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23.12.2018

"I'm feeling lots better, Miss Conway." Alice took the tin cup and sipped gingerly.

She didn't want to complain about her back, or about the pain that still galloped along it despite the cooling salve. The morning light showed her facial bruises in heart-wrenching detail and caused the girl to look even younger and smaller and more vulnerable. Though the scratches on her cheeks were no longer red and angry, Sarah judged it would be several days before they faded.

"You look better." It wasn't strictly true, and Sarah vowed to keep her patient away from a mirror a bit longer. Though the swelling had eased considerably, she was still worried about Alice's eye and had already decided to drive into town later and talk with the doctor. "Try a little of this soft-boiled egg. You need your strength."

"Yes, ma'am." Privately Alice thought the glossy wet yolk looked more like a slimy eye than food. But if Sarah had told her to eat a fried scorpion she'd have opened her mouth and swallowed. "Miss Conway?"

"Yes, Alice?" Sarah spooned up more egg.

"I'm beholden to you for taking me in like you did, and I can't-Miss Conway, you gave me your own bed last night. It ain't fitting."

Smiling a little, Sarah set the plate aside. "Alice, I assure you, I was quite comfortable last night."

"But, Miss Conway-"

"Alice, if you keep this up I'm going to think you're ungrateful."

"Oh!" Something close to horror flashed in Alice's eyes. "No, ma'am."

"Well, then." Because the response was exactly what she'd expected, Sarah rose. She remembered that the nuns had nursed with compassion tempered with brisk practicality. "You can show your gratitude by being a good patient and getting some more rest. If you're feeling up to it later, I'll have Lucius bring you down and we can sit and talk a while."

"I'd like that. Miss Conway, if it hadn't been for you and Eli, I think I'd've died. I was hoping… Well, I got some money saved. It ain't much, but I'd like you to have it for all your trouble."

"I don't want your money, Alice."

The girl flushed and looked away. "I know you're probably thinking about where it comes from, but-" "No." She took Alice's hand firmly in hers. "That has nothing to do with it." Pride, Sarah thought. She had plenty of her own. Alice was entitled to hers. "Alice, did Eli want money for driving you out of town?" "No, but…he's a friend."

"I'd like to be your friend, if you'd let me. You rest now, and we'll talk about all this later." She gave Alice's hand a reassuring squeeze before she picked up the empty dishes and started down the ladder. She barely muffled a squeal when hands closed around her waist.

"Told you you didn't need that corset."

Sarah sent Jake what she hoped was an indignant look over her shoulder. "Is that why I couldn't find it when I dressed this morning?"

"Just doing you a favor." Before she could decide whether to laugh or lecture, he was whirling her around and kissing her.

"Jake, Alice is-"

"Not likely to faint if she figures out what I'm doing." But he set her aside, because he liked the way the sunlight streamed through the curtains and onto her hair. "You're mighty nice to look at, Duchess." It was foolish to blush, but her color rose. "Why don't you sit down, and you can look at me some more while I fix you breakfast?"

"I'd like to, but I've got some things to see to." He touched her again, just a fingertip to the single wispy curl that had escaped from the neat bun on top of her head. "Sarah, will you let me have Matt's journal?" Both the grief and the dread showed clearly in her eyes before she lowered them. During the night, after love and before sleep, she had thought of little else but what Jake had told her. Part of her wondered if she would be better off not knowing, not being sure.

But another part, the same part that had kept her from turning back and going east again, had already accepted what needed to be done.

"Yes." She walked to the hearth to work the rock loose. "I found this the first night. His journal, what must have been his savings, and the deed to Sarah's Pride."

When she held the book out to him, Jake resisted the urge to open it there and then. If he found what he thought he would find, he would have business to take care of before he said anything else to her. "I'll take it along with me, if it's all the same to you." She opened her mouth to object, wanting the matter settled once and for all. But he'd asked for her trust. Perhaps this was the way to show him he had it. "All right."

"And the deed? Will you let me hold on to it until we have some answers?"

In answer, she offered it to him, without hesitation, without question. For a moment they held the deed, and the dream, between them. "Just like that?" he murmured.

"Yes." She smiled and released her hold. "Just like that."

That her trust was so easily given, so total in her eyes, left him groping for words. "Sarah, I want…" What? he wondered as he stared down at her. To guard and protect, to love and possess? She was like something cool and sweet that had poured into him and washed away years of bitter thirst. But he didn't have the words, he thought. And he didn't have the right. "I'll take care of this."

She lifted a brow. There had been something else, something in his eyes. She wanted it back, so that she could see it, understand it. "I thought we were going to take care of it."

"No." He cupped her chin in his hand. "You're going to leave this to me. I don't want anything to happen to you."

Her brow was still lifted as her lips curved.

"Why?"

"Because I don't. I want you to-" Whatever he might have said was postponed. He moved to the window quickly. "You've got company coming." As he spotted the buggy, his shoulders relaxed. "Looks like Mrs. Cody and her girl."

"Oh." Sarah's hands shot up automatically to straighten her hair. "I must look-Oh, how would I know? I haven't had a chance to so much as glance in the mirror."

"Wouldn't matter much." Without glancing back, he pulled open the door. "Too bad you're so homely." Muttering, she pulled off her apron and followed him outside. Then memory came flooding back and had her biting her Up. "I imagine they would have heard all about the, ah, incident yesterday."

"I expect." Jake secured the deed and the journal in the saddlebags that he'd tossed over the rail. "You needn't look so amused." She fiddled nervously with the cameo at her throat, then put on her brightest smile. "Good morning, Mrs. Cody. Liza." "Good morning, Sarah." Anne Cody brought the horses to a stop. "I hope you don't mind an early call."

"Not at all." But her fingers were busy pleating her skirt. She was afraid there was a lecture coming. The good sisters had given Sarah more than what she considered her share over the past twelve years. "I'm always delighted to see you," she added. "Both of you."

Anne glanced over at the dog, who'd run out to bark at the horses. "My, he's grown some, hasn't he?" She held out a hand. "Mr. Redman?"

Jake stepped over to help her, then Liza, down, remaining silent until he'd slung his saddlebags over his shoulder. "I'd best be on my way." He touched a hand to his hat. "Ladies."

"Mr. Redman." Anne held up a hand in the gesture she used to stop her children from rushing out before their chores were finished. "Might I have a word with you?"

He shifted his bags until their weight fell evenly.

"Yes, ma'am."

"My son John has been dogging your heels these last weeks. I'm surprised you put up with it."

Jake didn't imagine it pleased her, either, to have the boy spending time with him. "He hasn't made a pest of himself."

Curious, Anne studied his face.' 'That's a kind thing to say, Mr. Redman, when I'm sure he's done just that."

"Johnny was born a pest," Liza put in, earning a slow, measured look from her mother.

"It appears my children have that in common."

With Liza effectively silenced, Anne turned back to Jake. "He's been going through what most boys his age go through, I expect. Fascinated with guns, gun fights. Gunfighters. I don't mind saying it's given me some worry."

"I'll keep my distance," Jake said, and turned to leave.

"Mr. Redman." Anne hadn't raised two willful children without knowing how to add the right tone of authority to her voice. "I'll have my say."

"Ma." Both Liza's cheeks and voice paled when she saw the look in Jake's eyes. Cold, she thought, and moistened her lips. She'd never seen eyes so cold. "Maybe we should let Mr. Redman be on his way." "Your mother's got something to say," Jake said quietly. "I reckon she ought to say it."

"Thank you." Pleased, Anne drew off her riding gloves. "Johnny was real excited about what happened here between you and Burt Donley."

"Mrs. Cody," Sarah began, only to be silenced by a look from both her and Jake.

"As I was saying," Anne continued, "Johnny hardly talked about anything else for days. He figured having a shoot-out made a man a man and gave him something to strut about. Even started pestering his pa for a Peacemaker." She glanced down at the guns on Jake's hips. "Wooden grip, he said. Nothing fancy, like some of the glory boys wear. Just a good solid Colt. Mr. Cody and I had just about run clean out of patience with the boy. Then, just yesterday, he came home and told me something." She paused, measuring her words. "He said that killing somebody in a gunfight or any other way doesn't make a man grownup or important. He said that a smart man doesn't look for trouble. He walks away from it when he can, and faces it when he can't."

For the first time, Anne smiled. "I guess I'd been telling him pretty near the same, but it didn't get through coming from me or his pa. Made me wonder who got him thinking that way." She offered her hand again. "I wanted to tell you I'm obliged."

Jake stared at the hand before taking it. It was the kind of gesture, one of gratitude, even friendship, that had rarely been made to him. "He's a smart boy, Mrs. Cody. He'd have come around to it."

"Sooner or later." Anne stepped toward the door of the house and then she turned back. "Maggie O'Rourke thinks a lot of you. I guess I found out why. I won't keep you any longer, Mr. Redman."

Not quite sure how to respond, he touched his hat before he started toward the paddock to saddle his horse.

"That's quite a man, Sarah," Anne commented. "If I were you, I'd want to go say a proper goodbye." "Yes, I…" She looked at Anne, then back toward Jake, torn between manners and longings.

"You won't mind if I fix tea, will you?" Anne asked as she disappeared inside.

"No, please, make yourself at home." Sarah looked toward Jake again. "I'll only be a minute." Gathering her skirts, she ran. "Jake!" He turned, the saddle held in both hands, and enjoyed the flash of legs and petticoats. "Wait. I-" She stopped, a hand on her heart, when she realized she was not only out of breath but hadn't any idea what she wanted to say to him. "Are you… When will you be back?"

The mustang shifted and nickered softly as Jake settled the saddle in place. "Haven't left yet."

She hated feeling foolish, and hated even more the idea that he could swing onto his horse and ride out of her life for days at a time. Perhaps patience would do the job.

"I was hoping you'd come back for supper."

He tossed up a stirrup to tighten the cinch. "You asking me to supper?"

"Unless you've something else you'd rather be doing." His hand snaked out, fast and smooth, to snag her arm before she could flounce away. "It's not often I get invitations to supper from pretty ladies." His grip firm, he glanced back toward the house. Things were changing, he decided, and changing fast, when he looked at the adobe cabin and thought of home. He still didn't know what the hell to do about it. "If I'd known you'd need so long to think about it," Sarah said between her teeth, "I wouldn't have bothered. You can just-" But before she could tell him he swept her off her feet.

"You sure do get fired up easy." He brought his mouth down hard on hers to taste the heat and the honey. "That's one of the things I like about you." "Put me down." But her arms encircled his neck. "Mrs. Cody might see." Then she laughed and kissed him again as he swung her down. "Well, will you come to supper or not?"

He vaulted into the saddle in one fluid, economical motion. His eyes were shadowed by the brim of his hat when he looked down at her. "Yeah, I'll come to supper."

"It'll be ready at seven," she called after him as he spurred his horse into a gallop. She watched until dust and distance obscured him. Gathering her skirts again, she ran back to the house. The laughter that was bubbling in her throat dried up when she heard Alice's weeping.

Liza stood by the stove, the kettle steaming in her hand. "Sarah, Ma's…" But Sarah was already rushing up the ladder, ready to defend the girl.

Anne Cody held the weeping Alice in her arms, rocking her gently. One wide, capable hand was stroking the girl's dark hair.

"There now, honey, you cry it all out," she murmured.

"Then it'll be behind you." Wanting quiet, she sent Sarah a warning glance. Her own eyes were damp. Slowly Sarah descended the ladder.

"Alice called for you," Liza explained, still holding the kettle. "Ma went up to see what she needed." Liza set the sputtering kettle aside. Tea was the last thing on her mind. "Sarah, what's going on?"

"I'm not sure I know."

Liza cast another look toward the loft and said in a low voice. "Was she…that girl…really beaten?" "Yes." The memory of it had Sarah touching a fingertip to the bruise under her own eye. "Horribly. Liza, I've never known one person was capable of hurting another so viciously." She needed to be busy, Sarah decided. There was too much to think about.

Her father, the mine, Jake, Alice. After running a distracted hand over her hair, she began to slice honey cake.

"Did she really work for Carlotta?"

"Yes. Liza, she's just a girl, younger than you and I."

"Really?" Torn between sympathy and fascination, Liza edged closer to Sarah. "But she… Well, I mean, at the Silver Star she must have…"

"She didn't know anything else." Sarah looked down at her hands. Honey cake and tea. There had been a time when she had thought life was as ordered and simple as that "Her father sold her. Sold her to a man for twenty dollars."

"But that's-" The curiosity in Liza's eyes heated to fury. "Why, he's the one who should be beat. Her own pa. Somebody ought to-" "Hush, Liza." Anne slipped quietly down the ladder. "No one deserves to be beat."

"Ma. Sarah says that girl's pa sold her. Sold her off for money, like a horse."

Anne paused in the act of brushing down her skirts.

"Is that true, Sarah?"

"Yes. She ran away and ended up at the Silver Star."

Anne's lips tightened as she fought back words that even her husband had never heard her utter. "I'd dearly love that tea now."

"Oh, yes." Sarah hurried back to the stove. "I'm sorry. Please sit down." She set out the napkins she'd made out of blue checked gingham. "I hope you'll enjoy this honey cake. It's a recipe from the cook of a very dear friend of mine in Philadelphia." As she offered the plate, Philadelphia and everyone in it seemed years away.

"Thank you, dear." Anne waited for Sarah to sit down, then said, "Alice is sleeping now. I wasn't sure you'd done the right thing by taking her in here. Truth is, I drove out this morning because I was concerned." "I had to take her in."

"No, you didn't." When Sarah bristled, Anne laid a hand on hers. "But you did what was right, and I'm proud of you. That girl needs help." With a sigh, she sat back and looked at her own daughter. Pretty Liza, she thought, always so bright and curious. And safe, she reflected, adding a quick prayer of thanksgiving. Her children had always had a full plate and a solid roof over their heads-and a father who loved them. She made up her mind to thank her husband very soon.

"Alice Johnson has had nothing but hard times." Anne took a sip of tea. Her mind was made up. She had only to convince her husband. At that thought her lips curved a little. It was never hard to convince a man whose heart was soft and open. The other ladies in town would be a bit more difficult, but she'd bring them around. The challenge of it made her smile widen and the light of battle glint in her eyes. "What that girl needs is some proper work and a real home. When she's on her feet again, I think she should come work at the store."

"Oh, Mrs. Cody."

Anne brushed Sarah's stunned gratitude aside.

"Once Liza's married to Will I'm going to need new help. She can take Liza's room in the house, as well…as part of her wage."

Sarah fumbled for words, then gave up and simply leaned over to wrap her arms around Anne, "It's kind of you," she managed. "So kind. I've spoken with Alice about just that, but she pointed out that the women in town wouldn't accept her after she'd worked at the Silver Star."

"You don't know Ma." Pride shimmered in Liza's voice. "She'll bring the ladies around, every one.

Won't you, Ma?"

Anne patted her hah-. "You can put money on it."

Satisfied, she broke off a corner of the honey cake. "Sarah, now that we've got that settled, I feel I have to talk to you about the…visit you paid to the Silver Star yesterday."

"Visit?" Though she knew it was hopeless, Sarah covered the bruise under her eyes with her fingers. "You know, when you tangled with Carlotta," Liza put in. "Everyone in town's talking about how you wrestled with her and even punched Jake Redman. I wish I'd seen it." She caught her mother's eye and grimaced. "Well, I do."

"Oh, Lord." This time Sarah covered her entire face. "Everyone?"

"Mrs. Miller was standing just outside when the sheriff went in." Liza took a healthy bite of cake. "You know how she loves to carry tales."

When Sarah just groaned, Anne shook her head at Liza. "Honey, you eat some more of that cake and keep your mouth busy. Now, Sarah." Anne pried Sarah's hands away from her face. "I have to say I was a mite surprised to hear that you'd gone in that place and had a hair-pulling match with that woman.

Truth is, a nice young girl like you shouldn't even know about places and people like that."

"Can't live in Lone Bluff two days and not know about Carlotta," Liza said past a mouthful of cake.

"Even Johnny-"

"Liza." Anne held up a single finger. "Chew. Seeing as you're without kin of your own, Sarah, I figured I'd come on out and speak to you about it." She took another sip of tea while Sarah waited to be lectured. "Well, blast it, now that I've seen that girl up there, I wished I'd taken a good yank at Carlotta, myself." "Ma!" Delighted, Liza slapped both hands to her mouth. "You wouldn't."

"No." Anne flushed a little and shifted in her chair. "But I'd like to. Now, I'm not saying I want to hear about you going back there, Sarah."

"No." Sarah managed a rueful smile. "I think I've finished any business I might have at the Silver Star." "Popped you a good one, did she?" Anne commented studying Sarah's eye.

"Yes." Sarah grinned irrepressibly. "But I gave her a bloody nose. It's quite possible that I broke it." "Really. Oh, I do wish I'd seen that." Ready to be impressed, Liza leaned forward, only to straighten again at a look from Anne. "Well, it's not as if I'd go inside myself."

"Not if you want to keep the hide on your bottom," Anne said calmly. She smoothed her hair, took another sip of tea, then gave up. "Well, darn it, are you going to tell us what it looks like in there or not?" With a laugh, Sarah propped her elbows on the table and told them.

Scheming came naturally to Carlotta. As she lay in the wide feather bed, she ran through all the wrongs that had been done to her and her plans for making them right. The light was dim, with only two thin cracks appearing past the sides of the drawn shades. It was a large room by the Silver Star's standards. She'd had the walls between two smaller rooms removed to fashion her own private quarters, sacrificing the money one extra girl would have made her for comfort.

For Carlotta, money and comfort were one and the same. She wanted plenty of both.

Though it was barely nine, she poured a glass of whiskey from the bottle that was always at her bedside. The hot, powerful taste filled the craving she awoke with every morning. Sipping and thinking, she cast her eyes around the room.

The walls were papered in a somewhat virulent red-and-silver stripe she found rich and elegant. Thick red drapes, too heavy for the blistering Arizona summers, hung at the windows. They made her think, smugly, of queens and palaces. The carpet echoed the color and was badly in need of cleaning. She rarely noticed the dirt.

On the mirrored vanity, which was decorated with painted cherubs, was a silver brush set with an elaborate C worked into the design. It was the only monogram she used. Carlotta had no last name, at least none she cared to remember.

Her mother had always had a man in her bed. Carlotta had gone to sleep most nights on a straw pallet in the corner, her lullaby the grunts and groans of sex.

It had made her sick, the way men had pounded themselves into her mother. But that had been nothing compared to the disgust she had felt for her mother's weeping when the men were gone.

Crying and sniveling and begging God's forgiveness, Carlotta thought. Her mother had been the whore of that frigid little town in the Carolina mountains, but she hadn't had the guts to make it work for her.

Always claimed she was doing it to feed her little girl, Carlotta remembered with a sneer. She poured more whiskey into the glass. If that had been so, why had her little girl gone hungry so many nights? In the dim light, Carlotta studied the deep amber liquid. Because Ma was just as fond of whiskey as I am, she decided. She drank, and savored the taste.

The difference between you and me, Ma, she thought to herself, is that I ain't ashamed-not of the whiskey, not of the men. And I made something of myself.

Did you cry when I left? Carlotta laughed as she thought back to the night she'd left the smelly, windowless shack for the last time. She'd been fifteen and she'd saved nearly thirty dollars she'd made selling herself to trappers. Men paid more for youth. Carlotta had learned quickly. Her mother had never known her daughter was her stiffest competition.

She despised them all. Every man who'd pushed himself into her. She took their money, arched her hips and loathed them. Hate made a potent catalyst for passion.

Her customers went away satisfied, and she saved every coin.

One night she'd packed her meager belongings, stolen another twenty dollars from the can her mother kept hidden in the rafters and headed west.

She'd worked saloons in the early years, enjoying the fancy clothes and bottles of paint. Her affair with whiskey had blossomed and helped her smile and seduce hungry-eyed cowboys and rough-handed drifters.

She'd saved, keeping her mouth firmly shut about the bonuses she wheedled from men.

When she'd turned eighteen she had had enough to open her own place. A far cry from the Silver Star, Carlotta remembered. Her first brothel had been hardly more than a shack in a stinking cattle town in-east Texas. But she'd made certain her girls were as young and pretty as she could get.

She'd had a brief affair with a gambler who'd sported brocade vests and string ties. He'd filled her head with talk of crystal chandeliers and red carpets. When she'd moved on, she'd taken his pearl stickpin, two hundred in cash and her own profits.

Then she'd opened the Silver Star.

One day she'd move on again, on to California. But she intended to do it in style. She'd have those crystal chandeliers, she vowed. And a white porcelain tub with gold handles. Gold.

Carlotta felt a pleasure flow through her, a pleasure as fluid as the whiskey. It was gold she needed to bring her dream to full life. And gold she intended to have. The man beside her was the tool she would use to gain it.

Jim Carlson. Carlotta looked down at his face. It was rough with several days' growth of beard and slack from sleep, sex and whiskey. She knew him for a fool, hot-tempered, small-minded and easily manipulated. Still, he was better-looking than many she had taken into her bed. His body was tough and lean, but she preferred young, limber bodies. Like Jake's. Scowling, Carlotta took another drink. She'd broken her most important rule with Jake Redman. She'd let herself want him, really want him, in a way she'd never desired another man. Her body had responded to his so that for the first time in her life she hadn't feigned the ecstasy men wanted from a whore. She'd felt it. Now she craved it, as she craved whiskey, and gold, and power.

With Jake, desire was a hot, tight fist in her gut. Not just because he had a style in bed most men who came to her didn't feel obliged to employ. Because Jake Redman held something of himself back, something she sensed was powerful and exciting. Something she wanted for herself. And had been on her way to getting, she thought, before that pasty-faced bitch had come to town.

She had a lot to pay Miss Sarah Conway back for. Thoughtful, Carlotta touched a hand to her bruised cheek. A whole lot. Pay her back she would, and in doing so she would take Jake and the gold.

Jim Carlson, though he was unaware of it, was going to help her on all counts.

Setting the empty glass aside, Carlotta picked up a hand mirror. The bruises annoyed her, but they would fade. The faint lines fanning out from her eyes and bracketing her mouth would not. They would only deepen. She cursed and pushed the mirror aside. With a pleased smile, she ran both hands down her body. It was long, smooth-skinned and curvaceous.

It was her body men wanted and her body she had used, and would continue to use, to get what life had cheated her of.

She shifted, took Jim in her hand and brought him breathlessly awake.

"God Almighty, Carlotta," Groaning, he tried to roll over and into her.

"In a hurry, Jim?" She evaded him expertly, all the while using her skill to keep him aroused.

"Thought you'd burned the life out of me last night." He shuddered. "Glad to find out it ain't so." "I want to talk to you, Jim."

"Talk." He filled his hands with her breasts.

"Honey, I got better ways to spend my money than talk."

She let him suck and nuzzle, calculating how far she could let him go and keep him in line. Rooting about like a puppy, she thought in disgust while she stroked his hair.

"Your money ran out at dawn, sweetheart."

"I got more." He bit her, hard. Because she knew he expected it, she gave a soft moan of pleasure. "House rules, Jim. Money first."

He swore at her and considered taking his pleasure as he chose. But if he forced her and managed to avoid getting tossed out by Eli, the doors of the Silver Star would be barred to him. He had money, he thought. And a need that was rock-hard.

When he started to shift, Carlotta trailed a finger down his arm. "Talk, Jim, and I'll…" With a long sigh, she arched back so that he could look his fill.

"I'll give you the rest for free."

Sweat beaded on his upper lip as he studied her.

"You don't do nothing for free."

Deliberately she ran a hand over her breast and down her rib cage and stroked the soft swell of her belly. "Talk. We're going to talk first." Her lips curved as she watched him swallow. "About gold." When he stiffened, her smile only widened. "Don't worry, Jim. I haven't told anyone, have I? I've never said a word about how you and Donley killed old Matt Conway."

"I was drunk when I told you about that." He wiped a hand over the back of his mouth as fear and desire twined inside him. "A man says all kinds of things when he's drunk."

That made her laugh. She pillowed her head on her folded arms "Nobody knows that better than a whore or a wife, honey. Relax. Who was the one who told you old Matt had finally hit? Who was the one who told you his daughter was coming and you had to move fast? Don't try dealing from the bottom with me, sweetheart. It's business, remember. Yours and mine."

After pushing himself up in bed, he reached bad-temperedly for the whiskey bottle. "I told you once Sam got things worked out you'd get your share." "And what does Sam have to work out?" She let him take a swallow, two. It never hurt to loosen a man's tongue, but there were some who went from relaxed to mean with whiskey. With Jim the line was all too easily crossed. She took the bottle back.

"We've already been through this," he muttered. He no longer felt like having sex, and he sure as hell didn't want to talk.

"If Sam had some idea about getting that Conway bitch to the altar to get his hands on the deed, he's had time enough. Everybody in town knows she doesn't have her eye on your brother, but on Jake Redman." "How about you?" He tapped a finger, none too gently, against her bruised cheekbone. "Who do you have those blue eyes on?"

"The main chance, sweetheart. Always the main chance." She ran her tongue over her lips, grimly pleased with the way Jim's eyes followed the movement. The surest way to lead a man, she knew, was from a point just below his gunbelt. She rose, knowing the shuttered light would be flattering to her skin. Slowly she ran her hands up her body, letting them linger on her breasts.

"You know, Jim," she began, slipping into a thin red negligee that was as transparent as glass, "I've always been drawn to men who take risks, who know what they want and take it." She left the negligee open as she walked back toward the bed. "That night you came in and told me how you and Donley had dragged Matt up to the mine and how you'd killed him because he wouldn't hand over the deed. You told me just how you'd killed him, how you'd hurt him first. Remember that night, Jim? You and me sure had ourselves a good time after we came upstairs."

He wet his lips. Her nipples were dark and just out of reach. "I remember."

"It was exciting. Knowing you'd just come from killing a man. Killing him to get what you wanted. I knew I was with a real man." The negligee fell carelessly off one shoulder. "Trouble is, nothing's happened since. I keep waiting."

"I told you. Sam's going-"

"The hell with Sam." She battled back her temper to smile at him. "He's too slow, too careful. A real man takes action. If he wants the Conway girl, why doesn't he just take her? Or you could take her for him." She moved closer, letting the idea take root. "She's all that's in the way, Jim. You deal with her-and I ain't talking-about firing one of her sheds." The quick wariness in his eyes pleased her. "Hurt her, Jim. She'll hand over the deed quick enough. Then kill her." She murmured the words like a love song.

"When she's dead, you come to me. We can do anything you want." She stood beside the bed, glorious and gleaming. "Anything. And it won't cost you a cent."

She didn't cry out when his hand clamped over her wrist. Their faces were close, each of them aroused in different ways, for different reasons.

"You'll take care of her?"

"Yes, damn you. Come here."

Carlotta smiled bitterly at the ceiling while Jim collapsed on top of her.

From her window an hour later, Carlotta watched as Jake rode into town. Her hands clenched into fists- from anger, yes, but also from a stab of desire. Soon, she thought, very soon, he'd come back to her.

She turned as Jim pulled up his pants. She was smiling. "I think it's a real good time for you to pay Sarah Conway a visit."