Calvin’s Saloon, Stillwater, Minnesota
Melissa Markham was nervous as she ambled down the boardwalk, ready to move on with her life.
A late September sun strained against the windows of Calvin’s Saloon, forcing a weak band of light into a quiet, otherwise dimly lit room. It was early, too early for even the die-hard drinkers who often frequented the saloon before ten a.m., yet five men sat around a table focusing on their cards.
The feeble sunlight gleamed off a sign over the bar, announcing Ethan Trent as the new proprietor. Beneath the sign was the painting of a large breasted, full frontal nude woman reclining on a gaudy chaise. Dust motes danced in the light and the floor bore traces of the revelry from the night before—a scattering of cigarette butts, remnants of spilled liquor. Housekeeping was not high on the list of priorities, but the patrons did not seem to notice.
The door opened. No one bothered to see who it was—until the person spoke.
The soft yet haughty English-accented words brought Trent’s gaze up from his poker hand. Five feet from his table stood a woman, holding a gun trained on his heart.
“You’ve found him, ma’am. Heck of a way to introduce yourself,” Ethan added as he tossed down his cards.
“I dreaded the day I’d meet you,” she spat, “but there was no other way to gain satisfaction, you black-hearted devil!”
The woman stepped closer, and he realized the weapon was a derringer, a small gun that could do significant damage.
Ethan tried to make out her features in the gloom and caught a trace of full lips, meant for kissing. Something about her stance and those tempting lips stirred a spark of remembrance.
Laughing softly, he looked at the other men at the table then at her, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “You sure it’s me you want?”
“Yes,” she seethed, “I’m talking to you, you low life, murdering worm.”
Ethan rubbed his hand over his face and swore. Recently retired as a U. S. Marshall, Ethan had hoped to put that life behind him.
Apparently, that wasn’t to be.
“Satisfaction for what?” he snapped, struggled for patience.
“For the cold-blooded murder of my brother, you miserable swine!”
Damn, but the woman was exceptionally good at name-calling.
Ethan’s three poker cronies leapt from their chairs and stumbled out of the saloon. The woman drew nearer; that’s when Ethan recognized her as the new woman who’d arrived in town two days ago. He made it a habit to learn the name of every person, especially pretty women, who arrived in Stillwater, and Miss Markham was no exception.
Ethan studied her now. From the moment he’d set eyes on her exiting the train upon her arrival a few days ago, he’d wondered about her. Melissa Markham wasn’t pretty in the conventional manner. She was, however, unique, and passionate, at least about her brother’s alleged murder. That kind of passion often translated to heat behind closed doors. The fact that she was exotic looking with a generous dollop of something Oriental in her blood intrigued him.
Knowing he could easily have disarmed her, he remained in his chair.
“Miss Markham, I remember the name of every man I’ve ever killed, and trust me, Markham isn’t one of them.” The names of all his victims, and their faces, remained indelibly engraved in his soul, each and every one of them.
“Then you’re denying it?”
The shrillness of her voice grated on him. Miss Markham, like most women, in his opinion, required a muzzle. Women were easy on the eye, but many, once they opened their mouths, held little interest for him. A vision assailed him then; Miss Markham gagged and tied to his bed, limbs splayed, petals moist and throbbing with anticipation, awaiting his suckling lips and tongue. His cock hardened at the erotic image prompting him to reach down and adjust his trousers.
“Hands on the table or so help me I’ll shoot you where you sit,” she threatened.
Freezing at her warning, anger began to simmer inside him. “Ma’am, you have me mistaken for someone else.”
“I’m not mistaken, and I’m not a fool. You are my brother’s murderer, and you’ll hang for the deed. Have you no defense?”
“Damn it, woman, I don’t need a defense for something I didn’t do.”
Miss Markham narrowed her eyes, disgust written on her features.
“Of course you would deny it. I knew you would.”
She was irritating the hell out of him. “Oh? And just how did you know that?”
“Because any man who kills without provocation is scum. And my brother was innocent. A poor, young—” The woman broke off, clamped her lips together and turned away, as if suppressing a sob.
Suddenly appearing to remember her purpose, she took in a quick breath and once again aimed the derringer at Ethan—his head this time.
Mustering up more patience, Ethan offered her a false smile and nodded at a chair beside him. “Listen, we’re not going to get anywhere like this. Have a seat. I’d like to see this proof of yours. Join me in a glass of sherry. Then we can discuss this further, like two civilized adults.”
The woman didn’t budge and looked at him with no expression
“Now why would I want to socialize with the man who murdered my brother?”
Ethan stifled another curse. “I didn’t kill your brother.”
She gave him a nasty smile. “You’ve killed so many, I imagine it’s difficult to recall all of them.”
“You’re the one who claims to have all the information.” A muscle twitched in his cheek. “You’ve tried and hanged me without allowing me a word of defense.”
It was true that he had killed many men during his days as a federal marshal, but that was all in the past. Now Ethan was satisfied to own this saloon and, with less satisfaction, the Trent family lumber business, which he had inherited upon his father’s death, though he hadn’t wanted it. He had wanted little to do with the man who had declared Ethan dead to him long ago.
Melissa said nothing, just held the gun with confidence, arms stretched out in front of her, stance wide.
“Please. Join me,” he insisted.
“No, but I will walk with you to the jailhouse where I shall present my proof to the sheriff. A story from a respectable newspaper back East labels you as my brother’s cold-blooded murderer. Get up, Trent—slowly.”
Aw, shit. Ethan would eventually meet up with her and the sheriff about this mix-up, but not now—not yet. His sense of justice blared at him to teach this young woman a lesson she’d never forget. He snapped a quick glance to the right, counting on her to follow the movement. The woman didn’t disappoint him. Ethan leapt out of his chair and threw himself toward her, scrambling across the tabletop.
Damn it if the wench didn’t pull the trigger.