His deep voice sounded much less amiable than it had when they began, booming out over the gay tune the piano player sang in a corner of the saloon. Back then, he’d been paying more attention to the creamy white swell of her bosom peeking out from the neckline of her gown than at the cards in his hand.
“Why, Mr. Jenkins, I do appreciate you and your friends teaching me the game but I’m afraid I must take my leave. It’s getting quite late.”
He waved a hand around the table. “I don’t know about the rest of ‘em, but you ain’t leavin’ here with all my money.” He slammed a fist on the table. “Now I said sit back down!”
“Well, I suppose I could play one more hand.” Liza sank back down into her chair, smiling gaily as though she hadn’t just been threatened. “I must be the luckiest woman in the world!” She waved one hand around the table. “Getting to play with all y’all handsome gentlemen and then winning to boot.”
With a scowl, Jenkins motioned to the player on his left. “Billy, deal another hand.”
Liza picked up her cards, glanced at them, then eyed the other men around the table. Four disgruntled faces stared back at her, one of them glassy-eyed and sweating. Jenkins.
“Gentlemen, as it’s our last hand, allow me to buy y’all a drink. As a thank-you for your hospitality.” She motioned to the bartender. “Samuel, may we have another round? Make it your best. And bring out your cigars.”
Samuel brought over five glasses. He filled them and at her signal, left the bottle on the table.
She turned to the man on her right with a charming smile. “You know, Mr. Simmons, I seldom imbibe strong spirits myself, but just this once I believe I’ll join you. I do love to see a man enjoying a glass of fine whiskey. And if it’s accompanied by the scent of a good cigar… well, it brings to mind my late husband Edward.”
She sipped from her glass, hardly noticing when Simmons refilled it as they began playing the hand. Jenkins threw back his shot, took another look at his hand, and shoved a pile of chips into the middle of the table.
“I’ll see you, Simmons, and raise y’all twenty,” he grunted.
“It seems it’s my turn again.” Liza pulled a lace handkerchief from the sleeve of her deep blue gown and dabbed at her eyes. “You know, I do appreciate your kindness to a grieving widow, gentlemen. I don’t know a soul in town and it would have been a lonely night for me, all alone in my room—if not for your invitation to sit in on this game.”
She picked up her hand and glanced at it. “I believe I may have a good hand here so I’m going to do what the rest of you have done. I’ll—what is it I’m supposed to say again? Oh, yes. I’ll see your bet and raise you twenty more.”
Jenkins lunged across the table and grabbed her arm. “You’ve been pulling that handkerchief outa your sleeve all night long—and every time you do seems like you win a hand. I b’lieve you’re cheatin’. Lay that thing down on the table and let us see if there’s anything hidden in it. Now.”
She let out an indignant cry. “Mr. Jenkins! I demand that you let go of me at once!” She addressed the room at large, making sure everyone heard her. “I swear I have never been so rudely treated. Manhandled and now accused of a vile deed. I will not stay here and be subjected to such treatment!”
She yanked her arm away and pushed back her chair. Jenkins surged to his feet and started toward her, only to be held back by two young cowboys at a neighboring table who’d been listening in on the exchange.
“Seems like you’ve got a problem, mister,” the taller one said, laying a heavy hand on Jenkins’ shoulder.
“Yer damn right I have,” Jenkins growled. “This lyin’ wench has been cheatin’ all night long. For somebody who claims she doesn’t know how to play poker, she’s been cleanin’ up.”
“Nope. That ain’t your problem.” The other cowboy spoke up. “Shooting your mouth off, that’s your problem. You owe this lady an apology. Accusing her of cheating at cards without any proof is a pretty serious matter… ’specially when you’re so drunk you prob’ly can’t even make out what’s in your hand. It’s no wonder you’re losing.”
Jenkins let out a roar and took a swing at him. The cowboy ducked and threw a punch, catching him right in the stomach. Jenkins crashed onto the table, scattering cards, cash, and drinks everywhere. When a half-full pitcher of beer dumped into the lap of a scantily clad hostess whispering in the ear of an eager customer at the next table, she let out a piercing shriek.
Enraged at being interrupted while negotiating for her favors, the man jumped up and wrapped an arm around the cowboy’s neck. Within seconds, a full-scale melee broke out.
Liza took one look around, then bent down and hastily gathered up the pile of crumpled bills, stuffing them down the low-cut neckline of her gown. She headed toward the doorway of the saloon, dodging grappling bodies all the way.
Keeping her eyes on the brawling customers, she backed her way out of the swinging doorway—only to have her backside bump up against something hard and unyielding. She turned and found herself at eye level with a shiny badge pinned to a shirt packed with solid muscle. Tilting her head up, she met a pair of stern brown eyes.
He tipped his black Stetson. “Ma’am.” Taking her by the elbow, he ushered her back into the saloon. “You just stay right here for a bit, where you’ll be safe,” he said, tucking her against the wall. “Nobody’s going anywhere until I find out what all the ruckus is about.”
He took one look at the brawling men. Without a word, he reached down, pulled his revolver out of the holster on his hip, and fired a shot into the air.
Everyone froze as the gunshot echoed in the room. The only sounds were grunts and groans as customers got painfully to their feet.
“For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Sheriff Blackthorne.” His deep, gravelly voice was level, pitched loud enough to carry through the room. “I know some of you have heard talk about our town, but I want to make one thing clear. Canyon Diablo is not a refuge for lawbreakers any more. I take my responsibility seriously and I will not abide anyone causing trouble here. Now everybody stay put till I get to the bottom of this.”
He glanced around the room, his gaze settling on a wizened old man leaning against the bar. “Cletus, can you tell me what happened?”
“Well, sheriff, I was enjoyin’ my nightly libation when all of a sudden I heard a ruckus goin’ on across the room. Seems one of the fellas at that table over yonder claimed the lady they were playing poker with—that lady right by your side—was cheating. Said she was pullin’ cards outa the sleeves of her dress. Near as I can tell, he tried to grab her arm and find out for himself. That’s when a couple of young cowpokes stepped in. They were comin’ to her rescue. Said the gambler was so drunk he wouldn’t be able to tell who was cheatin’ and who wasn’t. He took a swing at one of the young fellas and the cowpoke decked him. That’s when all hell broke loose.”
Cletus picked up his mug of beer and took a long gulp, then waved it as he continued his tale. “Them young cowboys—I b’lieve they jumped in hopin’ to gain some favor with the lady. But she weren’t having none of it. She started hightailing it out of here the minute the fight broke out. Can’t say as I blame her. This ain’t no place for a lady.”
The old man stopped long enough to drain the mug, let out a loud belch, then sat it on the bar with a thump. “‘Course if ya ask me, if she wuz a real lady, she wouldn’t ‘a been in here gamblin’ in the first place.”
Liza spluttered with indignation. “Sheriff, are you going to allow that old drunkard to speak so rudely about me?”
“Cletus comes in here every night. Sits in that same corner at the bar. Minds his own business, never causes any trouble—unlike some folks. But drunk or not, he doesn’t miss much that goes on around him. That’s why I asked for his input, ma’am. I can’t fault the man for giving it to me.”
Blackthorne looked around the room. Patrons were righting chairs and then sinking into them with muffled groans. Here and there, blood dripped from a nose or a cut lip. Samuel had his broom out, sweeping up shards of broken glass in front of the bar.
“Seems to me all of you got what you had coming. If everybody settles up with Samuel here for whatever damage you caused, you can all go about your business. But if I have any more trouble here tonight, I’ll throw the lot of you in jail to cool your heels and we’ll let the judge sort this out when he comes to town.”
Jenkins limped toward the sheriff, his face a mass of cuts and bruises. “Now you hold on a minute! You’re not gonna let that whore walk away with all our money, are ya?”
Liza opened her mouth to protest but Blackthorne silenced her with one look. Then he turned back to Jenkins. “Watch your mouth. I’m taking the lady to my office. If she’s been cheating, I’ll find out and the law will deal with her.”
“Law, my ass! She’s a liar, a cheat, and a thief. I’m missin’ my silver pocket watch. I think she lifted it during the fight—prob’ly right before she tried to sneak outa here with the pot. For all I know you’re in on the scam with her and you two are gonna split the whole haul. I want my money back—now! And my watch. Or me and my boys will get it all back ourselves.”
Blackthorne narrowed his eyes. “So now you’re calling me a cheat too? Accusing me of being in cahoots with her to steal from you? Maybe you didn’t hear me the first time. I don’t put up with troublemakers in my town, no matter who they are. I’m going to interrogate the lady. If she did cheat, I’ll confiscate the money and then deduct the fine I’m charging you for starting this fight and disturbing the peace. And I guarantee no matter how much you lost, the fine will be more.”
He took a menacing step forward, one hand poised near the gun on his hip. “Now I’ll tell you what you’re going to do. You and your drunken friends are going to saddle up and ride out of town. Tonight. And you’re not going to stop until you get far away from Canyon Diablo. I never want to see any of your faces around here again.”
He called out to the bartender, “Samuel, I’m taking the lady into my custody. If you have any more problems with this bunch, send your boy down to the jail to fetch me.”
He took Liza firmly by the arm and marched her out of the bar and down the street.
She took a deep breath and sized up him up. Would he be savior or jailer? It was too soon to tell. He gave off an unconscious air of authority, as though his confidence was so deeply rooted it was a part of his being. He’d certainly shown a great deal of courage, facing down an entire saloon full of rowdy patrons without anyone to back him up.
Striding along, his long legs ate up the wooden walkway. She was nearly trotting just to keep up. Her gaze traveled up. The broad shoulders and square jawline looked as good in profile as they did full-on. And one smoldering look from those piercing brown eyes would be enough to make any woman swoon. Liza reminded herself he was only a man, a species she had plenty of experience with.
She glanced down at the firm hand wrapped around her upper arm. His finger bore no ring, so apparently there wasn’t a Mrs. Blackthorne. To her surprise, she found her mind wandering into strange territory. Wondering how it would feel to have that big strong hand slide up her arm, draw her in close, then roam possessively over her body. Annoyed with herself for daydreaming about such nonsense, she put the thought aside and got to work.
“Thank you so much, sheriff!” she said sweetly. “I’m not sure what those ruffians would have done if you hadn’t arrived when you did. I do declare, I feel so much safer now that you’ve rescued me. It’s been ages since I had the protection of a strong, handsome man. I’m staying at the boardinghouse right there on the corner. If you’ll see me to the door, I’d be ever so grateful.”
Wordlessly, he ushered her along, passing right by the steps to the boardinghouse.
Liza stumbled as she tried to pull away. “That’s the one, right back there. Thank you again, sheriff. I’ll be fine now. No need to accompany me any further.”
He responded by tightening his grip on her upper arm. “Maybe you weren’t listening either, back there. I’m taking you into custody. I told you I don’t allow troublemakers in my town, no matter who they are. We’ll sort this out at my office and if he’s wrong about the cheating and the stealing, I’ll walk you back to your rooming house and offer my sincere apologies.”
Liza stopped dead in her tracks. This one wouldn’t be easily controlled. She mustered up her best indignation. “Surely you’re joking! You can’t seriously believe that mean, drunken sot. Why, I’ve never played poker before. I wouldn’t know how to cheat. I just had a streak of—what do you call it—beginner’s luck.”
Seeing that she had his full attention now, she went on, her tone softer. “I believe it was an answer to my prayers, sheriff. I’m afraid my late husband Edward, good man that he was, left me in dire straits. I’m heading to Wichita. Circumstances have forced me to take up residence with my sister and her family, make myself useful there, and try to earn my keep. She was kind enough to make the offer when she heard of Edward’s passing. I was too proud to tell her I had barely enough money to cover the stagecoach fare, let alone paying for all the boardinghouses along the way.”
She glanced up at him through lowered lashes. “The good Lord was merciful, putting me in front of those men.” She swayed a little, then reached out to steady herself with a hand on his arm. “Truth be told, I haven’t had a meal in two days. I know it was sinful to gamble, but I needed money and it was either that or offer my… myself…” She stopped and bent her head, choking back a tiny sob.
Blackthorne made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a muffled burst of laughter. She gave him a sharp look out of the corner of her eye, but his expression was blank.
“As I said, ma’am, we’ll sort this out back at my office. Please, come along.”
He started walking again, his hand an iron band around her arm. Liza had no choice but to follow.
They stopped in front of a narrow, two-story wooden building in the center of the next block. The black letters on the ‘Sheriff’s Office’ sign over the door looked freshly painted. Blackthorne opened the door and ushered her in, then locked the door and went to draw the shades over the single window overlooking the dark street. Liza watched him warily, then took a quick look around the room to see if there was another means of escape.
The office held a battered wooden desk and a large chair behind it with the seat covered in worn, cracked leather. A pair of straight-backed wooden chairs faced the desk and a rough bench stood along the side wall. Other than that the room was empty, save for dozens of ‘wanted’ posters tacked on the walls. She saw lighter spots here and there where others had recently been ripped down.
He sat down behind the desk and pointed to one of the chairs. “Take a seat, ma’am. I have a few questions for you. First of all, what is your full name?”
“My name is Liza Danvers. Mrs. Liza Mae Danvers,” she sniffed, swaying a little as she stood. “Really, sheriff, I don’t see why you’re behaving this way. Your attitude is quite uncalled for. I’ve already explained to you that I was the wronged party.”
“You’re also the party who looks as though she’s had one drink too many tonight.” His voice grew harder. “Now sit down before you fall down.” He leaned back and crossed his arms, his face impassive.
She tried another approach, changing her tone of voice, shooting him a frankly flirtatious glance. Unlike the sweaty, overweight card players in the saloon, he was handsome enough that for once she didn’t have to pretend.
“Unless—my goodness, sir, are you hoping I’ll show you my gratitude for saving me from those thugs? Is that why you brought me here… all alone?” She started around the desk toward him. “I’m sure one kiss would be in order—as a reward for your bravery.”
“Stop right there, lady. I’ve been in plenty of card games. Enough to know beginner’s luck is a myth. One hand, maybe two. But to win enough that a man calls you out for cheating? If you won’t sit down and answer my questions, then it’s time to undo that dress and pull it down to your waist.”
“Sir! I took you for a gentleman.” The outrage in her voice needed no acting skill. “Do not embarrass yourself… or me. I assure you I’m not one of those soiled doves who frequent the saloons in these parts. My favors are not for buying—or for taking. I am a proper lady. A widow in mourning, as a matter of fact, and I’ll thank you to treat me as such.”
“Don’t worry. Your virtue is not under attack. But in my experience, proper ladies don’t drink whiskey and play poker in saloons. And widows in mourning don’t wear blue silk gowns with low-cut bodices… and sleeves that have ruffled lace trim long enough to hide a few extra cards. You’ve been married, and you’re wearing a corset under that gown. So it’s not as if I’ll see something no man has ever seen before. Now if you have nothing to hide, take that gown down to your waist, bare your arms, and prove me wrong.”
She stomped her foot and whirled away. “I will not!”
Two long steps had him grabbing her by the waist, drawing her against his chest. But this was nothing like the passionate embrace she’d fantasized about a few minutes ago. She let out a shriek, struggling to get away. He spun her around to face him. Grabbing a handful of fabric at the back of her gown in each hand, he gave one hard yank, pulling it down off her shoulders. Buttons popped, flying all over the room, followed by a wad of bills… and half a dozen cards.
Liza froze, staring down at the evidence of her crime for a moment while her mind considered and rejected half-a-dozen responses. When she finally looked up, she wore a sad little smile. Tears pooled at the corners of her eyes. “You’ve discovered my secret, sheriff. Those men I was playing with—Jenkins and Simmons and the other two—they cheated my late husband out of every penny he had. Charles traveled here from Pennsylvania after we were married, leaving me behind while he made his fortune out West. He sent for me a few months ago, telling me he’d struck it rich. By the time I came to join him, I found a broken man, penniless and despondent. He confessed that he’d been swindled out of all his money, told me who was at fault. Then, only a few days after I arrived, he took his own life in despair.”
Her eyes flashed. “I’ve been tracking those men ever since and tonight I finally caught up with them. Yes, I cheated—but only to seek justice for my dead husband and win back what was rightfully mine.”
Blackthorne shook his head. “That’s a very sad story, ma’am. I can see how you’d feel it was only right to get even with those scoundrels.”
She nodded solemnly, gathering up the torn bodice of the gown to cover herself and dabbing at her eyes with a corner of the sleeve.
“But a few minutes ago, you said your husband’s name was Edward.”
Liza froze. Flustered, she glanced down at the cards scattered all over the floor. She never made mistakes like that, forgetting the details of a story. She’d had a few drinks tonight and gotten careless, dwelling on the sheriff’s devilishly handsome looks instead of the business at hand. He was far too sharp to take for granted, not even for a moment.
“It is… was,” she stammered. “His name was Charles Edward. I, uh, I always called him by his middle name. Like a pet name. He… he had one for me too. He called me his little Lizzie.” Her voice broke again. Damn the man. She hadn’t been this nervous in a long time.
Blackthorne smiled, the first smile she’d seen from him. She breathed a sigh. But her relief lasted only until he opened his mouth.
“Don’t feel too badly, ma’am. You’re very good. One of the best I’ve ever run across. The way you can switch midstream from one story to another. And manufacture those tears to boot… my hat’s off to you.”
Then the smile disappeared. He sank down onto one of the straight-backed wooden chairs, pulling her to stand in front of him with the ripped bodice of the gown clutched against her chest.
“Here’s how I see it. I was elected sheriff to keep order in this town. The good people of Canyon Diablo put me in charge and I take my job very seriously. What I say goes. Everybody here has to abide by my orders because I’m the law. In fact, if the president of the United States came to town, even he’d have to do what I say. Now I could lock you in one of those cells until you stand trial—or I can administer justice as I see fit right here and now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Seems to me you’ve been a very naughty girl, little Lizzie. As I said, I don’t abide troublemakers in my town. You can step into that jail over yonder and cool your heels for a couple of weeks—or you can lie down across my lap right now, bare your bottom for a good hard spanking, and then take the first stage out of my town in the morning.”