He shrugged his shoulders, trying to appear indifferent. "What does it matter what she looks like? She's cheating people out of their money. She's deceiving them."
"Travis Burnett, everything in your world is black and white. If you'd been born a woman, you would understand her plight."
"What plight? Seems to me like she's got it pretty easy."
"A man has choices he can make as to how he's going to earn his living. A woman can either get married or become a cook, a laundress, or a soiled dove. If she's real lucky, she might get a job as a schoolteacher or a governess. But most women choose marriage."
"Maybe." If he didn't divert her attention, he'd be hearing the lecture on getting married and producing an heir. "But do you really believe she saw Tanner?"
For a moment his mother's bottom lip trembled with indecision. Exasperated, she stood—all five feet, three inches—and came around the desk to stand in front of her son. "I don't know for certain."
"Yes or no, Mother?"
"There you go again, speaking in absolutes."
Travis stared at her and frowned with annoyance.
"I can't give up and admit your brother is dead. I have to try everything I can to find him, even unconventional ways if that's what it takes."
Travis hung his head and shook it from side to side in disbelief. His sensible mother believed the little cheat!
One visit and somehow Desirée Severin had gotten her money-grabbing hooks into his mom.
"Then hire another investigator. Just don't go see Desirée Severin again. She's a cheat, a beautiful fraud who wants to separate you from your money."
"She's compassionate and friendly, and she soothed poor Mrs. McLaughlin's grief. She made the woman feel good for those few minutes. And for the first time in a long time, I've felt hope at finding out the truth about Tanner." She sighed. "I'd be doing the same if it were you. I still miss him terribly."
"We all do, Mother. But we don't hold séances to try to contact him."
"Maybe we should." She looked him square in the eye and with a defiant shake of her head said, "We could invite her to dinner. Maybe if you got to know her, you'd feel differently."
A jolt of pure shock almost knocked Travis out of his chair. He reacted instantly. "That's crazy!" Throwing up his hands, he took a calming breath. "Miss Severin, if that is her real name, comforted your friend by lying, by pretending to be able to speak with her dead husband. Tanner is dead or else he would be home. No one can speak with him. She's after your money, Mother!"
"Oh, Travis. When did you become so suspicious of everyone?"
Slowly he rose from the chair, a fierce sense of protectiveness encompassing all six feet of him as he towered over his petite mother.
"You know, Mother, even Father agreed you were stubborn and likely to do what you wanted whether he approved or not I don't want to see you taken advantage of, so I'm going to insist you stay away from Miss Severin."
She lifted her chin. "You're my son, not my keeper."
"I don't care. If you see this woman again, I'll go straight to Tucker and together we'll make sure we close her down."
"But she's not doing anything wrong. She's helping people. Why can't you show a little compassion?"
"She's taking innocent people's money. The woman is using grief to make a living. She's the worst kind of thief—she takes advantage of people when they're vulnerable."
He took a deep breath, the need to protect his family strong within his chest.
"Tucker's trying to clean up this town; he won't hesitate to send her packing. Don't see her again, Mother."
Eugenia wanted grandchildren in the worst possible way. All her friends' children were married and had children, yet Eugenia couldn't get even one of her three sons married.
Travis and Tucker were both about as interested in love as in a good dose of castor oil. At thirty, her oldest son, Travis, hadn't even tried to find a wife and had managed to scare off most of the women in town. Tanner was lost, possibly even dead. And Tucker, after a youth fraught with danger and youthful foolishness, had finally come home a gunslinger with a past. No children, no marriages, no wives, not even a steady girlfriend to offer Eugenia hope of seeing her sons settled with families of their own.
Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Eugenia would do whatever it took to help her sons find the tender emotion of love, complete with babies. And the delectable Miss Severin, who had stood up to Travis, her overbearing son, was exactly the type of woman he needed. Someone who could handle his impertinent behavior. Someone he couldn't walk all over.
Glancing down Jones Street one last time, Eugenia pushed open the door to The Last Word. A tiny bell jingled above the door, and Madame Severin strolled through a curtained area.
"I needed to speak with you," Eugenia said. There was something about this young woman. Something that reminded Eugenia of herself years ago. Whatever it was, she thought the woman would be good for her son.
"Come sit, and I'll have Isaiah make us some tea. I don't have another appointment for at least two hours." Desirée led Eugenia to a small sitting area.
"Thank you." Eugenia sat down on a horsehair couch, while Madame Severin disappeared once again behind the curtain.
Eugenia glanced around the sparsely furnished room where Desirée conducted her business. A small, round table sat in the center of the room. A scarlet cloth threaded with gold stitches and tassels covered the table and hung down to the floor. The urge to explore where meetings with the dead were held teased Eugenia, but she resisted. After all, she was here to get to know Desirée better, to see if her first impressions were correct.
Not that she didn't think Travis was capable of finding a woman for himself. He was certainly handsome enough, but a wife and family were just not his priority. Unfortunately, Eugenia couldn't help but think that by the time he got around to finding a wife, she'd be dead and gone. And she wanted to see all of her children settled before she died. She had to know her children were happy, and if that required her manipulating the situation, then so be it. Just call her an interfering mother. She really didn't care!
Desirée walked back into the room. She smiled, her eyes the color of grass in springtime as she sat in the wingback chair across from Eugenia.
"Madame, I'm surprised you're here today. Your son came in night before last. I'm afraid he doesn't share your enthusiasm for my gifts," Desirée said, smoothing a wrinkle from her cotton challis skirt.
"I know." Eugenia smiled. "Travis is the very reason I wanted to speak with you this afternoon."
"He was quite determined that I never see you again."
Eugenia cleared her throat. "Don't judge Travis too harshly, Miss Severin. He's a very driven man. His life revolves around our family ranch."
"So why did Mr. Burnett insist I never see you again?"
She smiled. "My son takes care of his own. Since his father died and his middle brother, Tanner, disappeared, Travis has consumed himself with taking care of me and our ranch. He thought you were taking advantage of me."
The young woman brushed a stray lock of hair away from her face. "Mrs. Burnett, I am here as a service to my customers. You choose to come see me and try to speak with Tanner. I'm sorry we were unable to contact him the other day. I just keep having fuzzy images of a battle."
"I know, dear, but it may be good news that we've been unable to reach him. He might still be alive."
"There's always hope."
"As for Travis, you must admit that speaking to people who are no longer living is quite unusual." Though from the looks of Madame Severin's surroundings, it was an inventive way to earn money that didn't seem to be putting her in the lap of luxury, Eugenia thought. The poor girl had only the barest
"I didn't choose this profession, it chose me."
"How does one decide to speak with dead people?" Eugenia questioned, not really believing the girl could speak with dead people, but interested in her just the same.
A pensive look crossed Desirée's face. "They start talking to you. My father was the one who told me I'd been given a valuable gift and that I should share it with the rest of the world."
Eugenia wondered about the young woman's family. What kind of people let their daughter establish a business like this? "Your family approves of your occupation?"
"My Papa is among the dead."
"I'm sorry. What about your mother?"
"I have no family, Mrs. Burnett. My mother died when I was quite young, and I had no brothers or sisters. My father's occupation kept us moving around, so I have no family ties."
The black manservant entered the room and set the tea set down on the badly scarred walnut Pembroke table.
"Thank you, Isaiah," Desirée said.
He nodded and silently left the room.
An overwhelming sense of kinship swept through Eugenia. She couldn't help but feel sorry for the young woman. Desirée was alone in the world with no one to help her, and Eugenia had been down that difficult road before.
"You must come out and have dinner with us some evening at the ranch. We could try to reach Tanner again."
"Thank you." Desirée poured the tea and then handed one of the china cups to Eugenia. She took a deep breath. "I don't want to sound ungrateful, but are you sure Travis would want me to come out to your ranch?"
"Well, I must admit, he probably will growl about it. But I could invite both my sons."
Desirée took a sip of her steaming tea. "Did you know that Travis threatened to close me down?"
Eugenia cleared her throat. "Yes, he told me. He even threatened to get his brother involved if I visited you again. You see, my youngest boy, Tucker, is the marshal." She stood. "I should go, since I'm threatening your business by being here."
"No, Mrs. Burnett, please sit down. I did not mean to insinuate that you should leave. I just don't think it would be a good idea for me to hold a séance at your home. Your son does not like me."
"Travis thinks you're cheating people out of their money, and he's a very honest man. But what better place to try to contact Tanner than in his home?"
Desirée shrugged. "When you don't believe in the power of the spirits, it's hard to understand."
"Don't worry about my son, Travis. I'll take care of him. He's not going to shut you down. Not if I can help it." Eugenia patted Madame Severin's hand.
"Thank you, Mrs. Burnett."
Eugenia sipped the warm, soothing liquid and then placed her cup back on the table. "I really must be going before Travis starts looking for me."
She stood and Desirée rose from her chair and walked her to the door. "We'll get together soon. I do so much want to find my son."
Eugenia stepped outside.
"You know where to find me. Good day, Mrs. Burnett." Desirée closed the door with a decisive click.
Eugenia took two steps down the wooden sidewalk and halted. Leaning against a support pole, scowling, stood her oldest son.
Several days later, Rose sat in the kitchen of the small house they had rented to conduct their business and lifted the cup of steaming coffee to her lips. She sipped carefully, letting the hot liquid ease down her sore throat. Business had been brisk the night before, and this morning she needed Isaiah's rich, hot brew to soothe her aching voice.
"I'll fix you some breakfast, Miss Rose?"
"No thanks," she answered, the sound of her real name a pleasant shock. Isaiah liked to use Rose, rather than Desirée, the stage name she had chosen.
Isaiah picked up his morning dishes and placed them in a tub of hot water. "Miss Rose, I need to leave town for a few days."
"Is something wrong, Isaiah?" she asked, surprised at his request.
"I received a telegram this morning. My father is not doing very well. He's getting on in years, and I want to go see him," he said, dipping a clean plate in hot rinse water.
Through the open window, a sparrow sang to the morning sky, his melody sweet, the sound touching.
Running this business took both of them, but the first few days of the week were generally slow.
"I won't be gone long, Miss Rose. My father lives little more than a day's ride away. I'd be back before the weekend."
"You know, Isaiah, that you're free to come and go as you please," she said to the black man. He was her friend, her protector, and her mother had given him his freedom papers when Rose was just a baby.
"I know. But my life is here with you."
"You've been with me longer than either of my parents." She shook her head. "At least when mother was alive, your job was more exciting. Being around the stage, protecting her from the crowds, seeing so many famous people. The years with me must have been dull for you."
"No, ma'am. This séance thing has been the best idea we've had." The black man scratched his head. "Your mother was a good woman, Miss Rose, but I'm satisfied with things the way they are now."
"You need to be careful calling me by my real name, Isaiah. I'm afraid one of these days you're going to let it slip in front of a customer."
"It's hard for me to call you that highfalutin French name. It's not you. It's not the name your mama, bless her soul, gave you."
"Maybe not, but customers are drawn to the unusual. A French woman in this part of the country sticks out like a New Yorker on the range."
"I understand, but that don't mean I like it none."
"No, but it attracts customers. And we need customers."
Rose sat and gazed into her coffee, dreaming of the mother she could barely remember, wishing life had been different.
"Go ahead, Isaiah. Go see your father. But try to be back before the weekend. The next few weeks should be busy, with all the herds hitting town. Soon it will be time for us to move on. Visit your family while you have the chance."
"Thank you, Miss Rose. You be real careful while I'm gone. Your mama gave me strict instructions to take care of you, and I aim to keep that promise."
Rose shook her head. "It's been almost twenty years, Isaiah. You can take a few days off from your death-bed promise."
"Your mama was good to me, and I gave her my word. You just sit tight for a few days until I return."
Rose nervously glanced around the table at the two cowboys and the woman who looked as though she belonged in Miss Riley's whorehouse. She'd never held a séance without Isaiah before, and this one didn't appear to be going all that well.
"Debector!"How disgusting! She would never undervalue Isaiah's help again. "Extinguish your cigar, sir."
"Why don't you just continue speaking those pretty foreign words to me and my friend? We're itchin' to spend a little time with you," the insolent cowboy said, as he poked his friend in the ribs with his elbow.
The woman who looked as if she was drumming up business for the local madam became indignant. "Wait just a minute. I've already paid my money so I could speak with my daddy."
"Ladies and gentlemen! Another outburst, and I will call upon the spirits to chase you from this house!" Rose gave a gentle toss of her head, settling her hair across her shoulders and down her back. She scowled at the two young men. "Shall we begin?"
Rose clapped her hands together three times, and the boy she'd hired dimmed the lantern, casting shadows in the room. She glanced around the table, meeting each person's gaze.
"We're going to speak with the spirits in a few moments. Do not treat this lightly, as they could become very angry and I cannot be responsible for their actions."
She closed her eyes and started to sway and moan. After several minutes, when the walls of the room seemed to be breathing in rhythm with her clients, Rose slipped her foot out of her boot. She gri
pped the handle of the bell with her toes and rang the bell. "I see an elderly gentleman approaching ..."
Pounding on the door jerked her out of her pretend trance. "Merde!" she exclaimed, hopping mad.
Paul, the young street boy she'd hired, opened the door.
"Tell them to come back in an hour," Rose commanded.
"Afraid I can't do that, Miss Severin." A man with a star on his chest pushed past Paul into the room. It could only be Tucker Burnett.
Same strong jaw and prominent chin, though the auburn cast to the marshal's hair was more prominent. Flecks of gold twinkled with amusement in the younger man's brown eyes, and he appeared friendlier, more relaxed than his brother.
Rose slowly stood a welcoming smile on her face as she calmly greeted the marshal. "Come in, Marshal. Paul, please turn up the lantern so we can see our guest clearly."
With dread, she watched as Travis Burnett then stepped through the door behind his brother, his hat in his hand. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of the tall, muscular man.
What was he doing here?
She lifted her chin and let her gaze travel slowly over Travis and then met his insolent stare. She smiled at his cocky smirk. "Mr. Burnett, what a pleasure. Are you here for another séance? I'm sure I could arrange for you to speak with Benedict Arnold or some equally offensive family member."
Travis stepped within inches of her. His eyes locked with hers, his voice low and rough. "Miss Severin, by the time I leave here today, you're going to think you've met up with the devil."
Rose had a sinking feeling in her stomach. "I think I'm gazing at him."
The cowboy grinned, which didn't make Rose feel any better.
The marshal strolled around the room, picking up tarot cards, running his hands along the walls, searching. "Miss Severin, how did you acquire this talent of yours to speak with the dead?"
"I was born with it. Members of my family have had this ability for generations," she lied.
The marshal walked over to her clients, who sat watching in disbelief. Rose held her breath as she realized the bell was still under the table.
"Don't you people have someplace to go?" the marshal asked.