When Ezra got downstairs, he called Buck over to the bar. "Buck, let me buy you a drink. I need to talk to you."

"Ezra treating? He's got something up his sleeve," Chris Larabee warned.

Buck accepted the whisky. He drank half of it before asking, "What is it?"

"You have a certain knack with the ladies."

Buck nodded and took another sip of whisky.

"I'll pay you $200 to seduce my wife."

Buck spit out his whisky. "What?"

"I'll pay you $200 to seduce my wife," Ezra repeated.

"I've had men threaten me for not leaving their wives alone, but never offer to pay me to go after 'em."

"Three hundred dollars."

"Why?" Buck wondered.

"The judge won't annul the marriage. But if she commits adultery, then I'll have grounds for divorcing her, or else she'll divorce me because she wants out."

Buck laughed in his face. "You've only been gone a week. You can't have been married more'n a few days, and already you want a divorce?"

"Annulment, divorce, whatever it takes to regain my freedom."

"Why on Earth did you marry her, then?"

"Her next of kin thought I compromised her," Ezra admitted.

"Hey, Chris, come over here. You gotta hear this," Buck called.

Ezra poured himself another shot of whisky.

MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ~*~*~ MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ~*~*~ MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

"Mr. and Mrs. Standish, how nice to see you," the judge greeted them at the restaurant door. "You've met my wife, haven't you, Ezra? My dear, may I introduce Mrs. Standish?"

As the two ladies greeted each other, the judge drew Ezra aside. "I've been hearing some disquieting rumors from the saloon."

"You should never listen to barroom gossip, sir."

"If you don't treat that lady properly, you'll answer to me. Understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"That which God hath joined together, let no man put asunder," Judge Travis quoted. "Shall we go join the ladies?"

MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ~*~*~ MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ~*~*~ MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

After a somewhat strained dinner, Ezra walked Marina back to the saloon, leading her up the outer stairs to the top floor. "I don't want you going through the saloon. Always use the outside stairs."

"Yes, Ezra."

"If you want a husband to sit and read to you in the evenings while you knit, you'll be sadly disappointed. I have a business to run and evenings are my busy time."

"Yes, Ezra. I understand."

"Don't bother waiting up for me."

"Good night, Ezra," she said as he left her at her doorway.

Feeling guilty, he stopped at the head of the stairs and said, "Good night, Marina."

Downstairs, Ezra helped himself to a whisky. He'd been thinking and thinking, and he still couldn't find a way out of this mess. Judge Travis had made it quite clear that he could not only expect to maintain his marital status, but that he was to be downright uxorious. He poured another whisky. Maybe the alcohol would help him think.

What was he going to do with a wife? Especially a respectable maiden lady? The last time he'd bedded a virgin he'd been seventeen. He had long since learned to prefer the company of professional ladies, who regarded the situation as a matter of friendly commerce, or willing wives and widows who knew the rules the game was played by. He poured another whisky. Perhaps some Dutch courage.

MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ~*~*~ MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ~*~*~ MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

Two hours later, Josiah Sanchez carried Ezra's unconscious body upstairs.

Marina poked her head out the door. "Ezra?"

"He had a little bit too much, ma'am," Josiah explained unnecessarily.

"I see. Bring him in here."

Josiah hesitated. He knew perfectly well that Ezra's room was the next door over. Then he shrugged and followed her directions.

"Just lay him on the bed. I'll take care of him."

"Yes, ma'am." Josiah politely averted his eyes away from her, dressed only in a flannel nightgown. Her bedroom had been scoured clean since that afternoon. A handful of wildflowers sat in a glass of water on the table, next to her sewing. "You sure you don't want any help getting his boots off?"

"I'll manage. Thank you, Mr. Sanchez."

"Good night, Mrs. Standish."

MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ~*~*~ MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ~*~*~ MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

Ezra awoke the next morning, stark naked and in a strange bed. Disoriented, he sat up, and instantly regretted his action.

"Drink this," a vaguely familiar voice urged him.

There was a cup at his lip. He drank, then pushed it away. "That's horrible. Coffee. I need coffee."

"After you drink this."

His green eyes focused enough to see Rina bending over him. "What is it?"

"Something my cousins and stepbrothers swore by when they were hung over. You'd probably be happier not knowing what's in it," she advised. "Force it down."

He took the cup and gulped the foul mess. "That's terrible."

"Yes, but it works. Would you like some coffee now?"

"Please." He looked around and realized he was in her bedroom. "Where are my clothes?" he asked suspiciously.

"Already washed and hanging on the line. I brought a change of clothes for you from the other room."

"Would you mind leaving the room for a minute, or at least turning around whilst I don fresh attire?"

"After last night, is such modesty necessary?" she asked.

"Last night? Did we..."

She nodded mendaciously.

Ezra groaned. So much for an annulment. "Would you be kind enough to get me a cup of coffee? Better yet, just bring the pot."

"Of course, Ezra. I take it you don't want any breakfast yet?"

He shook his head. "I doubt I could keep it down. Perhaps later, thank you."

"I can have flapjacks ready as soon as you want,"she offered.

"I don't suppose you could manage omelettes?" he asked wistfully.

"Of course, Ezra, if you prefer."

He looked up at her, for the first time with a spark of interest in his eyes. "Coffee now, please, and omelettes in about an hour."

"Yes, Ezra." She hurried to obey him, knowing all he really wanted was some privacy to get dressed. She smiled as she went down to the kitchen. Her fib should save a lot of argument tonight. She hadn't lived with the Henshaws for thirteen years without learning how to get her way. And if it took French cooking and fibs to keep the man Providence had given her, then those were the tools she would use. Anything - even being married to a handsome stranger - was better than going back to the Henshaws.

And if the two of them didn't live happily ever after, it wouldn't be for lack of trying on her part.