Gus Aitoro took a final look up and down the main thoroughfare of Deadwood just to make sure nothing was going on, then he stepped on to the wooden walkway and through the always open door of Company Restaurant and Boarding House. Looking around, he noted that they were doing a brisk business as they normally did during the regular dinner hour. Seeing that all was well, he stepped up to the counter which also served as a bar and nodded to the short, but stocky man standing behind it.
"Evening, Buzz," he said with a nod.
"Evening, Gus," Buzz replied. "May I get you a whiskey? Natalia finished cooking supper a short while ago and headed on upstairs, so I don't think she's quite ready for you yet."
"Just coffee, if you please," Gus answered. "It was mighty gracious of you to give her the evening off, Buzz."
"She deserves some time off, as hard as she fucking works," Buzz said as he poured a large mug of steaming coffee and handed it to Gus. "Busy as we are, we'll make due."
"Still, I am much obliged," Gus said as he took a deep drink of the strong brew, sighing with pleasure as he felt it warm his bones.
"Tell your niece happy birthday for me, will you?" Buzz asked. "And tell Olivia I'm sorry I couldn't get away, but you see how busy it is here."
"I sure will, Buzz," he replied with a short nod. "And I'm sure she'll understand. Olivia Spencer understands business."
As Buzz went to serve another customer, Gus took a longer look around the busy dining area. He took note of Frank Cooper leaving the kitchen with a plate of food and sitting down at a small table. He picked up his coffee mug and strolled over.
"Evening, Deputy," he said.
Frank looked up. "Marshal," Frank nodded. "Grab yourself a plate if you can make your way past those fucking hoopleheads hogging the line and set on down."
"I will take a chair, Deputy, but decline on the food," Gus said as he placed his coffee and package on the table. He pulled another smaller package wrapped in soft leather from his coat pocket and slid it across to Frank. "New notices from the Federal office in Yankton," he explained. "Can you see that gets to Bullock? I didn't have time to drop it off to him at his store."
Frank nodded. "My pleasure, Marshal. Anything worthy of note within?"
"Not much as far as the goddamned reprobates go," Gus said. "Just the usual 'wanted' and 'at large' notices. Update on the fucking census, requests for our numbers. That sort of thing. Nothing pressing, is all."
"Good enough," he said, taking another bite of his food. "Mmm, this is delectable. As regretful as I am that things didn't work out between you and my sister, I do have to say that you are one fucking lucky fella, Marshal. That fine lady of yours sure can cook."
Gus smiled wryly. "Thank you, Deputy," he said. "As far as brothers-in-law go, you were acceptable."
Frank nodded amiably and then turned his glance to the stairwell. Gus followed the gaze and felt his heart begin to pound.
Descending the staircase like a vision of celestial beauty, Natalia Rivera smiled shyly as she caught his look, her dimples causing his breath to catch. Both men stood quickly as she approached and Gus was pleased to note she was wearing the dress he had bought her for just this occasion, despite her protests. Even though they were engaged to wed, Natalia refused to take any support from him which is why she worked both here at Company in the evenings and at the Beacon as a chambermaid during the day. Gus admired her pride and strength of will, but it only made him feel guiltier about abandoning her to raise their child all by herself.
As she approached, she held out her hand for Gus to take. Placing a quick kiss on her knuckles, he said, "Miss Rivera, you are an utter delight to behold."
"Thank you, Mr. Aitoro," she said and then turned to Frank, who had stood up. "Deputy Cooper…I trust you are enjoying your meal?"
"Miss Rivera, I was just making comment to your fiancé that it is divine, a meal fit for God's glorious angels themselves," Frank answered. "If I may ask, what do you call these?" Frank pointed at a pile of fried fritters taking up most of the room on his plate.
"In Spanish, they are called bacalaítos," Natalia answered. "Or as you would say, cod fritters."
"Cod?" Frank said with delighted surprise. "Oh, so that's what Pop did with that old batch of salted cod we had taking up room in the pantry. I always knew the man was genius. Hiring you just proves it, ma'am."
Natalia smiled. "I don't believe in waste, Deputy," she said. "Especially when it comes to food."
Gus cleared his throat. "I think we should be getting along, Miss Rivera," he said.
"Of course," Natalia agreed. "I do hope you enjoy your evening, Deputy Cooper," she said.
"And you, yours, ma'am," he said tipping his head and then sitting back down as Gus took Natalia's arm and led her from the restaurant.
Once outside, Gus turned in the direction of the Beacon Hotel and asked, "Is Rafe working this evening?"
"He is," Natalia said. "Would you like to stop by and see him?"
"I would, if you don't mind," he said. "I know you worked all day and must be tired."
"Not as tired as I would have been serving up a hundred meals tonight at Company," she said. "Thank you for this evening out, Nicky. I am already enjoying myself."
"Good," he said and gave her a smile so wide the torch lights illuminating the street made his teeth shine. "That dress looks wonderful on you, Natalia," he said. "Thank you for accepting it."
Natalia's mouth turned into a small frown. "I accepted it for your sake, Nicky," she explained. "It would not do for the future wife of a Federal marshal to show up at a social event in an old frock. Next time though, I shall be better prepared so as to spare you the expense."
"That won't be necessary, my dear," he said. "We'll be married soon and you won't have to work as hard as you do now."
"I don't mind working," she said. "It's what I'm used to."
"Nevertheless, you shouldn't have to," he pointed out.
"And nevertheless, you still have another family to support," she said, closing the book on the discussion for now. "We're here now, let's wish our son a good evening and then be on our way. Shall we?"
Gus nodded his head and led his fiancée through the open doors of the town's largest livery. The livery's proprietor, a dark skinned man wearing buckskins and an old army hat with a feather sticking up from it, stood up from his rocking chair near the potbelly stove. He pulled off his hat and gave a small bow to the couple. "Marshall…Miss Rivera," he said. "It's my pleasure to see you this evening."
"Mr. Fields," Natalia greeted him with a wide smile. "I hope we're not disturbing you. We just wished to say good evening to Rafael if it's not too much trouble."
"Never too much trouble for you, good lady," Fields said and then raised his voice. "Rivera! You've got company!"
A sound of an iron tool being dropped onto something made of wood preceded the appearance of Rafael Rivera. He was wearing a stained white shirt and a leather apron over his leggings. He wiped his hands on a dirty rag as he approached his parents and then leaned down to kiss Natalia's cheek. "Mama, it's good to see you," he said.
"You as well, Rafael," she said. "You left early this morning before I was even up."
"I'm glad I didn't wake you, then," he said. "Mr. Utter left a message with Mr. Cooper last night after you had retired requesting I come early and check on his mare. He fears she may be coming down with founder and asked could I take a look at her."
"And what do you think?" Gus asked.
"She's easing a bit on that hoof, sir, but she's not pointing yet, so I'd says she has a good chance to recover," he said. "I got her unshod and the other hooves look good. We'll let her rest and see how she progresses within the next few days."
"Good job, son," Gus said, proud that one of the town's most respected businessmen would trust the care of a valuable mare to his son.
"Thank you, sir," Rafe said, flushing slightly under the praise. He turned back to his mother. "I'll stay here for the next few days to make sure Mr. Utter's horse is doing all right, Mama, so please don't expect me back at the boardinghouse."
"All right," Natalia said and then asked, "Have you eaten yet?"
"No, Mama," he answered. "Not since afore noon. I brought a couple of your cold pasteles along with me when I came to the livery this morning, but that's all."
"When Mr. Fields permits, run to Company for your dinner and bring back enough for his as well," Natalia said.
"That's mighty kind of you, ma'am," Fields said. "The boy can go now if he's hungering."
"Indeed I am, Nigger General, thanks," Rafe said and turned quickly, his mind obviously on his mother's cooking.
"Rafael!" Natalia stopped him before he could run out the door. "You will respect your employer by addressing him as 'Mr. Fields.' Is that clear?"
"But Mama," Rafe protested and Gus gave an internal wince at the slightly whiny tone in his son's voice. "That's who he is! Everyone calls him the Nigger General."
"And you are a bastard, so shall we all call you that as well?" Natalia asked sharply and Gus watched as Rafe's face flushed a deep red in anger. He narrowed his eyes and prepared to step forward if the boy made any sudden move.
Rafe opened his mouth to protest again and Gus said in a low voice, "You will mind your mother, boy."
Rafe's jaw snapped shut and Gus noted the way the muscles in his cheeks clenched. He'd seen that same look on foolish men right before they met their maker. Natalia had done a fine job raising their son, but the boy had to learn to control his temper. Gus vowed to himself that he would spend more time with Rafe. It would not excuse his past absence in his son's life, but God willing, he'll be able to help the boy transition into manhood.
"Yes, sir," Rafe finally said. "My apologies, Mama." He turned to Fields. "And to you, Mr. Fields. With your permission, I'll take my leave to go fetch our meal."
Fields nodded and Rafe leaned in again to kiss Natalia's cheek and left with a nod at Gus.
Natalia smiled at Fields. "We too must take our leave, Mr. Fields. Please enjoy your supper."
"I'm sure I will, good lady," Fields said. "Enjoy your evening. And yours as well, Marshal."
"General," Gus said with a nod and escorted Natalia from the livery. As he turned in the direction of the Beacon, he felt a moment's anticipation for the evening ahead.
It was a man's world, but not even that would stop Olivia Spencer from what she wanted. Her desires were simple, she believed. Two happy and healthy daughters, a thriving business, a random, but good-looking stud to scratch an itch or two, a fine bottle of scotch and a cigar to take the chill away at night. Olivia felt no shame in her lavish indulgences such as the best clothing or her chef imported from Paris – she had earned every single one and more. Hard work and sheer determination had taken her from a penniless orphan burdened with raising two younger siblings on a small Caribbean island to eventually becoming one of the richest and most successful women in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.
Olivia Spencer enjoyed her luxuries, it was true, but that didn't mean she'd deny her guests the same. The Beacon was the most opulent hotel in town and her guests were glad to recompense her for the privilege. It was one of the things that set the Beacon apart from the other hotels in town and it was one advantage Olivia intended on keeping no matter what.
Moving over to the ornate full length mirror, Olivia inspected her appearance. She was wearing a dark burgundy gown made from silks imported from India, with a built-in corset made of whale bone stays. She frowned when she noticed one of the stays had come undone.
"Jane," she called out and not more than a moment later Emma's governess entered. "Please help me with this, Jane."
"Yes, Miss Spencer," the young woman said and moved to efficiently fasten the errant stay.
"Emma is dressed?" she asked.
"She's all ready, Miss Spencer," Jane said. "She's drawing pictures right now."
"Very well," Olivia said. "Please make sure she doesn't get any charcoal on her dress this time. I want her perfect when you bring her down to the party."
"Yes, Miss Spencer," Jane said nervously and hurried from Olivia's room to check on her charge.
Olivia smiled at the thought of her beautiful young daughter, her strong and often stern features softening as they always did when thinking of Emma. However, a stray thought of Emma's father caused her face to darken. Phillip Spaulding was still at large after kidnapping his children – including Emma – and if it hadn't been for the efforts of Marshall Gus Aitoro, Phillip would have gotten away with them.
Olivia knew that despite her many employees and social sycophants, she had very few friends and many more enemies in Deadwood. Gus Aitoro was one of the few people in town she could really trust, which was ironic considering he was Alan Spaulding's bastard. However, Gus had been raised by decent, hardworking folks who had instilled in him a strong sense of morality. Much to the dismay of many in town, Gus was one of the rarest breeds of all – a Federal official not open to bribes. And he even proved steadfast against the evil influence of the corrupted Spauldings, despite him being one of them. Since being assigned to Deadwood, Marshal Aitoro had helped to make the town more civilized.
"And that's good for business," Olivia said to her reflection. "And what's good for business is good for me."
She gave her gown a final smoothing and then strode to the door to open it. "Richardson!" she called from the balcony, seeing the stoop-shouldered man scampering across the lobby.
"Yes, Miss Spencer?" he asked, looking up at her, his long white beard hanging limply against his boney chest.
"Go to the ice house and bring back a fresh block. Emma likes it shaved with maple syrup. And be quick about it."
"Yes, Miss Spencer," he said and turned to scurry away, but then looked back up with a sickening look of adoration on his face. "You sure are pretty tonight, Miss Spencer."
"Just go," she waved her hand and rolled her eyes, once again wondering what had possessed her to hire the idiot. After Bullock had bought the Grand Central Hotel for a song when it had practically burned to the ground in the fire that nearly gutted the entire town a little more than a year ago, Richardson came to her and begged for a job at the Beacon, claiming he was too scared to work for the sheriff. The Beacon itself had been damaged in the same fire, but it had proved a blessing for the town when most of the riff raff had left for easier pickings, leaving open an opportunity for hard working entrepreneurs such as herself to prosper.
Thoughts of the fire that nearly destroyed Deadwood made her think of nearly losing her eldest daughter and she staunchly pushed such disturbing thoughts aside. Besides, her guests were staring to arrive. She began her descent to greet the first ones.
Natalia Rivera quirked a small smile as the Beacon's doorman held open the door and blinked at her in surprise. He started to object, but one dark look from Nicky put an end to any protest he might have made.
Natalia couldn't blame the man; it wasn't every day a chambermaid walked through the front doors instead of entering through the rear entrance off the filthy alley, especially fancily dressed and on the arm of a U.S. Marshal. Nicky patted her hand in reassurance as he led her across the lavish lobby to the large ballroom where the hotel's owner was standing court. Natalia knew who Olivia Spencer was and knew of her – one needn't be in town long before tapping into the gossip mill – but until now she hadn't personally drew her employer's attention. As long as the Beacon ran smoothly Olivia Spencer left her employees alone, but one time Natalia had seen her nearly verbally flay a dishwasher alive after he dropped a stack of expensive china. After that, she did her best to avoid her employer's wrath if at all possible.
Straightening her stance a bit higher, Natalia walked with confidence through the crowded room as they approached the imposing woman. As Olivia turned to greet them, Natalia could feel the sharp jade of the woman's eyes on her. She felt her heart begin to pound as Olivia's eyes moved from her head, down and then back up again, finally coming to rest on her eyes. Natalia was suddenly glad she had allowed Nicky to buy her the gown.
"Olivia Spencer," Nicky said. "May I present my fiancée, Natalia Rivera, formerly of Chicago, Illinois."
Olivia's eyes bored penetratingly into hers and Natalia steeled herself not to wither under the weight. She recalled every rumor she had heard about Olivia Spencer – from her many husbands and dalliances to her less-than-ethical business dealings – and she resolved that, employer or not, she would not cower in front of this woman.
"You work for me," Olivia stated, and Natalia felt goose bumps raise along her skin as she heard that silken voice directed at her for the first time.
"Indeed, I do," she answered, glad that her own voice did not waver. "Thank you so much for having Mr. Aitoro and I here tonight, Miss Spencer. Your reputation for hospitality is legendary as is reflected in every inch of the Beacon."
Olivia was silent as she regarded Natalia, this time, she guessed, as she evaluated Natalia's speech and accent.
"Please, call me Olivia," she said with a smile that did not quite reach her eyes. "After all, we are family, blood of course being stronger than any legal consideration. Wouldn't you agree?"
"I have found that true as well," Natalia answered. "Very well, Olivia. I'm Natalia."
The pretty girl standing next to Olivia stepped forward. Like her mother, Natalia had often seen Emma about the hotel, but had never had any contact with her before tonight. "Is Rivera a Spanish name?" she asked.
"It is," Natalia answered. "It means the bank of a river."
"Do you speak Spanish?"
Natalia smiled at the charming little girl. "Sí, niña. Hablo español muy bien."
Emma giggled. "Derek at school thinks he's so smart because he can count to five in Spanish."
"Well, how about I teach you to count to ten in Spanish, then?" Natalia said.
"Would you?" Emma asked eagerly.
"Not tonight, Jellybean," Olivia said. "You've got presents to open, but what do you say to Natalia?"
"Thank you, Miss Natalia," Emma said.
"You're very welcome, Emma," Natalia said. "I'll stop by your room before I leave tomorrow."
Nicky handed his niece the package he was carrying and Emma ran off to put it with the others. Natalia noted the warm smile that brightened Olivia's face – this time her eyes as well – as she watched her daughter race off. Finally Olivia turned back to Natalia and said, "Thank you so much, Natalia. I'll be sure to compensate you for your efforts on Emma's behalf."
"That won't be necessary, Olivia," Natalia said with a smile. "After all, as you pointed out, we are family."
"So I did," Olivia agreed. "Oh! Please excuse my lack of hospitality. Can I get you something to drink? Sarsaparilla, maybe?"
"Whiskey, if you please," she answered and while she kept her gaze on Olivia, she could see from the corner of her eye Nicky's surprise.
"A whiskey it is, then," Olivia said with a smirk. She walked briskly over to the sideboard and poured three shots. Handing one each to Nicky and Natalia, she raised the third in a salute. "To new friends and family."
Natalia echoed the sentiment and then threw back the shot.
Rafe Rivera carried the basket of his mother's food down the thoroughfare, carefully weaving in and out of the foot and horse traffic clopping along the wood paved street. Once again Rafe wondered if leaving Chicago to come here was a wise decision; not that he had much choice in the matter. He liked Deadwood and the adventure of living in the territory, but he missed Chicago and his friends.
When Rafe was growing up, he always had questioned his mother about his father, but all she would say was that his father was gone. So Rafe had assumed that his father had died in the war like many of his friends' fathers had. He would spend many a night lying in his bed before sleep imagining a brave Captain Rivera riding his horse against the Confederate rebels only to be struck down by a lucky shot, his final thoughts of his beautiful bride and infant son waiting in vain for his return.
However those childhood fantasies were dashed when his mother sat him down one day and said that he was finally man enough to know the truth. The truth about how she had met the handsome young Nick Augustino while she was a student at a Catholic boarding school, how they fell in love and planned to marry when she graduated, but before Nicky could ask Natalia's parents for permission, they were caught. Natalia was expelled and then discovered she was pregnant around the same time that Nicky disappeared.
"Papa wanted me to marry his business partner's son, but I only wanted Nicky," his mother had said. "When I refused to give you away, he threw me out."
Left to fend for herself on to the rough streets of Chicago, Natalia struggled to support herself and her sickly son. Rafe never remembered a time when she wasn't working one job or another, sometimes more than one at a time, no matter how base or hard it might be. She also spent every spare moment teaching him to read and write, making sure he received the education that was denied most children of their class.
"I never gave up looking for Nicky," she had told him that day. "Whenever I saved up a bit of money, I would hire a detective agency to look for him, but it was if Nicky Augustino had simply ceased to exist. Until now."
Then she had handed him an old and worn copy of The Black Hills Pioneer and pointed to a grainy photograph of a stern faced man identified as Gus Aitoro, newly appointed U.S. Marshall for the Dakota Territory.
"That's him, Rafael," Natalia had said. "That's your father. We're going to Deadwood to find him."
And with that declaration, she immediately set about selling their few possessions and booked transport on the next train heading west. Rafe spent the majority of the journey staring at the newspaper photo until it was smudged and worn from repeated handling. At first he was stunned, but that quickly turned to anger. He wasn't the son of a fallen Civil War hero; he was the bastard offspring of some cowardly cur who had tricked his mother into spreading her legs for him and then took off at the first sign of trouble. To add insult to injury, he also had rich grandparents who sat on their fat asses in their mansion on Lake Michigan while he and his mother froze in a rat-infested tenement. One day, he vowed, he would return to Chicago and teach his grandfather a lesson.
Things hadn't been easy for the Riveras once they reached Deadwood. Yes, they found his father, but he was married to a woman with three children. However, things did improve over time. His father's marriage had failed and his parents had rekindled their romance and Rafe had learned how respected his father was. Now they were just waiting for the paperwork for the divorce to arrive and his mother's shame would be erased and he would finally shed the stigma of illegitimacy.
Arriving at the livery, Rafe breathed deeply of the warm smell of hay and horses. Gus had gotten him the job at the livery, calling in a favor of the proprietor. Rafe liked the general and enjoyed working with the horses. Since coming west, his health had improved and his body had bulked up with muscle as he learned the farrier's trade. Fields had said he had a good touch when it came to horses and that made Rafe's heart swell with pride.
"Bout time you got back, boy," Fields said. "Food cold?"
"Shouldn't be," he said, setting the basket down and folding back his mother's clean towels. He lifted out two containers and handed one to Fields. Opening his, he breathed deeply as the warm smell of crisp fried fish and succulent beans and rice filled his senses.
"Mmm, this is good!" Fields exclaimed, his spoon moving rapidly between the container and his mouth. Rafe chuckled as a grain of rice stuck to the man's beard. "Boy, how come you so skinny if you et food like this your whole life?" Fields asked after a few minutes, finally coming up for air.
"I never fared too well as a child," he said with a shrug. "I always had trouble breathing and had the grippe more often than not. Mama spent a fortune on doctors and cures for me, but nothing seemed to help until we came here. Guess it was just the bad air in Chicago."
"Yeah, most cities are like that," Fields agreed, mopping up the last of his food with the crust of homemade buttered bread. "Which is why I prefer the open range, although I've been in Deadwood so long I forget sometimes what it's like to sleep under the open sky."
While Fields went out back to use the privy, Rafe finished his food and packed up the empty plates back in the basket to return to the boarding house later. Just as he had placed the basket aside, there was a commotion from outside and the door crashed open.
Standing in the doorway like an angry mastodon was a tall woman dressed like a man with a linen shirt that used to be white, but was now and forever gray, a dark woolen vest and soiled buckskins. She was wearing a pistol at her hips. On her head was a black hat with a jaunty white feather sticking straight up from the band.
She peered at him through the darkness and Rafe felt his body grow cold under the scrutiny. "Jane Canary here looking for the fucking Nigger General. Where the fuck is he, you fucking Mexican bastard?"
"Evening, Miss Jane," Rafe said politely. "He'll be back shortly."
"Then why the fuck are you just standing there, stupid?" she yelled. "Get me a fucking drink."
As Rafe went to the cabinet where Fields kept his whiskey, the general returned, hitching up his britches. "Hello, Jane," Fields said to the woman.
She squinted at him. "Where the fuck have you been?"
"Oh, just taking care of business," he said. "How you doing, Jane? How's Miss Joanie?"
Jane ignored the questions and turned to Rafe, who had paused to watch the pair. "What you have failed to understand, you fucking cocksucking Mexican, is my impending and somewhat urgent need for a drink, and by that I mean, if you can manage to get it past those pretty and effeminate curls atop your empty head, is that I fucking need it now!"
"Yes, Miss Jane," he said and carried the bottle over to her.
She grabbed it, pulled the cork with her teeth and spit it out at him. It bounced off his head and he managed to catch it before it hit the ground.
Fields laughed and said, "Why don't you go return that basket to Company, boy? Then take a few hours off for yourself. I'll keep an eye on Charlie's horse."
"All right, Nigger General," he said with a smirk.
Fields rolled his eyes. "Shit, look who's talkin.' Your daddy may be white, boy but to the good folks of Deadwood, you are just another nigger. Go on, get out of here."
Laughing, Rafe pulled off his apron, grabbed his coat and left the livery.
Olivia smiled as she watched Ava help Emma open her presents. Her little girl had an array of dolls and wooden toys surrounding her, Olivia was pleased to see. Her baby girl deserved only the best. As Emma finished opening the last one, Olivia caught the eye of Jack Langrishe and gave him a nod. The jolly thespian returned the nod with a bow and then signaled his small orchestra to begin playing.
As the music started, she glanced over at Gus who was standing with his fiancée. Natalia Rivera certainly was a surprise. In appearance, she was beautiful and her refined speech and bearing indicated a woman of a far higher social status than a mere chambermaid. However, she knew that despite being a chambermaid, she had somehow attracted the attention of the marshal after his marriage with Harley had ended.
Suddenly wishing more information, she looked around the room until she spotted the widow Marler, who was standing near the corner speaking with Alma Garret. Olivia smiled as she made her way to the pair, who broke off their conversation upon her arrival.
"Ladies," she greeted. "Alma, I was wondering if I might have a bit of conversation with Mrs. Marler?
Alma smiled at her and said, "Certainly, Olivia."
"My thanks," Olivia said and drew the redhead away from the banker.
"Enjoying the party, Blake?" she asked.
"I was until you interrupted me," she said with annoyance and Olivia almost laughed in her face. Blake was the best source for information of what was going on in Deadwood and Olivia knew that Blake had probably been probing Alma Garret in search of more gossip. "I heard the widow was involved with someone new and I was trying to find out with whom," Blake added.
Olivia nodded, "I heard that as well, but as to whom she's fucking I have no idea," Olivia lied. She already knew who the banker was having an affair with, but she liked her ex-husband Josh too much to reveal that to Blake, especially when she could get a better bargain for that bit of information at a later date. Gossip was one of the most valuable currencies the women of Deadwood possessed and Olivia was a master at using it to her best advantage.
She then came to her purpose. "I do believe this is the first time I've seen Marshal Aitoro out with his fiancée," she said.
Blake's steely gaze zoomed in on the couple, now dancing to the slow waltz being played. "Interesting that she works as a cook and maid, yet she conducts herself as a lady," Blake said, echoing Olivia's own observations.
"That she does," Olivia agreed and then went fishing for more. "She's been a resident of this town for how long?"
"Going on a year, I believe," Blake answered. Her eyes began to glitter and Olivia sensed the other woman was about to share a particularly salacious piece of information. "I heard she came here to find and snatch the father of her bastard son for herself and did just that, never minding one fucking whit he already had a wife."
"Indeed?" Olivia said, raising her eyebrows. "I hadn't heard the reason why his marriage to the Cooper woman had ended."
"Oh yes," Blake said, nodding emphatically. "It's true. Miss Rivera there used every trick in the book, culminating with Mrs. Aitoro discovering her handsome marshal engaged in activities with Miss Rivera not deemed suitable with a woman other than his wife."
"Really?" Olivia leaned back as she stared at Natalia, feeling impressed. So despite her fine clothing and cultured speech, the lady liked to fuck and that was something Olivia could admire.
"Well, some say that Gus and Harley never would have lasted anyway," Blake continued, waving a dismissive hand. "You more than anyone in town know how those fucking Spaulding men are. Jumping from marriage to marriage like a miner jumps from whore to whore. It was only a matter of time before the marshal showed his true colors."
Olivia bristled at Blake's implication because she had been married to two Spaulding men. "You would also know, dear," she shot back with her eyebrow and one side of her lip quirked upwards.
Blake's eyes narrowed and Olivia could see the other woman was searching in vain for a sharp retort. Finally, Blake said, "I heard from Buzz Cooper that his daughter ran all the way to Greece to erase the sight of her husband fucking another woman, especially a goddamned Mexican papist."
"Puerto Rican," Olivia said absently, still watching the dancing couple.
She turned to Blake. "She's Puerto Rican," she answered with certainty. "You can hear it in her accent."
Blake blinked and shrugged. "Puerto Rican, Mexican, what difference does it make? They're all the fucking same."
Olivia just rolled her eyes and turned to look at the couple again, thinking about all she had just learned about Natalia Rivera.
"Are you enjoying yourself, Natalia?" Nicky asked as the orchestra finished one waltz and began another.
"Yes, Nicky, I am," she answered. "Are you?"
"I am indeed," he said. "I'm happy that we do not have to conceal our feelings for each other anymore."
Natalia inwardly sighed, once again feeling dismay at being partially responsible for the end of Nicky's marriage. When she and Rafael had made the journey to Deadwood, she knew there was a good chance Nicky would have a wife and family already and indeed, that had proven the case. She had considered making plans to move onward, perhaps trying their luck in San Francisco rather than returning to Chicago, but when Nicky learned Rafe was his son, he insisted on being a part of their lives, that it was time he assumed responsibility for his son.
However, his wife Harley did not feel the same, even though Nicky was responsible for her children by different men. In her jealousy, she had spread rumors and half-truths about Natalia and Rafael, which had caused many problems for them both. Natalia had lost her job at Company when Harley insisted her father Buzz fire her and Rafe had gotten into several brawls when he was insulted over his illegitimacy.
Nicky had been furious with his wife and things with Harley deteriorated even more when the father of her eldest child made it clear he wanted Harley back. Not wanting to be embroiled in the conflict, Natalia once again made plans to leave Deadwood, but before that could happen, Nicky showed up at her room at Shaunessey's boarding house, desolate with the belief that his wife had been unfaithful to him. Nicky had come seeking solace and, feeling a resurgence of the unbridled passion they had shared as youngsters, Natalia had taken him to her bed.
Discovery and the final death knell of Nicky's marriage soon followed and Harley had left Deadwood. Nicky had gone after his wife, just missing her in New York City before she boarded a ship for Europe. Nicky returned to Deadwood and instigated divorce proceedings against his wife.
While he was gone, Natalia and Rafe continued to have a hard time, but at least they were able to eat from Rafe's small salary from the livery and through the help of Deputy Remy Boudreau who had taken a shine to Natalia. It was Remy who had pointed her in the direction of the Beacon Hotel where, she had learned, the owner didn't care about anyone's sordid past as long as she got full value for the coin she gave to her employees.
After Nicky returned, he convinced Buzz to give Natalia her job back at Company, but Natalia insisted on keeping her job at the Beacon as well. She felt she needed the extra security as it was more difficult for her to find work in a small town like Deadwood than it was in Chicago.
In time, she agreed to marry Nicky, but only after she made him promise to continue his support of Harley and her children and also that they would not share a bed until after the nuptials.
Nicky had readily agreed to the former – he was not going to abandon his vow to take care of Harley's family – but he saw no reason for the latter. They had enjoyed being lovers before, but Natalia pointed out that both her and Rafe had suffered because of their actions.
"What kind of example are we setting for our son, Nicky?" she had asked. "You saw the bruises on his face after those fights. Even after we are wed, do you want him to still have to defend himself because his mother is an adulteress?"
With that, Nicky gave Natalia his word and now they were in a vague state of limbo as they waited for the final dissolution of his marriage. Things had improved for the Riveras over time; with Harley no longer spreading her vitriol and with Nicky's reputation, Natalia's hard work ethic and Rafe's skill with his charges, the townsfolk began to accept the new family. Tonight was the couple's first appearance in society and so far Natalia was pleased.
As Nicky swung her around the floor, Natalia caught a glimpse of Olivia speaking with the Episcopal minister. She felt a pang at the sight of him, although she had immediately liked Josh Lewis when they met for the first time. The Reverend Lewis and Nicky were friends and the former had agreed to marry them when the time came.
Natalia had spoken with Father Ray, but the priest had said that he could not perform a ceremony for them while Harley lived. Natalia keenly felt the loss she would not be able to wed in the church, but when Father Ray had added that if she did indeed marry in another church, her soul would be damned if she engaged in conjugal relations with her husband she stopped attending his services at St Ambrose.
Natalia gave a snort at the memory of the priest's admonitions. She and Nicky had engaged plenty when they were teens, so she supposed her soul was already damned – at least by the church; God she was not so sure about, no matter what Father Ray claimed. It was through those youthful dalliances that He had given her the greatest gift in her son and she would never regret that, nor would she regret Nicky's presence in their lives now either.
"Something amusing, Natalia?" Nicky asked.
She shook her head. "Just thinking. Can we stop for a bit?"
"Of course," he said and led her to the bar where he handed her a drink.
She sipped at the whiskey and then smiled as a short woman shuffled toward them, dragging her brace-encased leg and precariously balancing a tray of finger foods in her hands.
"Hello Natalia. Marshal," she said in a thick voice, one side of her face twisted upwards.
"Evening, Jewel," Nicky said.
"You're working here tonight, Jewel?" Natalia asked.
"Sure am!" the other woman replied with a big smile. "When Miss Spencer asked Al if she could hire me for the party, I told him that I was gonna do it if he said I could or not. And you know what that cocksucker said?"
"What?" Natalia asked with an amused grin on her face.
"Not a goddamned word! Just waved his hand and here I am!" Jewel smiled proudly.
Natalia laughed at the image. Jewel had been her first friend when they arrived in Deadwood and the first thing she had done was to warn her away from seeking work at the Gem, the saloon and whorehouse owned by Al Swearengen, one of the most powerful men in town. Instead, Jewel had directed her to Company and Natalia was grateful for both the lead and the friendship offered by the handicapped woman.
Natalia glanced across the room and saw Richardson approaching Olivia with a package held in both hands, looking like a supplicant bestowing an offering to his angry god. Natalia frowned as she wondered why the Beacon's odd-job man would be giving Emma a birthday gift.
Nicky's eyes followed Natalia's and they both watched the hotel owner slide a sheet of paper out from under the twine that held the wrapping together. As Olivia read the paper, her face turned deathly white and she stumbled, managing to escape falling by the support of the minister.
"Come on," Nicky said and took her arm. "There's trouble."
Gus was relieved to see that Olivia had recovered quickly from the shock of learning Phillip Spaulding had returned. He and Josh, followed by Natalia and Ava, had quickly bundled the stunned woman away from the party and back to her suite.
Emma's governess was writing at the small desk in the anteroom when they arrived and looked on in concern as Olivia rushed into Emma's room. She glanced at Gus with a questioning look on her face.
"Go on to bed, Miss," he said. "Miss Spencer will take care of her daughter for the rest of the evening."
Jane simply nodded and, gathering up her writing supplies, she quickly left. Moments later, Olivia returned and Josh asked, "She's all right?"
"Fine," Olivia said briskly and turned to Ava. "Honey, will you see to the guests for me, please?"
"Of course, Mother," Ava replied and quickly left.
Olivia turned to Gus with frightened eyes and said, ""You told me that fucking cocksucker was far away from Deadwood, so what in Heaven's fucking name is this?" She thrust the paper at him, her fist thumping against his chest.
Gus grabbed the note before it could fall to the floor and read it: Happy birthday to my darling Emma. Daddy loves you and I promise we'll be together soon."
Gus felt his anger rise, once again regretting he had failed to put a bullet through his cowardly brother's heart as he fled town when Gus rescued his children.
"Is this from his hand?" he asked Olivia, holding up the note.
"Yes, it is from his fucking hand," she spat. "I'd know that blackguard's writing anywhere."
Gus nodded, then turned to Josh. "Can I impose on you to go ask Richardson who gave him the package?"
The minister nodded and strode from the room, his boots clocking against the floorboards.
"If I see one hair on that bastard's head, I'm going to blow it the fuck off," Olivia spat.
"You'll have to get in line, Olivia," Gus said grimly.
"Where the fuck does that cocksucker get off sending a present to Emma?" Olivia yelled, her ire rising.
Natalia stepped forward and laid a hand on Olivia's arm. "Olivia, please calm down," she said and Olivia swung a pair of wild eyes at her. "You'll wake up Emma and you don't want to frighten her."
Gus watched as Olivia breathed heavily through her nose as she stared at Natalia, who returned the look without flinching. Finally, Olivia looked down at where Natalia's hand was and then she shrugged off the touch.
"Don't tell me what the fuck to do," she said, but even though her words were harsh, Gus noted that Olivia had indeed calmed down. Olivia then turned to Gus and said in a hoarse voice, "Open the present."
He looked at the package lying on the cabinet where Olivia had tossed it when they arrived. He pulled his knife from the sheath he kept concealed under his coat. The twine parted with a quick flick and the paper fell away. Under it was a highly polished five inch by five inch box made of dark-stained walnut and trimmed with gleaming brass fittings. He undid the catch and the lid rose silently on its hinges.
Inside, cushioned on a pillow of pink satin, was an intricately carved shell cameo set in gold and attached to a red silk ribbon. Gus lifted the pendant to look at it closer and could tell by its weight that the setting must have been made of nearly pure gold. He estimated it was worth a small fortune. The image of the carving was clearly that of Olivia's youngest daughter and must have been done fairly recently.
Olivia grabbed the jewelry and looked at it for a few moments. "That fucking son of a bitch," Olivia breathed out in a voice filled with fury.
Natalia looked at Gus with a confused expression on her face.
"It's Phillip's message to Olivia," he explained to his fiancée. "His way of flaunting the fact that even though he is a fugitive, he has the resources and power to give his daughter anything he wants. That, combined with the note, is a clear indication he intends on getting Emma back."
"Oh," Natalia said, her face pale in the light from the oil lamp.
Gus looked at Olivia who was still staring at the gift. He gently took it from her hand and placed it back in the box. With one finger, he closed the lip, blocking the necklace from her view. He replaced his knife in its sheath and said, "Olivia." He waited until he was sure he had her attention. "I'll ride out to Spaulding before dawn to see if, as unlikely and unrealistic the chance may be, that cocksucking brother of mine is there. I find the prospect highly doubtful, but one day his devil's-given luck has to run out and God willing, tomorrow will be that day."
"If you're right and tomorrow is, I'm going with you," she replied.
"No, you're not," he said, shaking his head.
"Gus, I can't let him get Emma!"
"He's not going to get Emma," he said, soothingly. "I won't let him. I didn't let him before, did I?"
"No," Olivia answered and then took a deep breath. Gus guessed that she was gathering together that famous strength of will she possessed in abundance. "All right," she continued. "Ride to the ranch, but don't go alone. I don't trust Alan to keep the son of a bitch from killing you in cold blood."
"Alan couldn't keep me from killing the son of a bitch," Gus vowed. "But my folks didn't raise any fools." He glanced at Natalia. "Now I fear we must take our leave. Natalia has to report to work very early in the morning and I want to ascertain what the Reverend Lewis has found out."
Olivia nodded and Natalia said to her, "Good night, Olivia and please, do not hesitate to ask for any assistance you might require of me."
"Thank you," the hotel owner replied. "I am glad we finally met; in an official capacity that is to say. My apologies for the disturbance my former motherfucking ex-husband caused tonight."
"It was not your fault, Olivia," Natalia said, shaking her head. "From what I have learned of him, your ex-husband will, and I say that to mean hopefully one day soon, burn in the deepest reaches of hell."
Olivia's lips quirked upward. "Of that I have no doubt, good lady, "she said. "May the rest of your evening with your handsome and virile fiancé be pleasant…and most satisfying."
Gus was inwardly amused as he noted the faint blush creep up Natalia's cheeks, but he turned a disapproving look on Olivia, who merely smirked at him. He leaned in to kiss her cheek and said, "Good night, Olivia. I'll let you know what I find out as soon as possible."
"Good night, Gus," she said. "Be careful tomorrow."
Gus held the door to the sweet open as Natalia walked through, her skirts billowing in her wake.
The main street was still busy with traffic despite the late hour. Deadwood, for all its newly coated veneer of civilization, still maintained its mining camp mentality at its heart. The saloons, brothels, gambling dens and theaters remained open nearly all night every day of the week catering to the myriad tastes of residents and visitors alike.
Natalia's fiancé paused outside the Beacon to look up and down the main thoroughfare as he lit a cigar. She watched him as his eyes scanned the street for signs of trouble and she felt a rush of desire for him which she had to quickly tamp down as such things were unseemly in public. As a young man, he had exhibited confidence and strength – two qualities that caused her to be smitten with him – but now, as a grown man seasoned by experience and maturity, he was intoxicating.
"There's the reverend," he said, pointing his head. Natalia saw the dark-suited man striding rapidly toward them along the board walk.
"Anything of note?" Nicky asked.
Josh dipped his hat toward Natalia, then answered, "Richardson said the package came by way of Charlie Utter's messenger boy. I went to his place, but Charlie wasn't there."
"All right," Nicky said with a nod. "My thanks for your assistance tonight."
"No trouble at all, Gus," the reverend replied. "Olivia remains one of my most valued friends and I would do anything to help her, especially against that Satan's spawn Phillip Spaulding. Do you want me to wait for Charlie?"
"No," Nicky replied. "I'll look for him after I escort Natalia home."
"Then I'll bid my good night to you both," Josh said and with a small bow to Natalia walked quickly away toward his church.
As they continued to the boarding house, Natalia asked, "What will you do?"
Nicky paused before answering. "I'll ask Charlie and the sheriff to go with me in the morning to Spaulding Ranch. I doubt we'll find Phillip there, but I want to see what Alan has to say about this."
Natalia nodded, her mood growing somber as she thought about her future father-in-law. Alan Spaulding was one of the most powerful men she had ever met, even more so than her own father.
After making his fortune in Illinois, Alan had moved his operation west. Soon after Deadwood was annexed into the Dakota Territory, he had started buying up huge tracts of land around the Black Hills and built one of the largest ranches in the area. As well as being the prime stockholder in the newly formed Deadwood Central Railroad, he also was the main supplier of beef for Deadwood and the surrounding area, even as far as Yankton.
Physically, Alan was a big and imposing man who always dressed in the finest clothing shipped in from back east. When he first met the Riveras, he had contemptuously dismissed Natalia as a common whore and his grandson as a worthless bastard who was two steps away from the hangman's rope.
However, not long after Harley had left Deadwood with Nicky in pursuit, Alan had shown up at her room at Shaunessey's offering her his financial support as well as a home for her and Rafael at his ranch. He had even offered to let them have one of the outlying buildings off of the main house for their own. Natalia had refused, not trusting the man's motives, certainly not when Nicky himself did not trust his own father.
Alan had taken her refusal graciously, but Natalia could see a steely glint of anger in his eye that indicated she had made a wise decision. Since then, Alan had always made a point of seeking her out when he was in town, whether she was at work or with Nicky. His manner was friendly, but slightly disturbing, so Natalia felt she always had to remain on her guard.
"I shall worry for your safety on the morrow, Nicky," she told him.
He smiled at her. "All shall be well, my dear," he told her as he clamped his cigar in his mouth. "Now, let's get back to Company so that I may bid you a proper good night."
Wandering through the back alleys near the Chinese section of Deadwood, Rafe pulled his coat tighter against himself to ward off the dropping temperature of the autumn evening. His money pouch jingled satisfyingly with coins hard-won at dice. He had been playing with some Mexican cowboys from Texas camped just outside of town. They were leaving the next day to drive a herd of Spaulding cattle to Yankton for slaughter, so Rafe felt safe enough in chancing his good fortune and it had paid off. The vaqueros had thought him an easy mark; his Spanish dialect and accent branded him an island Hispanic and in their eyes that made him an easy fleece.
Rafe chuckled at the memory of their anger when he ended up with their days' wages and more in his pouch. They had thought to take it back from him by force, but it was only his unflinching declaration that he was the grandson of their patrón that had stopped them. They let him go with a warning that if they found out he wasn't the bastardo he said he was, he would die when they returned. Rafe laughed again, already thinking about hustling them when they got back to town. He knew they would want to recoup their losses from tonight and they wouldn't stand a chance.
Coming around a corner, his boots crackling through the thin crust of frost coating the mud, he heard the squealing of excited hogs. As he walked, he saw a stout middle-aged Chinese man incongruously dressed in a Western suit and wearing a Mandarin cap. The bearded man glared at him, then, as Rafe drew near, held out one hand.
"No!" he spat in a heavy accent. "You go, cocksucka!"
Rafe stopped. Although he hadn't encountered him before, he recognized the Chinese as Mr. Wu, the leader of the Celestials.
"Fine, whatever," he said with a shrug and turned to walk past the pen.
Wu stepped to block his path and jabbed a finger in the direction Rafe had come.
"That way, cocksucka!" he said, giving another jab in emphasis.
Rafe narrowed his eyes in anger and thought of telling the chink to go fuck himself. His father was a U.S. marshal and a Spaulding and no chink, no matter how much influence he had, had the right to insult him like that. His breath quickened, but then the image of the expression on his mother's face whenever she found out he had gotten into a fight appeared in his mind and he took a step back.
"Come mierda y muérete, hijo de puta," he said and, hoping the son of a bitch did indeed choke to death on his own pigs' shit, he turned and walked the other way, leaving Wu to his grunting hogs.
Natalia was tired, but content as Nicky escorted her to her room at the Company boarding house. She opened the door and stepped inside, moving quickly to light the oil lamp. The room was sparsely furnished. A table and chair served as her combination dressing and writing desk, a stand for her water basin, a worn wardrobe for her clothes, a long mirror and a small bed. She didn't mind her Spartan living conditions; she was used to much less and preferred to spend her free time downstairs socializing with the customers. The light from the lamp cast a warm glow over the room and she turned to smile at Nicky.
"May I come in?" he asked.
"For a moment only," she replied and pushed the door closed behind him, but did not lock it. She moved to her dressing table and poured them both a shot of whiskey, mentally commanding herself this was the last one for her for the evening. Nicky dropped his hat on the table and threw back his shot. Natalia took a small sip and then placed her glass back on the table.
"I enjoyed your company this evening, Nicky," she said, her smile widening to show him her sincerity.
"And I yours, Natalia," he replied and took her hand to pull her closer.
Natalia felt the familiar rush of yearning for him as Nicky took her in his arms and kissed her, first lightly, but then with more passion. Natalia wrapped her arms around Nicky's neck and pressed her body closer against his. She opened her mouth, welcoming him inside and enjoying the taste of whiskey on his breath.
Before she realized what was happening, Nicky had pushed her back until her legs bumped against the bed. Already weak, her knees gave out and she sat down heavily. Nicky tried to press her back on the bed, but through the fog of ardor she remembered her vow and pushed against his chest until he relented.
"No, Nicky," she gasped out as she tore her lips from his.
Nicky fell to his knees in front of her and held her tight as he nuzzled her breasts. Natalia ran her fingers through his hair as she allowed him to indulge himself, enjoying the sensation. Nicky pushed aside her bodice and began to suckle gently against her nipples, laving them eagerly with his tongue. Natalia again allowed him a few moments, but then pushed him back. He looked up at her with lust-filled eyes.
"No, Nicky," she said again, this time more firmly. "Remember your promise."
"I know, but God damn it, Natalia, I want you so," he said.
"I know," she said. "I want you, too, but we can't…not until after the wedding," she said as she stood up from the bed and rearranged her bodice.
Nicky sat back on his heels and breathed deeply. Finally, he rose to his feet and finished off Natalia's whiskey shot. "All right, Natalia," he said, his voice hoarse with his barely restrained lust. "I'll go for now, but soon you'll be my wife and won't be in a position to deny me."
Natalia gave him a slow smile. "Who claims I'd even want to?"
Nicky laughed and inwardly Natalia breathed a sigh of relief. She held open the door for him and gave him another warm smile as he passed over the sill. "Sleep well and may your dreams be happy ones, Nicky."
"They will all be of you, I'm sure," he said and placed his hat on his head. With a tip of the brim, he said, "Good night," and walked quickly down the corridor.
After locking the door, she went to the window and watched as Gus left the boarding house. He turned to walk down the street, obviously not heading for home, but he was probably going to seek out Mr. Utter, suspecting that Nicky would not get any sleep at all this night, despite his assurances.
After he disappeared from her view, she closed the curtains tightly and began to disrobe, feeling the weariness settle into her bones now that her very long day was coming to an end. As she reached for her shift, she caught a glimpse of her naked form in the mirror.
Her nipples were red and swollen from Nicky's attention and as she cupped her breasts in both hands, they hardened even more, pressing deliciously against her palms as she squeezed. Already aroused from earlier, she groaned in response to her own touch. Still keeping her gaze in the mirror, she backed up until she was once again sitting on her bed. Leaning back on one hand, she spread her legs and ran the fingers of her other hand through her soaking sex.
As her fingers worked between her legs, Natalia continued to watch herself, the sight of her heaving breasts and moving hips turning her on even more. As her hand moved faster, she finally had to close her eyes and her head dropped backward. Unable to hold herself up longer, she fell against the bed. She lifted both legs on to the edge of the bed and pushed her hips up so she could plunge two fingers of her now-free hand inside herself.
"¡Ay Dios!" she whispered into the quiet room, the only other sound that of the wet noise of her pleasure. She felt her sex begin to clench and as an unbidden image of a pair of verdant eyes entered her mind, she came with a muffled cry.
While her body tingled with the pleasant release, she thought about those green eyes again and made a determined effort to push the image firmly out of her mind. When her breathing returned to normal, she rose from the bed and quickly washed herself from the basin. Donning her discarded shift, she extinguished the lamp and crawled under the blankets. Within minutes, she fell into a contented sleep.
Outside of Wu's establishment, a figure dressed in black watched in satisfaction from the shadows as the hogs finished their meal. The pigs hadn't dined well this evening, but he was sure he would need to employ their services again soon.
Wu approached him and held out an imperious hand in demand. The man dropped a heavy pouch into it and Wu glanced inside. Apparently satisfied, Wu jabbed his finger the way he had done earlier with the young Mexican boy. The man nodded his agreement and placed his wide brimmed hat on his head to hide the pale yellow color of his hair. Climbing on to his horse, he rode quickly out of the alley.
As he rode past the Beacon, he hunched his shoulders to hide his features even more just on the chance Olivia was still awake. He gleefully suspected she might very well be after his little surprise. Turning to take the road out of town, he whispered to himself, "Soon, Emma darlin'. Soon."
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