12,808
23.12.2018

"Where's Redman?"

Panic came first, and it showed in her wide, wild eyes. She was still holding the skillet, and she had one mad thought of heaving it at his head. But his hand was curled over the butt of his gun. She saw in his eyes what she had never seen in Jake's, what she realized she'd never seen in any man's, not even in those of the Apache who had kidnapped her. A desire, even an eagerness, to kill.

He stepped inside, and through the thickness of his beard she saw that he was smiling. "I asked you, Where's Redman?"

"He's not here." It surprised her how calm a voice could sound even when a heart was pounding. She had a man to protect. The man she loved. "I don't believe I asked you in."

His smile widened into a grin. "You ain't going to tell me he brought you all the way out here last night and then left a pretty thing like you all alone?"

She was terrified Jake would come back. And terrified he wouldn't. She had no choice but to hold her ground. "I'm not telling you anything. But as you can see, I'm alone."

"I can see that, real plain. Funny, 'cause his horse is in town and he ain't." He picked up a biscuit from the bowl on the table with his wide, blunt-edged fingers, studied it, then bit in. "Word is he spends time out here."

"Mr. Redman occasionally visits. I'll be sure to tell him you were looking for him, if and when I see him." "You do that. You be sure and do that." He took another bite, chewing slowly, watching her.

"Good day, then."

But he didn't leave. He only walked closer.

"You're prettier than I recollect."

She moistened her lips, knowing they were trembling.

"I don't believe we've met."

"No, but I've seen you." She strained backward when he put a hand to her hair. "You don't favor your pa none."

"You'll have to excuse me." She tried to step to the side, but he blocked her.

"He sure did set some store by you. A man can see why." He pushed the rest of the biscuit into his mouth, chewing as he reached down to toy with the small bow at her collar. "Too bad he got himself killed over that mine and left you orphaned. Smart man would've kept himself alive. Smart man would've seen the sense in that."

She shifted again, and was again blocked. "He could hardly be blamed for an accident."

"Maybe we'll talk about that later." Enjoying her trembling, he tugged the little bow loose. "You look smarter than your pa was."

Lafitte burst in, snarling. Donley had his hand on the butt of his gun when Sarah grabbed his arm. "No, please. He's hardly more than a puppy." Moving quickly, she gathered the growling dog up. "There's no need for you to hurt him. He's harmless."

"Donley likes killing harmless things." Jake spoke from the doorway. The men stood ten feet apart, Jake backed by sun, Donley by shadow. "There was a man in Laramie-more of a boy, really. Daniel Little Deer was harmless, wasn't he, Donley?"

"He was a breed." Donley's teeth gleamed through his beard. "I don't think no more of killing a breed than a sick horse."

"And it's easier when it's back-shooting."

"I ain't shooting at your back, Redman."

"Move aside, Sarah."

"Jake, please-"

"Move aside." He was over the sick fear he'd felt when he'd seen Donley's horse outside the house. He was cold, killing-cold. His guns hung low on his hips, and his hands were limber and ready.

Donley shifted, settling his weight evenly. "I've waited a long time for this."

"Some of us get lucky," Jake murmured, "and wait a long time to die."

"When I've killed you, I'm going to have the woman, and the gold." His hand slapped the butt of his gun. The.44 was aimed heart-high. He was fast.

The sound of a gunshot exploded, ripping through the still morning air. Sarah watched in horror as Donley stumbled, forward, then back. A red stain spread across his shirt and his leather vest before he fell by the stone hearth and lay still.

Jake stood in the doorway, his face expressionless, his mind calm and cold. He'd never once felt the rush some men spoke of that came from killing. To him it was neither power nor curse. It was survival.

"Oh, God." Pressed back against the wall, Sarah stared. Lafitte leaped out of her limp arms to crouch, growling, by Donley's gun hand. Her vision grayed, wavered, then snapped back when Jake gripped her arms.

"Did he hurt you?"

"No, I-"

"Get outside."

Hysteria bubbled up in her throat. A man was dead, lying dead on her floor, and the one holding her looked like a stranger. "Jake-" "Get outside," he repeated, doing his best to shield her from the man he'd killed. "Go on into the shed or down to the stream." When she only continued to stare, he pulled her to the door and shoved her out. "Do what I tell you."

"What-what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to take him into town."

Giving in to weakness, she leaned on the rail, dragging in gulps of the hot, dusty air as though it were water. "What will they do to you? You killed him." "Barker'll take me at my word. Or he'll hang me." "No, but-" Nausea was churning now, coating her skin with a thin, clammy sweat. "He wanted to kill you. He came looking for you."

"That's right." He took both her arms again because he wanted her to look at him, really look. "And tomorrow, next week, next month, there'll be someone else who comes looking for me. I got fast hands, Sarah, and somebody's always going to want to prove they got faster. One day they'll be right."

"You can change. It can change. It has to." She struggled out of his hold, only to throw her arms around him. "You can't want to live this way."

"What I want and what is have always been two different things." He pushed her away. "I care about you." It was easy to mean it, hard to say it. "That's why I'm telling you to walk away."

He'd just killed a man in front of her eyes. And killed him coldly. Even through her horror she'd seen that. But it hadn't left him untouched. What she saw now was the frustration and anger of a man caught in a trap. He needed someone to offer him a way out, or at least the hope of one. If she could do nothing else, she could give him hope.

"No." She stepped forward to frame his face with her hands. "I can't. I won't."

Her hands were trembling. Cold and trembling, he thought as he reached for them. "You're a damn fool."

"Yes. I'm quite sure you're right. But I love you." He couldn't have begun to tell her what it did to him inside when she said that. When he looked into her eyes and saw that she meant it. He pulled her against him for a rough, hungry kiss. "Go away from the house. I don't want you here when I bring him out."

She nodded, took a long breath and stepped back. The sickness had passed, though the raw feeling inside remained. "Once I was sure there was only right and wrong, and that to kill another person was the greatest wrong. But there isn't only right and wrong, Jake. What you did, what you had to do, kept you alive. There's nothing more important to me than that." She paused and touched his hand. "Come back."

He watched her, as he had watched her once before, start up the rise to her father's grave. When she was gone, he went back inside.

Two days passed, and Sarah tried to follow her daily routine and not to wonder why Jake hadn't ridden back to her. It seemed everyone else had paid her a visit, but not Jake. Barker had come out and, in his usual take-your-time way, questioned her about Burt Donley. It seemed no more than a token investigation to Sarah. Barker, either because he was lazy or because he was a shrewd judge of character, had taken Jake at his word.

The story had spread quickly. Soon after Barker, Liza and Johnny had driven up to hear the details and eat oatmeal cookies. Before she had left, Liza had chased Johnny outside to pester Lucius so that she could spend an hour talking about Will and her upcoming wedding. She was to have a new dress, and she had already ordered the pink silk and the pattern from Santa Fe.

The following morning, the sound of a rider approaching had Sarah rushing out of the chicken coop, eggs banging dangerously against each other in the basket she carried. She struggled to mask her disappointment when she saw Samuel Carlson.

"Sarah." He dismounted quickly, and would have taken her hand, but she used both to grip the handle of the basket. "I've been worried about you."

"There's no need." She smiled as he tied-his horse at the rail.

"I was shocked to learn that Donley and Redman had drawn guns right here in your house. It's a miracle you weren't injured."

"I'm sure I would have been if Jake hadn't come back when he did. Donley was…very threatening." "I feel responsible."

"You?" She stopped in front of the house.

"Why?"

"Donley worked for me. I knew what kind of man he was." There was a grimness around his eyes and mouth as he spoke. "I can't say I had any trouble with him until Redman came back to town."

"It was Donley who sought Jake out, Samuel." Her voice sharpened with the need to defend him. "It was he who deliberately provoked a fight. I was there." "Of course." He laid a soothing hand on her arm. Manners prevented him from stepping inside the house without an invitation. He was shrewd enough to see that something had changed, and that he wouldn't get one. "I detest the fact that you were forced to witness a killing, and in your own home. It must distress you to stay here now."

"No." She glanced over her shoulder. It had been difficult, the first time she had gone inside afterward.

There were still traces of dried blood in the dirt, the sight of which had given Johnny ghoulish pleasure.

But it was her home. "I'm not as frail as that."

"You're a strong woman, Sarah, but a sensitive one.

I'm concerned about you."

"It's kind of you to be. Your friendship is a great comfort to me."

"Sarah." He touched a gentle hand to her cheek. "You must realize that I want to be much more than your friend."

"I know." Regret was in her eyes, in her voice.

"It's not possible, Samuel. I'm sorry."

She saw the anger mar his face, and was surprised by the depth of it before he brought it under control again. "It's Redman, isn't it?"

She felt it would be dishonorable, and insulting, to lie to him. "Yes."

"I thought you were more sensible, Sarah. You're an intelligent, gently bred woman. You must understand that Redman is a dangerous man, a man without scruples. He lives by violence. It's part of him." She smiled a little. "He describes himself the same way. I believe you're both wrong."

"He'll only hurt you."

"Perhaps, but I can't change my feelings. Nor do I wish to." Regret had her reaching out to touch his arm. "I'm sorry, Samuel."

"I have faith that in time you'll get over this infatuation. I can be patient."

"Samuel, I don't-"

"Don't distress yourself." He patted her hand.

"Along with patience, I have confidence. You were meant to belong to me, Sarah." He stepped back to untie his horse. Inside, he was boiling with rage. He wanted this woman, and what belonged to her-and he intended to have them, one way or the other. When he turned to stand beside his mount with his reins in his hands, his face was touched only with affection and concern. "This doesn't change the fact that I worry about you, living out here all alone." "I'm not alone. I have Lucius."

Carlson cast a slow, meaningful look around the yard.

"He's up in the mine," Sarah explained. "If there was trouble, he'd come down quickly enough."

"The mine." Carlson cast his eyes up at the rock. "At least promise me that you won't go inside. It's a dangerous place."

"Gold doesn't lure me." She smiled again, relieved that they would remain friends.

He swung gracefully into the saddle. "Gold lures everyone."

She watched him ride off. Perhaps he was right, she mused. Gold had a lure. Even though in her heart she didn't believe she'd ever see the mine pay, it was exciting knowing there was always a chance. It kept Lucius in the dark and the dust for hours on end. Her father had died for it.

Even Jake, she thought, wasn't immune. It was he who had asked Lucius to pick up where her father had left off. She had yet to discover why. With death on his mind, Donley's last words had been… A glimmer of suspicion broke into her mind.

I'm going to have the woman, and the gold.

Why should a man like Donley speak of gold before he drew his gun? Why would a worthless mine be on his mind at such a time? Or was it worthless?

Her promise to Samuel forgotten, she started toward the rise.

A movement caught her eye and, turning around again, she scanned the road. Someone was coming, on foot. Even as she watched, the figure stumbled and fell. Sarah had her skirts in her hand and was running before the figure struggled to stand again.

"Alice!" Sarah quickened her pace. The girl was obviously hurt, but until Sarah reached her, catching her before she fell again, she couldn't see how badly. "Oh, dear Lord." Gripping the sobbing girl around the waist, she helped her toward the house. "What happened? Who did this to you?"

"Miss Conway…" Alice could hardly speak through her bruised and bloodied lips. Her left eye was blackened and swollen nearly shut. There were ugly scratches, like the rake of fingernails, down her cheek, and every breath she took came out with a hitch of pain.

"All right, don't worry, just lean on me. We're nearly there."

"Didn't know where else to go," Alice managed.

"Shouldn't be here."

"Don't try to talk yet. Let me get you inside. Oh, Lucius." Half stumbling herself, Sarah looked up with relief as he came hurrying down the rocks. "Help me get her inside, up to bed. She's badly hurt."

"What in the holy hell-?" Wheezing a bit from the exertion, he picked Alice up in his scrawny arms. "You know who this girl is, Miss Sarah?"

"Yes. Take her up to my bed, Lucius. I'll get some water."

Alice swooned as he struggled to carry her up the ladder to the loft. "She's done passed out."

"That may be a blessing for the moment." Moving quickly, Sarah gathered fresh water and clean cloths. "She must be in dreadful pain. I can't see how she managed to get all the way out here on foot."

"She's taken a mighty beating."

He stepped out of the way as best he could when Sarah climbed the stairs to sit on the edge of the bed. Gently she began to bathe Alice's face. When she loosened the girl's bodice, he cleared his throat and turned his back.

"Oh, my God." With trembling hands, Sarah unfastened the rest of the buttons. "Help me get this dress off of her, Lucius. It looks as though she's been whipped."

His sense of propriety was overcome by the sight of the welts on Alice's back and shoulders. "Yeah, she's been whipped." The cotton of her dress stuck to the raw, open sores. "Whipped worse'n a dog. I'd like to get my hands on the bastard who done this."

Sarah found her own hands were clenched with fury. "There's some salve on the shelf over the stove, Lucius. Fetch it for me." She did her best to bathe and cool the wounds. As Alice's eyes fluttered open and she moaned, Sarah soothed her in a low, calming voice. "Try not to move, Alice. We're going to take care of you. You're safe now. I promise you you're safe."

"Hurts."

"I know. Oh, I know." There were tears stinging her eyes as she took the salve from Lucius and began to stroke it over the puffy welts.

It was a slow, painful process. Though Sarah's fingers were light and gentle, Alice whimpered each time she touched her. Her back was striped to the waist with angry red lines, some of which had broken open and were bleeding. With sweat trickling down her face, Sarah tended and bandaged, talking, always talking. "Would you like another sip of water?"

"Please." With Sarah's hand cradling her head, Alice drank from the cup. "I'm sorry, Miss Conway."

She lay back weakly as Sarah held a cool cloth to her swollen eye. "I know I shouldn't have come here. It ain't right, but I wasn't thinking straight."

"You did quite right by coming."

"You was-were-so nice to me before. And I was afraid if I didn't get away…"

"You aren't to worry." Sarah applied salve to her facial scratches. "In a few days you'll be feeling much better. Then we can think about what's to be done. For now, you'll stay right here."

"I can't-"

"You can and you will." Setting the salve aside, Sarah took her hand. "Do you feel strong enough to tell us what happened? Did a man-one of your customers do this to you?"

"No, ma'am." Alice moistened her swollen lips.

"It was Carlotta."

"Carlotta?" Sarah's eyes narrowed to slits. "Are you saying that Carlotta beat you like this?"

"I ain't never seen her so mad. Sometimes she gets mean if something don't go her way, or if she's been drinking too much you get a slap or two. She went crazy. I think she might've killed me if the other girls hadn't broke in the door and started screaming." "Why? Why would she hurt you like this?"

"I can't say for sure. I done something wrong." Her voice slurred, and her eyes dropped shut. "She was mad, powerful mad, after Jake came by. They had words. Nancy, she's one of the other girls, listened outside of Carlotta's office. He said something to set her off, I expect. Nancy said she was yelling. Said something about you, Miss Conway, I don't rightly know what. When he left she went crazy. Started smashing things. I went on up to my room. She came after me, beat me worse'n Pa ever did. Eli, he brought me out."

"Eli's the big black Carlotta has working for her," Lucius explained.

"He drove me out as far as he could. She finds out, she'll make him sorry. Took a belt to me," she murmured as sleep took her under. "Kept hitting me and hitting me, saying it was my fault Jake don't come around no more."

"Bitch," Lucius said viciously. Then he wiped his mouth. '"Scuse me, Miss Sarah."

"No excuse necessary. I couldn't agree more."

There was a rage running through her, hotter and huger than anything she'd ever experienced. She stared at the girl asleep in her bed, her small, pretty face bruised and swollen. She remembered each welt she'd tended. "Hitch up the wagon, Lucius."

"Yes'm. You want me to go somewheres?"

"No, I'm going. I want you to stay with Alice." "I'll hitch it up, Miss Sarah, but if you're thinking about talking to the sheriff, it won't do much good. Alice here ain't going to talk to him like she done with you. She'd be too scared."

"I'm not going to the sheriff, Lucius. Just hitch up the wagon."

She pushed the horses hard, pleased that the fury didn't subside as she approached town. She wanted the fury. Since she'd come west she'd learned to accept many things-the grief, the violence, the labor. Perhaps the land was lawless, but there were times and reasons, even here, for justice.

Johnny raced out of the dry goods as Sarah rode by, then raced back in again to complain to Liza that Sarah hadn't waved at him. She hadn't even seen him. There was only one face in her mind now. She drew up in front of the Silver Star.

Three women lounged in what might have been called a parlor. The late-morning heat had them half dozing in their petticoats and their feathered wraps. The room itself was dim and almost airless. Vivid red drapes hung limp at the windows. Gold leaf glowed dull and dusty on the frames of the mirrors.

As Sarah entered, a heavy-eyed redhead popped up from her sprawled position on a settee. She plopped back again with a howling laugh. "Well, look here, girls, we got ourselves some company. Get out the teacups."

The others looked over. One of them hitched her wrap up around her shoulders. Her hands folded, Sarah stood in the doorway and took it all in.

So this was a bordello. She couldn't say she saw anything remotely exciting. It looked more like a badly furnished parlor in need of a good dusting. There was a heavy floral scent of mixed perfumes that merged, none too appealingly, with plain sweat. Carefully, finger by finger, Sarah drew off her driving gloves.

"I'd like to speak with Carlotta, please. Will someone tell her I'm here?"

No one moved. The women merely exchanged looks. The redhead went back to examining her nails. After a long breath, Sarah tried another tactic. "I'm here to speak with her about Alice." That caught their attention. Every one of the women looked over at her. "She'll be staying with me until she's well."

Now the redhead rose. Her flowered wrap slid down her shoulders with the movement. "You took Alice in?"

"Yes. She needs care, Miss-"

"I'm Nancy." She took a quick look behind her.

"How come somebody like you's going to see to Alice?" "Because she needs it. I'd be grateful to you if you would tell Carlotta I'd like to speak with her." "I reckon I could do that." The redhead pulled her wrap up. "You tell Alice we was asking about her." "I'll be glad to."

While Nancy disappeared up the stairs, Sarah tried to ignore the other women's stares. She had changed to one of her best day dresses. Sarah thought the dove gray very distinguished, particularly with its black trim. Her matching hat had been purchased just before her trip west and was the latest Paris fashion. Apparently it wasn't proper attire for a bordello, she thought as she watched Carlotta descend the stairs.

The owner of the Silver Star was resplendent in her trademark red. The silk slithered down her tall, curvaceous body, clinging, shifting, swaying. Her high white breasts rose like offerings from the scalloped bodice, which was threaded with silver threads. In her hand she carried a matching fan. As she flicked it in front of her face, the heavy scent of roses filled the room.

Despite her feelings, Sarah couldn't deny that the woman was stunning. In another place, another time, she could have been a queen.

"My, my, this is a rare honor, Miss Conway."

She'd been drinking. Sarah caught the scent of whiskey under the perfume. "This is hardly a social call."

"Now you disappoint me." Her painted mouth curved. "I can always use a new girl around here. Isn't that right…ladies?"

The other women shifted uncomfortably and remained tactfully silent.

"I thought maybe you'd come in looking for work." Still waving the fan, she strolled around Sarah, sizing her up. "Little scrawny," she said. "But some men like that. Could use some fixing up, right, girls? Little more here." She patted Sarah's unrouged cheek.

"Little less there." She flicked a hand at the neckline of Sarah dress. "You might make a tolerable living." "I don't believe I'd care to…work for you, Carlotta" "That so?" Her eyes, already hardened by the whiskey, iced over. "Too much of a lady to take pay for it, but not too much of a lady to give it away." Sarah curled her fingers into a fist, then forced them to relax again. She would not resort to violence, or be driven to it. "No. I wouldn't care to work for anyone who beats their employees. Alice is with me now, Carlotta, and she'll stay with me. If you ever put your hands on her again, I'll see to it that you're thrown in jail."

"Oh, will you?" An angry flush darkened cheeks already bright with rouge. "I'll put my hands on who I please." She stabbed the fan into Sarah's chest. "No prim-faced bitch from back east is going to come into my place and tell me different."

With surprising ease, Sarah reached out and snapped the fan in two. "I just have." She had only an instant to brace herself for the slap. It knocked her backward. To balance herself she grabbed a table and sent a statuette crashing to the floor.

"Your kind makes me sick." Carlotta's voice was high and brittle as she leaned toward Sarah. Whiskey and anger had taken hold of her and twisted her striking face. "Looking as though they wouldn't let a man touch them. But you'll spread your legs as easy as any.

You think because you went to school and lived in a big house that makes you special? You're nothing out here, nothing." She scooped up a fat plaster cherub and sent it crashing into the wall.

"The fact that I went to school and lived in a house isn't all that separates us." Sarah's voice was a sharp contrast to Carlotta's in its calmness. "You don't make me sick, Carlotta. You only make me sorry."

"I don't need pity from you. I made this place. I got something, and nobody handed it to me. Nobody ever gave me money for fine dresses and fancy hats. I earned it." Breasts heaving, she stepped closer. "You think you got Jake dangling on a string, honey, you're wrong. Soon as he's had his fill of you, he'll be back. What he's doing to you on these hot, sweaty nights, he'll be doing to me."

"No." Amazingly, Sarah's voice was still calm.

"Even if he comes back and puts your price in your hands, you'll never have what I have with him. You know it," Sarah said quietly. "And that's why you hate me." With her eyes on Carlotta, she began to pull on her gloves again. Her hands would tremble any moment. She knew it, and she wanted to be on her way first. "But the issue here is Alice, not Jake. She is no longer in your employ."

"I'll tell that slut when she's through here."

It happened so quickly, Sarah was hardly aware of it. She had managed to hold her temper during Carlotta's insulting tirade against her own person. But to hear Alice called by that vile name while the girl was lying helpless and hurt was too much. Her ungloved hand shot out and connected hard with the side of Carlotta's face.

The three women, and the one who had come creeping down the stairs to look in on the commotion, let out gasps of surprise in unison. Sarah barely had time to feel the satisfaction of her action when Carlotta had her by the hair. They tumbled to the floor in a flurry of skirts.

Sarah shrieked as Carlotta tried to pull her hair out by the roots. She had handfuls of it, tugging and ripping while she cursed wildly. Fighting the pain, Sarah swung out and connected with soft flesh. She heard Carlotta grunt, and they rolled across the rug. Crockery smashed as they collided with a table, each trying to land a blow or defend against one. Sarah took a fist in the stomach with a gasp, but managed to evade a lethal swipe of Carlotta's red-tipped nails.

There was hate in Carlotta's eyes, a wild, almost mad hate. Sarah grabbed her wrist and twisted, knowing that if the other woman got her hands on her throat she'd squeeze until all her breath was gone.

She had no intention of being strangled, or pumeled. Her own rage had her rolling on top of her opponent and grabbing a handful of dyed hair. When she felt teeth sink into her arm, she cried out and yanked with all her strength, jerking Carlotta's head back and bringing out a howl of rage and pain. Other screams rose up, but Sarah was lost in the battle. She yanked and clawed and tore as viciously as Carlotta. They were equals now, with no barriers of class or background. A lamp shattered in a shower of glass as the two writhing bodies careened into another table.

"What in the hell is going on here?" Barker burst into the parlor. He took one look at the scene on the floor and shut his eyes. He'd rather have faced five armed, drunken cowboys than a pair of scratching women. "Break it up," he ordered as the two of them tumbled across the floor. "Somebody's going to get hurt here." He shook his head and sighed. "Most likely me."

He stepped into the melee just as Jake strode through the parlor doors.

"Let's pull them apart," Barker said heavily.

"Take your pick." But Jake was already hauling

Sarah up off the floor. She kicked out, her breath hissing as she tried to struggle away.

"Pull in your claws, Duchess." He clamped an arm around her waist as Barker restrained Carlotta. "Get her out of here." Carlotta shoved away from Barker and stood, her dress ripped at both shoulders, her hair in wild tufts. "I want that bitch out of here and in jail. She came in here and started breaking up my place."

"Now, that don't seem quite logical," Barker mused. "Miss Sarah, you want to tell me what you're doing in a place like this?"

"Business." She tossed her hair out of her eyes.

"Personal business."

"Well, looks to me like you've finished with your business here. Why don't you go on along home now?"

Sarah drew on her dignity like a cape over her torn dress. "Thank you, Sheriff." She cast one last look at Carlotta. "I am quite finished here." She glided toward the door to the secret admiration of Carlotta's girls.

"Just one damn minute." Jake took her arm the second she stepped outside. She had time now for embarrassment when she noted the size of the crowd she'd drawn.

"If you'll excuse me," she said stiffly, "I must get home." She reached up to tidy her tousled hair. "My hat."

"I think I saw what was left of it back in there."

Jake ran his tongue over his teeth as he looked at her. She had a bruise beginning under her eye. It would make up to be a pretty good shiner by the end of the day. Her fashionable gray dress was ripped down one arm, and her hair looked as though she'd been through a windstorm. Thoughtfully, he tucked his hands in his pockets. Carlotta had looked a hell of a lot worse. "Duchess, a man wouldn't know it to look at you, but you're a real firebrand."

Grimly she brushed at her rumpled skirts. "I can see that amuses you."

"I have to say it does." He smiled, and her teeth snapped together. "I guess I'm flattered, but you didn't have to get yourself in a catfight over me." Her mouth dropped open. The man looked positively delighted. She was scratched and bruised and aching and humiliated, and he looked as though his grin might just split his face. Over him? she thought, and made herself return the smile.

"So you think I fought with Carlotta over you, because I was jealous?"

"Can't think of another reason."

"Oh, I'll give you a reason." She brought her fist up and caught him neatly on the jaw. He was holding a hand to his face and staring after her when Barker strolled out.

"She's got what you might call a mean right hook." In the street, people howled and snickered as Sarah climbed into the wagon and drove off. "Son," Barker said with a hand on Jake's shoulder, "you're the fastest hand I ever saw with those Colts of yours. You play a fine game of poker, and you hold your whiskey like a man. But you got a hell of a lot to learn about women."

"Apparently," Jake murmured. He walked across to O'Riley's and untied his horse.

Sarah seethed as she raced the wagon toward home. She'd made a spectacle of herself. She'd engaged in a crude, despicable sparring match with a woman with no morals. She'd brought half the town out into the street to stare and snicker at her. And then, to top it all off, she'd had to endure Jake Redman's grinning face.

She'd shown him. Sarah tossed her head up and spurred the horses on. Her hand might possibly be broken, but she'd shown him. The colossal conceit of the man, to believe that she would stoop to such a level out of petty jealousy.

She wished she'd torn Carlotta's brass-colored hair out by its black roots.

Not over him, she reminded herself. At least not very much over him.

She heard the rider coming up fast and looked over her shoulder. With a quick gasp of alarm, she cracked the reins. She would not speak to him now. Jake Redman could go to the devil, as far as she was concerned.

And he could take his grin with him.

But her sturdy workhorses were no match for his mustang. Nor was her driving skill a match for his riding. Even as she cursed him, he came.up beside her. She had a flash, clear as a bell, of how he'd looked when he'd raced beside the stagecoach, firing over his shoulder. He looked just as untamed and dangerous now.

"Stop that damn thing."

Chin up, she cracked the reins again.

One of these days somebody was going to teach her to listen, Jake thought. It might just be today. He judged the timing and rhythm, then leaped from his horse into the wagon. Surefooted, he stepped over onto the seat, and though she fought him furiously he pulled the horses in.

"What the hell's got into you, woman?" He scrambled for a hold as she shoved him aside and tried to jump out.

"Take your hands off me. I won't be handled this way."

"Handling you is a sight more work than I care for." He snatched his hand out of range before she could bite him. "Haven't you had enough scratching for one day? Sit down before you hurt yourself." "You want the blasted wagon, take it. I won't ride with you."

"You'll ride with me, all right." Out of patience, he twisted her into his lap and silenced her. She squirmed and pushed and held herself as rigid as iron.

Then she melted. He felt the give, slow, easy, inevitable. In her. In himself. As her lips parted for his, he forgot about keeping her quiet and just took what he kept trying to tell himself he couldn't have.

"You pack a punch, Duchess." He drew her away to rub a hand over his chin. "In a lot of ways. You want to tell me what that was for?"

She pulled away, furious that she'd gone soft with just one kiss. "For assuming that I was jealous and would fight over any worthless man."

"So now I'm worthless. Well, that may be, but you seem to like having me around."

She did her best to straighten what was left of her dress. "Perhaps I do."

He needed to know it more than he'd imagined.

Jake took her chin in his hand and turned her to face him. "You change your mind?"

Again she softened, this time because she saw the doubt in his eyes. "No, I haven't changed my mind." She drew a long breath. "Even though you didn't come back and you've been to the Silver Star to see Carlotta."

"You sure do hear things. Can't imagine what you'd know if you lived closer to town. Stay in the wagon." He recognized the look in her eye by now.

"Stay in the wagon, Sarah, until I get my horse tied on. I'll just catch you again if you run."

"I won't run." She brought her chin up again and stared straight ahead. When he'd joined her again, she continued her silence. Jake clucked to the horses and started off.

"I like to know why a woman's mad at me. Why don't you tell me how you know I've been to Carotta's?"

"Alice told me."

"Alice Johnson?"

"That's right. Your friend Carlotta nearly beat her to death."

He brought the horses up short. "What?"

Her fury bounded back and poured over him. "You heard what I said. She beat that poor girl as cruelly as anyone can be beaten. Eh' helped Alice get out of town. Then she walked the rest of the way to my place."

"Is she going to be all right?"

"With time and care."

"And you're going to give it to her?"

"Yes." Her eyes dared him. "Do you have any objections?"

"No." He touched her face, gently, in a way that was new to him. Abruptly he snatched his hand back and snapped the reins again.' 'You went into the Silver Star to have it out with Carlotta over Alice."

"I've never been so furious." Sarah lifted a hand to where Jake had touched her. " Alice is hardly more than a child. No matter what she did, she didn't deserve that kind of treatment."

"Did she tell you why Carlotta did it?"

"She didn't seem to know, only that she must have made some kind of mistake. Alice did say that Carlotta was in a temper after you had been there."

He said nothing for a moment as he put the pieces together. "And she took it out on Alice."

"Why did you go? Why did you go to Carlotta? If there's something you…" She hadn't any idea how to phrase it properly. "If I don't know enough about your needs… I realize I don't have any experience in these matters, but I-" She found her mouth crushed again in a kiss that was half hungry, half angry. "There's never been anyone else who's known so much about what I need."

He watched her face clear into a smile. "I went to see Carlotta to tell her I don't care much for having my name used as a reference."

"So she took it out on Alice, because Alice was the one who'd come to talk to me." Sarah shook her head and tried not to let her temper take over again. "Alice only told me what Carlotta wanted her to tell me. It didn't work the way she'd planned, and Alice paid for it."

"That's about the size of it."

Sarah linked her fingers again and set them in her lap. "Is that the only reason you went to Carlotta?" "No." He waited for the look. The look of passionate fury. "I went for that, and to tell her to stay away from you. Of course, I didn't know at the time that you were going to go and bloody her lip."

"Did I?" She tried and failed to bank down the pleasure she felt at the news. "Did I really?"

"And her nose. Guess you were a little too involved to notice."

"I've never struck anyone before in my life." She tried to keep her voice prim, then gave up. "I liked it."

With a laugh, Jake pulled her to his side. "You're a real wildcat, Duchess."