Tempest Templeton blinked in astonishment. She was struck speechless by the man, the situation, and the violence she'd just committed in the Red River Saloon. First time in her twenty-seven years that she'd raised a hand to anyone or anything. Yet her anger had been simmering for over a year, fueled by the sting of fear and rejection. The sight of men happily tossing back liquor had been like setting a lit match to dry kindling. She had blazed up with righteous indignation.
She'd felt divinely inspired to shock the sinners and chop the bar. But she'd felt mortal enough when her hatchet had stuck and the patrons had descended on her, fury in their eyes. She could only imagine that they were desperately lonely men to be so attached to artistic representations of women. Another example of the deleterious effect of saloons on men. The patrons' time would have been much better spent in churches or cafÃ©s where they could meet real women.
And then there was the heartbreaker. He stared at her with unrelenting focus, waiting for her response. She didn't owe him anything, except maybe thanks for retrieving her hatchet and distracting the patrons. He was probably accustomed to women falling at his feet, but she was made of sterner stuff.
She held his gaze, determined not to fall into the magic of eyes the color of aged whiskey, dark amber that hinted at long nights and languid desires, framed by long, black lashes. A shiver slithered up her spine in response to his unspoken questions.
Dare to enter my world? Dare to play erotic games? Dare to replace anger with lust?
She looked away first, breaking their connection, although she hated to give ground in a contest of wills. Yet she had to dispel the cloudiness of her mind and the heat enveloping her body. She focused on his beauty, searching for a fatal flaw. He wore his thick, dark hair a little long under his cowboy hat. He shaved, so the light bronze color of his smooth skin gleamed in the light and revealed the strong features of his face with high cheekbones and aquiline nose. But his mouth told the true tale of his sensuality, for his lips were full, chiseled, rose-tinted, with just the hint of a smile quirking one corner as if he mocked or dared her.
Not one to back down from a challenge, she straightened her spine to her full height of five-six. He was probably accustomed to young ladies who must look way up to him, but he was only a few inches taller than she. Yet he packed a lot into his lithe body. Broad shoulders. Narrow hips. Long legs. Plenty of muscle. He wore a double-breasted blue shirt, blue jeans, and scuffed cowboy boots. A deadly six-gun rode low in a holster on his right hip.
If there was a negative about him, she couldn't see it in his perfect body. Yet his soul was revealed in the demon drink color of his eyes. Amoral? Immoral? Lascivious? With everything handed to him on a silver platter because of his beauty, how could he be anything else? He embodied the demon lover every mother warned her daughter to resist, not only for her chastity but for her very soul.
Tempest's chastity was still well intact at a time when it should have been long gone. A handsome man had rejected what she'd always been told was her most precious gift. Now her chastity felt like a burden rather than a gift.
She'd learned the hard way that handsome men brought disillusionment, heartache, and abandonment. If she was ever to give her heart away again, it would be to a plain man. Never to one like the heartbreaker who watched her now.
“Your friends?” he prodded.
“Yes.” She focused on the funeral pace of the TSPT marchers. “Now that I've been stymied in my effort to bring enlightenment to the saloon, I'll rejoin the march and the pursuit of my goals.”
“Good idea. Even better, take your enlightenment to the Red River and drown it.”
She tossed him a narrow-eyed look. “You, sir, are impertinent.”
“Lady, I've been called a lot of things, but that's a word that won't leave a mark on my hide.”
He stepped closer. “You're getting more interesting. I know some words I'd like to hear from your lips.”
She raised her chin, suspecting that he might be alluding to words unmentionable to a lady.
This near, she could smell him. Leather. Sage. Citrus. His scent conjured up feelings of strength, clarity, and something undefined. Not that she needed definition. He was obviously an uncouth, know-it-all cowboy too long off the range. He belonged nowhere in her world of refinement, dedication, and enlightenment. Most likely, no man did.
As her friends marched in front of the Red River Saloon, she was more than ready to rejoin them.
“Hey, you blasted females,” Big Jim called as he pushed open the saloon doors and stalked outside. “You better pay for the damage to my bar.”
Tempest glanced at him in shock and horror. Damage? Payment? How dare he? She had cast a blow for womenfolk the world over, and he had the audacity to complain because it had happened in his saloon.
The heartbreaker stepped down beside her. “Delaware Bend isn't like most Texas towns. Folks are proud of their so-called sins and vices.”
“That's why enlightenment is most needed here.”
“No. That's why you're in big trouble.”
“Stop!” Big Jim stomped big feet in high-heeled cowboy boots out to the edge of the boardwalk. “You ornery calicos owe me. Pay up!” He shook his meaty fist at Tempest, and then at the other TSPT members.
“What are you doing?” Tempest reached out to stop the saloon-keeper from interfering in the march.
Big Jim brushed her aside, leaped off the boardwalk, and strode over to the front of the group. He grabbed their satin banner, tossed it to the ground, and ground it into the dirt with his boot.
The ladies bunched up together like sheep before a wolf, but maintained a brave front.
“Which one of you is the leader?” Big Jim demanded.
“I'm Mrs. Bartholomew, President of the TSPT.” A pink-cheeked and pleasingly plump lady stepped forward. She wagged a finger. “You, sir, are in danger of having your mouth washed out with soap. As you can plainly see, you are in the presence of ladies.”
“Then act like it.”
Mrs. Bartholomew put a hand to her impressive bosom and staggered back, appearing shocked by his words.
“If I was you,” Big Jim boomed, “I'd give second thoughts to collapsing on the Bend's main street. It's a far cry from a lady's fainting couch.” He scuffed dirt with the toe of his boot. “Men throw up their guts and horses empty their bladders out here.”
Mrs. Bartholomew steadied on her feet, and then adjusted her hat as if for battle.
Tempest regretted the situation, knowing she was to blame. She wished she'd never heard of the Red River Saloon.
“Better pay him off.”
She felt the heartbreaker's breath stir tendrils of her hair against the sensitive whorls of her ear. She shivered, caught for a moment in the web of his tantalizing spell as she basked in the scent of him, the power of his presence, the heat of his body. She stepped away, realizing that her heart beat faster from his nearness than from the confrontation in the street.
“That saloon is Big Jim's pride and joy.”
He chuckled, a low, sensual sound.
She glanced up into his eyes and frowned into the amber depths. “It's not funny.”
“If a man melted the starch off you, I bet he'd get a hot-blooded woman.”
“Maybe he'd get a slug between his eyes.”
“Not unless he was real slow on the draw.” He held out his hand, a smile revealing a dimple in his left check. “Name's Lucky. I'm pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“I don't shake hands with strangers.”
you do with strangers?” He lifted her hand to his lips, pressed a gentle kiss to her knuckles, and then placed a longer kiss to her palm.
Fortunately, she was wearing gloves, so she didn't experience the touch of his bare flesh. She jerked her hand away, feeling flushed and irritated by his existence. He was dangerous in too many ways.
“You didn't tell me your name.”
“No need. I'm rejoining my friends and never seeing you again.” He shook his head as if to discount her words. “Life is like a river. You've hit an eddy and landed on my shore.”
“I sincerely doubt it.”
“Tempest!” Mrs. Bartholomew called. “What have you done to this man's place of business?”
She felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. How could something so right have gone so wrong?
“How-do, Miss Tempest,” Lucky said. “Need some help?”
“I believe the TSPT can easily handle this situation.” She held out her hand, palm up. “What I need from you is my hatchet.”
“You ever need something else, let me know.” He placed the ax in her hand, but didn't let go.
“Thank you.” As she gripped the handle, she felt the heat and strength of him radiating to her through nothing more than his fingertips. She shivered, doubting that she'd ever met a more compelling man.
“What's keeping you?” Mrs. Bartholomew called again.
She pulled the hatchet away, breaking their connection. She took a deep breath and stepped off the boardwalk, putting one reluctant foot in front of the other. She felt surrounded by disaster, but that was no new experience. She swallowed against a rising need to simply sit down and cry her heart out.
Instead, she walked toward whatever was to come.
Despite his better judgment, Lucky felt sorry for Tempest. She was trouble, but he was beginning to suspect that she was his trouble . . . at least for the moment.
He watched Big Jim and Mrs. Bartholomew focus on Tempest like two vultures waiting for supper. As the disgraced lady walked up to them, she straightened her shoulders and raised her chin. She was courageous, but a jutting chin fairly begged to be clipped.
He'd like to know her background. She wasn't off some hardscrabble farm or from a wild town like the Bend. No matter her current actions, she was obviously born and bred a lady. She reminded him of the pampered belles they still turned out in New Orleans or over in Jefferson in East Texas. At one time, the two cities were connected by riverboats, cotton, gamblers, and their complementary Mardi Gras and Queen Mab festivals.
Belles like Tempest could turn a man hot and needy with one look. He could testify to the fact that she had honed that skill to a fine art. His blue jeans had shrunk a size since he met her. He needed relief from the pressure of his prick, but he doubted he'd get it any time soon.
He knew for a fact that belles expected to be respected, appreciated, and obeyed. He grinned at that idea. Around here, no self-respecting man or woman was much inclined to grant those particular favors without a damn good reason.
Big Jim didn't have a damn good reason, or any other one, to go easy on Tempest. She was about to find out that he gave as good as he got.
If pride didn't get in her way, she might be able to talk her way out of her situation, but he wouldn't bet on it.
Lucky stepped off the boardwalk, noted a few bystanders roused from their saloons by the ruckus, and ambled toward the group of blackbirds clustered around Big Jim and Mrs. Bartholomew. Tempest faced them alone, her back to the Red River Saloon. He didn't much care for her odds. Even more, he didn't care to see judgment called by the many against the few.
He stopped just behind and to the right of Tempest, so his right hand was free, warning the blackbirds not to get too rowdy with their hatchets.
“Lucky, this ain't your quarrel,” Big Jim said. “You saw what she did to my bar. She ought to be glad I'm willing to take recompense from her group and not send her to jail.”
“I didn't know the Bend had a jail.” Lucky glanced up and down Main Street, wondering how he'd missed something like that. “Or a town marshal.”
“Don't. Not official like. Marshals come and go, mostly go. Got a room over at the Lone Star Hotel that Saul keeps as a jail. Men who imbibe beyond their limits can sleep it off there.”
“I never heard of a jail in a hotel,” Mrs. Bartholomew said. “If he's coddled, how can a man learn to right his ways?”
“Outlaws don't stay in the Bend,” Big Jim said. “First sign of trouble, they hightail it to Indian Territory.”
“I stand by my actions,” Tempest said, “jail or no jail.”
“I'm backing Tempest's play.” Lucky spread his feet to gain more balance in case one of the blackbirds flew at him or Big Jim threw a punch.
“This is none of your concern.” Tempest tossed him an irritated look.
“You shock me.” Mrs. Bartholomew heaved a loud sigh. “I've treated you as my own daughter. Now I learn you are acquainted with a gunslinger.”
“I'm not,” Tempest said.
“Then why is that man standing beside you as if he'd as soon shoot us as look at us?”
“I have no idea.”
“This is ridiculous.” Mrs. Bartholomew adjusted her black hat. “I do not care to be lied to. If he is not your friend, you must have hired him.”
“Let's just say I like to even lopsided odds.” Lucky twitched his hand beside his S&W .44. “Comes with my heritage.”
Mrs. Bartholomew's eyebrows went up in surprise, and then she looked him up and down. “Surely you're not, and I mean no disrespect, a Redskin?”
Lucky smiled, letting her wonder like he let a lot of people. He usually passed for French out of New Orleans, which was true, but the blood of the vanquished Atlahtaw Nation, as well as the Choctaw, also ran strong in his veins. He shared the heritage that mattered most to him with few outside his clan, and certainly not with strangers.
“If so, you poor dear man. I thought the Indians had all been run out of Texas. I want to assure you that not everyone has forsaken the tribes to demon drink. After Delaware Bend, we're going to cross the Red River into Indian Territory and bring awareness about the illicit whiskey being sold to those too weak in mind and body to resist the temptation.”
Lucky sighed. He shouldn't have alluded to his Indian heritage. It could set off do-gooders. Too often their goals turned into control of others, particularly Indians, and in the process gained them money and power.
“This has nothing to do with Lucky,” Tempest said. “Who cares if he's Indian or German or freedman? We came here with hatchets and I used mine.”
“My dear,” Mrs. Bartholomew said gently, “I don't know how you could have gotten the wrong idea. We are demonstrators, not destroyers. Our hatchets are symbolic. Others may use extreme measures to get their word across to the public, but we're not barbaric in Texas.” She glanced around the group. “At least, not anymore.”
“Now that the Indians are gone?” Big Jim asked, frowning.
“If I have been insensitive in any way, and for all the wrongs that have been done to the Red race, I apologize.” Mrs. Bartholomew dabbed at her eyes with a white handkerchief.
“You got the wrong idea,” Big Jim said. “We get full-bloods and mixed-bloods in the Bend all the time. Why do you think this place is called Delaware Bend?”
“I don't know.”
“Delaware Indians founded the town. They started the ferry between Texas and Indian Territory.”
“Good for them.” Mrs. Bartholomew smiled. “Give credit where credit is due, I always say.”
“Don't get us any closer to fixing my bar. Pay up.”
Mrs. Bartholomew shook her head, appearing regretful. “Tempest, you have acted in a headstrong manner without approval from the Texas Society for the Promotion of Temperance.”
“But I thoughtâ” Tempest started.
“As that is the case, the TSPT will not pay for the damage you caused to this man's bar. If a night in jail will satisfy him, then that is what you must do.”
“What!” Tempest appeared stunned.
“My dear.” Mrs. Bartholomew clasped Tempest's hand. “This hurts me more than it hurts you. Yet I must not weaken. This is your opportunity to learn prudence and to listen to your elders.”
Tempest jerked her hand free.
“I also regret that it is my duty to inform you that due to your actions, and the sanctity of our cause, you are no longer a member, or secretary, of the TSPT.”
Lucky doubted a federal judge would have handed down such a stiff sentence. He glanced at the others to see how it was affecting them. Tempest leaned back as if from a blow. Big Jim appeared shocked. The Blackbirds looked frightened.
“I stand by my actions, even if the TSPT doesn't support me,” Tempest said.
“I'll pay for the damage.” Lucky doubted there was any chance of fixing Lulu, so payment would be more symbolic than helpful to Big Jim.
“No, thank you.” Tempest glanced at him, her violet eyes full of anger and hurt.
“If you apologize, I'll let it go,” Big Jim said.
“I did what I believe is right. I'll serve jail time for the sake of my righteous cause.”
“This is getting out of hand.” Big Jim stomped a boot. “I've got a saloon to run. I don't have time for this foolishness.”
“Neither do we,” Mrs. Bartholomew said. “Do you agree that a sincere apology from the TSPT and an overnight jail sentence by the perpetrator will satisfy your sense of outrage and settle this matter once and for all?”
“Doubt the Bend's ever put a woman in jail,” Big Jim said. “I don't like it, not one bit.”
“Are we in agreement?” Mrs. Bartholomew demanded.
“Will the TSPT be leaving town?” Lucky asked.
“Immediately. Minus one former member.”
“I'd agree to her terms,” Lucky said. “Get it over with before it gets worse.”
Big Jim nodded.
“The TSPT regrets any inconvenience or monetary loss our former member caused you. As president, I sincerely apologize.”
“Apology accepted,” Big Jim said.
Mrs. Bartholomew turned to Tempest and held out her hand, palm up. “Please return your hatchet.”
Tempest slapped down the flat side of the ax head.
“I am sad that we must part this way. I suggest you return to your family and think on your actions.” She put her hand in her pocket, pulled out a silver coin, and held it out. “Here is a dollar to see you safely home.”
“I don't take charity.”
“You earned it.”
“In time, I hope you come to understand my actions.” Mrs. Bartholomew put the coin back in her pocket, then picked up a corner of the dusty, crumpled banner.
Other TSPT members helped raise their banner, and then they resumed their march down Main Street. Only this time, they moved silently and solemnly toward the Red River.
Lucky watched them go. He shook his head. There was no telling about folks. He just hoped he never had to hear another word about temperance.