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CHAPTER ONE

 Territory of Arizona, 1877
 He’d kill Mason Burke if he weren’t already dead. Damn his will and that damned stipulation. Joshua Grant threw back a shot of rotgut, marveling at the dead man’s tenacity. Six feet under, and his uncle had still managed to get in the last word.         “Can I get ya’ anything else, Sheriff Grant?”  
         “Yeah, a wife.” Josh glanced up from the bullet-nicked bar to the scrunched-up face of its owner. “Never mind. Hit me with another shot. On second thought, make it a double.” His future as a wedded theater owner flashed before his eyes. “Hell. Just slide me the bottle and be done with it.
“Sure ‘nuff, Sheriff.”
“Stop calling me that.” He snatched up the quart bottle of whiskey Jimmy Hell slid his way. “I told you. I turned in my badge yesterday.”
The proprietor of Hell’s Drinkin’ Hole indicated the rowdy clientele with a flick of his tattered bar rag. “So that’s what this party’s for?” Smirking, the hairy-knuckled wiseass braced his beefy forearms on the splintered ledge of his bar and leaned forward. “Funny, but I can’t recall your reason for leaving town exactly.”
Josh leaned forward as well. “That’s because I never said exactly.” He straightened with a smile and let the taunt settle. Maybe it was the liquor or maybe he was just plain out of his head, but he almost felt giddy when Jimmy narrowed his eyes. Josh had been spoiling for a fight for days. Since Mason wasn’t available, he’d settle on the nearest pair of fists. Even if those fists were the size of Christmas hams.
Only Jimmy Hell’s attention shifted to the swinging doors. “What the . . . ?” His bushy brows cut into a stern V. “Here comes trouble. Good thing you’re here, Sheriff. I can’t afford another brawl this week. I’m down to six good tables and I’m lucky if I got ten chairs with all their legs.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Josh tore the cork out of the bottle with his teeth. Spitting it clean over the barkeep’s shoulder, he muttered, “I’ll be mindful of where I sit. And stop calling me Sheriff. I’m not the law anymore.” That said, he tipped the bottle to his lips and turned to see what form of trouble had stumbled into the saloon. Just for curiosity’s sake. He’d figured on spying Rosco Timbers or Newt Gibbons, two of Yuma’s more cantankerous yahoos, seeing that the mean-spirited Riley brothers were already in attendance. So he near about choked on his half-swallowed drink when he spotted the fresh-faced half-pint standing in the doorway, a bulging carpetbag in hand.
From a distance it was right hard to tell if the kid wearing baggy denim trousers, a faded-blue, knee-length shirt, and a dirt-brown fedora was a boy or a girl. A heartbeat later the half-pint stepped forward and tripped over Moe Wiggin’s king-sized boot. The hat went flying and ebony, waist-length hair spilled out.
One mystery solved.
Moe scooped up the fedora and plopped it back on the young woman’s head. She smiled at the old coot as she elbowed her way through the redeye-guzzling, cheroot-smoking crowd.
Josh knew everyone in and around Yuma. He didn’t recognize her. Cute as a baby coon, and his gut warned twice as bothersome.
The kid navigated her unwieldy bag through the maze of occupied tables and chairs, offering apologies as she bumped arms and legs along the way. Intrigued, Josh trained his gaze on the determined runt as she cut a deliberate path through the boodle of pokes and doves, suggesting she knew exactly where she was headed.
“If you got any four-legged chairs in the vicinity of the piano, Jimmy, I suggest you clear ‘em out.” Josh grabbed his quart bottle and trailed the girl. Maybe he’d get his fight after all. Unfortunately, his progress was hindered by a slew of well-wishers. Assorted doves kissed him for old-times sake. Friends and acquaintances slapped his back or pumped his arm in enthusiastic handshakes. They all wished him good luck. The law-abiding men of Yuma had insisted on throwing him this going-away party. Which was fine, dandy, and thoughtful, except he wasn’t all that pleased to be going.
That had been Mason’s idea.
“Damn him,” he muttered again for good measure. Miserable, and not near drunk enough, Josh tossed back a healthy swig of whiskey before vying for a spot behind Moe Wiggins, who stood on his one good leg outside a two-man-deep crowd. “What’s going on?”
Moe squinted at the kid who was in an animated discussion with the saloon’s pianist. “Ain’t sure. All I know is that Fingers was in the middle of Buffalo Gals and that girl elbowed her way in and put a stop to it.”
“Why?”
Moe squinted harder, as though it might somehow improve his hearing. “Can’t hear what she’s sayin’.”
Neither could Josh. His party had grown from loud to deafening. Jimmy Hell was right about one thing. Trouble was brewing. He could see that even in his bleary-eyed state.
“Whatever she’s up to,” Moe said, “it ain’t good.”  
“It ain’t my concern.” But, for the life of him, he couldn’t tear his gaze from the petite female. A cute little bunny trapped by a pack of wolves, the sharpest teeth belonging to Burgess and Billy Riley.
Moe drained his beer, sleeved a dribble of brew from his pointy chin. “You’ve never been one to let a boilin’ pot overflow.”
“I’m no longer the law in these parts.” Josh figured if he repeated it enough times, he’d get used to the idea. Still and all, he couldn’t bring himself to ignore the baby-faced tomboy. The need to protect was a right hard habit to break. 
Unable to resist, he moved closer to the action.
“You don’t understand, sir.” She dropped her bag near the rickety piano and shook a cramp from her hand. “This is an emergency. I’m in desperate need of your instrument. If you would only accommodate me—”
“Accommodate ya’?” Fingers raised an amused eyebrow above the rim of his wired spectacles. “Ain’t never heard it called that before, honey.”
His drunken entourage snickered.
“You needn’t worry,” she hurried on. “I’m very good.”
Fingers’s other eyebrow shot up. “You don’t say?”
She smiled and nodded. “I promise you, you’ll enjoy it.”
Josh bit back a groan. How naïve could one girl be not to realize how a whole passel of men were twisting her innocent words?
“Listen,” Fingers said, mopping his brow as though the temperature had shot up from eighty to a hundred. “I’m in the middle of a slew of requests. Give me a few minutes and
then—”
“A few minutes? It’s been days!”  
“That long?” Fingers traded a smirk with the leering audience. “Well, now. I reckon I could take a short break.” He pinned her with a smarmy look. “Just how good are ya’, honey?”
“My brothers think I’m excellent.”
The pianist hooted. “Your brothers?”
Owl-eyed and eager for details, the snickering mob leaned forward. Josh swayed right along with them.  
The girl blinked at Fingers. A few seconds later a blush crept up her neck, making a beeline for her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have . . . it’s just that I’m . . .” She waved off her words and glanced toward an empty table. “I’ll wait over there until you’ve finished your requests.”
Relieved, Josh reached back to massage a crick from his neck. At least the kid had sense enough to vamoose before things turned ugly.
Burgess Riley clamped his burly hand over her wrist and whirled her back around. “What’s your hurry, sweet thing? If Fingers there ain’t willin’ to accommodate ya’, I sure as hell am.”
“Me, too!” chimed his brother.
Her face lit up like a noonday sky. “You have a piano, too?”
The crowd guffawed.
Josh rolled his eyes. The twinge in his neck pinched.     
“No piano. But don’t worry. We’ll make our own music.” Burgess forced her hand over the crotch of his filthy trousers. “Let’s put them talented fingers to good use. What do ya’ say, wildcat?”
Josh chucked his whiskey bottle and pushed forward. Here comes the fight.
The kid acted faster, kneeing Burgess square in the crotch.
For the love of . . . Josh grimaced as the man’s wounded howl sliced through him and every other man in the gurdy. 
Wide-eyed, the raven-haired ball-buster turned to run and slammed into Billy’s scrawny chest.
Flashing a gap-toothed grin, he snatched her up. “Gotcha!”
She hauled back that same deadly leg and kicked him in the shin. Billy dropped her and yowled. Hopping up and down on one foot, he spewed obscenities raunchy enough to make a hash slinger blush.
Looking only slightly embarrassed, the girl backed into a wobbly-legged Burgess.
Grabbing her by the forearms, the yahoo hauled her backside hard against his injured region and snarled. “You’ve messed with the wrong man, sweet thing.”
Josh moved faster this time. When the girl wrenched left he threw a right, ramming his knuckles into Burgess’s mouth. The man flew backward, the kid with him.
Quick as lightning, Josh snatched her up and into his arms. The fedora tumbled to the floor, allowing him a full view of her heart-shaped face. The patrons’ slurred heckles faded to a drone as he studied the petite minx up close and intimate like. Her smooth complexion, almighty pale in contrast to her dark hair, suggested she spent more time indoors than out. A surprise, given her tomboy appearance. Even more surprising was the jolt of lust he felt when he gazed into her walnut-brown eyes, eyes that sparkled with an intoxicating mixture of innocence and desire. She quirked a shy smile and a queer lump lodged in his throat. “What the hell?”
His gruff tone snapped her out of her moony-eyed daze. Blushing now, the girl struggled like a roped stallion to gain her freedom. “Let me go, you big ape!”
The crowd’s whoops and hollers intensified as another skirmish heated up between the Riley boys and a couple of do-gooders. Josh was too busy protecting his gingambobs from Miss Musicmaker’s deadly knee and—Christ almighty—elbows to pay much mind.  
“Watch out!”
At Moe’s warning, Josh dipped the feisty minx just as an empty bottle whizzed past her pretty head. At the same time a chair sailed through the air, shattering the front pane. An out-and-out brawl erupted. Thanks to Mason, Josh had a lifetime of bar brawls ahead of him. From what he’d heard, the patrons of the Desert Moon opera house were a rowdy bunch.
At least his new life wouldn’t be dull.
He glanced down at the pissed off half-pint. “Let’s get you out of here, sweetheart.”
“I’m not your sweetheart.”
“Whose sweetheart are you?”
“No one’s.” Scowling, she reached behind her and tried prying his hands from her waist. “I . . . I mean someone’s. Some big fellow. An ox of a man who’s going to beat you to a pulp if you don’t let me go.”
“You’re a terrible liar.” He hiked her higher in his arms and caught a whiff of her glossy hair. Lilacs. The sweet, flowery scent blindsided him, stealing him back to his childhood. A time he preferred to forget. Squashing the bittersweet memories before they reached full bloom, Josh focused on the swinging doors.  
Three men crashed into a nearby table, fists flying. Cursing, he hastened his steps, the girl’s best interests at heart. Damn if the menace didn’t struggle harder as he hauled her out of harm’s way.
“I’m warning you, mister!”
“Warn away.”
She elbowed him in the gut.
A second later she kicked him in the shin.
“You’re making it difficult for me to behave in a valiant fashion here, kid.”
She slapped at his hands. “Don’t make me hurt you.”
Josh laughed for the first time in over a week.  
Two feet from the doors, she twisted in his arms, reared back and socked him.
“Son of a—” He bit off the curse and worked his offended jaw. “What’d you do that for?”
“I’m sorry. But I did warn you.”
“So you did. Now I’m warning you. Stop fussing. We’re leaving.”
“But—”
            “I warned you.” Grinning, he hauled her up and over his shoulder like a sack of grain and whisked her from the saloon.
The rowdy mob cheered. 




Comments

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