Breaking in Gomez’s store at three-thirty in the morning wasn’t exactly courting death, but it was nerve-wracking as hell. Finnie held her breath as she pulled the door closed behind her, listening intently for any tell-tale squeak of the floorboards upstairs to alert her to being found out.
She exhaled in relief and crossed to the aisle she wanted, making sure her footfalls were as silent and deliberate as possible. The sack she’d untied from her belt now hung heavy from her left hand as she crept past the canned goods and cleaning supplies. I gotta be the only thief sneaking around in the dark to deliver something, instead of taking it.
As she passed the front counter, she briefly considered shoving a handful of peppermint sticks into the pocket of her black duster, just so she could feel like a respectable thief, but quickly dismissed the idea as too risky. She didn’t want anyone to realize she’d been here.
Not Mr. Gomez, and definitely not Augustus King. The coffee was exactly where Gomez usually kept it, which meant she didn’t have to go hunting through the store, thank goodness. There were only three packages left, and she knew O’Grady would be in first thing in the morning to pick up his order to take back to King’s ranch.
From the questions Finnie had managed to nonchalantly ask over the last few weeks, she knew King’s goons kept the coffee on all day, and they all drank from the same pot. It was too much to hope King himself would partake in this particular batch, but Finnie was hoping to incapacitate as many of his henchmen as possible.
That’s why she’d had a sit-down with her new friend Regina Hartwell, and had learned all about the various laxatives available to the innocent saloon-owner Finnie was pretending to be. Regina—besides being Finnie’s friend’s new wife—was the daughter of Doc Vickers, and knew her way around a medicine cabinet. She hadn’t blinked an eye when Finnie had started asking questions, probably because she’d figured out Finnie’s secret.
After all, Regina’s husband Hart had kept the secret himself for a good long while.
Years ago, Hart had created a second identity, the Black Ace. Their little town was in bad shape, thanks to Mr. King, and the people had needed a champion, someone to believe in. No one really remembered who’d first named the vigilante the Black Ace, but the name had stuck, and the masked man had come to mean hope to the people of Black Aces. All this time, it’d been Hart behind that bandana, but Finnie hadn’t figured it out until it was almost too late. When King had his no-good pawn Sheriff McNelis drag Hart into town for a lynching, Finnie had done what needed to be done.
She’d stolen Hart’s black duster, black hat, black bandana, and black horse…and saved him.
Hart and Regina were safe now, safe to start their lives together without King’s suspicions hanging over them. But Finnie had landed herself in a world of trouble. It’s not that she didn’t believe in what the Black Ace did—no, she’d admired the man for years—but there was only so much she could manage with the guests she had living full-time at the saloon. One in particular.
On nights like this one, when she had Ace business to take care of, she had to wait until the last patron left, then watch to make sure her guests really were asleep, then get changed into her disguise and sneak out. That’s why it was so late it was nearly early, and she was only now getting to her goal.
Her palms itched as she swapped out the coffee. She placed hers nice and prominent in the front of the shelf, then shoved a package into her sack, which she hung back on her belt. That wasn’t really; she’d paid for the doctored coffee, after all, so this was just a trade. The other two packages, she shoved way in the back, behind the flour sacks. At times like this, it was pretty handy Gomez parceled out his dry goods like this…she’d hate to think of poisoning the whole town accidentally.
When it was done, she blew out a breath and shook her hands and arms, hoping to get rid of the nervous energy tingling through her limbs.
Still, it was justified. She stared at the single package of coffee, knowing it could change the tide of King’s control. See, Hart’s plan to secretly stand up to King had been a good one, but it hadn’t gotten anywhere. His goal hadn’t been to expose King as an evil man, he’d been content to only offer aid where necessary. And she’d appreciated that, as the Black Ace had once dumped a sack of cash in her saloon when she’d been too low to pay King’s rent, and Finnie knew she wouldn’t have been able to keep her saloon—her dream—without the Ace’s help.
But now that she’d donned the mantle—or rather, the bandana—of the Black Ace, it was her goal to break King’s control of their town. The only way to do that was to expose his treachery to the people of Black Aces. Once they all knew how he’d been lying and cheating them, surely they’d stand up and run him out of town together?
It’d taken a few of her wee-hours-of-the-morning outings to figure out this plan, but she was confident it would work. Tomorrow was the twentieth of December, the day the townspeople usually traveled together to cut down their Christmas trees. It was sort of a town holiday, one the school kids always looked forward to. But the grove they usually went to was near the mining camp for the Bicycle Mine, and King’s goons had been clear no one was allowed nearby.
Last week, Finnie had discovered why; the camp was empty.
If the camp was empty, that meant there were no miners working the Bicycle, because the people of Black Aces damn well would’ve heard about a bunch of homeless miners. If there were no miners working the mine, that meant the whole thing was played out, empty. And if the Bicycle Mine was empty…
Then what in the hell was Augustus King doing here in Black Aces, Montana?
She didn’t know yet, but her plan was to make sure the people of Black Aces knew as much as she did…without having to stand up and declare herself a wanted vigilante.
Especially not with a US Marshal sleeping in the bedroom next to hers. Alright. She blew out another breath, gave her hands another shake, and swallowed down her fears. This scheme would work. O’Grady would pick up the coffee and take it back to King’s ranch. Enough of them would drink it and have to spend the next few days close to the outhouse. That would mean not enough goons would be left to patrol the area around the camp, so the townspeople would be able to not only cut down their Christmas trees, but see how empty the camp was, and start questioning just what was going on at the Bicycle Mine. Yeah, this would work.
That was what she was telling herself as she ghosted across the store once more, then let herself out the door. This would work.
She’d help the town stand up to King, and soon they’d be rid of him.
Standing on the back stoop of the store, she carefully pulled Gomez’s door closed, listening for the tell-tale click to indicate it had locked behind her. She didn’t need Mr. Gomez wondering why the hell his back door was open in the morning--
“You’re out awful late, mister.”
It was a miracle Finnie didn’t swallow her tongue, she was so startled. As it was, she whirled around and met the eyes of her silent watcher, wishing she had her rifle with her. Hart might’ve carried a revolver as the Black Ace, but Finnie had never shot anything besides her Winchester, and didn’t intend to start now.
She’d already lowered her shoulder and was fixing to barrel into the man, when her brain caught up with her eyes and she froze. The man on the other side of the alley, leaning so nonchalantly against the railing of the old post office and smoking a cheroot, wasn’t an enemy.
Or rather, he was an enemy. One of the scariest enemies a masked vigilante could have. But he wasn’t her enemy.
At least, she didn’t want him to be.
Slowly, she drew in a calming breath and straightened, dropping her gaze to the bright silver star pinned to the man’s vest. Because US Marshall Quint Diamon was handsome enough to make her forget her words when he looked right at her with that knowing dark gaze of his.
He took another long drag on the cheroot, then dropped it into the snow by his foot. As he blew out the smoke, he shifted forward, managing to hook his jacket behind his holster and rest his good hand on the butt of his gun, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Finnie sucked in a breath again, as she realized no matter what she thought, Quint was now viewing her as his enemy. Well hell, girl. You’re dressed like a bad guy, and he just caught you robbing a store!
“Late?” Quint repeated in a drawl as he moved closer at a measured pace. “Now that I see that bandana, I’m thinking you’re out awfully early, Mr. Ace.” He stopped an arms’ reach in front of her. “You are the Black Ace, aren’t you?”
Finnie’s heart was beating a frantic tattoo against her ribcage as her eyes darted left and right, looking for an escape. She was just as tall as Quint, and probably as strong, thanks to her years managing the saloon by herself. It was that little quirk of genetics which had made it so easy to become the Black Ace—she was the same size as most men in town. But there was no way she could go up against Quint and win…not that she had any interest in trying.
No, if she was going to consider barreling into him and going down in a tangle of legs and arms, she wanted it to be for an entirely different reason, thank you very much.
She almost groaned at her thoughts. Here she stood, exposed in the moonlight reflecting off the snow, and she was thinking about—what? Wrestling the man? Kissing the man? Come on, girl. Focus!
“What’s the matter, Ace?” Quint asked again in that low, mocking tone of his as he stepped closer. “Cat got your tongue?”
There was no way she could answer him. For one thing, even if her body was built more like a man than a woman, her voice was unmistakably feminine. And it was a voice which spoke to him every day, sitting with him for meals and talking about Washington politics and whatever else he read in the Helena papers.
So instead of answering him, she tucked her chin down further, praying her eyes weren’t illuminated. With her hair tucked up under the broad hat, and most of her features obscured by the bandana, she had to just hope he wouldn’t recognize her.
Quint hummed thoughtfully and shifted his weight, his hand not leaving the butt of his gun. “I’ve been in this town for only a few months, but I haven’t met too many people who’ve claimed to have met the Ace. And of them, I’ve met even fewer I believe.” His other gloved hand was tucked up tight against his chest, a gesture Finnie recognized as him trying to keep his still-recovering shoulder as still as possible. “But no one ever mentioned the Ace was mute. So I’m wondering if you even are the Ace.”
Quicker than she could blink, quicker than she could think, he was standing right in front of her. She jerked back, startled, but remembered to keep her head down. He moves like a cat!
And just like a cat, he’d pounced.
“So who are you?” he growled, leaning towards her intimidatingly. “Just some common thief? Because I can’t think of a single reason for the Black Ace to be breaking into Gomez’s store in the middle of the night.” Breaking into Gomez’s—? Finnie blinked, trying desperately to come up with a way out of this encounter in one piece. He thought she was breaking into the store, which she was, but he didn’t think the Ace would be doing that. So how could she convince him she wasn’t?
Slowly, making it clear she wasn’t going to make any sudden moves, Finnie’s hand crept towards the pocket of the man’s waistcoat she wore. It was part of the costume, sure, but it was also the middle of winter. Finnie had always figured it’d be unseen under the black jacket and duster, but she wore it to hide the bindings around her breasts.
Now, she felt his eyes on her as she dipped two fingers into the pocket and pulled out a key. It was the key to the back door of the High Stakes Saloon, where he was supposed to be currently sleeping, but no need for him to know that. Instead, she confidently held the key up and waggled it a little, so he wouldn’t miss her meaning.
He didn’t. In fact, he snorted a little—laughter?—as he straightened, but didn’t move farther away. Instead, he cocked his head and watched her thoughtfully.
“You’re not breaking into Gomez’s store, because you have the key. Is that what you’re telling me?”
Heart pounding, she dipped her head in acknowledgment, praying he’d believe her.
He hummed, and she’d been around him enough to know what that meant; he was reserving judgment. Good God, but the man was sexy, when he sat and really thought about something. She’d always liked the way he considered problems from all angles before he made a decision. He would’ve made a damn fine engineer if he hadn’t been a lawman.
But he was a lawman, and that was about eighty percent of Finnie’s problems right now.
Because no matter how sexy he was, she couldn’t so much as wink at him.
No, he’d been sent to Black Aces, Montana, to capture and hang her.
Under the bandana, Finnie’s tongue darted out over suddenly dry lips. This was, as far as she knew, the first time US Marshal Quint Diamon had stood face-to-face with the Black Ace. All it would take was one pounce, and he could have her bandana off and her hands tied, bad shoulder or no.
So as much as she wanted to lean forward, as much as she wanted to inhale his spicy-sweet scent, she forced herself to do the opposite. For the town, for herself, for Cinco, she had to keep her identity a secret.
Dropping the key back in her pocket, she stepped backwards, her booted heel breaking through the thin layer of ice which had been deposited earlier that evening on the town’s snow piles.
The sound seemed to startle Quint. At least, something did. He jerked his head, then shook it, as if laughing at himself, and the tension she hadn’t realized he’d been carrying drained from his shoulders.
And that’s when—God help her—he smiled at her.
“I don’t know why you’d be sneaking around the town at night, but if you have the key to Gomez’s store, you’re clearly not breaking in. And that means I haven’t witnessed a crime.” He shrugged, his lips settling into their usual fullness once more. “This is just a case of two men meeting innocently in a dark back alley in the middle of a freezing night, right?”
She couldn’t help it; his wry sarcasm wrenched a snort of laughter from her, before she took another step back.
The corner of his lips twitched, and he shrugged his good shoulder. “Well, mute or not, at least I know you’ve got a sense of humor.”
A sense of humor? Finnie was already calculating her escape routes, wondering how fast she could dart around him and down the alley to the back door of the High Stakes, all without being seen by whichever of King’s goons was patrolling town tonight. Could she do it without having to knock Quint down? Or should she wait for a moment of distraction and take her chances?
But then his next words stopped all the frantic calculations flying through her brain.
Finnie froze, all of her attention on him once more. Glad? Glad about what?
He must’ve sensed her unvoiced question. “I’m glad I didn’t catch you in the middle of a crime. Of course, if you were actually stealing something, I doubt you’d tell me. Because then I’d have to arrest you for theft. Unless it was peppermints; I’m partial to them, and Gomez can’t seem to keep them in stock.”
It was convoluted reasoning. Was he saying she could bribe him with peppermints, or was he just making small talk? He could be real charming; that was part of his appeal, and he knew he could catch more flies with honey than vinegar. So was he just trying to sweeten her up?
Cautiously, she shook her head, answering the unspoken question about peppermints.
He shifted his weight again, his hand leaving the butt of his gun and rising to rub the back of his neck in a gesture she’d never seen before. In fact, his voice sounded almost embarrassed when he continued.
“I was sent out here to track you down, you know. King is kicking up a real fuss back in Washington, yelling about how his investors aren’t getting their money’s worth, thanks to you.”
When he shrugged, a slight wince pulled at his lips, and Finnie knew his shoulder wasn’t completely healed.
“I showed up here, and the first thing that happened was you ambushed me and plugged a hole in my shoulder.” No! Finnie jerked forward, already reaching for him, when she stopped herself. What the hell had she thought she was going to do, anyhow? She clenched her hand into a fist and shook her head again; half in exasperation, half in denial.
The Black Ace hadn’t been the one to shoot Quint. As near as she and Hart had been able to figure, it’d been King trying to make the Ace look guiltier.
Quint was watching her now, his gaze sharp, his hand still on the back of his neck, but all hints of wariness gone. No, now he looked as if he were judging her.
Finally, he nodded, as if satisfied. “Honestly, I didn’t think it was you. I remember Miss Finnie sitting guard over me the night you supposedly came to finish me off.” His lips twitched again. “You know, you’ve got quite an admirer in that young lady.” Young lady. Finnie’s eyes went round under the brim of the hat. He’d called her a young lady! That meant that, despite her size, despite her roughness, he still saw her as, well…a lady. Despite standing here in the cold, dressed as a man, Finnie wanted to squeal with excitement. No. He ain’t talking to Finnie Pompey, girl. He’s talking to a man wanted for murder, remember?
The sobering through was enough to make her breathe again.
Quint shrugged. “Anyhow, I’m here to track you down, but I haven’t seen you do one thing against the law, not as yet. Hell, I catch you breaking into a respectable business, and it turns out you’ve got the key.”
He leaned in suddenly, the faint light catching in his dark eyes. “You’re not Mr. Gomez, are you?”
She couldn’t help it. She snorted again and shook her head. Mr. Gomez was sixty years old, at least.
“Well, alright then,” Quint said in that delicious deep voice of his. “Point is, you’re a wanted man for a whole mess of crimes I can’t exactly figure you’re guilty of. Of course, that’s not my job, is it?” He shrugged again and dropped his hand to the butt of his gun once more. This time, however, it didn’t look threatening, but more as if he was just resting it there. “I should draw and escort you to Sheriff McNelis’s jail cell, then ship you up to Helena to let a judge figure out how guilty you are.”
Finnie swallowed. The way he said it, so casual-like, belied the seriousness of his words. He should do all those things. But if he did, Finnie would lose everything.
Cinco. Her saloon. The town would lose its champion, and King would win. And she’d lose the chance to sit beside Quint Diamon and listen to him teach Cinco checkers, or discuss what was printed in those fancy newspapers.
She resisted the urge to squeeze her eyes shut. The smart thing to do would be to run, or at least try to bluff her way out of this encounter. But she couldn’t bear the thought of hurting Quint further. Besides, even with a hole in his shoulder, he moved faster than she ever could.
But to her surprise, he didn’t pull his gun. No, instead, his lips twisted a little wryly, and he lifted his right shoulder once more. “I might lose my job for this, Mr. Ace, but I’m not going to drag your ass to jail. Not tonight, at least. I haven’t seen you commit a crime, and yeah, there’s a warrant out for your arrest…”
He leaned forward, enough to make her nervous.
“But from what I remember of that night I was shot, you came into town to save my life. If you weren’t the one who set up the ambush and put a hole in me, then you risked your life—and King’s trap—to make sure I was safe.” He straightened and took a deep breath. “So I figure I owe you one.”
Finnie was still reeling, torn between being flattered and terrified and relieved.
That’s when Quint stuck out his right hand. “And I owe you my appreciation.”
In a daze, Finnie reached for his hand, ready to shake it, but froze at the last minute. Was this a trick? The man was a marshal, trained in combat and tactics, right? Was he lying, pretending to be grateful, just to get close to her? Once her right hand was trapped in his, would he yank down her bandana, exposing her secret and dooming her and the town?
He didn’t move. Just stood there, his hand out, watching her with patient eyes and giving her no clue what to expect. Finnie’s hand shook just slightly, torn between the urge to run and the fierce certainty Quint Diamon was a good man.
Finally, she took a deep breath and completed the motion. She closed her hand around his, tightening her grip just slightly as he shook hers.
He’d been her tenant since he’d arrived in town. She’d tended to him after he’d been shot, and she’d spent the night at his bedside protecting him the night King had lured Hart into that trap. She’d touched him plenty of times, and each time, had felt an odd warmth, a spark when their skin touched.
But shaking his hand here in the dark alley didn’t feel like that. They were both wearing gloves, and this time…well, he shook her hand as an equal, and there was respect there. Grudgingly given, maybe, but still there.
She let out a breath when he dropped her hand and stepped back.
“Thank you, Mr. Ace,” he said in that smooth voice of his. “But I’m not going to turn a blind eye again. I’m grateful I had the chance to say my piece, but if I catch you in town again, whatever you’re doing, I will arrest you.” Inside her glove, her fingers curled into a fist, and she resisted the urge to cradle it to her chest. Instead, she dropped her hand to her side and nodded to let him know she understood.
He nodded in response, then jerked his chin over his shoulder. “Now, whatever it is you’re doing, get your ass out of here and don’t let me see you again.”
She didn’t wait to be told twice. The sack of coffee thumping against her hip, she whirled and strode for the end of the alley.
Purposefully taking the route away from the saloon, she hunched her shoulders, half expecting at each moment to feel the burn of a bullet. But when she glanced back as she reached the end of the alley, Quint was still standing where she’d left him, the flash of a match telling her he’d lit another cheroot.
He'd let her go, because he felt…what? Indebted? Well, he had basically just said he owed her—or rather, the Ace—for saving his life.
Sure now she was safe, she sucked in a breath and jogged the long way back to her saloon. She spent some time standing in the shadows out back to ensure he hadn’t returned first, then darted forward, let herself in the back door, and ran up the stairs to her room. She locked the door behind her and threw herself down on her bed, her heart beating too fast to focus on hiding the costume, and squeezed her eyes shut, remembering the feel of his hand in hers. What the hell just happened?
Holy moly! How in the world is Finnie going to keep up her masquerade as the Black Ace, with delectable Marshal Diamon poking around? Besides, it's almost Christmas, and the two of them need to work together to give Cinco a real holiday this year. She's got her hands full! Find out how she handles everything in Three of a Kind!