The total unexpectedness of it caught Evie off guard. She had grabbed his shoulders for support when he swept her off the floor. Now she clung to them as Tyler’s kiss did what no other man’s ever had. She felt the heat of his lips clear to her toes.
Tyler seemed to feel something of the fire, too, because what had started out as an exuberant salute gradually became something more. His mouth softened and slid along hers and left Evie gasping for more. He took the advantage to part her lips, and she felt a sudden rush of something totally foreign as his tongue intimately entwined with her own. She was burning in places that shouldn’t be burning, and her head bent backward to more thoroughly accept his deepening kiss.
But when Tyler’s hand came up to caress the curve of her breast, Evie pushed away. Glaring at him, she crossed her arms protectively across her chest. “Don’t you dare, Tyler Monteigne. You’re not really Pecos Martin and I’m not one of those kind of women.”
“Excuse me, gentlemen. I am looking for Pecos Martin. Is he here?”
The drawn shutters of the gambling hall turned the late afternoon sun into dusk. Smoke curled in the murky air, giving the room an atmosphere resembling the first circle of hell. Engrossed in their various card games, few of the occupants paid much attention to the vision in the open door.
And there was no doubt that she was a vision. With the sunlight for a backdrop, her chestnut hair glowed almost auburn. Arranged in thick, loose folds at the back of her head and topped by an incongruously tiny green velvet and lace hat, her hair rivaled the setting sun outside. The features beneath the thick waves of chestnut were not distinguishable in the gloom, but they appeared to be of the delicate cream and evenness that were fashionable. Perhaps the eyes were larger and darker than customary, having a certain exotic slant, but the clientele in this room weren’t connoisseurs of fashion.
So the exquisite walking gown of green foulard adorned with yards of ruching and topped with a darker green fitted bodice went unrewarded by her audience. Only one head lifted in this sea of male attire, and the vision breathed an almost audible sigh of relief as her glance found him.
Surrounded by men in dark top coats, grubby sack coats, and black hats, this one man alone wore buff linen. His frock coat fitted snuggly to wide shoulders, and his starched white collar contrasted nicely with the golden-brown of his coloring.
Evie felt a swell of reassurance at his appearance. This had to be the man she was looking for. Of course, he was much younger than she had expected. A man who had done everything that Pecos Martin had done should be older and grizzled and weather-beaten. She had expected one of the derelicts in shirtsleeves and vest with three-day’s growth of beard to be the man Daniel had told her about. But this man was obviously accustomed to sun, more so than anyone else in here.
His hair lay in thick lengths of sun-licked gold. Peering through the gloom, she thought his features were probably quite handsome. She hesitated to call a cold-blooded killer handsome. But he was definitely remarkable-looking.
Reassured by those looks, certain she was in the place described by Daniel, Evie approached the gambler without hesitation. The scene was just as she had imagined.
“Mr. Martin?” she inquired as she approached, her petticoats rustling in the silence. She didn’t want to disturb anyone’s concentration. The men in the card game with the golden gambler scarcely noticed her presence. She wasn’t accustomed to that, but she wasn’t accustomed to frequenting dens of vice, either.
The gambler grinned as his gaze raked over her new walking gown. Evie hoped he noticed the clever way she had cut the gussets so the tunic fit her waist neatly before flaring out over the full skirt and modified bustle. He certainly seemed to be appreciating some aspect of her attire, anyway. She smiled tentatively.
“Deal me out, boys,” the man murmured, laying down his cards and scooping up the coins and greenbacks littering the table in front of him. He crushed his cheroot against the table and rose without a word of protest from the other players. They almost seemed relieved to see him go.
“How may I help you, my dear?” he inquired as he took her hand and placed it on his linen-covered arm. When she seemed prepared to withdraw her fingers, he held them and started toward the door. “Let us go outside. This is no place for a lovely lady such as yourself.”
Deciding there was no harm in holding a man’s arm even though it was more muscular than she had ever dreamed, Evie followed him through the gloom to the brilliant Natchez sunshine outside.
She was well aware that this was not the kind of place where ladies strayed, but she knew of no other way to obtain her goal, and she wasn’t known for giving up. Don Quixote wouldn’t have given up at the sight of a few cigars and the smell of unwashed bodies.
The blacksmith and buggy shops of Under-the-Hill might harbor men of the lower orders, but Evie had full confidence that they wouldn’t be interested in harming her. It was broad daylight, after all, and the street was filled with horses and wagons and buggies. She realized the shuttered buildings like the gambling hall and other establishments of even less repute were dens of iniquity, but she wasn’t exactly certain how iniquity could affect her if she simply walked by it.
With full confidence of her power to appeal, Evie smiled up at the gentleman holding her hand and launched into her prepared story. “Daniel told me all about you, and I knew you were the gentleman who could help us out. I am Maryellen Peyton, Mr. Martin. I’m pleased to meet you.”
Tyler Monteigne smiled as his gaze took in the full glory of this creature he had only dimly assessed earlier. She wasn’t so young as to be innocent, but young enough not to be jaded. Her face was an exquisite cream and rose accented by eyes so dark and heavily lashed that they scarcely seemed to belong to her. Full lips of a vibrant rose formed a natural pout that begged to be kissed, and sun-warmed hair gave off an enticing scent of cinnamon and roses that stirred all his senses at once. He wanted to eat her and bed her at the same time.
He didn’t know who in hell Pecos Martin was, but he was willing to be Robert E. Lee if she wanted. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am. It’s a pure honor to be called upon by such a vision of loveliness.” Tyler made a slight bow, then securely tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow as he turned their direction up the hill. “Let us speak somewhere less public. My hotel is just up the street …”
“So is mine, and my brother would be delighted to meet you, Mr. Martin. If you would prefer to get in out of the sun, we could go there.”
He had not foreseen a brother in the picture. Images of an idle afternoon spent in white, shapely arms rapidly faded. Tyler hesitated beside the barred windows of a tavern. “Perhaps you had best give me some hint as to what this is about, Miss Peyton. I am a busy man, after all, and I don’t wish to waste your time or mine.”
Evie sensed his reservations, and she offered him the full benefit of her smile. “I wouldn’t dream of wasting your time, sir. I’m fully prepared to pay for your services. I suppose expenses and a daily salary are required, but we can discuss that later when you hear my story. I really need your help, Mr. Martin. Surely you couldn’t refuse a lady in distress.”
Ladies in distress were the first people he would refuse. They pouted and cried and clung and made a general nuisance of themselves. But this one seemed all shimmering copper and light, and Tyler couldn’t resist the mention of pay.
“Best tell me what you need now, ma’am. I don’t rightly know that I’ve time to book many more good deeds in my schedule.”
That brought a brief frown and a quick look from dark eyes. But finding nothing ominous in his bland expression, she hurried on. “It’s my sister, sir. We haven’t heard from her in months, and her last letter sounded terribly desperate. We’ve got to find her, and we may have to rescue her from that brute of a husband of hers. I shouldn’t be telling you things like this, but I’m certain you’re a man who can keep a confidence. Daniel tells me you know all about Texas. I just know you’re the man who can help us.”
“Texas?” With regret, Tyler disengaged her hand. He sure as hell wasn’t going to Texas even for the Queen of England. And from the corner of his eye, he had spotted another reason for sending this little temptress on her way. “I’m afraid not, ma’am. I’ll not be heading to Texas again anytime real soon. There’s too much to be done here. Now if you’ll excuse me …”
Evie grabbed his coat sleeve with determination. “It shouldn’t take long, I promise. And we’ll pay you well. I don’t know of anyone else who can help us. Please, come back and listen—”
“There you are! And who is this? Tyler Monteigne, if you’ve been two-timing me, I’ll pull every slick piece of hair out of your gorgeous head. Let go of my betrothed, you slut!”
The virago in shimmering red silk cut to expose generous breasts placed her hands on her hips and glared at her supposed rival. Evie released the coat of the man she had called Pecos Martin. Her questioning look, however, had more to do with his new appellation than the woman’s presence.
“Betrothed?” Looking startled, Tyler tried to extricate himself from one woman while soothing the other. “Now, Bessie, why would I be two-timing the loveliest girl in all Natchez? The lady was just asking directions, and I was trying to be helpful. Miss, do you know the way now?” He smiled with disconcerting reassurance at his new acquaintance.
Evie lifted her skirt and sent him a furious glare. “I most certainly do, Mister Monteigne. I’m sorry to have troubled you.”
With a swish of her heavy petticoats, Evie swirled away in the direction of her hotel and Daniel. Humiliation crept up to color her cheeks, but fury followed close behind. She should have known he was too good-looking to be Pecos Martin. A darned rascal, that was what he was. She should have guessed when he offered to take her back to his hotel.
She could hear Bessie’s loud voice carrying up the street, alternately berating the cad and cooing at him. Evie walked faster, but she couldn’t lose the sound. The Monteigne man seemed to be placating her with pretty murmurs. Even a loose woman ought to know a cad when she heard one. The man didn’t mean a word he said; she would wager on that.
The fact that she had been lying to him from the very first word didn’t stem Evie’s wrath.