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FAKE MARRIAGE WITH A DASH OF DESIRE by Karen Michelle Nutt 

THE LADY PIANO PLAYER by J. Arlene Culiner 

DUTY by Angela Raines

DIAMOND JACK'S ANGEL by Elizabeth Clements

A SUMMER TO REMEMBER by Julie Lence

The Lady Piano Player

 

            Essie Delevaux left Baltimore dreaming of freedom and romance in the Far West, but an arranged marriage to a violent drunk shattered her hopes. Tired and worn out when her marriage ends, she still has determination. How do single women survive in rough Western boomtowns? Some become laundresses, or cooks; others go begging or turn to prostitution. The chance to become a piano player in a saloon-cum-bordello seems like the perfect solution for Essie, even though it puts her in constant contact with the dangerously attractive Matt Curley. Still, she is wise enough to keep her emotions in check, isn't she?

            Journalist Matt Curley is a man of the world, and adventure takes him from Philadelphia to steamboats on the Colorado River, and from Canadian snows to boomtowns. He's every woman's dream, a handsome rebel, intelligent and kind, but everyone knows he's not here to stay. Matt needs all the excitement new horizons can bring, but before he does leave Blake's Folly, he wants to make certain Essie Delevaux is settled in and happy. How he enjoys their mornings together in the empty saloon, drinking coffee, sharing secrets. And what if he needs more than just innocent friendship?

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Excerpt


            “I'm looking for work.”


            One elbow casually propped on the long mahogany, Matt Curley observed the woman who had just addressed Ned Prescott, saloon owner. Work, she wanted? What sort of work did she think she would get here? She looked like your typical schoolmarm, strict, unrelenting. Did she think she could join the ranks of good-time dance girls, those luscious ladies, farouche and audacious, whose job it was to waltz men to pleasure? If so, she had to be joking. At the very least, she was sadly mistaken. The girls who worked this saloon knew how to make men laugh, keep them lusty, ready to spend their hard-earned cash. Sure, men might want that schoolmarm rectitude in their stay-at-home wives, but it was the glittery, sordid world in here that attracted them, and even well-known, powerful men in high positions, the sheriff, the politicians, the judge, could often be seen with nymphs of the prairie on their arm.

            This woman now addressing Ned, well… she had surely been a lovely wide-eyed girl once upon a time; that gentle mouth might have been ready with soft smiles, but life had since taken its toll on her. She was exhausted, her skin was tired, pale. Her hazel eyes, as fine as they were, had no sparkle. Her clothes were dusty from travel. He could guess her story before hearing it: she was a widow, or a rejected wife, or a runaway. He took her in from head to toe. She held herself tall, her head high. Yes, she obviously still had pride. But hope? Probably not.

            “Peddler Grunty told me to come here. That you'd know who's looking for hired help.”

            Matt saw Ned's slow nod, could see the sympathy on his friend's face. In these rough towns, women were caught in a man's world, in the cult of virility, of violence, and only the toughies did well. But this woman, she didn't look brash, or tough. She didn't even look like a candidate for a new husband.

            Oh yes, some women could find them, second-hand men whose wives had died in childbirth, or from exhaustion. Men who needed someone to raise their children, to attend to harvests, garden work,laundry, to scrounge for firewood, to do the cooking. And, when no white woman was available to take on the tasks, they married squaws. Luckier women had older children who could take care of them, but not everyone wanted a mother, or mother-in-law in residence, especially if she were no longer capable of helping out with the drudgery.

            Twenty, thirty years ago, women had been scarce out here, and they'd easily found partners. It hadn't mattered if they were ugly, or beautiful, mean-tempered, sharp-tongued, or sweet. But times had changed. Plenty of women were available; those fleeing domestic service and factory toil in the east were heading west with dreams of land, a home, and marriage. So, nowadays, men could choose, and they went for the young ones, strong women,

            “I can cook, clean.” Her voice was clear, steady. As steady as the gaze of those hazel eyes. No, she had no illusions about her appeal. Cook and clean? She didn't look as if she had the strength for jobs like that. She was too thin, too frail. Ned must have thought the same.

            “Don't need a cook. Don't need more hired help here in the saloon.” He shook his head, continued wiping a glass with undue assiduity.

            “And I suppose I'm not the only woman who's come asking for work this week, either.”

It wasn't a question, just a statement, made without despair, without bitterness. Just flat, as if she had no illusions left. The w

            “No, you aren't,” Ned conceded before turning to him. “What have you heard, Matt? Anyone come into the newspaper office, looking to hire?”

            Ned was just buying time, Matt knew that. He didn't want to turn her away. That bundle by her feet must contain everything she owned in the world, but there was something classy and educated about her. Something that told him she'd come a long way from her origins. Just like you have, said the little voice in the back of his head. He pushed the thought back, tried to think about jobs here in town, ones that just might suit a woman like her. He couldn't think of a thing…with one dazzling exception…

            “You know how to play the piano?”

            The woman turned her clear, unwavering eyes to him. Finally. Sized him up, took in his fine clothes, his well-shined boots, his casual pose. Did she approve? He had no idea. She looked as though a million thoughts were running through her head. Then, slowly, she nodded.

            “I do.”

            “Well, how about that then, Ned. Isn't that a lucky break.” Matt couldn't hide the note of laughing triumph in his voice. Pushing himself away from the counter, he came to stand beside her. Grinned over at his friend. “Hey, a piano player. Just what you're looking for, right Ned?”

            Ned blinked as if dazed. Then shook his head. “I'm looking for a

            “Man, woman - what difference does it make?” Now that his mind had grabbed the idea, Matt was going to fight for it. “You need a piano player, Ned. Fast. Men come here to dance with the girls. Without music, you're losing custom. Men have been going over to The Red Nag the last few days. If they're gone for too long, it'll be hard to wean them back again.”

            Ned was looking at him as if he'd lost his mind. He probably had. Why the hell was he making such an effort to convince his friend to take the woman on, give her a chance? He knew nothing about her; she meant nothing to him. This really was just plain nuts.

            “Matt,” Ned said calmly, “this is a saloon. A lady player in a saloon?”

            Matt looked down at the woman right beside him. Her calm eyes shifted between him and Ned. She wasn't in the least intimidated by these two men now deciding her fate.

            “Waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, any dance tunes, that's what I know how to play,” she said quietly. “Sentimental songs too. And, if anyone wants it, classical music.”

            Ned stared at her wordlessly,still wiping that same glass he'd been working on when she'd walked into the bar, but Matt felt a smile growing on his own lips. Good girl. Tired, skinny, wearied out, she still knew how to defend herself.

            “Look lady, this is a saloon-” Ned began.

            “Yes, I know perfectly well where I am,” she said, effectively cutting him off. “And I heard what you said, too. But dance tunes are still dance tunes. A piano player is a piano player.”                                              

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