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Chapter One

Louisville, Kentucky
June 1870

Brennen Benedict smiled as he stashed the bills inside his leather tri-fold. He had little need for the dilapidated ferry he’d won in a card game last fall. On the other hand, the drunkard’s family had been more than anxious to recoup their floundering business.
A tidy profit tacked on for me, of course.
With a chuckle, he slid the wallet into the breast pocket of his brown silk cutaway. His fingers bumped the deed to land he’d won from another unfortunate novice at the same table, reminding him of his next stop. Owning property in Kentucky, or anywhere else up north, held little appeal.
When he reached Owensborough, he’d make arrangements with a lawyer to sell the acreage.
Whistling, Brennen left the ferry’s shabby office and stepped into the sweltering dankness of an upper-south mid-afternoon.
Wagons and rail lines clogged the roads leading into the thriving metropolis. As he walked toward shore, he grimaced. The air reeked of fish, oil machinery, and scores of odorous dock workers.
Unlike the luckless bastards who toiled for a living, his gaming rarely raised a sweat. In the five years since the damned war had stolen everything he’d owned, he’d gone to great lengths to ensure the hardships of life remained in his past.
Brennen nodded at several workers as he sidestepped thick ropes coiled across the dock. He peered over the side of the walkway toward the massive posts sunk into the river’s muddy bank. Water splashed against thousands of freshwater mussels that clung to the dock’s supports.
Tenacious…much like me.
A rumbling drew his gaze to the stretch of rapids near the opposite bank. The treacherous currents in the two-mile “falls of the Ohio” drove river traffic to the Kentucky side, the natural design proving advantageous for an ever-growing community. Even during the war, when most southern ports had crumbled, the state’s neutrality paid great dividends as Louisville flourished.
Loyalty-lacking bastards.
Brennen squelched the thought, aware his animosity, however small, was comforting nonetheless. Nowadays, these Yankee sonsofbitches bled their purses dry at his card table, while whiskey held the remainder of his sorrow at bay.
Gaming filled his mighty coffers. Again, Brennen smiled. His accounts were now stuffed to overflowing in a half-dozen private banks along the Mississippi River; money and women, both, easily acquired. For him, no more pain, no envy, no worry…indeed, the hard-won ABC’s of his life.
He smirked, settling his gaze on the floating palace moored at the end of the dock. The Robert E. Lee, his home away from home, if his rarely visited apartment in New Orleans could even be called such. Built in Cincinnati several years ago, the irony of the paddle wheeler’s name had not been lost on him.
Regardless, like the venerable general whose moniker the ship bore, the vessel still proved strong. A fact confirmed last month when the great riverboat displayed exceptional speed and agility against the newer Natchez during a race between the Crescent City businessmen and entrepreneurs in St. Louis. The old gent claimed victory as he puffed into the Missouri port six hours before the youngster, confirming once again that age does make for an all-around better ride. Having been aboard the esteemed riverboat during the now-famous run, Brennen could attest to that truth. Of course, the whore who’d ridden atop him for half that night also would agree.
Still, the prospect of soon turning forty made him long for his youth in Richmond before the war had changed him into the heartless bastard he was now.
The steamboat’s whistle jerked him from his musings. Dark clouds billowed upward from the two colossal smokestacks that centered the great ship.
Brennen headed toward the footbridge where dozens of people boarded. Not a minute to spare.
The vessel’s piercing whistle cleaved the air.
Shit. He picked up his pace. Halfway down the dock, he caught sight of six Catholic nuns heading toward the steamboat. Swathed in black serge from head to toe, their loose-fitting garments, and face-framing get-ups reminded him of the Ursulines of New Orleans. Similar in nature and appearance, they approached with unfaltering footsteps, sunlight glinting off the metal crosses dangling down the front of their shoulder-covering white collars. On occasion, shimmers reflected from metal rosaries’ suspended from their waists.
Ursuline…Latin for a little female bear.
An apt portrayal of these half-dozen patrollers for God. He stifled a laugh, then stepped back as the procession led by an elderly abbess marched onto the gangplank. A gust lifted their heavy veils, revealing snow-white linen coifs that hugged their heads. As each nun passed, he tipped his wide-brimmed planter’s hat. Not one vestal responded…except for the petite she-bear at the rear of the pack.
She raised her head and glanced his way.
Stunned, he could only stare. In all his days he’d never seen a more beautiful face. Pale, polished skin. A straight nose. And dark brows that rode above lushly lashed green eyes.
A connoisseur of beautiful women, Brennen smiled.
Rosebud-pink lips curved in glorious acknowledgment.
What the hell?
The hair on the back of his neck prickled. Heart hammering, Brennen swallowed. Then blinked. Shit! What the hell was he doing flirting with a bride of Christ?
Humor touched her mouth, and she lowered her head, stepping up onto the walkway. He dropped his gaze in time to spot a black-and-white striped stocking that ended inside her side-buttoned leather boot. An oddly stylish and expensive selection for a nun, but what did he know?
Maybe this particular order allowed for the secular side of life.
Brennen moved into place behind her, towering almost a foot above the off-limits beauty. Entering the Robert E. Lee amidship, he withdrew his ticket. Move along ladies. Time’s a’wasting.
He preferred sitting at the gaming table near the bar during his voyages and hoped his favorite chair against the wall remained available. When he played, he never let his guard down or sat with his back to a room. Cards did something to a man. A gentle soul, when losing a life’s fortune on a reckless bet, could just as easily crumble into tears as reach for a gun. Since the war’s end, he was a man who kept the odds in his favor.
The nuns stopped, and he nearly plowed into the sister whose smile had bedazzled his soul. His shadow fell across the swells and folds of her draping black veil. As hard as he tried to refuse the thought, the image of her mesmerizing gaze haunted his mind.
As green as a new spring day…eyes a man could drown in.
Waves slapped the side of the steamboat as the patrons ahead boarded the vessel.
With a nod, Brennen handed his ticket to the attendant. “Afternoon, Elias.”
“Welcome back, Mista Benedict,” the elderly porter replied. “Get yo’ business settled in Louisville?”
“That I did.”
The worker gestured toward the stern. “Games will begin as soon as we leave the dock, sir. Enjoy your stay.”
“I always do, my friend.” Brennen straightened his cuffs, then chanced a final glance at the breathtaking nun. A bright light in his otherwise river-of-darkness life. And another reminder of his hell-bound fate, no doubt.
As if summoned, she glanced at him over her shoulder. The pretty smile returned.
Brennen touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgment.
A bright light, indeed.
Black lashes lowering, the good sister turned right and followed the others toward the bow of the riverboat.
He, on the other hand, turned left and headed toward the heathen crowd collecting in the devil’s lair near the stern. His stride wide, he slid a hand along the polished railing. The mountains he moved these days didn’t require much work.
A mere turn of the cards and he raked in his winnings.
One day at a time…and all planned my way.
For him, belief in any kind of destiny had died on the bloody battlefields of Virginia.

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