Ezra frowned at Marina. Or rather, he looked down at her hand, which was clutching his arm, and frowned at it. His wife wore a pink gingham dress with white cotton eyelet trim. Knowing most of the men-folk present would be wearing black or brown, Ezra had deliberately chosen to wear his best red coat. He stood out from the others, a cardinal amongst crows and sparrows.

Perhaps, however, he should've encouraged Marina to purchase a gown more befitting her position as his wife. Comparing his broadcloth coat with her cotton dress, he could not help being reminded of King Cophetua and the beggar-maid.

Ezra looked around. He saw Inez Recillos in a red satin gown. They would've looked magnificent together, and the gambler envied Buck his place as her escort. He saw Mary Travis with Chris. The journalist wore her best silk gown – the lavender of half-mourning, trimmed with lace – and glanced again at Marina's pink gingham with cotton eyelet trim. Marina suffered by comparison: plain, skinny, carrot-haired. There was no way she could compete with either the exotic Señorita Recillos or the lovely Mrs. Travis. Not in dress, not in looks, and certainly not in his erotic daydreams.

Marina seemed blithely unaware of his disdain. "The music is quite gay, isn't it?"

Ezra turned his head to the musicians. Elisha Ward had his fiddle. One of Small's ranch hands – Ezra didn't know his name – had a guitar, and Zeke Carlin had a battered old fife, left over from his army days.

"Ladies and gentlemen, take yer partners fer the Virginia Reel," Ward called out loudly.

Marina looked up at her husband expectantly.

Ezra sighed. "Might as well get this over with," he muttered under his breath. He forced an insincere smile to his lips as he took her hand, but the smile did not reach his green eyes. If he hid his feelings as poorly playing cards as he did dancing with his wife, he would've been forced to abandon his career as a gambler and seek out honest work years ago.

oOo

"Miz Standish, I don't mean to complain, but it ain't good manners to ignore your partner and keep paying attention to the feller you'd rather be dancing with," Buck chided her gently.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Wilmington," she said contritely.

"Give him time, ma'am. Ezra may be hardheaded, but he's not stupid. He'll eventually realize what he has, and how lucky he is," Buck told her.

"It's sweet of you to say so, Mr. Wilmington," but her tone made it clear she didn't believe him.

"I told you, ma'am, my name's Buck," he reminded her.

oOo

"I don't see Nathan," Marina mentioned. "Where is he?"

"He don't come to the dances, ma'am. Some folks don't like him dancing with white women. Though they seem to forget the color of his skin when they need poulticing or patching up," Josiah added, not quite keeping the bitterness out of his voice. "He rode up to the Seminole village."

Marina frowned. She meant to save one dance for each of her "brothers-in-law." She glanced over at Ezra, who was dancing with Inez.

Josiah saw where she was looking. "Don't let him break your heart."

"I'm quite heart-whole," she lied.

oOo

Mary Travis glanced over at Marina Standish, who was dancing with JD, and stepping on his feet because she kept craning her neck to watch Ezra instead of what she was doing. "I feel so sorry for that woman."

"I'd feel sorry for JD, if I were you. He's the one getting his feet trampled," Chris replied, amused, as he whirled her around the room.

"Marina would stand on her head for a kind word from her husband, and he won't so much as give her the time of day," Mary said.

"Maybe she should've agreed to the annulment when the judge gave her the chance." Larabee waltzed gracefully with Mary, more interested in his partner than in the Standishes' marital problems.

"I still don't understand why Orin wouldn't give them an annulment when Ezra asked. I don't know much about the law, but under the circumstances I'd think they had grounds."

Larabee chuckled. "You're the reason."

"Me?"

"The judge didn't want Ezra as his grandson's stepfather. If Ezra's married to her, then he can't marry you."

Mary was so startled she missed her step in the dance. "He was afraid Ezra would propose to me?"

"There's not a man here wouldn't happily shoot me just for dancing with you. You're the prettiest woman in the territory, and every man with two good eyes knows it. And Ezra, he's got eyes like an eagle. Judge Travis was just trying to protect you," Larabee explained. He didn't bother to mention that his vision was also excellent.

Mary fell silent, mulling over Chris's theory. After a moment, she repeated, "I still feel sorry for her. You had Sarah, I had Steven. They don't even have each other."

Larabee thought a moment. "I have an idea." He whispered it in her ear, and Mary smiled.

oOo

Marina Standish danced with all of Larabee's men, and Bert Watson, and Yosemite. When the fiddler started playing a waltz again, Chris claimed her as a partner. The music started and he whirled her around the room.

Not too far away, Mary bobbed a curtsy to Ezra, and let the gambler take her in his arms.

"Be ready," Larabee whispered, steering them over by Ezra and Mary.

"Ready? Ready for what?" Marina asked him.

Chris just smiled, his hazel-green eyes twinkling mischievously.

Marina sighed when she saw they were next to her husband. Suddenly Larabee nodded at Mary. The journalist smiled back at him. Larabee released Marina, and gently shoved her toward Ezra. He took Mary in his arms. Marina didn't quite throw herself at her husband, but before the southerner knew what was happening, he found himself dancing with his wife.

Larabee grinned at the Standishes. Ezra was too much of a gentleman to abandon a lady in the middle of the dance floor, but the dismay was plain on his handsome visage. Marina had a satisfied smile on her face.

Mary whispered, "She looks like a cat who found cream in her dish instead of milk."

"Uh-huh," Larabee agreed. "And Ezra looks like a cat who found the milk in his bowl has curdled."

oOo

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To be continued in "For Better or for Worse"…