Canyon City, Colorado

Late summer 1867

Out of money, out of luck, alone, and frightened, the girl known as Evening Star did the only thing she could think of to stay at the saloon’s poker table.

She bet herself.

But first Eve shuffled the deck with dazzling speed, subtly arranging the cards as she had been taught to do by Donna Lyon. While she worked, she tried not to look at the dark-haired stranger who had sat down at her table without warning. The man’s hard good looks were unsettling.

Outlaws like Raleigh King and Jericho Slater were enough for any girl to deal with. She didn’t need a handsome stranger to make her sore hands shake.

Eve took a secret, steadying breath and said, «Five-card draw. Table stakes. Ante up.»

«Just a minute, little lady,» Raleigh King objected. «You’re busted. Where’s your ante?»

«Sitting right here.»


«I’m the ante, Mr. King.»

«You’re betting yourself?» Raleigh asked in disbelief.

Reno Moran didn’t have to ask. He had read the determination in the girl’s posture when he sat down and took cards. It had been her combination of steady eyes and slightly trembling lips that had lured him across the room.

Whatever happened, he knew she meant every word.

«Yes, I’m betting myself.»

Eve glanced at the jewelry and coins stacked around the table in front of each man.

«I’m worth as much as anything any one of you has now,» she added.

Then she smiled a brilliant, empty smile and continued shuffling.

Silence spread out from the poker table, followed by a rush of whispering as the other men in the room asked one another if they had heard correctly.

The whispers told Reno that a lot of men had wanted the girl, but none had gotten her. A cynical smile shifted the line of Reno’s black mustache. There was nothing new in that particular game. Girls had been teasing and promising and then withholding their bodies for a long time.

Reno glanced from the deck of cards in the girl’s hands to the girl herself. In the saloon’s dim interior her eyes were a clear, uncanny gold that matched the lantern light rippling through her tawny hair. The cut of her dress was demure enough, but it was made of a crimson silk that set a man to thinking about what it would be like to unfasten all the gleaming jet buttons and touch the luminous skin beneath the fabric.

The direction of Reno’s thoughts irritated him. He was old enough to know better. He had been taught and teased by the most expert female since Adam’s wife fed him the forbidden fruit.

Looking at Reno, Slater stirred the pearls and gold coins he had just won from Eve.

«I figure this should match the ring you won off of Raleigh,» he said to Reno, «and be worth a damn sight more than that journal you’ve got left,» he added to Raleigh.

«The hell you say,» Raleigh retorted. «I have it on good authority that this here old journal contains a gen-u-ine Spanish treasure map worth more than all the pearls in the Orient.»

Slater looked coldly at the book but didn’t object to Raleigh’s statement.

Reno picked up the elegant, ancient ring he had won earlier from Raleigh. Emeralds flashed subtly, surrounded by gold so pure it took the imprint of his fingernail.

The stones were pretty enough, but it was the gold that held Reno’s interest. To him the feel and weight of gold was like nothing else. Women’s flesh was sweet and soft, but women were as fickle as a spring wind. Gold never changed, never corrupted, never turned out to be less than it seemed.

Silently Reno measured the ring against the girl whose name was as improbable as the innocence in her golden eyes.

It was Raleigh who expressed Reno’s doubts aloud.

«Huh,» Raleigh said to Eve. «So you figure you’re worth as much as the ring, the pearls, or the treasure map? You must know some pretty fancy tricks.»

The smile he gave Eve was frankly insulting.

«Give the little lady what she wants,» Slater said coldly. «One way or another, she’ll pay up. At Denver prices, a month of her time should cover it.»

Eve barely managed not to shudder at the thought of being at the mercy of a man like Jericho Slater for a single night, much less for a month.

Silently she told herself she didn’t have to worry. She wouldn’t have to pay off the bet, because she had no intention of losing.

For once the idea of cheating at cards didn’t make Eve squirm with unhappiness. If anything, there was a certain rough justice in cheating Slater and his gang. Everything of value on the table had been stolen a few days ago by Raleigh King. If she had to cheat to get everything back, she would.

Her only regret was that she could do no worse than that to the man who had murdered Don and Donna Lyon.

With outward casualness, Eve continued shuffling while she waited for the third player to agree to the unexpected bet. When no agreement came, she glanced cautiously at the man from beneath her thick eyelashes.

The green-eyed stranger had taken a seat at the table an hour ago, just before Eve had begun to deal the first hand. A single look at the stranger had told her two things: She had never seen a man who appealed more to her; and she had never seen a man more dangerous.

She suspected that the stranger’s Virginia drawl was as misleading as the seeming indolence of his movements. There was no laziness in his green eyes. Wariness was as much a part of him as his black hair and powerful body.

Yet Eve’s instincts kept whispering that this man was somehow different from men like Slater and Raleigh, cruel men who cared nothing about hurting or destroying those who were weaker than themselves.

«Just one thing,» Slater added coldly. «Make damned sure all the cards you deal yourself come from the top of the deck.»

Eve forced herself to smile despite the ice condensing in her stomach. She had no doubt that Slater would kill a woman he caught cheating just as quickly as he would kill a man.

«Are you accusing me of cheating?» Eve asked.

«You’ve been warned» was all Slater said.

Reno shifted slightly. The motion brought the butt of his six-gun closer to his left hand. Silently he measured the catlike elegance of the girl with the determined eyes and the soft mouth.

«You sure you want to bet yourself, Miss… what was the name again?» Reno asked, though he knew very well.

«Star,» she said softly. «My name is Evening Star.»

Eve’s voice was much calmer than she felt. She had lied about her name so often, she no longer hesitated over it. In any case, the lie was meaningless; no one alive remembered her as Evelyn Starr Johnson.

«All right, Miss Star,» Reno drawled. «Are you sure you know what you’re doing?»

«What do you care?» Raleigh demanded. «She’s old enough to have everything a man needs, and pretty enough to make taking it a pleasure.»

«Miss?» Reno repeated, ignoring the other man.

«I’m sure.»

Reno shrugged, outwardly indifferent. Beneath the table his left hand settled on his six-gun.

The saloon’s hush changed into a humming of male voices as people left their drinks at the bar and focused on the poker table where the potential stakes now consisted of a rope of pearls, an ancient emerald ring, a Spanish treasure map…

And a girl called Evening Star.

Reno was certain the ring was real, had his doubts about the treasure map and pearls, and wondered how the girl with trembling lips and steady gold eyes had ended up as table stakes in Canyon City’s most infamous saloon.

«Five-card draw,» Eve said quietly. «My deal. Agreed?»

«We already agreed,» Raleigh said impatiently. «Deal.»

«You’re really sweating to lose the rest of your money, aren’t you?» Reno asked carelessly.

«Listen you son —»

«Shut up, Raleigh,» Slater interrupted coldly. «You can get killed on your own time. I came here to play cards.»

«The only one doing any dying will be this here rebel turncoat,» retorted Raleigh.

«I don’t see any rebel turncoats,» Reno said, smiling lazily. «Do you?»

The wolfish quality of Reno’s smile, plus Slater’s blunt warning about getting killed, told Raleigh he had made a mistake by dismissing the lazy-looking stranger as no threat.

«No offense meant,» Raleigh muttered.

«None taken,» Reno said easily.

Both men were lying.

Eve’s heart threatened to choke her as the moment approached when she would have to stop shuffling and deal. Given a choice, she would have gotten up and walked away from the grimy saloon and the three dangerous men. But there was no real choice.

She had nowhere to go, no money to pay her way, her stomach was growling from hunger; and most of all, a desire for vengeance burned in her blood like acid. Raleigh King had killed the only two friends Eve had.

And she had just thought of a way to return the favor.

Praying that the green-eyed stranger was as deadly as she suspected he was, Eve took a deep, invisible breath and began dealing cards with great care and dazzling speed. The cards made a crisp sound as she placed them facedown, one at a time, in front of the three men and herself.

Slater and the stranger watched Eve’s hands. Raleigh watched the place where red silk swelled outward over her breasts. Though the neckline of the dress was modest, the fit left no doubt there was a female beneath.

While Eve dealt, she avoided looking at Jericho Slater, for she knew his cold blue eyes would be telling her that she wasn’t going to get away with bottom-dealing good hands to herself any longer. With her fingers still sore and blistered from burying Don and Donna Lyon, she simply wasn’t fast enough to hold her own for long against a gambler of Slater’s skill.