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23.12.2018

Carlson crossed the room until only the desk was between them. "Sarah." His voice was almost a sigh, a sigh touched with patience. In his hand he carried a delicate cup filled with fragrant tea. But she noted that he had strapped on his gun. "I realize how upset you must be after Jim's inexcusable behavior. Now, why don't you sit down, compose yourself?"

"You killed my father," she repeated. It was rage she felt now, waves of it.

"That's ridiculous." The words were said gently. "I haven't killed anyone. Here, my dear. I've brought you some tea. It should help calm you."

The quiet sincerity in his eyes caused her to falter. He must have sensed it, because he smiled and stepped forward. Instantly she backed away. "Why was this in your desk?"

Carlson looked at the miniature in her hand. "A woman should never intrude on a man's personal belongings." His voice became indulgent as he set the cup on the desk. "But since you have, I'll confess. I can be faulted for being overly romantic, I suppose.

The moment I saw it, I fell in love with you. The moment I saw your face, I wanted you." He held out a hand, palm up, as if he were asking for a dance. "Come, Sarah, you can't condemn me for that."

Confused, she shook her head. "Tell me how this came to be in your drawer when it belonged to my father."

Impatience clouded his face, and he dropped his hand to his side. "Isn't baring my soul enough for you? You knew, right from the beginning, you knew the way I felt about you. You deceived me." There was more than impatience in his face now. Something else was building in him. Something that had the bright, hot taste of fear clogging her throat.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Samuel." She spaced her words carefully and kept her eyes on his. "But you're right. I'm upset, and I'm not myself. I'd prefer to go home now and discuss all of this later." With the miniature still clutched in her hand, she stepped around the desk and toward the door. The violence with which he grabbed her and shoved her back against the wall had her head reeling.

"It's too late. Jim's interference has changed everything. His interference, and your prying. I was patient with you, Sarah. Now it's too late."

His face was close to hers-close enough for her to see clearly what was in his eyes. She wondered, as the blood drained slowly from her face, how it was that she'd never seen it before. The madness was bright and deadly. She tried to speak and found she had to swallow first.

"Samuel, you're hurting me."

"I would have made you a queen." He took one hand and brought it up to stroke her face. She cringed, but his eyes warned her not to move. "I would have given you everything a woman could want. Silk." He traced a finger over her cheekbone. "Diamonds." Then he ran it lightly down her throat. "Gold." His hand tightened abruptly around her windpipe. Before she could begin to struggle, it was loosened again. "Gold, Sarah. It belonged to me, truly to me. My grandfather had no right to lose that part of my heritage.

And your father…he had no right to deny me what was already mine."

"He did it for me." Perhaps she could calm him, if only she could remain calm herself, before it was too late. "He only wanted to see that I was taken care of."

"Of course." He nodded, as if he were pleased that she understood. "Of course he did. As I do. It would have been yours as much as mine. I would never have let you suffer because I had taken it back. As my wife, you would have had every luxury. We would have gone back east together. That was always my plan. I was going to follow you back east and court you. But you stayed. You should never have stayed, Sarah. This isn't the place for you. I knew it the moment I saw your picture. It was there, in that miserable little cabin, beside the cot. I found it while I was looking for the deed to the mine."

His face changed again. He looked petulant now, like a boy who had been denied an extra piece of pie.

"I was very annoyed that my brother and Donley killed Matt. Clumsy. They were only to…convince him to turn over the deed. Then, of course, it was up to me to think of causing the cave-in to cover up what they'd done. I never found the deed. But I found your picture."

She didn't think he was aware of how viciously his fingers were digging into her arms. She was almost certain he was no longer aware of how much he was telling her. She remained silent and still, knowing her only hope now was time.

"Delicate," he murmured. "Such a delicate face. The innocence shining in the eyes, the soft curve of the mouth. It was a lie, wasn't it, Sarah?" The violence sprang back into his face, and she could only shake her head and wait. "There was no delicacy, no innocence. You toyed with me, offering me smiles, only smiles, while you gave yourself to Redman like a whore. He should be dead for touching what belonged to me. You should both be dead."

She prepared to scream. She prepared to fight for what she knew was her life.

"Sam!" The banging on the door brought with it a mixture of fear and relief.

Swearing, Carlson dragged Sarah to the door to unlock it. "Goddamn it, I told you to go back and get rid of the wagon and team."

"Riders coming in." The sweat on Jim's face attested to the fact that he had already ridden, and ridden hard. "It's Redman and the sheriff, with some men from town." He glanced at Sarah. "They'll be looking for her."

When Sarah tried to break away, Samuel locked an arm around her throat. "You've ruined everything, bringing her here."

"I only did it 'cause you wanted her. I could've taken care of her back on the road. Hell, I could've taken care of her the night we torched her shed, but you said you didn't want her hurt none."

Carlson tightened his grip as Sarah clawed at his arm. Her vision grayed from lack of air. As if from a distance, she heard the voices, one mixing into the other.

"How long?"

"Ten minutes, no more… Kill her now."

"Not here, you idiot… Hold them off… In the hills."

Sarah's last thought before she lost consciousness was that Jake was coming, but too late.

"You listen to me." Barker stopped the men on the rise above the Carlson ranch. But it was Jake he was looking at. "I know you'd like to ride in there hellbent, but you take a minute to think. If they've got her, we've got to go slow."

"They've got her." In his mind, the Carlson brothers were already dead.

"Then let's make sure we get her back in one piece.

Will, I want you to break off, ease on over to the Barn.

John, I'd be obliged if you'd circle around the back. I don't want any shooting until it's necessary." With a nod, he spurred his horse.

Jim watched them coming and wiped the sweat off his brow. His men were all out on the range. Not that they'd have been any good, he thought. The only one who'd have backed them against the sheriff was Doney. And he was dead. Wetting his lips, he levered the rifle in the window.

He had to wait until they got close. That was what Sam had told him. Wait until they got close. Then he was to kill as many as he could. Starting with Redman.

Sweat dripped down into his eyes. His fingers twitched.

Sam had sent Donley to kill Redman, Jim remembered. But it was Donley who'd been buried. Now he was going to do it. He wet his lips when he caught Jake in the sight. He was going to do it right. But nerves had his finger jerking on the trigger.

Jake felt the bullet whiz past his cheek. Like lightning, he kicked one foot free of the stirrup to slide halfway down the side of his horse. Gun drawn, he rode toward the house while Barker shouted orders.

He could hear the men scrambling for cover and returning fire, but his mind was on one thing and one thing alone.

Getting inside to Sarah.

Outside the doors, he leaped off. When he kicked them open, his second gun was drawn. The hall and the foyer were empty. He could hear the shouts of men and peppering gunfire. With a quick glance for any sign of her, he started up the stairs.

Jim Carlson's back was to him when he broke open the door.

"Where is she?" Jake didn't flinch when a bullet from outside plowed into the wall beside him.

From his crouched position, Jim turned slowly.

"Sam's got her." With a grin, he swung his rifle up.

For months he'd wanted another chance to kill Jake Redman. Now he took it.

He was still grinning as he fell forward. Jake slid his smoking guns back in their holsters. Moving quickly, he began to search the house.

Barker met him on the steps. "She ain't here. I found this on the floor." In his hand he held Sarah's miniature.

Jake's eyes flicked up to Barker's. They held there only seconds, but Barker knew he would never forget the look in them. Later he would tell his wife it was the look of a man whose soul had gotten loose.

Turning on his heel, Jake headed outside, with Barker close behind.

"Oh, God." For the first time since Jake had known him, Barker moved with speed. Pushing past Jake, he raced to where two of his men were carrying Will Metcalf.

"He isn't dead." John Cody laid Will down and held his head. "But we have to get him back to town, to the doc."

Barker crouched down as Will's eyes fluttered open.

"You're going to be all right, son."

"Took me by surprise," Will managed, struggling not to gasp at the pain as Cody pressed a pad to the hole in his shoulder. "Was Sam Carlson, Sheriff. He had her-I saw he had her on the horse. Think they headed west."

"Good job, Will." Barker used his own bandanna to wipe the sweat off his deputy's brow. "One of you men hitch up a wagon, get some blankets. You get this boy to the doctor, John. Redman and I'll go after Carlson."

But when he stood, all he saw of Jake was the dust his mustang kicked up as he galloped west.

Sarah came to slowly, nausea rising in her throat. Moaning, she choked it back and tried to lift a hand to her spinning head. Both wrists were bound tight to the saddle horn.

For a. moment she thought she was still with Jim.

Then she remembered.

The horse was climbing, picking its way up through dusty, dung-colored rock. She watched loose dirt and stones dislodged by the horse's hooves fall down a dizzying ravine. The man behind her was breathing hard. Fighting for calm, she tried to mark the trail they were taking and remember it. When she escaped-and she would-she didn't intend to wander helplessly through the rocks.

He stopped the horse near the edge of a canyon.

She could see the thin silver line of a river far below. An eagle called as he swooped into the wide opening, then returned to a nest built in the high rock wall. "Samuel, please-" She cried out when he pulled the rope from around her wrists and dragged her roughly to the ground. One look warned her that the calm, sane words she had meant to use would never reach him.

There was a bright, glazed light in his eyes. His face was pale and drenched with sweat. His hair was dark with it. She watched his eyes dart here and there, as if he expected something to leap out from behind a huddle of rock.

The man who had swept off his hat and kissed her fingers wasn't here with her now. If he had ever been part of Samuel Carlson, he had vanished. The man who stood over her was mad, and as savage as any beast that lived in the hills.

"What are you going to do?"

"He's coming." Still breathing rapidly, Carlson swiped a hand over his mouth. "I saw him behind us. When he comes for you, I'll be ready." He reached down to drag her to her feet.

"I'm going to kill him, Sarah. Kill him like a dog." He pulled out his gun and rubbed the barrel against her cheek, gently, like a caress. "You're going to watch. I want you to watch me kill him. Then you'll understand. It's important that you understand. A man like that deserves to die by a gun. He's nothing, less than nothing. A crude gunslinger with Indian blood. He put his hands on you." A whimper escaped her as he dragged a hand through her hair. "I'm going to kill him for you, Sarah. Then we're going away, you and I."

"No." She wrenched free. The canyon was at her back when she faced him. If she had stumbled another step she would have fallen back into nothing. There was fear. The taste of it was bitter in her throat. But it wasn't for herself. Jake would come, she knew, and someone would die. "I won't go anywhere with you. It's over, Samuel. You must see that. They know what you've done, and they'll hunt you down."

"A potbellied sheriff?" He laughed and, before she could evade him, closed his hand over her arm. "Not likely. This is a big country, Sarah. They won't find us."

"I won't go with you." The pain when he squeezed her arm nearly buckled her knees. "I'll get away." "If I must, I'll keep you locked up, the way my mother was locked up. For your own good."

She heard the horse even as he did and screamed out a warning. "No, Jake, he'll kill you!" Then she screamed again, this time in pain, as Carlson bent her arm behind her back. Calmly he put the gun to her temple.

"It's her I'll kill, Redman. Come out slow and keep your hands where I can see them, or the first bullet goes in her brain." He twisted her arm ruthlessly because he wanted Jake to hear her cry out again. He wanted Jake to hear the pain. "Now, Redman, or I'll kill her and toss her body over the edge."

"No. Oh, no." Tears blurred her vision as she watched Jake step out into the open. "Please don't. It won't gain you anything to kill him. I'll go with you." She tried to turn her head to look into Carlson's eyes.

"I'll go anywhere you want."

"Not gain anything?" Carlson laughed again, and it echoed off the rocks and air. "Satisfaction, my dear. I'll gain satisfaction."

"Are you hurt?" Jake asked quietly.

"No." She shook her head, praying she could will him back behind the rock, back to safety. "No, he hasn't hurt me. He won't if you go back."

"But you're wrong, my dear, quite wrong." Carlson bent his head close to hers, amused by the quick fury in Jake's eyes when he brushed his lips over Sarah's hair. "I'll have to, you see, because you won't understand. Unless I kill him for you, you won't understand.

Your gunbelt, Redman." Carlson drew back the hammer for emphasis and kept the gun tight against Sarah's temple. "Take it off, slowly, very slowly, and kick it aside."

"No!" She began to struggle, only to have him drag her arm farther up her back. "I'll kill you myself." She wept in rage and fear. "I swear it."

"When I'm done here, my dear, you'll do exactly what I say, when I say. In time you'll understand this was for the best. Drop the belt, Redman." Carlson smiled at him and jerked his head to indicate that he wanted the guns kicked away. "That's fine." He took the gun away from Sarah's temple to point it at Jake's heart. "You know, I've never killed a man before. It always seemed more civilized to hire someone- someone like yourself." His smile widened. "But I believe I'm going to enjoy it a great deal."

"You might." Jake watched his eyes. He could only hope Sarah had the sense to run when it was over. Barker couldn't be far behind. "Maybe you'll enjoy it more when I tell you I killed your brother."

The muscles in Carlson's cheek twitched. "You bastard."

Sarah screamed and threw her weight against his gun hand. She felt the explosion, as if the bullet had driven into her. Then she was on her knees. Life poured out of her when she saw Jake sprawled on the ground, blood seeping from his side.

"No. Oh, God, no."

Carlson threw back his head and laughed at the sky.

"I was right. I enjoyed it. But he's not dead yet. Not quite yet." His lips stretched back from his teeth as he lifted the gun again.

She didn't think. There was no room for thought in a mind swamped with grief. She reached out and felt the smooth grip of Jake's gun in her hand. Kneeling in the dirt, she balanced it and aimed. "Samuel," she murmured, and waited for him to turn his head.

The gun jumped in her hand when she fired. The sound of the shot echoed on and on and on. He just stared at her. Afraid she'd missed, Sarah drew back the hammer and calmly prepared to fire again.

Then he stumbled. He stared at her as his hand.; reached up to press against the blood that blossomed I on his shirtfront. Without a sound, he fell back. He groped once in the air, then tumbled off the edge and into the canyon.

Her hand went limp on the gun. Then the shudders began, racking shudders, as she crawled to Jake. He'd pushed himself upon one elbow, and he held his knife in his hand. She was weeping as she tore at her petticoats to pad the wound in his side.

"I thought he'd killed you. You looked-" There was so much blood, she thought frantically as she tore more cloth. "You need a doctor. I'll get you on the horse as soon as-" She broke off again as her voice began to hitch. "It was crazy, absolutely crazy, for you to come out in the open like that. I thought you had more sense."

"So did I." The pain was searing, centering in his side and flowing out in waves of heat. He wanted to touch her, just once more, before he died. "Sarah…"

"Don't talk." Tears clogged her throat. His blood seeped through the pad and onto her hands. "Just lie still. I'm going to take care of you. Damn you, I won't let you die." He couldn't see her face. Tired of the effort, he closed his eyes. He thought, but couldn't be sure, that he heard horses coming. "You're a hell of a woman," he murmured, and passed out.

When he awoke, it was dark. There was a bitter taste in his mouth and a hollow throbbing at the base of his skull. The pain in his side was still there, but dull now, and constant. He lay still and wondered how long he'd been in hell.

He closed his eyes again, thinking it didn't matter how long he'd been there, since he wouldn't be leaving. Then he smelled her, smelled the soft scent that was Sarah. Though it cost him dearly, he opened his eyes again and tried to sit up.

"No, don't." She was there, murmuring to him, pressing him gently back on a pillow, then laying a cool cloth against his hot face.

"How long-" He could only manage two whispered words before the strength leaked out of him.

"Don't worry." Cradling his head with her arm, she brought a cup to his lips. "Drink a little. Then you'll sleep again. I'm right here with you," she continued when he coughed and tried to turn his head away. "Can't-" He tried to focus on her face, but saw only a silhouette. It was Sarah, though. "Can't be in hell," he murmured, then sank back into the darkness…

When he awoke again, it was daylight. And she was there, leaning over him, smiling, murmuring something he couldn't quite understand. But there were tears drying on her cheeks, cheeks that were too pale. She sat beside him, took his hand and held it against her lips. Even as he struggled to speak, he lost consciousness again.

She thought it would drive her mad, the way he drifted in and out of consciousness that first week, with the fever burning through him and the doctor giving her no hope. Hour after hour, day after day, she sat beside him, bathing his hot skin, soothing when the chills racked him, praying when he fell back into that deep, silent sleep.

What had he said that day when he'd awakened?

Pacing to the window, the one Maggie had told her Jake had sometimes sat in, she drew the curtain aside to look down at the empty street. He'd said it couldn't be hell. But he'd been wrong, Sarah thought. It was hell, and she was mired in it, terrified each day that he would leave her.

So much blood. He'd lost so much blood. By the time Barker had ridden up she'd nearly managed to stop it, but the ride back to town had cost him more. She had stanched still more while the doctor had cut and probed into his side to remove the bullet. She hadn't known that watching the bullet come out of him would be as bad as watching it go in.

Then the fever had raced through him, vicious and merciless. In a week he'd been awake only a handful of minutes, often delirious, sometimes speaking in what Lucius had told her was Apache. If it didn't break soon, she knew, no matter how hard she prayed, no matter how hard she fought, it would take him. Sarah moved back to the bed to sit beside him and watch over him in the pale light of dawn.

Time drifted, for her even as it did for him. She lost track of minutes, then hours, then days. When morning came she held his hand in hers and thought over the time they'd had together. His hands had been strong, she thought. Biting back a sob, she laid her forehead on his shoulder. And gentle, too, she remembered. When he'd touched her. When he'd taught her.

With him she'd found something lovely, something powerful. A sunrise. A fast river. A storm. She knew now that love, desire, passion and affection could be one emotion for one man. From that first frantic discovery in the hay to the soft, sweet loving by the stream, he'd given her more than most women had in a lifetime.

"But I'm greedy," she murmured to him. "I want more. Jake, don't leave me. Don't cheat me out of what we could have." She blinked back tears when she heard the door open behind her.

"How is he?"

"The same." Sarah rose,and waited while Maggie set a tray on the bureau. She'd long ago stopped arguing about eating. It had taken her only a few days to realize that if she wanted the strength to stay with Jake she needed food.

"Don't worry none about this breakfast, because Anne Cody made it up for you."

Sarah dashed away the hated, weakening tears.

"That was kind of her."

"She asked about our boy here, and wanted you to know that Alice is doing just fine."

"I'm glad." Without interest, she folded back the cloth so that steam rose fragrantly from the biscuits. "Looks like Carlotta skipped town."

"It doesn't matter." With no more interest than she had in the biscuits, she looked at her own face in the mirror. Behind her reflection, she could see Jake lying motionless in the bed. "The damage is done."

"Child, you need sleep, and not what you get sitting up in that chair all night. You go on and use my room. I'll stay with him."

"I can't." Sarah ignored the biscuits and took the coffee. "Sometimes he calls for me, and I'm afraid if I'm not here he might…slip away. That's foolish, I suppose, but I just can't leave him, Maggie."

"I know." Because she did, Maggie set a comforting hand on Sarah's shoulder. The noise at the door had her turning back. "What are you doing sneaking around here, young John Cody?"

Johnny slipped into the doorway and stood with his hat crushed in his hands. "Just wanted to see him, is all."

"A sickroom ain't no place for nasty little boys." "It's all right." Sarah waved him in and summoned up a smile. "I'm sure Jake would be pleased that you'd taken the time to visit him."

"He ain't going to die, is he, Sarah?"

"No." She found the confidence she'd lost during the night. "No, he isn't going to die, Johnny." "Ma says you're taking real good care of him." He reached out a hand, then balled it at his side again.

"It's all right, boy," Maggie said, softening. "You can pet him as long as he don't know it. I do it myself." Gingerly Johnny stroked a hand along Jake's forehead.

"He's pretty hot."

"Yes, but the fever's going to break soon." Sarah laid a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "Very soon."

"Will's better," he said, giving Sarah a hopeful smile. "He's got his arm in a sling and-all, but he's getting around just fine and dandy. Won't even let Liza fuss no more."

"Before long Jake won't let me fuss, either."

Hours later she dozed, lulled by the afternoon sun. She slept lightly, her head nestled against the wing of the chair and her hands in her lap on top of her journal. She'd written everything she felt, hoped, despaired of on those pages. Someone called her name, and she lifted a hand as if to brush the voice away. She only wanted to sleep.

"Sarah."

Now her eyes flew open, and she bolted out of the chair. Jake was half sitting up in bed, his brows drawn together in annoyance or confusion. And his eyes, she noted, were focused, alert and direct on hers.

"What the hell's going on?" he asked her. Then he watched, astonished, as she collapsed on the side of the bed and wept.

It was three weeks before he had the strength to do more than stand on his own feet. He had time to think-perhaps too much time-but when he tried to do anything he found himself weak as a baby. It infuriated him, disgusted him. When he swore at Maggie twice in one morning, she told Sarah their patient was well on the road to recovery.

"He's a tough one, Jake is," Maggie went on as they climbed the steps to his room together. "Said he was damn sick and tired of having females poking him, pouring things into him and trying to give him baths."

"So much for gratitude," Sarah said with a laugh.

Then she swayed and clutched the banister for support. Maggie grabbed her arm. "Honey, are you all right?"

"Yes. Silly." Shrugging it off, Sarah waited for the dizziness to pass. "I'm just tired yet, I think." One look at Maggie's shrewd face had her giving up and sitting carefully on the riser.

"How far along are you?"

It surprised Sarah that the direct question didn't make her blush. Instead, she smiled. "About a month." She knew the exact moment when she had conceived Jake's child, on the riverbank under the moon. "I had the obvious sign, of course. Then, for the last few days, I haven't been able to keep anything down in the morning."

"I know." Pleased as a partridge, Maggie cackled. "Honey, I knew you were breeding three days ago, when you turned green at the sight of Anne Cody's flapjacks. Ain't Jake just going to fall on his face?" "I haven't told him," Sarah said quickly. "I don't want him to know until he's…until we've…" She propped her chin in her hands. "Not yet, Maggie." "That's for you to decide."

"Yes, and you won't say any thing… to anyone?"

"Not a peep."

Satisfied, Sarah rose and started up the stairs again. "The doctor said he'd be up and around in a couple of days. We haven't been able to talk about anything important since he's been healing." She knocked on the door to his room before pushing it open.

The bed was empty.

"What-Maggie!"

"He was there an hour ago. I don't know where-" But she was talking to air, as Sarah was flying down the stairs again.

"Sarah! Sarah!" His hand wrapped around a licorice whip, Johnny raced toward her. "I just saw Jake riding out of town. He sure looked a lot better."

"Which way?" She grabbed the surprised boy by the shoulders. "Which way did he go?"

"That way." He pointed. "I called after him, but I guess he didn't hear me."

"Damned hardheaded man," Maggie muttered from the doorway.

"So he thinks he can just ride off," Sarah said between her teeth. "Well, Jake Redman is in for a surprise. I need a horse, Maggie. And a rifle."

He'd thought it through. He'd had nothing but time to think over the last weeks. She'd be mad, he figured. He almost smiled. Mad enough to spit, he imagined, but she'd get over it. In time she'd find someone who was right for her. Who was good for her.

Talking to her wouldn't have helped. He'd never known a more stubborn woman. So he'd saddled up and ridden out of Lone Bluff the way he'd ridden out of countless towns before. Only this time it hurt. Not just the pain from his still-healing wound, but an ache deeper, sharper, than anything that could be caused by a bullet.

He'd get over it, too, he told himself. He'd just been fooling himself, letting himself pretend that she could belong to him.

He'd never forget how she'd looked, kneeling in the dirt with his gun in her hand. His gun. And there had been horror in her eyes. He'd taught her to kill, and he wasn't sure he could live with that.

The way he figured it, she'd saved his life. The best he could do for her was return the favor and get out of hers.

She was rich now. Jake remembered how excited Lucius had been when he'd come to visit, talking on and on about the mine and how the gold was all but ready to fall into a man's hands. She could go back east, or she could stay and build that big house with the parlor she'd told him about.

And he would…he would go on drifting.

When he heard the rider coming, instinct had him wheeling his horse around and reaching for his gun. He swore, rubbing his hand on his thigh, as Sarah closed the distance between them.

"You bastard."

He acknowledged her with a nod. There was only one way to handle her now, one way to make certain she turned around and left. Before just looking at her made him want to crawl.

"Didn't know you could ride, Duchess. You come out all this way to tell me goodbye?"

"I have more than that to say." Her hands balled on the reins while she fought with her temper. "Not a word, Jake, to me, to anyone? Just saddle up and ride out?"

"That's right. When it's time to move on, you move."

"So you're telling me you have no reason to stay?" "That's right." He knew the truth sometimes hurt, but he hadn't known a lie could. "You're a mighty pretty woman, Duchess. You'll be hard to top."

He saw the hurt glow in her eyes before her chin came up. "That's a compliment? Well, you're quite right, Jake. I'll be very hard to top. You'll never love another woman the way you love me. Or want one," she said, more quietly. "Or need one."

"Go on back, Sarah." He started to turn his horse but stopped short when she drew the rifle out of its holster and aimed it heart-high. "You want to point that someplace else?"

For an answer, she lowered it a few strategic inches, smiling when his brow lifted. "Ever hear the one about hell's fury, Jake?"

"I get the idea." He shifted slightly. "Duchess, if it's all the same to you, I'd rather you pointed it back at my chest."

"Get off your horse."

"Damn it, Sarah."

"I said off." She cocked the lever in two sharp movements. "Now."

He leaned forward in the saddle. "How do I know that's even loaded?"

"How do you know it's loaded?" She smiled, brought it up to her eye and fired. His hat flew off his head.

"Are you crazy?" Stunned, he dragged a hand through his hair. He could almost feel the heat. "You damn near killed me."

"I hit what I aim at. Isn't that what you said I should learn to do?" She cocked the rifle again. "Now get off that horse before I shoot something more vital off you."

Swearing, he slid down. "What the hell are you trying to prove with all this?"

"Just hold it right there." She dropped to the ground. Giddiness washed over her, and she had to lean one hand against her mount.

"Sarah-"

"I said hold it right there." She shook her head to clear it.

"Are you sick?"

"No." Steady again, she smiled. "I've never felt better in my life."

"Just crazy, then." He relaxed a little, but her pallor worried him. "Well, if you've a mind to kill me after spending the better part of a month keeping me alive, go ahead."

"You're damn right I kept you alive, and I didn't do it so you could leave me the minute you could stand up. I did it because I love you, because you're everything I want and everything I intend to have.

Now you tell me, you stand there and tell me why you left."

"I already told you. It was time."

"You're a bar. Worse, you're a coward."

Her words had the effect she'd hoped for. The cool, almost bored look in his eyes sizzled into heat. "Don't push me, Sarah."

"I haven't begun to push you. I'll start by telling you why you got on that horse and rode away. You left because you were afraid. Of me. No, not even of me, of yourself and what you feel for me." Her chin was up, a challenge in her eyes as she dared him to say it was untrue. "You loved me enough to stand unarmed in front of a madman, but not enough to face your own heart."

"You don't know what I feel."

"Don't I? If you believe that, you're a fool, as well as a liar." The fresh flash of fury in his eyes delighted her. "Don't you think I knew every time you touched me, every time you kissed me?" He was silent, and she drew a long breath. "Well, you can get on that horse and you can ride, you can run into the hills, to the next town. You can keep running until you're hundreds of miles away. Maybe you'll be fast enough, just fast enough to get away from me. But before you do you're going to tell me."

"Tell you what?"

"I want you to tell me you love me."

He studied her. Her eyes glowed with determination, and her cheeks were flushed with anger. Her hair, caught by the wind, was blowing back. He should have known then and there that he'd never had anywhere to run.

"A man'll say most anything when a woman's pointing a rifle at his belly."

"Then say it."

He bent to pick up his hat, slapping it against his thighs twice to loosen the dust. Idly he poked his finger through the hole in the crown.

"I love you, Sarah." He settled the hat on his head.

"Now do you want to put that thing away?"

The temper went out of her eyes, and with it the glint of hope. Without a word, she turned to secure the rifle in the holder. "Well, I had to threaten it out of you, but at least I heard you say it once. Go ahead and ride off. I won't stop you. No one's holding a gun on you now." She wouldn't cry. No, she swore to herself she wouldn't hold him with tears. Fighting them back, she tried to struggle back into the saddle. He touched her arm, lightly, not holding, when he wanted more than anything he'd ever wanted in his life to hold her. "I love you, Sarah," he said again. "More than I should. A hell of a lot more than I can stand." She closed her eyes, praying that what she did now would be right for both of them. Slowly she turned toward him, but she kept her hands at her sides. "If you ride away now, I'll come after you. No matter where you go, I'll be there. I'll make your life hell, I swear it."

He couldn't stop the smile any more than he could stop his hand from reaching up to touch her face. "And if I don't ride away?"

"I'll only make your life hell some of the time." "I guess that's a better bargain." He lowered his head to kiss her gently. Then, with a groan, he crushed her hard against him. "I don't think I'd've gotten very far, even if you hadn't shot at me."

"No use taking chances. Lucky for you I was trying to shoot over your head."

He only sighed and drew her away. "You owe me a hat, Duchess." Still amazed, he drew it off to poke at the hole. "I guess I'd have to marry any woman who could handle a gun like that."

"Is that a proposal?"

He shrugged and stuck his hat back on his head.

"Sounded like it."

She lifted a brow. "And it's the best you can do?" "I haven't got any five-dollar words." Disgusted, he started back to his horse. Then he stopped and turned back. She was waiting, her arms folded, a half smile on her face. So he swore at her. "There's a preacher comes into town once every few weeks. He can marry us proper enough, with whatever kind of fuss you figure would satisfy you. I'll build you a house, between the mine and the town, with a parlor if that's what you want, and a wood floor, and a real bedroom."

To her it was the most eloquent of proposals. She held out her hands. "We'll need two."

"Two what?"

"Two bedrooms," she said when his hands closed over hers again.

"Listen, Duchess, I've heard they've got some odd ways of doing things back east, but I'm damned if my wife is going to sleep in another room."

"Oh, no." Her smile lit up her face. "I'm going to sleep in the same room, the same bed as you, every night for the rest of my life. But we'll need two bedrooms. At least we will by spring."

"I don't see why-" Then he did, so abruptly, so stunningly, that he could only stare at her. If she had taken the rifle back out and driven it butt first into his gut he would have been less shaken. His fingers went slack on hers, then dropped away. "Are you sure?" "Yes." She held her breath. "There's going to be a child. Our child."

He wasn't sure he could move, and was less sure he could speak. Slowly, carefully, he framed her face with his hands and kissed her. Then, when emotions swamped him, he simply rested his forehead against hers. "Two bedrooms," he murmured. "To start."

Content, she wrapped her arms around his waist.

"Yes. To start."