Deadwood, South Dakota was known for three things: its gold, its Black Hills Forest, and its swindlers. There wasn’t a person alive who had come through Deadwood who didn’t have some story of how they’d been cheated or how they’d witnessed some form of crime or another. Even several years after Wild Bill Hickok’s murder, people still rode through looking to see where the shootout had happened and regale anyone within earshot about how their cousin’s sister’s aunt’s brother had been there when it had all gone down.
Lizzie Wilder was of a mind that the tales got more and more savage with each retelling.
It was an early spring evening in the middle of a too-hot April day; the sun shining through the open windows and the swinging door at the far end of the saloon. A group of men were gathered around the high, oaken bar counter, their heads bowed together and their fourth round of beers laid out between them. They got louder and louder with each round, their stories more and more involved as they built onto them for each new person that joined them in the saloon.
“Oh, Lord, save me from men and their egos,” Sarah Thompson sighed as she passed Lizzie at the bar.
She was an older woman, with a ready smile and laugh lines just beginning to crease the corners of her eyes. Her blonde hair was pulled into a loose updo atop her head, her lipstick second only in brightness to her flashing blue eyes.
“You mean the Hickock group?” Lizzie asked as she leaned over the counter to grab another bottle of their cheapest Irish whiskey.
Sarah huffed, blowing a few loose tendrils of hair out of her face as she knocked her hip against the counter. “You show me a man who comes here to see that nonsense and isn’t so far up his own-”
“Sarah!” Sunny cried with a light-hearted reprimand, narrowing her brown eyes and smiling with that demeanor that so well matched her name. She was younger by far than Sarah, closer in age to Lizzie, her eyes sparkling with a mischief that only youth could carry. “You know Preacher Hatfield comes in here.”
“I was just going to say so far up his own hat.” Sarah chuckled, her lips stretched into a grin.
Lizzie and Sunny shared a look, clear disbelief belied only by their open amusement as Sunny tucked her red-gold hair behind one ear and set to work unloading the trap of empty glasses into the sink behind the bar. Sarah eyed the both of them with a kind of fond maternal humor in return.
“Who’s got what so far up his own hat?” Billy Torsten asked, sliding onto the stool directly across from where Lizzie was sitting with a gleam of interest too bright to miss.
“You always gotta know who’s saying what about who, Billy.” Lizzie laughed, pouring his drink before he could even go asking for it.
He was a verified gossip, even in a place like Deadwood, his tongue faster than any other form of travel that went in and out of the town. Rumor was that if you told Billy something, it would be known by all of Deadwood before sundown…and rumor, in his case, wasn’t far off.
“What else is there to be talking about, Miss Lizzie, if not for what’s being said about who? You want me to talk about the town? It’s the same dust blowing in this evening as it was yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, and the day before that. Why, I reckon it’ll still be the same dust long after we’re gone and turned into it, too.”
“Well, if that ain’t a macabre way to look at things,” Sarah murmured, her grin undeterred by the commentary as she grabbed a tray of drinks Lizzie had been making and balanced them on one hand.
She did everything with such ease it almost hurt to watch, even at forty-three years old, still moving more quickly and more surely than the two girls that were half her age.
“It comes with practice,” Sarah had assured Lizzie while Lizzie had been growing up, grinning and winking over her tray of drinks as her skirts spun out about her legs and she moved in and out of her array of customers like she was just thread passing through the eye of a needle.
“It ain’t macabre if it’s true,” Billy argued ineffectively.
It was a familiar argument. If not the tune, the way it was sung.
“You know, I think your nephew Donny was trying to copy that phrase the other day,” Lizzie cut in, laughing. “Only, he said, ‘It ain’t mean if it’s true,’” which Lizzie knew she’d heard Billy himself say on more than one occasion. That was one of his favorite idioms, ‘it ain’t if it’s.’ He just replaced the words to fit his point.
Billy beamed, sipping on his whiskey with a grin he couldn’t quite hide from behind his glass. “Yeah, Donny talks real highly of you, Miss Lizzie. Said you’d been teaching him his numbers here lately, and my sister says he’s never done better at any of that, too.”
It was Lizzie’s turn to beam.
It was a silly thing, she thought, for a girl who worked in the saloon to take such pride in. But her homeschooling some of the kids in Deadwood had become a job far more rewarding to her, even if she wasn’t paid for it.
“Donny’s a real bright boy,” she told Billy. “Although I can’t teach him the piano for anything. I think that might be on account of his lack of interest, though.”
“Oh,” Sunny gushed, pausing in what she was doing to look up hopefully at Lizzie. “Are you going to play for us? It’d be just the thing to drown out those braggarts down the bar, and you know Sarah would love that,” she teased, her blue eyes sparking mischievously in her attempt to convince Lizzie.
“I always do like it when you go and play us your songs,” Billy added in, blissfully ignorant of how Sunny was trying to coerce Lizzie.
Lizzie blushed, her cheeks heating up as she pushed her long, dark hair back over her shoulder. “I don’t know…” she murmured, pausing to look at the drinks she was still making and the people sitting around the saloon waiting on them.
“Oh, I’ll take over that, Lizzie,” Sunny reassured her quickly, pleading.
Lizzie didn’t consider herself talented by any means, though she knew a handful of songs by heart and could follow along to new sheet music well enough. The way people could get in the saloon sometimes made her feel like she was in the limelight, though.
A small one, albeit, given the time of day and the sparseness of those seated in the saloon, but the limelight nonetheless.
“C’mon, Lizzie,” Sunny pressed, already moving to take the things out of Lizzie’s hands. “Just a song or two…”
Problem was that it never was just a song or two.
Two turned into three, turned into four, turned into taking requests
Still, all the same, Lizzie found herself handing her rag and her glasses over, rolling her eyes playfully as she put people and their drinks on pause the same way she had her dream of becoming a teacher.
“Lizzie!” someone called out happily as she made it to the piano and folded herself down onto the bench in front of it, silently.
“Lizzie!” others quickly took up in a pleased chorus.
Lizzie’s cheeks warmed all over again as she folded the lid of the piano back, trying to keep her grin from being too wide or her head from getting too big as she spread her fingers out over the familiar keys.
Every time she did, she felt like she was nine years old again, right after Sarah had adopted her and brought her home. She hadn’t talked much then and Sarah had been so understanding about it, never pushing…never trying to make her do so.
It had been the piano that had first got her to start trusting the older woman.
The ivory keys felt warm under her fingers as, given her thoughts, she started the first few chords to the first song Sarah had ever taught her.
“Well, I wish I was in the land of cotton!” Billy belted out from the bar as soon as he recognized the tune, slapping his hand on the bar. He was the first of the patrons in the saloon to start taking up the beat.
“Old times there are not forgotten!” Other voices joined him in chorus, a cheer going up as glasses were raised, and Lizzie had to bite her lip to keep from laughing out loud.
It was a secret, Sarah had whispered to her all those years ago when she’d first been teaching Lizzie how to work the piano’s keys. Didn’t matter if everyone in the saloon was at one another’s throats, the piano could save it. Start playing a jaunty tune, she’d said, and the mood would change.
There hadn’t been any fighting before Lizzie started playing that time, but it was all the same. People went from their little groups talking amongst themselves to being more closely congregated together, arms around shoulders and glasses lifted in good cheer as they sang as loud as they could and swayed back and forth.
“Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land!”
Sarah winked at her from where she was refilling and replacing drinks, using several patrons’ distractions to change out their whiskeys for sodas depending on their level of intoxication.
The keys were so familiar, the tune so often played, Lizzie didn’t need to watch her fingers, instead fondly looking around as the patrons and her coworkers danced and sang.
For all her hemming and hawing, she really did love watching people’s reactions to music. It was only ever her own embarrassment that got in her way.
She swayed with the rest of the song, appreciating all the enthusiasm that it was met with down to the very last line of the song that was belted out.
“Sarah,” she called out happily as her fingers played that last note. The grin that was stretching her lips was too wide and full of a mischievousness all her own. “Come on, Sarah, come join me,” she sing-songed, chuckling at the instant chorus that the patrons took up.
“Sarah, Sarah, Sarah,” they cried with the clinking of their glasses on the bars and tabletops.
Sarah huffed and puffed, waving them all off, but she sashayed on over to the piano anyway, grinning the whole time.
“I have work to be doing,” she joked as she slid in next to Lizzie, who scooted to the side to make room for her.
“And I didn’t?” Lizzie teased, bumping her shoulder fondly against the woman who had helped to raise her and trained her on those very same keys they now both made room for each other’s hands on.
Sarah’s blue eyes twinkled as she played the first few notes, winking at Lizzie as she did. “You know this one.”
Lizzie grinned. She did. And so, too, did the rest of the saloon.
“My Bonnie lies over the ocean. My Bonnie lies over the sea. My Bonnie lies over the ocean. Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me,” Lizzie joined everyone else singing that time, giggling through the words as several people started doing their best accents along with the song.
“My Bonnie lies over the ocean. My Bonnie lies over the sea. Well, my Bonnie lies over the ocean. Yeah, bring back my Bonnie to me. Yeah, bring back- ah, bring back. Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me! To me!”
Even those boys who had been earlier talking as loudly and as pointedly about Wild Bill as they had been had abandoned their other conversation. Group by group, the patrons had edged closer to the piano where Lizzie and Sarah were sitting, the camaraderie impossible to ignore.
The sun was unrelenting overhead, burning bright in the sky as dust danced by the lone stallion’s hooves and he pranced back and forth along the fence line the two cowboys were working on.
Both men had their hats pushed back on their heads, sweat beading along their foreheads and necks, and looks of matching concentration pulling their features taut. The black stallion that watched them, and the fence they were working on, seemed to be trying to find a way around them and that barbed wire that they were stretching back to cover the broken section they were patching back up.
“Johnny, I tell you for sure and for certain if that addle-minded stallion of yours tries rushing me even one more time…” the taller of the two men warned, his voice low and gravelly as he eyed the tall beast passing him once more.
Johnny snorted, his grin quick as he pulled his end of the length of barbed wire taut. “Look, Jack, if he rushes you again, you just lift your arms above your head and yell real loud. I told you, Stinker’s an ornery beast.”
“Aptly named,” Jack muttered, narrowing his eyes at the horse as he started wrapping his end around the fence post. “Still don’t see how he broke this length of fence. Don’t make any kind of sense. You oughta have the preacher come out here and look at him.”
“Oh, come off it.” Johnny laughed, unbothered. He started wrapping his end too, his brown eyes dancing with amusement. “Stinker ain’t no demon. He’s just spirited, is all.”
“So spirited you can’t ride him,” Jack pointed out, finally dropping his gaze as the stallion pranced off in the other direction. “Don’t make a lick of sense. Ranch like yours don’t need no horse that can’t pull its weight.”
“I’ll ride him, eventually.” Johny shrugged. He gritted his teeth as he bent to secure the barbed wire. “Just gotta find someone to train him first.”
Jack grunted in disbelief, finishing up on his end and straightening with another look over at the horse. “I’ve arrested bandits with more of a chance at redemption than him,” he told Johnny seriously, looping his thumbs through his belt loops as he watched the stallion make another round around the pasture.
“Big, bad lawman,” Johnny teased, finishing up as well and taking a step back as he straightened. He swept his hat off of his head, pushing his honey-colored hair back off of his forehead and surveying the new middle line of barbed wire on the section they were fixing.
Jack grimaced, though he did his best to keep his friend from seeing it. “Not anymore,” he corrected stiffly, rubbing his hands down his thighs and bending to grab the round of barbed wire to start on the last bottom piece.
Johnny sighed, but didn’t argue. He knew well enough not to. It wasn’t like it was going to get him anywhere, even to try.
Even though Jack had only been working on Johnny’s ranch for the better part of a month, they’d known one another for years longer than that, and Johnny knew more than anyone how prickly Jack still was about his past job and the reasons behind his leaving it.
“You know, at some point, you’re gunna wanna talk to someone about all’a that,” Johnny said seriously as he grabbed the end of the barbed wire that Jack handed him and started walking it back to his fence post so they could finish up the job.
Jack looked at him, his glance brief, but nonetheless weighted for it.
He wasn’t going to want to talk to anyone about it, ever. That was part of why he’d come back home. He’d promised himself his whole life after skipping out of Deadwood at the first opportunity to go and join the army that he’d never come back. And yet…
Johnny sighed, the sound louder than it needed to be, and pointedly so.
As if Johnny’s irritation called him, Stinker pranced back over, snorting and pawing at the ground as he did.
“Johnny…” Jack warned.
“I know, I know.” Johnny laughed, grinning up at the ornery beast and pulling on the barbed wire.
Jack didn’t drop his gaze as he got the bolt cutters and cut through the wire, not trusting the demon stallion for even half of the minute it took to cut the length to the right size.
“You’re not even going to offer to try workin’ with him for me, are you?” Johnny asked with an eyebrow raised as he started fixing his side to his post all over again.
“You planning on asking me to?” Jack asked dryly.
He didn’t mind doing it, not in the least, but he didn’t have a whole lot of faith in it making any difference either.
“I gotta ask you now?” Johnny acted offended, his voice cutting out slightly as he pulled hard against his side to get it even tighter.
“Don’t reckon it would hurt none,” Jack said lightly. He was careful to keep his smile behind his teeth as he started curling the wire around the post.
“Well, shoot. You think you’d mind helping me break Stinker in, or you think I need someone who won’t go gettin’ scared of him?” Johnny obliged, albeit with one last pointed barb.
Jack laughed, the sound short and loud as he finished and rolled his shoulders upon standing. “I’m not scared of the beast,” he argued, looking over at Stinker with a frown. “Just wary. Smartly so.”
Johnny grunted, taking his time to finish his end as well. When he was done, he still didn’t answer right off, stepping several long steps back to look critically at their work on the section of fence that had been busted when they’d come by that morning.
“That’s not a yes or a no, bud,” Johnny said finally, looking pleased with their work.
Jack’s lips twitched again, and he scratched the back of his neck, looking at the horse with an even more critical eye than Johnny had looked over the fence with. “That’s a yes. Don’t know why you’d think I wouldn’t. Just don’t go expectin’ me to work miracles, Johnny boy. I’m telling you right now that horse might well be the most spirited domesticated horse I’ve ever come across.”
Stinker, from the other side of the fence, snorted as if to agree with Jack, his hoof hitting the ground with a hard stamp as he threw his mane.
“You let a horse get the best of you and I’ll be hornswoggled,” Johnny told him seriously.
“You don’t go saying we’re done with this fence here and keep looking at it like you expect the wind to break it and I’ll be hornswoggled,” Jack answered back sarcastically, kicking some dust Johnny’s way pointedly.
Johnny chuckled. “Yeah, I reckon I’ll call it. Looks good, too. I was just considerin’ whether or whether not we’d need another length of barbed wire up top. Maybe that’s how he busted it, you know? ‘Cause I checked him over and I can’t see not one scratch on him that woulda come from barbed wire. So I can’t wrap my head around how he got that section of fence down.”
Jack had been considering the same thing the whole time that they worked.
“I reckon he stomped it,” he admitted, nodding to the way the horse stomped even as he watched the two of them.
“With his hooves?” Johnny asked in disbelief.
Jack nodded. “Don’t see what else he could have stomped it with…”
“I just don’t see how he could have done that without tearin’ up his legs too.” Johnny tilted his head, frowning at Stinker and the fence as if he were trying to picture it.
“He woulda had to come at it from just the right angle,” Jack explained, gesturing to the top of the barbed wire. “Then he woulda had to come down hard enough. It woulda made it snap too fast to recoil, you see?”
Johnny shook his head, his frown deepening. “He woulda had to rear back far enough that he would have been absolutely upright on his hindquarters. That’s just not possible.”
Stinker was a big horse. Larger than the average large, even. Jack gathered their materials and their discarded trash together while they spoke, loading up the saddlebags of the two horses that they had ridden in on who were tied up on their leads a little further down the fence.
“Unlikely isn’t impossible,” he reminded his old friend, scratching the back of his neck again and cursing how long his dark curls were getting. They made his neck itch when the sweat started drying. He was due any day now for a good trim.
“You reckon I ought to add another length of barbed wire?” Johnny finally asked, clearly still trying to imagine Stinker breaking it.
“Nah, I reckon it’s high enough as it is now. I reckon he needs to be exercised more, though,” Jack answered easily.
“Well,” Johnny laughed, “I guess it’s a good thing that’s one of your jobs now, huh, bud?”
Jack rolled his eyes, undoing the leads from the fence and getting the two horses ready as he finished loading them up.
“I shoulda known it came with strings,” he joked, tossing Johnny’s lead to him and hesitating beside the horse he was borrowing from his friend.
Johnny grinned, catching the lead and not hesitating at all in vaulting himself up and into the saddle. He adjusted once there, taking his hat off again and shaking out his hair before looking curiously down at Jack. “You going to stay standing there all day?”
Jack didn’t answer him, at least not verbally. He swung up into his saddle more slowly, adjusting the reins and chewing over the words in his head as he felt his friend’s gaze sharpen even further on him.
“You want to come to the saloon with me? I reckon we’ve done enough work for the day. I could sure use a drink, I don’t know about you.” Johnny pushed in that roundabout way of his, trailing off in question as Jack looked up with a shrug.
“Ah, not today, Johnny boy.” He grinned, trying to alleviate some of the worries he could see in his friend’s gaze.
It wasn’t like he knew Johnny worried, that he was avoiding socializing any or trying to stay off on his own and be the ‘loner’ he knew his friend worried that he was.
“You got better plans?” Johnny asked with faux casualness.
“I got to go see a rancher that wants to sell his horse,” Jack answered plainly, grimacing at the flash in Johnny’s brown eyes at his answer.
“I told you I’d sell you a horse,” Johnny reminded him, the accusation in his words clear.
Jack snorted. “At half the rate you need to be selling one at too. Don’t go lecturing me none, Johnny. You don’t need to give those circling vultures any more reason to think you’re ready to sell this place. I’ll get my own horse, and at a good price, but not one that’s about as like to me stealing as anything else, okay?”
“It’s at a discount,” Johnny defended. He seemed to deflate with the mention of the henchmen that kept approaching him to try and strong-arm him into selling, though.
“A discount that your own mama would tell you is too steep,” Jack answered him pointedly. “You let me go look at this horse. If it’s good enough, I might even let you watch me train it.”
Johnny laughed despite his obvious misgivings, shaking his head with another sigh. “Alright then, you do it your way. You come by the saloon after you’re done though, you hear?”
“Why? So I can watch you swoon over that waitress?” Jack teased, ducking as a glove went sailing past his head the minute he finished speaking. His laugh was loud as he wheeled his borrowed horse around, heading in the opposite direction to the road that led away from town. “I’m not getting that!” he called over his shoulder as he rode off, ignoring the indistinct mumble of cursing and insults that were more embarrassed than angry.
At some point in the musical revelry, the shouting had died down, and the atmosphere had shifted again, though Lizzie would have been hard-pressed to say when.
The sun had begun to sink in the west, golden and orange rays playing about the saloon and the seats filling up by the hour. The patrons were all still gathered about, though less focused on the piano, conversation flowing as freely as the laughter and several off to the side showing off their dancing skills while Sunny leaned against the piano and awed folks with her singing.
Lizzie was glad of the break for her voice, smiling at her friend and watching silently from where she played the piano.
Sarah flitted among the customers when needed, filling drinks and smoothing over any burgeoning disagreements, but for the most part, stayed behind the bar.
Sunny finished the note she’d been holding with a heavy exhale, laughing as she fell into the side of the piano and reached for her water there, and Lizzie adjusted accordingly to switch to a jaunty little, lyric-less number to give Sunny a quick break.
“Oh, I’m getting out of breath doing this!” Sunny laughed, winking at Lizzie and fanning herself before taking another drink.
“If you want, I can just play some more crowd favorites,” Lizzie offered sweetly, biting the side of her tongue to keep from laughing at the way Sunny immediately waved her off.
“They asked me to sing,” she answered with a shrug, “so I’m going to sing!”
“Uh-huh,” Lizzie murmured, looking down at her fingers flying over the keys and trying to bite back a grin. “And how much of that has to do with Johnny having walked in here just a few minutes ago?” she teased.
Sunny went crimson, her blush burning from her cheeks down to her neck, her brown eyes going wide with feigned innocence. “I don’t see how that would have anything to do with anything, Lizzie Wilder. I’ll be! I hardly know what you’re driving at there.”
Lizzie lost the battle to hold in her laughter at that, her giggle breaking past the barrier of her teeth as she looked back up at her friend in clear amusement. “And he hasn’t been looking this way every handful of minutes with those big eyes of his either,” she muttered, rolling her eyes.
Anyone with sense knew the two of them were sweet on one another, even if they were both too shy to do anything about it. They’d been dancing around the issue for months now, Johnny showing up more and more frequently in the saloon and Sunny becoming more and more clumsy as he did- but only when he was around.
Just like Lizzie had known she would, Sunny glanced quickly over at the bar where Johnny was talking to Sarah, her smile going all soft and gooey.
It was cute, in a hopelessly romantic sort of way.
It was made even cuter though when Johnny glanced over right in time to find her staring, his ears going as red as Sunny’s cheeks and his smile so sweet it could have competed with molasses.
“Oh, you’re seeing things,” Sunny dismissed, breaking her gaze from Johnny’s and looking down at the glass of water between her hands. “Johnny’s always smiling. And of course, he’s going to look this way, you playing the piano and me singing. We’re entertainment.”
Lizzie sighed, shaking her head.
“Sure, Sunny,” she agreed slowly, in a tone that implied she thought anything but. “Only, when it’s me and Sarah up here, I don’t see him looking near as often.”
But that was on account of him watching Sunny when that was the case, even still. He always seemed to know where she was in the saloon, and Lizzie had eyes enough to notice that he’d taken to sitting on whatever side of the establishment that Sunny was helping when she was making her rounds about the saloon too.
Sunny was just blind and shy. That was all there was to it.
“You think Greensleeves is too big of a switch in music, Lizzie?” Sunny asked suddenly, frowning as she looked anywhere but at where Johnny was still watching her from the bar.
“It’s a bit slower,” Lizzie admitted, cocking her head to one side and considering. “I reckon if we lead into it with another number, though it won’t make much of a difference. Give you a rest for your voice, too, and then we can start moving the tempo up again the same way.”
Sunny grinned, looking pleased with Lizzie’s offer, and Lizzie adjusted her fingers accordingly to slowly start working the number she was playing into something just a bit less rowdy.
Lizzie pointedly didn’t make mention of the song choice or the fact that she knew it was one of Johnny’s favorites. She was all for teasing Sunny, but not to any real degree that would end up making her any real kind of upset.
“Maybe give it another song or two until we go to starting it,” Sunny suggested distractedly, her eyes set on the bar again.
Lizzie looked over her shoulder, biting back a grin at the sight of Johnny approaching with a glass of water in one hand and his drink in the other.
Sunny’s glass was only half-empty, but she made a quick effort in making it less so, obviously seeing the same thing that Lizzie had seen.
“Evening, ladies,” Johnny greeted chivalrously as he came to stand beside the piano. He offered Sunny the water silently, his ears redder than cooked beets as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“Evening, Johnny,” Sunny and Lizzie chorused. Lizzie’s cheeks near about split from how wide she was grinning.
She tried to tone it down, especially with how awkward the other two were being, but it was so cute she couldn’t help it.
“I was just telling Miss Sarah,” Johnny started, cutting off and frowning at the sudden slamming open of the door across the saloon.
It was loud, too, the way it banged open carrying even over all the piano playing, talking, and laughter that filled the space. It seemed to echo in the wake of it, the three men that entered grinning, but not in a way that seemed any kind of friendly.
Just their showing up in the saloon seemed to dampen the atmosphere, the talking dying down somewhat and the laughter all but sucked out of the open door and into the cooling evening air behind them.
“Bartender!” the leader of the three, a Mr. Taylor Hitchaw, called out self-importantly as they entered. “Bring a round of beers for me and my boys here!” He was a taller fellow, with stringy dark hair and a mean glint to his gray eyes.
His two companions weren’t much different, at least not in demeanor.
Sloane Biggs and Terry Tinsley were both big men, though not as tall as Taylor. They made up for what they lacked in height with their width, their shoulders both big enough for two men a piece, and their chests like old wooden barrels. Where Sloane was dark-haired, dark-eyed, and tan, Terry was red and ruddy, from his hair to his skin, with watery blue eyes that always seemed unfocused.
Alone, any one of the three of them would have been imposing, but together they always looked dangerous, like they were itching for a fight.
Lord only knew they got into enough of them.
“Johnny, Johnny, Johnny,” Taylor sing-songed as he approached the piano, his eyes hard and his voice the kind of conversational that sounded anything but. “We were hoping we’d run into you.”
“I bet you were,” Johnny answered shortly, all awkwardness and sweetness gone from his demeanor as he straightened and met Taylor’s gaze head-on. “Can’t have been too worried about it, though. Only two places you’re like to find me and we’re standing in one.”
Taylor smiled, the gesture more like baring his teeth than any real kindness. “Will’s been hoping you’d come in after we told you he wanted to meet with you again, but he says you haven’t managed to make time yet.”
Lizzie felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, her stomach twisting at the undertone beneath the carefully selected words that Taylor used. There was something menacing in the way he leaned in, something threatening behind all his charm, and Lizzie didn’t miss the way Johnny put himself between the three of them and Sunny.
“Don’t imagine I have much to say to your boss,” Johnny admitted with a shrug. “You told me his offer. I told you I wasn’t interested. Don’t see why we’d need a meeting to go over all of that again.”
He was being casual, forcedly polite, but Lizzie could see the way his words made Taylor go tight-jawed.
“He’s willing to negotiate, you know,” Sloane interrupted, his voice sickly sweet. It was like velvet, the tone he spoke in, higher pitched than one would think by looking at him and somehow even more frightening for how softly spoken he came across.
“He’s even willing to double his price,” Terry added as he leaned his hip against the piano, leering at Sunny, from where she stood just a few feet away behind Johnny’s elbow.
“Well, that’s mighty kind of him,” Johnny murmured, but even as carefully as he was speaking, his irritation was starting to bleed through his words. “Problem is, boys, I’m not that interested in selling.”
“Everyone has a price,” Taylor intoned, with a slight edge to his voice. “And Will is real interested in buying, whether you are in selling or not, so maybe just consider what that price would be. We’ll take it back to him, see if maybe the two of you can’t work something out.”
Johnny frowned, looking between the three men slowly. “I don’t think you’re hearing me here, boys, and I’ve said it just about as plain as I can. I’m not selling. You can tell your boss that and you can tell him that there isn’t any amount that he can offer that’s going to change my mind.”
“See,” Sloane cut in quickly after Johnny spoke, his deceptively sweet tone going an octave lower as he leaned across the piano, the smell of rye whiskey and smoke heavy enough of his breath that Lizzie could practically taste it. “You say that now, but I don’t think you’re hearing us, compadre.”
“And we’d hate to have to speak any louder,” Taylor added, his teeth flashing in an expression that Lizzie was sure was meant to be a grin.
Before any of them could keep going, though, Sarah thumped a tray of beers down on the table next to where they were all standing. Before any of them could go reaching for them, though, she stepped in front of it.
“I hate to tell you, boys, but there won’t be no chance to go speaking any louder,” she drawled, cocking her hip out and putting her hand on it with an expression that dared them to disagree with her. “Y’all see that sign over there?” she asked, jerking her chin towards the group of them that she had hung up on the wall right across from the door. “That sign says no loitering, no harassing customers, and no salesmen. The way I see it, you’re trying to break all three rules here.”
“Now, Miss Sarah,” Terry wheedled.
“No sir, don’t Miss Sarah me. The rule is you break one of the rules in my saloon, you leave for the night. Everyone knows that. Now, y’all take yourselves on out before I gotta go extending that time before you can come back, you hear?” Sarah cut off his argument firmly, her blue eyes hard in a way that everyone knew she wasn’t leaving any room for disagreement.
Taylor’s charming façade slipped for a second, his grin falling and the glare behind it all heated and apparent as he stared at Sarah before snapping at the two men he was with.
They parted around her like water, heading for the door silently, but Taylor did so by passing so close to Sarah that it made her flinch.
Lizzie didn’t think a single soul breathed again until they were out of the bar either, everyone ready and waiting for things to shift to ugly.
“A Love to Bridge two Enemies” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lizzie Wilder, survivor of a heartbreaking family tragedy, finds refuge under the wing of Sarah, a resilient and independent saloon owner in the vibrant town of Deadwood. Just as she begins to rebuild her life, a menacing businessman threatens Sarah’s establishment. Will Lizzie’s newfound haven crumble, leaving her isolated once more?
If only she had someone to lean on…
Jack Stone, a cowboy whose guarded demeanor hides a depth of emotion, never anticipated the magnetic attraction he’d feel for Lizzie. However, as they find themselves pulled into a battle against corrupt powers, questions about Jack’s past surface. Can he overcome his secretive history to be the man that Lizzie deserves?
He’d go to any lengths to keep her safe…
Bound by a shared struggle, Lizzie and Jack experience a blossoming romance. Yet, the shadows of their pasts continue to loom over their newfound love. Can their emotional bond survive the tests ahead, or will they find themselves forever haunted by the ghosts of love lost?
“A Love to Bridge two Enemies” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.