Willow Creek, Montana Territory, 1869
Walking into a saloon in broad daylight wasn’t the smartest thing she’d ever done, but what choice did she have?
Bold red letters scrawled onto a piece of wood hung by the saloon door. No Ladies Allowed, it read, the rope holding it in place so frayed the entire thing hung at an odd angle. Abigail ignored the warning and approached the building, glancing down the wooden boardwalk in both directions to see if anyone was watching her. No one was. The residents of Willow Creek were hustling about, minding their own business, and she preferred it that way. The less attention she drew to herself, the better off she was. Placing a hand on the swinging door of the saloon she leaned up on her toes and peeked over the top, taking a look inside.
Tables were scattered around the room, most of them covered in green baize. Men sprawled around the gaming tables while a few more stood leaning against the ornate bar that spanned the entire left hand wall. The largest mirror she’d ever seen hung behind it, giving her a glimpse of the back of the room. A piano stood along the far right wall, a man sitting behind it pinging out tinny notes in a lively tune.
A staircase was situated near the piano and a glance up showed a balcony surrounding the main room. A number of doors were seen at the top, all closed. The sign by her left shoulder wasn’t entirely correct, she realized, as she saw the women who lingered at the top of the stairs. There were women inside the Diamond Back Saloon but calling them ladies would have been a stretch. Their bright sateen dresses were more revealing than Abigail’s underclothes and that, along with the faded feathers in their hair, gave her the impression of colorful birds. The term “Soiled Dove” came to mind and Abigail knew now where the phrase had surely originated.
The men inside the establishment ranged from dusty cowpokes to those of a more upscale lifestyle. They all shared one common attribute, with their hard liquor in hand and the attention they showed the women lingering around the room. The men inside the Diamond Back hadn’t a care in the world, it seemed. Unlike herself. Would she make things worse by venturing inside?
Abigail turned and walked back to the edge of the wooden walkway, looking at what the residents of Willow Creek considered a town. A rickety row of buildings ran on both sides of the muddy road. The Imperial Hotel caught her attention. From the whitewashed walls and colorful curtains, it stood out amongst the other buildings. In a place as small and out of the way as Willow Creek, the hotel was indeed the fanciest thing around. The name suited it. She longed to walk inside the door and find out just how grand it was. Maybe get a room and spend the rest of the evening doing nothing but relaxing in a tub of hot, clean water and eating until her belly wouldn’t hold anymore. The remaining funds resting in the bottom of her reticule gave a small “ting” when she bounced it against her leg. She’d be lucky to have enough coins to buy her supper. Glancing at the Stagecoach station, she wondered if the food offered there was cheaper than she knew the hotel’s fare would be.
It made little difference. One meal wouldn’t solve her problems. The only thing she could do was walk into the saloon and find the only man who could help her, assuming he would.
She turned and straightened her spine, giving the wide saloon doors a brief glance before marching forward. A small push on the swinging doors was all it took to grant her entrance and once she stepped inside to the tobacco juice strewn sawdust floor, she regretted her decision. Every person in the room turned to look at her. The piano music stopped, the clatter of glasses and chitchat came to an abrupt halt. Abigail sucked in a breath, raised her chin and turned to the bar, making her way toward it and ignoring the stares the patrons were giving her.
“You shouldn’t be in here.” The deep baritone of the bartender slashed at her composure but she ignored him as the music and laughter once again started.
“I’m in need of assistance,” she said, adding a smile to try and gain his favor.
“Unless you’re looking for a job I can’t help ya.” He sat the glass in his hand down and draped the towel he’d used to try and clean it with over his shoulder. The ungentlemanly leer he threw at her would have earned any other man a slap across his daring face. She wasn’t about to try it with this one. Besides, the last man she’d slapped was still chasing her.
The bartender grinned and gave her another accessing glance. Abigail could tell by the look on his face he’d jumped to the wrong conclusion. “We can always use new girls around here.” He grinned, his thick mustache curling up as his mouth moved. “I’m sure the boys would make you a rich woman in no time.”
Ribald laughter from the men standing at the bar followed his comment and caused Abigail’s face to burn hot. She knew her skin had turned blotchy without even looking. It always did when she blushed and his remark caused her entire body to flush hot. “No,” she said, the sound coming out a mere squeak. “I’m not looking for work.” She swallowed the lump forming in her throat and took another steadying breath. “The Stagecoach driver walked in here a few minutes ago. If you could just direct me to him, I’ll be on my way.”
The bartender was young. Or he appeared to be. The usual signs of a full life hadn’t lined his face. His skin was only slightly tanned from the sun, his black hair had very little gray in it, and the sloping mustache hiding all but his bottom lip curved ever so slightly as he grinned down at her. She smiled back, hoping the friendly gesture would help. The way his gaze slid down to her breast let her know otherwise.
“Pete is a might busy at the moment,” the bartender told her, leaning down and bracing his arms on the top of the bar. “He’s up with Miss Chloe.” He nodded to the second floor balcony and Abigail knew what the stagecoach driver, Pete, was doing. “Now, unless you’re willing to work upstairs, you best hightail it out of here. Sign says no ladies allowed.”
“I see.” Taking a glance over her shoulder, Abigail looked around the room again. The piano was tinkling out another tune and the chatter of those inside the saloon returned as the patrons went back to their previous card games. The activity going on upstairs was obvious and the stagecoach driver would be hours in coming back down. Unless she could get someone to go speak with him. She turned back to face the bartender. “Could you send him a message for me, then?”
A ruckus erupted near the door and a group of men ambled in from the street. Abigail knew by the looks of them she shouldn’t be inside the saloon. Saddle bums, by all appearances. The dirt and grime on their clothes would be hard to wash out, if ever. Their stench clouded the air from halfway across the room and their vulgar language was enough to cause her cheeks to burn hot again.
The bartender gave a gruff order to, “Git on out of here missy and don’t come back,” before dismissing her. Abigail had no choice but to do as he said. Raising a fuss would only draw more attention to herself and she couldn’t afford to make that mistake.
Holding her reticule close to her stomach, she gave him a soft, “Thank you,” and made her way to the door as the men came closer. She’d nearly reached her destination when one of the men grabbed her, his arm wrapping around her waist and pulling her feet right off the floor, before he hugged her to him.
“What do we got here?” His foul breath caused Abigail’s stomach to heave. He gave her a squeeze, his fingers biting into her ribs.
“Let me go, please.” She gasped when his hold on her tightened. He laughed, the men who came in with him doing the same as they looked up toward the balcony. She followed their gaze and saw the women who lingered along the railing.
The arm around her waist pulled her tighter and Abigail’s eyes widened when his free hand came to rest on her left breast. She gave a shriek and his laughter echoed inside her head before she stiffened and kicked back with both heels. “Let me go!”
“Woo-wee, I got me a live one, boys!” The men inside the saloon laughed and their hoops and holler’s grew as she struggled to get loose. The hand on her breast didn’t relent but another kick to his shins was enough to get him to let go. She dropped to her feet, her face flushed, and her heart racing inside her chest.
He grinned at her. What teeth he did possess were so discolored she grimaced. “There’s been a terrible mistake.” She darted a glance up the stairs again when the man’s friends started toward the second floor.
“Aint no mistake.” His gaze ran the length of her body and even though her dress was a modest cut, she felt violated when his leer lingered on her breasts. “I got money and lots of it. I’ll take ya til morning. You’ll be lucky to walk by the time I’m through with ya.”
“I don’t think so,” she mumbled. She forced a smile onto her face and straightened her spine. “I was just leaving. I’m sure one of the—ladies upstairs will be more than happy to take your money.”
The man turned his head and looked up toward the balcony. Abigail eased toward the door while he did. She’d nearly made it when he turned back to her. “They’re mighty purdy but I think I’ll keep ya just the same.”
Abigail was mortified. Less than an hour in town and she’d been abandoned by a would-be-husband, left homeless and destitute, and now she was being mistaken for a whore. Could her day get any worse? “I’m afraid you don’t understand. I’m not—” She didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence. The man grabbed her, tossed her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and started for the stairs. She vaguely heard the bartender yell something as the man’s booted feet hit the stairs. “Put me down this instance!” She smacked a fist against his back, kicking her feet as the saloon patrons erupted into ear-splitting laughter. Abigail struck his stomach with a knee and he stumbled, smacking her into the stair railing. A few more wild struggles and he dropped her. Hard.
The impact with the stairs left her dazed but shaking her head cleared her vision. When she glanced at the man, the look on his face wasn’t the jovial one she’d seen moments ago. Jumping to her feet, Abigail ran past him and back down the stairs. She was halfway across the room before he caught her.
“Let her go,” the bartender said, coming around the side of the bar. “There’s girls upstairs more than willing to take your money.”
“Don’t want them,” the man said. “I want this one and I’m gonna have her.”
When he reached for her again, Abigail reacted by instinct. She slapped him. The contact with his face stung her hand and the sound rang throughout the room. The laughter grew, the man’s face contorted and the rage in his eyes was that of a wild bull. She saw his fist coming toward her, gasped, then ducked. The wild punch landed on the bartender instead and the man shouted out a string of curses before he threw his own fist into the fray, hitting the man back in return.
An exchange of punches caused the bartender to slam into one of the tables and ruined a high stakes poker game. The men around the table cursed, scrambled for the money littering the floor, and were embroiled in their own fights within seconds. The furniture around the room was utilized to add to the pain inflicted by those joining the brawl and the chaos that followed was destructive enough for Abigail to hope she didn’t have to pay for it all.
She crawled to the bar amongst the broken glass, chair legs and sawdust and crouched into the corner to watch with frightened eyes. When a man landed within inches of her, she let out a startled shriek, jumped to her feet and ran for the door—and right into the arms of a man entering from the street.
The top of her head barely reached his wide shoulders and the shocked expression on his face wasn’t enough to draw her attention from the greenest eyes she’d ever seen. Framed by long, dark lashes those eyes held a bit of mischief that some wild part of her wanted to explore.
He stared down at her, his hands on her arms tightening just a fraction before he smiled. Someone crashed into her back, knocking them both into the wall. One of the men fighting at their back threw a wild punch. It landed right in the middle of the newcomers face. The back of his head slammed into the wall, blood sprayed from his nose and his eyes rolled back into his head. When he fell, he dragged her with him.
She landed astraddle his hips, the blood from his nose splattered the front of her dress, ran across his cheek and down over his bearded chin. Sitting up and resting her hands on his chest, Abigail could only stare. That’s when she saw it. The shiny silver badge on the front of his vest, the word Marshal engraved into it. “Oh no,” she breathed out shakily. “What have I done?”
* * * *
Morgan felt a weight on his chest and opened his eyes. A woman sat on top of him, her wide, blue eyes staring down at him with shock and a hint of fear. The sight of her breasts so close to his face let him ignore that little fact and concentrate instead on the woman herself. The front of her dress was covered in what looked like blood, a few dots of red sprinkled across her cheeks, and her blonde locks tumbled loose from the pins holding it back and left curls to dangle around her face. A glance down the length of his body confirmed what he thought. She was sitting on him, straddling his hips, and the warmth of her pressed so intimately against his groin spread within seconds of the realization.
He moaned and enjoyed the fact he had a warm female on top of him. She wasn’t the one he’d come to see but taking another glance at her face, he had to admit she was a pretty little thing. He grinned up at her and relaxed his body, taking in the weight of her. “I usually prefer a bit of privacy and a warm bed but if you have some yearning for people to watch, I might be willing… long as it’s one of your female friends doing the watching.”
She gasped and scrambled off of him, climbing to her feet while her face splotched red as she blushed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble.”
Morgan stared up at her, confused by what she said, when the ruckus going on around him finally registered. It was then the pain thumping through his face penetrated his foggy brain. He turned to look around the saloon and seeing the fights reminded him of someone hitting him the moment he walked through the door.
The Diamond Back Saloon was nearly destroyed from what he could see. Only a few tables remained standing, the chairs were scattered from one end of the room to the other and broken glass shined up from the sawdust floor like small diamonds. The only person who seemed unaffected was the piano player who continued to ping out notes as if nothing were happening.
He sat up, a groan escaping as the throbbing in his head increased. He spotted Vernon Wilkes, the bartender, and yelled out to him. “Vernon, what the hell is going on?”
The bartender turned to him and got a beefy fist to the side of his head for the trouble. Morgan let out a curse and crawled to his feet and staggered twice before regaining his balance. When the room stopped spinning, he crossed the space and grabbed the man currently beating the living daylights out of Vernon and tossed him into a group of four more men, all neck deep in their own fights before helping Vernon to his feet. “What started this?” The bartender grimaced, spit out a mouthful of blood before turning to look toward the door. Morgan followed his gaze. The woman was still there, her frightened eyes wide as she took in the scene.
“That’s what started it,” Vernon bit out, pointing to her with a bloody hand. “She aint got no business in here, marshal.”
Morgan leveled her with a questioning look. “Stay right there. I’ll deal with you in a minute.” Turning back to the barroom, he watched the melee for a few minutes while deciding what to do. With the girls upstairs, grabbing his gun and shooting a few rounds into the ceiling to get the men’s attention wasn’t possible. Breaking them up by hand was the only course of action he knew of. And the most painful. He sighed and straightened his shoulders. “This is going to hurt like hell,” he mumbled to himself before throwing himself into the fray.
For the second time that day, someone punched him in the face. He’d be barely recognizable by tomorrow, he figured. The pain already throbbed and his left eye felt a little funny. Swelling shut, he figured. Morgan shouted a curse and swung back, grimacing at the loud cracking pop he heard as the man’s nose broke and blood spilled down over his grizzled chin. Two more came at him, grabbing him around the middle and slamming him into the only remaining upright table. They crashed to the floor and it took long seconds for his lungs to refill with air. Crawling to his feet, he grabbed the first man he saw and slung him into the wall. “Stay right there or I’ll throw you under the jail!” To his surprise, the man did just that.
It took longer than it should have to get the men to calm down. By the time the last one had found somewhere to sit and cool off, Miss Angelina herself had come downstairs to tend to the wounds of those needing a woman’s gentle touch. She instructed her girls to take care of the men and before the dust had settled, more than half the barroom was headed to the second floor to have some soft, willing woman help soothe their wounded pride.
Everyone but him, that is.
Morgan didn’t think there was a spot of flesh on his body that didn’t ache. Blood leaked from cuts too numerous to count, his lip was split and his left eye was definitely swelling shut. He turned and looked back toward the bar, the woman who ran into him upon entering the saloon still standing where he told her to. She was against the wall, her bag clutched in her hands tight enough to cause her knuckles to shine white from across the room. When she lifted her head and looked at him, giving him a smile that said everything in the world was perfect, his hellish week caught up with him in a flash.
All he’d wanted since getting back into town was to wash the dust from his throat with the strongest rot-gut whiskey Vernon could offer him and have a tumble with one of the little ladies upstairs. What he got instead was her. The blonde he’d found straddling his lap when he woke up from a fist-induced sleep. He stared at her as she looked around the room. She was pretty but now that she was standing, he could see how small she actually was. A little scrawny for his tastes. He liked his women plump with big breasts and eager appetites for sinful pleasures. The diminutive blonde, who shouldn’t have been inside the saloon to begin with according to Vernon, looked tame as a kitten. Too bad, he thought. He would have willingly took his frustrations out between her thighs but if Vernon said she didn’t belong here, then he believed him.
Crossing the room to where she stood, he stopped inches in front of her. “Who are you?” She didn’t answer. Instead, she stared up at him with those large blue eyes of hers, her jaw held at an arrogant angle. Morgan waited and braced his hands on his hips. And then waited some more. “Well?” he asked, irritated at her silence. “I don’t have all day. Spit it out.”
He saw her throat work as she swallowed. “Abigail. Abigail… uh, Thornton.”
“Well, Abigail Thornton, would you like to explain to me what the hell you’re doing in the saloon?”
She stared at his chest and Morgan followed her gaze. His badge was crooked. When she said, “This has all been a terrible misunderstanding,” he looked back up.
“Is that what you’d call this?” Morgan turned to look at the now destroyed saloon behind him. He crossed his arms over his chest when he turned back to face her, studying her as she stood there unmoving. Her dress wasn’t very revealing but the fabric was a deep green wool with fancy lace trimming around the neck and cuffs. He didn’t know much about women’s fashion but that dress was unlike any he’d seen around Willow Creek. It was too fancy by half. He’d never seen her before either and he knew the stagecoach had come into town. He’d seen it sitting by the station on his way from the jail. She was a newcomer and trouble if he’d ever seen it.
“I would,” she said, her chin lifting a small fraction. “The bartender can tell you that.”
Morgan glanced at Vernon, who had stepped behind the bar and was currently trying to clear the broken glass off the top of it. “Is she right?”
Vernon snorted and gave the woman a sneer. “This is why women aren’t allowed in here, marshal, and you know it! They aint nothing but trouble. I told her she couldn’t be in here but did she listen?”
His head was throbbing now and Morgan wanted nothing more than to take to his bed and sleep for a week, with or without the comfort of a willing body next to him. He looked at Abigail again, leaning his head to one side. She was wafer thin but that little dress clung to shapely curves even he couldn’t help but notice. Her breasts were full, if not a bit on the small side, but they were high and quite perky. Her hair was falling down around her face and it softened her look a bit and made her appear to be innocent. Almost. His irritation grew the longer she stood there unmoving. She was looking at anything but him and he wasn’t getting anywhere questioning her. What was she doing here? Since she seemed uneager to tell, he figured she was just down on her luck and looking for work. Why else would a woman come into a saloon? His reason for coming inside latched onto that little morsel. “Are you a whore?” he asked, a small part of him hoping she was.
She gasped, her face turning blood red before splotches broke out across her neck. “I most certainly am not!”
“Are you looking to be one?”
Her lips turned bloodless as she pinched them together. The fire in her eyes caused one corner of his mouth to tilt up and her chest heaved as her breaths were huffed out. Definitely not a whore.
“I am a lady,” she said, indignant.
Morgan raised one eyebrow. “A lady in a saloon?”
“I was looking for the stagecoach driver if you must know.”
“Well, I asked you ten minutes ago what the hell you were doing in here. Why didn’t you just say so?”
She pinched the bridge of her nose and let out a long sigh. “May I go now?”
Her head snapped up, those pretty blue eyes widening again. “Why ever not?”
“Well, let’s see.” Morgan lifted a hand and scratched the week’s worth of beard that had grown in while he was on the trail. “There’s the issue of you being inside the bar, for one. The sign outside clearly says, you can’t come in here. There’s also the matter of the fight, the damage to the saloon and let’s not forget the damage done to me.” He pointed to his still throbbing face for emphasis.
“Fine.” She turned toward Vernon and smiled prettily. “Mr. Vernon, I’m very sorry about your establishment. I’ll not come inside again.” When she turned to him, the smile disappeared. “As for you, Marshal, I’m sorry for your trouble.”
The woman had the nerve to turn on her heel and stroll out of the saloon with the regal air of a queen. Morgan snorted a laugh at her audacity before following her outside. She was crossing the street and he had to run to catch up with her. “Where do you think you’re going?”
She stopped, turned to look at him and blew out a long breath. “Away from the saloon. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“Not exactly.” A wagon forced them out of the road and Abigail Thornton dismissed him again as if he wasn’t even standing there. She walked toward the stagecoach station, her booted feet clicking against the wooden sidewalk in rapid little taps. He followed her and grabbed her arm so she couldn’t walk away again. “We’re not through, Mrs. Thornton.”
“It’s Miss,” she said, that little chin of hers lifting again. “And please unhand me.”
He would have laughed the entire mess off if her high-handed demand hadn’t been laced with total contempt. The look in her eyes scalded him to the bone. He knew he looked like hell. He’d been riding the countryside in pursuit of an outlaw for the past week. He probably stank to high heaven, his beard was scraggly and itched like the dickens and his clothes would have to be burned. Not to mention the damage done to his face after that bar brawl she started. Well, according to Vernon, she did. He’d yet to hear the entire story. Regardless, that still didn’t give her the right to treat him like a no-good saddle bum. He was the marshal, damn it, and she’d treat him with the respect he deserved.
Staring down at her, every ache, cut and bruise throbbing and pulsing, he knew she was the reason for it. The ache in his long neglected groin was her fault too. The blood pumping through his veins heated at the defiant look in her eyes and the thought of what to do with her was suddenly clear. “Miss Thornton, you have no idea how happy it makes me to tell you that you’re under arrest.”
She gasped and jumped back from him, her arm jerking from his grasp. “Under arrest? What for?”
Her outrage soothed some of his aches and Morgan gave her a smug smile before answering her. “We’ll start with disturbing the peace and add entering a gentleman’s establishment, damage to personal property and careless endangerment of a federal marshal. That should be enough to keep you out of trouble for quite a while. Or at least until the circuit judge gets back into town.”
The look on her face would have caused him to laugh if it wouldn’t have hurt so damn much. Even a tiny smile hurt. It pulled the edges of his busted lip but he managed a cruel imitation of one just to annoy her.
She straightened her spine, tilted her chin up a notch and exploded. “That is absurd! You can’t arrest me for things I had no control over.”
Morgan grinned through the pain. “I assure you, I can, Miss Thornton, and I am. Let’s go.” When he grabbed her arm again and tried to walk her back down the street, she dug in her heels, her free arm latching on to his where he gripped her wrist and tried to shake him off.
“Let me go. This is all a mistake. You can’t do this!”
“I won’t, I don’t care, and I am.”
She let out an ear-piercing shriek and struggled like a wild cat before raising her free hand, balling her fingers into a fist and punching at his shoulder. Morgan’s abused muscles screamed in agony as she fought him and it took all the control he had not to lash out in return. “Do you want resisting arrest to be added to your list of crimes, Miss Thornton?”
Her eyes widened. “I haven’t committed any crime. Now unhand me this instant.”
The humor in the situation diminished. Her screams were drawing attention and the local gossips were already hovered around Jenkins Mercantile, hands over their mouths as they gaped at him. He could only imagine what the story would be by the time the whole town found out. Glaring at the people gawking at him, he grabbed Abigail around the waist and tossed her over his shoulder, gritting his teeth through the pain the act caused, before turning and starting for the jail.