The Devil She Knows - By Diane Whiteside Page 0,1
Portia Townsend held out her hands to him, her face shining with delight underneath a ribbon-bedecked hat. Her dancing feet sent her new and supposedly grownup skirts’ hems twirling fast enough to kick up small dust devils.
Who the hell had dropped her skirts and put her in that adult dress? Didn’t they know she was a child?
How old was she, anyway?
She’d been twelve when they met. No decent man lusted after a little girl, whether or not she was the boss’s niece. Given how she missed her younger brothers, it was easier to think of her as a younger sister who needed a playmate.
When the devil had she grown enough curves to fill out a corset?
No, he would not consider her that way. This attire was another bit of her chicanery, designed to twist him around her finger and start another escapade.
He would never become obsessed with a child.
But her youth made it made worse for her to be here.
His stomach plummeted into an icy hell somewhere below his boots. He should have known the peace was too good to last. He’d have far rather heard hundreds of war cries erupting out of Victorio’s army, than that single feminine whoop of joy.
If anything happened to her…Dear God in heaven, he couldn’t let Portia end up like other victims of the murderous Apaches and similar bandits, bullet-ridden and burned like barbecued hogs because their murderers wouldn’t let anyone leave a long-planned death trap.
The old, never-forgotten stench washed back over him again and his belly knotted like a rattlesnake ready to strike. He snapped his greeting at Portia like a lasso, cloaking his worry in a rough edge.
“What in the Sam Hill are you doing here?” he demanded. “Weren’t you supposed to have started the fall term at the new fancy school by now?”
Portia’s arms drooped back to her side, a fitting end for a journey which had begun badly before taking an appalling jog in the middle.
Dear heavens, a scorpion dumped out of a boot would have received a friendlier smile from him. She hadn’t expected to be welcomed into Arizona. She’d barely hoped to see him so soon, since even rolling stones gathered more moss than Gareth did. But surely their past escapades had earned her more consideration from her oldest friend.
“Ah, yes.” Her smile evaporated faster than drops of water on a sun-baked rock. She should have realized she’d have to confess immediately to the worst part.
She squared her shoulders. Gareth was the best man in the world and he’d never condone even the slightest falsehood. “I already did.”
His eyes narrowed, in the typical start to a blistering inquisition.
At least with Gareth, once she’d told the truth—no matter how bad—he never stayed angry with her. So the sooner she told him why she was here, the faster she’d learn where Uncle William was now and the latest news about Aunt Viola. They’d taken Gareth under their wing since Uncle William hired him at age sixteen.
“Gentlemen, you may have five minutes to stretch your legs while the little lady visits her friend,” one of the drivers shouted. “If you’re late, we’ll leave for California without you.”
Gareth shot the stage company’s senior official a glare promising retribution. He didn’t need time to talk to her; he probably wanted help getting her back into that rolling lockbox.
The driver simply glanced significantly toward the western horizon, with its mountain pass leading to the next cavalry post, then checked his pocket watch. Any extra time for conversation was a gift, given how fast the lengthening shadows in that narrow route could conceal an ambush for the two coaches.
Genuine shock thudded through Portia but she didn’t turn to see if the man had done anything additional to deserve Gareth’s condemnation. Gareth always insisted ladies should be treated with the utmost consideration. So why was he objecting to the added courtesy of allowing her time for a visit with her old friend?
She managed a noncommittal smile, one of the few things she’d learned other than music from all those ridiculous schools.
Men stepped down from the stages, talking about the unexpected rest and comparing their guns. Gareth’s two companions ran forward to start watering the horses.
Gareth nodded curt comprehension to the driver and headed over to the paddock where he and Portia could have a somewhat private conversation.
Portia cast her eyes down from underneath her new hat, the only one which matched her new, long dress. Her cheeks flushed appallingly hot.
Far too long experience with her