Dancing girl Marielle Miller makes sure no cowboy steps his spurred boots out of line. But then one night, she tumbles from the stage into the arms of Dylan Coyle
Marielle doesn't need a man in her lifeespecially a wandering gunslinger unwilling to put down roots. Except as Morrow Creek's new stand-in lawman, Dylan will be around to vex her for a while yet. And when she becomes embroiled in his latest case, Marielle starts to hope this particular drifter will stick around for good!
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About the Author
Lisa lives in sunny Arizona with her husband and two children. In her free time she reads romances and research books by the dozen, practices yoga and spends time with her family-hiking in the mountains and deserts of Arizona, visiting ghost towns and historical sites and watching classic movies.
Her next Harlequin release will be a novella in the Hallowe'en Husbands anthology in October 2008, with The Mail-Order Groom and two more books to follow.
Read an Excerpt
April 1885, Morrow Creek, Northern Arizona Territory
At Jack Murphy's popular saloon, cowboys bellied up to the bar alongside newspaper editors, mercantile owners and railway workers. Miners and lumbermen tested their luck at the gambling tables, hoping to best gullible greenhorns or visiting card sharpsor simply to suss out which men fell into which of those two categories. Music plunked out at two cents per songbut only if those bits were tipped directly into the musician's overturned bowler, which he customarily placed atop his upright corner piano. Overlying it all came the tang of whiskey, the rich haze of cigarillo smoke and the earnest hum of business being conducted, gossip being told and men being men.
Among those men, Marielle Miller felt both comfortable and celebrated. For the past twelve of her thirty years, she'd been spending her nights in places just like Murphy's saloon, kicking up her skirts for profit and honing her skills at dancingand managing the men who watched her dance. Being both applauded and respected by those men was a tricky business. It was one Marielle had mastered, too. Unique among her fellow dance hall girls, Marielle excelled at making sure no one man stepped his spurred boots or battered brogans out of lineor got wrongheaded ideas about the smiles she tossed out while performing, either.
Her smiles were for show, meant to charm and entice. As near as Marielle could tell, they rightly did both of those things. But her smiles were all performance, approximately as genuine as the horsehair padding cleverly sewn into her costume to augment the curve of her hips and the swell of her bustline.
It wasn't that Marielle didn't enjoy dancing. She did. Especially with her current close-knit troupe and especially for a generous boss like Jack Murphy. But she didn't particularly enjoy the artifice involved. Or the wariness, either. More than most girls, Marielle knew she could not afford to invite the attention of a scoundrel. Or any man, really. She had too many responsibilities to see to. Until those responsibilities were properly sorted, there would be no offstage flirtation for her.
That's why, as Marielle stepped onstage in the full saloon early one ordinary Thursday evening, she began by sweeping the boisterous crowd with an assessing look. It was easy to spot the infatuated ranch hand, new to Morrow Creek, who nursed a single ale while casting lovesick glances at Jobyna Lawson, Marielle's fellow dancer and closest friend. It was similarly simple to identify the high-rolling faro player who believed his string of luck at the gaming table would also assure him feminine company for the night. Fortunately, Jack Murphy's faithful barkeep and cook Harry would correct that misapprehension quickly.
The dance hall girls at Murphy's saloon weren't disreputable. Their company wasn't for sale, either.
They were alllike Marielleentertainers, first and last.
Handily proving her proficiency at her profession, Marielle high-stepped across the stage in unison with her troupe, lit by blazing lamps and accompanied by rollicking piano music. She swooshed her skirts and then skipped to the side, executing a perfectly timed moveall while continuing her customary study of the saloon's patrons, both regulars and strangers. Alertness benefitted a dancing girl, Marielle knew. More than once, she'd been forced to duck flying bottles, shimmy away from shattering chairs or retreat to the back of the house to avoid gunfire.
At Jack Murphy's saloon, in peaceable Morrow Creek, such antics were almost unheard of. Certainly, newcomers to town sometimes tested the tranquility of the saloonand the resolve of the townspeople to keep it that waybut those ruffians never got far. Typically, one or more of the brawnier locals stepped in before disagreements could progress to full-on brawls. When that approach failed, Sheriff Caffey and his deputy Winston were available to handle problemsat least notionallybut most of the time, the lawmen's intervention wasn't necessary.
It was a good thing, too. Almost everyone in town knew that Sheriff Caffey and Deputy Winston were too busy enjoying the privileges of their positions to actually work on behalf of their badges. In a less tranquil town, they would have been ousted long ago. But in Morrow Creek, the need for a lawman arrived as infrequently as snow in the low country and lasted about as long. More often than not, the members of the Morrow Creek Men's Club found a way to deal with wrongdoers themselves.
Raising her arms and smiling more broadly, Marielle sashayed to the opposite side of the stage, her footsteps perfectly timed with her troupe's. From her new vantage point, she surveyed the men playing cards at a nearby saloon table. As the eldest member of her company, Marielle was responsible for seeing to her fellow dancers' safety. Even as she winked at the audience and then went on dancing, she went on watching, too.
Atop her head, her feathered and spangled headpiece bobbed with her movements, secured to her dark, upswept hair with multiple pins. Around her skipping feet, her costume's fancifully adorned skirts swirled. Her ensemble was of her own design, made for free movement and utmost prettification. It provided flash, flattery andunlike ordinary dressesnecessary if minimal modesty during high-stepping kick routines.
Thanks to her skill with a needle and thread, Marielle augmented her income from dancing quite conveniently. Along with supplying costumes to her hardworking fellow dancers, she also took in ordinary mending, tailoring and other seamstress's work for her neighbors. Between the twoher dancing and her sewingshe'd amassed a sizable nest egg which was undoubtedly providential, given that Marielle had begun feeling a little less excited than usual by the prospect of stepping onstage.
Just once, Marielle imagined, she'd have liked to have gone home at the end of a late evening not smelling of cheroots, Old Orchard and Levin's ale. She'd have liked to have had a more amenable scheduleone that didn't bring her to work at a time when most women were settling around the hearth with their families. She'd have liked to have had a family of her own, for that matter, with children to care for.
She'd have liked not to be required to noticeand deal withthe one dance hall girl in their troupe who was inevitably behaving foolishly.
This time, it was Etta, a girl who was newly arrived from cattle country. Unfortunately, she appeared to have about as much gracefulness and common sense as a dolledup heifer from her hometown. Plainly unaware of the need to retain a certain sensible distance from the saloon's customers, Etta was flirting with one of them instead. Even as their current dance reached its finale, Etta broke routine to pout and pose and toss pantomime kisses at the man while bawdily tossing her skirts.
Seeing those shenanigans, Marielle groaned inwardly. It was true that they needed another dancer in their troupe. Jobyna was getting married soon to her beau, Gordon "Snub" Sterling, so she wouldn't be performing anymore. That meant replacing her was a necessity. All the same, Marielle had recommended against allowing giggly Etta to try out tonight. She knew a calamity in the making when she saw it. Softhearted Jack Murphy had seen things differently. So had his wife, infamous suffragist Grace Murphy, who believed every woman deserved a chance to shine.
Currently, Etta was shining in the direction of a particularly disreputable-looking saloongoer. Dark haired, shadow bearded and broad shouldered, the man in Etta's sights packed eight feet of manliness in a six-foot package. He was brawny, relaxed and curiously uninterested in the glass of whiskey Harry had poured him. He was also, Marielle couldn't help noticing, wearing a gun belt with his clean and pressed dark clothes. Overall, the man had trouble written all over his attentive expression only Etta was too dense to realize it.
Given a saloon full of potential husbandsbecause doubtless that's how foolish Etta saw those men who watched her dance with their tongues all but lollingtheir troupe's giggly cattle country upstart had singled out the worst possible choice. He looked, to Marielle's dismay, like a typical territorial drifteralbeit, an absurdly handsome oneready to pick up and pull foot with no notice and no cares for anyone he left behind.
But if she were honest didn't all men look that way to her?
There wasn't a man alive who could be counted on, Marielle knew. Not the ones who wooed her with raw gold nugget tips. Not the ones who shyly stared at the saloon's sawdust-covered floor rather than meet her measuring gaze. Not the ones who proposed debauchery and ruination and an end to her wonderings about exactly what went on between cajoling men and the unwise women who loved them during a single scandalous evening at the nearby Lorndorff Hotel. Not even the ones who were related to her.
Marielle had never lacked for opportunities to give away her heart. She'd simply refused to accept any of them. Only a very reckless woman would have allowed herself to believe a man was the answer to her prayersat least not those involving heavy equipment, exacting machinery or ornery animals and maybe not even then. Only a woman like silly, still flirting Etta would have risked her potential employment with the company for the sake of trying to catch the eye of a wandering gunslinger.
Even as Marielle danced closer to Etta, trying to gain her cohort's attention without breaking rhythm, the drifter proved his fickleness by letting his gaze meander away from seductive, overpainted Etta directly to Marielle. Confidently, the stranger watched her dance. His dark-eyed gaze took in her swooshing skirts, her self-assured steps and her lace-adorned bosom, each in turn, then traveled up to her face. Shockingly, his attention lingered there. It was almost as though he truly saw her. Not her flashy costume, not her titillating movements, not her fan or her lightly painted lips or her spangled hips. Just her.
Deeply unsettled, Marielle faltered. On her way to silently but pointedly confront Etta, Marielle missed the next step. She could have sworn the rascal at the front row table actually quirked his lips in amusement at her mistakebut a moment later, she had larger problems to deal with. Literally. Because as she stumbled, Marielle accidentally veered in the direction of a drunken stageside cowboy who wasted no time in grabbing her.
"Yee-haw!" he whooped, clutching a fistful of spangles. "Lookee here, boys! I done lassoed myself a dance hall girl!"
More annoyed with Etta than with the cowboywho really couldn't be expected to behave himself under the influence of that much mescalMarielle attempted to dance away. Her exuberant admirer held fast, almost toppling her off the stage.
All right, then. The time for being accommodating was over.
Nearby, the piano player helpfully kicked into a new song, obviously noticing Marielle's predicament and trying to distract the cowboy into releasing her. Likewise, the other dancers around her sashayed into a new routine. They stepped in unison, twirling their fans. They gave winsome smiles. Their high-buttoned shoes flashed beneath their swirling skirts, providing ample entertainment with color and movement but the cowboy held fast, even as Marielle gave a determined yank away from him.
Fine. Fed up with being patient, she flashed him a direct, beguiling smile. Seeing it, the cowboy started. His face eased.
Any second now, he'd let her go, Marielle knew. The grabby types always did. Most of the time, they meant well. Some of the time, they even expected her to be flattered by their ham-handed attentions. Typically, when Marielle appeared to return their ardor, the ranch hands, cowboys and other small-time miscreants who tried to manhandle her came to their senses and behaved like gentlemen instead. Given the possibility of genuinely earning her attention, those men customarily gave up their groping.
Just as she'd known it would, the power of her smile worked its magic. The cowboy blinked. He grinned. He started to let go.
. And an instant later, all tarnation broke loose.
The drifter from the next table stood. Sternly, he said something to the cowboy. Marielle had the impression he'd been speaking to the man before then, but she hadn't heard him above the piano music. The cowboy shook his head in refusal. Then belligerently, with his fellow cow-punchers' encouragement, the cowboy shouted something back. Prudently seizing the opportunity provided by his distractedness, Marielle pulled away again.
Before she could free herself, the drifter's demeanor changed. He looked fearsome. That was the only word for it.
Taken aback by the change, she gawked. Several other saloon patrons stood and shouted, rapidly choosing sides in the developing melee. Marielle had a moment to examine the newly disorderly saloon, belatedly realize that most of Morrow Creek's unofficial town leadersincluding Daniel McCabe, Adam Corwin, Griffin Turner and others, weren't in attendanceand worry that things might go terribly wrong. Then the stranger pulled back his arm, grabbed the cowboy and punched him. With authority.
Dylan Coyle wasn't sure where he found the authority to deliver a sobering sockdolager to the grabby knuck who'd been manhandling the watchful, dark-haired dance hall girl. He wasn't part of Morrow Creek's self-appointed slate of local honchos. He had no duty to fulfill. In fact, he'd deliberately chosen not to embroil himself in a position of authority while in town.
Folks tended to want to rely on him, Dylan knew. But he was a wandering man. He wanted no part of putting down rootsespecially not in a town like Morrow Creek. As a community full of like-minded homesteaders, traders, workers and families, it was as wholesome as apple dumplings and as cozy as flannel sheets. It was the wrong kind of place for a no-strings type like him. That hadn't always been the case, but it was now.
In fact, now that he was done with the job he'd taken on in Morrow Creekworking as a security man for the mysterious proprietress of the Morrow Creek Mutual SocietyDylan was on his way out of town. He'd only stopped in Jack Murphy's saloon for a parting whiskey before catching the next train farther west.
But there were some things a good man couldn't put up with. Allowing a pie-eyed cowpuncher to inconvenience a woman was one of them. Letting that same knuck upset Dylan's glass of good whiskey as he'd stumbled toward the stage was another. Now, Dylan realized with a frown, every time he put on his favorite broad, flat-brimmed black hat, he'd smell like a distillery.
"Just remember," Dylan told the cowboy as the liquored-up fool swayed in his grasp, "I asked you nicely to let go. Now I'm going to ask you nicely to apologize to the lady. If you don't"
The dupe shouted something that was definitely not apologetic. It wasn't suitable for ladies' delicate ears, either. Hearing it, Dylan deepened his frown. If there was anything he believed in more than the necessity of savoring a good whiskey when it came his way, it was the sanctity of women. Evidently, here in the Western territories, they brewed up cowboys on the wrong side of sensible.
"You're going to want to apologize for that, too."