Tara knew she was staring, but found herself unable to stop, so amazed was she that this was the same person she'd encountered earlier. She was internally relieved that she'd at least managed to pick her jaw up off of the floor and close her mouth after only a few seconds of gawking.
"You," she stated again as her wide, unblinking eyes took in the stranger's appearance, remarkably changed from the dust covered grayish-brown mess of before. He wore a stylish dark blue - almost black - suit over a crisp white shirt with starched collar. A gold watch chain gleamed across his shimmering dark green brocade vest. A neatly tied silk cravat and felt hat, both matching the blue of the suit, completed the ensemble.
In sharp contrast to his dark hat, bright red hair fell to the top of his collar in back, the sides neatly tucked behind his ears. His flawless skin was slightly tanned and smattered with freckles. The green eyes that had so struck Tara before now sparkled back at her in amusement.
'He's just a boy - doesn't even look old enough to shave,' Tara realized, shaking her head in wonder and smiling. The grin did not escape the attention of the young man, who frowned and looked down at himself quizzically.
"Somethin' funny? Or do laugh at all your patrons?"
Tara couldn't help giggling at the petulant pout that had replaced the boy's confident bravado.
"No... no. It's just... how old are you?"
"Well... how old are you?" he defensively sputtered.
"I asked you first."
"I'm eighteen," he stated defiantly. Tara crossed her arms, pursed her lips, and arched an eyebrow. The redhead's resolute gaze faltered after a moment and he rolled his eyes.
"Okay, I'm seventeen... and a half," he added with a grin. "So? How old are you?"
"Nineteen," Tara haughtily replied. The boy laid both forearms on the bar and leaned forward with a wicked smirk.
"Well, that's okay... I like older women. How 'bout you join me in a shot o' whiskey."
Tara glared at the redhead, but his grin only widened and he winked at her saucily. She was amazed at how delightful she found his flirtatiousness, and marveled at her own desire to continue it. Before she could playfully berate him for his presumption, however, her attention was drawn to another figure approaching the bar, and her countenance darkened.
"Good evening, Tara. You're looking well."
"Sheriff," she responded through clenched teeth.
"Is Donnie around?"
"Haven't seen him since this afternoon."
Warren Mears nodded vaguely as his eyes drifted around the room. Satisfied that Donnie was not in the saloon, he shifted his gaze to the redhead at the bar. Tara had noticed that as soon as she'd greeted the Sheriff, the young man had turned slightly and rested his right hand alongside his head, effectively obscuring his face from the man. Tara watched in troubled silence as Mears narrowed his eyes at the stranger.
"You're new in town."
"Yessir," the boy mumbled.
"Staying at the Inn, are you?"
The redhead nodded curtly, his head lowered. Tara was just able to see his eyes under the brim of his hat, and she could swear she saw panic in the green depths.
"What's your name, boy? And look at me when I talk to you. Didn't your mama teach you any manners?"
The redhead reluctantly faced the Sheriff but kept his head bowed, just enough to appear contrite and not evasive, Tara thought to herself.
"Name's Will Smith."
"Well, Mister Smith, since you're new here, there's something you should know about Dusty Hollow." Warren took a menacing step toward the boy, who boldly stood his ground. Tara observed his jaw clenching and his eyes darting left and right. "We have ourselves a nice little town here, and we don't need any troublemakers coming in and causing problems. Do I make myself clear?"
"Not lookin' for no trouble. Just passin' through."
Warren paused a moment before stepping back with a laugh and clapping the redhead on the shoulder.
"Well then, I hope you enjoy your brief stay. Tara, I'll wait for Donnie in the back room. See that he joins me as soon as he arrives."
Tara murmured her acknowledgement and purposefully ignored the Sheriff reaching across the bar to grab a bottle of gin and a glass. She looked worriedly at the redhead, who stood pale and shaking, his eyes closed, lips tightly drawn, and knuckles white against the bar rail. Without a word, she placed a shot glass in front of him and filled it.
"You look like you could use this," she said gently. The boy opened his eyes and regarded her with a look of embarrassment and gratitude. With a trembling hand he reached for the glass, downing the whiskey in one gulp and wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. Tara refilled the glass, and when the redhead brought it back down, a hint of a smile had returned to his lips.
"Is he always like that?"
"No," Tara stated contemplatively. After a quick glance to the back room, she leaned forward and in a conspiratorial whisper added, "Sometimes he's not so friendly."
The boy laughed, and Tara was again struck by the glistening eyes and playful smile. There was something about him that intrigued her, even more since the interaction with the Sheriff. The redhead seemed so young and carefree one moment, but in the next his eyes seemed to hold the edge of hard-earned experience.
More of a surprise to Tara was the realization that she felt an attraction to the boy, as she'd never felt any romantic interest towards men. She'd grown accustomed to her brother's teasing that she was quickly becoming an Old Maid, and had long ago learned to ignore it. She'd had several suitors, but had quickly dissuaded their pursuit. The reason why was not something she'd ever spoken about to anyone. Despite her deeply held belief that there was nothing wrong with her feelings, she knew that the good folk of Dusty Hollow - or anyplace else - would not agree.
She justified the unfamiliar feelings stirred by the redhead were on account of his particular physical features. The slim figure, fine-boned face entirely devoid of whiskers, the soft, full lips... all gave a decidedly feminine appearance. Nevertheless, the idea unsettled her.
"Did you want another, Mr. Smith?" she asked, indicating the bottle and slipping back into her professional demeanor to quiet her unease.
"Call me Will... and you'd better make it a beer - I'm not much of a whiskey drinker," he admitted with a shrug. "And you have me at a disadvantage, Miss..."
"Tara Maclay," she stated, handing over the drink and moving off to attend to another patron.
"As in Maclay's Saloon," Will concluded as the blonde returned, nodding. "So, you and your, err... husband-"
"My brother owns it. I just work here."
The boy's face immediately brightened at her admission, but clouded when he registered the bitterness in her tone. Before either could speak, however, Donnie Maclay himself stomped into the saloon. Tara motioned him over with a nod of her head.
"Warren's in back, wants to see you."
Donnie ran his hands through his hair and exhaled before raising sheepish eyes at his sister, who regarded him sternly.
"I ain't gonna play tonight, Tara, I swear. But some of the boys are comin' over and I gotta be there... you know how they are."
Tara sighed and walked away, realizing it was futile to argue with him again. Out of the corner of her eye she watched him lift the curtain and disappear into the back room. She picked up a rag and began vigorously wiping the bar top, unconscious of the green eyes following her every move. She wasn't aware she'd been scrubbing the same spot for several minutes until a soft hand gently covered her own, stilling it.
"Are you alright?"
Tara heard the whispered words, but couldn't respond. She stared down at the hand resting on hers, the thumb soothingly brushing her knuckles. The touch was electric, and when she finally raised her eyes to meet his, she was stunned. Simple concern was evident, but Tara could see something else - an almost primal protectiveness - apparent not only in his eyes, but in his stance as well. While the hand that lay on Tara's was relaxed, the other was curled into a tight fist, and his shoulders were squared and stiff as though ready for defense. Tara drew in a sharp breath.
'This can't be happening,' she thought. 'I can't be falling in love with a man.'