Kate the Kid Ch. 08bymadam_noe©
He was shaking. Had been shaking all day. Rafe had done his duty, been to Pinkerton's and back, suffered through Jerome's lectures and the tailors.
Even staring into the mirror and seeing a gentleman looking back, the kind of man he could have been had war not ravaged his life, he was shaking.
It had taken him long nights to figure it out. He loved Kate. Loved her spirit, her independence, even her damn temper. The way she drank, shot, smiled. The look of lust in her eyes, her easy laughter. Her smart wit, the way she sized people up in an instant.
It had taken longer for him to realize he wasn't betraying Faith. Kate was the complete opposite of his first wife, but his love for her would never steal his love for Faith, nor the other way around.
Before he'd thought he had all the time in the world to convince her way of thinking to his, but now he had just a handful of hours.
And dammit, his child, their child, was inside of her. He would die before he let another man raise their boy or girl, he'd readily kill the man with his bare hands before standing there, watching Kate give herself to another.
If they failed tonight, he would just bind and gag her, drag her to the nearest preacher and see it done right. He had mucked up plenty and fixed it in the end, damnit, he could fix this.
"I don't like this," he said to Jerome as the other man motioned him over to straighten his neckcloth.
"You tied it too tight," Jerome said with a terse attempt at humor.
Rafe stayed his hand at his neck. "No. Damn it, Jerome, we've known each other for years. You're the talker, I'm the shooter. I hunt people down, and I take 'em back, dead or alive. Now I'm supposed to sit back and let some fancy Pinkerton get a confession, and take the man to court? You know as well as I do the man will never get to the noose, he has too much damn money, too much power."
"Rafe, there's a time for shooting, a time for talking, and a time for valor. Kate is scared, trapped, she's going to need you to have a clear head, be there, be her support. Tonight we try diplomacy."
Rafe cursed and dropped his hand, letting the other man fix the cloth. "And if it doesn't work?"
Jerome stepped back and clapped his shoulder. "Then we let you three shoot your way out."
"Amen to that," Dan said from the doorway. Both he and Finn had bathed, but with their rumpled evening suits and stubble, looked like hastily hired bodyguards.
Jerome groaned. "Come on, we've got thirty minutes to make you into gentlemen."
Dan snorted. "Better hire one in my place then."
Despite his nerves, Rafe smiled to know two equally dangerous men who cared for Kate would be at his back, and would be almost as uncomfortable as he was.
Kate was nervous, only years of playing cards with lowlifes kept her features schooled. Her father had hired two women, now fussing at her, and she felt a damn fool. Her hair as curled by a long rod heated in the fire, then smoothed back down and piled in a complicated and sometimes painful fashion on her head.
Her dress was too damn low cut, she was used to wearing shirts designed for men, buttoned to her neck, but her father wanted to "sell the goods" to the man he had promised her to.
Izzy better pull a miracle from her neither regions, Kate thought with a sigh. "Ow!"
"Oh, miss, you need to soften your hair," one of the ladies tsked in a gentle Irish brogue.
"I just need it to stay under a hat," Kate gruffed back, her retort met by puzzled laughter.
"Is she ready?" All three women winced at the sound of McMaster's rough voice.
"Yes, sir," the petite brunette maid said in a hushed voice.
McMasters, whom Kate resembled too much for her liking, wore a black evening suit. His frame was thin, like hers, but the cut gave an impression of bulk even she had to admit was flattering. His thunderous frown was not.
"Is she wearing a corset?"
"But sir, she refused, and if she's breeding-"
He crossed the room in three steps and raised his hand as if to slap her. Kate met his gaze levelly, prepared to take the blow, hoping she'd bruise, and she wouldn't have to appear at the farce of a party.
"No, not tonight, not before. But after we retire...your punishment will come. Put her in a corset, cinch it extra tight. If you refuse, you'll never work in this town again."
The petite brunette and the taller blonde nodded nervously, their eyes and Kate's tracking him out of the room.
The blonde sighed. "Miss, we'd better do as he says, but no need to make it tight, yer slim enough."
For the first time in days, Kate smiled. "Could you tie it loose enough to hide a gun?"
The blonde was shocked, but her compatriot smiled. "Why, yes, mum, we could."
She felt like throwing up. In her...possible condition, not a rare occurrence of late for Kate, but this was no work of nature.
The man her father introduced her to was short, plump, soft all over, and his beady eyes were glued to her bosom, pushed high and forward by the damn corset.
All around her were her father's friends, or people who wanted to be close to him and his money. They wished her well without meeting her eyes, bored holes into her back with their stares.
McMasters told everyone she had been away at finishing school, and Kate was forbidden to talk. She knew her twang marked her as a poor nomad from the west, not the innocent young miss who'd been in a convent in France that he purported.
Her beloved boots had been taken away, hard shoes left in their place, and her feet ached. All around the room McMaster's men circulated, watching her like red tailed hawks circling a poor field mouse.
"You are truly his daughter?" The voice was thickly accented in familiar tones, but she did not recognize the owner. He was short, swarthy, eying her suspiciously over the rim of his glass.
She may not have been raised in society, but she knew rudeness on sight, and like so many others in the evening, she merely turned away from him and his attempt to ingratiate himself into her "father's" life through the supposed innocent.
She felt so alone she wanted to cry. Kate trusted Isabella, but it occurred to her she'd never trusted anyone with her life before. And the thought of her petite friend riding to her rescue...through the thin sheen of tears gathering, Kate found herself smiling.
Heck, it'd be like the delicate princess slaying the dragon instead of waiting for the knight in those tales of Izzy's. She let out a laugh, and several people stopped, this being the first utterance they'd heard from her all night.
She turned away from the prying eyes and the laughter died in her throat. There at the door, were her friends. Izzy was so beautiful Kate knew there was no other woman on earth who could hold a candle to her. All the men were freshly bathed, clean shaven, and dressed like greenhorns.
But it was Rafe that struck her dumb. The man looked so solidly at home in worn denim and loose cotton shirts, but in starched cloth in black and white, he was magnificent.
Those bright eyes of his found her quickly and they stared, awestruck. When she realized how she looked, damned if Kate didn't find herself blushing.
Was this her rescue? They all looked quite proper, perhaps if she were able to blend in to their small crowd, she could just waltz out the door a free woman. Any hunger for vengeance that had burned in her breast died beneath the urge to preserve herself when her fat toad of a fiancé touched her.
Rafe seemed to get her intent merely from her hard stare, and he took a step forward only to be stopped by Jerome. The taller man nodded behind Kate and she turned to see her father in a fine froth.
"Kate," he said tersely. "You haven't danced yet."
There hadn't been time to learn how to dance, but she knew better than to say that. "I'm sorry," she said simply, devoid of meaning.
At her father's side was the toad, behind them three of her father's bulkiest men, looking like walking jokes in their ill-fitting evening suits.
He grabbed her arm painfully and jerked her forward. Kate stumbled right into the grinning toad's arms.
"Dance lightly, daughter." The last word sent a chill down her spine, and having to choose between the odious man and her father, she practically led the march to the dance floor.
His hands were too low and too high, he smelled like onions, and when she couldn't follow his steps her feet were getting stomped.
Her partner stopped and frowned. "You mustn't be such a clod, try and follow my steps will you?"
She felt her temper grow but under the watchful eye of her father she merely jerked a nod and stepped forward again.
Staring plainly down at her feet she realized the man had no rhythm to match the band, and she merely tried to move by jerking her feet out of the path of his. When she felt a damp hand slide to the side of the cursed bustle and tuck under, even through six layers of cloth, she was so startled she stumbled again.
"I will not have a cow for a wife," he growled and she thought of the very small derringer under her corset. After a long moment of staring into his eyes with a gunfighter's gaze, she decided it'd take too long to retrieve, and he gulped nervously.
Her heart stuttered and began to speed like a rabbit ahead of a fox. To her side Rafe stood, waiting, to all the world calm and collected, but she saw bitter rage in his eyes, all focused on the toad turned octopus.
Completely intimidated he nodded and stepped back, and Rafe grabbed her possessively. He led Kate to a darker corner with surprisingly lithe steps, and as he followed the music with natural grace she found it easy to match her steps to his.
When at last they were in a small alcove partially blocked by a large potted plant, she felt herself begin to tremble.
"Rafe," was all could say and he crushed her mouth beneath his.
She melted into him, and the spark she felt at that mere touch was enough to tell her that damn it, there would never be another man in her life that could take his place.
Desperate for more she traced the seam of his lips with her tongue and Rafe jerked back, short of breath. "There's about a million things I want to say to you, but they'll have to wait."
Dazed, she smiled, completely lost to anything but him. "Why?"
Seeing the list in her eyes he groaned and closed his for a moment. "Sweetheart, we've got things to do tonight, and very little time. We've got a Pinkerton coming, now you won't see who it is. When he's close Isabella will walk right past you and open her fan.
"All you've got to do is get your father to talk. Get him to admit something anything, but admitting to a murder would be best."
She felt ill. "Murder? You don't know the man. He won't admit the slightest fault, I can't reckon he'd admit to murder."
"You have to try. It's our chance. He admits it, the Pinkerton hears, and he's arrested."
Fear gripped her. "What if I can't? What if it doesn't work?"
He pulled her to his chest and smoothed her hair. Kate snuggled into his reassuring warmth. "Then Dan, Finnegan, Jerome and I will shoot while you and Isabella high tail it outta here."
Despite her jangled nerves the image of a wild gunfight in the swanky hotel made her laugh. Then it sunk in. "It's a different world, Rafe. This ain't for people like us."
Cupping the back of her head he turned her face up and their eyes met. "This is Jerome's world, Isabella's, and this is their plan. All two roughnecks like us can do is go along and try."
There was hope in his steady green gaze. Hope she'd never dared to dream of. It was enough. This time, it was Kate who crushed his lips against hers, and when she traced his lips with her tongue, Rafe let her in.
Long minutes passed before a throat cleared. Rafe turned his head, prepared to do battle with one of McMaster's men, but it was Jerome.
"I can appreciate the reunion, but McMasters is looking for her."
Cursing, Rafe let her go and Kate patted at her hair and dress, trying to straighten everything. "I don't know if I can do this, but I'm sure as hell gonna try."
Jerome smiled at her. "You're about the most plain-spoken woman I've ever met, Kate, and subterfuge- lying," he corrected at her blank look, "doesn't come easy. But if your- if McMaster's is angry, his tongue might run a little loose."
Nervous, all she could do was nod, but Rafe squeezed her hand reassuringly.
"I'll take this young buck," Jerome ignored Rafe's snort, "with me now, you'd best wait a moment, Kate. Remember, watch for Izzy."
She squeezed back and let them go, watching their broad backs disappear into the crowd. After two deep breaths, she turned- and slammed into her father's narrow chest.
"Kate. I think it's time we left."
"Wait, no, I mean, no, we can't."
McMasters was a man so unused to hearing "no," it was enough to stop him. His eyes were like cold winter, his grip on her wrist as sure as iron. "No?"
"No. I haven't been out of my damn room in weeks. Please," the word nearly stuck on her throat, "don't make me go back. Yet."
He pulled her close enough that he loomed. Not of inconsiderable height, Kate was thrown off. "I let you out for one night, and you leave your future husband on the dance floor to cavort with the first stranger that comes along? No daughter of mine will be a bitch in heat. You're just like your mother."
Time slowed to a crawl, Kate's world narrowed onto that one word. Mother. He refused to talk about her, refused to address the rumors or appease the curiosity of a lonely daughter.
"I am?" she asked quietly, pride in her voice.
He growled like a wild beast at that. "Gutter trash, nothing more. But she is dead and you are my daughter. I come from a good, honorable family, and you will never smear my name."
What Jerome had said was on her mind, but her temper was in the driver's seat. The glittering ballroom and the large crush faded into the recesses of her mind.
"I don't have your name. They call me Kid. I don't give a good damn what our blood might say, you ain't my pappy, I ain't your daughter. And you don't ever talk about my mother like that."
For a long moment he was frozen, shocked. With his guards watching more faces turned, and though Kate could feel the weight of their stares, she felt stronger than she had since Finnegan had brought her into the city.
He grabbed her arm and hauled her across the room, a pasted smile on McMaster's face. Kate looked about for Izzy and her red gown, but the petite brunette was nowhere to be found. Damn it, she too knew a temper could force a confession from a man's mouth quicker'n a hound after a rabbit. Tracking her own bounties, she'd done this before, and McMasters was a man to crack.
She had no idea what the damn Pinkerton looked like, and Izzy was her only clue. The old man was heading straight for the lobby and her mind was racing. Memories flitted, and lit on one Izzy had once shared with her, a trick for meeting a man.
"Ouch!" she cried and stumbled as if her ankle had turned. In the damned shoes she was made to wear, not a long stretch. She went down like a sack of feed, twice as heavy and limp. McMasters was forced to stop, or appear truly cruel to the crowd.
He glared at her, and then Kate's "intended" was at his side. "Darling, have you twisted your ankle?"
She nodded, grateful for his manners, even if concern was lacking. He turned to McMasters with a sniffle. "Best to have your men escort her to a couch and send one to fetch the house doctor."
McMasters looked down at her with blazing eyes. "See to it," he barked at his men.
Two pairs of burly arms lifted her and the watching crowd parted like a Biblical sea leading to a long couch. She was set down heavily, and Kate had to bit her lip from crying out as the Derringer poked her sharply. She shifted until it was looser, but it slipped to the bottom of her corset.
The guards took up posts on either side, glares keeping the crowd back. McMasters climbed the stage with the band and his powerful voice cut through the murmurs, telling the band to play, people to dance, no notice to be taken.
Kate watched, dazed at the power he held. The denizens of this strange little world obeyed without question. She'd seen corrupt mayors own little town, ranchers intent on an empire, and never had she seen such power.
He stepped down, the crowd parted even as couples paired up once more to dance. A straight line from McMasters to her, and his expression was deadly.
Time slowed, and a red dress walked into her sight. Izzy's fan fluttered, her steps seemed to thunder, and Kate's heart stuttered.
It was time to make her father confess to a murder, and Kate knew just what crime he should hang for.
She would make him confess to killing her mother.