Faith tiptoed through the servants' entrance of the Mayor's mansion and crept down the hall toward the back staircase, relieved to find the area deserted. Before she reached the first step, her sharp eyes noticed a light shining under the door of her father's office, and the muffled sound of voices inside. She stilled and held her breath, but could discern no other movement in the house. Carefully she inched her way to the door and crouched down.
Through the keyhole she spied her husband, sitting stiffly, his hands clenching the arms of his chair. Across the room, his desk between them, paced her father, a grim expression on his face as he toyed with a gold letter opener. Faith pressed her ear to the keyhole and listened.
"I'm getting a little tired of you taking matters into your own hands, Warren. I have some very important investors coming in next week, and I don't need any suspicion falling on me right now. I needn't remind you I'd have already owned that land if not for your interference."
"Yes sir, and again, if I'd known I certainly wouldn't have-"
"Well, we can't change the past now, can we? And your ignorance is the only reason I allowed you to stay in Dusty Hollow, but I will not tolerate your personal vendetta getting in the way of my acquisition. From now on, you do what I say, when I say. Is that clear?"
"That's swell! You've got ambition, Warren. I like to see that in a young man, and you've got a bright future ahead of you, so long as you remember those who put you where you are. Never forget friends, that's what I live by."
"These investors...they're friends, then?"
"They sure are. Their money made this town, and will make it into more, with our help. See Warren, too many people think small...build a house, build a farm, and they're happy...it's a little selfish, don't you think? Great men look at the larger picture; think about what they can do for their community. Why, now that we have the railroad here, we could have the biggest and brightest city on the Plains, but that takes vision, and sacrifice."
"Exactly. Those fools with their farms and stores have no vision. Take that idiot Maclay, for instance. Sure he was one of the first settlers in town, but does that mean he should be allowed to hold onto one of the richest parcels of land when I've got a dozen developers standing in line to mine it? I thought perhaps his son would be smarter, but...well, let's just say I'm pleased things worked out the way they did. I have high hopes for you and my Faith, Warren. Someday you'll run this town, and your sons after you."
Faith pushed herself away from the door, unable to listen to any more. Her eyes were wild with hurt, but she fought back her tears, clenching her jaw tight. She stole silently to the stairs and ascended to her room, her mind spinning. She had known that Warren was a conniving villain, but to hear from his own lips that her father had manipulated her for his own purposes...she scowled into the darkness as she entered her bedroom and locked the door. She had to warn Donnie of their plan. She sat down at her writing table and pulled out several sheets of paper, hoping she would be able to slip him the letter at church.
Willow waited for another carriage to pass before crossing the street. She tipped her hat to the driver and his wife, and waved at the youngsters on the back of the wagon, fidgeting in their Sunday best. It seemed as though the entire town and surrounding area had passed by her that morning, and she'd had to politely decline a handful of offers to ride along to the Church, which lay just below the Mayor's mansion on the small hill. In turn she'd received several disapproving looks and patronizing shakes of the head. Still, her experience in other small towns that had convinced her to take a pseudonym, and ruefully accept that people were kinder thinking she was a heathen than when they knew she was a Jew.
She shook the thought out of her head as she walked up the steps to the saloon and knocked on the shuttered door. While she waited, her mind wandered to more immediate issues. When she'd returned to her room at the Inn the night before, she found that the red hair she'd carefully placed across the door latch had fallen to the floor. Someone had been in her room. She knew they wouldn't find anything, but it had still set her on edge. First thing that morning she had gone to see Xander.
"I may need my buckboard soon."
"It's all but done now. I left the wheels off, but I can have them on and ready to roll anytime."
Willow had smirked at the young man, clearly uncomfortable in his suit, and darting his eyes toward Anya, waiting impatiently in his carriage.
"It can wait til tonight. Go on, your gal's waiting. Oh! Xander, you uh, didn't tell nobody about what we talked about last night, did you? About me?"
The young man grimaced, and Willow's face fell.
"I didn't mean to! It's just, I was drunk, and sometimes I don't think...and I only told Anya...and possibly Clem. But it's okay...they know it's a secret."
Willow rolled her eyes again at the admission. She felt pretty sure she could count on Clem to keep his mouth shut, but wasn't so certain about Anya, who'd smirked at her knowingly before driving off. She didn't really mind people thinking she was a dangerous bandit. In fact, it often worked to her advantage, but the last thing she needed right now was the Sheriff catching wind of her identity and throwing her jail before the card game.
"How the heck did things get so complicated?" she muttered to herself.
The redhead spun at the sound of her name and came face to face with Tara standing in the doorway, looking sweaty and disheveled and altogether lovely, to Willow's eyes.
Oh. Right. That's how.
"Hi," she squeaked, raising her hand in a listless wave.
"Good morning. Do you want to come in?"
"Are you busy? Cause I don't want to disturb you. I thought I'd stop by and see how Donnie is, but if you're too busy I can come back later."
Tara smiled patiently at the flustered redhead, who allowed the blonde to guide her inside by a gentle hand on the elbow.
"It's fine, Will. Donnie's feeling much better; he just left for church. And I'm never to busy for y-y...um...I'm not too busy."
Willow beamed at the blushing barmaid, who bit her lip and ducked her head.
"I w-was just doing the laundry. You could sit with me, keep me company?"
"I could do that," the redhead stated, nodding for emphasis. "Or I can help."
"You don't have to," Tara demurred.
"I want to. You see this face?" Willow pointed at herself, mouth set, eyes serious and unblinking. "Well, this so happens to be my ‘I made up my mind and ain't nobody gonna tell me to do otherwise, no matter how big or mean or in this case pretty they may be' face."
Tara nodded sincerely, holding back a grin. "Maybe you should just call it your ‘resolve' face. It's not as much of a mouthful."
Willow blinked, her eyes automatically wandering to Tara's mouth, which curled up on one side in amusement. Her temptation to taste that mouth was too great, and before she could give in, she took a half step back and gestured animatedly.
"See! That's why you would make such a great teacher!"
The blonde simply laughed in response and led them through the barroom to a short hallway half-hidden by the piano. A door at the end opened onto a narrow outside passage, with separate privies marked for men and women on the right. The passage was closed at the end by a tall plywood gate, and Willow's eyes widened in wonder as she followed Tara through the door into the yard.
The area spanned the width of the saloon, and stretched out for a full acre, bordered on all sides by a split-rail fence, which was lined with yucca shrubs. They stood on a brick patio, and Willow noted the water pump, washtub, work table, and drying lines, but her eyes were drawn to the wonder beyond.
Willow's discerning gaze followed the walkway of sun bleached river pebbles winding its way through a garden of grasses and vibrant plants. A lovingly tended herb garden lay just off the patio in a small corner on the left, a larger section of root vegetables on the right. Beyond them, a low hedge of wild currant shrubs on either side of the path separated the practical from the decorative. Willow turned to smile at Tara with questioning eyes and the blonde nodded, taking Willow's arm and leading her down the path.
Green eyes took in each plant, silently identifying them as she passed: wild sweetpea, sunflower, tickclover, dayflower. The pebble path forked on either side, the right and left branches each leading to stocky wooden benches nestled amongst the flowers. Tara led her straight ahead, through another gate in a low stone wall almost obscured by blackberry bushes. On the other side, a grove of a dozen apple trees was nestled amongst the buffalo grass to the left of the walkway, which ended at a shed made of sod. Willow turned to look at Tara, but her eyes stopped on a wooden cross planted in the clearing to the right of the path, near the convergence of the stone wall and rail fence. Tara let her gaze follow the redhead's and smiled sadly.
"That's my mom," she whispered.
Willow let her hand slip down Tara's arm to entwine their fingers together. They stood in silence for several moments, only the twittering of sparrows marking the passage of time. Tara squeezed the slender fingers holding hers, and gestured to the sod building.
"That's where Dad and Donnie lived that first winter...me too, I guess. Donnie was so young, but he swears he remembers it, how cold it was. He never comes back here. I don't know why Daddy never tore it down, but I...it makes me feel closer to her. I use it for canning. I think she'd like it here."
"It's beautiful," Willow concurred, feeling at once very peaceful, yet sad that her own parents lay far away in a paupers' cemetery. She hastily shook off the thought and pointed to the purple and yellow flowers growing next to the grave.
"I don't recognize that."
"That's my favorite," Tara smiled. "Willowleaf aster."
Willow's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.
"Are you alright, Will? Should I not have-"
"No! I'm glad you brought me here. I can see why you wouldn't want to leave," the redhead said, her brow crinkling as she looked down at her feet.
Tara opened and closed her mouth several times before pursing her lips and scrutinizing the redhead, who avoided her eyes.
"Will...what's going on? You've brought up me leaving Dusty Hollow on several occasions now."
Willow tried to shrug off the issue, but her relentless hand wringing belied her calm.
"I just want what's best for you," she said, finally meeting Tara's eyes.
"You don't get to decide what's best for me, Will," she replied, her exasperation evident. "Not you, not Donnie. I can make my own choices...even if I am just a woman."
Willow flinched as if struck under the harsh words. She understood only too well the anger behind them, and berated herself for causing that anger.
"Tara, no. I didn't mean anything like that!"
"Then what? I know you and Donnie are planning something. If it concerns me, I want to know what it is."
Willow cringed under the piercing blue stare. Tara stood defiantly, hands on her hips, arching one eyebrow. Willow blew out the breath she was holding.
"Donnie and I are playing poker tonight. We're going to win back everything the Sheriff's taken from him...even if we have to cheat." Technically that's the truth...just cause I left out a lot.
Willow bowed her head in an attempt to appear contrite, and after a moment Tara's expression softened to one of concern.
"Will, do you realize how dangerous that is? I love him, but Donnie's not much of a card player...and if he drinks-"
"Ah, but that's where you come in," Willow improvised, placing her hand at the small of Tara's back and leading them back to the waiting laundry. "You'll be watering down mine and Donnie's drinks. If you want to, of course! Your choice. Entirely your decision."
Tara spun to face Willow and narrowed her eyes, but Willow could see the mirth dancing within.
"So you want me to be a part of your evil scheme?"
The blonde stepped closer, standing toe-to-toe with Willow, who was only able to nod her assent. Tara's grin faded as she realized where she stood, how near the redhead's mouth was to hers, the pink lips slightly parted. Her head inched forward, seemingly of its own volition, but she stopped short at the worried look on the redhead's face and opened her mouth to question the cause.
Willow was emotionally warring with herself. Her conscience was screaming ‘don't kiss her!' while her body and heart were pleading for her to give in. She sighed in resignation and stepped back.
Tara hid behind her hair, furious with herself for being so forward.
I have got to stop taking advice from Anya.
Willow swore under her breath at seeing Tara close herself off, knowing her actions were the reason. She raised her hand to gently tuck several strands of blonde hair behind Tara's ear, letting her fingertips linger over the woman's silky cheek.
"Laundry," Tara agreed.
Hours later, as the sun sat low on the horizon, Willow fidgeted in the back room of the saloon. The rest of the afternoon had passed pleasantly. Tara had washed while Willow worked the wringer and together they had hung the clothing on the lines to dry in the autumn breeze. Chagrined by her earlier reticence and its effect on Tara, Willow did not shy away from the exchange of flirtatious glances and innocent brushes of fingertips while tending to their task. Still, she was thankful when Donnie returned, rendering any further intimacy unthinkable, especially after he informed them both of the letter Faith had slipped him, laying out the Mayor's plan to acquire the Maclay land.
Willow and Donnie had spent several hours working out a system, and Donnie had explained all he knew of Warren's style of play. She knew she had to remain alert, but the twelve cups of coffee she'd drank for that reason had turned her into a twitching mass of nerves. She stood to try to compose herself for the arrival of the others, and jerked violently when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"Tara! You startled me!"
"Uh huh. No more coffee for you, mister," the blonde winked, distributing shot glasses on the shelf surrounding the room. She set a bottle next to each glass, and indicated the one nearest to the redhead.
"It's mostly water. So's that one," she pointed to another. "That's where Donnie sits."
Willow nodded and picked up her bottle with a shaky hand. The barmaid shook her head and took it, pouring a modest amount of liquid into the glass. Willow downed it in one gulp and set the glass back on the shelf, her hand noticeably steadier. Tara refilled it and set the bottle down.
"Not really, but thanks," Willow replied. "I've got bats."
Tara frowned and looked up at the ceiling. Willow couldn't help but smile when confused eyes returned to meet hers.
"In my belly. Like butterflies? Only...bats."
"That sounds serious," Tara said.
"I'll be okay, I just need to relax, I th-"
Willow's words were swallowed by Tara's mouth pressing firmly against her own. All thought of her deception melted away as their lips slid wetly over each other, and she circled Tara's waist with her arms, drawing their bodies into a snug embrace. They parted, hearts racing, and laid their foreheads together.
"Relaxed?" Tara asked, her voice low and raspy.
"Not even remotely," Willow grinned, slowly easing her hands around to Tara's hips before reluctantly letting go.
The curtain parted and the pair stepped away from each other, twin blushes dotting their cheeks. Donnie scampered around the table, followed by Andrew, Spike, Ethan, and Warren.
"What's he doing here?" the Sheriff demanded.
"I invited him," Donnie replied.
"Sorry, kid. The table's full."
Willow looked at Donnie, but the young man shifted uneasily on his feet and made no response.
"You know, it has been rather a long day," Preacher Rayne smoothly interjected. "I think I'll sit this one out. Let the boy take my place."
Willow gawked at Rayne, who smirked back, one eyebrow arched in amusement. Warren sneered, but remembering what Jonathan had told him about the redhead's roll of cash, decided to acquiesce. He nodded, and Willow took her seat, directly facing the Sheriff. Before the other men could take their places, however, Warren raised his hand. His dark eyes bored into Willow's.
"Donnie, switch places with Andrew," he said. "Unless you have a problem with that."
Donnie looked forlornly from the bottles to Willow, who shot him a warning look. The young man shuffled uneasily to his assigned seat. Once they were all settled, Spike drew an unopened deck of cards from his breast pocket and broke the seal. Warren continued to stare at Willow.
"Ante up, gentlemen."