Isabella finds herself with a job, a home, and what might be a reason to stop running all in a very short time.
Note: This is the first story in a series.
Isabella rides into Temptation Valley in the early hours of the morning on the back of a bay mare that isn’t hers.
Sitting straight up in the saddle, Isabella doesn’t let any of the worry that she feels show on her face. She guides the mare forward with a quiet click of her tongue, directing the horse towards the biggest building on the town’s dusty main street – a building with a hand-painted sign at the front of it that says Temptation Valley Inn in faded paint.
Isabella gets off of the tired mare when they get close enough to the hitching post and water trough in front of the inn, booted feet stamping down into the dirt hard enough to raise tiny clouds of dust around her legs. She lashes the horse to the post quickly, fingers working to tie a knot that would be hard for anyone to undo and then combs her fingers through the horse’s tangled mane.
“You’d better be here when I get back,” Isabella says to the horse, wagging her finger in a stern way. Despite the fact that the town seems all but deserted, Isabella grabs her pack off of the mare’s broad back and slings it over her shoulder. After all, she knows from experience how easy-going the horse in front of her is. If someone else wants to steal her, well –
At least Isabella won’t lose anything besides a good horse.
The wind kicks up as Isabella walks up to the inn’s worn wooden stairs and all but tears her hair out of the loose braid she’s kept it in since heading north with all of Julio Perez’s gold in a satchel and his best mare underneath her backside. Black hair whips around Isabella’s face, inky strands smacking her in the face as she approaches the inn and she reaches up to tuck the stray hairs behind one ear as she approaches the inn’s door.
The door swings open before Isabella can even touch it, pale light spilling out into the murky pre-dawn darkness as a short woman bustles out and takes Isabella’s pack right out of her hand. With her other hand, the woman grabs for Isabella and hauls her into the brightly lit inn. All of that doesn’t take more than a minute and Isabella finds herself blinking against the brightness, her free hand coming up to shield her eyes.
The woman who Isabella assumes is the inn’s owner beams up at Isabella. She’s an older woman, probably as old as Isabella’s mother would’ve been if not for the Perez family’s cruelty, with pale brown skin, black hair shot through with silvery-gray strands, and dark eyes that seem to see through Isabella to her core. She may be old, but she isn’t weak. The woman holds fast to Isabella’s hand and the pack too, resisting all of Isabella’s subtler attempts at escape.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” the older woman says with a smile.
Isabella’s heart just about leaps into her throat.
That’s not good. No one knew where she was going when she left Juarez. No one from there knew anything about her.
Fear spikes through her chest and she wavers, instantly feeling a bit like fainting like the women in the books that her mother and aunt taught her to read by.
“Excuse me?” It takes Isabella a few minutes but she eventually manages to collect herself enough to speak. “You’ve been waiting for me? Why?” She doesn’t ask what she really wants to know, doesn’t ask if this whole thing is a set up courtesy of Julio Perez’s long reach and complete disregard for the law. The words vibrate on the tip of her tongue, but Isabella doesn’t let them escape.
The older woman smiles and shakes her head as if Isabella’s confusion is somehow charming.
“My daughter’s the sheriff ’round here and she put out word that we needed a new sheriff’s deputy three weeks ago,” the woman says. “And here you come riding into town with a pistol on your hip? The second that you passed by Miss Lawton’s farm on the west side of town by the river, we knew you were here.”
Isabella’s nose wrinkles with a frown. “I’m not — I didn’t –”
“Oh! Where are my manners,” the woman says, once again forging ahead in her conversation. “You must be tired from ridin’ all night long. I’m Maria Andrade and I own this here inn. I assume that you’ll be sleeping here until we can get you settled. Do you need a stable for your horse? And what on earth is your name, young woman?”
“I, um – ” Isabella glances back at the door as if willing it to swing open on its own. “I’m Isabella, ma’am. Isabella Pulido” She pauses, brow furrowing as she realizes that this woman is the first person to hear her real name in at least two months. “And you say your daughter’s the sheriff?”
Somehow, Maria’s smile gets even wider.
“It’ll be five years this summer,” she says. “My girl’s new at this, but she’s a good sheriff. She learned from her daddy when he was alive and took over from him the second that old man passed away.” Maria pats Isabella’s left arm, the arm that always aches when it rains thanks to an old injury. “Come on now, I’ll take you to your room. I’ll have my son take your horse out back to the stables so you can sleep.”
She glances at Isabella one more time, her smile softening at whatever look she sees on Isabella’s face. “I have a feeling that you’re just what Temptation Valley needs.”
When Isabella wakes up, there’s a moment where she has no earthly idea where she is. She bolts up from bed with the last foggy bits of a nightmare clinging to her brain like cobwebs, mouth dry from fear. The last thing that she can remember is the way that Julio looked at her from over the top of Carolina’s coffin, the way his hand gripped at her forearm until it felt like she would start to cry from the pain in her arm as well as in her heart.
A hard knock on the door is the only warning that Isabella gets.
She clutches the threadbare blanket up to her chest just in time for the door to burst open and for a tall woman with dark brown skin and black hair done up in a multitude of tiny braids to come barreling into her room.
“Get dressed,” the woman says with an imperious note in her low voice. “We’ve got a situation out by the Thompson’s farm and I’m going to need all the help that I can get. The littlest Thompson has locked herself up in the attic again and she’s refusin’ to come out unless we take her seriously.” She drops a bundle of clothes at the foot of the bed and then steps back, expectation simmering in the air around them. “Well?”
Isabella rolls her eyes.
“Well nothing,” she snaps without so much as glancing at the clothes piled up next to her feet. “Who the hell do you think you are – coming to my room in the middle of the morning and demanding that I go anywhere with you! Why, I oughta –”
The very second that Isabella notices the shiny gold star pinned prominently on the chest of the woman in front of her, her mouth dries out in a flash. She stares at the woman in front of her, mouth opening and closing on end as she tries to put the words together that she wants to say.
“You must be the sheriff,” Isabella says eventually.
That gets her a brief smile, white teeth gleaming against the warm brown backdrop of the sheriff’s face.
“Alexandra Andrade at your service,” she says. “And you’re Isabella, my new deputy. I know you’ve only just gotten to town, but if you could get dressed sometime this year, I’d appreciate it.” Alexandra’s gaze shifts, sliding along the length of Isabella’s mostly bare body from the sleep-rumpled braids in her hair down to where the sheet barely covers her breasts.
The sudden heat in her eyes makes Isabella flush and clutch the sheet harder to her chest.
“Leave first,” Isabella blurts out. “You can’t expect me to get dressed with you staring at me like this. I only just met you!” She stares at Alexandra with wide eyes until the other woman takes the hint and walks out, leaving Isabella behind with the beginnings of a headache throbbing behind her eyes and the urge to climb right out of the window located on the far side of the room and head for the nearest town.
But it’s been a long time since Isabella’s seen any legitimate work and she could use the money until she can get somewhere busy enough that trading in the stolen gold coins from Julio Perez’s stash of blood money won’t raise any eyes. She kind of has to go along with this and hope that no one comes looking for her here.
Huffing, Isabella hefts herself out of bed and snatches up the pile of clothes on her way to the water closet. She makes short work of her morning ablutions but by the time she comes out dressed in her new clothes, Alexandra is back in her room. The sheriff sits on Isabella’s bed as if she owns it, long legs stretched out in front of her as thin brown fingers slide over the carved ivory inlay on Isabella’s pistol.
“Nice gun,” Alexandra says without looking up. “Where’d you get it from?”
Isabella shrugs, mind racing as she tries to figure out a way to answer the question that won’t see her in lockup by the end of the day. She busies herself with braiding her hair properly, yanking her curls into some semblance of submission while avoiding Alexandra’s pale brown gaze.
“It was a gift,” Isabella says eventually. “I had a friend back home that got it from one of those traveling carnivals. I never asked for more an explanation besides that.”
When Isabella holds her hand out for her pistol, Alexandra gives it back to her without saying anything or poking any holes in her story. The weight of the gun in the holster clipped to Isabella’s new gun belt is more calming than it has any right to be and she finds herself sliding her fingers over the outside stamped leather holster.
Alexandra clears her throat.
“You won’t need the gun today,” she says quietly. “I’ll let you walk with it this time because we’re playing a part, but for most of the situations here in Temptation, a gun’ll do more harm than good.”
Isabella frowns. “But you’re the sheriff,” she says.
“And I’ve found that people get even angrier when they come face to face with a gun,” Alexandra points out. She gets to her feet easily, tugging at the sleeves of her off-white shirt with a pinched frown on her sharp face that has no business looking so endearing. “In the fall when we have traders comin’ in from all parts, then we might need our guns but I can’t remember the last time that I had to use my gun in Temptation.”
That doesn’t sound too bad, Isabella thinks.
“But what about horse thieves and runaways,” Isabella catches herself saying. “How do you deal with those?”
Alexandra gives her a look.
Narrow-eyed with the sort of searching heat that makes Isabella feel like she’s on her way to turning as red as a tomato, the look on Alexandra’s face sears Isabella to the core. The sheriff opens her mouth as if ready to deliver some sort of speech that’ll turn both their worlds on end, but then shakes her head.
“You know what, Isabella,” Alexandra says. “I can’t say that we’ve had much experience with those types around here, but I think I’ll be able to handle them if they come.”