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Whiskey River: Whiskey River Brides by Oliver, Theresa (1)

Chapter 1

NEW YORK CITY, NEW York

May, 1870

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ELLA RAINES SIGHED as she sat down at the bar in the Breckenridge Saloon. If she were at home, she would kick off her shoes and rub her feet—something that wouldn’t be a good idea here. Instead, she plastered a fake smile and smoothed her blonde hair away from her face. A man wearing spurs, and a handkerchief around his neck with dirty streaks across his face leered at her, obviously having just arrived from a day of work.

She let out a deep breath and shook her head. She hated it when Gunner Nelson came into the saloon. But she plastered on a fake smile in greeting. “Well. Hello, mister,” Ella said as she stood beside him, ignoring the stabbing pain in her feet. She had danced for nine straight hours, and she was ready to give her feet a good soak. But she still had another hour to go. “Would you like a dance?”

He nodded as he tipped his hat. “That’s why I’m here, blue eyes.” He exhaled, his breath smelling of whiskey. “How much?”

Ella looked down, glanced back up, and batted her eyelashes. “I charge a dollar a dance.”

He let out a deep breath as he took his hat off and scratched his dirty head. “That sounds a bit steep. What do I get for a dollar?” he asked, looking at her with interest.

Ella gritted her teeth in an attempt to hold back her temper. “Just a dance,” she said, touching his chest as she walked past. “Nothing else.”

Before she could escape, he reached out and caught her hand. “Not so fast, little lady. I didn’t say no.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her close.

She pushed away and held out her hand. “Money first.”

He let out a deep breath and fished around in his dirty jeans for the money. The least he could have done was bathe before he came into the saloon, she thought as she waited.

“Here you go,” he replied as he handed her a wadded-up dollar bill. “Now, how’s about that dance?” He pulled her abruptly to his chest as he lifted her off her feet.

Ella squirmed as she tried to push away, but to no avail. “Sir, you’re hurting me—”

“The name’s Gunner.” He whipped her around, almost jerking her arm out of its socket as he pumped it up and down, earning him dirty looks from the other patrons in the saloon. “Gunner Nelson, but you can call me Gunner.”

“I know who you are, Mr. Nelson. Now, put me down!” she demanded as he swirled her around, jerking her head back.

Gunner nuzzled his dirty face into her neck. “Oh. I intend to get my money’s worth first, sugar.”

“Oh, no. You won’t,” Bryant, the bouncer, warned as he grabbed Gunner’s shoulder. “The ladies here aren’t soiled doves. You just pay for the dance and that’s all.”

“Leave us alone,” Gunner grumbled as he looked into Ella’s blue eyes. “The lady and I haven’t finished our dance yet.” He tried to swirl away, but Bryant stopped him.

“You’re done, mister.” Bryant grabbed his shoulder firmly. “Time to go.”

Gunner dropped Ella, causing one of her ringlets to fall loose from her chignon. Ella rubbed her arms, knowing there would be bruises in the morning.

“I said,” Gunner replied as he took a step toward Bryant, “that we haven’t finished our dance yet!”

The plinking of the pianoforte stopped, and the room was suddenly silent. Not even the sound of clinking glasses was evident.

“Time to go,” Bryant bellowed, clenching his fists at his sides. Ella knew that he was a no-nonsense type of guy who meant what he said. “Either through the door or the window. It’s your call.”

“Oh, no! Not through the window again!” Max, the owner, interrupted as he placed his hand on Bryant’s arm. Then, he turned to face Gunner. “If you’re not out of here in five seconds, I’m throwing you out myself! The girls in here are dancing girls, and they deserve respect. If you can’t dance with a lady respectably, then out you go.”

Gunner let out a deep breath. “Oh, come on, Max! You know I’ve just got off work. All’s I want is a dance!”

Ella placed her hands on her hips as she squared her shoulders. “You mean, all you wanted to do was to rip my arms out of their sockets!”

Gunner pointed his finger at her as he took a step closer. “You’re damned lucky that I paid you to dance with me! A dollar’s a lot of money!”

Colton, a local gunslinger who was sitting at the bar, stood. Everyone took a step back.

Ella placed a calming hand on his chest. “Colton, I’ve got this.”

Colton didn’t budge, never taking his eyes from the cowboy.

Ella let out a deep breath as she shook her head. “Gunner, when you come in here, you have to treat me with respect! And take a bath next time!”

“Why, you little....” He took a step toward her.

But before he could touch her, Colton, Bryant, and Max grabbed him and literally threw him out the door. Ella stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips, flanked by the men.

Gunner quickly got to his feet and pointed his finger at Ella. “This isn’t over! Not by a long shot!”

Ella laughed. “Oh, yes. It is!” Then, she turned around and walked back inside, shaking from fear and anger as she approached the bar and looked at the bartender. “Give me a beer, Sam.”

He gave her a crooked grin. “You got it.”

She shook her head as she rubbed her forehead. A moment later, Sam set a beer on the counter in front of her.

“I got this,” Colton said as he stood beside her. When she looked up, he was watching her. “Are you okay, ma’am?”

She nodded. “Yes, I’m fine, but you didn’t have to do this,” she answered, gesturing toward the beer.

Colton smirked as he smoothed his long brown hair back into a ponytail and let it go as his muscles rippled under his white shirt. His cowboy hat lay on the bar. His manner of Western dress was unfashionable for New York, but she thought he was handsome, exotic. Unlike most of the other men she had met in the city who wore top hats or derbies. “Happy to do it, miss,” he replied as he took a sip of his beer. “He shouldn’t be treating you that way.”

Ella chuckled as she took a sip of her beer also. “I wish things were different.”

Colton set his glass down on the bar as his piercing brown eyes looked into hers. He had been a patron of the saloon for a while, coming in for a quiet beer. But this was the first time that Ella remembered Colton ever talking to her, or anyone else in the saloon for that matter. He frequented the saloon when he was in town. But as soon as he started getting friendly, or if people asked too many questions, he disappeared again. She knew that he was from the West, but she wasn’t exactly sure where. “It can be.” Colton shrugged. “You could go somewhere and start over. Live a new life. The life you want.”

Ella nodded, understanding. “Maybe that’s what I need. A fresh start where no one knows me.” Without thinking about it, she reached over and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, Colton, for everything.”

As she rushed toward the door, Colton stopped her. “Would you mind if I escort you home?” When she narrowed her eyes at him, he added, “Gunner might still be out there, waiting.”

Ella shrugged. “I’ll be fine. But thank you kindly, Mr. Hill.” She looked down the bar, and a newspaper was lying on the counter. On it was the logo for a Hearts and Hands magazine. She picked it up and began to flip through the pages. Then, she looked up excitedly at Max. “Mind if I keep this?”

Max smiled. “That mail order bride rag?” He shook his head as he laughed. “Sure! Take it with you... please. One of the girls must’ve brought it in and left it tonight.” Max looked right at her as he leaned on the bar. “Now, what respectable woman in their right mind would ever answer an ad like that, I have no idea!”

“Respectable....” Ella scooped the newspaper off the bar and rushed out. “Thanks, Max,” she yelled over her shoulder as she waved goodbye and headed down the dark city streets.

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