She had been counting buttons all night.
First of all, it was impossible not to look at Maude Standish. The woman...shone, for lack of a better word, and whenever she visited her saloon, all the regulars lit up like fireflies and swarmed around her. Her table was never empty, ringed with as many new friends and old that could find room to pull up a chair, and that was why Inez could get away with watching her from behind the bar.
Maude never visited twice in the same dress or the same shoes. That night, she was wearing long dove-gray boots with little white buttons that ran up the sides—six that Inez had spied so far whenever the skirt of Maude's dark blue dress rode up.
"A beautiful dress," her cousin Silvia had once said, "makes a man imagine what a woman looks like out of it."
It was no different with shoes, perhaps. When Inez was young, she would go to the river with the other girls to bathe themselves and wash their clothes. She would watch carefully from the corner of her eye as the other girls waded in, a tickle in her stomach and a hot blush between her legs to see them kicking off their shoes and hitching up their skirts to bare their legs.
Maude Standish wore beautiful things as if she had been born to them and walked like the lady of the house, but when she laughed that brassy laugh and flashed a smile Inez's way, Inez knew that she too had once been a simple girl washing laundry in the river, and couldn't help but imagine a pale, shapely, naked foot under a rising skirt.
She had glimpsed a seventh button by the time the saloon closed down that night. Last call had been made, and the place soon emptied out, save for Maude, who lingered. Inez briefly wondered if she meant to have words with her son, but no pretence was made by either Standish to be left alone together.
"Ezra," Maude finally called out, glancing over at Inez, who was cleaning up, "don't just stand there, darlin'. Inez has been on her feet all day."
Ezra pulled an exaggerated face but picked up the broom and started sweeping up the litter. "May I remind you that I was shot at today, Mother?"
Maude waved a graceful hand. "The way you tell it, you get shot at every day of the week that ends in Y. You'd think you'd be used to it by now."
Inez stifled a laugh behind her hand.
Maude seemed to hear it nonetheless and turned that smile her way. "Pour yourself a drink, honey, and come sit down. It's on me."
Inez was not about to argue. She got herself a beer and joined Maude at the table while Ezra swept up. It did him good to be mothered.
"Do you like them?" Maude asked, pointing her toe and drawing Inez's attention back to her boots. "I saw you looking."
Her cheeks warmed. "They're lovely."
"I got them in San Francisco," Maude said, and with a flick of her wrist, she twitched the hem of her dress up to reveal everything: the square toe and short heel, the little rosette and scalloped edge, and the long, neat row of buttons.
Before Inez could help herself, she had leaned forward slightly, and her hand had moved as if she meant to lean down to touch them.
Maude looked at her sharply. Her smile had momentarily frozen on her lips, turning her expression into something sly as she peered keenly across the table. Then she lifted her foot, and Inez's heart beat faster as the boot came to rest on the edge of an empty chair.
"Go on, feel it. Genuine kidskin—you won't get softer."
Maude's leg was bared to the calf, revealing a handsome ankle and blue stockings. Inez tentatively touched the soft leather, glancing up again at Maude's knowing, careful smile. Her own lips curved. Then, holding her breath, she drew her thumb along the line of buttons, caressing each one. Twelve in all.
"I'll have to find you a pair the next time I'm in California," Maude said.
Inez drew back. "Oh no—"
"Nonsense. If you're gong to be stepping over passed-out inebriates all day, you might as well do it in style." Then her hand brushed discreetly over Inez's knee, and her voice lowered. "In fact, I do believe I have a measuring tape in one of my bags. Why don't you come upstairs and I'll fit you."
Inez felt her toes curl inside her shoes, and the blush on her cheeks began to spread. She inclined her head slightly. "All right."
The next thing she knew, she was climbing the stairs to the saloon's best suite with Maude's hand on her hip, and down below in the empty saloon, she thought she heard Ezra mutter darkly under his breath about women and their shoes.