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Paris, Texas, 1868
Standing on the boardwalk, Cyrus leaned back against the wall of Nickels' Saloon to watch people and wagons and horses pass on the peaceful street before him. All was well here, as usual, the businesses prospering and the populace content.
It had been a quiet day so far, a good day. There was just a touch of a spring chill in the air to remind him of the winter that had passed, and at the moment there was only one prisoner in the Lamar County Jail, a local boy who usually managed to spend a day or two every month locked up for disturbing the peace. All in all he was a good boy, but liquor made him crazy. Soon as the kid sobered up, he would be contrite and apologetic.
Paris, Texas, was a good-sized town; not so big that everybody didn't know everybody else, not so small that the amenities that made life pleasant weren't available. Up and down this street, where Nickels' Saloon was one of three prosperous taverns, there was a dress shop and a bakery, a general store and a furniture store, a saddlery and the livery where Cyrus boarded his horse. There was a barber shop, a small café, and a decent hotel. Up near the town square sat the Lamar County Jail, the offices of several lawyers, and the Lamar County Courthouse.
The town was clean and prosperous, and beyond this street there were many fine homes, large and small, a park where the citizens gathered on occasion, and a number of churches. Paris was, all in all, a good place to live.
Most of the government rule, an authority that had been administered primarily by carpetbaggers and thieves, was finally gone, leaving the citizens of Paris to rebuild their lives after surviving a war that had touched them all in some way. Now and then Cyrus thought of moving on, heading west, but he didn't; and he wouldn't. He had his reasons for staying in Paris.
"Sheriff," Mrs. Fowler said as she passed close by, her booted steps crisp on the boardwalk. She nodded her graying head demurely.
Cyrus returned the subtle greeting, tipping his hat and muttering, "Good afternoon." Elizabeth Fowler had lost two sons in the war, soldiers Cyrus had served with in the Ninth Texas Infantry. She always looked at him as if she wondered why he'd survived when her boys hadn't.
After she passed, he absently ran his thumb over the scar that marred his left cheek. The texture was rough, the scar long and ugly. It ran from his jaw to just below his eye, and a small nick bisected his eyebrow with a scar so thin, so fine, that it was hardly visible. Still, every time he looked in a mirror he was reminded of how close he'd come to losing the eye. The blade of the Yankee's bayonet had barely skimmed past the eyeball. A half an inch closer, maybe less.... Well, Cyrus didn't look in the mirror any more than he absolutely had to.
Mrs. Fowler continued on without so much as a glance back, her head high, her spine just a bit too rigid. Yes, he'd be better off in a place where no one knew him, where he didn't see ghosts on every corner, in every pair of haunted eyes. But he had his reasons for staying.
A raised voice from inside Nickels' Saloon caused Cyrus's entire body to tense. His fingers flexed, his nostrils flared. Ah, he'd been right when he'd determined that the stranger who'd ridden into town and tied his horse up out front had smelled like trouble.
Sheriff Cyrus Bergeron had a nose for trouble.
With a sigh he pushed away from the wall and turned to enter the saloon. The short, broad-backed stranger leaned over the bar, threatening poor old Hamlin Nickels with a short, rusty knife.
"Is this the best liquor you've got?" the stranger shouted, knocking an empty shot glass aside. The blade of his short knife danced inches from Hamlin's frightened face. "Tastes like horse piss!"
Hamlin was a gentle, older man, with a narrow face and a ready smile. His abundance of well-kept dark red hair was shot with silver these days, and a number of deep lines bracketed the saloon keeper's mouth and eyes. Wide eyes in Hamlin's wrinkled face were fastened on the knife that threatened him, as he sputtered in defense of his whiskey and stepped away from the dull-bladed weapon.
"Get back here you lily-livered coward." The stranger reached out and snagged Hamlin's sleeve to hold the aging bartender in place.
Cyrus approached silently, closing on the bully. He recognized the stranger, even though he'd never seen him before. A little man with a big ego, the ruffian was looking for a fight. Men like this one never picked on those who might fight back.
"Let him go," Cyrus said softly.
The bully dropped Hamlin and spun around, hands raised, knife ready to strike. He was easily agitated, not too bright, and in bad need of a bath and a hair cut. He was also ready to fight — but not against someone who might actually prove a threat.
Pale, darting eyes swept over Cyrus, until the man's anxious gaze finally settled on a ravaged cheek. "This is none of your concern, scarface. Back away."
Moving very slowly, Cyrus lifted his hand and hooked two fingers around the edge of his vest, moving the leather aside so that his badge was revealed. "Everything that happens in this county is my concern."
He saw a hint of panic in the stranger's eyes, a moment of frantic assessment.
"I'm glad you're here. Sheriff," he said defensively. "This man tried to rob me. Charged me good money for whiskey and gave me horse piss instead!" The knife weaved and bobbed in a now unthreatening manner.
Hamlin backed into the safety of a corner to silently observe the confrontation. No one else was in the saloon at this time of the afternoon. In a couple of hours the place would be noisy and lively, but for now all was quiet.
Cyrus kept a careful eye on the knife. "You have business in Paris?"
The stranger narrowed one eye. "Just passing through."
"You got a name?"
The man hesitated, screwing up his face as if he were trying to decide if he should answer the question. "J. T. Johnson," he finally muttered.
"Well, Mr. Johnson, I think you'd better keep on riding through."
If the man was smart at all he'd hightail it out of here without another word. Unfortunately, Cyrus didn't think he was going to be dazzled by Johnson's intelligence.
"You can't make me leave," Johnson breathed. "I ain't done nothin' wrong." The grip on the knife tightened, the muscles in the arm tensed, ready for attack. An air of indignity grew about the pathetic man, as he stood poised for attack, ready to defend his right to stay in Nickels' Saloon to harass and threaten its owner.
Cyrus moved so fast, his hand whipping forward smoothly and unexpectedly, that Johnson didn't even have time to flinch, much less react in defense. Before the ruffian knew what had happened he'd been disarmed, and Cyrus held the knife.
"If you're going to carry a knife," Cyrus said calmly as he studied the blade, "you should at least sharpen and clean it now and again. This is disgraceful."
Angered at finding himself so easily relieved of his weapon, Johnson reacted by reaching for the six-shooter he had strapped to his thigh. Once again, Cyrus was quicker than the man anticipated, beating Johnson to his own gun. He lifted the weapon so quickly and smoothly that Johnson's searching, short-fingered hand fell, too late, on an empty holster.
As Johnson cursed beneath his breath, Cyrus mindlessly twirled the six-shooter in his hand.
"You don't take any better care of your Colt than you do your knife," he said casually. "What would you do if you ever needed to defend yourself? Beat your opponent with the butt of the Colt and saw at him with the dull edge of this blade, I suppose." It was clear to Cyrus that Johnson had never been a soldier.
"Give me back my gun," Johnson said childishly. He reached for the weapon and Cyrus moved it away; he reached again and Cyrus made sure the Colt floated just out of reach. Slow, fat fingers reached helplessly for the Colt that remained in constant movement; twirling, shifting, seemingly floating in Cyrus's hand. With every second that passed the ruffian became more frustrated. "All right, goddammit," he finally shouted. "I'll leave. I'll leave!"
"Hamlin," Cyrus glanced at the bartender. Hamlin had relaxed considerably in the past few minutes, and no longer cowered in the corner. "Did this gentlemen pay for his fine whiskey?"
"Yessir, he paid before I poured his drink." Hamlin busied himself wiping down the counter where Johnson had been standing moments earlier, as if attempting, already, to rid the saloon of any small reminder of the bully's presence.
With another controlled, lightning-quick movement, Cyrus returned the poorly kept sixshooter to the holster at Johnson's hip. The man twitched, obviously surprised, as the Colt landed smoothly home. Cyrus spun the knife one last time and offered it, handle first.
Johnson took the knife and returned it to the sheath at his belt, and with a wary eye on Cyrus he moved toward the door. His show of bravery returned with the familiar weapons close at hand. "You're some kind of peculiar, scarface," he said as he backed toward the sunlight. "I'll be right glad to keep riding out of this town."
Cyrus didn't trust the bully, so he followed. Johnson backed into the batwing doors, which swung open and allowed him to step onto the boardwalk. Cyrus caught the doors on a backward swing and tossed them gently as he exited.
Mumbling incoherently to himself, Johnson unhitched his horse and hoisted himself into the saddle. Cyrus was confident that the bully would ride out of town peacefully. Men like this didn't fight battles they couldn't win. They didn't take on men who were taller and faster and meaner than they were. They reserved their energies for frightened old bartenders and untested boys, for gentle women and soft men. There was no nobility in Johnson's heart, no honor buried beneath all that anxious hostility.
Cyrus had no use for a man without honor.
His gaze shot past Johnson's horse and landed on the gray-swathed figure that walked slowly down the street. If anyone else had wandered into his line of vision he never would have noticed, but he always noticed Roxanne.
Johnson noted the change in Cyrus's focus and turned his head. A low whistle followed. "Now, that's a woman," he said coarsely. Roxanne was still a good distance away, but her long strides carried her closer with every step. "Dammit, that is a lot of woman, and that is all-woman. Maybe I oughta introduce myself, take my chances and stay in Paris for a while longer." He smirked at Cyrus. "Overnight, anyway."
Silently, Cyrus slipped to the horse's side as the little man in the saddle returned his attention to Roxanne. Johnson never knew what was happening until Cyrus tightened the grip on a filthy shirt and pulled the ruffian halfway off the horse so he could look him in the eye. Cyrus knew that all he had to do was let go, and Johnson would surely fall on his ugly head.
"You don't so much as look at her again," he whispered, and for the first time since their encounter Johnson went white. He didn't look like a bully at the moment; he looked like a frightened, helpless, large child. Cyrus felt no sympathy for the wretched man. "She's a lady, you son of a bitch, and you don't lay your good-for-nothing eyes on her, you hear me? You ride out of town with your eyes straight ahead, and if I see you so much as twitch in her direction I'll shoot you in the back." He leaned slightly closer and lowered his already soft voice. "No one will miss you, J. T. Johnson." With that simple comment, the threat was accepted as fact.
With a hard shove from Cyrus's impatient hand, Johnson bobbed up until he was seated properly once again. He straightened his collar and rotated his neck as if working out a crick, but he didn't glance Roxanne's way. When his horse had taken a couple of steps down the street, when Johnson thought himself out of reach, he turned bravely to Cyrus.
"I'll bet a lady like that won't give the time of day to an ugly freak like you, scarface." Thinking himself safe, Johnson flashed a wide smile, revealing yellow teeth and one grim gap where another should have been.
Cyrus shifted his hand until it rested on his own holster. Johnson took the hint and galloped down the street. The man wasn't completely stupid, after all; he didn't turn his head toward Roxanne as he sped away.
Cyrus stepped back into the shadows and watched Roxanne's progress down the street. All-woman was right. She was taller than any other woman in town, taller than quite a few of the men. Using his own 6'2" and the times he'd been close to Roxanne as a guide, he figured she was a good 5'9" tall, maybe a little more. She'd been gangly as a kid, he remembered, all arms and legs. Somewhere along the way she'd grown into her height nicely, filling out in all the right places and learning to move those long arms and legs with unequaled grace. She now floated down the road like a queen, like an angel, as if her feet barely touched the ground she walked on.
She carried a short stack of books in her arms, and her eyes were trained unerringly straight ahead. This morning, when he'd watched her walk to the Paris Female Academy where she taught, her dark hair had been braided and twisted neatly around her head. But now a few strands floated around her face and shoulders, the ends of a few long, errant strands touching the silver gray fabric.
She'd been out of black for a while now, but he hadn't seen her in anything but black or gray or brown since he'd left to fight the Yankees. Sometimes it seemed that her mourning would never end, that she would never recover her life and her heart. There were dark moments when he was sure he would gladly give his right arm to see her smile again, his life to hear her laugh. Somehow, if Roxanne could survive, they all could. If she could heal, all would be right with the world. Foolish thoughts, but now and again he was so certain....
Roxanne Robinette was, indeed, all-woman; she was also a young widow who'd grieved for her husband for three years, a teacher who gave her time and devotion to the girls at the academy, a dutiful niece who helped her frivolous aunt and demanding uncle manage their large home — and she was the reason Cyrus would never leave Paris, Texas.
Roxanne barely noted the rider who passed so quickly, leaning over his horse's neck as he sped down the road that headed south. She did, almost unconsciously, step to the side of the road so she was well out of his path. But she didn't even pay much attention to the dust his horse kicked up.
Her mind was on many things; tomorrow's lesson, Aunt Ada's cold, the petticoat that needed to be mended, the fine weather and the certainty that it wouldn't last long. Spring in Texas meant rain and thunderstorms. The thoughts that filled her mind were ordinary and calming, almost numbing in their familiarity.
In spite of her familiar thoughts, she knew that something was different this spring. With the departure of winter, something inside her was thawing. The thaw caused an occasional pang deep inside, as she rediscovered her own simple hopes and dreams. For three long years she'd thought her life was over. She'd watched the children and the young ladies she taught with the bitter bite of the knowledge that she'd never have babies of her own. Louis was dead, her dreams were gone, there was nothing left for her. That certainty seemed more painful than ever, these days.
But there was an occasional, unexpected joy mingled with the pain. She saw flowers this year, felt the sun, had begun to enjoy her students on occasion, to appreciate their smiles and their eagerness to learn. Easter was just a few days past, and Roxanne found herself experiencing a touch of wonder that spring was upon her and another year lay ahead.
Maybe her heart and her spirit were mending at last, maybe she could finally glimpse a hint of true hope. She would never have the life with Louis she'd always dreamed of, but perhaps she could find companionship with someone, eventually, and have the children she longed for.
Lately she'd begun to ponder, vaguely and with little energy, what she might look for in a potential husband. Her requirements were simple; he should be kind, of course, and have a stable and steady income. Love was impossible, but she would certainly have to like the man she married. They would be companions for a very long time. That wasn't too much to ask for, was it?
Excerpted from The Seduction of Roxanne by Linda Jones. Copyright © 2014 Linda Winstead Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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