A Fortune for the Outlaw's Daughter(9)

By: Lauri Robinson



 * * *

 Cole cursed as he attempted to roll the wooden barrel up the ramp. The contents inside refused to shift, making the barrel roll back toward him rather than flipping over and rolling up the ramp. Too big around to heft onto his shoulder, he squatted and put all his strength into a hefty shove. It rolled, and Cole hurried upward pushing continuously to keep the momentum going. When it finally topped the ramp, he was breathing hard and calling Robbie a few choice words. Cole had no idea what might be in the barrel, but the scratchy writing, as if someone had used the burned end of stick, saying “the Mary Jane” told him Robbie had agreed to ship whatever the barrel contained.

 After it quit rocking, he flipped the barrel on end. The faint morning light showed one more set of scratchy writing. “This side up.” After rolling it up the hill, flipping the barrel onto its other end was simple. He toppled it end for end and then paused to swipe the sweat from his brow as he glanced around, having sworn he’d heard a muffled moan.

 “Cole!” Robbie waved from the dock. “Come help with this luggage, would you?”

 Glad to leave the barrel where it sat, Cole headed back down the gangplank. Robbie could take the barrel below, into the cargo hull; that would be easy as the ramp was downhill. Arriving at his brother’s side, Cole’s jaw tightened at all the tapestry bags and traveling trunks. Disgusted with the “cargo” Robbie had lined up, Cole shook his head. “We aren’t a passenger ship.”

 “We’ve already gone over that. Alaska isn’t yours. People can move there if they want to.” Robbie grinned. “Especially paying the price those ladies agreed to pay.”

 Letting his snort tell his brother exactly what he thought of hauling a dozen dance-hall girls to Alaska, Cole grabbed a trunk and headed back up the ramp.

 Robbie, with a couple of carpetbags in each hand bounded up beside him. “Could make for an interesting trip.”

 Scowling, Cole answered, “Interesting isn’t the word I was thinking. Don’t you remember anything from family picnics? When you get more than three women in a room, there’s bound to be a fight. A dozen of them will be dangerous. Ugly, too.”

 “Not one of those gals is ugly,” Robbie argued. “Trust me, big brother.”

 Cole didn’t bother with an answer; instead, he declared, “We sail within an hour. If your ladies aren’t here, we aren’t waiting.”

 “They’ll be here,” Robbie assured. “They’ll be here.”

 Unfortunately, Robbie was right. The women arrived before the mounting stack of luggage had been carried into the hull. The area had been transformed by all sorts of furniture the ladies were paying to have transported. Dressed in outfits and covered in face paint that left their profession in no doubt, the women marched aboard, waving and blowing kisses at the few mates it took to run the Mary Jane.

 Mainly a cargo ship, the Mary Jane only had a few cabins—Robbie had explained that to the women, which was why a portion of the hull had been transformed to make the trip as comfortable as possible. Robbie had set that all up, too, and Cole had been a bit surprised when Uncle Trig had agreed to it.

 Trig had, though. In the end, his uncle had been the one to convince Cole there was as much profit to be made off those women as any other cargo they’d haul. It wasn’t that Cole didn’t appreciate a woman now and again, he just didn’t have time for the problems that came along with them. Rachel had been a headache from the get-go. Telling him what to do, what to wear. She’d partnered up with his mother, too, trying to make sure he never took to the sea. When he’d told Rachel he wasn’t interested in gaining access to Gran’s fortune, but in finding his own, she’d run to his mother again, bawling. The two of them hounding him nonstop had been more than he could take. He’d left despite the fact Rachel and his mother were planning a wedding.

 His.

 Women wanted nothing more than to rule a man. That would never happen to him. He’d be in charge of his own life.

 Cole set down the last trunk, and as he turned, ready to make his exit up the hull ramp, a head of coal-black hair caught his attention. His heart kicked the inside of his chest, making the air in his lungs rattle. The woman turned around to face him, grinning, and he experienced a wave of disappointment. Or perhaps relief. He’d wondered about Maddie since she’d left the boat on Uncle Trig’s arm. She’d waved and he’d tipped the brim of his hat, but had wondered how she was getting along at Mrs. Smother’s. Maddie just didn’t seem like the domestic-servant type.

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