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Rocky Mountain Marriage
By Debra Brown
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneColorado, 1884
"It's a saloon?"
"Yes, ma'am. The pride of Last Call. Draws customers from Fairplay to Garo." The driver hefted her trunk from the buckboard and set it on the ground under a young oak, in front of the steps leading up to the entrance.
There had to be some mistake. Her father had owned a cattle ranch, not a ... a ... Dora couldn't breathe. She gawked at the gold-leaf-lettered sign above the swinging doors. The Royal Flush. Established 1876. William Fitzpatrick, proprietor.
"The best damned gambling house in the state, if you ask me." The driver tipped his hat to her, then climbed atop the buckboard to depart.
"W-wait. Please." She plucked her father's letter from the small, leather-bound diary she always carried with her, and read the first shakily written paragraph again.
If you're reading this, Dora, I'm dead. Seeing as you're my only living kin, I'm leaving you the place. Lock, stock and barrel, it's all yours.
She gazed out across the high-country pasture surrounding the opulent two-story ranch-house-turned-saloon. A few stray cattle grazed in the meadow below the original homestead. Nowhere were the herds she'd expected, or any evidence that her father had made his fortune in cattle.
Several outbuildings were visible behind the house: a barn, what looked like a bunkhouse, and a few small cabins nestled between naked stands of aspen and oak. It had been a ranch once, by the look of things.
"I guess you'll be running the place now. Good luck to you, ma'am." The driver snapped the reins and the horses sprang to life.
Running the place?
"Wait a moment. Please!" Dora ran after the buckboard. "You're not just going to leave me here?"
"You want to go back to town?" The driver pulled the horses up short. "Before you even get a peek at the place?"
The sun had already dipped well below the snow-capped peaks in the distance. Spring columbine checkered the rolling grassland as far as the eye could see, but winter's chill still frosted the air. Dora pulled her cloak tightly about her as she glanced back at the bustling business her father had never once mentioned in his letters to her.
Horses stood in a line, tied up at the long rail outside the saloon. Buggies and buckboards and other conveyances were parked along the side. A corral flanked the building, where other horses were feeding. Presumably they belonged to customers, regulars she believed the term was.
Soft light spilled from the entrance of the saloon and from windows draped in red velvet. Tinny piano music, men's voices and coquettish laughter drifted out to meet her. Fascinated, Dora took a step toward the entrance, then paused to consider her predicament.
"Ma'am?" The driver fished a pocket watch out of his vest. "Got to get these horses back to town. Are you coming or staying?"
Not once in her twenty-five years had she ever been inside a saloon. God would strike her dead, her mother had been fond of saying when she was alive, if Dora so much as set foot in one.
"Last chance, ma'am."
She heard the driver's words, the snap of the reins, and the buckboard rattling back down the two-mile stretch of road to the mining town of Last Call, where her only hope of securing proper accommodations for the night was to be found.
But Dora was already on the steps, her gaze pinned to the swinging doors, her eyes wide with excitement, her stomach fluttering. Lock, stock and barrel, she thought as she tucked her father's letter carefully away between the pages of her diary.
She placed a gloved hand on one of the swinging doors and pushed. A heartbeat later she stepped from her comfortable and orderly existence into a new world. By some miracle, God did not strike her dead after all.
The air was thick with cigar smoke and the foreign aromas of liquor and cheap perfume. Instinct compelled her to cover her mouth. The first thing she laid eyes on was a painting of a woman, a redhead without a stitch on, in a gilded frame above the bar.
A stage draped in crimson velvet was positioned at the far end of the room. Mercifully, no one besides the piano player was performing. Men stood drinking, crowded together at the bar and huddled over card tables packed into what was once the parlor of the stately house. Brass spittoons were everywhere, though it was apparent no one paid them any mind.
She felt warm all of a sudden - too warm - and realized men had stopped their drinking and gaming to look at her. In an attempt to avoid their stares, her gaze followed a spiral staircase leading upward from the end of the bar to the second floor.
A long balcony of dark pine showcased walls lined in flocked red paper against which lounged scantily clad women and overeager men. The house's original bedrooms were on this floor. Dora didn't want to think about what was going on inside those rooms.
The noise, the smells, the bright colors - all of it taken together was overwhelming. She felt light-headed, not herself at all. The last thing she saw before she fainted was a man. His whiskey-brown eyes drank her in as he flashed her the wickedest smile in three states.
Excerpted from Rocky Mountain Marriage by Debra Brown Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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