants of the gatehouse stood the ruins of a once-grand home, bricks holding in secrets like a jealous lover, guarding rumors of foul play—and ghosts. If the city were going to do nothing about this blight, then maybe. . .perhaps. . .
The seed of a glorious idea took root, but it would have to wait, for tonight was to be the beginning of her new life—the officially declared bride-to-be of Joseph Blake.
She squinted into the darkness as the carriage turned left again, taking them even farther from their engagement announcement. “This isn’t the way to your aunt’s.”
“No, it isn’t. As I’ve said, a small bit of unfinished business, merely a short detour.”
Joseph’s words pulled her gaze to him. “Where are we going?”
“To Hannah Crow’s.”
Amanda’s jaw dropped. Maggie gasped, her fingers fluttering to her chest. Officer Keeley took a sudden interest in looking out the window. Clearly he was in on this—whatever this was.
“Joseph Blake!” she scolded. “Why on earth are you taking us to a brothel?”
# # #
Like an arc of lightning, blue-tinged and life threatening, the flash in his fiancée’s eyes struck Joseph—with humor. The little firebrand. He stifled a grin. He could get used to such passion, but he sure hoped not.
“I thought you might like to see the culmination of a year’s worth of work,” he said.
“Mr. Blake.” Amanda’s friend clutched her hands to her chest, eyes wide. “Surely you’ve never set foot in such a place?”
Amanda studied him a moment more, then leaned sideways, lips twisted into a smirk. “Don’t fall for his dramatics, Mags. He’s playing us with as much finesse as his violin.”
Keeley elbowed him. “You’ve met your match in that one, sir.”
Indeed. Why was God so good to him? He folded his arms and relaxed against the seat, memorizing how the passing streetlights bathed half of Amanda’s face in golden light, the other dark. The contrast was a perfect picture of what lay beneath. . . pluck and humility. Softness and steel.
“I suppose she’ll suit,” he drawled.
She swatted his knee. “You, sir, are a scoundrel.”
He caught her hand before she could pull it away and kissed her fingertips. “Ahh, but I am your scoundrel, hmm?”
Color deepened on her cheeks. “Not if we never make it to our betrothal dinner. Father could always change his mind, you know.”
He rapped the carriage wall, urging the driver to up his pace, then faced Miss Turner. “My soon-to-be wife is somewhat used to my unorthodox ways, but I can see you are not. In answer to your question, Miss Turner, while I am well versed in Hannah Crow’s business, I have never entered her establishment. My aim is to shut her down, and I’ve finally found a way—which is why Officer Keeley is with us tonight.”
“That is wonderful news.” Amanda beamed at him—a smile of which he’d never tire.
Miss Turner frowned, eyeing the policeman. “Are you expecting trouble?”
“Don’t fret, miss.” Keeley tipped his head at her. “I’m merely a formality, a witness to the delivery of a document.”
The grind of cobbles beneath the wheels changed to a gravelly crunch as the carriage eased off Summit and onto Washington Street. Miss Turner balanced a hand against the side of the carriage as they lurched around a corner, or did she clutch it for courage? Amanda’s gaze found his, and he searched the blue depths. Was she afraid as well?
Nothing but clear admiration blinked back. “I am so proud of you, even if your timing is a bit off.”
Law and order! With regard such as this, he could conquer more than a brothel—he could take on the world. He leapt out of the carriage before it stopped and patted his coat to make sure the injunction still rode inside his pocket. This was it. Finally. A night he wouldn’t soon forget.
He and Keeley climbed the stairs to Crow’s House of Hair. Hair products, of all things. The sign, the business, the audacity fooled no one. More went on behind those velvet drapes than the production and distribution of supposed growth elixirs—and everyone in town knew it. Sorrow punched him hard in the gut for the lost women trapped inside, chained by desperation and lost hope. He bit back a wince. The thought that Elizabeth had died as such nearly drove him to his knees.
He swallowed against the tightness in his throat and reached to ring the bell, then paused. Lifting his face, he narrowed his eyes above the doorframe. The House of Hair sign was gone.
Keeley nudged him. “What are you waiting for?”
Exactly. So what if the sign were missing? He shook off a foreboding twinge in his gut and punched the bell.
He stabbed his finger on it again.
And. . .nothing.
Keeley shouldered past him and pounded the door so that it rattled in the frame. “Open up! We know yer in there. Don’t make me bust down this—”
The door swung open. A glass chandelier rained beams of light onto a woman buttoned tight from toe to neck. Hannah Crow could be anyone’s saintly aunt. Prim and proper on the outside—but that gray silk encased wickedness and greed.
Joseph stared hard at her face, refusing to look past her. One glimpse of a young girl tangled in her web would undo him, despite standing on the brink of this victory. Even so, loss clenched his jaw.
Oh, Elizabeth. Would that you’d been able to escape such a fate.
“Mr. Blake.” Mrs. Crow dipped her head, a nod toward respectability—the closest she’d ever get. Then her dark gaze hardened. “It’s a little late for you to be calling. Is this business or pleasure?”
“Entirely my pleasure.” He ground out the words while handing over the injunction.
Her eyes scanned back and forth, top to bottom, and in case she didn’t understand all the legal jargon, Joseph added, “According to a recent addition to ordinance 245.1, your conditional use variance is null and void. In essence and practicality, madam, this is the end of your business.”
“Well, well. . .” She lifted the paper high, leaned toward him, then released the document to the October breeze.
Keeley growled. “Even if that paper blows to kingdom come, Mrs. Crow, I seen you take it. I seen you read it. I’ll swear to that in court.”
She smiled at him as she might a mark with no money, her chipped eyetooth reminding Joseph of a sharpened fang. “No need, Officer. There will be no hearing. That ordinance means nothing to me. My home is no longer a business, just a humble abode.”
A genuine smile tugged at Joseph’s lips. “Nice try, Mrs. Crow, but that won’t help you. This property is zoned for business, so either way, you’re finished.”
Her hand disappeared inside a pocket, and she pulled out a folded document, offering it to him with a feline stretch.
What sorcery was this? He yanked the paper open. Snippets of phrases pummeled him back a step. Emergency city council meeting. Dated the previous day. Zoning changed to residential. Signed by Willard Craven.
A slow burn ignited, from stomach to throat. Craven! He should’ve known. Wheeling about, he stalked toward the carriage and called over his shoulder, “We’ll see about this.” He’d have to—or he’d be out of a job by month’s end.
And his sister’s death would not be avenged.