Morrow Creek Marshal(5)

By: Lisa Plumley

He couldn’t believe he’d come to her rescue and almost gotten himself a banged-up set of punters for his trouble. Was she going to apologize? Or thank him? Or even acknowledge him?

“I’m so sorry, ma’am.” The cowboy’s thick drawl reached Dylan at the same time as his sense of being affronted did. Obliviously, the knuck kept talking. “Are you all right?”

“I was wondering the same thing about you,” the dance hall girl had the gall to say—to the cowboy. “Are you hurt bad?”

Dylan glanced up in time to see the fool’s shy smile.

“I’m just fine, ma’am. It’s yourself I’m worried about.”

The cowboy’s weathered hand—sporting a full set of predictably grime-encrusted fingernails—entered Dylan’s field of vision. Evidently, the cowhand had discovered gallantry. He was trying to help the dance hall girl up off the floor. She seemed to be hesitant about that. She also seemed, as she frowned anew, concerned about putting too much weight on her injured ankle.

Rightly so, Dylan reckoned. That onstage crumple had looked serious. Ankles, feet and legs weren’t meant to go in contradictory directions—not while connected to the same person. Thanks to her whirling skirts, he’d had a clear enough view to know that’s exactly what had happened to her a second ago.

“I didn’t mean to trip you up.” The cowboy offered dubious encouragement by waggling his filthy fingers at her. “I’m awful sorry about that, ma’am. It’s just that you’re so pretty. I plumb couldn’t help myself. Catching ahold of you was like catching a beautiful, sparkling star, right here at Murphy’s.”

Still on the floor, Dylan rolled his eyes. Then he got to his own hands and knees, counting on getting upright in time to help the dance hall girl to her feet himself. As he should.

“Well, aren’t you sweet?” she cooed to the cowpuncher while she cautiously tested her ankle’s strength, speaking just as pleasantly as though the fool hadn’t caused her to fall offstage. “It’s only too bad that I never, ever go spoony over men who frequent saloons. It’s my one ironclad rule, you see.”

“You...what?” The cowboy whined with confusion. Then regret. Then resignation. “But if I weren’t here at the saloon, I wouldn’t never have seen you in the first place, now, would I? So you wouldn’t have needed any rules about me to begin with.”

“No.” She sighed, then pulled an elaborately regretful face—a markedly pale one, probably on account of the pain. “Isn’t that the devil of it? It’s a conundrum, all right.” She panted. “You’re awfully clever to notice that. I do very much appreciate your kindness, all the same. I sincerely do.”

As Dylan nimbly got up—the whole endeavor having taken a few seconds at most but feeling like much longer—he glimpsed the cowboy’s crestfallen expression. It was evident that the man didn’t know how to begin arguing against the dance hall girl’s convoluted logic. She was being so all-fired sugary about it that he couldn’t very well object outright, either. She actually seemed...disappointed not to have those grubby hands on her.

Against his will, Dylan admired her gumption. Her fortitude in withstanding the discomfort of her injury. And her cleverness in making her turndown of the man both impersonal and final, too. Most likely, she’d had years—given her advancing age of probably twenty-eight or so—of disarming unwanted suitors. She’d learned to do so capably and kindly, without stirring up unnecessary rancor in the process.

Also without damaging her saloon-owning boss’s business, Dylan couldn’t help noting. Given a fair choice, no man would choose to forgo the whiskey and companionship available at a good saloon—not even in favor of wooing a woman. Doubtless, Jack Murphy would applaud that tactic—then ask her to teach that technique to the other dancers, besides. A few of them looked as though they needed more than a thimbleful of her good sense.

As he shouldered forward to help her stand, then to let her lean sideways on him, Dylan found himself appreciating her unexpected gentleness in letting down the cowboy almost as much as he admired her ingeniousness in doing so. But he’d rather be hog-tied and left wearing nothing but boots in a blizzard than admit it. First, because he wasn’t a man who went all mush-hearted over other people’s business. Second, because...well, where in tarnation was the damn appreciation she owed him?

He was the one who’d saved her from that blundering, overeager cowpuncher in the first place. He was the one who was holding her upright at that very moment! He deserved a smile at the very least—and a whole passel of thank-yous at the most.

Also By Lisa Plumley

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