Only vaguely hearing him through her sobs, Hyacinth didn’t recognize the deep male voice, but that wasn’t surprising. After all, she’d only been in Creek Bend for thirty minutes—just long enough that the stage coach had departed. Just long enough to have fear tearing holes through her stomach as the prospects of her future turned darker than they’d ever been before.
“Oh, leave me alone!” Hyacinth turned her back on the male voice at the same time she shot to her feet, but a low whistle kept her from leaving—not that she had anywhere to go.
“God have mercy, woman. You here to work in the saloon? Tell me when you start and I’ll scrape a few dollars together to visit you.”
Hyacinth collapsed back onto the rickety bench as a new wave of terror tore her legs out from under her.
“But I’ve got to be your first customer, darlin’,” the stranger continued, “because them other ladies are all diseased, so it’s only a matter of time before you are too. It’s a shame, but unavoidable. For them, that is. I just forego their company, but it’s been a while and if I could be your first—”
“Oh, dear God! I can’t work in the saloon.” Head lowered into her hands, she cried harder.
“You waiting to go home, then? Because someone should have told you that the next stage won’t come through here for another two days.”
Home. No, she couldn’t go home. Not with all the nasty—though admittedly true—rumors going around. Not with her parents in their graves and the money they’d left her gone. Not with the man she’d thought to marry starting a family with another woman.
Hyacinth was beyond hopeless. Her sobs turned uglier, racking her body on the bench set along the splintered wall of the coach depot.
A sigh reached out to her and heavy steps crossed the shoddy boards half-buried in the muddy aisle the backwater town in the armpit of the American frontier insisted on calling a street. Through her tears, worn leather toes and ragged dungarees came into sight.
“You all right, ma’am?” The tone of the voice didn’t imply that its owner cared.
“No!” She answered his question in a shrill wail. “Does it look like I’m all right?”
“Don’t know. Can’t hardly see you anymore, considering the way you’re all hunched down over your own lap. What I did see was nice, though. That’s a real fine drape to your skirts, ma’am.”
Hyacinth pried her fingers off her brow, but she didn’t raise her head. Having seen enough horrified shock cross men’s faces to last a lifetime, she didn’t want to let the stranger see her eyes. She made an effort to control herself, but tears still tracked down her cheeks and dripped off her chin.
A frayed bandana was thrust into her newly-unoccupied hand.
“Thank you.” She crumpled the handkerchief against her nose. “Your kindness is appreciated, seeing as how I’ve been abandoned.”
The boots in her line of sight rocked back on their heels. “Well, give it a few more minutes and I’m sure somebody ‘round here will claim you. Women are in short supply.”
Hyacinth shook her head and let another sob break from her throat. “Oh, no man’s going to claim me. Not after the scene Ernest Horsham just enacted.”
“Hmm, tough luck then. So, you’re waiting for the next stage?”
“I don’t have the money to go back home. I don’t even have a home to go back to.” Hyacinth took the briefest moment to wipe her nose then continued as if the stranger had asked for further explanations. “I was supposed to marry him—Ernest, that is—but he has rejected me. I have no money, no place to go, no way to get back East. I have nothing and after the things he said, no one will help me.”
“That is too bad, ma’am. Good luck and all that.” The boots turned away and took a step. Then they stopped and did an about-face. “You’re the mail-order bride?”
Hyacinth nodded and plastered the handkerchief over her eyes. “It was a terrible idea.”
“It sure as hell was,” the man agreed. “Jesus, woman, he posted that ad in a hearts and hands catalog. Butt of the town’s jokes for quite a while, but then he got all puffed up when
you agreed to come on out here. I’m surprised he rejected you, considering both his pride and the way your back end looks.”
“Please don’t be vulgar!”
“I’ve been accused of worse. Why did he tell you to take a hike?”
The man’s words struck deep and bounced off a steely core Hyacinth wouldn’t have guessed she had. Abused pride flooded her, finally stopping her tears as her chin shot up. She whipped the bandana off her face and jumped to her feet, bracing her fists on her hips.
She raked the man with her gaze, not that he noticed. His eyes were busy burning a path up her body, leisurely perusing the heavy skirts hiding her legs, lingering on the wide curve of her hips, which were unfortunately emphasized by her short jacket. He dragged his scrutiny higher but seemed to get caught on her chest. Hyacinth fought not to cross her arms over her bodice.
The man before her was no prize, though she’d seen worse. He was tall and rangy, yet he looked like he could use a decent meal. His chin was shorn enough to be respectable on the streets but not enough to attend church—assuming there was such a thing in Creek Bend, where the saloon was positioned center stage and the sheriff’s office was little more than a lean-to across the muddy street from the stage depot.
The man’s well-worn boots were in need of repair, as were his dungarees and chambray shirt. He wore a hat, but his dark hair was long, hanging about his collar, and his face was so wind-burned Hyacinth figured he only had a few more years before it turned to leather. But his deep brown eyes were nice and held a look that sparked something inside her besides fear and pride.
“Well?” he asked her breasts.
Hyacinth gave in to her urge and folded her arms over her coat buttons. He finally looked up at her face, but he didn’t rear back in horror.
“Well, what?” she snapped.
His expression told her he was clinging to his patience, where she was concerned. “Why did Ernest give you the boot?”
“He said I was deformed.” Hyacinth’s chin notched higher.
The man’s eyes inched lower. “You surely ain’t that.”
“He said I was too old, and that my eyes were…” She cleared her throat of a lingering sob. “Indicative of a person involved in dark things.”
“Ooh, dark things, darlin’? Like—” The man’s voice had dropped into something resembling a growl before he cut himself off and snapped his gaze back up to hers. “What do you mean dark things?”
“He accused me of being a witch or being in league with the devil.”
The stranger’s mouth kicked up at the corner. “Most women I’ve met are witches. Why the hell would he care about your eyes? A man can’t see them in the dark, anyhow.”
Hyacinth took one arm away from her chest to point to her face. “Two different colors.”
The man took a giant step toward her, nearly plastering his body to hers. Long, warm fingers captured her chin and tilted her head up until the late afternoon sun could make its way past her bonnet’s brim. “Huh. Look at that. One brown and one blue.”
“Ernest made quite a scene about it. I’m surprised you didn’t hear. No one would even look at me after that, let alone help me.”
“Superstitious bastards.” The man ran the tip of his nose down her neck. “You smell good.”
Hyacinth felt a hand snaking down over her waist. She gasped and jumped back, but the man only smiled. “Don’t touch me, sir!”
“Darlin’, you better prepare yourself to be touched by every man in this town. If you don’t have a way home, how do you think you’re gonna survive in Creek Bend? Saloon’s pretty much your only option.”
“I would rather starve in the streets than work in a diseased whorehouse. Besides, I told you, the men don’t want me.”
“And I told you, a man can’t see a woman’s eyes in the dark. Lot of horny men come to town on Friday nights, darlin’. They aren’t gonna care about your eye color. Their sights will be set much, much lower. And I aim to be the first to lead the charge.”
Once again, the man stepped close and grabbed Hyacinth’s hip. Trapped against the rough wood wall of the depot, she had no way to escape. Clever fingers kneaded through her skirts and slipped down further.
“Stop that!” Hyacinth took a breath, but one particular memory made it shaky.
The man’s eyes narrowed and he ducked his head to meet her gaze beneath her bonnet. After a tense moment, he growled, “You aren’t a virgin.”
Her cheeks burned, her mouth fell open. “You can’t know that!”
“I do. I see it in your eyes.”
“Maybe I’m a widow.”
He shook his head. “Nope. Tell the truth, darlin’.”
“I was engaged,” she exhaled dramatically.
“I doubt it.”
Hyacinth dragged air in through her nose. “Well, I thought I was engaged. He was going off to battle and one thing led to another. My parents died before the War Between the States and the money they’d left me wasn’t enough when the prices started to rise, so when Jonathan came courting, I was grateful and I believed—”
“Just the one man?” She nodded and he continued, “He never came home?”
“He came home. Then he married another woman. One with two blue eyes.”
“Bet she wasn’t packing the curves you are.” The man ran his hand as far down her thigh as he could reach, then back up. “Did you like it? Did you like the way your soldier touched you? Did he make you wet?”
Hyacinth was scandalized. Her eyes widened further, her cheeks blazed hotter and her spine snapped straighter. “I beg your pardon?”
“Well, if I’m gonna take you home with me, I want to know you’re receptive to fucking. I figure, if you had a good time before, you’re less likely to put up a fight. I don’t have time to settle a nervous filly, darlin’.”
She opened her mouth, only to close it. Two more tries had her finally able to form words. “You want to take me home with you? You want to marry me?”
The man flinched back. “Hell no, I ain’t marrying you. But I’ll give you room and board in exchange for services rendered. You can do the women’s work, including warming my bed.”
“You are outrageous! Vile and vulgar.” Hyacinth pushed at his chest, finding it to be surprisingly solid, but the man didn’t budge. “I’d rather—”
“Work in the saloon?” A full smile spread across his mouth, revealing straight teeth in remarkably good condition. “Those are your options, woman. Me or the saloon. I’m getting ready to head out, so make your choice quick.”
Hyacinth forced herself to think past the fear tangling her nerves into knots. Evaluating her options, she found them to be bleak. She snuck a peek past the man trapping her against the stage depot and eyed the few people wandering down the broken boardwalks. They were all men. Most were old, many unwashed and all of them had avoided her since Ernest had proclaimed her deformed.
Down the street, lights began to blaze from the windows of the saloon. The establishment obviously did a booming business, as all the men on the boardwalks were heading in that direction. Loud music, raucous conversation and the sounds of glass breaking drifted through the wide-open doors. A woman shrieked.
Hyacinth shuddered. “Well, if I’m going to go home with you, I think I should at least know your name.”