Deputy Marshal Clay Carson was a mighty fine officer of the law. He was brave, intelligent, an excellent shot, fair-minded and possessed the sort of sunny good looks that turned the heads of most women from young to old. He was going to be trouble as far Mariel was concerned.
Her eyes narrowed as she took in his lounging form, stretched across the length of the bench seat on the opposite side of their train compartment. He was dressed for travel. Worn brown trousers encased his long legs, and above them he wore a white shirt with a leather vest. The camel-colored coat, when he was upright, covered the muscular globes of his buttocks, much to the dismay of any woman who passed behind him or watched him exit a room. Above the neck…Mariel's dismay deepened. It was too bad that good-looking men only passed through her life; they never stuck around.
"Now that's a face a girl makes when she's sucked on a lemon," drawled a deep voice from beneath the hat that rested over the Marshal's face. "It's not a face that a pretty thing like you should be wearing."
Mariel crossed her arms over her chest. She'd been running her pa's small inn for the past six years now. She'd heard and seen it all, or as much as passed through Willowtown, which admittedly was only a speck compared to the bustling fort they were heading to. But still, she wasn't a shy young thing. She'd shot men and she'd even fought men, albeit with a broom or a bottle of whiskey. She'd heard everything, too, including condescending drivel such as what the Marshal tended to spout.
"You're supposed to be sleeping," she told him, "not worrying about what a pretty thing like me is doing."
He reached up and tipped the hat back, revealing a large, brown eye. Mariel was a sucker for nice eyes, and unfortunately Marshal Carson had beautiful ones: the same color as whiskey when it caught the sunlight. They were the kinds of eyes you saw on dogs or puppies. The kind that sucked you in and melted your heart. They were also the kind that could twinkle and tumble you into bed before you realized you should be careful. Mariel had vowed to always know what was happening when it came to men like him with eyes like those.
"I wouldn't be much use to you, Miss Johnston, if I lost all sense of awareness just because I shut my eyes. Not that I'd be able to lose track of you even if I were hit over the head with a blackie's anvil."
"Prove it," she said.
He grinned. It was devastating because of course the Marshal had a crooked grin that was equal parts boyish and seductive, the kind that tricked you out of your knickers but didn't let you regret it.
"Prove that I can't stop being aware of you no matter whether I’m sleeping or awake?"
The flirting was cheap, but…it didn't annoy her as much as it probably should have. She'd always prided herself on not being a fluffy-headed girl, not that there were many in Mountain Sky Territory. It was one of the rougher states in the Empire and to survive you had to be not only good with a gun but as smart as a criminal. Or at least able to recognize one. Not that she thought the Marshal was anything but a man committed heart and soul to upholding the law. She did, however, know better than to cave in to his charms.
"Your reputation mystifies me, Marshal," she said, deciding to go on the offensive. Maybe that would put him off the pointless flirting that only served to depress her by taunting her with what could never be. "How is it you're able to bed so many women while apprehending all the criminals you have? By the stories, you've captured more Wanted Men than any law enforcement officer in the Empire, and bedded at least one woman in every town in Mountain Sky. Are those stories—either of them—inflated? You don't strike me as a man able to concentrate on more than one task at a time."
He laughed. "You think I'm single-minded, do you?"
"Well, that's only on account of my mind having found something worth focusing all its attention on." He studied her thoughtfully. "Two men are about to walk past our compartment. One's wearing spurs; the other is in steel-tipped dress shoes. Outside, we've just passed the curve of the River Wickedly where it bends back on itself and heads into Shadow Valley Territory."
Mariel looked out the window, which was too high for the Marshal to see through from his incline position, and just glimpsed the sun dappled surface of the river, hidden between stands of pine and fir trees. Ten seconds later she heard the sound of men's voices and watched through the half-window of the door of their compartment as a rancher and a man who looked more like an accountant or a barrister walked down the length of the train.
Marshal Carson didn't wink, but his smile was all sorts of smug. "Don't you worry about what I pay attention to, Miss Johnston. I don't miss a thing."