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This is a historical romance set in the autumn of 1865, post Civil War.
“Mister, I think the only reason you’re here is to take my money.” The geezer clutching two aces and two eights slipped a hand inside his vest, withdrawing an ivory-handled knife. “No one has your kind of luck.”
Jack burned a stare from underneath the brim of his hat. Men at surrounding tables sucked in their breaths. The piano player lifted his fingers off the keys and the barkeep stopped polishing glasses.
From the wall behind the bar, the regulator clock’s pendulum swung.
A man wearing an eye patch grabbed the geezer’s arm. “Don’t, Halsey. He’s packing Colts.” His one good eye lowered to the shoulder boards on Jack’s frockcoat. “Halsey didn’t mean nothing, sir. He’s a sore loser, is all.”
Jack answered with a tight smile and scooped up his winnings from the gambling table. “The war ended at Appamattox, my friends,” he drawled, although there wasn’t a friendly face among them, three grizzled men who’d gobbled too much drought dust and regretted their gambling impulses that afternoon. Outside of St. Louis, Missouri was a no-man’s land that knew no loyalties to the Federals or the Rebs. Two days earlier, Jack rode in, parched and sore, his horse as sandy as his Union-issue uniform. He’d collapsed onto a bed above the saloon and twelve hours later, tested the mattress springs with a hot-tongued married gal. Three times on the squeaky brass bed and once against the wall. So much sparking he thought they’d torch the blankets.
Narrowing his gaze, he chomped on a cigar, adding to the smoke pluming to the ceiling. Black Jack Stanton took before he could get taken. Give him a reason to earn more gold for his pockets and a beautiful woman who was imaginative with her hands, and he could blot out the horrors he’d witnessed and what happened to his sister Beatrice.
Bea, out of breath and fretful. Baked biscuits harder than fence posts, patched his coat up during his last furlough. Bea. Christ help me. Sweat broke out above his lip. Jack slammed his empty glass on the uneven wood surface.
The bartender rushed forward, sloshing the shot glass with amber liquid. “Food’s coming.”
Jack flipped a coin between his forefinger and thumb, kept his eye trained on the parlor. Damask wallpaper cloaked the saloon in a brimstone red. The wood railing appeared as though it had cracked open under a brawl and had been hastily repaired.
“Some fine eats here.” The barkeep nodded toward the back. “Old Man Simpson’s got himself a new cook.”
“Hmm.” Like he gave a hare’s ass. The knife-grabbing geezer had left, as had other men. Jack had blown through the dozen or so gamblers in this one-trick town, biding time until he met with the colonel. According to the cryptic note Jack had received a month ago, the newest mission involved locating the missing wife of a railroad tycoon. The colonel was the go-between, the deal-maker, Jack the gun-for-hire.
The colonel was a day late, though. He was never late.
A peacock feather and seawater silk blurred as a fancy girl passed near his chair, trailing perfume. Her kohl-lined eyes danced upward to the brothel rooms. “Care to play a hand with me, handsome?”
“Play a hand, lay a hand.” He slid a palm over the silk covering her thigh. “Always up for a few horizontal refreshments.”
She drew out an Asian fan, a half-circle trimmed in black lace. Tiny white letters spelled out one word, just before she snapped it back.