This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the Lonesome Dove television show, which belongs to Rysher Entertainment and Hallmark. No infringement on copyrights is intended.


Winner Take All

It wasn't difficult to tell when Amanda was up to something. You only needed to look to see if she was awake. He could have leveled the playing field and told her the truth in the beginning – that she was as easy to read as an open book. But why forfeit such an advantage when it proved so amusing.

"All right, my dear. I'll see your two hundred and raise you another fifty."

Amanda's expression didn't change as she calculated the odds. "All right, as long as you're feeling so charitable." She picked up the few notes that remained in her reserve and dropped them on the pile in the middle of the table. "I'll see your fifty and raise you another … hundred."

Interesting. "I must say that's a bold move for someone running so short of resources. Are you certain you want to risk it on a long shot?"

"Oh, I think I'll take a chance." She leaned forward, offering him a generous glance at her cleavage. "Who knows – I might get lucky this time."

It appeared that Amanda was determined to "get lucky" one way or another. "Yes, you might. It must be your turn by now." She'd won a couple of small pots, but most of the cash had stacked up on his side of the table. She was stringing him along, lulling him into complacency as she casually set him up for the final round, like she had with Cooper. Oddly enough, she wasn't even trying to disguise the ploy. Maybe she was just tired. Several hours at the poker table had taken its toll on everyone. Hopefully, one last hand would conclude the evening's entertainment. "And in anticipation of your imminent turn of fortune, I'll see your hundred and raise you another hundred." That should do it. She barely had enough money left to buy a drink.

"If you insist." She tossed the last of her coins on the pile, unfastened the pendant that adorned her dιcolletage, and placed it on top of the stack of cash. "This ought to cover the bet."

He picked up the pendant and held it up to the light. "Ahh, gold and ivory, if I'm not mistaken."

He took a puff on his cigar as he dangled the piece in front of her. "Strange, I could swear I saw one exactly like it -- in a collection of trinkets that wagonload of Romanian vagabonds were trying to peddle when they came through town."

"That may be, but this was…."

"Your mother's. I know." He dropped the pendant back on the pile. "I wasn't aware your mother was a gypsy, but if that's the case, it would explain a great deal."

"You in or out?" She sounded impatient as she rearranged her cards.

"Oh, I'm in – all the way," he replied. "And I believe I'll call."

"Fine. Let's see 'em."

"Ladies first."

A grin lit her face as Amanda laid down her cards. "I’m surprised at you, Clay. Don't you remember what happened the last time you tried to bluff me with a losing hand?"

Ordinarily, her cards would be sufficient to take the pot. Ordinarily. He smiled as he glanced at the impressive array – all hearts. "My, my, what have we here?"

"What's wrong? Have you forgotten what a royal flush looks like?"

"Not at all." As suspected, Amanda had come prepared for all contingencies – one might say overly prepared. Her careful planning would have produced a winning hand, but for one noticeable anomaly. Her face reddened as he presented his own cards – a ten, a pair of jacks, and two kings, including a duplicate of the king in her royal flush. "Nor have I forgotten what a complete deck of cards consists of, and in all my experience, I don't recall ever seeing one with an extra king of hearts."

Amanda's eyelashes fluttered. "I thought you were the king of hearts."

"I'd hardly say that." Her old scheme was becoming tiresome. "I am, however, the proprietor of this establishment, and I should advise you that we have laws around here in regard to people caught cheating."

"Yeah, I'm sure we do. And I'll bet they've been in place for at least five minutes now."

"Be that as it may, I assure you those regulations are quite stringent."

"Well, if that's the case, why aren't you in jail?"

"That's an arguable question." He gathered up the cards and shuffled the deck. "In the meantime, while I'm debating whether or not to turn myself in, I have a business to run, a town to look after, and a reputation to uphold." He pinned her with a disdainful glare. "You see, as Curtis Wells' primary benefactor it's my duty to protect the integrity of local economic interests, including my own."

"Good Lord, can't you find an easier way to say what you have to say?"

"I probably could, but you're a smart woman, Amanda. I'm sure you grasp my intention."

"Of course, why use one or two words when a hundred or so will do every bit as well?"

"Let's just say I like to be certain my message is getting across – the message being that you might find yourself plying your trade back in Tent Town if you persist in trying to rob my customers with these amateurish card tricks."

"You mean as opposed to trying to rob them with your professional card tricks?"

"I mean that customers in the Ambrosia are welcome as long as they observe the rules and conduct themselves accordingly. In other words, thieves, swindlers, and sleight-of-hand artists will leave their trade secrets at the door, or face the consequences."

"My goodness, I had no idea the Ambrosia represented such a lofty standard."

"And you have my personal invitation to stay – under the same conditions that apply to everyone else." He leaned back in his chair. "Of course, it's entirely up to you where you spend your time. Perhaps you find the Number 10 more appealing with its canvas walls and sawdust floor, and all the attention you can tolerate from its salubrious clientele."

She'd been banished to Tent Town before. Apparently the thought of returning there, wiping spit off a plank-and-barrel bar while being groped by drunken miners and cowhands was enough to modify her thinking. "All right. You've made your point."

"Good, as long as we're clear on the house rules."

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning that it's my house, and my rules. I'd have thought you, of all people, would have realized that by now."

She looked away. "Seems to me you're making this awful personal."

"Personal or otherwise, the laws are on the books, and there's a price to be paid for breaking them."

"Well, I don't know what kind of 'price' you expect me to pay. You've got all my money -- and the Dove. That oughtta be enough." She scowled as she pulled her shawl around her. "If you hadn't taken my hotel, I wouldn't have to rely on card tricks for a living."

"Maybe not, but as I recall, that's how you lost the hotel in the first place."

"Thanks to you. Now, as chance would have it, there's nothing left to confiscate. Looks like you hit a dry well, so to speak."

His eyes wandered over her well-proportioned curves. "You underestimate your assets, m'dear. I'm sure we can work out some form of recompense."

She rolled her eyes, amused, if not outwardly relieved. "For heaven's sake, Clay, if that's all you were after, why didn't you just say so? I mean, it's not like we'd never…."

"Actually, I had something a little different in mind." He glanced across the room. "In fact, there might be a reward in it for you, assuming you play your cards right, so to speak."

She looked curious. "In that case, maybe we should discuss it in a more secluded surrounding – that is, if you don't mind your privacy being invaded."

"Hmmm, I suppose a 'brief invasion' could be arranged." Amanda seemed to be shifting her strategy. "Although, if it's your plan to 'beard the lion in his den,' I'd advise caution."

"I'm not sure what you're talking about, but it sounds kind of interesting."

"It could be, depending on the lion's tolerance for confrontation. Meeting one on his own ground, challenging him in his own territory could also be … dangerous."

"Well, I'll just have to take my chances and hope for an agreeable lion, say …one with a nice, well-trimmed beard." Her eyes glittered. "I don't suppose you know where I could find one…."

"Who knows what you might find prowling around this town? There could even be one lurking nearby." He grinned at the prospects. "Perhaps we should have a look in the bedroom, just to be on the safe side."

"What a good idea," she replied as she followed him up the stairs.

* * *

Whatever else Amanda was capable of, there was something about her whole approach to him that set her apart. Florie was always happy to oblige him, but she was too well practiced, somewhat impersonal at times, and rather predictable. Amanda wasn't as accommodating or nearly so passive. She made him work for it. The challenge was invigorating, and the ultimate prize was well worth the effort. It made him feel he'd earned it, almost like he'd had to in his youth, as a young and less experienced lover, a long time ago.

He glanced back at Amanda as he settled into his leather chair. She stood just inside the doorway, apparently caught between her enthusiasm for what he was suggesting and suspicion about the purpose behind it. "All right, tell me about that reward you mentioned."

He studied her in the dim light. They'd paired before, under vaguely similar circumstances. Being vulnerable at the time had made her no less contentious. Just 'cause you got me in bed, don't think I'll do everything you say. It was a bold attitude, especially for one so short of choices.

"Think again," he thought aloud.

"Think about what?"

"Oh … uh, I think we should define the terms of your 'penalty' first."

"Why? You plan to raise my taxes or something?"

"If you're referring to the ones you never pay, no. I was thinking of something a bit less formal – something more in keeping with your innate style and talents." The idea had occurred to him before, but now he actually had a chance to implement it. "I've decided, for the period of one night, you'll atone for your wicked ways by doing everything I say, obeying my orders to the letter, and above all, submitting unquestioningly to all commands with a smile on your lovely lips."

"How original." She brushed back a wisp of hair from her face. "In case you hadn't heard, the slaves were freed several years ago."

"Officially, perhaps. But as a practical matter, let's just say some traditions are easily resurrected, if only temporarily." He leaned back in his chair as he propped his feet on the foot stool. "Now, be a good girl, take off my boots and hang my coat on the valet.

"And what if I don't feel like going along with your little … amusements?"

"Oh, you're not without options, darlin'. A week or two in jail should allow you time to make amends for your offense. Of course, you'd have to share your accommodation with a number of other cellmates, some of whom are rather unsavory types." He folded his tie and tossed it on the table. "You see, I've had to have several people arrested this week on various charges – three for public drunkenness, two for brutalizing a couple of Twyla's girls and another for armed assault. It's a sad situation, having to lock up so many dangerous criminals together in such cramped quarters, but with our limited facilities, I'm afraid there's no choice."

Stubbornness quickly succumbed to genuine fear. "You're not serious."

He glanced up at her. "I wouldn't worry. You're a capable, resourceful woman. I'm sure you'll manage."

"Are you out of your mind? You'd throw me in jail with that … that bunch of animals!"

"Actually, some of those animals are your former hotel guests, so if I were you, I'd keep it friendly. After all, you might be sharing accommodation with some of them in Tent Town soon."

"All right, you win," she sighed. "Your game, your rules."

"You always were a quick learner." He glanced down, admiring her cleavage as she knelt in front of him. The soft flesh rounded over the neckline of her blouse as she struggled to pull off his boots. That accomplished, she propped them against the foot stool, retrieved the coat he'd tossed on the back of the chair and hung it on the valet.

"Anything else?"

"You can pour me a drink, if you'd be so kind."

As instructed, she picked up a half-empty bottle from the desk and poured a glass. Still holding the bottle, she handed him the whisky. "Well, aren't you going to offer me a drink?"

He took a leisurely sip. "Oh, I'm sorry, but the head of the household doesn't ordinarily socialize with the servants."

She set the bottle down on the table beside him. "I'm not your servant."

"You are tonight, my dear." The sharpness of his tone appeared to startle her. It was an odd reaction, and strangely satisfying. "My rules, remember?" She hated rules, and being obliged to follow them – like a lot of people on the outside edge of society who objected to being ordered around. It made them feel inferior and reminded them they weren't equal, and never would be. Still, most complied, assuming they knew what was good for them. Amanda was too independent and used to getting her way. In her own words, she'd rather 'burn in hell' than take orders from him. That attitude begged for some serious adjustment.

For that matter, she'd been asking for a comeuppance for a long time. A woman as attractive and clever as Amanda could have found herself a decent husband, raised a family, done what women were meant to do. But then, she had her own way of doing things, and like a lot of people in Curtis Wells, a habit of writing her own rules. That was the problem.

In addition to being a fairly accomplished card cheat, she was a shameless flirt, a wanton seductress, and an unrepentant thief. Any man who trusted her was a fool. Catching her at her own game was rewarding enough, but making her pay for her transgressions was going to be even more enjoyable. Why shouldn't he have a little fun with her? She'd toyed with him often enough, challenged his authority, hotly spurned his offers of support when she lost the hotel, smacked him across the face on more than one occasion, even menaced him with a pistol – in his own bed. This time, he'd call the shots.

"It's a warm night," he drawled as he pulled his tie out from his collar. "Perhaps you'd be more comfortable if you removed some of that heavy clothing." Women typically demonstrated their modesty by covering themselves with as many layers of pleats and gathers and ruffled contrivances as they could carry, but the practice – no doubt, encouraged by the ladies garment industry – seemed mainly designed to vex men's desires by blocking their advances and wearing down their resistance. Change in those attitudes couldn't come too soon.

"Honestly, Clay, I don't know why you're playing games when we both want the same thing."

"I assure you this isn't a game," he snapped. "And as for what I may want, we'll see." Watching her react with apprehension was as pleasing as seeing her chafe under his authority. "Now, behave yourself, do as I say, and get rid of those frilly … whatever you call them."

The contempt in Amanda's face retreated behind an odd smile – nothing resembling pleasure – just a peculiar expression that seemed to signal compliance, and a hint of sensuality. As she'd said, it wasn't as if she'd never disrobed in front of him, but playing the submissive partner was something different, and for the moment she seemed cautiously amenable.

"If that's what it takes." Her eyes fixed on him as she unbuttoned her blouse and slipped it off. Just as coquettishly she undid her skirt and petticoat and let them fall in loosely around her feet.

He watched her, admiring the form that was emerging from soft piles of skirts and undergarments. "Such a vision of classical beauty," he mused, "like Botticelli's Venus arising from her seashell."

"Who?"

"No one you'd have met in your travels." His gaze was drawn to the pliant flesh that pressed against its lacey containment. "Leave that," he ordered as she started to unfasten the stiffly boned corset. There was something about a woman clad in her underpinnings that was more alluring than unadorned nakedness. Maybe it was the shyness that a diaphanous negligee suggested, or the secret delights that were veiled within … and the promise of fulfillment once they were obtained, possessed, and consumed.

Her eyes softened as she stepped out of the circle of fabric, moved forward to where he sat and knelt in front of him. "Whatever you say," she replied as she reached up to unbutton his shirt. Her fingers were as deft as he remembered as she released the buttons one by one, her hand just as warm as it slid inside his shirt … just as smooth as it stroked lightly over his bare skin.

"Is there anything special you had in mind?"

"Why don't you … use your imagination." Her acquiescence was surprisingly prompt. Even anxious. She was probably keen to avoid being tossed in with a group of thugs – not that he'd actually have subjected her to such dangers. More likely, she anticipated some pleasing reciprocation on his part. Whatever her motivation might be, she'd evidently decided it was more in her best interest to play the game than to resist it. It was a wise choice. He leaned forward and reached out to brush a lock of her hair away from her face. He traced the curve of her ear with his finger, caressing the delicate contour of her chin, locking his gaze onto hers as he stood up. "Actually think I'd be more comfortable in the bedroom."

Her lips parted in a smile. "That's the best order you've issued so far." Amanda made no attempt to hide her enthusiasm. Even her cleavage appeared eager as it strained to be released from her corset, nearly spilling over the top of its whale boned casing as she rose to follow him.

* * *

He'd enjoyed watching her, the first time they were together, watching her loosening ribbons and undoing buttons, dropping a single piece of clothing on the floor, and another, teasing him with each one until she'd stood before him, unembarrassed and not the least bit shy about revealing herself. Why should she be? Her body, untethered by hooks and stays, was every bit as comely and inviting. She enjoyed it just as much, having his eyes roam over her, hungrily, greedily, anticipating his hands exploring every seductive surface and secret crevice, delighting in the joy of each discovery.

Now she stood before him again, posed somewhat artificially, but just as enticing. A small gold locket hung around her neck. His eyes wandered leisurely as he took his time, gathering in the sight arranged for his private consumption – her full breasts voluptuously exposed above her corset, her slender waist that gave way to rounded hips, as gracefully curved as an elegant porcelain vase … her shapely thighs, pliant and obedient to his touch … her delectable nether region, like dark lace against pale ivory satin.

She'd made no secret of her fondness for horizontal refreshments and, naturally, she'd be expecting something in return for her efforts. Depriving her of the pleasure would be a just reward for the times she'd tempted him and taunted him with her prurient charms, only to rebuff his advances and reject him as one would dismiss a misbehaving school boy.

His shirt fell open as he stretched out on the bed. His trousers could barely contain the volume that was quickly expanding inside them. "My my, Miz Carpenter. Don't you look fine this evening."

Amanda glanced down at the bulge that was straining the buttons on his fly. "Hmmm," she cooed, "you're looking pretty fine yourself, at least from here."

"Such a shy young lady." He settled back on the large pillow. "Why don't you come over and take a closer look."

She tilted her head, hesitating for a moment as if she wanted to think about it. A sly smile lit her eyes as she moved closer, casually slipping off her camisole as she sat down beside him. Her hair draped around her shoulders, hinting of wildflowers as she leaned forward, brushing over his chest as she dropped light kisses here and there and playfully nibbled at his throat. Her tongue found the small hollow at its base, lingered for a moment, and followed the shallow dip in the middle of his chest, continuing past the edge of his ribs, gliding down his concave midsection … further downward to the waistband of his trousers. Without slowing her pace, or even looking up, she undid the trouser buttons and loosened the drawstring on his drawers. He could feel her anticipation, like that of a hungry animal eyeing a savory, succulent morsel.

"Well, who's the shy one now?" she murmured as her fingertips stroked the broadcloth that stretched tightly over what was now a sizeable erection.

His reaction to her touch vibrated through his loins. He could feel his arousal pulsating, finding its rhythm, defiant of any plan to suppress or control it, as if the thing ever obeyed his orders.

She hadn't exaggerated her skills when she said she could be "very sophisticated." Her hair felt like water flowing over his hands as he combed his fingers through the strands of lavender-scented silk. Warmth radiated from her hands, sending ripples of desire through him as she released his engorged member from its cotton confinement. It was good, not having to tell a woman every more to make. She knew what he wanted and what he expected, and she responded to his signals like a well-trained thoroughbred.

The dark brown tresses tumbled over her shoulders, shadowing her face as she leaned down. He felt the softness of her fingers as she took hold of the swollen shaft, felt her warm breath as she tickled the underside with flicks of her tongue, teasing the hooded tip, encircling the sensitive band of flesh as she gently nudged it away from the sculpted ridge. He relaxed his hold on her hair, instinctively pulling back slightly to slow his own progress. Too much too fast could be overpowering. There was no point in choking her, at least not that way. Besides, she knew what she was doing. Better to allow her freedom to take the initiative and do it her way, let her think she was in control. Better still not to provoke her while she had his foreskin between her teeth.

Sweat prickled on his skin, sending a chill, then a surge of heat through him as he watched her gripping with one hand, kneading with the other, torturing him with tender kisses, finally closing her lips around the head of the shaft, now unbearably hard, working her way downward, massaging with fluid, rhythmic strokes, devouring him in wet, languid warmth while the pulsating intensified, pounding as if his heart was located in the throbbing core of his manhood.

Blood burned in his veins, thundering through his head, feverishly gathering force as it raced … electric, velvet … desperate to erupt and release its power in a rush of torment and delight. Like an ocean wave – churning, swelling, cresting, and crashing onto a rocky shore – the torrent within him came raging to the surface, sending a spasm of exquisite anguish through his body, spilling its liquid fire, silencing all sounds as it retreated, quietly, calmly into a tranquil sea. A flood of contentment washed over him as his energy poured out and his strength dissolved in an ebb tide of satisfaction.

With his heartbeat still echoing in his head, he closed his eyes, enjoying the last fleeting seconds of serenity, feeling his sense of gravity drifting back as he emerged from the momentary delirium. It was a strange phenomenon, that for those few brief moments, all sensations emanated from a single spot. It was a splendid gift from nature, and especially fortuitous for men, that as the fountainhead of masculinity, the male member seemed to be an object of fascination for women, at least in his experience.

Wives tended to be less enthusiastic, or so it was said, but others accepted it willingly, if not eagerly, taking it into their mouths much as he often did to dampen a new cigar. Happiest to embrace the practice were unmarried ladies who realized – no doubt, some time ago – that they could satisfy their secret desires while keeping with tradition and preserving their purity right up to the moment the clock struck twelve on their wedding nights. They were a clever lot. Having derived their pleasures with no risk of an "accident" or any evidence of pre-marital indulgences, those proper young maidens could climb into the marriage bed, equipped with both the knowledge gained from their experience and the proof they'd remained innocent … mostly.

"What's so funny?" Amanda hovered over him, unaware of the small trail of pearly liqueur that had dripped down her chin. He hadn't realized he was grinning so broadly.

"What…oh, uh, nothing." He shook his head to dispel the fog that lingered in the periphery of his vision. "Well done … indeed."

She sat back with her arms crossed. "Oh, good. You can't imagine how flattered I am to hear that." She shot a stinging glare at him. "I'm so glad you're happy."

Here we go. Fewer creatures on earth were as irritable as a frustrated woman. Satisfying her needs wasn't difficult, but under the circumstances, further luxuriating in pleasures of the flesh might take a while. In any case, it wasn't what she was here for on this particular occasion.

"I am, indeed. Refreshed, renewed, and reminded how essential a woman's touch is to a man's sense of well being and overall contentment in life."

"My goodness. Aren't we in a gracious mood all of a sudden. I may need a fainting couch if this goes any further."

"Actually, you might."

"Why's that?"

He adjusted the pillow and leaned back with his hands behind his head. "Well, I've been considering your situation, tenuous as it is, and thinking I may have been too severe in my judgment." He paused as he watched her eyes narrow with curiosity. "In fact, I've had a change of heart. I've been revisiting the question of ownership where the Dove's concerned and I've decided to give it back to you – without obligation and with no strings attached." He sneaked a sideways glance to guage her reaction. "Of course, you'd have to be responsible for running the whole business, which wouldn't be an easy job for one woman."

Her eyes rounded as surprise bypassed suspicion. "Well, I … I did it before," she stammered, taken aback by the announcement. "Nothing's changed." Foremost among Amanda's myriad talents was her ability to sniff out an opportunity. Her expression brightened with thoughts of all the possibilities. "'Course, the place would have to be spruced up a bit – just a few minor repairs … maybe a fresh coat of paint…."

"Oh, I'm certain that with your talent and ambition, you'll be able to restore it to its previous luster in no time. In fact, it might be advantageous to expand it a bit, perhaps add some floor space and refurnish the kitchen, just to make it more inviting to customers and hotel guests."

She stared back, suddenly cautious about the suggestions she was hearing, but too enthused about their potential to dismiss them. "And just where would I get the money to pay for all these improvements, advantageous as they may be?"

He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Well, I might be persuaded to contribute to the effort, if the conditions were mutually agreed on."

"I see." She eyed him warily. "And what kind of conditions did you have in mind?"

"Nothing too taxing – that is, nothing that would interfere with your overall management. I was just thinking how nice it would be to have a comfortable, peaceful place to relax from time to time – away from the all the noise and distraction ... 'far from the madding crowd,' as it were."

She gazed around, trying not to appear overanxious. "Sounds reasonable to me."

Judging from her reaction, the idea was more than agreeable. Come to think, such an arrangement might actually be worth considering. A quiet rendezvous location at the hotel would help to ensure more privacy than he had at the Ambrosia, or at the very least, reduce the chances of Amanda and Florie meeting on his stair landing in the middle of the night.

"How soon…," she was asking.

"Soon enough. Of course, we'd need to keep this agreement confidential – discretion being the key to success, as I'm sure you understand."

"I understand perfectly." Her eyes danced with delight. "Rest assured, the secret's safe with me."

"Well then, all we have left to do is arrange an official transfer of ownership."

"And when will this officially take place?"

"Let's see." He paused for effect. "I believe the appropriate date would be sometime this week … say the first of the month."

"That'd be … Sunday. I like that. Sunday has a certain dignity about it. "

"It does, doesn't it?" He could barely contain his glee. "And as the first day of April, that particular date has another unique distinction." He watched her curiosity give way to apprehension, as if she sensed something wicked in his tone. Lifting her chin with one hand, he leaned forward and gently kissed her cheek as he whispered. "April Fool, my dear."

"April Fool?" Amanda jerked away as her face filled with anger. "You've been planning this from the start, haven't you – setting me up all this time, just so you could play some nasty little joke!"

"No. Actually, it only occurred to me a moment ago." Forcing her to do something against her will was entertaining, but depriving her of something she coveted was even more gratifying.

"You bastard!"

"Now, now. A little decorum, if you please."

"Well, I don't please! How could you be so…."

"Cruel? Deceitful, perhaps?" He reached for a cheroot. "Frankly, if anyone has reason to feel insulted, it would be me."

"What?"

He struck a match and lit the cheroot. "I distinctly recall you saying to me – and I quote – 'I don't give a damn about the hotel,' and equally memorable, 'I think we have something, or could,' words to that affect." He'd seen through her ploy from the start – the frail appearance, the quavering voice and the tearful expression. For all her dramatic abilities, there hadn't been an ounce of sincerity in the entire performance. He exhaled contentedly, watching the smoke curl and drift outward. "Of course, we both know that was simply another calculated deception on your part to get what you want."

"But you're determined to get whatever and whoever you want, aren't you? And you're not at all happy when you don't." As quickly as it flared, her anger retreated behind a sly smile. "This wasn't about card games at all, was it? You're just not used to being turned down by anyone. You can't stand it when your irresistible charm fails you." She folded her arms. "I presume that's the reason for this overblown display of superiority."

"Presume what you like." His eyes narrowed. "I sell my trust and my affections most dearly, Madam, and I'm disinclined to spend them on a common whore."

"Oh, I'm sure you'd know all about that."

"Enough to know what to expect from a woman who, for some reason, feels she has to lie and cheat and scheme just to get by. You may think you have every man in this town beguiled, but I can assure you that assumption ends with me." He held up his empty glass. "Now, if you'd be so kind, I'd like another drink."

"Is that all? Don't you want me to shine your boots, or something … wash your laundry, maybe?"

"No, the pleasure of your enchanting company is sufficient for the moment."

Amanda stood unmoving, bristling with indignation. "Idn' this party about over."

"It is when I say it is." Even at her most vulnerable, she could be defiantly obstinate. "Need I remind you that you're still under 'house arrest'?"

"Is that what you call this nonsense?"

"You know the rules." The sinister tone in his voice deepened. "Don't make me ask twice."

"You 'son of a….'"

"Bitch? Yes, that would be the term I'd use, too. And once again you've proven you're quite a talent in that area. Now do as I say."

She cast a cold glance in his direction. "All right," she answered, suddenly calm and acquiescent to his demand. "It's your game." She took the glass from his hand and stepped over to the side table to retrieve more whisky. Her shapely derriere looked even more enticing as she turned her back to open the bottle. It was tempting. But that would defeat the whole purpose of his plan.

"Oh, and, uh…help yourself to a drink while you're at it." After her hard work, she must be thirsty.

Without looking back, she filled another glass for herself, returned to where he was stretched out on the bed and sat down beside him. "Here you are," she said, almost pleasantly. "I assumed you'd prefer the good stuff." Her emerald gaze held steady as she handed him the glass.

"And you assumed correctly." He took a long swallow and lay back on the pillow, watching her as she sipped her drink. His hands, remembering how soft her skin felt under them, longed to caress her. He hungered to consume her, slowly, completely…. It was exactly what she wanted. Her body was there for the taking, lithe and supple, as it slid toward him in serpentine curves, arching, bending as she silently coiled up next to him. He could feel her hands moving over him as sharp edges blurred and the light faded, feel her fingertips drawing delicate circles, bewitching his senses as he felt his strength beginning to dissolve.

"You know, we make a good team, don't you think?" Her voice sounded distant even though he could feel her breath warming him. "You and I," she was saying, "we have something."

It would be so easy. "What we have, from now on, is an understanding," he murmured, mostly to himself. The words were separating from his thoughts, wandering off on their own. He looked at her through half closed eyes. Ordinarily, nothing could be more tantalizing. Not this time. Maybe later. All he wanted to do was sleep. "It's late," he mumbled as he turned toward the darkness.

"Whatever you say," she whispered from far away as the night swept around him …as he felt himself disappearing into the shadows, as he watched himself being carried off, weightlessly, effortlessly, into a soothing, soundless abyss….

* * *

The morning light felt brighter than it normally did in the early hours and the shafts seemed to penetrate his skull as they speared through the cracks in the shutters. It was too early to get up. Or, it should be. He rolled to the side and pulled the blanket closer around his shoulders. For the first time in a long time, he'd enjoyed a solid, uninterrupted sleep. More like the "sleep of the dead"– undisturbed by mysterious night noises or infernal dreams. He felt rested, except for an unpleasant pounding behind his eyes … and the fact that his mouth felt like cotton and his vision was out of focus. He'd had a fair amount to drink, but not that much. Exhaustion had probably caught up to him and magnified the aftereffects. It would pass as soon as he got himself up and moving. He reached across the bed. Amanda was gone, but the scent of her perfume lingered in the sheets. She must have left when she'd seen him stir. Just as well. He didn't feel like any more activity.

As he sat up a sharp pain flared through his head, jolting him out of what remained of his peaceful reverie. There was an odd taste in his mouth as a flutter of nausea rose in his throat. He raked his fingers through his hair as if smoothing it down would relieve the incessant drumming in this head. A drink of water would quench his thirst ... as soon as he found the energy to get out of bed. He dragged his feet out from the tangle of sheets, shivering as the cold air rushed around him, shaking him awake, and spawning a convulsive spasm in his gut. He shouldn't have had so much to drink on an empty stomach, but anticipation of the evening's diversions had overruled his appetite. Whether his amusement had been worth the effort was unclear at the moment.

He sat on the edge of the bed as he waited for the unpleasant sensation to ease. Maybe he'd been too harsh on a woman who was simply trying to cope from day to day. She wanted to lead a good life, so she said, but despite any well-intentioned efforts, the woman had a habit of getting in his way and aggravating the hell out of him. Frankly, it was only by virtue of her feminine wiles that Amanda remained a mercurial fascination – at times, a model of sophistication, at others, a brazen harlot. In a more civilized setting, she'd be labeled "a woman of the town" with all its unflattering connotations. She'd earned the title. Truth be told, she was as close to a witch as he ever cared to encounter.

He rubbed his eyes. Maybe it was personal. Partly. But the fact was, she'd been a pain in the ass from the start. She'd barely arrived in town when she'd enlisted Call's help to wrench the hotel from his grasp, with cash she herself had stolen. And from the moment she'd taken over the place she'd been nothing short of exasperating. If she wasn't hosting poker games in the hotel or commandeering his imported Scotch whisky, she was nagging him about uncouth guests and muddy boots and broken crockery and undelivered cattle and anything else she could think of. Separating her from the Dove was a smart move, even if it cost more money.

Of course, it figured she'd go running to Call, enlisting his help to indict him for Cooper's death.

And there was Austin. Given his resentment and vindictiveness over recent events, he'd be a willing ally. She'd have no problem charming him into partnering with her and maneuvering him into another act of treachery, if she hadn't done that already.

God only knew what else she'd been up to behind his back, or for that matter, what she was capable of face to face. In a display of unpolished bravado, she'd ambushed him in his own quarters and threatened his life while flaunting some absurd notion about taking over the town. Perched like a scavenging crow at the foot of his bed and waving a gun in his face, she'd re-enacted the deadly game of roulette he'd been subjected to by her former paramour just to show him how dangerous she could be. Hearing the revolver's cylinder click an inch from his forehead was unsettling to say the least, but if the gesture was meant to intimidate him, it had fallen short of the mark.

Too harsh? No. He was right to deal with her the way he had. He'd gotten what he wanted and she'd gotten what she deserved. Plotting revenge on him, purely out of spite, was bad enough, but preying on him, exploiting his sympathy and his attraction to her, trying to manipulate him just to satisfy her secret agenda -- that kind of duplicity deserved an appropriate reply, and a curt reminder of her actual importance to him. Seeing her stripped of her insolent pride, standing in front of him quivering with outrage, eyes glistening with green sparks, was more than satisfying. She'd gambled, cheated, and lost. This time, hopefully, she'd learned a lesson.

He stretched to relieve the stiffness in his joints and to resist the chill that seemed to permeate his bones. For some reason, the air felt unusually cold. He shivered as he pulled himself upward, careful not to awaken the echo that had thundered through his head. Things were beginning to come into focus. There was that taste he couldn't identify – like something concocted out of kerosene and horse liniment … and judging by the way he felt, maybe a couple shots of laudanum. Amanda had found a way to sneak something into his drink – probably so she could make her escape before he woke up and thought of any more "services" for her to perform. No matter. He'd had his fun and she'd paid for her crime quite satisfactorily.

He reached down to retrieve his drawers from the floor and blindly pulled them on. His shirt was lost somewhere in the rumpled sheets. He'd look for it later, when he got the cobwebs out of his brain. Still light-headed from the effects of whisky and whatever else he'd unwittingly drunk, he shuffled to the wash basin and leaned on the edge of the wash stand as he waited for the ringing in his ears to subside and for the room to stop moving. It was going to take a while for the effects of the potion to wear off, but it would … eventually. Meanwhile, a quick wash up might help. He rubbed his eyes to dispel the blurriness and took a deep breath to brace against the chill as he reached down and dipped his hands into the basin, careful to steady himself as he splashed the cold water over his eyes, and his face, and his chin … his cold, bald, naked chin.

What….

His vision lurched into focus as he stared up at the reflection of his fresh and cleanly shaven face. His mustache was still intact, but below it, his entire jaw and chin, denuded of their manly adornment, were a good shade lighter than the rest, and smooth as a young boy's. He stood, frozen in morbid disbelief as the foggy image in the mirror stared back. In the corner of the mirror there was a small piece of paper. He yanked it out of the frame, fumbling as he unfolded the note. The heat of unbridled rage burned his bare face as he read the handwritten message.

"April Fool."

... If it's your plan to 'beard the lion in his den' ….

Anyone within a rifle shot's distance of the Ambrosia Club might have wondered if there actually was a lion in the saloon.

"AMANDAAA!"

He stood before the mirror, seething, steaming in the chilly air as he surveyed the damage. His beard would grow back, eventually. The assault on his dignity was another matter entirely. Repairing that might take a bit longer, but if anyone thought the game was over, they were very much mistaken.

* * *

To Be Continued...

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