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Anything for Love

Anything for Love

EXCERPT

Prologue

Manhattan, 1862

It wasn't a slum . . . quite. But the street was hard against the edges of the Lower East Side and tenements were stacked higher here. Smoke-blackened brick and wooden cliffs mounted up against the fume-dimmed sky. Down the concrete canyons a river of humanity streamed, eddied, and churned.

A man, his greasy palms rubbing over his huge belly in an obscenely comforting gesture, emerged from an alley. His red-rimmed eyes narrowed in his oily face as he watched a woman and a young girl of eleven or twelve pass by. Their clean, trim figures were out of place in the sea of dirty factory workers and ragged shop hands hurriedly slurping weak noontide tea beneath an even weaker autumn sun. The man's cruel gaze fixed with avid interest on the child. Casually, too casually, he matched his pace to hers, so intent on his quarry, he didn't notice the gangly teenaged boy who fell into step behind him.

Why should he? The boy, his head shorn, his clothes hanging from slender shoulders, could have been any one of thousands of immigrant brats. He was perhaps cleaner, his back straighter, but the wary, knowing expression on Noble "Slats" McCaneaghy's old-young face was the same as those around him.

The girl and the woman turned into a less crowded side street. The fat man slipped behind a cart, his piggy eyes following their progress. Noble swore under his breath. He'd told Trevor Leiland time and again that the woman, Nan, wasn't fit to be a nursemaid to Venice, Leiland's only child. More and more often Nan returned here, where Leiland had originally found her and, with a characteristically grand gesture, taken her to Park Avenue, assuring her that a job would be her salvation. Noble knew better. Money couldn't buy freedom from an addiction and Nan was as confirmed an addict as Noble had ever seen.

When Noble had warned Leiland of it, Trevor had, with a tight smile and cold eyes, pointed out that Noble and his mother were prime examples of what his munificence could achieve. Three years ago, they had been little better than Nan. His mother, a newly immigrated Irish widow, had become Leiland's cook. And Noble, a streetwise brat, had been tutored right alongside Leiland's own daughter. Now nearly seventeen years old, Noble would soon begin studying at Yale . . . solely through Leiland's generosity.

Noble should have been grateful. He should have been down on his bloody knees. Instead, he was angry because of Venice, Trevor's vulnerable, unprotected little daughter. Because one day, one of Leiland's charity cases was going to get Venice hurt . . . or worse.

But it wasn't going to be today.

The fat man was flexing his arms. A few witless asses might have underestimated his strength, but Noble knew better. There was muscle enough beneath his thick, jiggling flesh. It would be easy for him to snatch Venice. She'd fetch a pretty penny in one of the higher-priced brothels. After the piggy man had sampled the wares, of course.

The thought made Noble ill. He'd known of twelve-year-old, even ten-year-old prostitutes, but they weren't . . . children. Venice was. More innocent and sweet than anyone he'd ever known. And Noble, who'd never experienced a real childhood, wasn't going to let anyone destroy hers.

The man rubbed his beefy hands together, shouldering his way through the throngs of people: rag merchants pushing heaping carts, cigarette girls with nicotine-stained fingers and hard eyes, garment carriers, boiler tenders, pressmen, cash girls, and seamstresses. All singing the same song of need and hopelessness and desperation: "Buy from me, give to me, help me!"

Noble saw Venice pause in front of a battered storefront. Her dark head bent to study something behind the filmy glass display window. Nan, clearly bored, drifted further down the avenue, toward the gleaming wares on a vendor's jewelry cart. Noble could have gladly choked the stupid wench for abandoning Venice.

The fat man's thick, colorless lips stretched into a smile. Moving slowly, he waded through the rabble of human scavengers, his gaze fixed on Venice's petite figure. A few more steps and he'd be abreast of her. He shoved his hands into his pockets. One, Noble knew, would hold a rag for her mouth, the other a small lead-filled leather cudgel. He'd seen the trappings of this trade before. Quickly Noble slipped close beside him.

The man looked around, his gaze sliding complacently over Noble, as if certain he presented no threat. There was no one here who would try and stop him. There was no one here who was even going to care. All the faces were the same. Blank, numb, devoid of anything but hunger. Suddenly, the man made his move. Quickly, decisively, he surged forward, surprisingly light on his feet for someone so obese.

Noble was quicker.

He darted in front, blocking the man's way. His opponent stopped short, his protruding belly colliding into Noble. Noble stood his ground. The man frowned, deep lines scoring his oily forehead.

"Get outta here, ya friggin' gutter rat," he muttered, a note of confusion in his voice. Slum kids didn't defy those bigger than themselves. Not unless they wanted to meet their end kicked near to death by steel-toed boots in a back alley. Noble's interference unsettled him. Good, thought Noble. Standing toe-to-toe, their gazes met on an even level, though Noble was dwarfed by the man's massive girth. Noble didn't make any move to get out of the way.

"What d'youse want?" the man asked in a snarled whisper, obviously worried about alerting Venice, who was still studying the shop window a few yards away.

Still blocking the man's path with his lanky body, Noble jerked his head in her direction. With a calm he was far from feeling, he slowly shook his head, his eyes never leaving the man's face.

A vile curse issued from the man's contorted lips as he studied Noble, openly confounded by Noble's silent guardianship. He shifted on his feet, clearly uncertain what to do.

The obese man glanced at Venice. Once more, Noble shook his head. Words weren't necessary. The man already understood that if he tried to snatch Venice, Noble was going to try and stop him. Noble might not win, but he could fight like a junkyard dog. All slum brats could. And if the fat man tried to take Noble on first, Venice would still be alerted to her danger. Either way, he was going to lose and Noble was betting a lot of blood and bruises that the man would let the whole thing go. It was a bet Noble had made more than once on Venice's behalf. Usually, it was a bet he won.

Aiming a stream of viscous phlegm at Noble's scuffed boot, the man started to edge backward. Just before he'd turned completely, Noble heard Venice calling his name.

"Slats! What are you doing here?"

The fat man darted a glance back at Noble. Noble's eyes never wavered from his. If he'd turned his head when Venice had called, the man would have clubbed him with the "tickler."

Thwarted, the man shambled toward a recessed doorway. He stepped over crates and refuse choking the steps and disappeared into the dingy interior. Noble waited a full two minutes before deciding that the fat man had truly given up the hunt. From the corner of his eye he watched Venice approach. She laid her hand on his arm and looked up into his face, her piquant features filled with pleasure. Her mouth opened, but before she could speak, Noble cut her off.

"You're going home. Now."

The pleasure faded slowly from her eyes, replaced by hurt. Noble heard himself growl with frustration, feeling like a cur for destroying her delight. But, damn it, she'd better start learning to watch out for herself.

In a few months he'd be gone, leaving behind this squalid, hated city. He had dim memories of the emerald-clad mountains and sapphire skies of Ireland and he was going to find them again, or something like them. But he honestly didn't know if he could bring himself to leave Venice to her father's vainglorious preoccupation with saving the world, or the tender mercies of alcoholic nursemaids and licentious nannies. The thought of being unable to watch over her cut him like a knife. And it twisted his gut that nobody else seemed to give a damn whether or not she was safe.

"I don't know why the hell they let that woman drag you around down here."

"Nan doesn't drag me anywhere, Slats," Venice protested. "Please don't tell. It was entirely my idea. I begged." Tears filled her eyes.

Noble was having none of it. Even if Venice was too kindhearted, she was also far too overindulged. Half the problem with Leiland was that as soon as Venice started leaking tears, he allowed her anything. Anything as long as she didn't make a scene, didn't call attention. Anything but his time.

"It's true. I throw myself on your mercy," she said dramatically. "But . . . after hearing you once lived here . . . I just had to see what it was like."

"The bloody hell," Noble muttered. "I hope it has met all your lurid expectations. And now that your vulgar curiosity has been satisfied, you're going!"

Hurt and confusion made Venice's voice quaver. "It wasn't like that, Slats."

"Fine. Now we're going to find that . . . woman and get out of here. It isn't safe."

"All right. But I think you're overreacting. Nothing is going to happen. It's high noon. The streets are full of people." Her trusting, blissful, innocent smile made him feel immeasurably older than his seventeen years. "And you're here."

Noble grunted, took hold of her forearms, and spun her around. Gently, he shoved her ahead of him. "Go."

He didn't see the fat man slinking out of the shadows, watching as they made their way along the thronged avenue. "And who the bloody hell do you think you are?" the fat man muttered under his breath. "Some sort of friggin' hero?"

Chapter 1

Denver, Colorado Territory
1872

The train's chief engineer stood on the number three platform of the Denver train depot, staring into the loveliest, saddest eyes he'd ever seen. Gray they were, like the wings of a mourning dove, soft as the mist stealing over the heather of his native Irish soil, and twice as heartrending.

The engineer sighed, resigned and enraptured. "Now, missy, don't ye cry. I'll do it. I'll make that extra run up from Denver to Salvage. I'll do it on me day off. Yer freight'll be delivered by midweek."

Like sunshine breaking through dark clouds, the young lady's eyes miraculously, cleared. Delight glowed where only a second earlier there had been sorrow. She dashed the back of her hand across her damp cheeks.

"Oh, that's wonderful! I can't thank you enough, sir!" she exclaimed. "And while you're at it, might ye be doing me another teeny favor?" she continued. "Just a wee thing. Find me some champagne? I'm not sure this Salvage place has any."

Her lovely face was utterly radiant now. Remarkable recovery the little lady had made. The nagging suspicion that he'd been gulled crept into the engineer's mind. He narrowed his eyes on her. She smiled back so brightly that he immediately dismissed the treacherous notion. The lass was a saint, she was. With a grin and a nod, the engineer hurried off to do the saint's bidding.

"Honey, you played him like a two-bit fish on a four-bit hook." A female voice, amused and awed, spoke from behind Venice Leiland.

Venice, caught rubbing her hands together in satisfaction, spun around, her dark hair flying about her shoulders. A woman in a green taffeta dress was regarding her from beneath an extravagant hat, the dyed wings of a hapless canary drooping over the brim. Her bleached hair, its color in no way outshone by the chromium yellow feathers above it, was curled on either side of a pretty, broad-cheeked face. Painted red lips were spread in an admiring grin.

Like an unrepentant kid, Venice's cheeks immediately dimpled. "Incorrigible, am I not?"

"I don't know nuthin' 'bout 'encouragin'' but I'd wager you're a real lulu when you set your mind to it."

"Lulu?"

"Sure, honey. You know, a piece of work, hell on wheels, a real hayburner," the woman answered.

"Fascinating."

"I 'spect you could be that, too, if you'd a mind," the woman replied, sending a sharply assessing look up and down Venice's beautifully fitting jonquil-yellow dress.

"Miss Leiland?" A uniformed, becapped porter hurried over. "Is there anything at all I can do for you?"

"Are you really Venice Leiland? Trevor Leiland's kid?" the woman asked, something that might have been embarrassment entering her twanging drawl.

It was common knowledge that Trevor Leiland owned half of New York City. More to the point, Trevor and his brother Milton were the principal trustees of the Leiland Foundation, the philanthropic organization that funded the Leiland-Hawkness Spur Line. The spur line that climbed seventy miles to the tiny town of Salvage, making it the most remote jumping-off point in the Rockies. Which made Salvage one hell of a profitable place to sell things. And Salvage just happened to be the site of the woman's new business, the Gold Dust Emporium.

The porter's gaze narrowed. Stepping in front of Venice, he shoved a finger under the other woman's nose. "Clear off, sister. Your sort ain't welcome here."

"Cayuse Katie is welcome everywhere!"

The porter took a threatening step forward.

"Ah, keep your shirt on, ya gandy dancing piece of buffalo wallow!" Katie huffed. Nonetheless, she adjusted the beribboned pelisse over her shoulders and kicked out her voluminous skirts, preparing to leave.

"What did you mean, 'keep your shirt on'? What's a 'gandy dancing piece of buffalo wallow?'" Venice asked.

Katie decided to humor the little lady. "Maybe I better introduce myself. Cayuse Katie Jones, ma'am. Native of the Rocky Mountains, owner of the Gold Dust Emporium, Salvage, Colorado Territory."

"You're a native? From Salvage?" Venice didn't wait for a reply. She placed both hands on Katie's shoulders and looked squarely into her surprised brown eyes. "Miss Jones, I have a great favor to ask."

The porter snorted. "I bet it ain't the usual 'favor' she gets asked."

Katie shot him a quelling glance. "Yeah?" she prompted, turning her attention back to Venice. "What?"

"I came out here rather precipitously when the spur line employees wired to inform the foundation that my uncle hadn't been heard from in six months." Her worry for Milton's welfare, a worry that she had kept carefully under control, threatened to surface. She cleared her throat. "Not that this is particularly unusual, but Uncle Milton neglected to insure that the spur line payroll would be met during his absence. He handled all the finances for his expedition funds himself."

"Expedition?"

"Yes. My uncle is a paleontologist. That's what he's been doing in Salvage for the past seven years. Looking for fossils."

"Ah-huh." Katie was wearing a fixed expression of false interest with which Venice was all too familiar. She didn't elaborate. There was no reason to alarm anyone by revealing how close the foundation was to eliminating the funding for Milton's Rocky Mountain explorations. Even Uncle Milton was nearly ready to admit defeat and relocate his search for dinosaur bones. He'd written that he would spend a last season here, but unless he met with success, no more.

When Venice had read the letter from the spur line engineers, she'd realized that closing down the spur line would mean closing down Salvage. She'd been haunted by the conviction that the foundation was responsible for those people who depended on the spur line for their livelihood.

And then, Trevor had exiled her from New York, and Venice had formulated her plan—a plan that could benefit both Salvage and herself. Somehow she was going to find a way for this town to become fully self-sufficient.

In doing so, maybe she would garner some of her father's respect. And if he respected her, he might be willing to allow her a say in the foundation's management. And then she could do something worthwhile with her life.

After their last disastrous interview, that possibility had seemed remote. Her father had all but accused her of purposely sabotaging his political aspirations. She was, he'd declared, just like her mother—a social disaster. Maybe, at one time she had done some outrageous things to get his attention, Venice conceded, but no more. She was a responsible and capable adult and she'd prove it. And Miss Cayuse Jones could help.

"You were saying?" prompted Katie.

"Miss Jones, I want to help Salvage. But to do so, I need to find out everything I can about the town. Its assets and debits. Its resources and lack thereof. I haven't had time to research the town's economic health. My father wanted me well away from New York during his campaign for a seat on New York's city council."

Katie's brow furrowed questioningly. Venice flushed.

"You see," she said, "the New York papers wrote these stories about my last African safari. They claimed I became a member of a cannibal tribe. Merely because I wore a certain artifact to a benefit ball." Venice stopped. Her lips trembled. "That necklace was not made of human bones!" she exclaimed. "They were baboon bones!"

Katie opened her mouth to reply, but Venice plunged ahead. "Within a month, I was a sensation. Unfortunately it isn't the first time stories had been written about me. But it was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back. At the moment, my father can't buy a vote."

"I sorta doubt that," Katie said dryly.

"There is one thing, Miss Jones, that money cannot buy: the good opinion of the middle classes."

"Honey, don't I know it," Katie said feelingly. "But why are you telling me all this?"

"Why? Because I want you to feel sorry for me and grant me this favor," Venice answered ingenuously. "I have come out here hoping to put to rights the muddle in which my uncle has left the town. That's where you come in. I want you to tell me everything you know about Salvage. Everything."

"That's it? You just wanta talk?" Katie asked.

"Yes, talk and share my Pullman car, of course. Would you please consent to traveling the rest of the way to Salvage with me?"

Katie's grin in response to the porter's horrified gasp was instantaneous.

"Miss Leiland, please, you don't want to have the likes—" the porter stammered.

"Why, sure I will, Miss Leiland," Katie cut in.

"Wonderful! That is, if there is no Mr. Jones?"

"Oh, somewhere out there" —Katie motioned vaguely toward the north— "there is. But it ain't likely he's fool enough to show his face anywhere near me. That is, not if he 'spects to keep it whole," Katie said calmly, smiling at Venice's astonished expression. She didn't elaborate.

"Ahem. Yes. Indeed. My coach is just over here." Venice took Katie's arm, gently pulling her toward a Pullman car a few yards away. The porter leaped forward to open the brass-fitted door.

"And please, call me Venice, Miss Jones."

Katie lifted the hem of her green skirt and trod directly on the foot of the suddenly attentive porter, flashing him her own brand of dazzling smile as she swept past him into the coach. "Sure, Venice honey, anything you say."

The Salvage Ladies' Conviviality League—which included every decent woman in town, a grand total of nine—waited on the crowded, sagging depot platform. Like a line of soldiers awaiting inspection by an exacting commander, they stood grimly resolved to do their duty Backs straight, eyes forward, they clutched their hand-tatted drawstring purses, cotton gloves hiding work-roughened hands, calico bonnets shielding noses from the intense mountain sun.

They were here to give Miss Venice Leiland the sort of reception a lady of her position demanded. After all, her family's philanthropic foundation supported the fragile artery on which Salvage's life depended, the Leiland-Hawkness Spur Line.

At the opposite end of the platform stood another group of women, in every respect as committed to conviviality as their sisters. Just a more tangible form of it.

Like a bizarre species of poultry, twenty-odd hurdy-gurdy gals roosted on the depot's fence rails in red satins and striped crepes, their hair twisted about like cunningly placed rats, their faces powdered and painted. They sounded like birds too, their constant clucking interspersed with an occasional shriek of raucous laughter. Most of them were there to see the lady who'd won the Gold Dust on a pair of aces: Katie Jones.

In between these two factions, spilling out into the streets behind the depot, stood the rest of Salvage, more or less. Three hundred and some men: miners, barflies, adventurers, outfitters, and prospectors. They milled uncertainly between the two groups of women, unwilling to align themselves too firmly with one or the other. Any perceived desertion and either bunch could make a man's life a living hell.

But damned if any man-jack of them was going to miss the arrival of two of the most celebrated women in Salvage's short history: the new saloon owner, Cayuse Katie Jones, and Miss Venice Leiland who, the stories went, was wild as the wind, pretty as a mountain laurel, and smart as a whip.

It was the last metaphor that had Tim Gilpin, the Salvage Clarion's editor, concerned. The problem was he liked living in Salvage.

Though it had been over a decade since Tim had heeded Greely's call and "gone west," he still maintained a few ties to the New York City newsroom where he'd apprenticed. He knew a great deal about the beautiful Miss Leiland, the most important being that Venice wasn't the fluttery-gibbet the newspapers loved to make her out to be.

Not only had she graduated magna cum laude from Vassar, but it was also rumored she'd administered the trusts for a few of the Leiland Foundation's smaller programs. Yup, even if no one else took the little lady's credentials seriously, Tim Gilpin did. He lifted a stubby, ink-stained finger and gnawed nervously at the nail.

He was in the process of starting on another fingernail when he heard his name being shouted. Standing on the balls of his feet, Tim craned his neck to see who'd hailed him. Anton and Harry Grundy, owners of the local mercantile, were lounging against the far wall, with big grins on their faces, a couple of ladybirds plastered against their respective sides.

"Timmy! Tim-im-mee!" hooted skinny, red- haired Harry, lifting a bottle and waving it around his head.

With a sigh, Tim elbowed his way through the crowd. He knew Harry would keep up that insistent hollering until Tim acknowledged him.

"Hello, Harry," Tim said. "Anton."

Anton, strong as a bull, half as smart, and twice as belligerent when drunk, squinted blearily from behind the buxom woman he held.

Neither of these two lads was especially long on brains, but because of their awe-inspiring sloth, it was hard to tell just how scarce of wits they really were. If they'd had any ambition at all, they would have been two of the wealthiest men in the territory. As it was, they were still plenty rich.

A few months after coming out West to seek their fortunes, they'd shown up on the porch of their uncle Zeb Grundy's mercantile. They were broke, drunk, and unrepentant. Zeb, who hadn't seen his only living relatives in years, took one look at his heirs, clutched his heart, and called for a pen. He was dead before he could change his will.

Four months later, the spur line opened. Within two years, Anton and Harry, the least likely to succeed couple of no-goods in the territory, were very rich men indeed.

"Which woman you come to get an eyeful of, Tim?" Harry asked with a wink and a leer.

"Son, you might just be looking at the end of the line when you fill your eyes with the likes of Miss Venice Leiland," Tim answered dolefully

"What d'ya mean?" demanded Anton.

Tim clapped Anton on the back. "Wise up, Anton. The only reason Salvage exists at all is because for some reason a rich old man has decided something is waiting to be discovered in these mountains."

Harry smirked, drawing deeply on the bottle he lifted to his mouth. "He's been looking fer them ancient skeletons of his fer years now."

"Seven years. Seven years during which time Milton has been keeping open the spur line that supplies Salvage with the freight that makes this little town rich." Tim looked to see if his words were having any impact on the pair. Anton was blissfully slobbering over his liquor bottle and Harry was busily trying to peer down the front of his friend's dress.

Tim cleared his throat. "Now, his niece, Miss Venice Leiland, one of the Leiland Foundation's junior trustees, is arriving. It's time to ask yourself a question, lads. Do you think Milt's gonna find bones in them thar hills?"

" 'Course not," scoffed Anton. "Old Milty woulda found 'em by now if they'd been there to find."

"Exactly. Milt's already said he's pulling out next year unless he finds something worth sticking around for. Tell me, gentlemen, what do you think Miss Leiland is doing here?"

Anton and Harry stared blankly at him.

Tim sighed. "Let's put it this way. If you grubstaked a mine for seven years and finally went to see what the damned thing had got you and you found out the answer was a big fat nothing, what would you do?"

"Close down!" Anton and Harry yelled simultaneously, grinning hugely, certain they'd guessed the correct answer.

"Exactly." Tim took one look at their self-congratulatory smiles and shook his head, turning and walking back through the crowd.

The Grundy brothers' grins stayed in place for a full minute. They collapsed at roughly the same instant as comprehension slowly took root.

Harry pushed himself off the wall and grabbed Anton by the shirt collar, hauling him upright. "Come on, boy, we got plans to make."

"What kinda plans?" Anton asked.

"I don't know yet, but we better make 'em quick."

Katie settled back in the deep, tufted velvet settee and popped another candy into her mouth. For perhaps the hundredth time, she cast an appreciative glance around Venice's private coach. "I been in a couple of real fine houses in my day but this has 'em all beat." Venice smiled as she watched Katie's gaze tally up the red velvet curtains at the windows, the oriental carpets on the floor, the polished walnut sideboard by the wall, and the embroidered curtains hiding the bed at the far end.

"Nice. Real nice," she said.

"Thank you," Venice said politely.

"Yup, you got it all: money, looks, and brains. Lots of brains. Who'd a guessed that underneath that dainty little face was a natural born con artist."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I seen how you handled the engineer . . . and any other man what stumbles into your strike range. And you know what you're about, too. Last time you turned a man into a moon-faced idiot, you winked at me! Hell," Katie said, popping another chocolate into her mouth. "I oughta be paying for the honor of watching you in action. And I myself ain't no stranger to twisting men round my little finger!"

Venice nodded. "Mr. Jones."

"Him and others," Katie said vaguely.

"You and Mr. Jones had a fight?"

"Nope. No fight. You can't fight someone that ain't there. He and me, we just split up. Years ago."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. Shouldn't have got married to begin with. Oil and water, honey." She snorted derisively. "But that's what true love'll get you every time. How 'bout you? You married?"

"No. Not yet."

"Hey!" Katie straightened, flushing beneath her powder. "I'm sorry. You probably got some beau you're all googoo-eyed in love with."

Venice smiled and moved to a cherry vanity beside a window. "No. I'm not in love with anyone. My opinion of love is very similar to your own."

She lifted back the heavy embroidered drapes and gazed outside. "Tell me, Miss Jones, how can I gain the people's goodwill?"

Katie shrugged. "I don't know. I'd say build a church, but that seems a bit like suggesting the cat be let in the barn. I know! Throw a party. Everyone loves a party."

"I like parties, too."

"Sure," said Katie. "Make a big announcement. Be real 'howdy-boys' friendly"

"I can see why people choose to live here. It's lovely," Venice said, taking a last look at the panoramic view before seating herself in front of the vanity mirror and brushing her hair.

"Don't you have a maid or something to do that?" asked Katie.

"No. I had more than my share of maids when I was a child." Venice paused. "None of them stayed very long."

The old feeling of being left behind, like a piece of shabby clothing that was just too much trouble to bother packing, swelled inside Venice. With it rose unbidden the image of a thin lad with solemn brown eyes and a worried, angry expression. Even he'd left. Even after he'd promised not to. She gave her hair a vicious tug with the hairbrush, willing herself to let the past go.

The coach door swung open and the crowd at the Salvage train depot surged forward, eager to see the celebrated Miss Venice Leiland. But everyone stopped like befuddled sheep when two ladies instead of one descended the short flight of steps. There was no way to tell which one was Venice Leiland.

Both wore bright, feminine dresses. Both had on hats. The younger, brunette one was a bit more disheveled looking. Her inky locks fell in a tangle of tight ringlets down her back while the blonde woman's saucy curls tickled her round, ruddy cheeks. Both were pretty; the slight, pale-skinned gal perhaps more delicate, but the blonde was very womanly with soft curves and pink skin.

The blonde lady came down the steps first, leaving the darker one to stand at the top of the stairs. Miss Leiland would exit first, wouldn't she? The crowd milled uncertainly.

The small, dark-haired woman took a step forward. A hush fell over the mob. In a husky, rich voice she called out, "Howdy, Salvage! How would you like a party?"

Howdy? No further evidence was required. As one, the Salvage Ladies' Conviviality League swarmed forward to encompass the very lovely, very blonde "Miss Leiland."