Rewriting Stealing Mercy

I’m rewriting my first published novel, Stealing Mercy. Next month, it will be published as Verity and the Villain. I just got my new cover, and I’m pretty much in love with it.

CHAPTER 1

Some herbs, like eucalyptus and wormwood, can be used to repel animals and insects.

From The Recipes of Verity Faye

#

New York, New York

December, 1888

New York City’s night noises seeped through the wall chinks and window: the jingle of horse harnesses, the stomping of hooves, the mournful howl of a dog, but one noise, a noise that didn’t belong, jarred Verity awake.

A creak on the stairs that led to her apartment. The third from the top, five steps past Mr. Bidwell’s door. Only those wishing to reach her home crossed that step. She never entertained visitors in the tiny attic; she wasn’t expecting company.

Lying in bed, she held her breath while the unwelcome guest paused. The walls were thin, the door as substantial as paper, the lock inconsequential. Her thoughts raced and her body shook. A shock of cold hit when she slipped from the bedding. The wooden floor felt like ice beneath her feet. The embers in the grate had burnt to a smolder and her shivering had as much to do with cold as with fear.

Verity padded through the doorway to the sitting room. Dying coals in the potbelly stove cast an orange glow and shadows loomed large. Grabbing a fire poker from the hearth, she waited for a knock on the door. She tried to think of an innocent reason for a neighbor to call, an emergency or crisis in which she could assist, but when no knock came, she crept behind the pie safe stocked with the previous day’s unsold pies and pastries. Stars winked through the window and Verity wondered if their pale light could penetrate her chiffon shift. She felt naked, alone, and friendless.

She could call out. Let the visitor know she was awake, alert, and fire poker armed. Perhaps someone on the street below would hear, but would they come to her aid? Her only neighbor, Mr. Bidwell, as old as Satan and twice as mean, would never stir from his bed for her. As she so often did, Verity missed her father and longed for family.

The splintering wood shattered the air as the lock gave way.

Across the room, a mirror, tarnished and misty, gave a wavy reflection of the opening door. Verity slid a fraction lower behind the pie safe. The odors of the pies mingled with her own smell of fear.

In the mirror, she saw first a boot and then a thigh. Then all of Mr. Steele came into view, his face a study of lust and cruelty. He stood in the semi-darkness where a shaft of moonlight glistened on the six-inch knife in his gloved hand. Verity choked on a sour tasting sob.

Suitors don’t carry knives.

Mr. Steele pushed the door open wider, inviting in a breeze that circulated through the room. She knew why she’d been attracted to him. He looked and moved like royalty. His dark hair curled away from his forehead and his lean muscles rippled beneath his breeches. She thought of his laughter, the lilt of his voice when he asked if he could call, the gleam in his eye when she’d accepted his gift. Verity fingered the silver charm, a four-leaf clover, he’d given her. She’d tied it with a ribbon and wore it around her neck. Why hadn’t she taken it off when she’d denied his suit? When had she become suspicious of his flattery? Why was she not surprised to find him in her room past midnight wielding a knife?

Of course, he’d been angry and insulted that a mere shop girl would reject his favors. Impoverished girls without families and connections should fawn over a handsome, wealthy, and prominent man such as Steele, but Verity wasn’t typical, and she wasn’t as impoverished as she pretended to be. And so, when Mr. Steele had invited her on a voyage to South America without proposing marriage, she’d turned him down.

Rumors whispered Mr. Steele had also invited her friend Belle on such a voyage. Then Belle had disappeared.

Verity held her breath. Steele passed the pie safe and paused as if thinking. Mustering strength from the muscles that spent long hours kneading dough and beating eggs, gathering courage grown from burying first her mother and then her father, Verity shoved the pie safe and it gave way with a creak and shudder. The safe caught Mr. Steele on the shoulder and he stumbled under the assault of the swinging doors and sailing pies. Apple, cherries, peaches, the sweet cinnamony odors of Faye’s wares pelted Mr. Steele. He danced in the pastry goop and landed hard on one knee. In a different circumstance, she’d have laughed at his abandoned dignity and awkward bobbling, but now she stepped into the fallen pastries with her mouth in a stern line, her anger as hot as fire.

One blow from the poker sent him to the floor. A second blow brought his arms over his head. With the third, he winced, fell face first into the smashed pastries.

When she stopped beating him, her arms were shaking and her breath ragged. Blood oozed from behind his ear. His body sprawled in the spilled pies; his face pressed against the floorboards. She nudged him with the poker, but he didn’t stir. For a long moment, she stood above him, waiting for a sign of life.

Her heart raced as she considered her options. The police? Would they believe her plea of self-defense? She tried to imagine herself in a court of law, pitted against a courtroom of men.

On his side with his limbs at awkward angles and his eyes half shut, Steele lay motionless in a mess of stewed fruit and crust. A smashed, oozing cherry clung to his eyebrow. And then she noticed papers protruding from his jacket pocket. It looked like passage fare, and she considered it with a hammering heart.

Squatting beside him, she drew the papers loose, her fingers shaking so badly the papers caused a noisy breeze. A silver key slipped from the packet to the floor and landed with a ping. The skeleton key had a curlicue top with embossed leaves swirling around the words Lucky Island. The papers were first-class passage to Seattle. It seemed Mr. Steele had been undeterred from the voyage he’d proposed. The boat left at first light.

Seattle.

She couldn’t.

She had an aunt in Seattle.

She mustn’t.

Silly Tilly, her father had called his sister. Verity hadn’t met her aunt, but Silly Tilly always remembered Verity’s birthday.

Why not go? Verity turned her head away from the tiny sitting room and looked out the window to the river. Hastily drawn plans formed in her mind. Perhaps Lucky Island was in the Puget Sound. It sounded more fortuitous than Faye’s Bakery off Elm. Would her aunt take her in? Verity had written Tilly of her father’s death, but hadn’t, as yet, heard a reply. Perhaps an invitation was already in the mail.

Verity went to the wardrobe and tossed through her dresses, nothing seemed practical. What did one wear for flight? She caught sight of her father’s trunk and nursed an idea as she drew out her father’s clothes.

Pants, well-worn and loose, she slipped on and tucked the hems into her boots. She rolled the sleeves of the cotton work shirt and shrugged into a boiled wool coat. She tugged at the belt holding up her father’s pants and took a deep breath in an effort to restore the calm she’d lost the moment she heard the boot on the stairs. The jacket made her warm and the faint smell of leather and shoeshine she always associated with her father gave her courage. It felt odd and freeing to move without the encumbrance of skirts and petticoats. She kept one eye on Mr. Steele as she packed the knapsack: her father’s watch, her mother’s bible, a bag of gold coins, a loaf of barley bread.

She sat down at the table where she’d taken her solitary meals and struggled to control her shaking hands. Her handwriting looked spidery, the ink blotchy. A splash of ink stained her father’s denim work shirt, but Verity didn’t care.

To whom it may concern, I, Verity Faye, have taken my life on the night of December 15, 1888, she wrote, but she mentally added, to Seattle. She left the note on her unmade bed.

Verity snuck a glance at the blood still seeping from the man’s temple and fought the bile rising in her throat. She squatted and pulled out a locked trunk from under her bed. Her shivering increased, making it difficult for her fingers to work the key. Quickly, she rifled through her mother’s things which smelled of must, neglect and a lingering hint of lavender. Forgive me, Mama, she thought, when she found the velvet bag containing the Bren jewels.

Not trusting the sapphires in the knapsack, she tucked the bag next to her heart beneath the ink-stained shirt. Then, she went to the safe where she kept the shop’s proceeds. Perhaps someone, most likely her landlord, would wonder, but who would question the scant means she left behind? The coins seemed to weigh a hundred pounds and they jingled like a tambourine in her father’s pockets.

Since her father’s death four months prior, there’d been times when Verity contemplated selling the jewels, but the bakery had become increasingly successful. Verity took a deep breath, inhaling the warm pastry smells that permeated her life. She would miss the shop, and it would only be a few hours until her customers would miss her. Eventually, her landlord would bang on the door, demanding rent, fair compensation. Would he find Mr. Steele?

Two hats hung on the hook by the door, a simple straw affair and a summer bonnet she wore walking. Verity tucked the bonnet beneath her arm, shouldered the knapsack and then bade a silent goodbye to the only home she’d ever known.

Then she felt it. A shift in the air. She stopped, listened, but heard only her racing heart.

Every noise seemed amplified as Verity wrenched open what remained of the door and plunged down the squeaky steps. Outside, she sucked in the cold night air and let it fill her lungs. She stole through an alley, relying on memory and moonlight to guide her through the towering rows of dark shops. When she reached the avenue, light from the street lamps twinkled on the dew-covered sidewalk. Her flat leather boots made no sound on the cobblestone street. An alley cat kept watch on a window sill and a rat scurried beneath a trash bin. Verity lowered her father’s felt cap and hunched her chin into his scarf when she passed a pair of streetwalkers. The women, bruised and blue with cold called out to her, but she fled down the avenue to where the Brooklyn Bridge crossed the East River.

Verity stopped on the bridge, the same bridge from which Mrs. Steele had thrown herself in a fit of melancholy a little more than a year ago. Verity felt the wind pull at her clothes and tease tendrils of hair from the cap. She sent Claris Steele a silent prayer of gratitude for the inspiration. After a glance over her shoulder to ensure her solitude, Verity tossed the feathered bonnet into the swirling dark water and watched it disappear.

Los Angeles, California

1888

Dust filled Trent Michael’s eyes, nose, and throat and the sun beat upon his neck, but he didn’t mind. Leaning against the railing, he watched the beauty in the ring. A silky midnight mane, a shivering amber coat, intelligent eyes, and long, lean legs. Perfection. He shifted and squinted into the sun and let his gaze rest on the distant mountains. It’d be a long hard ride leading the untamed stallion through Southern California’s brown hills, the central valley and Oregon’s mountain passes, but by the time they’d reach Seattle, Sysonby would be eating out of his hand and nickering his name.

“I’d be begging your pardon, sir,” Mugs said behind him.

Trent didn’t take his eyes off the horse. Syonsby threw his head back and thrashed the air with lightning speed hooves while a stable hand scrambled from the ring. He’d enjoying breaking this one. “Yes, Mugs, what is it?” he asked over his shoulder. If they left at tomorrow’s first light, they could reach the mountains within a week.

“This just arrived.”

Trent turned and saw his driver holding a telegram and wearing a happy, no, exultant, expression upon his typically hang-dog face. Trent placed his hat on his head and fingered the brim, suspicious.

Mugs pushed back his curly hair and tried to steady his twitching lips. “It’s from your gram.”

Trent had guessed that. If he refused the telegram, he could say with a certain degree of honesty that he’d never seen it. He’d be on the trail by morning and his grandmother’s message would be roasting in a campfire by nightfall. Trent studied Mugs. The man who typically had the demeanor and appearance of a troll practically shimmied with anticipation. Trent trusted him implicitly, but he knew Mugs could never match wits with Hester Michaels. Mugs, like most people or animals, hadn’t a prayer of success if pitched against his grandmother. He’d never be able to keep a secret from her himself.

Trent inhaled the mixed odors of hay, dung and sweat and took off his hat to shoo away the flies. If he tried to deny knowledge of the telegram, Hester would wring the truth from Mugs within minutes and then Trent would be mucking out stables, waiting for the day when she deeded him the ranch. On her deathbed.

Twenty odd years of shed shoveling.

Trent frowned at Mugs and held out his hand for the telegram.

“GRACEY MISSING STOP RETURN IMMEDIATELY STOP”

#

Hunger drove Verity to the galley. She’d been able to keep to her room for several weeks, only emerging for solitary meals and midnight strolls on the deck, but by the time the ship had landed in Los Angeles, her stomach cried for food, real food. The weeks of tinned beans she’d endured were about to end. During her last few jaunts from her berth, she’d heard the rumors of tangy oranges, bite-size grapes, and juicy plums. Just thinking of fresh produce made her head swim and stomach ache. She stopped in the doorway and watched the men seated at the tables.

Out of a sense of self-preservation, she’d kept to herself, but loneliness and boredom had driven her to excessive eavesdropping and she’d learned more than just the passenger’s names and faces. Curly, Captain Kane, de la Mar and a man she didn’t recognize sat at a card table. The newcomer must have boarded in Los Angeles. Cards, poker chips, and beverages sat on the tables. No food. Her stomach groaned a complaint.

Curly, a bald stocky man, must have heard her belly growl. He caught her expression and grunted in her direction. “No vittles yet, lad.”

She felt tears rising and blinked hard, cursing her weakness. The room smelled of ale and fish and the ship rose and fell with the tide, making her empty belly cramp. Occasionally, the ship bumped against the dock with a smack and a shudder and while the ropes as thick as her thigh that held the ship to the dock, groaned at the restraint.

“You can always go on shore, there’s sure to be hawkers in the port,” wizened Captain Kane told her. She glanced out the window. A breeze blew in and she both smelled and heard the temptations of dry land. She sat down hard in a chair at a table close enough to watch the men and practice patience.

Captain Kane grumbled into his hand of cards, although Verity saw he held a pair of kings. Curly leaned back and rubbed his hand over his gleaming bald head. The captain sighed as if he’d soon regret his wager and pulled a jangle of coins from his pocket. A wild glint lit his eyes when Curly laid an unusual token on the table.

“Lofty stakes,” de la Mar murmured, sitting forward, his lean frame angling toward the new wager.

“Now how’d the likes of you get hold of something like that?” asked the newcomer with the sort of jaw that looked like it’d been chiseled in stone. Verity hadn’t remembered seeing him before, and she would have. He had a cleft chin and his defined muscles bore a resemblance to the Greek statues she’d seen on display in the traveling artifact show. He turned toward her and his gaze lingered on her lips. A slow smile curved his mouth and he took a long drink of ale before returning to his pair of fives.

“Hey, I got my charms,” Curly laughed and looked smug.

“I wouldn’t be trading that away so lightly,” de la Mar said, studying his cards as if trying to conjure a flush.

Verity leaned forward and caught sight of the token. Her breath caught in her throat.

“Now that’s worth playing for, hey lad?” Curly threw her a bawdy grin. Verity blinked at him. She wanted to touch the token, to feel its heft and size, to study it and see if it could be as similar to the key in her pocket as it appeared.

Captain Kane threw the man with a cleft chin a hostile glance. “You acquainted with that particular coin, Wallace?”

Wallace, the man with the cleft chin, said, “I’m not.”

But Verity was. Her fingers sought the key in her pocket. They matched. She was sure of it. The key she’d taken from Mr. Steele matched the token on the table.

“That there token can buy you one of the finest wenches in the country,” Curly grinned.

“They don’t just let any Joe into their club,” de la Mar said. “How you get that, Curly? Don’t tell me it was on account of your beauty.”

“Or your smell,” Wallace said, smirking.

“Ah, the smell of money,” Captain Kane, said, laying down his cards, the kings staring up at him. He beamed as his companions threw down their hands with oaths and curses.

“What exactly do you get with that token?” Verity asked the men in her practiced baritone voice.

Captain Kane smiled. “I just won me a trip to Lucky Island.”

Verity fidgeted. “And Lucky Island is–”

“One of the finest brothels in the country,” the captain finished for her.

“And that token gains you entrance for a night?” This was the longest conversation she’d had since leaving New York and it made her nervous. Any moment she expected her voice to crack, and yet she had to ask.

“A whole night?” de la Mar scoffed and Curly, who’d been taking a swig of ale, snorted.

Warmth flushed Verity’s cheeks, and she looked out the window again. She caught sight of a broad shoulder man pushing up the gangplank. He had blond hair tied back in a short queue. He walked with athletic grace, but something about the way he moved said he didn’t want to get on the boat. It was almost as if he was fighting an invisible string that tried to keep him on land.

“Can you imagine having a key to Lucky Island?” de la Mar asked.

“I demand a rematch,” Curly said, watching his prize token slip away.

Verity turned her back on the man climbing the gangplank and asked, “This Lucky Island, is it here in California?”

“Naw, the finest wenches are in Seattle,” Captain Kane said, smiling and pushing away from the table. He flipped the coin into the air and caught it mid-air. “Gentlemen, I believe it’s time to set sail.”

#

Trent stood on the deck of the ship, his stomach matching the ocean’s churning. A light spray fell over him, but he didn’t flinch. He tried to focus on the emerging moon and the star’s glinty light and not the dark, rolling tide pitching both the ship and the contents of his stomach. Gazing out over the hills where the mountains met the purpling sky, he could imagine Mugs, Sysonby and the other horses cresting the mountains before making camp. Transporting a team of horses single-handedly wouldn’t be easy, but it would be worthwhile. Mugs would first break and then train Sysonby, and no matter how often Trent rode or fed him, Sysonby would always belong to Mugs. Despite the paperwork.

Paperwork, documentation. It said so much and did so little. He felt the weight of the ranch settle across his shoulders. He told himself it’d soon be his, but he was beginning to suspect that even if his gram deeded him the ranch, as she’d promised, as long as she had spurs on her boots, it would always be hers. And his. They both loved it, but sometimes, no, most of the time, they wanted to run it differently.

The moon, a slip of silver, peeked through a haze of clouds. A star emerged. The ship rose on a swell and fell. Trent tightened his fingers around the rail, cursing his gram and his weak stomach. Maybe if he just didn’t eat he could make it to Seattle with the majority of his insides intact. Sailing turned him inside out.

A mean wind blew the clouds shrouding the moon and a beam of light landed on a lone figure near the bow. She fought the wind for her hat, and her hair, a tangle of dark honey, swirled around her head. The hat, once pinched between her fingers, caught another gust, set sail and skittered across the deck.

The woman managed to capture her hair into a twist, and she looked over the deck in his direction. Her eyes widened when she saw him, and she backed up against the rail.

Trent bent and retrieved the hat nestled against his boot. He held it out to her, and she stood, like a wild colt being offered an apple, unsure of whether to bolt or indulge. His eyes swept over her and he noticed for the first time her breeches. At the ranch, his gram and sister often wore pants, but he knew it wasn’t typical female attire. The hat, Trent realized, completed the woman’s disguise. She probably didn’t realize her breeches did little to hide her curves. He couldn’t tell in the moonlight, but he guessed she’d bound her breasts. Without taking her eyes off his face, she twisted her hair into a knot at the top of her head. She’d travel in disguise, but wouldn’t sacrifice her hair for her rouse. Devious, yet vain.

He held the hat out to her, chuckling, his seasickness forgotten. Would she hold character? Pretend that most young men had hair that fell to their waist when loose?

She walked toward him and he noted she moved with grace and poise despite the rollicking waves. He gripped the rail with one hand and held the hat with the other.

“I thank ye, sir,” she said in a deep modulated tone that she’d probably spent weeks perfecting. How long had she been at the masquerade and why? Was he the only one who knew? “You’re welcome, lad.” He emphasized the last word.

She moved for the hat, but he held it tight. “Hold on. What’s your name?”

She didn’t answer.

“No need to be nervous, I’m just making conversation. Where you from?”

“Seattle.”

His grinned deepened despite the rolling and tossing waves. Seattle was still a small town with an even smaller population of women. Although the city was rapidly growing, he felt confident he would have recognized her. “So, this is a homebound trip for you.”

She stuck out her tell-tale clean-shaven chin. “Yes, sir.”

“I suppose I’ll be seeing you, then, in town, perhaps at the Lone Stag.”

Her face was as blank as a seasoned poker player. He could tell she wanted to ask why anyone would meet at a lonely deer. “It’s a tavern,” he whispered moving closer, inhaling her warm scent. “When lying, it’s always best to stay as near the truth as possible.”

The ship rocked with a strong wave, the girl grabbed her hat and said in a soft soprano voice, “I wouldn’t know.”

Ocean spray hit him in the face and when he finished blinking, she had gone. He looked across the deck; all was still and dark. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve and moved away from the rail. The slick deck made any movement precarious. Walking took nearly all his concentration, but then he saw a flash of movement in the moonlight. He hurried after her, as best he could.

#

Verity tripped down the stairs leading to her berth, her heart thrashing and her breath ragged. She’d been on the ship for weeks and no one had guessed or suspected her disguise. Or so she supposed. She blamed the hair. She should have cut it. He never would have guessed if she’d cut her hair. Momentarily bracing herself against the wall as a wave tilted the ship, she considered her options. She’d have to stay in her room and have food delivered by the revolting little man, whom, she was quite sure, pilfered off her tray. Her stomach clenched when she thought of all the lovely produce that had been loaded onto the ship in Los Angeles. Oranges, grapes, and cucumbers. She glanced over her shoulder, looking for the man from the deck, but saw no one, just a long corridor lit by flickering lamps. Perhaps he would keep her secret.

No. She couldn’t trust him or anyone. Steele had taught her well.

The ship tossed on a wave and the lights wavered. In the hall, all of the berths were closed and only a few had candlelight peeking beneath the doors. When a man spoke in her ear, she jumped.

“Mr. Steele,” a voice drawled. “Why I do believe you’ve lost a hundred pounds since we last met.”

Verity’s heart stopped. Had she fooled no one? Had she’d only hoodwinked herself? She whirled to see the man named Wallace from the card-table standing in a doorway. He had his shirt undone revealing his ripped chest muscles.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” she said in her best baritone.

“Mr. Steele, I’m offended. We’ve shared countless business ventures.” He held the door to his room open, exposing a berth with gray tumbled sheets. “Presently, I think we have something to…discuss, payment for my discretion?”

Verity stepped backward. “I think not.”

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