melia didn't know what to say to everyone when they presented her with the award on the makeshift stage. She'd been told about it by some of the townspeople in Paradise beforehand including Mr. Appleby and Matilda the woman at the bank.
Her poor bank teller hadn't gone to work after Amelia had interrupted a robbery by shooting the man pointing the gun at everyone…only he turned out to be only around 16. Not that it made him a child but he looked so much younger after he'd dropped dead on the floor releasing the gun…that's what she told everyone.
That's what she told herself too. She'd had to do it, he'd left her no choice and if she hadn't acted, he would have likely shot the teller…or Ben and George who had rushed in the bank to tell her something. They had been stunned into near silence by the gunshot and the man falling down. But soon enough their uncle, Ethan Cord the closest thing Paradise had to a marshal rushed in with his own gun drawn to find out what happened. He'd heard the gunshots like everyone else on the main street. He'd felt the man's neck for a sign of life and then looked up at her and said he was dead.
Then he'd gotten Claire to take everyone out of there while he handed things including her. It was her bank and she'd only been trying to protect it but she did as he said and left.
Later she'd gone home and Claire had been sent to mind her by her uncle. She knew that but she made tea for the both of them anyway as was customary from where she came from as they greeted most of the townspeople who had decided to show up and congratulate her for her shooting prowess.
But her skills as a shooter which were considerable had nothing to do with it. Just aim and shoot was what she told George when he'd asked about it during dinner at his uncle's place. She hadn't felt hungry and had tried to leave but Ethan insisted on driving her in her buggy home.
They'd made small talk while he'd tried to find more about her. Like where she learned to shoot and why she rode her horse in the mornings like the wind or half wild as he called it.
"You've seen me ride by the ranch…"
He glanced at her sideways as they drove down the darkened road into town.
"No by the lake…"
Then a huge pause as he must have known that it sunk in what he meant.
"Nice bass in that lake."
Oh god, he knew what she did down there every morning after sliding off her horse and relieving herself of some of her clothes. She still had her underclothes on but that still left her practically naked. Her cheeks flushed, she was still a married woman after all even though her husband hadn't been around in two years as she confessed to him later.
Something about everything that had happened just caused the words to spill out of her until he just looked at her dead in the eyes and caressed her cheek before leaving.
She didn't understand the man at all.
It had all gone to hell after that. The young boy had family including a vengeful father who cared more about the fact that she'd killed the son rather than the fact that he robbed banks. They'd ridden in to pick up the body and he'd told her they'd be back.
He kept his promise and she'd learned quickly that the townspeople upon finding out started showing up at her bank and pulling their savings out. They had been so sure the father would have his revenge for what she did to his son.
She nearly faced them alone hiding out in her darkened house until she literally bumped into Ethan in her living room. She hadn't told him about the threats of course but bad news obviously traveled fast in this town.
John Taylor had warned him and he'd shown up to help protect her. Arming up every gun in the vicinity while telling her she looked nice…she really didn't understand him.
They rounded up the bad guys after the new town marshal showed up belatedly not to help them but to handcuff Ethan for some trouble that he got into back in Texas…she'd protested with the man who as it turned out knew Ethan in other ways and had a nasty attitude about bankers.
Afterward, she still had to go through this whole award ceremony bit for protecting the lives and properties of Paradise…so she got all dressed up in what Ethan had called one of her dresses imported from Europe and accepted the award gracefully just before the Founder's Day picnic.
"I'm a business woman," she told Ethan quietly.
He seemed to know that and the after she got the silly certificate from Matilda and Appleby, the music started playing and the food piled up high on the tables as people celebrated the founding of Paradise.
She'd known the celebration would be a shadow of itself just like the town it honored. Times had been so tough since the mines shut down. But still most people did show up to dance and celebrate. She did some dancing herself with the new town marshal…who'd lightened up on his attitude towards who he called the loveliest woman in town.
Amelia knew she didn't have much competition. Single women especially young women were a rarity in Paradise and besides, she wasn't legally single. But she'd been done mourning her husband's departure and moved on…was it so bad to want to move on with someone else? The marshal seemed nice enough, rough around the edges and his profession…though necessary seemed unsavory…and dangerous.
Then there was the other man…the one who had been acting as marshal. Ethan…she didn't know much about him only that he'd annoyed her most of the time she knew him. She'd tell him that he brought chaos and violence to Paradise because it was true…what else would you expect from a gunslinger for hire?
He'd respond in ways that would linger long after he'd ridden or walked away. That's how it had been until the day the children had just shown up with no one to meet them. So she'd taken care of them until she found out that they were there to stay with their uncle who lay shot up in the hotel while John Taylor tried to save him.
She'd chewed him out for that but then she wound up helping him. No…she was helping the children, because they lost their mother to consumption and all they had was an uncle who killed men for a living. God, he could be impossible some of the…make that most of the times and yet…she detected a softer side of him that she'd rarely seen before and she thought…maybe just maybe these children in his life would change him, hone down the hardened edges and change his life.
Maybe they'd wind up saving it.
She watched him now as he ate some food and talked with the new marshal and both attracted the spinsters and widows being young men and neither of them with a wife. She stayed away focusing on greeting people as they arrived and catching up on news. But one eye remained on him.
She didn't miss her husband anymore. The only thing that tied her to him was a piece of paper and the bank which she'd made her own as much as a woman could in a man's world.
"You are enjoying yourself?"
His soft timbre caught her by surprise and she turned around to see him looking at her, his hands tucked in his pockets. She caught her breath before she lost it.
"Why yes Mr. Cord and yourself?"
He paused before smiling.
"I'm enjoying the scenery…"
She felt the flush in her cheeks but she tried to brush him off.
"Look I'm very grateful for what you did…really…and I could never repay you but if you need…"
He put his hand up.
"No need to worry about that," he said, "I'd have done that for anyone."
That stopped her cold but then she realized he was right. He was the de facto town marshal until the proper one arrived.
"Oh…I see…well thank you anyway Mr. Cord."
He tipped his hat and turned to leave then stopped.
"You're looking really nice today."
She felt something inside of her she hadn't felt even during most of her marriage…maybe back in its earliest days until she learned the truth about her husband.
"Thank…you…so how are things with the children?"
Returning the conversation back to something expected and safer…before she said something she'd regret.
"They're fine…having fun at their first Founder's Day," he said, "Thanks for helping out with them."
"You're welcome…they're nice children…"
He walked away then and she watched him go to catch up with Ben and George who were chasing each other near where couples danced.
She watched him for a while after that and knew she was in serious trouble.