1884, Delaware Bend, Texas
Lucky leaned against the far end of the bar in the Red River Saloon. He eyed the double swinging doors as he sipped red-eye. And he clicked a silver dollar back and forth, Lady Liberty to winged eagle.
He was bored, a natural product of watching and waiting. He was also fidgety, as if something was about to break. For distraction, he set aside the dollar and stroked the top of the legendary bar. A down-on-his-luck Eastern tenderfoot had traded art for whiskey and carved cavorting naked women into the mahogany. The shapeliest parts were worn smooth and shiny by appreciative patrons. Glasses and bottles sat at angles, but it was a small price to pay for beauty.
As Lucky watched the entrance, tracing face to breasts to thighs while imagining warm flesh responding under his fingertips, the swinging doors slammed open. A woman dressed in black from hat to boots stomped into the saloon. She held a small hatchet as she glared around the interior.
No longer bored, Lucky straightened and set down his glass. Instinctively, he dropped his left hand to the six-shooter riding low in a leather gun-belt strapped around his narrow hips.
“Sinners!” She strode right up to the bar, back straight as an arrow.
Patrons set down cards, drinks, smokes, and fell silent. They watched her with astonished expressions since ladies rarely graced the saloon with their presence.
“Repent your evil ways!”
Lucky doubted if a man in the place had felt he was on the path to perdition up to this point.
“Whiskey. Tobacco. Poker.” She raised her hatchet. “Think of your loved ones at home. Wives toiling alone from dawn to dusk. Little ones crying with hunger. Farms lost on the turn of a card. Have you no shame?”
Lucky looked over the swinging doors, but she appeared to be alone. He expected her to be with like-minded ladies, a flock of determined blackbirds. He couldn't imagine that she represented anything less wanted in Delaware Bend, one of the three wildest towns in the West. The Bend thrived on the Three W's.
Whiskey, women, and wagers
. If Temperance wasn't this lady's name, it ought to be.
“Please close this saloon at once.”
Lucky glanced behind the bar at Big Jim McMahon to see how the bartender was taking to the idea of shutting down the Red River Saloon on this woman's say-so.
“Lady, you got a beef with some man, go find him and give him the rough side of your tongue.” Big Jim crossed muscular arms across his broad chest. “This here is the finest saloon in the Bend and we don't want trouble.”
“I'm asking you politely in the name of the TSPT.”
“The what?” A puzzled frown crossed Big Jim's ruddy face. “You got something against saloons?”
“They're dens of iniquity, destroyers of manhood, and robbers of family finances.” She gripped her hatchet with two hands.
“Look, I wouldn't be caught dead in a ladies' tearoom, but that don't mean I'm going in one and haranguing the patrons.”
“You refuse to close this saloon?”
“That's the truth. And set down that ax afore you hurt yourself.”
She raised the hatchet up over her head, brought it down with all her might, and sank it deep into the top of the bar.
“Hornswoggle!” Big Jim cried out. “You chopped Lulu in half!”
“And I'll do it again!” She pulled at the hatchet, but the head was solidly embedded in the wood.
“Don't let her chop Aurora.” A poker player leaped to his feet and ran toward the bar.
“Or Prudence.” Another man ran after the first.
Lucky watched as the patrons clustered around Temperance, who was desperately trying to pull her hatchet free. She had no idea what she'd unleashed. Men rode from miles around to drink at this bar. They'd named the carved beauties and chosen their favorites. Some probably never got as close to a living, breathing woman. He wondered if the artist had modeled his art on the images of real women. Maybe the man would pass back through the Bend someday and answer that question.
“Ma'am, you're about to cause a riot in my saloon. You got no respect for private property or the sensibilities of others.” Big Jim put his hands flat on top of the bar and glared at her. “Best you get out of here right now.”
“You won't serve another drink after I chop this bar to bits.” She jerked harder on the ax and her hat slipped down over her eyes. She shook her head, causing the hat to fall off and hit the bar. A long strand of wheat-colored hair came loose from her tight chignon and dangled across one shoulder, a slight vulnerability at odds with her demeanor.
“We got a lot of respect for women,” Big Jim said, glancing around at the patrons, who were looking wilder by the moment, “but nobody'sâ”
“Killing our ladies!” they hollered as one.
At the sound, the woman glanced up and around, as if being roused from a dream. She met Lucky's gaze for a sliver of a second, but long enough to send a hot spark to his gut. She had eyes the color of delicate wood violets, but darkened with shadows of pain and fear. She was in trouble and knew it, but she was either irate or dumb or stubborn enough to hold her ground.
Once more, he wished he didn't live life on the outside looking in, seeing what others didn't see, knowing what others didn't know, rescuing what others didn't even know was in danger. He couldn't let this foolish woman get hurt.
He walked around the crush of men to the other end of the bar, where she still pulled on her hatchet. He caught the feminine scent of violet water. Made his pulse ratchet up a notch.
“You look in need of service.” He tipped his Stetson. “Allow me to assist you.” He picked up her hat and set it on her head.
Large violet eyes set in a heart-shaped face focused on him.
. He didn't think he'd ever had the fortune to see a more beautiful or innately sensual woman. Yet she was a hell of a lot more than that. He just didn't know what. Not many people could keep a secret from him. But she was doing it, as if she'd had long practice.
She was a mystery he wanted to solve. First, why was she so determined to conceal her beauty? Right clothes, right smile, right simper, and she could have any man she wanted any which way she wanted him. So what was she doing playing with fire instead of making fire with a doting husband? Second, she didn't belong in the Bend, so what was she doing with a hatchet in the Red River Saloon? Third, why did he feel as if she was going to change his life?
He didn't like any of his questions. And he didn't like her pushing her way into his world as if she had a right to be there. But he knew just as well that his likes or dislikes weren't going to make a damn bit of difference.
She set her rosy lips in a tight line and tilted up her pointed chin so she looked down her small nose at him. If that action was an attempt to discourage or intimidate him, it had the opposite effect. A challenge brought out the beast in him. He let his gaze wander over her with a blatant lack of courtesy.
She was only a couple of inches shorter than he. Tall and long-legged like a colt. He'd developed an eye for seeing through the subterfuge of women's clothes. She was corseted within an inch of her life, padded with layers of petticoats, and covered with bombazine. Yet he could tell she was curvy in the right places with plenty to fill a man's hands. Would her breasts feel like melons or peaches? Would her nipples be large or small, rosy or tawny? Questions like that could keep a man awake at night.
“Are you finished looking?” She spoke in a husky voice with a touch of sexy drawl. Not a deep South accent, but something closer to East Texas.
He smiled, allowing the dimple in his cheek to show. “You can't blame a man's admiration.”
“I suppose you mean that scandalous bar.” She looked back down at her ax and jerked hard again.
“I'd never dispute a lady's word.” He covered her hands with his own and felt her heat through the leather of her black gloves. She felt soft and strong at the same time, as if she were made for bed sport. “Allow me to help.”
“Please let go.”
He pressed, feeling her hands grow hotter. “Do you wish me to remove your hatchet or not?”
She gave him a narrow-eyed look, and then pulled her hands away.
He got a good grip on the handle, put his shoulders into it, and jerked the ax free.
“Thank you.” She reached for the hatchet.
“Outside.” He held her ax high, headed for the swinging doors, and figured she'd follow.
“Wait!” She hurried after him. “I have work to do.”
“Not here you don't.”
He pushed through the doors and held them open for her. When she joined him on the boardwalk, he glanced back. Big Jim stood behind the doors so she couldn't get into the Red River Saloon.
“I appreciate your help. Now I'd like my hatchet.”
Lucky was distracted by a racket up the street, tambourines rattling and women singing. He looked twice before he could believe his eyes. A band of black-clad women marched with a wide banner that proclaimed T
OCIETY FOR THE
The ladies without tambourines carried hatchets.
He turned to the violet-eyed beauty. “Friends of yours?”