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New Mexico Territory, 1873
"Oh, the Camptown ladies sing this song, do-da! Do-da! Camptown racetrack five miles long, oh the do-da day!"
Emma Evangeline Carlisle--known to all as Evie--had never become tipsy in all her twenty-three years. But if she were to imbibe freely, she imagined it would feel a great deal like this, flying along a treacherous mountain road atop a rickety stagecoach, singing at the height of her contralto voice. She conducted an imaginary symphony with her parasol, leaning into a hairpin turn and launching into a final chorus.
"Going to run all night, going to run all day! Camptown ladies sing this song, oh the do-da day!"
Unfortunately, she ended on a squawk as she was catapulted from her seat and brought back down on her bustle.
"That was right purty, miss!" the driver shouted, spitting his wad of tobacco into the wind. "Good as any I ever heared at the opry house."
"Why, thank you, Mr. Ebeneezer!" Evie straightened her much-abused hat, and resisted the urge to rub her sore nether regions.
"It's jest Neezer, miss. No mister nor nuthin'."
"And you must call me Evie!" She flashed a brilliant smile, the one the newspapers back in New York called 'The Million Dollar Smile'. "All my friends call me Evie."
The hard-bitten, grizzled old stage driver blushed, giggled, and ducked his head. "Yes'm," he murmured.
Evie saw the next curve coming and clutched at her seat. She didn't know why the station manager back in Santa Fe had warned her against riding 'up top' like this. It was most exhilarating! "So there is an opera house in this town Dead Dog, Mister--um, justNeezer."
"Surely there is! It's right nice, too, got velvet seats and ever'thing. Used to have gaslights, til ole Pete Posey from the livery stable shot 'em out."
Evie, who had felt rather disappointed that her dreamed-of Wild West town had something as civilized as an opera house, brightened. "Shot?"
"Yes'm. Nobody got kilt or nuthin, though."
"I should hope not." Killing was one thing, but a good shoot-out would be something to see. "What was this Mr. Posey shooting at?"
"Nuthin'. He jest liked Miss DuMont's song a real whole lot."
Marvelous! It sounded like something in one of her beloved Buckaroo Bill dime novels. Dead Dog, New Mexico was going to be just perfect.
"You gonna sing at the opry house, Miss Evie?" Neezer asked.
Sing at the opera house! Now there was an idea. Evie was a great opera lover. "I don't know! Who would I talk with about singing there?"
"Connor Morgan, prob'ly! He owns the opry house. Owns purt near ever'thing in Dead Dog."
"Connor Morgan," Evie repeated softly. What a grand name! No doubt he would be dark and dangerous, with a thin mustache and a scar, like Buckaroo Bill's enemy Black Bingo. She should write all that down, but her notebook was somewhere in the depths of her valise and she couldn't let go of her hat to find it.
"Weel, if'n you're not gonna sing, Miss Evie, what takes you to Dead Dog? A fine lady like you." Neezer spit into the wind again. "You got a husband there waitin'?"
"No, I'm not married. Or engaged." Evie was glad her ring finger, with the tell-tale pale band where Matthew Peyton's ostentatious diamond had been, was hidden in her glove. Matthew had no place in this new life. "I hope to write a book!"
"About Dead Dog?" Neezer looked doubtful.
"About the real West! But I must do a lot of research and study, and I'll need a great deal of help."
"I dunno if Dead Dog is the place fer that, Miss Evie."
"I'm sure it will be." Suddenly the endless curtain of towering aspens that had blocked her view broke, and Evie was treated to a breathtaking panorama of Dead Dog Valley. Adobe buildings were clustered in the distance, doll-like and enchanted from her high perch. "Is that it?"
"That there's Dead Dog."
"It's lovely," Evie breathed. "Like a dream!"
Neezer cracked his whip. "Giddyap you ole nags!"
Evie clung to her seat, and threw back her head to laugh with the sheer joy of life. Soon she would really be there, in a real Western town, and she would write her book and prove all her snobby friends, and especially Matthew Peyton, wrong.
Connor Morgan was blissfully asleep when his bedroom door was suddenly flung open, bouncing off the wall and echoing through his aching head.
"Mr. Morgan!" Charlie Sloan, errand boy at the Golden Garter Saloon, stamped in with far too much enthusiasm and good cheer for so early in the morning. "Mr. Morgan! The stage is in!"
"What?" Connor croaked, cracking open one bloodshot gray eye. "Charlie, what have I told you about bustin' in here like that? What if Miss DuMont had been here, like last time?"
Charlie only snickered. The whole town knew of the very public bust-up of Connor Morgan and Miss Dora DuMont the singer that had happened over three weeks ago. "Sorry, boss, but the stage is in! You said to fetch you soon as it came."
"What time is it?" His usually dulcet, drawling Georgia accent was hoarse.
"Noon? Impossible!" The stage never got in on time. But sure enough, he heard the rumble of wheels and the crack of Neezer's whip. "Damn!" Connor cursed under his breath. He rolled out of bed and reached for his trousers. "Does he have my shipment of whiskey from Santa Fe?"
"Dunno!" Charlie pulled back the heavy velvet window draperies, not noticing Connor's wince at the sudden rush of sunlight. "There's an awful lot of trunks an' stuff piled up there."
"My whiskey had better be in some of them." Connor splashed cold water on his face, and ran a brush through his tangle of shoulder-length black curls. "We've been short for days. The customers are gettin' restless."
Charlie looked out the window again. "Looks like Kip Sanders is back from St. Louis! Mebbe he got that rich wife his daddy sent him after."
"Wonderful," Connor muttered sarcastically. "Now he'll be back in with his rowdy buddies, bustin' up my saloon again."
"Camptown ladies sing this song, oh the do-da day!"
Connor paused in fastening his silk shirt. "But that's not Kip singing, now is it?"
"No, sir! It's a lady."
"A lady?" Connor went to peer over Charlie's shoulder. Sure enough, a petite lady in a stylish green traveling suit and a tip-tilted feathered hat was perched atop the stage, calmly closing her parasol now that her song was done. She didn't look familliar. There weren't very many women in Dead Dog, and none of them had hair the deep red-brown of an autumn leaf.
"Do you recognize her, Charlie?"
"No, boss. Maybe she's that wife Kip Sanders was supposed to find."
Connor fastened his brocade waistcoat as he contemplated this disappointing prospect. "If she is Mrs. Sanders she wouldn't be riding up-top."
"Miss Sophie at the Pleasure Palace isn't expecting a new girl," he mused. "I'm going down to check on my whiskey. While I'm at it, I should welcome this newcomer to town properly."
"Lemme help you down, miss!"
"No, I'll do it!"
Evie smiled down at the crowd of men below her, all of them vying for the chance to help her down from the coach. She was about to ignore them all and leap down by herself, when a voice as smooth as a mint julep broke into the cacophony.
"Now, gentlemen, I feel it is my duty to help this lovely lady down, and be the first to welcome her to our fair town."
Evie's gaze snapped up and located the source of that velvet voice. He seemed to be the only person left on the street, as the jostling crowd parted before him. He was surely the most handsome man she had ever seen! More handsome even than Matthew Peyton. Afternoon sun gleamed on his dark curls, and on a tanned cheek slightly roughened by morning whiskers. His white smile flashed.
"Thank you," she said, dismayed that her voice came out an embarrassingly high-pitched squeal. She delicately cleared her throat and tried again. "Thank you, sir. How kind of you!" She laid her gloved hands lightly on his shoulders as he swung her down. His grasp was warm on her corseted waist, and his pleasantly soapy smell was heavenly after days of trail dust...
With a gasp, she stepped back from the immaculately-clad stranger and surveyed her own appearance. Her once-lovely suit was nearly brown with dust, the ruffled lace cuffs torn--and her hat! She didn't even want to imagine what her hat was like. "I look a fright."
"Not at all, ma'am. You're bright as a spring day." Smooth compliments came easily to Connor, a product of his plantation upbringing, but this time he was surprised to find he meant every word. Oh, it was true that the small lady was rather dusty from her journey, but her eyes were the most brilliant green he had ever seen. Her sweet violet perfume was discernible even after a morning on the stagecoach.
He lifted her gloved hand to his lips.
Evie almost swooned from the warm press of his kiss through the kid glove. What a silly girl you are, she sternly told herself. You never even got weak at the knees when the Prince of Wales kissed your hand in London last year!
But the Prince of Wales had been a pudgy little man who had tried to look down her bodice, not a gorgeous Westerner with a melting voice.
A sharp "yip" from behind her interrupted these dreamy musings. What a fool she felt! Standing there in the street simpering over a stranger!
Evie whirled around and hurried back to the coach, her short, ruffled train trailing behind her in the dirt. "Do be careful with that! Here, give it to me!" She reached up for the hole-marked crate, which was rocking and tilting. She staggered under the weight of it, and the handsome stranger hurried to help her.
"Shi ... shoot, ma'am," he gasped, depositing the moving crate on the boardwalk. "What do you have in there?"
"Fifi." Evie opened the lid and reached inside, bringing out her tiny, prized Pomeranian dog. "Oh, my poor angel! My dearest of dears! It is all right now."
Connor watched doubtfully as Evie soothed the caramel-colored ball of fluff, perking up the pink bows in its fur and murmuring endearments. Miranda, his late wife, had once owned a dog like that, and it had been an ankle-biter.
He shuddered at even that vague memory of Miranda.
"Got yer whiskey, Mr. Morgan!" Neezer called.
With a last wary glance at Fifi, Connor turned his attention to the precious liquid cargo. "It's about time! You promised to bring it in a month ago."
"Weel, now, these things is hard to judge."
"Mr. Morgan?" Evie's gaze shifted from the dog to him. "You're the famous Mr. Morgan?"
Connor bowed to her. "I'm Connor Morgan, ma'am, at your service. But you have the advantage of me."
Evie giggled. It was almost as if they were meeting in some ballroom! "I'm Evie! Well, Emma Evangeline Carlisle, but no one calls me Emma. Or Miss Carlisle."
"Evie ... what a charming name. Maybe you'd like to step inside the saloon while these gentlemen unload your trunks? I'm eager to hear what's brought you to Dead Dog."
Fifi growled and bared her tiny teeth.
"Sh!" Evie cradled to dog to her bosom, an action Connor watched with no small amount of envy. "I'm afraid Fifi objects to, um, the name of Dead Dog."
Another low growl rumbled.
"Well, perhaps, er, Fifi may have some suggestions for an alternate name?" he held out his arm to her. "Shall we?"
Evie wasn't sure if she could trust herself alone with this man. She might throw herself onto his lap, or something equally embarrassing! But the sun was very hot, and she was thirsty. And the chance to see inside a real saloon was simply too much to resist. Shifting Fifi into the crook of one elbow, Evie accepted Connor Morgan's arm.