Author's Note: a continuation has occurred to me. Thanks to fictorium for the beta reading.
Regina sent Grace to the kitchen with a quiet word against the girl's hair before she turned around to gesture her guest into the parlor. "Miss Swan?" She saw the woman had stopped in the foyer studying the large gilt edged mirror. She answered the unspoken question. "I find the men will straighten themselves a bit, as if courting the lady. It enforces the respect I expect to be given in my establishment."
Emma removed her bandanna from around her throat and used it to dab at her cheeks, removing some trail dust. Apparently satisfied with the effort, the woman tucked the brown cloth into her jeans pocket. "Where is your usual muscle? I find it hard to believe-"
"This may be Jameson's town but I have been here just as long."
"No need to get your back up. I'm just surprised is all."
"No more than I at your appearance." Regina opened a cabinet and withdrew a long necked bottle filled with amber liquid. Two glasses were poured.
"What would you have done if I hadn't come along?" Emma accepted one of the glasses, her fingers just brushing those of the madam.
"I still had a few options." Regina considered the Widow Lucas who ran the diner and boarding house since her husband's death in the range war. The woman could fell a beast at a hundred paces; but Regina had to admit the widow had not been among the townspeople assembled at her doorstep.
Emma said nothing, and Regina looked up from her thoughts to see gold-flecked green eyes studying Regina over the rim of the glass. "You consider your protection the fact that you offer a service most men wouldn't want to see gone." It wasn't a question.
Regina bristled. "I don't allow my girls or my clients to be maligned, Miss Swan."
"I didn't say you did. Just, you didn't have a lot of options before I came along." Emma finished the glass and held it toward Regina with a lift of her brow.
Regina took the glass and refilled it. "Are you fishing for a compliment? I didn't think you were the type."
"Nah. Compliments are worthless. I was just noticing a few things." Emma shrugged. "I like to know the lay of the land."
The double entendre was not lost on Regina. "You are uncouth."
"I'd say you are as well. But you hide it prettily," Emma stepped into Regina's personal space. Their gazes held for a long breath before Emma took back her glass from Regina's hand, again brushing the woman's olive skin. "Thanks for the drink, Madam."
"My name is Regina Mills, not Madam."
"I didn't say it wasn't, but thank you. I much prefer Regina."
"Miss Swan." Emma Swan simply smirked as Regina made a point of the more formal address. Regina frowned and decided to try another tack. "What brought you here, Miss Swan?"
"I'm hunting someone," Emma replied simply, an answer, yet not. The blonde was private, that much was clear.
Regina sipped her cider, pleased with the warm confidence it provided. "That sounds like self-appointed justice."
"It's self-appointed," Emma replied. She tossed back the final swallow of cider, smacking her lips appreciatively. "Thank you for the drink, Regina. I should be seeing to my Bug."
"You have a horse?" Regina hadn't seen a horse outside. "Where is it?"
"Most people who travel do." Emma chuckled. "I'm sure he found his way to the livery. So I'm gonna go handle that."
Regina watched Emma place the glass on a table and turn away. She thought of Jameson possibly out there looking to avenge his humiliation, and said quickly, "Be careful." What the hell am I doing? Regina thought. The blonde was no one of importance. She would be moving along soon, and her arrival and departure would be quickly forgotten, by everyone.
Emma paused with her hand on the doorknob, the door still closed. A smile twitched on her lips as her face turned in profile. She nodded. "You're very welcome, Regina Mills."
Regina stood, cider glass in hand but untouched, for many minutes in the silence following the latch of the door snicking securely into place. She stared at the knob and wondered why she felt so bereft.
The walk to the livery was easy, just following her nose. Emma was glad she didn't need to think too hard about that. She was too on her guard after leaving the brothel. She'd been touched at the concern by the mad- Regina, telling her to be safe though she didn't need the reminder. Emma had been on the receiving end of face-saving revenge a time or two in the past.
Eyes looked at her from behind curtains in windows, some plain, some frilly. If everyone hadn't been at the brothel to see the confrontation, clearly they had all heard about it. Emma sometimes wished she'd had plainer looks, dark hair instead of blonde, and she could have used a wool dye to cover it up, or cut it shorter, but for her objective, looking exactly like herself was important. When she found them, she intended for them to know her at first sight.
Confidence slipped back into her stride as she rounded the corner of a silent blacksmith's shop and stood in front of the closed doors of the town livery. In reality a big barn, the livery was brightly painted in red, proudly announcing Book's Pass Livery on the sign overhead. So now she had a town name.
The structure was well-kept, a good sign pointing toward the animals being well-treated inside. To the left of the livery stood a small building about double the size of an outhouse but it looked cheerful, also painted red, sporting a tiny porch shading a door and single window. No light on in the window.
Emma walked around to the right side of the livery, headed toward the stalls that emptied out onto the fenced paddock. The quiet thumps of hoofbeats against dirt grew louder. Finally she could see moonlight illuminated her golden Bug, prancing in the paddock and circling a bay mare. Not disturbing the scene for a moment, Emma laid her head on her arms across the top of the paddock fence, watching her horse ply his wiles on the delicately boned bay which was, to all appearances, a truly fine piece of horseflesh.
Bug danced toward the bay, who lifted her slender head from cropping at the grass. When she saw him, he danced backward and to the side, tossing his head. Emma smiled. Playboy, she thought warmly.
The bay stretched a foreleg forward toward Bug, shifting her weight, but then dropped her nose back into the grass. Emma watched Bug stop dancing and his head lifted, as though he was surprised. Emma laughed.
The sound brought both horses' heads swiveling around to find her. "Ah, Bug," she said, finishing with another chuckle as she climbed to the top of the paddock fence and threw a leg over. "C'mere." She patted the thick denim covering her thigh.
The golden horse trotted to her. She patted his withers and wondered aloud, "Who took off your saddle and my bags, eh, boy?"
Emma turned as the bay nosed in front of Bug to scent her. The move would have knocked Emma from the fence if not for her quick reflexes in grabbing the wood slat between her thighs.
Emerging from the shadows was a slender woman, dark brunette, younger than Emma, brown eyes. She wore a bright red bandanna around her neck and dark blue denim coveralls cut off above the knees.
Emma swung down into the paddock, straightening to meet the woman striding toward her. Emma held out her hand. "My thanks, then. What do I owe you for the tendin'?"
"You're that woman the town's talkin' 'bout from Miss Regina's place."
Emma nodded. "I s'pose."
"What's your name?"
"Swan. And you? You own this place?"
"Name's Ruby. My grandmother owns the livery."
"So, Ruby," Emma stepped closer, enjoying the way the younger woman smiled while absently petting the bay who'd come up to them both. Bug nosed into Emma's other side and she held his nose, keeping it from exploring inside her shirt. "What do you I owe you for taking care of Bug here for me?"
"Depends?" Emma's smile broadened. "On what?"
"On whether you're staying or just passing through."
"Why's that matter?"
"Passing through pays. Staying," she gestured at a big two-story house on the far side of the paddock, "at the boarding house gets free livery."
"You get many takers on that offer?" Emma asked, bemused.
"Don't get many visitors."
"Show me where you stowed my saddlebags and I'll pay for a week upfront. How's that sound?"
"Right this way." Ruby turned around and walked into the open stall from where she'd come. The bay followed her, and Bug followed the bay. Emma shook her head and followed the trio, a smile playing on her lips.