Los Angeles, 1898
Creed Sherman could take care of himself in damn near any situation he found himself in.
Six years of protecting his country on foreign soil had forced him to adapt and survive. Before that, West Point Military Academy taught him discipline and strategy. He was a soldier. He thrived on risk and danger. Put him in a steaming, mosquito-thick jungle, he’d find his way out by sheer guts and determination. Put him at the front of enemy lines, he’d fight savagely to the death. Put a lethal weapon in his hand, and he’d know how to use it.
Put him in a women’s dress shop, and he was seriously out of his element.
He stood just inside the doorway of Collette’s Fine Ladies Wear and frowned at the profusion of dresses in colors too numerous to comprehend. Hats in all shapes and sizes perched on glass counter tops. And he didn’t even attempt to look inside the cases at the female fripperies they contained.
His head spun. He’d never been in a woman’s establishment like this in his entire life. He was just off the train from San Antonio and headed home to his father’s ranch not far outside the city limits. He wanted to buy his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catherine, a gift to celebrate his homecoming.
He was going to marry her, if she’d still have him.
He had to have just the right gift for her–something extravagant and feminine. He ventured beyond the door. A mannequin draped in a gown of deep blue velvet snagged his attention. A pretty blue, he conceded. Might match Mary Catherine’s eyes.
Or were her eyes green?
He frowned again.
It’d been a while since he’d seen her. Not since his West Point days when she’d headed East with his father to visit him, but damned if Creed knew what color her eyes were even then.
She had fair skin. That much he remembered. With hair like glistening gold. She wasn’t very big, either. Barely reached his shoulder.
Might be she’d grown some, though.
Sometimes, it was hard to remember just what she looked like. Six years was a long time. Last he saw her, she’d been young and naïve but sweet as sugar with lips full and soft and quick to smile.
She was a woman now. Mature. She’d have curves in all the female places. Probably lost her shyness, too. Wear her hair and clothes different.
A sudden eagerness to see her again swelled through him. He could hardly form a picture of her in his mind, but the letter in his pocket proved she was real and that she was in love with him. She told him so, over and over again, in words more eloquent than he could ever write to her in return.
One hell of a letter-writer, his Mary Catherine. A devoted one, too. Made a man feel good from all the nice things she always said about him.
Creed groped inside his shirt pocket and withdrew the last letter he’d received. Seeing her neat penmanship brought her alive, vanquished the years they’d been apart. He’d be with her soon. Within hours.
“My, but you look lost in here,” a soft voice said, amused.
Fabric rustled behind him, and Creed turned. A dress the likes he’d never seen before drew closer, the woman inside it tall and confident. And beautiful. His glance lingered. Years in war-torn countries kept him from seeing the ways a woman could pamper herself like this one did.
A corner of his mouth lifted. “Is it that obvious?”
“It is.” A puff of perfume reached him. “I’m Collette. Is there something I can help you with?”
“I need a gift for my fiancée.” Might be he was stretching the truth calling Mary Catherine that. He hadn’t yet asked her to marry him, but he was confident enough she would that he took the liberty.
“Fiancée?” Delicately painted lips curved downward. Collette’s long-lashed gaze drifted over him, slow and leisurely, clear to his boots and back up again. Creed regretted not stopping for a haircut and shave after getting off the train, but if the female appreciation in her expression was any indication, it didn’t matter that he hadn’t. “Lucky lady,” she murmured.
He grinned. “Guess I’ll find out if she is soon enough.”
She sighed dramatically, and he caught the twinkle in her eye. Collette was a charmer, for sure. “So, what are you looking for, cowboy? Anything in particular?”
Creed’s grin faded. The word stung. He’d buried that part of his life a long time ago.
“Not sure yet,” he said, shrugging off the dark turn of his mood. “Something nice, though.”
“Something nice. H-m-m.” Collette strolled over to a dress of shimmering yellow. Reminded him of the daffodils in Ma’s spring gardens. “This just arrived from Paris last week. It’s the latest rage.”
Creed stared at the sleeves on the thing. Snug from the wrists to the elbows, they ballooned out from there to the shoulders and looked like puffed out, over-blown wings. Mary Catherine would be wider than he was in it.
“It’s a Promenade Costume,” Collette said. “Does your lady like to walk in the park? She’d be the envy of everyone there.”
Mary Catherine lived on the spread next to his father’s. She’d work as hard as any of the other ranch women in the area. Who’d have time to drive to town for a walk in the park?
“What else can you suggest?” he hedged.
“You don’t like it? Perhaps something more useful would be better.” Collette seemed to know the way of his thinking and held up a short bouncy cape thing. “It’s the perfect wrap for spring.” She draped it around the yellow dress with a flourish. “Isn’t that beautiful?”
He nodded politely but couldn’t see how the cape could keep anyone the least bit warm. It barely reached a woman’s elbows, and it was so damn frilly, Mary Catherine would be lost in it. Her taste tended to run to the . . . plain.
At least, it used to.
He began to feel overwhelmed with indecision. How the hell was he supposed to know what she’d like?
“You don’t know this woman very well?” Collette asked gently.
He took courage from her perception. She was an astute businesswoman, and he was desperate for her help and expertise. “I’ve known her near all my life.”
A perfect brow arched. “And you don’t know her tastes?”
He shrugged. “I just haven’t seen her for a while, that’s all.”
“I see.” She regarded him knowingly. “How long?”
Creed glanced down at the date on the letter still in his hand. Three years since she’d written him. Damn, where had the time gone? But then, he’d been out of the country. The rest of her letters just hadn’t caught up with him yet. He stuffed the paper back in his pocket.
“Too long,” he said.
“I see,” she said again. “Well.” She glided to a shelf, her skirts swishing. “We’ll look at apparel more–shall we say–practical?” She lifted up a limp blob of lace and ribbons with an expectant smile.
Creed tried not to look stupid. “What is it?”
She blinked at him. “Why, it’s a breakfast cap. See?”
She held it over the top of her head to demonstrate.
He frowned. “Women need to wear a hat to eat breakfast?”
Collette sighed and returned it to the shelf. “Some do.”
Mary Catherine wore braids most every day, he recalled. He didn’t figure she’d need a ridiculous looking hat to cover them.
Collette moved to a glass counter. Creed had to admire her patience. His own was wearing mighty thin.
“How about handkerchiefs, then? We have some lovely ones,” she said. Handkerchiefs. A woman couldn’t have too many of those, could she? Relief swarmed through him. His decision was made. “I’ll take one of every style you have.”
Collette looked relieved, too. “I’ll wrap them in pretty paper for you.”
“You could bring her back later, you know,” Collette said, working efficiently to tally his bill. “Let her pick something out herself. Then you’ll know she’ll like what you buy her.”
“I will, as soon as I can.”
“Are you new to town?”
“Could say that.”
He didn’t tell her of the foreign lands he’d been to or the men he’d killed, all in the name of his country. What would she know of war? Of patriotism? He figured her biggest worry of the day was deciding what color dress to wear in the morning.
Well, it was men like him that gave women like her the privilege.
“Welcome to California, then,” Collette said graciously and slid the invoice across the counter for his signature. Creed obliged her, then paid his bill, and she handed him his purchase, covered in rose-colored paper. “Enjoy your stay here, Mr.”–she glanced downward–“Sherman.”
Behind him, the tiny bell on the door tinkled, signaling the arrival of another customer. Creed touched a finger to his Stetson, turned to leave and had to side-step a tall, dark-haired man entering the dress shop, his arms full of boxes. Barely able to see over them, he flashed Creed a look of surprise and mumbled an apology. Creed strode to the door.
“Not one of your regulars, is he, Collette?” the man muttered, grunting under his load. “He looks rougher than most.”
“No, this is Mr. Sherman’s first time here. He–.”
Creed pulled the door shut behind him, tucked his pathetically small package under his arm, and headed for his horse hitched right outside.
In the next moment, the door flung open again. “Mr. Sherman? Mr. Creed Sherman?”
Creed paused, one eye narrowed beneath the Stetson’s brim. Lean and muscular, but average-looking in his dark suit and shiny shoes, the man hurried toward him. Creed had never seen him before.
“You’re looking at him,” he said.
“I can’t believe it. I’ve been expecting you, sir. Just not this soon.”
He pumped Creed’s hand, but Creed’s attention snapped at his words. “You’ve been expecting me?”
“Yes, sir. I received word only this morning that you’d arrived in California.”
He tensed. “From whom?”
“General William Carson, sir. His wire ordered me to contact you.”
“Ordered you. To contact me.”
“Yes, sir. There’s a serious matter I’d like to discuss with you. Let me correct that. A matter I must discuss with you.”
Gut instinct told Creed he wasn’t going to like what the man had to say. If the General was involved, then the matter was serious. Damn serious.
Creed didn’t want to hear it. He was going home. To Mary Catherine.
“The name’s Graham Dooling, Mr. Sherman. I’m with the United States Treasury Department. More specifically, the Secret Service.”
Creed breathed an oath and braced himself for what would come next.
“President McKinley is due to arrive in Los Angeles next week for a private holiday with his wife. He’s requested that his visit be kept secret for the time-being. I’m part of a detail of agents sent here to prepare for them.” Dooling took a discreet step closer. “However, we’ve received some disturbing intelligence that his life is in danger.”
Suspicion coiled through Creed. “If you’re with the Secret Service, what the hell are you doing making deliveries to a dress shop?”
Dooling grimaced. “Collette is my sister. She’s been expecting a shipment of gowns from New York for an important customer of hers. I merely picked them up from the courier as a favor. It was my great fortune that you happened to be in her shop at the same time.”
Could be a trap. Creed tensed. He’d been drawn in by the enemy with a clever ruse before. Damn near lost his life over it, too.
But feigning an assassination attempt on the President of the United States was unusually shrewd.
“How do I know you’re who you claim to be?” he demanded.
Dooling nodded, as if he expected Creed’s suspicion and understood it.
“I’ll share some information with you, sir. General Carson is the father of your best friend. You and Jeb Carson have been inseparable from your West Point days. You’ve fought brilliantly on foreign soil, soldiers in the truest sense. Patriots, both of you. You’ve acquired a reputation that most soldiers could only dream of.”
“And what reputation is that, Dooling?” Creed taunted softly.
“A mercenary, sir.”
“A mercenary.” His mouth quirked. The term amused him.
But Dooling was dead serious.
“A soldier-for-hire who will risk his life behind enemy lines. Your success has been awe-inspiring, to say the least.”
The information, while not well-known amongst the ordinary citizenry, might easily be gleaned from someone in the military. If Dooling was acquainted with someone of the General’s rank, he’d have access to the Army’s gristmill.
Creed leaned a hip against the hitching post, crossed his arms over his chest, Mary Catherine’s gift crushed against him.
“Go on,” he said.
“Not long ago, you participated in a skirmish in Mexico against fierce revolutionaries there. Victorious, of course. You’ve recently parted company with Jeb and a certain young woman.”
Creed’s gaze didn’t waiver. “Her name.”
“Elena, sir. Jeb’s new bride. General Carson’s daughter-in-law.”
Elena. Graham Dooling would never have known of her if General Carson hadn’t told him. Elena was the clue the General knew Creed would need to convince him to take the job of protecting the President of the United States.
Damn. Creed didn’t want this. He didn’t need it.
“I’m not interested,” Creed said, straightening and heading toward his horse, a palomino newly acquired from the nearest livery. He stuffed the package of handkerchiefs into his saddle bag.
“But Mr. Sherman!” Looking crestfallen, Dooling watched him climb into the saddle and take the reins firmly in his hands.
“Find someone else,” he ordered grimly. “Plenty of soldiers in this country who could help you as easily as I can.”
“You’re wrong, sir! There’s no other with your–.”
But Creed wasn’t listening. He tugged on the reins and kicked his horse into a run away from Graham Dooling and Collette’s Fine Ladies Wear.
He was going home, damn it. Mary Catherine was waiting for him. Pa, too. His brother, Markie, and the rest of his father’s outfit.
And not even the President of the United States was going to stop him.