In one hundred and fifty years, Blake's Folly, a silver boomtown notorious for its brothels, dancehall girls, silver barons, speakeasies, and divorce ranches, has become a semi-ghost town. Although the old Mizpah Saloon is still in business, its upper floor is sheathed in dust. But in one dark room at a corridor's end, history has toyed merrily with fate; and ghostly shadows evoke passion, unrequited love, gratitude, and pure enchantment.
“You a widow?”
“No.” She could hear the tightness in her voice and feel the tension in her shoulders.
His eyes glinted. “A runaway wife.”
“Not that either.” Did she have to say more? She didn’t. But since people were bound to be asking that same question over and over, she might as well get used to it, even though the answer was only partially true. Even though it could never express what her life had been like up until now. “I left of my own accord, but with my husband’s full agreement. He’ll be looking into getting a divorce.”
“And your children?”
Ah, there it was. The big question, the one thing everyone would be curious about. “No children. I’ve never had any.”
He said nothing. Had he heard the note of anger in her voice? She’d done her best to sound neutral, but neutrality wasn’t an easy note to hit.
How vividly she remembered the first time she’d caught sight of her future husband, Sam Graham, waiting with a little knot of men by a shanty train station in the middle of nowhere. He and the others had been eager to grab a sight of their brides-to-be, women lured west by the promise of marriage, land, and a home. How had the other women fared? Had they been as discouraged as she at the sight of the vast lonely wasteland, the emptiness, the bleached-out colors, and the coarse men who would be their lifetime partners? Men honed by the elements, a hard life. And rough alcohol.
Westley Cranston stood, walked in her direction—no, walk wasn’t the word she could use. He sauntered, a slow, elegant saunter. A man sure of himself, of his power to seduce. Yes, that was why she’d felt so wary yesterday. He stopped when he was standing beside her. Smiled. No, there was nothing seductive in his smile. She’d been wrong. What had she been imagining? That she was still the young attractive woman she’d been years ago? What a fool she was.
He touched the top of the piano with a gesture that was almost a caress. “Don’t worry. You’ll do well. The boys you’ll be playing with are good musicians, nice guys, too. They play at all the dances in town, and they’ll teach you the sort of pieces folks out here are used to hearing.”
His eyebrows rose. “For what?”
“For being so kind.”
“Kind?” He guffawed. “It’s not kindness. I’m fighting for survival. High time we got a good piano player in this place. Bob, before he let that stray bullet hit him, knew how to slap at the keys, all right, but he didn’t know the first thing about keeping time. I’ll bet pretty well all the customers were happy to see him taken out of the running.”
Grinning, he moved away in that casual easy way of his, headed toward the front door. Then stopped, looked back, his eyes twinkling. “But they couldn’t do that, not legally, anyway. One of the rules here in town forbids shooting pistols in a barroom.”
She grinned back at him. “Sounds like a pretty good rule to me. And what are the other rules, if you don’t mind me asking. If there are any others, that is…”
“Sure there are. Need plenty of rules in boomtowns, especially after payday. The other ones are, you can’t insult a woman, you can’t ride a pony or horse on the wooden sidewalks, and you can’t ride them inside this establishment or any other business in town.” He was chuckling again when he turned the lock, stepped out into the street, and disappeared.
Hattie remained seated at the piano. Her anguish had totally vanished. Amazing, how he had put her at ease. He hadn’t judged her, hadn’t looked at her with disgust when she’d told him some of her story, hadn’t condemned her for feeling unsure about her piano playing. She wondered why she’d felt so mistrustful. He had behaved like a perfect gentleman—and a friend.
Then another thought struck her. What had he been doing here in the Mizpah so early in the morning? Had he slept here? Obviously he had. Hadn’t he just let himself out? And that meant he had probably spent the night with one of the ladies upstairs. That he was a client.
Disappointment washed over her. She couldn’t condemn him—men had needs, desires. Why was she so saddened by the thought?