Tempest watched the TSPT march away.
She felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. She desperately needed the silver dollar Mrs. Bartholomew had offered her. She should have taken it, no matter her principles. Now it was too late.
She was stuck in Delaware Bend with no money, no friends, no family, no nothing. Except a jail cell. At least she had a safe place to sleep for the night and maybe a hot meal. That'd give her a chance to come up with a plan. The TSPT had been her ticket to Indian Territory, where she had to go. Either that or return home in defeat to Jefferson, once famous as the largest inland port in Texas but now sadly in decline.
Grandma Elmira and Aunt Lamira depended on her for help. The menfolk in their family had died in the War Between the States, and the women like her mother had followed too soon. Now there were only the three of them.
If not for her affliction, she would have made a good marriage ten years ago at seventeen. Yet nobody had wanted her till a handsome stranger named Haig Colbert had come to town and captured her heart and her hand.
She'd found out the truth too late. He hadn't wanted her. He'd wanted her family's money. Behind her back, he'd talked Elmira and Lamira into giving him the last of their funds to invest in his business on the day he married Tempest. He hadn't left her at the altar. He'd run out on her at the reception.
She had given Haig a year to return, bringing love and gold and happiness. Not that she'd have taken him back into her heart, but she'd have taken what he owed her elders. Yet he'd never come back. She'd been left with no choice except to obtain a divorce.
Now she must find him and get their money. If she didn't, Elmira and Lamira would work themselves into an early grave. They'd struggled to make ends meet since he'd taken their life savings. They'd worked through the hot summer in the garden, canning vegetables, raising chickens, selling eggs, and making clothes. She'd worked alongside them, but nothing was ever quite enough.
At least now she knew Haig's location. News had spread to Jefferson that he had become an illegal whiskey peddler in Indian Territory. He'd hurt her family and he was hurting others with his demon drink. She wanted him out of business and behind bars where he couldn't hurt anybody else.
Yet she was in a precarious position. She'd been abandoned by the very women she'd thought would help her get to Indian Territory. She didn't know how she was going to survive, much less find Haig.
“If you hadn't hurt Lulu, we wouldn't be in this mess.” Big Jim shuffled his feet. “Go on down to the Lone Star Hotel and tell Saul I sent you for a night in jail.”
“You trust me to go there?” she asked.
“I want you out of my hair.”
“If you want me in jail, you should take me there.”
“Hornswoggle!” Big Jim glanced up and down the street, as if for deliverance. “If there was any doubt why we prefer our ladies carved into a bar, this is it.”
“Let me offer a solution,” Lucky said.
“I've got enough disturbance on my hands without you gettin' into the middle of it.”
“I'll escort Miss Tempest to jail while you soothe the ruffled feathers of your patrons. They're looking out of sorts.”
Tempest glanced around and noticed that they were the center of attention. Men watched from the front swinging doors of the Red River Saloon. Women dressed in calico listened from the boardwalk.
“I don't mean to cause so much trouble,” she said.
“You need an escort,” Lucky said. “As word spreads, you're going to be the most unpopular person in the Bend.”
“I better let them know she's going to jail.” Big Jim hooked a thumb at Tempest. “Make a citizen's arrest and get her out of sight. We don't want a necktie party on our hands.”
“But all I did wasâ” Tempest said.
Big Jim snorted, and then headed for the saloon.
Lucky tipped his hat. “Miss Tempest, let's get you off the street.”
“I suppose that's a good idea. I've never had so many people so upset with me.”
She set off toward the Lone Star Hotel, not sure if she felt angry, embarrassed, or caught in a trap. Maybe she was too tired and discouraged to know what she felt. When Lucky fell into step beside her, she was glad of his presence.
“I appreciate your help,” she said. “You've come to my rescue twice. Thank you.”
“You're welcome.” He offered her the crook of his elbow. “Let me escort you properly to the hotel.”
She clasped his arm, feeling his heat and strength. She wished she'd met him instead of Haig, but her groom had acted like a gentleman, too, so she'd learned to be cautious.
As they walked down the street together, she noticed that people stepped out of stores and saloons to watch them. She saw some point and whisper behind their hands. She felt more uneasy all the time.
“Do you make it a habit of rescuing damsels in distress?” she asked as she stepped up onto the boardwalk in front of a dry goods store.
He chuckled. “Was I rescuing you or the bar?”
“Put like that, I guess it's a good thing you saved Aurora.” She laughed, feeling better as she released pent-up emotion. “But Prudence? That's the last name in the world for one of those images.”
Lucky joined her laughter. “How could I not save them?”
“I don't think they were in much danger. I couldn't get that hatchet unstuck for the life of me.”
“You embedded it pretty deep.”
“I must have looked ridiculous.”
“No.” He put a large hand over her small one. “You looked beautiful. And righteous. That's a potent combination.”
She felt her breath catch in her throat as she gazed up at him. A woman could drown in his whiskey-colored eyes, for he was an intoxicating mix of gentleman, gunslinger, and trickster.
“What are you really doing in Delaware Bend?” he asked.
“A woman like you. A place like this. Makes no sense.”
“Does life always make sense?”
“Let me ask you the same question. What are you doing here?”
“For a lady?”
He reached up and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I wonder if you're the one.”
She tossed her head, dislodged his hand, and stepped away. “You are too familiar.”
“Forgive me.” He held out his elbow again. “Allow me to escort you to your jail cell.”
She hesitated, and then tucked her hand in the crook of his arm again. She must learn to adapt. She'd stepped into a world where she didn't know the rules, the players, or the place. She was vulnerable and knew it. Yet she wouldn't give up.
Lucky was obviously trouble, but she was beginning to think that he was
trouble . . . if she dared to be bad.
Lucky opened the door to the Lone Star Hotel and let Tempest precede him into the lobby. He watched her look around at the dÃ©cor that paid homage to the heritage of Texas. A pine staircase led to the second floor. Furniture sported brown and white steer hide for upholstery. Buffalo, bear, deer, and longhorn heads adorned the walls. The floor was scratched and gouged by cowboys' spur rowels. In one corner a stuffed black bear stood on hind legs and reached out with clawed paws.
He liked the place because it was simple, clean, and homey. He stayed here when he was in town. Yet he was still surprised that it also served as the Bend's jail. He doubted Tempest would think the hotel was good enough for her, but it'd have to do.
He didn't see Saul anywhere, so he walked over to the check-in desk, rang the bell, and waited. Tempest stood stoically beside him.
“Place is mostly quiet,” he reassured her. “Saul won't allow any shenanigans.”
“Maybe that's why he runs the jail.”
“Miss Tempest!” A compact man with a bushy black mustache and wearing a white shirt and black trousers hurried down the stairs. “Excuse me for keeping you waiting. It's unforgivable, but still I beg your pardon.”
Lucky turned to peer at Saul. He'd never seen the man so discombobulated or in such a hurry to accommodate somebody. Anyway, how did he know about Tempest?
“Saul Silver.” He stopped in front of Tempest and gave a deferential bow of his head. “I'm at your service for so long as you should care to grace the Lone Star Hotel. Gratis, of course.” He hurried behind his desk.
“Folks don't usually pay for a jail cell,” Lucky said, trying to figure out what was going on.
Saul tossed a frown at Lucky, and then smiled at Tempest. “Naturally, you're getting the best room in the house.”
“I thought I had it,” Lucky said.
“After I heard the news, I barely had time to move you.”
“You wouldn't expect Miss Tempest to stay in second best, would you?”
“I expect her to stay in the jail cell.”
“Not on your life.” Saul gave a quick stroke to his mustache. “Word spread around town about Big Jim's ungallant behavior.”
“She chopped Lulu in half. Isn't everybody mad?”
“A few, but they'll come around.”
“To what?” Lucky asked.
“It's been dull as dirt around here, lady wise, since Lady Gone Bad sang ballads and the Black Widow played poker in the Red River Saloon. Now this! Big Jim has all the luck. But I'm part of it.” Saul swiveled the register book toward Tempest and held out a pen. “Will you please sign as Temperance Tempest?”
“What?” Tempest glanced at Lucky in confusion.
“That's what everybody's calling you.” Saul winked. “Men'll be riding in from miles around to see that signature and sleep in her bed . . . after she's gone, of course. I'll have a big sign put on the door.
TEMPERANCE TEMPEST ROOM
Lucky shook his head. Life was never dull in the Bend. Maybe because the denizens wouldn't let it be.
Tempest covered her mouth with her hand, but chuckles escaped around her fingers.
“What about Big Jim's bar?” Lucky was unable to think of another thing to say since the situation was so crazy.
“Big confab over at the Red River Saloon. They're trying to figure out how to fix Lulu.”
“Couldn't they get the artist to help?” Tempest asked.
“Some Eastern tenderfoot carved the bar, drank his whiskey in payment, and left town,” Saul said.
“Where'd he go?” she asked.
“That's the trouble. Nobody knows.” Saul stroked his mustache. “And nobody much cared till today.”
“I doubt it's fixable,” Lucky said.
“Don't say that out loud,” Saul warned. “It's one thing for Miss Tempest to get the rough side of Big Jim's tongue and be abandoned by her temperance league. It's quite another to say the cut she put in Lulu can't be healed.”
“Okay,” Lucky said. “Not another word. I delivered Miss Tempest to the hotel and into your care. Now where's my room?”
“Next door to the Temperance Tempest Room.” Saul pointed toward the stairs. “If you'll see Miss Tempest to her new abode, I'll get Joseph to work on that sign. And Mama Lou will bring supper later.”
“Am I included in the vittles?” Lucky's stomach rumbled at the thought of good food.
Saul frowned. “No. It's courtesy of the hotel and Mama Lou's CafÃ© for Miss Tempest. But there'll probably be enough for two.”
“If you're hungry, I'll share,” Tempest said.
“Mama Lou's the best cook in town.” Saul hurried out from behind his desk. “I'll be back in a minute.” He stopped at the front door and looked back. “Oh, yes, Manny over at Manny's Stable said to tell you that he's got a gentle mare you can borrow anytime you need her.”
Lucky watched Saul hurry out the door, then turned back to Tempest. “Are you normally this lucky?”
“I've never had so many people be so kind to me. I wish now I hadn't hurt their bar,” she said wistfully. “Maybe it's because they don't know me.”
“More likely they recognize you as one of their own.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Bend is a town of outsiders, outlaws, and independents.”
“That's not me.”
He cocked his head, studying her. He didn't think she knew herself very well, or she'd lived her life according to society's rules till now. One day soon she might come to realize that she was no ordinary young lady. She appeared to draw out the best and the worst in people. That could be a gift or a curse, depending on how it influenced her or others.
She was a mystery he'd like to unravel, but he didn't have time to satisfy personal curiosity or pleasure. He was here to meet somebody and get a job done before it was too late.
“Let's get you settled upstairs,” he said.
“You've been kind to me. I'm sorry about your room. I don't expect the best. Anything will do. Let's go switch before Saul gets back.” She quickly headed for the stairs.
He watched her walk away with her long skirts swaying in a way that made a man stop thinking with the head on his shoulders.
Tempest waited at the top of the stairs. She didn't understand the sudden turn of events. How could she have gone from being the most unpopular woman in the Bend to the most popular? Did she really fit in here, as Lucky suggested? Maybe here on the edge of Texas where everything was changing, there was more leeway for people to follow their hearts.
“Last door on the left.” Lucky pointed as he joined her. “Guess I'm in the room next to you. There are only four other choices anyway.”
“What about a key?”
“There aren't any.”
“I won't be comfortable with an unlocked door.”
“Doubt Saul gets many ladies here. You can wedge the top of a chair under the doorknob.”
“I suppose that will do.” She headed down the hall with him on her heels. “I'd still like to give back your room.”
“Leave it be.”
At the end of the hall, she opened the door to Number Six and stepped inside. Light filtered in through sheer lace curtains over a single window. A white iron bed frame with a colorful quilt on the double bed, a washstand with a white pitcher and matching bowl filled with water, a dresser, a rocking chair, and a small table with a lace tablecloth and two matching chairs filled the room.
“What's on the table?” Lucky walked inside.
“I don't know.” She followed him, leaving the door open.
“I can't believe this!” He looked back at her. “You've got a basketful of goodies.”
“What?” She hurried up beside him. She tossed open the blue-and-white-check napkin inside the basket and found muffins. The scent of fresh baked goods filled the room.
Lucky grabbed a muffin and took a big bite. “Tastes like Mama Lou's Molasses Muffins. Nothing's better.”
Tempest tried a muffin, too. She moaned in delight at the delicious flavors of sugar, molasses, spices, and pecans. She hadn't been able to afford such luxury in a year and wished she could share with Elmira and Lamira.
“What's on the rocking chair?” Lucky finished off the muffin as he walked over to the furniture. He picked up the fabric, shook it out, and then chuckled. “I'd like to see you wear this.”
Tempest blushed at the sight of a white nightgown trimmed with lilac lace and ribbons. She plucked it out of his hands. She looked at the garment, feeling amazement wash over her. It was store bought. She'd been mending clothes for so long that she'd almost forgotten the luxury of new items. Yet she also felt confused and uncomfortable.
“Another gift?” he asked.
“There must be a mistake.”
“I can guarantee that isn't mine and wasn't here before.” He pulled back the quilt on the bed, felt the sheets, and nodded his head. “You've got clean sheets, too. Saul had help.”
“Let's look in the dresser.” He pulled open a drawer, then motioned with his head for her to join him. “See anything you like?”
She reverently touched a white blouse and a forest green skirt. Again, brand new. She blinked to see past the mist that was threatening to turn into tears of happiness. Surely folks in the Bend couldn't afford to be so generous with a stranger, especially one who had caused trouble. She didn't want to feel petty or ungrateful, but why?
She slowly shut the drawer, closing the beautiful clothes out of sight. “Of course, I can't accept any of this.”
She walked away from him, lifted the nightgown, and sat down in the rocker. As she looked around the room, she stroked the soft fabric. “I didn't earn it. I have no way to repay.”
“I don't know any more about this than you do, but I suspect we'll find out.” He picked up one of the chairs from the table, turned it around, and sat down with his arms across the back. “Why look a gift horse in the mouth?”
“Because it might bite.”
As she contemplated her sudden change in fortune, she heard women's voices and laughter in the hall. She looked at Lucky and echoed his earlier question. “Friends of yours?”
He chuckled. “I'd never turn down a lady's friendship.”
A woman peeked in the doorway, saw Lucky, and pointed at him. “You scoundrel! What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you.” He stood up and held out a hand to Tempest. “Mama Lou, may I introduce Temperance Tempest.”
“Delighted, I'm sure.” Mama Lou stepped into the room followed by two other ladies. “Meet my friends. Diana is carrying the tray of food and Ludmila is carrying the coffeepot.”
“Thank you.” Tempest stood up, polite but wary. “I'm pleased to meet all of you.”
“Don't want you to get peckish.” Mama Lou walked over and hugged Tempest, enveloping her in the scent of rosewater, cinnamon, and sugar. “My, you are pretty as a picture, aren't you?”
“Not as pretty as those muffins.”
Mama Lou laughed. “You could be right. I do bake pretty.”
“If you're responsible for the basket of goodies, thank you. They're delicious.”
“Think nothing of it,” Mama Lou said.
“That smells wonderful.” Tempest watched as Diana and Ludmila set down the tray and coffeepot.
“Hope it's enough to keep you going till breakfast,” Mama Lou said.
“Wait till you taste her bacon, eggs, and biscuits.” Lucky rubbed his stomach.
Mama Lou smiled. “Does that mean I'll see you down at the cafÃ©?”
“Bright and early,” Lucky said.
“We'll put on extra just for you.” Mama Lou gave him a wink.
While they bantered, Tempest studied the other women. Mama Lou was short and plump with sandy hair pulled back in a chignon and a mischievous glint in her eyes. Diana was a tall, willowy, strawberry blonde with pale skin and big, chocolate, almond-shaped eyes. Ludmila was statuesque with blue eyes and thick blond hair.
“Diana works at my cafÃ©,” Mama Lou said. “Ludmila owns and runs Adler Emporium, the best dry goods store in this part of Texas. As most folks around here know, she's from Fredericksburg.”
,” Ludmila agreed. “I am a Texikaner.”
“A what?” Tempest asked.
“German-Texan. In 1846, Prince Frederick of Prussia founded our town. Germans signed a peace treaty with the Comanche. Soon over fifty thousand settled in the Hill Country. We still speak German in our homes.”
“I had no idea,” Tempest said.
“Our people prosper and keep to the old ways.” Ludmila sighed. “It is a good life, for the most part. Yet women are still limited to the Three K's.
Kinder. KÃ¼che. Kirche.
“What does that mean?” Tempest asked.
“Children. Kitchen. Church.”
“It can be a fine world,” Mama Lou said.
“True,” Diana agreed. “I only wish life was that simple.”
.” Ludmila chuckled. “Perhaps we should assign men the Two W's. Wife. Work. And nothing else.”
“Quite a few have already chosen their Three W's.
Whiskey. Women. Wagers,
” Mama Lou said.
“Ladies.” Lucky put a hand over his heart. “I always put women before work, whiskey, or wagers.”
“You men want it all.” Mama Lou shook her finger at him.
“And they get it, too,” Diana said.
“Not always.” Lucky glanced around the group, and then grinned, revealing his dimple. “But they give it a good try.”
As Tempest chuckled with the others, she thought of Haig, her missing groom, and the Three W's. She could laugh on the outside, but inside she still hurt. She clenched her fists and realized that she was holding the nightgown. She held it out to Ludmila. “Thank you. This is lovely, but I can't accept it.”
“Why not? Freely given, freely taken, I always say.”
“I'm sure the temperance ladies meant well,” Diana said, “but perhaps they didn't think through the consequences of their actions.”
“They didn't appear to leave you with a carpetbag. A lady must at least have a nightgown and a change of clothes,” Mama Lou said.
“Besides,” Ludmila added, “another color will do wonders for your complexion.”
“Our things were shipped ahead on the train.” Tempest didn't add that she hadn't traveled with much more than the black clothes on her back. If she never retrieved the small bag with a well-worn change of underclothes and nightgown, she wouldn't lose much. Fortunately, she wore a chatelaine purse clipped to the waistband of her skirt that held her essentials such as comb, powder, handkerchief, and change purse.
Lucky coughed, drawing their attention. “Ladies, as much as I'd enjoy hearing you talk about unmentionables, I've got to see a man about a horse.”
“Sure you do.” Mama Lou laughed. “Stop by the cafÃ© later, or if Tempest will share, I brought enough for two.”
“Thanks. I try not to miss a meal in the Bend.” Lucky nodded at them, and then quickly left the room.
“He's a charmer, isn't he?” Diana said.
“But who is he?” Tempest asked. “Surely Lucky can't be his real name, can it?”
“Most likely, it's his summer name like lots of folks use around here,” Mama Lou said.
“Summer name?” Tempest asked.
“Alias,” Diana explained.
“And I advise you not to go asking folks their names or where they are from, not unless you want trouble,” Ludmila added.
“That means I could take any name, couldn't I?” Tempest warmed to the idea of starting over.
“Except you've already been given one,” Mama Lou said. “Temperance Tempest.”
“I doubt you will live that one down any time soon,” Ludmila said.
“I guess not.” Tempest chuckled, and the others joined her. “If I can't ask Lucky's real name, may I ask what he does?”
“I'd go easy on that question, too,” Diana said. “In a lot of cases, you don't want to know.”
“Or it is not safe to know.” Ludmila shrugged. “If their money is good, that is good enough for me.”
“Lucky has a reputation around town for being a treasure hunter,” Mama Lou said.
“Treasure hunter?” Tempest glanced around the group, wondering if they were pulling her leg. “Out here? What could he find?”
“Those old tales about lost Confederate gold in the mountains of Indian Territory keep folks busy,” Mama Lou said.
“But that's not a job.” Tempest felt disappointed. No name. No employment. Maybe he was just a handsome cardsharp with a fast gun. Still, she hoped not.
“We've seen him drink with outlaws, but never ride with them,” Mama Lou said.
“He's a gentleman,” Diana added, smiling. “Whatever his background, that says a lot about him.”
“I suppose so.” Tempest appreciated good manners, but they could cover a lot of problems, too. Haig was a perfect example. “Excuse me. I don't mean to be rude. Please sit down and join me for muffins.”
“Wish we could,” Mama Lou said, “but we've got to get back to work. We just came by to meet you and make sure you're okay.”
“Thank you for your generosity.” Tempest folded the nightgown, and then laid it across the back of the rocking chair. “You caught me in a time of need. I'll repay you as soon as my situation allows it.”
“We are glad to help out,” Ludmila said. “We have all been in trouble at one time or another. A helping hand is simply a helping hand. No need to pay us back. Pass it on to someone you meet who is in need.”
“That's a wonderful way of looking at it. But stillâ”
“You're right as rain in the Bend.” Mama Lou dusted her hands together. “Let's get together for a confab tomorrow. We want to hear your story and we'll tell you how we ended up in Delaware Bend.”
“As kind as you are, I won't be able to stay,” Tempest said. “I have urgent business across the Red River in Indian Territory.”
“You were going with the temperance ladies?” Diana asked.
“How will you go now?” Ludmila appeared concerned.
“I don't know. But go there, I must.”
“Not to worry.” Mama Lou patted Tempest's arm. “We'll help you.”
“You must be tired from your long day,” Diana said. “Saul will bring up a hot bath later. Once you're clean and rested, everything will look better.”
“I already feel better,” Tempest said. “Your generosity and kind words have helped a great deal.”
Mama Lou gave her another hug. “Just leave everything to the Ladies Benevolent Society of Delaware Bend.”
Tempest followed them to the doorway, watched them walk down the hall, and then closed the door behind them. She positioned a chair under the doorknob for safety, and then sat down in the rocker again.
What amazing women. They were so self-assured and so independent. They even ran their own businesses. They must have seen and heard what was happening to her and leaped into action to help. Their kindness did a lot to right her world. Once she had settled with Haig, she was going to repay them with more than just money.
As for the Red River Saloon, how could she have known that she would be chopping into a work of art? And poor Lulu? She wished she could repair the damage, but that was beyond her ability.
For now she would take advantage of the local largesse. She was tired and hungry. With little effort on her part, those needs could be met. As far as a man named Lucky, she felt a lingering hunger, a desire for a deeper connection with him. Yet he wasn't her type of man and he had already moved on with his life.