So Duke takes some advice from an unlikely source—the ladies of the Tulips Saloon. These women have brought him much pain with their meddling, but if he's ever going to marry the woman he loves, he'll have to follow their "recipe" for success. Because no matter what it takes, Duke is going to spend his life with Liberty—even if that means softening up around the edges. After all, a man has to do what a man has to do!
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"Most of the memorable women, fiction or nonfiction, have been willing to raise a little hell."
—Liberty Wentworth, throwing caution to the wind
It was Ladies Only Day in the Tulips Saloon in Tulips, Texas, but Sheriff Duke Forrester pitched the heavy glass-and-wood doors open anyway, drawing a gasp from the crowd of women clustered around something in the center of the room.
The ladies were, as usual, hiding something from him. In this town, named by women, and mostly run by women—it was true that behind every good woman there was a woman who'd taught her everything she knew—he had learned to outmaneuver both the younger and the older population of ladies bent on intrigues of the social, sexual and conspiratorial varieties.
"I heard," he said, his voice a no-nonsense drawl, "that Liberty Wentworth was back in town. You ladies wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
Every one of them shook her head as the women tightened their circle. It was, he decided, almost an engraved invitation for him to storm their protective clutch and find out what they were up to. By now, they should know he was on to them. Oh, he'd let them have their way when they'd wanted to name the town cafeteria a saloon—they said a saloon sounded so much more dramatic to tourists who wanted that "old west experience." But he wouldn't let them have their way this time.
Liberty Wentworth, his ex-fiancée, was trying to keep her return to Tulips a secret, he was sure, with a backing of blue-haired friends. Some silver-haired friends, too, depending on what Holt, the resident hairdresser, was mixing up for his clients. Duke was pretty certain Holt's colorful creations were a reflection of the man's current mood, but the ladies loved him, calling him "sympathetic" to their cause.
Mostly, their cause was outwitting the sheriff, and this was plot number ninety-nine, give or take a few. Duke grinned, edging a foot closer to the ladies. Their faces grew worried with round-eyed concern.
"Now, this is Ladies Only Day," Helen Granger said sternly. "Sheriff, you know that means no gentlemen in here."
"Considering there are, what, maybe ten men in this town of fifty residents, I have to take exception to the rule. I think you ladies just like one day when you know I personally won't be allowed in."
"Is one day of sisterhood too much to ask?" Helen demanded. "One day of female bonding in our saloon? Hentalk can't interest you that much, Sheriff."
The hentalk comment gave them away, Duke decided, craning his neck to see what they were hiding. Women never called their chatter "hen-talk," and if a man called it that, he'd lose his hat from the gale-force wind of them yelling it off his head. "I notice Holt is excluded from The Rule," he said silkily.
"Well, Holt's different," Pansy Trifle explained. "You know he is. Not like yourself at all. Not so manly," she said, sucking up and trying to flatter his ego.
Ha. He had no ego. Liberty Wentworth had taken care of his ego six months ago when she'd left him at the altar, her little feet in high-heeled white shoes running as fast as they could away from him, her veil flying behind her like a banner ribbon of surrender to freedom.
"All right, ladies," he said, gently moving Pansy to one side. "Let's see what you're up to this time."
Immediately after he'd parted the women, he wished he hadn't felt such an urge to play his manly role of plot-buster. Because there in the center of the sheltering circle of her friends was Liberty Wentworth, the blond bombshell who had detonated his heart, still possessing the face of an angel and wearing the white wedding gown of his never-ending fantasies. Nightmares, really. His heart began an uncomfortable pounding as she stared up into his eyes. If life were fair, he'd whip out his handcuffs right now and snap them on her fragile wrists so she'd be completely at his mercy.
Unfortunately, as much as the thought of Liberty in sexual bondage was a highly desirable situation, the ladies would beat him to death with parasols, tea trays and opinions. He had only one course of action left to him, one source of honor for his masculine pride.
He turned on his boot heel and walked out the door, surrendering to the sanctity of Ladies Only Day and hiding the sudden pain in his chest. Liberty was clearly planning on marrying another man, in the dress she'd worn to their non-wedding, no less. The woman was a serial marital tornado, he decided, putting himself in a better mood by pitying the next poor sap who was going to get his heart squashed by her now.
He despised Ladies Only Day with a passion. Five minutes later, Duke was safely corralled inside his office at the jailhouse. It was dark and quiet, and that was good. He needed a moment or two to regroup, and to curse privately.
Duke put his hand up, warding off the greeting from the jail cell's erstwhile occupant. "Not now, Mr. Parsons." Duke sat heavily in the worn leather chair he'd inherited from the previous occupant of the sheriff's position, Mrs. Gaines. Mr. Parsons's silky-haired golden retriever, Jimbo, came to lay his head on the corner of Duke's desk, giving him a soulful, sympathetic gaze. Actually, the damn dog was Duke's, and actually, her name was Molly. But about the time Liberty decided to jilt him, Molly had also jilted him, leaving him for the warm, frequent, measured stroking Mr. Parsons offered her. Since Mr. Parsons had once owned a dog named Jimbo, whom he'd adored, Molly had undergone a psychic personality transformation—or a theoretical sex change—and become Jimbo. The rest was history. Duke stared at his meekly sympathetic dog, who was really a traitor in gorgeous fur come back to taunt him. Much like Liberty. Traitor. "All females are traitors," he stated flatly to Mr. Parsons.
"Not necessarily," Mr. Parsons replied. He'd finished making his bed and was picking up a broom to sweep out his cell. The cell door was open because Mr. Parsons was a volunteer occupant. He kept his cell cleaner than most folks kept their homes, so Duke had quit arguing with him about the fact that eventually he'd have to give up the cell for some vagrant or deserving troublemaker. Mr. Parsons had also deemed himself Duke's secretary, so the man was of some use, even if his messages were indecipherable more often than not. "Mrs. Parsons was no traitor, though I often suspected she spied on me for the KGB."
Duke rubbed his forehead under his hatband. "Liberty is a spy," he said, jumping on the conspiracy theory because he was tired and annoyed. And heartbroken. "She's a spy for the TSG."
"Tulips Saloon girls?"
"Tulips Saloon Gang. Believe me, they are a gang."
"Women tend to run as a pack," Mr. Parsons observed. "And that's where the fun is usually to be found. I'd run with their gang if they'd let me."
Duke leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Molly-Jimbo's head moved from his desk to his leg, and she gave an empathetic tweet of shared misery, which he appreciated so much that he put his hand down to enjoy the feeling of her silky ear between his fingers. "Just like Liberty's hair," he murmured.
"Pardon?" Mr. Parsons said.
Duke ignored him. Truth was, the old man was mostly quiet, and he had Duke's dog, and Duke figured that was as practical a reason as any to let good company hang around. Mainly, he didn't want to be completely alone with his thoughts, which always returned in ragged fashion to Liberty Wentworth.
LIBERTY ADJUSTED the flowing folds of her wedding
gown and told her racing heart to quiet itself after Duke's departure. "Duke only got half the surprise."
Helen and Pansy fluttered around her. "A man doesn't need to be overwhelmed with information," Pansy said. "I think the sheriff took in all he could handle for the moment."
"He asked for it," Helen said crossly. "If a man walks through those doors on our special day, then he's asking to get an education in women's ways."
The other ten or so women in the room nodded. One handed Liberty a tissue; another went and loaded up a plate of cookies that had been brought over from the neighboring town of Union Junction by Valentine Jefferson. She was the owner of the bakery there, and had given them the idea to start a Ladies Only Day. Her Men's Only Day in Union Junction—a celebration of males, masculinity and fatherhood—had been a big success and had done much to boost the morale of the town.
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, Liberty thought to herself. A day just for women, where they could bond with each other and share their most personal triumphs and disappointments.
She had come here today just for this brand of womanly comfort. "I'm sorry," Liberty said. "I've put all of you in a bad spot now."
"Nonsense," Pansy said, her posture stout and determined. "As far as Sheriff Duke is concerned, we are always in a bad spot. We like it that way!"
Liberty smiled at her friend's pluck. "That's right," Helen agreed. "We're determined to go out of this world raising hell, and Duke makes such an excellent foil for our objectives."