He walked into the saloon. All sound stopped – no more talking, no more piano, not even the sound of a beer bottle being set on the bar. Every eye turned toward this stranger.
Dixie was the first to move. She was always the first to approach the men who entered the saloon, but not this time. Lily stepped in front of her and took hold of her arm.
This could be my ticket out of this awful life. He’s handsome, not too old and looks like he’s got some money. “I’ve got this one, Dixie.”
Dixie stood watching, her jaw slack, as Lily approached the handsome stranger.
The piano player resumed playing. Everyone began talking again.
“Good afternoon, handsome. You must be new in town because I’ve never seen you before.”
His deep green eyes appraised her. “That’s right. I’m a gambler. I’ve been hearing this town has some tough gamblers and I like a challenge.”
“Fine looking gentleman like yourself, I hope gamblin’ ain’t all you’re interested in.” She smiled, put her hand on his arm and leaned toward him.
“I wouldn’t mind getting to know you better, Darlin’. What’s your name?”
“After a beautiful flower.” He leaned down and placed a soft, short kiss upon her lips.
Lily felt a tingling sensation from her lips all the way down to her toes.
“And what’s your name, Handsome?”
“Jaxon. Jaxon McDaniel.”
* * *
Jaxon had been in town for a month by the time the other gamblers got a taste for his blood because of the flogging they took from him at the gambling table. The gamblers played every day in the saloon. Lily was a permanent fixture at Jaxon’s side during the games. Every night found Jaxon in Lily’s bed.
Lily knew that Jaxon would be moving on soon. In the evening as he held her in his arms, she said, “You’ll be leavin’ soon, won’t you?”
“Yes, I’m afraid I’ve worn out my welcome at the gambling table here.”
The silence between them was heavy. Then Jaxon turned on his side, faced her and propped his head upon his hand. He ran his fingers down the side of her jaw and kissed her deeply. She was afraid to hope that the kiss expressed a deep love for her.
When he broke the kiss, he spoke in a husky voice, “Lily, I want you to leave here with me tomorrow. You don’t belong in a life like this. You’re young, beautiful. You deserve to experience love and a man who will respect you.”
She was sure the small smile she offered showed her uncertainty. “Could you really respect me, Jaxon, knowin’ what I’ve been? Knowin’ that I’ve had other men? You deserve better than me.”
Jaxon chuckled. “My dear Lily. My chosen lifestyle isn’t exactly a respectable one, and to be honest, you aren’t the first woman I’ve shared a bed with, but you are the first woman who has captured my heart.”
He took her hand, placed the palm of it against his chest. “Do you feel my heart beating? It’s beating hard and fast because I’m afraid you’ll turn me down. You, with your black curls and chocolate brown eyes are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. You have devoted yourself to me this entire month, not spending time with any other man.”
“You paid for me. Besides the men around here disgust me. Most who have come seeking my bed are old, dirty and married. I never wanted this life. I was trapped into it when I arrived here young, naive, alone. You see, I ran away from home when I was seventeen because my pa wanted me to marry a fat, bald forty-year-old man. Pa said it would be a good marriage. The man could provide well for me. The man leered at me and when he touched me with his sausage fingers, I cringed. So, I ran away and ended up here. Crazy, ain’t it? I didn’t want to marry a fat, bald, old man but I’ve given myself to worse, more times than I can count.”
Jaxon kissed her fingers. “My sweet Lily, that settles it. You’re leaving here with me tomorrow.”
“Jake won’t let me go easily. He makes a lot of money off a me.”
“I’m sure I can strike a bargain with Jake.” Jaxon lay back down and pulled her close again.
* * *
The next morning, Jaxon left Lily upstairs dressing and packing while he went to talk with Jake.
“I’ll be leaving today and I want to take Lily with me.”
Jake stared at Jaxon long and hard. “Well now, I don’t see how’s that possible. You see, Lily belongs to me.”
“Lily works for you. She doesn’t belong to you. I’m willing to pay you generously since you’ll be losing an employee.”
“Is that so? How much you figurin’ on payin’?”
“Well, you’ve charged me $10 a night to spend with her this entire month, and I figure she doesn’t usually have just one gentleman in an average evening. So, if I was to pay you $20 a night for three months, that’d be $1,800. I’m willing to make it an even $2,000. What do you say?”
Jake’s eyes grew round. His lower jaw appeared to come unhinged. After a few minutes he managed to say, “You got yourself a deal.”
Jaxon shook Jake’s hand, paid him cash and hurried upstairs for Lily.
She looked startled as he burst through the door. He picked her up, swung around, brought her down and gave her a long, passionate kiss as her tears washed over his face.
“Sweetheart, why are you crying?”
“I can’t believe it. I’m really leaving here with you?”
“You certainly are, but we gotta go before Jake tries to squeeze more money out of me. Now where are your bags?
Lily pointed to the floor by the bed at one small satchel.
“I don’t have many respectable clothes.”
“We’ll take care of that. Now let’s get out of here.” He took her satchel in one and and picked her up in his arms. He carried her down the stairs, out of the swinging saloon doors, and neither he nor Lily looked back.