“I’m looking for work.”

           One elbow propped casually on the mahogany, one foot on the brass rail, Westley observed the woman who had just addressed Neddy. Work, she wanted? What sort of work did she think she would get here? She was your typical schoolmarm, strict, dried-up, and unrelenting-looking. He could guess her story before hearing it: a widow, rejected wife, or runaway, she had surely been a sweet-looking wide-eyed girl once upon a time, but life had since taken its toll, and he felt sorry for her.

           “The peddler Axel dropped me off here. He said you’d know who’s looking for hired help in town.”

           Westley saw Ned’s slow nod, could see the sympathy on his friend’s face. Out here, only the toughies did well. This woman, she didn’t look brash or tough.

       “I can cook, clean.” The woman’s voice was clear, steady. As steady as those hazel eyes. No, she had no illusions about her appeal. Cook and clean? She didn’t look as if she had the strength for jobs like that. She was too thin, too frail. Ned must be thinking the same.

           “Don’t need a cook. Don’t need more hired help here in the saloon.” He continued wiping a glass with undue assiduity.

           “I suppose I’m not the only woman who’s come asking for work this week, either.”

           It wasn’t a question, just a statement made without despair or bitterness, as if she had no illusions left. The woman surely had guts, you had to give her that.

           “No, you aren’t,” Ned conceded before turning to him. “What have you heard, Westley? Anyone come into your newspaper office, looking to hire?”

           Ned was buying time, Westley knew that. He didn’t want to turn her away. That bundle by her feet must contain everything she owned in the world, yet there was something classy and educated about her. Something that told him she’d come a long way from her origins. Just like you have. Shoving the thought to the back of his mind, he mulled over possible occupations that might suit a woman like her. He couldn’t think of a thing…with one dazzling exception…

           “Not unless you know how to play the piano.”

           The woman turned those unwavering eyes to him. Finally. Sized him up, took in his fashionable clothes, his well-shined boots, his casual pose. Did she approve? Impossible to tell. She looked as though a million thoughts were running through her head. Then, she nodded. “I do.”

           “Well, how about that, Ned. Isn’t that a lucky break?” Westley couldn’t hide the laughing triumph in his voice. Pushing himself away from the counter, he came to stand beside her. Grinned over at his friend. “A piano player’s exactly what you’re looking for.”

           Ned blinked as if dazed. “I’m looking for a piano player, all right. But not a lady player.”

           “Man, woman—what difference does it make?” Now that his mind had grabbed the idea, Westley was going to fight for it.

           Ned was looking at him as if he’d lost his mind. He probably had. Why the hell was he making such an effort to convince his friend to take the woman on, give her a chance? He knew nothing about her; she was nothing to him. This really was ridiculous.

      “Westley,” Ned said calmly, “this is a saloon. A lady player in a saloon?”

           Westley looked down at the woman right beside him. Her calm eyes shifted between him and Ned. She wasn’t in the least intimidated by these two men now deciding her fate.

           “Waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, any dance tune, that’s what I know how to play,” she said, her voice even. “Sentimental songs too. And if anyone wants it, lots of classical music.”

           “Look, lady, this is a saloon—” Ned began.

           “Yes, I know perfectly well what sort of business this is,” she said, effectively cutting him off. “But dance tunes are still dance tunes. A piano player is a piano player.”

           “And a saloon is a saloon. People come here to drink and gamble, and they do a lot of both. Both make men mean, and fistfights can get nasty, especially when knives and guns come into play. You know what happened to Mister Bob, the last piano player we had? Met a stray bullet. Right over there.” Ned’s head jerked in the direction of an upright piano, deep in the murky depths of the large room.

           “I see.” She didn’t look as though the news fazed her. She even looked strangely amused. “But since both of you seem to be alive and breathing, stray bullets can’t be an everyday feature.”

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