Morrow Creek Marshal(4)

By: Lisa Plumley

The dupe shouted something that was definitely not apologetic. It wasn’t suitable for ladies’ delicate ears, either. Hearing it, Dylan deepened his frown. If there was anything he believed in more than the necessity of savoring a good whiskey when it came his way, it was the sanctity of women. Evidently, here in the Western territories, they brewed up cowboys on the wrong side of sensible.

“You’re going to want to apologize for that, too.”

As the knuck glanced up at the dance hall girl, Dylan gave the cowboy a mighty yank, aiming to surprise the man into properly squaring off with him instead of catching hold of her sparkly skirts again. Just as he’d intended, the cowboy reeled. He gave a blustery wheeze that stank of ale, then staggered and waved his arm, too goose jointed to quickly regain his balance.

With his usual sense of fairness, Dylan waited the few ticks it would take for the cowboy to get his feet under him. He didn’t want to take advantage of the man’s inebriated condition. All he wanted was for the cowpoke to leave alone the dance hall girl—not the least because he’d be damned if she wasn’t the oldest such female entertainer Dylan had ever encountered.

He wasn’t sure she could withstand too much rough handling. Not that any woman could be expected to keep her feet when the legless cattleman who’d been clumsily pawing her staggered again, lurched, then fell plumb backward with much greater velocity than Dylan had intended.

Damnation. He hadn’t thought he’d grabbed him that hard. Perceptibly, he had. He’d accidentally tipped the last domino, too. Because the cowboy had managed to catch hold of the damn near elderly dance hall girl again. Now Dylan’s well-intentioned protectiveness had put her in an even more precarious position.

With a surprised whoop and a flurry of skirts, she fought against the sudden frontward jerk caused by the cowboy’s fall. She pinwheeled her arms in a search for balance—and almost found it, too. For a single, breath-holding moment, she tottered at the stage’s edge. Then her ankle buckled at an unmistakably sideways angle. Crying out, the dance hall girl pitched forward.

She was falling. Instantly seeing her predicament, Dylan lunged toward her. He held out his arms, ready to catch her. Before he could think twice about his decision, he received the gift he hadn’t wanted and had no present use for: an armful of sweet-smelling, silky-haired, caterwauling female.

It all happened in an instant. With an oof, they both collapsed beside the cowboy on the sawdust-covered floor, saloongoers scattering to all sides of them with shouts of surprise.

Ouch. Dylan winced, still cradling her. Stupidly, as it turned out, since she’d landed atop him like a hundred-pound sack full of nothing but elbows and knees. She’d obviously been gifted with multiple sets of each—or at least that’s what it felt like. He wondered where the hell her admirably curvy hips and delectably full bosom had gone. He held fast anyway.

Their ignoble pileup defused the developing saloon fight. Instead of throwing punches, saloongoers hollered, pointed and laughed. The piano music kept on tinkling. Chairs scraped backward, then were settled back into place. Dylan had a moment to register the soft roundness of the dance hall girl’s rear end in his cupped hand, to experience the feathery, sneeze-inducing interference of her sparkly headpiece in his face...and then to tardily understand that she was trying to get away from him.

That was unusual. Most women tried to get closer to him. Given any excuse, they snuggled nearer and flirted—just like the other garishly painted and less interesting blonde dance hall girl had done earlier. But this one was different. Also, Dylan observed amid the ruckus, while parts of her body might be soft, her gouging knees and prodding elbows most certainly weren’t.

Even as Dylan came to grips with that, the dance hall girl kneed him again, coming dangerously close to his manly bits.

Involuntarily, he loosened his hold on her. Just by a fraction, but it was enough for her to take advantage of.

That was all right with him. Argh. Chivalry was one thing. Volunteering to be made a functioning eunuch in an unexpected dancing girl tussle was another. Dylan valued his masculinity.

Even if she didn’t. Clearly. With a determined final effort, the dance hall girl rolled sideways, adding a vicious and maybe not accidental belly squash to her initial blow as she went. She scrambled onto her hands and knees, then sat on her backside instead. He glimpsed her annoyed profile, heard her murmured grumble of exasperation as she adjusted her feathery headpiece, and briefly entertained the idea that she might not be as properly grateful for his intervention as he’d hoped.

Gingerly, Dylan moved a fraction. Everything seemed fine in the downstairs department. He released a long, pent-up breath.

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