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By´╝ÜLeigh Greenwood

“I have no interest in your business,” the stranger assured him. “I’m only concerned with the young lady. She has asked you to let her go.”

“This here ain’t no lady.”

“You just said she was. Are you a liar as well as a bully?”

Rose gulped. Calling Luke a liar was the same as an open challenge.

“Ain’t nobody ever called me a liar,” Luke growled.

“It seems the good people of Austin have been guilty of neglect,” the stranger said, a mocking smile curving his lips.

Luke charged up from his chair.

“Luke, I don’t think you ought to…”

But Luke paid no attention to Rose. As he moved to confront the stranger, he dragged her along, bumping her into chairs, her wrist still in his grip.

“Now you listen up, mister, and you listen good. You’re a stranger in town, so naturally you don’t know I don’t like being messed with.”

“Then you should understand why Miss—I don’t know your name,” the stranger said, turning to Rose, a smile once again on his lips.

Despite the pain, Rose smiled back. “My name’s Rose—”

“It don’t matter what her name is,” Luke broke in. “She ain’t no concern of yours.”

The stranger’s black-eyed gaze returned to Luke. “I spent four years fighting for the Confederate cause, but I didn’t spend so much as one minute fighting for men who mishandle women or interrupt them when they speak.”

Luke flushed red with rage. Pushing Rose from him, he reached for the gun at his hip. But before he could bring it up to firing level, the stranger brought his hand down so hard across Luke’s wrist he paralyzed every nerve in Luke’s fingers.

The gun fell harmlessly to the floor.

“Let the lady alone.”

Recovering from his shock, Luke shouted, “I’ll be damned if I will.” Then he lunged.

The stranger’s fist struck a blow that sent Luke crashing into the table behind him. As Rose jumped out of the way of a careening chair, Luke staggered to his feet, stunned, but too furious to see he didn’t have a chance against this man.

Head down, Luke charged again.

The stranger merely stepped aside. Luke plowed into the table, and then the wall. He broke the table, a chair, and his collarbone.

A mountain of flesh surmounted by a bulbous face exploded from the kitchen: Dottie, the owner of the Bon Ton. “I won’t have anybody breaking up my place,” she screamed in a shrill voice as she surged toward the cause of the disturbance. “You’ll pay for this.”

“Take it out of his pockets,” the stranger said, indicating the prostrate Luke with an indifferent glance. “And bring this young lady…Rose…a cup of strong coffee.”

Rose didn’t understand why the sound of her name on this man’s lips should render her immobile. Or could it be the smile that still hovered on his lips? How about the warmth in his eyes?

“I don’t pay her to sit down,” Dottie screeched.

“Neither, I imagine, do you pay her to take abuse from your customers,” the stranger countered, giving Dottie a look quite as severe as the one he had directed at Luke only moments before. “She needs a few minutes to regain her composure.”

“And if I refuse?”

He turned his gaze to the broken chair. “I don’t imagine you’d have many customers if all your chairs were reduced to kindling.”

Dottie eyed the stranger with malevolent intent, but much to Rose’s surprise, she apparently decided it would be wiser to deal with a comatose Luke than this imperturbable man. She rifled Luke’s pockets, removing more than enough coins to pay for her broken furniture. “Get rid of him, and I’ll bring the coffee,” she said, and departed without a backward glance.

“Are you his friends?” the stranger asked Jeb and Charlie.

Both men turned back to their eating without answering. A third man dashed through the door, apparently intent on discovering the cause of the ruckus. One look at the stranger’s eyes caused him to slide into a chair on the opposite side of the room.

“You know him?” the stranger asked the new arrival.

“Never saw him in my life.”

The stranger picked Luke up by the back of his pants, dragged him through the open doorway, and dropped him in the middle of the boardwalk. Then he stepped back into the restaurant, closed the door behind him, chose a new table, and pulled out a chair.

“I’d appreciate it if you would join me, ma’am,” he said to Rose. “You seem to be holding up pretty well, but you’ll feel better once you sit down for a little while.”