Esmerelda Fine's arrival in Calamity on that lazy Wednesday afternoon had garnered more attention than she realized. While the townsfolk had grown accustomed to the stagecoach passing through, they were not accustomed to seeing anyone actually disembark from it. Especially not a slender wren of a lady garbed in a bustle and bonnet the provincial folk of Calamity assumed was the very pinnacle of city fashion.
When Esmerelda plunged into the dusty street without a visible care for her high-heeled kid leather boots, curtains twitched and children came creeping out of alleyways. When it appeared her destination was to be none other than the Tumbleweed Saloon, shopkeepers emerged from their deserted stores to sweep the sidewalks, trading curious and wary looks.
They breathed a collective sigh of relief when Esmerelda paused just outside the saloon, obviously realizing her error. No true lady would ever darken the doorstep of such an establishment. The townsfolk nodded and smiled at one another, their faith in the innate nobility of womankind restored.
Until the young woman squared her slender shoulders, thrust open the swinging doors, and disappeared inside.
The sudden shift from sunlight to gloom nearly blinded Esmerelda. Long shadows cut a swath through the interior of the saloon. The isinglass windowpanes admitted only enough light to gild the dust motes drifting through the air.
A garishly painted woman straddled a chair in front of the piano, banging out a rollicking dance hall tune with her crimson fingernails. A bartender stood behind a long counter, polishing glasses in front of a row of amber-tinted bottles. A handful of stragglers slumped at the bar, but most of the chatter and merriment in the room seemed to be coming from a table situated just below the upstairs balcony.
Two bleary-eyed cowboys flanked a broad-shouldered man whose mouth was dwarfed by a drooping mustache. His silver hair flowed past his shoulders like lustrous waves of corn silk. A tin star was pinned to his satin waistcoat.
The esteemed sheriff McGuire, Esmerelda deduced, fortified by a fresh surge of contempt.
The trail of bills and silver scattered across the table's pitted surface led directly to a fourth man. A man who sat with his back to the wall and his face shadowed by his hat brim. A thin cigar was clamped between his lips. A dimpled whore perched on one knee.
He was watching her, Esmerelda realized, repressing a shiver. His regard might be nothing more than a wary gleam penetrating the shadows, but it was powerful enough to draw every other eye in the saloon to her frozen form. It was almost as if she hadn't existed until the moment he had chosen to take notice of her.
The piano fell mute. The bartender's cloth ceased its circular motions. Curious faces appeared in the saloon windows, struggling to peer through the gloom. Avid eyes peeped over the top of the saloon door, abandoning all pretense of discretion.
Chin up and one foot in front of the other, girl, Esmerelda heard someone say in her head, "If you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you'll eventually get where you're going." Although she had never heard her grandfather speak, Esmerelda knew exactly who that clipped British voice belonged to. She might loathe the man for turning his back on her mother, but it was his pitiless scolding that had prodded her to get up off the bed and stop feeling sorry for herself after her parents had died, that had goaded her into drying little Bartholomew's tears when she was still blinded by her own.
Despite her hatred of her grandfather, or perhaps because of it, his gruff, no-nonsense tones never failed to calm her fears.
She marched to the table, stopping directly across from the man she had traveled over two thousand miles to find. The woman on his lap wrapped a possessive hand around his nape, surveying her with sloe-eyed amusement.
"Mr. William Darling?" Esmerelda winced when her voice cracked in the unnatural silence.
His only acknowledgment of her presence was the faint twitch of a muscle in his jaw. Smoke wafted from his cigar, curling toward her like tendrils of brimstone.
"I am," he finally drawled, stubbing out the cigar and tipping back his hat with one finger.
Esmerelda had braced herself to confront a bewhiskered fiend. She nearly dropped her reticule when the shadows retreated to reveal lean cheeks shaded by the barest hint of stubble and a pair of dark-lashed, gray-green eyes that failed to betray even a glimmer of shiftiness. Those eyes assessed her, taking her measure with disturbing bluntness.
Praying that she had practiced in front of the mirror often enough to do it without shooting herself in the foot, Esmerelda fished the derringer from the satin-lined depths of her reticule and leveled it at his heart.
"You're under arrest, Mr. Darling. I'm taking you in."