12,810
23.12.2018

Jake learned something new when he watched Sarah with Alice. He had always assumed that a woman who had been raised in the sheltered, privileged world would ignore, even condemn, one who lived as Alice lived. There were many decent women, as they called themselves, who would have turned Alice away as if she were a rabid dog.

Not Sarah.

And it was more than what he supposed she would have called Christian charity. He'd run into his share of people who liked to consider themselves good Christians. They had charity, all right, unless-they came across somebody who looked different, thought different. There had been plenty 'Of Christian women who had swept their skirts aside from his own mother because she'd married a man of mixed blood.

They went into church on Sundays and quoted the Scriptures and professed to love their neighbor. But when their neighbor didn't fit their image of what was right, love turned to hate quickly enough.

With Sarah it wasn't just words. It was compassion, caring, and an understanding he hadn't expected from her. He could hear, as he sat at the table, the simple kindness in her voice as she talked to the girl and tended her wounds.

As for Alice, it was obvious the girl adored Sarah. He'd yet to see her, as Sarah claimed her patient wasn't up to visitors. But he could hear the shyness and the respect in her voice when she answered Sarah's questions.

She'd fought for Alice. He couldn't quite get over that. Most people wouldn't fight for anything unless it was their own, or something they wanted to own. It had taken pride, and maybe what people called valor, for her to walk into a place like the Silver Star and face Carlotta down. And she'd done it. He glanced up toward the loft. She'd more than done it. She'd held her own.

Rising, he walked outside to where Lucius was doing his best to teach an uncooperative Lafitte to shake hands.

"Damn it, boy, did I say jump all over me? No, you flea-brained mongrel, I said shake." Lucius pushed the dog's rump down and grabbed a paw.

"Shake. Get it?" Lafitte leaped up again and licked Lucius's face.

"Doesn't appear so," Jake commented.

"Fool dog." But Lucius rubbed the pup's belly when he rolled over. "Grows on you, though." He squinted up at Jake. "Something around here seems to be growing on you, too."

"Somebody had to bring her back."

"Reckon so." He waited until Jake crouched to scratch the puppy's head. "You want to tell me how Miss Sarah came to look like she'd been in a fist-fight?" "She looked like she was in a fistfight because she was in a fistfight."

Lucius snorted and spit. "Like hell."

"With Carlotta."

Lucius's cloudy eyes widened, and then he let out a bark of laughter that had Lafitte racing in circles. "Ain't that a hoot? Are you telling me that our Miss Sarah went in and gave Carlotta what for?"

"She gave her a bloody nose." Jake looked over with a grin. "And pulled out more than a little of her hair."

"Sweet Jesus, Id've given two pints of whiskey to've seen that. Did you?"

Chuckling, Jake pulled on Lafitte's ears. "The tail end of it. When I walked in, the two of them were rolling over the floor, spitting like cats. I figure Carlotta outweighs Sarah by ten pounds or more, but Sarah was sitting on her, skirts hiked up and blood in her eye. It was one hell of a sight."

"She's got spunk." Lucius pulled out his whiskey and toasted Sarah with a healthy gulp. "I knew she had something in her head when she tore out of here." Feeling generous, he handed the bottle to Jake. "Never would have thought she'd set her mind on poking a fist into Carlotta. But nobody ever deserved it more. You seen Alice?"

"No." Jake let the whiskey spread fire through him. "Sarah's got the idea that it's not fitting for me to talk to the girl until she's covered up or something."

"I carried her in myself, and I don't mind saying I ain't seen no woman's face ever smashed up so bad. Took a belt to her, too, from the looks of it. Her back and shoulders all come up in welts. Jake, you wouldn't whup a dog the way that girl was whupped. That Carlotta must be crazy."

"Mean and crazy's two different things." He handed Lucius the bottle. "Carlotta's just mean." "Reckon you'd know her pretty well."

Jake watched Lucius take another long sip. "I paid for her a few times, sometime back. Doesn't mean I know her."

"Soon plop my ass next to a rattler's." Lucius handed the bottle back to Jake again, then fell into a fit of coughing. "Miss Sarah, I didn't hear you come out."

"So I surmised," she said with a coolness that had Lucius coughing again. "Perhaps you gentlemen have finished drinking whiskey and exchanging crude comments and would like to wash for supper. If not, you're welcome to eat out here in the dirt." With that she turned on her heel, making certain she banged the door shut behind her.

"Ooo-whee." Lucius snatched back the bottle and took another drink. "She's got a mighty sharp tongue for such a sweet face. I tell you, boy, you'll have to mind your step if you hitch up with her."

Jake was still staring at the door, thinking how beautiful she'd looked, black eye and all, standing there like a queen addressing her subjects. "I ain't planning on hitching up with anyone."

"Maybe you are and maybe you ain't." Lucius rose and brushed off his pants. A little dirt and she'd have them off him again and in the stream. "But she's got plans, all right. And a woman like that's hard to say no to."

Sarah spoke politely at supper, as if she were entertaining at a formal party. Her hair was swept up and tidied, and she'd changed her dress. She was wearing the green one that set off her hair and eyes. The stew was served in ironstone bowls, but the way she did it, it could have been a restaurant meal on fancy china.

It made him think, as he hadn't in years, of his mother and how she had liked to fuss over Sunday supper.

She said nothing about the encounter in town, and it was clear that she didn't care to have the subject brought up. It was hard to believe she was the same woman he'd dragged off the floor in the Silver Star. But he noticed that she winced now and then. He bit into a hunk of fresh bread and held back a grin. She was hurting, all right, and more than her pride, from the look of it. As he ate he entertained thoughts of how he would ease those hurts when the sun went down.

"Would you like some more stew, Lucius?"

"No, ma'am." He patted his belly. "Full as a tick. If it's all the same to you, I'll just go take a walk before I feed the stock and such. Going to be a pretty night." He sent them both what he thought was a bland look. "I'll sleep like a log after a meal like this. Yessir. I don't believe I'll stir till morning." He scraped back his chair and reached for his hat. "Mighty fine meal, Miss Sarah."

"Thank you, Lucius."

Jake tipped back his chair. "I wouldn't mind a walk myself."

Sarah had to smile at the way Lucius began to whistle after he'd closed the door. "You go ahead."

He took her hand as she rose. "I'd like it better if you went with me."

She smiled. He'd never asked her to do something as ordinary, and as romantic, as going for a walk. Thank goodness she hadn't forgotten how to flirt. "Why, that's nice of you, but I have to see to the dishes. And Alice may be waking soon. I think she could eat a bit now."

"I imagine I could occupy myself for an hour or two. We'll take a walk when you're done."

She sent him a look from under lowered lashes.

"Maybe." Then she laughed as he sent her spinning into his lap. "Why, Mr. Redman. You are quite a brute."

He ran a finger lightly over the bruise under her eye.

"Then you'd best be careful. Kiss me, Sarah."

She smiled when her lips were an inch from his.

"And if I don't?"

"But you will." He traced her bottom lip with his tongue. "You will."

She did, sinking into it, into him. Her arms wound around him, slender and eager. Her mouth opened like a flower in sunlight. They softened against him even as they heated. They yielded even as they demanded.

"Don't be long," he murmured. He kissed her again, passion simmering, then set her on her feet. She let out a long, shaky breath when he closed the door behind him.

With Alice settled for the night and the day's work behind her, Sarah stepped out into the quieting light of early evening. It was still too warm to bother with a shawl, but she pushed her sleeves down past her elbows and buttoned the cuffs. There were bruises on her arms that she didn't care to dwell on.

From where she stood she could hear Lucius in the shed, talking to Lafitte. He'd become more his dog than hers, Sarah thought with a laugh. Or perhaps they'd both become something of hers.

As the land had.

She closed her eyes and let the light breeze flutter over her face. She could, if she concentrated hard enough, catch the faintest whiff of sage. And she could, if she used enough imagination, picture what it would be like to sit on the porch she envisioned having, watching the sun go down every evening while Jake rolled a cigarette and listened with her to the music of the night.

Bringing herself back, she looked around. Where was he? She stepped farther out into the yard when she heard the sound of hammer against wood. She saw him, a few yards from the chicken coop, beating an old post into the ground. He'd taken his shirt off, and she could see the light sheen of sweat over his lean torso and the rippling and bunching of his muscles as he swung the heavy hammer down.

Her thoughts flew back to the way his arms had swung her into heat, into passion. The hands that gripped the thick, worn handle of the hammer now had roamed over her, touching, taking whatever they chose.

And she had touched, wantonly, even greedily, that long, limber body, taking it, accepting it as her own. Her breath shuddered out as she watched him bend and lift and pound. Was it wrong to have such thoughts, such wonderful, exciting visions? How could it be, when she loved so completely? She wanted his heart, but oh, she wanted his body, as well, and she could find no shame in it.

His head came up quickly, as she imagined an animal's might when it caught a scent. And he had.

Though she was several yards away, he had sensed her, the trace of lilac, the subtlety of woman. He straightened, and just as she had looked her fill of him, he looked his of her.

She might have stepped from a cool terrace to walk in a garden. The wind played with her skirts and her hair, but gently. The backdrop of the setting sun was like glory behind her. Her eyes, as she walked toward him, were wide and dark and aware.

"You've got a way of moving, Duchess, that makes my mouth water."

"I don't think that's what the good sisters intended when they taught me posture. But I'm glad." She moved naturally to his arms, to his lips. "Very glad." For the first time in his life he felt awkward with a woman, and he drew her away. "I'm sweaty."

"I know." She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed at his face. "What are you doing?"

She made him feel like a boy fumbling over his first dance. "You said you wanted pigs. You need a pen."

He picked up his shirt and shrugged it on. "What are you doing?"

"Watching you." She put a hand to his chest, where the shirt lay open. "Remembering. Wondering if you want me as much as you did."

He took her hand before she could tear what was inside of him loose. "No, I don't. I want you more." He picked up his gunbelt, but instead of strapping it on he draped it over his shoulder. "Why don't we go for that walk?"

Content, she slipped her hand into his. "When I first came here I wondered what it was that had kept my father, rooted him here. At first I thought it was only for me, because he wanted so badly to provide what he thought I'd need. That grieved me. I can't tell you how much." She glanced up as they passed the rise that led to his grave. "Later I began to see that even though that was part of it, perhaps the most important part to him, he was also happy here. It eases the loss to know he was happy."

They started down the path to the stream she had come to know so well.

"I didn't figure you'd stick." Her hand felt right, easy and right, tucked in his. "When I brought you out here the first time, you looked as if someone had dropped you on your head."

"It felt as though someone had. Losing him… Well, the truth is, I'd lost him years and years ago. To me, he's exactly the same as he was the day he left. Maybe there's something good about that. I never told you he had spun me a tale." At the stream she settled down on her favorite rock and listened to the water's melody. "He told me of the fine house he'd built after he'd struck the rich vein of gold in Sarah's Pride. He painted me a picture of it with his words. Four bedrooms, a parlor with the windows facing west, a wide porch with big round columns." She smiled a little and watched the sun glow over the buttes. "Maybe he thought I needed that, and maybe I did, to see myself as mistress of a fine, big house with curving stairs and high, cool walls."

He could see it, and her. "It was what you were made for."

"It's you I was made for." Rising, she held out her hands.

"I want you, Sarah. I can't offer you much more than a blanket to spread on the ground."

She glanced over at the small pile of supplies he'd already brought down to the stream. She moved to it and lifted the blanket.

It was twilight when they lowered to it. The air had softened. The wind was only a rustle in the thin brush. Overhead the sky arched, a deep, ever-darkening blue. Under the wool of the blanket the ground was hard and unforgiving. She lifted her arms to him and they left the rest behind.

It was as it had been the first time, and yet different.

The hunger was there, and the impatient pull of desire. With it was a knowledge of the wonder, the magic, they could make between them. A little slower now, a little surer, they moved together.

There was urgency in his kiss. She could feel it. But beneath it was a tenderness she had dreamed of, hoped for. Seduced by that alone, she murmured his name.

Beneath her palm, his cheek was rough. Under her ringers, his skin was smooth. His body, like his mind, like his heart, was a contrast that drew her, compelled her to learn more.

A deep, drugging languor filled her as he began to undress her. There was no frantic rush, as there had been before. His fingers were slow and sure as they moved down the small covered buttons. She felt the air whisper against her skin as he parted the material. Then it was his mouth, warmer, sweeter, moving over her. Her sigh was like music.

He wanted to give her something he'd never given another woman. The kind of care she deserved. Tenderness was new to him, but it came easily now as he peeled off layer after layer to find her. He sucked in his breath as her fingers fumbled with the buttons at his waist. Her touch wasn't hesitant, but it was still innocent. It would always be. And her innocence aroused him as skill never could have.

She removed the layers he'd covered himself with. Not layers of cotton or leather, but layers of cynicism and aloofness, the armor he'd used to survive, just as he'd used his pistols. With her he was helpless, more vulnerable than he had been since childhood. With her he felt more of a man than he had ever hoped to be. She felt the change, an explosion of feelings and needs and desires, as he dragged her up into his arms to crush his mouth against hers. What moved through him poured into her, leaving her breathless, shaken and impossibly strong. Without understanding, without needing to, she answered him with everything in her heart.

Then came the storm, wild, windy, wailing. Rocked by it, she cried out as he drove her up, up, into an airless, rushing cloud of passion. Sensations raced through her-the sound of her own desperate moans, the scrape of his face against her skin as he journeyed down her trembling body, the taste of him that lingered on her lips, on her tongue, as he did mad, unspeakably wonderful things to her. Lost, driven beyond reason, she pressed his head closer to her.

She was like something wild that had just been unchained. He could feel the shocked delight ripple through her when he touched her moist heat with his tongue. He thought her response was like a miracle, though he'd long ago stopped believing in them. There was little he could give her besides the pleasures of her own body. But at least that, he would do.

Sliding upward, he covered her mouth with his. And filled her.

Long after her hands had slipped limply from his back, long after their breathing had calmed and leveled, he lay over her, his face buried in her hair. She'd brought him peace, and though he knew it wouldn't last, for now she'd brought him peace of mind, of body, of heart.

He hadn't wanted to love, hadn't dared to risk it. Even now, when it was no longer possible to hide it from himself, he couldn't tell her.

"Lucius was right," she murmured against his ear.

"Mmm?"

"It's a pretty night." She ran her hands up his back.

"A very pretty night."

"Am I hurting you?"

"No." She gripped her own wrists so that she could hold him closer. "Don't move yet."

"I'm heavy, and you've got some colorful bruises."

If she'd had the energy, she might have laughed.

"I'd forgotten about them."

"I put some on you myself last night." He lifted his head to look down at her. "I don't know much about going easy."

"I'm not complaining."

"You should." Fascinated, he stroked a finger down her cheek. "You're so beautiful. Like something I made up."

She turned her lips into his palm as her eyes filled.

"You've never told me you thought I was beautiful." "Sure I did." He shifted then, frustrated by his own lack of words. "I should have."

She curled comfortably against his side. "I feel beautiful right now."

They lay in contented silence, looking up at the sky.

"What's an enigma?" he asked her.

"Hmm? Oh, it's a puzzle. Something difficult to understand. Why?"

"I guess I heard it somewhere." He thought of her diary, and her description of him, but couldn't see how it applied. He'd always seen himself as being exactly what he appeared to be. "You're getting cold."

"A little."

Sitting up, he pushed through her discarded undergarments for her chemise. She smiled, lifting her arms over her head. Her lips curved when she saw his gaze slide over her skin. When he pulled the cotton over her, she linked her hands behind his neck.

"I was hoping to stay warm a different way."

With a laugh, he slid a hand down over her hip. "I remember telling you once before you were a quick study." Experimentally he pushed the strap of her chemise off her shoulder. "You want to do something for me?"

"Yes." She nuzzled his lips. "Very much."

"Go on over and stand in that stream."

Confused, she drew back. "I beg your pardon?"

"Nobody says that better than you, Duchess. I'll swear to that." He kissed her again, in a light, friendly manner that pleased and puzzled her.

"You want to go wading?"

"Not exactly." He toyed with the strap. Women wore the damnedest things. Then they covered them all up anyhow. "I thought you'd go stand in the stream wearing just this little thing. Like you did that first night" "What first night?" Her puzzled smile faded as he traced his fingertip along the edge of her bodice. "That first-You! You were watching me while I-" "I was just making sure you didn't get yourself into any trouble."

"That's disgraceful." She tried to pull away, but he held her still.

"I started thinking then and there how much I'd like to get my hands on you. Had some trouble sleeping that night." He lowered his lips to the curve of her throat and began to nibble. "Fact is, I haven't had a good night's sleep since I set eyes on you."

"Stop it." She turned her head, but it only made it easier for him to find her mouth.

"Are you going to go stand in the stream?"

"I am not." She smothered a laugh when he rolled her onto the blanket again. "I'm going to get dressed and go back to the house to check on Alice."

"No need. Lucius is keeping an eye on her."

"Oh, I see. You've already decided that for me." "I guess you could put it like that. You're not going anywhere but this blanket. And maybe the stream, once I talk you into it."

"You won't talk me into it. I have no intention of sleeping outside."

"I don't figure on sleeping much at all." He stretched out on his back again and gathered her close. "Haven't you ever slept outside before, looked at the sky? Counted stars?"

"No." But, of course, tonight she would. She wanted nothing more. She turned her head to study his profile. "Have you ever counted stars, Jake?"

"When I was a kid." He stroked a hand lazily up and down her arm. "My mother used to say there were pictures. She'd point them out to me sometimes, but I could never find them again."

"I'll show you one." Sarah took his hand and began to draw in the air. "It's a horse. A winged horse. Pegasus," she added. Then she caught her breath. "Look, a shooting star." She watched, his hand held in hers, as it arced across the sky. She closed her eyes quickly, then made a wish. "Will you tell me about your mother?"

For a long moment he said nothing, but continued to stare up at the sky. The arc of light was gone, without a trace. "She was a teacher." Sarah's gaze flicked up quickly to his face. "She'd come out here from St. Louis."

"And met your father?"

"I don't know much about that. He wanted to learn to read and write, and she taught him. She set a lot of store by reading."

"And while she was teaching him, they fell in love."

He smiled a little. It sounded nice the way she said it. "I guess they did. She married him. It wouldn't have been easy, with him being half Apache. They wanted to build something. I remember the way my father used to talk about taking the land and making it work for him. Leaving something behind."

She understood that, because it was what she wanted for herself. "Were they happy?"

"They laughed a lot. My mother used to sing. He always talked about buying her a piano one day, so she could play again like she did in St. Louis. She'd just laugh and say she wanted lace curtains first. I'd forgotten that," he murmured. "She wanted lace curtains." She turned her face into his shoulder because she felt his pain as her own. "Lucius told me what happened to them. To you. I'm so sorry."

He hadn't known he needed to talk about it, needed to tell her. "They came in from town…eight, ten of them, I've never been sure." His voice was quiet now, his eyes on the sky. He could still see them, as he hadn't allowed himself to see them for years. "They lit the barn first. Maybe if my father had stayed in the house, let them shoot and shout and trample, they'd have left the rest. But they'd have come back. He knew it. He took his rifle and went out to protect what was his. They shot him right outside the door." Sarah held him tighter, seeing it with him.

"We ran out. They tasted blood now, like wolves, wild-eyed, teeth bared. She was crying, holding on to my father and crying. Inside the barn, the horses were screaming. The sky was lit up so I could see their faces while they torched the rest."

And he could smell the smoke as he lay there, could hear the crackle of greedy flames and his mother's pitiful weeping.

"I picked up the rifle. That's the first time I ever wanted to kill. It's like a fever in the blood. Like a hand has ahold of you, squeezing. She started to scream. I saw one of the riders take aim at me. I had the rifle in my hands, but I was slow. Better with a bow or a knife back then. She threw herself up and in front of me so when he pulled the trigger the bullet went in her."

Sarah tightened her arms around him as tears ran fast and silent down her cheeks.

"One of them hit me with a rifle butt as he rode by. It was morning before I came to. They'd burned everything. The house was still smoking-even when it cooled there was nothing in it worth keeping. The ground was hard there, and I got dizzy a few times, so it took me all day to bury them. I slept there that night, between the two graves. I told myself that if I lived until morning I'd find the men who'd done it and kill them. I was still alive in the morning." She said nothing, could say nothing. It wasn't necessary to ask what he'd done. He'd learned to use a gun, and use it well. And he had found the men, Or some of them.

"When Lucius came, I told him what happened.

That was the last time I told anyone."

"Don't." She turned to lay her body across his.

"Don't think about it anymore."

He could feel her tears on his chest, the warmth of them. As far as he knew, no one had ever cried for him before. Taking her hand, he kissed it. "Show me that picture in the sky, Sarah."

Turning, keeping her hand in his, she began to trace the stars. The time for tears, for regrets-and, she hoped, for revenge-was done. "The stars aren't as big in the East, or as bright." They lay quietly for a while, wrapped close, listening to the night sounds. "I used to jump every time I heard a coyote. Now I like listening for them. Every night, when I read my father's journal-" "Matt kept a journal?" He sat up as he asked, dragging her with him.

"Why, yes." There was an intensity in his eyes that made her heart skip erratically. "What is it?"

"Have you read it?"

"Not all of it. I've been reading a few pages each night."

He suddenly realized that he was digging his fingers into her arms. He relaxed them. "Will you let me read it?"

Her heart was steady again, but something cold was inching its way over her skin. "Yes. If you tell me why you want to."

He turned away to reach casually in his saddlebag for his tobacco pouch and papers. "I just want to read it."

She waited while he rolled a cigarette. "All right. I trust you. When are you going to trust me, Jake?" He struck a match on a rock. The flame illuminated his face. "What do you mean?"

"Why did you ask Lucius to work in the mine?"

He flicked the match out, then tossed it aside. The scent of tobacco stung the air. "Maybe I thought Matt would have liked it."

Determined, she put a hand to his face and turned it toward hers. "Why?"

"A feeling I had, that's all." Shifting away, he blew out a stream of smoke. "People usually have a reason for setting fires, Sarah. There was only one I could figure when it came to you. Somebody didn't want you there."

"That's ridiculous. I hardly knew anyone at that point. The sheriff said it was drifters." She curled her hands in her lap as she studied his face. "You don't think it was."

"No. Maybe Barker does, and maybe he doesn't.

There's only one thing on this land that anyone could want. That's gold."

Impatient, Sarah sat back on her heels. "But there isn't any gold."

"Yes, there is." Jake drew deep on his cigarette and watched the range of expressions cross her face.

"What are you talking about?"

"Lucius found the mother lode, just the way Matt did." He glanced at the glowing tip of his cigarette. "You're going to be a rich woman, Duchess."

"Wait." She pressed a hand to her temple. It was beginning to throb. "Are you telling me that the mine is really worth something?"

"More than something, according to Lucius."

"I can't believe it." With a quick, confused laugh, she shook her head. "I never thought it was anything but a dream. Just this morning, I'd begun to wonder, but-How long have you known?"

"A while."

"A while?" she repeated, looking back at him.

"And you didn't think it important enough to mention to me?"

"I figured it was important enough not to." He took a last drag before crushing the cigarette out. "I've never known a woman who could keep her mouth shut."

"Is that so?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I'm perfectly capable of keeping my mouth shut, as you so eloquently put it. But why should I?" There was no way to tell her but straight out. "Matt found the gold, and then he was dead."

"There was an accident…" she began. Suddenly cold, she hugged her elbows. He didn't have to speak for her to see what was in his mind. "You're trying to tell me that my father was murdered. That can't be." She started to scramble up, but he took her arms and held her still.

"Ten years he worked the mine and scratched a few handfuls of gold from it. Then he hits, hits big. The minute he does, there's a cave-in, and he's dead." "I don't want to think about it."

"You're going to think about it." He gave her a quick shake. "The mine's yours now, and the gold in it. I'm not going to let what happened to Matt happen to you." His hands gentled and slid up to frame her face. "Not to you."

She closed her eyes. She couldn't take it in, not all at once. Fear, hysteria and fresh grief tangled within her. She lifted her hands to his wrists and held on until she felt herself calming. He was right. She had to think about it. Then she would act. When she opened her eyes, they were clear and steady.

"Tell me what you want me to do."

"Trust me." He touched his lips to hers, then laid her back gently on the blanket. She'd given him peace early in the night. Now, as the night deepened, he would try to do the same for her.