Excerpt for The Mercenary’s Kiss

Prologue

Texas, 1896

“La-adies and gentlemen! What a singular pleasure it is to bring to your fair city the most dazzling, the most thrilling, the most renowned extravaganza this side of the Missouri! Doc Charlie’s Medicine Sho-o-w-w!”

The audience packing the wooden benches inside the canvas tent whooped and clapped, their enthusiasm as palpable as the sawdust beneath their feet. Men whistled. Women and children cheered. The calliope player banged the keys in a chaotic medley of ear-splitting notes, all to perpetuate the excitement and anticipation of the entertainment to come.

As always, Elena Malone was filled with her own excitement of yet another performance to a crowd who traveled from miles around to watch.

A crowd with money in their pockets, of course.

The medicine show was her father’s production. Doc Charlie Malone carried the responsibility of the entire troupe on his shoulders. As pitchman for his own elixir, Doc Charlie’s Miraculous Herbal Compound, it was up to him to sell enough bottles after every performance to support them all.

And there wasn’t a better pitchman than Pop.

Oh, but she never tired of watching him. He always dressed impeccably in a smart suit and crisp white shirt, kept his moustache trimmed neat, and his graying goatee combed and stylish. He had eyes that were sharp and straightforward. His booming voice inspired confidence. Honesty. Doc Charlie Malone was the picture of professionalism.

A medicine man the crowd could trust.

And why not? He touted his elixir with pride, and while the results he claimed didn’t always happen to everyone, most times they did. Elena was shrewd enough to know there wasn’t a cure around that could single-handedly conquer the world’s ills.

But Pop’s elixir came close.

She roused herself from her musings and realized that Jake, the show’s comedian, had finished his opening routine. The crowd’s laughter attested to their enjoyment of his jokes and his success in delivering them. He was still taking his bow when a trio of jugglers appeared in the ring, plates spinning in the air as they ran.

Elena’s gaze swept the crowd and noted the rapt expressions on the people’s faces, their happiness and delight. On cue, the performers abandoned the plates and switched to fiery torches. Everyone seemed to wait with bated breath at the jugglers’ dexterity, at the danger, fearful they might be burned and fascinated by the possibility.

Everyone except one.

Her gaze snagged upon a man openly staring at her. A Mexican with jet-black hair that cascaded down to his shoulders in gleaming waves and who possessed eyes as dark, as glittering, as polished onyx.

Elena pulled her own gaze away. She was accustomed to men staring at her. Women and children, too, of all ages. It was part of performing in front of a curious public. She had learned to distance herself from it.

“Your cape, Elena.”

She turned toward Toby, the freckle-faced young man who worked behind the scenes to help keep the show going smoothly and on schedule. A ventriloquist and a song-and-dance team would perform after the jugglers. She had some time yet before she’d take her turn in the ring.

She smiled as he settled the satin fabric around her shoulders. She was inexplicably glad for the covering. Not that she was shy wearing her red-spangled costume, which conformed to the shape of her body like a second skin, enabling her to move freely during her trick-riding routine. She still had the uncanny feeling the Mexican watched her. “Thanks.”

“Good crowd tonight.” Toby removed his cap and ran his shirtsleeve over his sweaty forehead. He always labored hard for the show. Pop was lucky to have him.

“Yes. The take will be high, I think.”

“High enough for Doc?” He grinned, his expression teasing, but knowing.

Her mouth softened. “Is it ever?”

Pop’s obsession to sell his precious elixir, cases of it, was common knowledge amongst the troupe. The more money they took in, the happier Pop would be.

But then, everyone knew their expenses were formidable. If Doc Charlie’s Miraculous Herbal Compound didn’t sell, the troupe didn’t eat. Their debts always came first.

“Be careful out there, Elena.” Serious again, Toby pulled his cap back on to his head.

She gave him a confident wink. “I always am.”

He moved away from her to the next chore that awaited him. Elena turned back to the ring, her fingers fastening the cape’s clasp. Only minutes to go.

The first wave of apprehension went through her, as it always did before she performed. Even though she was only eighteen years of age, Pop considered her the show’s top act—the final one before his pitch. He depended on her to leave the audience so thrilled, so awestruck, they were compelled to buy his elixir out of sheer gratitude for the pleasurable entertainment he’d given them.

At last, it was time. Toby led a pair of white horses into the ring, each unsaddled and wearing a red-feathered ornament on their heads. Elena swept off her cape with a flourish, bowed, then bounded onto the lead horse’s back. With an ease she’d earned from countless hours of practice, she performed her routine of splits and cartwheels, tail and shoulder stands, until the crowd cheered in delight. She slid into the grand finale, a breath-taking choreography of somersaults and back flips on a half-dozen matching white horses.

When the routine was complete, she dismounted in one fluid leap. The applause increased to an even higher crescendo. Exhilarated, she sank into a long, deep bow of acknowledgement.

“Yes-sir-ree, ladies and gentlemen!” Pop’s booming voice soared over the applause. “An extravaganza the likes you’ll never see again! Doc Charlie’s Medicine Sho-o-w-w!”

After another rise of cheers, the clapping gradually quieted. The audience knew the show hadn’t ended yet, that there was more to come. No one understood better than Pop that the townspeople had gathered under the tent not only to be entertained, but to be cured of their ills, real or imagined.

“Now, you fine folks realize that Doc Charlie’s Medicine Show has to move on. By dawn’s first light, we’ll be on the road west. So tonight is your one and only chance to be healed.”

Cheers erupted again. Clearly, Pop held the crowd transfixed.

“I don’t claim that my elixir is a cure-all for everything. But I’m telling you true, Doc Charlie’s Miraculous Herbal Compound is made right from the secrets of the ancients.” He held up a bottle for them to see. “This elixir is good for three things. The kidneys, the stomach, and the liver. And any singular disease rising therefrom!

Elena had slipped from the ring with the horses to allow her father the audience’s complete attention. From her vantage point near one of the tent’s entrances, she watched him. She was proud of his honesty, his forthrightness. The people looked to him for hope. And health.

Pop couldn’t afford the national advertising many of the patent medicine companies used to sell their products. He had only himself—and the herbal compound he had created—to draw in customers. Thus, his pitch had to be sterling and straightforward.

Riveting.

The audience was indeed riveted to his oratory about a man cured of tapeworms from Doc Charlie’s Miraculous Herbal Compound. Pop always gave specifics. He revealed the man’s name, his occupation, his hometown. Even the number of children he had.

And the crowd believed.

“Again, I tell you true, ladies and gentlemen. There is not a greater pain remedy on earth than my herbal compound. There is no sore it will not heal, no ache it will not subdue. Why, you can even use it to treat your horses and cattle!”

A collective murmur of surprise rippled through the tent.

“Yes-sir-ree! One dollar for a bottle. That’s all, ladies and gentlemen. One dollar. Isn’t that a sweet price to pay for an elixir this miraculous?

Men dipped into their pockets. Women reached for their handbags.

“You won’t have a chance to buy this wonderful cure ever again. No-sir-ree! We’ll be gone by dawn, so stock up now! Buy two bottles. Three or four, if you please.”

Along with the show’s other performers, Elena took her place at a tent entrance, cases of Doc Charlie’s Miraculous Herbal Compound stacked at her feet.

“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! One dollar a bottle! That’s right. Just one dollar!”

The rush of footsteps drowned out Pop’s voice. The wooden benches cleared, and the aisles filled with people eager to buy their own supply of elixir. Elena had all she could do to keep up with the stream of customers, each waving dollar bills in her face.

Pop had done it again.

Toby dropped the last of the leather bags into the heap piled in Elena’s arms. Her muscles strained with the weight of the night’s take, but it was a strain she gladly endured.

“Sure you don’t need some help, Elena?” Toby asked, picking up scattered crates once filled with elixir.

“No, thanks. The show ran long tonight, and you have plenty of chores to do yet.”

“All right, then. See you in the morning.”

Giving him an answering smile, Elena stepped from beneath the canvas into the night. Pop was busy with the crew as they labored to take down the tent; he wouldn’t be free to count their money for another couple of hours yet.

The crowd had long since headed for home. The field where they’d staged the show was empty except for the pieces of trash strewn amongst the weeds, trampled flat from the evening’s activities. Except for the low drone of the generator keeping the tent’s lights glowing, the night was quiet.

Elena’s costume provided little warmth from the night’s chill, and she hurried toward the gaily-painted, high-wheeled wagon she shared with her father—and the safe he’d bolted securely inside. Tomorrow, they would deposit the money into the nearest bank. Pop would be pleased to know the week’s bills would be paid in full with enough left over for some much needed extras.

Upon reaching the wagon, she propped one foot on the bottom step and eased the cumbersome bags onto her thigh while she struggled to turn the knob.

A man’s hand suddenly covered hers. “Senorita.”

She froze at the heavily-accented voice harsh in her ear, at the tequila on his breath.

At the menace in his presence.

She jerked her hand away and pushed against him to flee, but the cold metal of a knife’s blade at her throat stopped her.

Her breathing quickened in fear. In horror. The low nicker of unseen horses nearby indicated the Mexican wasn’t alone.

And she didn’t have a chance with any of them.

“You want the money, don’t you?” she whispered shakily, a sickening sensation coiling faster and faster inside her at the impending loss.

“Ah, senorita. That is not all I want.”

Abruptly, he spun her about, and she scrambled to keep her balance, her arms automatically tightening around the money. He plucked one of the bags from the heap and tossed it into the darkness, to the men mounted behind them. He did the same with another, and then another.

Until Elena’s arms were empty.

Dismay welled up inside her. “No! Please! You can’t do this!”

The Mexican barked an order. Horses’ hooves pounded deeper into the darkness, then died away.

She was alone with him. Her chest heaved; she didn’t dare take her eyes off him. She wanted to claw him, to kick and scream at the unfairness of what he’d done.

Of what he was going to do.

But the knife’s blade appeared again and prevented her. The flash of metal in the moonlight left her vulnerable and defenseless. Terrified. His long, wavy hair framed the cruel planes of his face.

Never would she forget that face.

Raw, burning fear surged up inside her. She took a step back, but he was too quick. She turned to flee him, but before she could manage it, he had her in his grip again.

Beneath the blade, the straps of her costume gave way. Elena cried out and clutched the fabric to her breasts. He snarled and pushed her to the ground; a savage yank on the red spangles ripped the garment in two. He clamped a grimy palm over her mouth, smothering her scream.

Silencio!” He straddled her, his weight rendering her immobile. He unbuckled his belt with his free hand. “I will kill you if you make a sound, senorita. And not even the good doctor’s medicine will help you, then, eh?”

His head lowered. Long, wavy hair fell across her cheek. With his mouth and tongue upon her, the stench of his lust, his greed, filled and sickened her.

Afterward, when he left her cold and alone, Elena curled into a tight, miserable ball. And wept.