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April 1874, Liberty, Missouri
"I wouldn't wait nine years on any man." Darcy Branson spoke to Emma Nash as they stood in the fitting room of Darcy's dress shop. The upcoming marriage of Darcy's cousin, Jesse James, to his longtime sweetheart, Zee Mims, was the subject of speculation among those who knew about the secret wedding. Darcy thought nine years was an unreasonably long courtship.
Of course, there was a lot to be said for waiting. If she had waited that long before marrying Stephen, she might have learned the truth about her Prince Charming before it was too late.
"At least Zee isn't going to end up an old maid like everyone thought," Emma said.
Darcy nodded as she helped Emma try on a lovely gown of topaz silk faille. However, there were much worse things than being an old maid. Like being a vengeful wife who had gotten her husband murdered. That was, indeed, worse.
Emma smiled with excitement as she looked at her reflection in the cheval mirror. "I do love this dress," she said. "I don't know how I will ever repay you."
"You owe me nothing." Darcy smiled, happy that she could provide a pretty gown for Emma, who could not have afforded it otherwise. Some of the well-to-do old biddies in town said she was too generous toward the less fortunate. She didn't think so. Generosity reaped its own reward. "Mister Caruthers will be completely smitten with you."
Blushing at the mention of her beau's name, Emma turned to Darcy. "Why don't you wear that emerald gown you bought in Saint Louis to the wedding?"
"No." She always wore black.
"It is time"
"No." It would never be time.
"Stephen has been dead for almost three years now. Long enough that no one would think ill of you if you put aside mourning colors."
Darcy removed the tape measure that hung around her neck. She was a graduate of the San Francisco Academy for Young Ladies, where she had been taught good manners and social graces. She knew exactly what was and was not proper. She sighed. "The rules of etiquette change nothing." They were only words in a book. "They can't change what is inside me." They couldn't change what she had done. She splayed her hand over the waist of her black bodice. "Black suits me."
The jingle of the bells attached to the front door of the shop came as a welcome diversion. She left Emma to admire herself in the mirror and went to wait on her customer. She stopped short when she saw the customer was a man. Rarely did a man enter her dress shop, only the occasional local business owner looking to buy his wife or sweetheart a gift. The tall, dark-haired man standing with his back to her as he looked at the ready-made frocks on display looked more like a gunman than a gentleman. A black duster fell from the wide span of his shoulders to his knee-high boots, and he held a center-dented black hat in his left hand. Men who dressed like him lived in the saddle. Uneasiness spread through her. The large bounty offered for her cousins, Frank and Jesse James, had brought a number of unsavory men into the town of Liberty. It was a dangerous time, especially for those connected to the outlaws. No one trusted outsiders.
The customer appeared particularly interested in the expensive emerald gown that Emma had suggested she wear to Jesse's wedding. It was a lovely dress. One she had fallen in love with the moment she saw it in Saint Louis.
She squared her shoulders as she made her presence known. "May I help you?"