Ezra reached out and took the hand of the lovely woman sitting on his bed. He pulled her gently up from the bed, and smiled one of his brightest smiles. "I do believe that you are to be congratulated on a quite commendable performance, dear lady," he said as he bowed formally over her hand and lightly brushed it with a kiss.
Inez dipped in a curtsy, smiled beguilingly at the southerner, and replied in a mock southern accent, "Why thank you kind sir." She laughed happily and added. "If that did not look real to Senor Buck, nothing else we could do will help."
Ezra remembered that he was standing, half-naked, in front of a lady, and his face grew hot with embarrassment. He glanced at his shirt, lying in a heap on the floor. The saloon manager followed his gaze and smiled to herself as she realized that the gambler was self-conscious about his bare chest. She stepped over to pick up the shirt and held it out toward the southerner. "You would like this, Senor Ezra?" she said coyly.
"I would be most obliged for the return of the garment," he said as he reached to take the shirt from her fingers.
She waited until he almost had his hand on the shirt before she snatched it away from his grasp. Laughter bubbled forth when she saw the stunned look in his green eyes. She extended her arm to offer the shirt to the half-dressed man for the second time. He watched her and tried to read her intent in her eyes. Again he misjudged and came back empty handed, as Inez smiled at him with laughter in her dark eyes. On the third try, he was successful in retrieving his clothing. He shook his head in mock censure as he slipped his arms into the garment. "I do believe that I have assisted in creating a monster. The male population of this town may never be safe again," the southerner declared through his own barely suppressed laughter.
+ + + + + + +
Ralph Jamison busied himself building up the fire in the cook stove. It was unusual for Amy to sleep later than him, but on the rare occasions when she did, he allowed her a little extra sleep. Once the fire was built up, it would take a while to reach the point where it was the right temperature to do any cooking. After that task was done, he settled himself at the kitchen table and sipped at a partial cup of cold coffee that was left from the night before.
A short time later, Amy walked into the room, still dressed in her nightgown and robe. Ralph looked up when he heard her come in. He was startled to see that she had not dressed for the day. She seldom came out of her room in her nightclothes, especially if they had guests in the house. The young woman glared at her father and then turned her back to him. As she let her robe fall to the floor she snapped at him over her shoulder, "Ya wanted to see proof. Is this proof enough for ya?"
Jamison's eyes were drawn to the dark red stain on the back of her gown. He closed his eyes and released a great sigh of relief. He knew that this had been hard for his daughter to do, and he regretted that he had had to put her through this. Slowly, he raised himself from the chair and picked up the robe. He placed it gently around Amy's shoulders, and then he turned her toward him and pulled her into his arms. "I'm sorry, but I had to know fer sure." He hugged her to his massive chest and kissed the top of her head like he had when she was a small child.
After a few moments, Amy allowed herself to relax against her father and returned his hug. As upset as she was with him, she knew that he had done the things he had, because he loved her. She eased herself away from the embrace. "I know," she said, and kissed him on the cheek before she went off to her room to get dressed.
Ralph helped his daughter prepare breakfast and then fixed two sandwiches of fried eggs and bacon. He carried these out to the barn in search of JD. The older man had to admit that he was going to miss the young man. In the couple of days since Tanner had been here, the sheriff had proved to be a very able worker around the farm. Dunne was busy cleaning out one of the horse stalls when Ralph walked into the barn. He grinned at Jamison and wiped the sweat from his face with a cloth before coming out of the stall. "Morning, Mr. Jamison."
"Mornin', son. I brought ya some breakfast. I thought we could talk while ya ate." He looked at the dirt on the young man's hands and made a face. "Ya might want to wash up a bit first."
Dunne walked to the pump outside the barn, pumped the cold water over his hands, and splashed some over his sweaty face. It was not all that hot out yet, but he had been working hard, mucking out the stalls. Sufficiently clean, he headed back in to where Jamison was sitting on a bale of hay. When he sat down next to Amy's father, Ralph handed him the two sandwiches that he had carried out to him. JD was ravenous, and he ate them quickly.
The older man shook his head and chuckled softly. "Boy, ya can put away the food. Maybe it's a good thing that I won't have to keep feedin' ya." He watched the puzzled expression on the sheriff's face for a moment before he continued. "Amy's all right. She got her courses, so ya can go whenever ya want to. I'm sorry I didn't believe ya, but..."
JD interrupted, "It's all right. You did what you thought was best for Amy."
Ralph clamped a big hand on Dunne's shoulder. "I hope there's no hard feelins."
The young lawman stood up and offered his hand to Amy's father. When Jamison took it, he shook his hand firmly and responded, "No hard feelings."
Ralph Jamison nodded to the young man and then looked straight into JD's eyes. "Yer an honorable man John Dunne," he paused a moment and then finished, "I reckon yer anxious to get back home."
"Yes, I am. There's some folks that are pretty worried about me back there."
"Ya go on inside an' get yer things. I'll saddle yer horse fer ya." With that he turned and headed for the stall where Milagro waited patiently.
JD nearly ran to the house. When he got there, he was surprised to see his things had already been put in his pack, and it was sitting inside the door. Amy sat at the kitchen table waiting for him. She looked toward the pack as she spoke. "I thought it was the least I could do, after what ya did fer me." She turned her gaze to Dunne's hazel eyes and smiled. "Thank ya." The young woman stood up and walked over to give the sheriff a hug. "I'm gonna miss ya, JD"
"I'm going to miss you too," he said as he returned her hug." Uh, try not to get into any more trouble," he quipped, and then he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek
Playfully, she swatted him on the arm. "Yer one to talk. If I hadn't let ya talk me into goin' to that loft, none of this woulda happened."
Dunne gave her a serious look. "I think you know what I mean."
"I know, yer talkin' 'bout Buck. Nothin' like that is gonna happen again. I've learned my lesson." She looked at him gravely as she made this declaration.
"Yeah, I've learned a big lesson too," his cheeks colored slightly as he thought back on his actions that had led to this whole mess. He took hold of Amy's hand and gave it a light squeeze. Then he picked up his pack and headed out the door.
Outside, Jamison was just leading Milagro out of the barn. The horse visibly perked up when he saw his rider coming toward him. The sheriff rubbed the big animal between the eyes and patted his neck as he went around him to put the pack on the back of the saddle. Effortlessly, he vaulted onto the horse's back and took up the reins. "Thank you, for takin' such good care of him for me," he told the older man, and he leaned down to rub the animal's neck again.
"He's a fine animal," Ralph patted Milagro on the rump and laughed when the animal responded with a snort. "Reckon he's ready to get goin' too. Ya take care, son." He gave the big rump a firm slap that set the horse into motion. Jamison smiled as he watched JD struggle to regain his balance when the sudden movement caught him by surprise.
+ + + + + + +
It was early afternoon when JD rode into Four Corners. After seeing to his horse, he went in search of Buck. He had a good feeling that he would find him at the saloon. It was the favorite gathering place for all of the peacekeepers when they were not taking care of business. In the heat of the afternoon, the streets were nearly deserted. Dunne pushed his way through the doors of the saloon and was not too surprised to see the other six lawmen sitting at their usual table. He made his way through the room and stood staring at Buck Wilmington.
"Hey kid! Where ya been?" Buck's face broke into a wide grin when he saw his young friend.
"I need to talk to you," JD said firmly. "Out back where we can talk without everyone listening."
Wilmington's smile faded. "What's up, kid?"
"Out back, Buck." The town's sheriff left no room for argument when he headed for the back door.
Six pairs of eyes looked at each other in amazement. The ladies man was completely baffled. "Reckon I better go see what stuck in his craw." He made his way out the back door, with the five other men not far behind him. No way were any of them going to miss out on whatever was about to happen.
JD had walked a fair distance from the back door of the saloon. He was not taking any chances that someone would overhear what he had to say to his friend. Dunne knew that the other members of their group would not spread tales, so he was unconcerned when he saw them emerge from the building with Buck.
Wilmington walked up to the young man and was taken completely off guard when JD's fist connected with his jaw. The blow sent him sprawling to the ground. "What the hell was that fer?" he growled as he scrambled to his feet. Before he could get his footing, another blow put him down again. This time he had the sense to stay there.
The anger in Dunne's eyes was clear. "The first one was for what you did to Amy. The second one was for what I went through these last two and a half weeks because of you." He glared at the man on the ground in front of him. "It was Amy that I took to the loft, but nothing happened. You had your way with her and I got the blame."
Buck stared up at the young sheriff. He had regretted what happened with the young woman from the instant that he realized that she was still a virgin, but by the time he had realized his mistake, it had been too late.
JD continued his tirade. "If she was in a family way, I was the one that was going to have to marry her."
Wilmington's face went pale. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard before he dared to speak. "Is she all right?"
"You mean, did you get her pregnant?" Dunne practically spat out the words.
The other man could not meet his gaze, and he only nodded in response.
"No, she's not pregnant. I'd be married to her if she was." His voice was slightly calmer, but his eyes still flashed with barely controlled rage. "You know what really makes me sick? I had intended to do the same thing you did. After seeing what she went though, I can't believe that I actually looked up to you for your way around women, and that I tried to be like you."
Buck leaned his forehead against his hand for support as he struggled to sort out the tangle of emotions that were waging war within him. Finally, he looked up at his young friend. "I didn't know it was her first time. I never would have done it, if I had known."
"Oh, come on Buck. You expect me to believe that after the way you go chasin' after every woman you see?" Dunne was incredulous.
Slowly, the ex-sheriff, stood up and looked straight at the younger man. "I know what ya all think, but I don't chase after all of 'em intendin' to bed 'em. I don't take a woman for her first time." His voice was completely serious as he continued. "When ya was raised like I was, ya learn a lot 'bout women, and it don't all have to do with what goes on between the sheets. One of those things was not to take a woman for her first time unless it really means somethin' special."
"Well, why don't you try telling Amy that she wasn't special." JD practically growled at the big man standing in front of him.
"That ain't what I meant. Every woman is special in her own way. I mean the first time for a woman should be special, like between her and her husband." He could tell that his young friend still did not understand what he was trying to say. "Ya remember Nora, and the other women she worked with?"
"Yes." There was no way he could ever forget those women.
"Do ya remember some of the stories they told about how they came to be in the business they're in?" He waited for JD to nod in response before he continued. "Well, there are more stories than those, and there ain't very many of those ladies that do what they do, because they chose to live that life. They do it because they have to, to survive."
"What's all this got to do with Amy?" the young peacekeeper asked.
"Let me finish. Some of the stories they tell can rip yer heart right outta yer chest; they hurt so much to hear them. But, there's nothin' ya can do to help all those that are there because they were abandoned, abused, or sold by their own families. Ya can't help all the ones that were starvin' and that is the only way they could get money to eat." Buck paused for a moment and gathered his thoughts. "There was one story in particular that I could just never get outta my mind. There was a woman in the house where I was raised that told me how she came to be there. Her name was Lilly. Ya know why she was there?" Wilmington raised his eyebrows and looked questioningly at Dunne.
"No. How would I know?"
"She was there because she was big, and she was homely." The ladies man waited for his words to sink in.
"I don't understand, why would that cause her to end up in a place like that?" J.D asked.
"Because, she was made fun of so much as she was growin' up, that she gave herself to the first man that tried to take her. She thought that because he wanted her like that, that he loved her. After he got what he wanted from her, he told others fellas about what they had done. When the stories got back to her Pa, he started callin' her a whore. He kept tellin' her that she belonged in a whorehouse, so that's where she went."
"I still don't see what this has to do with what happened with Amy."
"Hold yer pants on. I'm gettin' there." Telling all this was hard for Buck. His friends knew that he had been raised in a brothel, but they did not know many of the details of his time there. "It's surprisin' how many women end up in those places just because of one mistake, just like Lilly. When I wasn't much younger than you, my mother caught me chasin' after a pretty young thing; one of those good girls from a good family. She got hold of me and drug me back to the house. I swear, if it wasn't fer the fact that I was as big then as I am now, she woulda probably hauled me over her knees and walloped me good." Wilmington smiled fondly as he remembered his mother and the incident that he was reliving as he told his story. "Instead, she gave me a good talkin' to. She told me about how drastic the consequences can be for takin' a young woman for the first time, and then leavin' her to deal with things on her own. She told me 'bout the women in the house that were there because of just that thing. She made me go talk to them and listen to their stories about what had happened to 'em. After that, she asked me what I had learned from listenin' to the ladies. I learned how easy a woman's life can be ruined because of one mistake. JD, I love women, and I love bein' with 'em, but I. swore I would never be the cause of hurtin' a woman like that."
"But you walked away from Amy, and you knew it was her first time," JD accused.
"I didn't know until after the damage had been done," he said sincerely. "I asked her, and I thought she meant that she had done it before. I didn't realize that she didn't understand what I was asking her about." Regret was etched on his face as he recounted what had happened. "I hadn't intended to leave her on her own, but she didn't come back into town so I could see her and talk to her about what had happened. I planned to ride out there and see if she was all right, but then you were missin', and I couldn't go until I found out what was goin' on with you." He looked intently at his young friend. "Why? Why would you have married her, knowing it wasn't yer baby she carried?"
"It could've been, if we hadn't stopped when we did," J.D said calmly. "Besides, I couldn't see her family torn apart. The whole thing was tearing her father apart inside, and her mother would have probably blamed him for something bad happening to Amy. I don't have a family anymore, Buck. I couldn't stand by and watch her lose hers."
"Would you have told me?" Wilmington asked hesitantly.
"At first I thought I wouldn't, but then I decided that if it had been me, instead of you, I would want to know. Yeah, I would have told you," Dunne conceded.
"Thanks, fer that, and fer doin' what ya did fer Amy. I'm sorry ya both had to go through all that because of me." He moved closer and held out a hand to his friend.
JD took the big hand and clasped it firmly in his own. "Your welcome, but it's Amy who you really should apologize to."
"I intend to, next time I see her." The ladies man honestly intended to do just that.
Finally, Dunne smiled at his surrogate big brother. "So, why do you go chasin' after all the women, if you aren't out to bed them?" His curiosity had gotten the better of him. He fully expected Buck to have a smart-ass answer.
Wilmington remained serious as he studied the younger man. After a few moments, he decided to answer his question. "Because of Lilly."
The youngest peacekeeper was confused again. "I don't understand."
"It's like this... there ain't nothin' ya can do about all the bad things that happen to women that cause 'em to end up in places like that. If someone had taken the time to get to know Lilly, he would have found out that she had more love in her than anyone else he had ever know, and that she had a heart of gold. There was nothin' I could do to help Lilly, but one thing I can do fer other women, is to offer 'em a few words of sweet talk, an' pay 'em a little attention. Every woman deserves to feel special, no matter how she looks, or how old she is. It ain't much, but maybe it will help keep some of 'em from makin' the same mistake that Lilly did." Buck's tone was serious, and it took on a quality of profound sadness.
JD's heart ached for his friend, as he finally understood what he was saying, and some things that he had not said. He looked into Wilmington's sad blue eyes, and he knew. "She was your mother, wasn't she?"
The big man looked away and swallowed hard before he could answer. "She was a saint."
The other men had listened intently to everything that had been said. They moved up to stand by their two friends. "I think it's about time we gave this young pup a proper welcome home," Josiah said as he placed a huge arm around each of the two men's shoulders.
"You buyin?" Buck asked with a weak attempt at a smile.
"First bottle's on me." Chris spoke up before the preacher had a chance to answer.
"Sounds good to me," Wilmington's smile brightened.
They headed for the back door to the saloon. "I do have one question," JD asked to no one in particular. "What are monthly courses?" They all stopped walking and stared at the young man. Each man looked anywhere but at each other as they shifted around uneasily.
"Mr. Dunne, that is a most delicate subject that should not be discussed at the top of one's voice in a public forum." Ezra could not keep the light blush from cheeks as he quietly chided their young friend.
"Delicate or not, if I was going to have to get married if Amy didn't get them. I think I should at least know what it was I was waitin' on," JD said in all seriousness.
The men looked from one to another, but no one offered to explain things to their innocent sheriff. Finally, all eyes turned to Nathan. The black man shook his head and sighed. "I shoulda known ya would push this one off on me too." He waved at the young man to follow him, and he led him off toward his clinic. "Come on, I think we need to go have us a talk."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra had given considerable thought to the deception he had been playing on Buck. After hearing what the other man had said to JD, the gambler felt a twinge of guilt for adding to the man's distress. Guilt was something that was still relatively new to the con man, and he did not care for the way it made him second guess his own actions. In the end, he had decided to continue the charade with Inez. Over the last couple of days, the ladies man had been his usual obnoxious self. It was clear that Wilmington's intentions toward the Mexican woman were more that just sweet talk, and his unwavering attention was unsolicited by the saloon manager. The bait had been taken, and the hook had been set, so now it was time to reel him in. Standish groaned inwardly. He had definitely been around these men too long. Now he was starting to think like them.
+ + + + + + +
The peacekeepers sat sipping their beer. They had just finished a big lunch. None of them were in any hurry to leave the dim interior of the saloon and return to the hot sun of midday. The gambler had watched the lovely Mexican woman go up the stairs a few minutes earlier, and he knew where she was going. "Gentlemen, if you will excuse me. I fear I must leave your company for a time." He smiled graciously at his companions as he rose from his seat and headed for the stairs. He could feel Buck's eyes glaring at his back as he took the steps to the second floor.
"Hey Pard. What's up with you and Ezra? You've been staring daggers at him for two weeks." Chris asked his oldest friend.
Wilmington turned to look at the blonde man sitting across from him. "I just don't get it."
"Get what?" Chris had no idea what Buck was talking about.
"What does she see in him? She keeps tellin' me no, but she's carryin' on with him," the ladies man said through clenched teeth.
"You lost me Pard. What are you talking about?" the leader prodded.
"Inez! She's carryin' on with Ezra. Don't tell me you all ain't noticed it." He looked from face to face for confirmation that they had seen what he had seen.
"Inez and Ezra! I think yer lettin' yer mind play tricks on ya." Vin could not suppress a soft chuckle at the thought.
"Just because one woman tells you no, doesn't mean she has something going with someone else," the preacher added.
JD could not resist the chance to get a jab in at his friend. "What happened to that animal magatism of yours? Why don't it work on Inez?"
"Shut up, Kid," Buck growled.
"I ain't a kid," the young sheriff protested.
"You think I'm imaginin' this? I can prove it to ya." The peacekeeper stood up and challenged his friends. "You come with me, an' you'll see I ain't crazy." He walked to the bottom of the stairs and waited for the others to follow. The other men looked at each other in indecision. Finally, Josiah shrugged and got to his feet. One by one the other men joined Buck at the bottom of the stairs. As quietly as possible, the six men made their way up the steps.
Ezra stood watching through the crack in the door. He could not help but smile at the sense of déjà vu the action produced. Finally, he saw what he had been expecting. The top of Wilmington's hat come into view. As he watched, he saw that the ladies man was not alone. They would have a real audience for this final performance. Standish eased the door closed and crossed to where Inez was standing.
Buck stopped outside the gambler's room and whispered. "Ya just listen a minute and you'll see what I'm talkin' about." With that, he leaned his ear to the door.
"I really don't think it is a good idea to go spying on Ezra." Chris protested and he took up a position leaning against the opposite wall. He was not going to stoop to listening at the con man's door.
"Shhhhh...." Came a chorus of hisses, as the other five men strained to hear through the heavy wood of the door. They did not have to wait long.
"Please hurry, I can't be gone very long," came the unmistakable sound of Inez's voice.
Six pairs of eyebrows arched, and six mouths dropped open. Chris had even been able to hear the feminine voice where he stood.
"Darlin', it takes time to get out of this rigging," the southerner responded. "Whoa, patience my dear," Ezra's voice was strained.
The sound of several hard objects hitting the floor reached the men who listened outside. Buck went down on one knee and picked up a button that had slid under the door. He looked up at his friends with a look that said. 'I told ya so.'
"Oh, another shirt ruined," the gambler grumbled.
"Forget the shirt, Senor," the woman said seductively.
A low groan escaped the southerner, and the sound of a creaking bed frame riveted the men's attention on the door to the room. For a short time, the only sounds they could make out were a series of moans and groans; some feminine and some masculine. Five ears pressed tighter to the wooden door.
Inside, the couple blushed and grinned broadly, as they continued their performance. The con man was ready to spring for the door when he thought the time was right. Ezra gave out a long, low moan, followed by a sharp yelp. "Darlin', I love what you are doing, but please do not bite it." His face flushed hotly at the crude remark he had just made in a lady's presence. Inez pressed her hand to her mouth to keep from laughing. In two big steps, the gambler reached the door and yanked it open.
Five men were caught off guard and came stumbling through the door when it unexpectedly came open. Buck had been leaning heavily on the wooden panel. Suddenly, he found himself sprawled face down on the floor of the gambler's room. Vin and JD staggered off balance and both men ended up tripping over the prone man in their effort to stay on their feet. Tanner fell onto his hands and knees at the side of the ladies man, but the younger man landed half on Wilmington's back, knocking the breath out of the big man. The last two men, who had had their ears pressed to the door, teetered precariously, and clutched franticly at the doorframe to keep from joining their friends on the floor. Larabee leaned against the far wall and stared at the spectacle in front of him. The sound of laughter erupted from inside the room.
Inez sat on the narrow bed, laughing hysterically. She was laughing so hard that she fell over onto the mattress and buried her face in the gambler's pillow. Chris was barely able to see Ezra. The normally aloof southerner had slumped against the wall. His handsome face was rapidly turning bright red as he struggled to draw a breath through the fit of laughter. One by one the other peacekeepers recovered from their embarrassment at being caught spying on one of their own, and they began to grin and to chuckle. Only Buck was still stony faced as he hauled himself off the floor. The gambler had been trying desperately to get some control over his outrageous behavior, but every time he looked at the ex-sheriff, he lost what control he had gained. One emotion after another warred for dominance on Wilmington's face; surprise, horror, embarrassment, and finally confusion took their turns, as he looked from the beautiful woman on the bed, to the fully clothed con man who was now sliding down the wall to sit on the floor.
Ezra struggled to breathe. At last, he thought he was able to speak, but the look on Buck's face was just too much to handle. He gasped for air, and a loud snort echoed through the room. The saloon manager had reached the point of screaming into the pillow, and she pounded her fist on the bed as her merriment got completely out of control. At the sound of the snort the six lawmen turned and stared wide-eyed at the southerner. The gambler's decorum was totally shattered, and he finally gave up any attempt at trying to maintain his dignity. Wilmington would have suffered almost any indignity to be witness to Ezra's absolute loss of self-control. Gradually, a smile spread across the big man's face
The con man gingerly wiped tears from his face as he battled for enough control to speak. Through gasps and spurts of laughter, he finally managed say, "It seems.......Mr. Wilmington.........that you have been.......duped!
Buck looked at the gambler who still sat limply against the wall, and became serious again. "Why? Why would you do this to me?"
"Alas, there is the rub. It seems that the lovely lady found your constant amorous advances to be wearisome." His green eyes barely concealed his obvious enjoyment at seeing the ladies man taken down a couple notches.
Inez walked over to face the object of their deception, and she met his gaze steadily. "Why didn't you just tell me?" He asked the small woman.
"I did tell you, Senor. I told you many times, but you did not listen."
"She's got ya there Buck. I think she has told ya no every day since she's been here." Vin Tanner was still grinning as he spoke.
"So it ain't that ya like him better than me?" Wilmington was still having some trouble letting it go.
The saloon manager smiled up at him, "You are all my friends, and I like all of you the same." She paused a moment before she continued. "I want to be on my own. I fought too hard to get away from a man I didn't want, to want anyone right now."
Buck grasped at the one ray of hope he found in her declaration. "Right now? Maybe there's hope someday?"
"Maybe," she held up a hand to keep him from talking when he broke into a huge grin. "But, I will not ever consider it, if you keep chasing me."
"Ah, Inez. How'm I supposed to know if ya changed yer mind?" the ladies man pleaded.
"I will tell you," she said softly.
"Is that a promise?" he asked hopefully. When she nodded, yes, he added. "Shake on it?"
Inez smiled brightly and offered him her hand. He shook it gently, but before she could pull it away he raised it to his lips and lightly kissed the back of her small, soft hand. He smiled one of his most charming smiles, and his eyes sparkled brightly as he said, "I'm gonna hold ya to that promise." The ladies man walked over to stare down at southerner, who had yet to get up. He held out a big hand to the other man. Standish grasped the offered hand and felt himself being tugged up off the floor. "Come on Ezra, I'll buy ya a drink."
"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington. I accept your offer, and I will join you directly. There is a small matter of settling accounts with my co-conspirator," he turned his gaze to the Mexican woman.
"Come on, Pard. I think you've caused them enough trouble." Chris put a hand on his friend's back and steered him toward the door. The remaining peacekeepers followed their leader out the door.
Josiah paused and looked back at the younger man. He laughed quietly. "Sometimes you surprise me." The preacher was shaking his head as he started back out the door. "Don't bite it! I can't believe you said that, son." They could hear him chuckling as he made his way down the hall.
Ezra pushed the door closed and contemplated the woman who stood a few feet away from him. "I do believe we have business to conclude," he said steadily.
Inez reached into a small pocket on her dress and pulled out a ten-dollar gold piece. "I believe this was the agreed on price." She held the coin out for the gambler to take.
The con man took the gold piece and studied it for a moment before he handed it back to the saloon manager. "I have come to the decision that this is not appropriate payment for the services rendered."
"But....this is what we agreed on."
"I feel that another form of payment would be more satisfactory." His green eyes caught and held her darker ones.
She swallowed hard, and asked nervously, "What form of payment do you want?" The lovely woman was not sure that she really wanted to know.
Ezra smiled at her as he spoke, "I feel I would be adequately compensated if you would allow me the pleasure of..." he paused for a moment and then looked at her sheepishly, "one real kiss."
Inez let out the breath she had not realized she had been holding. She was sure that he had planned to ask for something more. A couple of steps brought her toe to toe with the gambler. Ezra reached out, wrapped one arm around her small waist, and pulled her gently to him. Her eyes closed, and she tipped her face up toward his. At first, his kiss was feather light on her lips, as his soft mouth caressed her own. Her stomach fluttered, as she felt his other arm slip around her to hold her more firmly against is muscular chest. When he felt her slender arms slip up around his neck, the gambler let his instincts take control. He let the kiss grow deeper as his tongue trailed lightly across her lips. The kiss took on life of its own, as they let themselves be caught up in the tide of sensations that swept over them. Neither one wanted to break the contact, but finally Ezra reluctantly pulled back. They both stood breathing rapidly, with wildly beating hearts, and gazed into each other's eyes. Neither one had been prepared for the power of what had passed between them.
The gambler hesitated a few moments before he released her from his embrace. He felt her hands slide down his arms as she unclasped them from around his neck. Standish did not want to leave, but he knew that he had to. He reached out, picked up his hat, and settled it on his head. The con man turned to go out the door, but paused before disappearing down the hall. His eyes were drawn back to the woman who stood in his room. The southerner smiled, showing his dimples. With one hand he reached up, and touched the brim of his hat; he winked, and then walked away.
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