Excerpt from Texas Rose

     "Excuse me, gentlemen. I am looking for Pecos Martin. Is he here?"
     The drawn shutters of the gambling hall turned the late afternoon sun into dusk. Smoke curled in the murky air, giving the room an atmosphere resembling the first circle of hell. Engrossed in their various card games, few of the occupants paid much attention to the vision in the open door.
     And there was no doubt that she was a vision. With the sunlight for a backdrop, her chestnut hair glowed almost auburn. Arranged in thick, loose folds at the back of her head and topped by an incongruously tiny green velvet and lace hat, her hair rivaled the setting sun outside. The features beneath the thick waves of chestnut were not distinguishable in the gloom, but they appeared to be of the delicate cream and evenness that were fashionable. Perhaps the eyes were larger and darker than customary, having a certain exotic slant, but the clientele in this room weren't connoisseurs of fashion.
     So the exquisite walking gown of green foulard adorned with yards of ruching and topped with a darker green fitted bodice went unrewarded by her audience. Only one head lifted in this sea of male attire, and the vision breathed an almost audible sigh of relief as her glance found him.
     Surrounded by men in dark top coats, grubby sack coats, and black hats, this one man alone wore buff linen. His frock coat fitted snuggly to wide shoulders, and his starched white collar contrasted nicely with the golden-brown of his coloring.
     Evie felt a swell of reassurance at his appearance. This had to be the man she was looking for. Of course, he was much younger than she had expected. A man who had done everything that Pecos Martin had done should be older and grizzled and weather-beaten. She had expected one of the derelicts in shirtsleeves and vest with three-day's growth of beard to be the man Daniel had told her about. But this man was obviously accustomed to sun, more so than anyone else in here.
     His hair lay in thick lengths of sun-licked gold. Peering through the gloom, she thought his features were probably quite handsome. She hesitated to call a cold-blooded killer handsome. But he was definitely remarkable-looking.
     Reassured by those looks, certain she was in the place described by Daniel, Evie approached the gambler without hesitation. The scene was just as she had imagined.
     "Mr. Martin?" she inquired as she approached, her petticoats rustling in the silence. She didn't want to disturb anyone's concentration. The men in the card game with the golden gambler scarcely noticed her presence. She wasn't accustomed to that, but she wasn't accustomed to frequenting dens of vice, either.
     The gambler grinned as his gaze raked over her new walking gown. Evie hoped he noticed the clever way she had cut the gussets so the tunic fit her waist neatly before flaring out over the full skirt and modified bustle. He certainly seemed to be appreciating some aspect of her attire, anyway. She smiled tentatively.
     "Deal me out, boys," the man murmured, laying down his cards and scooping up the coins and greenbacks littering the table in front of him. He crushed his cheroot against the table and rose without a word of protest from the other players. They almost seemed relieved to see him go.
     "How may I help you, my dear?" he inquired as he took her hand and placed it on his linen-covered arm. When she seemed prepared to withdraw her fingers, he held them and started toward the door. "Let us go outside. This is no place for a lovely lady such as yourself."
     Deciding there was no harm in holding a man's arm even though it was more muscular than she had ever dreamed, Evie followed him through the gloom to the brilliant Natchez sunshine outside.
     She was well aware that this was not the kind of place where ladies strayed, but she knew of no other way to obtain her goal, and she wasn't known for giving up. Don Quixote wouldn't have given up at the sight of a few cigars and the smell of unwashed bodies.
     The blacksmith and buggy shops of Under-the-Hill might harbor men of the lower orders, but Evie had full confidence that they wouldn't be interested in harming her. It was broad daylight, after all, and the street was filled with horses and wagons and buggies. She realized the shuttered buildings like the gambling hall and other establishments of even less repute were dens of iniquity, but she wasn't exactly certain how iniquity could affect her if she simply walked by it.
     With full confidence of her power to appeal, Evie smiled up at the gentleman holding her hand and launched into her prepared story. "Daniel told me all about you, and I knew you were the gentleman who could help us out. I am Maryellen Peyton, Mr. Martin. I'm pleased to meet you."
     Tyler Monteigne smiled as his gaze took in the full glory of this creature he had only dimly assessed earlier. She wasn't so young as to be innocent, but young enough not to be jaded. Her face was an exquisite cream and rose accented by eyes so dark and heavily lashed that they scarcely seemed to belong to her. Full lips of a vibrant rose formed a natural pout that begged to be kissed, and sun-warmed hair gave off an enticing scent of cinnamon and roses that stirred all his senses at once. He wanted to eat her and bed her at the same time.
     He didn't know who in hell Pecos Martin was, but he was willing to be Robert E. Lee if she wanted. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am. It's a pure honor to be called upon by such a vision of loveliness." Tyler made a slight bow, then securely tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow as he turned their direction up the hill. "Let us speak somewhere less public. My hotel is just up the street ..."
     "So is mine, and my brother would be delighted to meet you, Mr. Martin. If you would prefer to get in out of the sun, we could go there."
     He had not foreseen a brother in the picture. Images of an idle afternoon spent in white, shapely arms rapidly faded. Tyler hesitated beside the barred windows of a tavern. "Perhaps you had best give me some hint as to what this is about, Miss Peyton. I am a busy man, after all, and I don't wish to waste your time or mine."
     Evie sensed his reservations, and she offered him the full benefit of her smile. "I wouldn't dream of wasting your time, sir. I'm fully prepared to pay for your services. I suppose expenses and a daily salary are required, but we can discuss that later when you hear my story. I really need your help, Mr. Martin. Surely you couldn't refuse a lady in distress."
     Ladies in distress were the first people he would refuse. They pouted and cried and clung and made a general nuisance of themselves. But this one seemed all shimmering copper and light, and Tyler couldn't resist the mention of pay.
     "Best tell me what you need now, ma'am. I don't rightly know that I've time to book many more good deeds in my schedule."
     That brought a brief frown and a quick look from dark eyes. But finding nothing ominous in his bland expression, she hurried on. "It's my sister, sir. We haven't heard from her in months, and her last letter sounded terribly desperate. We've got to find her, and we may have to rescue her from that brute of a husband of hers. I shouldn't be telling you things like this, but I'm certain you're a man who can keep a confidence. Daniel tells me you know all about Texas. I just know you're the man who can help us."
     "Texas?" With regret, Tyler disengaged her hand. He sure as hell wasn't going to Texas even for the Queen of England. And from the corner of his eye, he had spotted another reason for sending this little temptress on her way. "I'm afraid not, ma'am. I'll not be heading to Texas again anytime real soon. There's too much to be done here. Now if you'll excuse me ..."
     Evie grabbed his coat sleeve with determination. "It shouldn't take long, I promise. And we'll pay you well. I don't know of anyone else who can help us. Please, come back and listen—"
     "There you are! And who is this? Tyler Monteigne, if you've been two-timing me, I'll pull every slick piece of hair out of your gorgeous head. Let go of my betrothed, you slut!"
     The virago in shimmering red silk cut to expose generous breasts placed her hands on her hips and glared at her supposed rival. Evie released the coat of the man she had called Pecos Martin. Her questioning look, however, had more to do with his new appellation than the woman's presence.
     "Betrothed?" Looking startled, Tyler tried to extricate himself from one woman while soothing the other. "Now, Bessie, why would I be two-timing the loveliest girl in all Natchez? The lady was just asking directions, and I was trying to be helpful. Miss, do you know the way now?" He smiled with disconcerting reassurance at his new acquaintance.
     Evie lifted her skirt and sent him a furious glare. "I most certainly do, Mister Monteigne. I'm sorry to have troubled you."
     With a swish of her heavy petticoats, Evie swirled away in the direction of her hotel and Daniel. Humiliation crept up to color her cheeks, but fury followed close behind. She should have known he was too good-looking to be Pecos Martin. A darned rascal, that was what he was. She should have guessed when he offered to take her back to his hotel.
     She could hear Bessie's loud voice carrying up the street, alternately berating the cad and cooing at him. Evie walked faster, but she couldn't lose the sound. The Monteigne man seemed to be placating her with pretty murmurs. Even a loose woman ought to know a cad when she heard one. The man didn't mean a word he said; she would wager on that.
     The fact that she had been lying to him from the very first word didn't stem Evie's wrath.
     She cursed as she ran up the hotel steps and heard the loving couple follow after her. Apparently Monteigne had sweet-talked his lady out of her temper. It was just her luck that the lying rascal would have rooms in the same hotel. Just because it was the only decent hotel in the area shouldn't matter. Lying cads belonged in the lowest den of iniquity in this terrible town. Villains weren't supposed to look like heroes.
     As Evie stormed up to the first landing, a Negro popped out of one of the rooms down the hall. Leaning over the balustrade, he cursed at the sight below and loped past her, scarcely noticing as he swept by.
     Startled, Evie glanced down at the lobby. The sight of a black man in a white hotel didn't shock her that much. This was Mississippi, after all, and the Freedmen's Bureau had given all sorts of freedoms that would take some getting used to. She supposed it was perfectly all right for him to have rooms here.
     But since she had just come through the lobby, she knew the only sights to be seen were Mr. Monteigne and Bessie. The situation had some similarity to one in that novel Daniel had insisted she read, where the hero was actually a secret agent of the government. Perhaps Mr. Monteigne had a hidden identity and the Negro was his partner.
     She heard him speaking even before he hit the bottom step. His voice was too low-pitched for Evie to discern the words, but she was quite certain that the gambler wasn't any too pleased. Bessie's carrying voice made the problem a little clearer.
     "But Tyler, honey, I've just told you, I'm ready to give up the sporting life and get hitched. I thought we could celebrate. I want the whole town there when I walk down that aisle. Can't Ben wait just a while longer?"
     Evie peered past the ostentatious chandelier. The black man and the gambler were leading Bessie to the door. The fool ought to know better than to think a man like Monteigne would be pleased about getting married. It was rather obvious Mr. Monteigne's interest hadn’t been  captured by Bessie's brains.
     But didn't Daniel's secret agent have lots of women? Perhaps if Monteigne wasn't Pecos Martin, he was leading a double life. That would be vastly entertaining.
     A rustle of silk in the second floor hall caught Evie's attention. Not wishing to be seen spying, she started toward the third floor as the lobby door closed on Bessie. Glancing down the hall as she passed it, Evie saw a woman in a walking dress more elegant than her own leaving one of the rooms.
     She heard the unmistakable tread of a man's boots on the stairs. Curiosity was a terrible thing, right up there next to imagination. Evie hesitated on the top landing, almost certain now of the scene about to unfold. Amusement curled her lips as she heard the soft, coaxing voice of the woman in the hall below as the man approached. If this were a dime novel, she knew what would happen next.
     "There you are, Tyler!” the elegant lady cried. “I was so worried. I've left Timothy. I know you told me it would be foolish, but I can't help it. I want to go with you to St. Louis. I'll hire a lawyer and see about a divorce as soon as we're there, and then we can be together as much as we like. Tell me you're happy for me, Tyler."
     Mr. Monteigne  ran his hand through his hair and hid any dismay as he looked down on the petite female in silk holding out a beseeching palm. Looking for an avenue of retreat, his gaze caught on Evie peering from around the corner.
     She knew a trapped man when she saw one. Laughing at his predicament, Evie demurely turned in his direction. "Why, Mr. Monteigne! I didn't know you were married. I thought I heard something about you being betrothed ..."
     She let the sentence dangle insinuatingly before turning to the lady. "I am so sorry, Mrs. Monteigne. I had no idea I would be taking your husband away like this. Travel to Texas is so uncertain in these times, you know, and he offered to escort my brother and myself. You see, my brother is only eighteen and his leg was dreadfully maimed in a carriage accident, and he tries so hard to be responsible for me, but we both felt we would be much safer in Mr. Monteigne's care. You do understand, don't you? I wouldn't want you to be too hard on your husband for his generous ways."
     Evie flashed a winning smile in Tyler's direction. "I'll let you two lovebirds have this chance alone. Just ask the clerk for my direction when you have a chance. We need to discuss details."
     Triumphantly, Evie swept toward the stairs. Tyler Monteigne was not only a rotten cad, he was a two-timing son-of-a-female dog, but she would have the last word yet. Daniel wanted an escort to Texas, and he was going to have one. Bessie and Miss Priss back there would see to that for her. If she were writing this adventure, she would have provided a more honorable hero, someone more like Ivanhoe, but a spurious Pecos Martin would have to do. She didn't have the time or resources to locate anyone else.
     Miss Priss was talking almost as loudly as Bessie by the time Evie reached her room. She predicted that Mr. Tyler Monteigne would be pounding up here sometime in the very near future. Unless, of course, he persuaded Miss Priss into some compromising situation before he sent her home to her husband. There was always that possibility. He was an indecently good-looking man, and secret agents did that kind of thing.
     That thought brought a frown to her brow, but Evie wiped it away before she entered the room.
     The boy resting against the headboard looked up from his book and grinned at her appearance. "Did you find him? Was he at the Green Door like the books said?"
     Evangeline Peyton Howell swept off her lacy fragment of a hat and tossed it to the dresser. "Of course. Did you have any doubt?" she asked.
     "Tee-rrific! What's he like? Is he like the book? Does he have narrowed eyes and a lantern jaw and a hand that lingers near his holster?"
     "Daniel Mulloney! Do you think I would get within ten miles of a man like that? Why didn't you tell me that was what he was supposed to look like before I went out there? Good grief! I could have fainted if my inquiries had produced such a creature."
     Daniel didn't look the least abashed. "If I'd told you, you wouldn't have gone. He's supposed to be a real softy underneath that rough exterior. I knew he'd fall for you the instant he saw you. He did, didn't he?"
     "Nanny should have been harder on you, I swear. You're incorrigible." Trailing the green foulard to the window, Evie checked the street below. There wasn't any sign of Miss Priss departing. The nameless cad had no doubt sweet-talked her after all. Disgusting. She wasn't at all certain that they wouldn't need protection from their protector if they took Tyler Monteigne with them, but beggars couldn't be choosers. She would have preferred Sancho Panza to Tyler Monteigne, but this adventure required a guide, and they didn't have time to look for another.
     Evie plumped down in the over-size chair and poured a glass of water from the pitcher. "Pecos Martin is every inch a gentleman. I'm not at all certain that he was even wearing a gun. He said he would be stopping by later this evening. We'll discuss the details with him then. You'll remember our story, won't you?"
     Daniel beamed. "One of these days, Evie, someone's going to call you out on one of your tales, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Pecos Martin won't be the one. He's likely to whale the tar out of you when we get to Mineral Springs and he finds out you lied."
     "I told you, he's a gentleman. He'll understand that we can't trust anyone just yet. We'll tell him what he needs to know when the time comes."
     Daniel shook his head at his older "sister." "I haven't met the gentleman yet who didn't want to tan your hide when he discovered he was the victim of your tall tales. You'll not have Nanny here to protect you this time."
     Evie smiled serenely. "Don't worry. This is one time when the gentleman won't be able to say a thing. You just practice on calling me Maryellen."
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