Within a week Sarah had orders for six dresses. It took all her creativity and skill to fashion them, using her wardrobe and her imagination instead of patterns. She set aside three hours each day and three each evening for sewing. Each night when she climbed up to bed her eyes and fingers ached. Once or twice, when the exhaustion overwhelmed her, she wept herself to sleep. The grief for her father was still too raw, the country surrounding her still too rugged.
But there were other times, and they were becoming more common, when she fell asleep with a sense of satisfaction. In addition to the dresses, she'd made pretty yellow curtains for the windows and a matching cloth for the table. It was her dream, when she'd saved enough from her sewing, to buy planks for a real floor. In the meantime, she made do with what she had and was more grateful than she'd ever imagined she could be for Lucius.
He'd finished building a new shed and he was busy repairing the other outbuildings. Though he'd muttered about it, he'd agreed to build Sarah the chicken coop she wanted. At night he was content to sleep with the horses.
Sometimes he watched, tickling Lafitte's belly, as she took her daily rifle practice.
She hadn't seen Jake Redman since the day he'd given her a shooting lesson. Just as well, Sarah told herself as she pulled on her gloves. There was no one she wanted to see less. If she thought about him at all-and she hated to admit she had-it was with disdain. A hired gun. A man with no loyalty or morals. A drifter, moving from place to place, always ready to draw his weapon and kill. To think she'd almost begun to believe there was something special about him, something good and admirable. He'd helped her, there was no denying that. But he'd probably done so out of sheer boredom. Or perhaps, she thought, remembering the kiss, because he wanted something from her. Something, she was ashamed to admit, she had nearly been willing to give.
How? Sarah picked up her hand mirror and studied her face, not out of vanity but because she hoped to see some answers there. How had he managed to make her feel that way in just a few short days, with just one embrace? Now, time after time, in the deepest part of the night, she brought herself awake because she was dreaming of him. Remembering, she thought, experiencing once again that stunning moment in the sun when his mouth had been on hers and there had been no doubt in her mind that she belonged there.
A momentary madness, she told herself, placing the mirror face down on the table. Sunstroke, perhaps. She would never, could never, be attracted to a man who lived his life the way Jake Redman lived his.
It was time to forget him. Perhaps he had already moved on and she would never see him again. Well, it didn't matter one way or the other. She had her own life to see to now, and with a little help from Li/a it appeared she had her own business. Picking up the three bundles wrapped in brown paper, Sarah went outside.
"You real sure you don't want me to drive you to town, Miss Conway?"
Sarah put the wrapped dresses in the back of the wagon while Lucius stood at the horses' heads. "No, thank you, Lucius."
She was well aware that her driving skills were poor at best, but she'd bartered for the wagon with the owner of the livery stable. He had two daughters that she'd designed gingham frocks for, and she intended to deliver them herself. For Lucius she had a big, sunny smile.
"I was hoping you'd start on the chicken coop today. I'm going to see if Mrs. Miller will sell me a dozen young chicks."
"Yes'm." Lucius shuffled his feet and cleared his throat. "Going to be a hot, dry day."
"Yes." What day wasn't? "I have a canteen, thank you."
He waited until Sarah had gained the seat and smoothed out her skirts. "There's just one thing, Miss Conway."
Anxious to be on her way, Sarah took the reins.
"Yes, Lucius, what is it?"
"I'm plumb out of whiskey."
Her brow rose, all but disappearing under the wispy bangs she wore. "And?"
"Well, seeing as you're going into town and all, I thought you could pick some up for me."
"I? You can hardly expect me to purchase whiskey."
He'd figured on her saying something of the kind. "Maybe you could get somebody to buy a bottle for you." He gave her a gap-toothed smile and was careful not to spit. "I'd be obliged."
She opened her mouth, ready to lecture him on the evils of drink. With a sigh, she shut it again. The man worked very hard for very little. It wasn't her place to deny him his comforts, whatever they might be.
"I'll see what can be done."
His grizzled face brightened immediately. "That's right kind of you, miss. And I sure will get started on that coop." Relieved, he spit in the dirt. "You look real pretty today, miss. Just like a picture."
Her lips curved. If anyone had told her a week ago that she would grow fond of a smelly, whiskey-drinking creature like Lucius, she'd have thought them mad. "Thank you. There's chicken and fresh bread in the cabin." She held her breath and snapped the reins.
Sarah had dressed very carefully for town. If she was going to interest the ladies in ordering fashionable clothes from her, then it was wise to advertise. Her dress was a particularly flattering shade of moss green with a high neckline she'd graced with her cameo. The trim of rose-colored ribbon and the rows of flounces at the skirt made it a bit flirtatious. She'd added a matching bonnet, tilted low as much for dash as for added shade. She felt doubly pleased with her choice when her two young customers came running out of the livery and goggled at it.
Sarah left them to race home and try on their new dresses while she completed her errands.
"Sarah." Liza danced around the counter of the dry goods store to take both of her hands. "Oh, what a wonderful dress. Every woman in town's going to want one like it."
"I was hoping to tempt them." Laughing, Sarah turned in a circle. "It's one of my favorites." "I can see why. Is everything all right with you? I haven't been able to get away for days."
"Everything's fine. There's been no more trouble."
She wandered over to take a look at the bolts of fabric. "I'm certain it was just an isolated incident. As the sheriff said, it must have been drifters." Glancing over, she smiled. "Hello, Mrs. Cody," she said as Liza's mother came in from the stockroom.
"Sarah, it's nice to see you, and looking so pretty, too."
"Thank you. I've brought your dress."
"Well, that was quick work." Anne Cody took the package in her wide, capable hands and went immediately to the cash drawer.
"Oh, I don't want you to pay for it until you look and make sure it's what you wanted."
Anne smiled, showing dimples like her daughter's. "That's good business. My Ed would say you've got a head on your shoulders. Let's just take a look, then." As she unwrapped the package, two of her customers moved closer to watch.
"Why, Sarah, it's lovely." Clearly pleased, Anne held it up. The dress was dove gray, simple enough to wear for work behind the counter, yet flatteringly feminine, with touches of lace at the throat and sleeves. "My goodness, honey, you've a fine hand with a needle." Deliberately she moved from behind the counter so that the rest of her customers could get the full effect. "Look at this work, Mrs. Miller. I'll swear you won't see better."
Grinning, Liza leaned over to whisper in Sarah's ear. "She'll have a dozen orders for you in no time.
Pa always says Ma could sell a legless man new boots."
"Here you are, Sarah." Anne passed her the money.
"It's more than worth every penny."
"Young lady." Mrs. Miller peered through her spectacles at the stitches in Anne's new dress. "I'm going to visit my sister in Kansas City next month. I think a traveling suit of this same fabric would be flattering to me."
"Oh, yes, ma'am." Sarah beamed, ignoring the fact that very little would be flattering to Mrs. Miller's bulky figure. "You have a good eye for color. This fabric trimmed in purple would be stunning on you." By the time she was finished, Sarah had three more orders and an armful of fabric. With one hand muffling her giggles, Liza walked out with her. "Imagine you talking that old fuddy-duddy Mrs. Miller into two dresses."
"She wants to outshine her sister. I'll have to make sure she does."
"It won't be easy, considering what you have to work with. And she's overcharging you for those chicks."
"That's all right." Sarah turned with a grin. "I'm going to overcharge her for the dresses. Do you have time to walk with me? I'd like to go down and see if this blue-and-white stripe takes Mrs. O'Rourke's fancy."
They started down the walkway. After only a few steps, Liza stopped and swept her skirts aside. Sarah watched the statuesque woman approach. In all her life she'd never seen hair that color. It gleamed like the brass knob on Mother Superior's office door. The vivid blue silk dress she wore was too snug at the bodice and entirely too low for day wear. Smooth white breasts rose out of it, the left one adorned with a small beauty mark that matched another at the corner of her -red lips. She carried an unfurled parasol and strolled, her hips swaying shamelessly.
As she came shoulder-to-shoulder with Sarah, the woman stopped and looked her up and down. The tiny smile she wore became a smirk as she walked oh, rolling her hips.
"My goodness." Sarah could think of little else to say as she rubbed her nose. The woman's perfume remained stubbornly behind.
"That was Carlotta. She runs the Silver Star."
"Well, she's a-you know."
"A woman of ill repute," Liza said in a whisper.
"Oh." Sarah's eyes grew huge. She'd heard, of course. Even in Philadelphia one heard of such women. But to actually pass one on the street… "Oh, my. I wonder why she looked at me that way."
"Probably because Jake Redman's been out your way a couple times. Jake's a real favorite with Carlotta."
She shut her mouth tight. If her mother heard her talking that way she'd be skinned alive.
"I should have known." With a toss of her head
Sarah started to walk again. For the life of her she didn't know why she felt so much like crying.
Mrs. O'Rourke greeted her with pleasure. Not only had it been a year since she'd had a new dress, she was determined to know all there was to know about the woman who was keeping Jake so churned up.
"I thought you might like this striped material, Mrs.
"It's right nice." Maggie fingered the cotton with a large, reddened hand. "No doubt it'll make up pretty. Michael…my first husband was Michael Bailey, he was partial to a pretty dress. Died young, did Michael. Got a little drunk and took the wrong horse. Hung him for a horse thief before he sobered up." Not certain what response was proper, Sarah murmured something inaudible. "I'm sure the colors would flatter you."
Maggie let out a bray of laughter. "Girl, I'm past the age where I care about being flattered. Buried me two husbands. Mr. O'Rourke, rest his soul, was hit by lightning back in '63. The good Lord doesn't always protect fools and drunkards, you know. Save me, I'm not in the market for another one. The only reason a woman decks herself out is to catch a man or keep one." She ran her shrewd eyes over Sarah. "Now you've got a rig on this day, you do."
Deciding to take the remark as a compliment, Sarah offered a small smile. "Thank you. If you'd prefer something else, I could-" "I wasn't saying I didn't like the goods."
"Sarah can make you a very serviceable dress, Mrs. O'Rourke," Liza put in. "My ma's real pleased with hers. Mrs. Miller's having her make up two for her trip to Kansas City."
"That so?" Maggie knew what a pinchpenny the Miller woman was. "I reckon I could do with a new dress. Nothing fancy, mind. I don't want any of my boarders getting ideas in their heads." She let out a cackle.
"If a man got ideas about you, Maggie, he'd lose them quick enough after a bowl of your stew."
Sarah's fingers curled into her palms when she heard Jake's voice. Slowly, her body braced, she turned to face him. He was halfway down the stairs. "Some men want something more from a woman than a bowl of stew," Maggie told him, and cackled again. "You ladies want to be wary of a man who smiles like that," she added, pointing a finger at Jake. "I ought to know, since I married two of them." As she spoke, she watched the way Jake and Sarah looked at each other. Someone had lit a fire there, she decided. She wouldn't mind fanning it a bit. "Liza, all this talk about cooking reminds me. I need another ten pounds of flour. Run on up and fetch it for me. Have your ma put it on my account."
Anxious to be off, Sarah picked up the bolt of material again. "I'll get started on this right away, Mrs. O'Rourke."
"Hold on a minute. I've got a dress upstairs you can use for measuring. Needs some mending, too. I'm no hand with a needle. Liza, I can use two pounds of coffee." She motioned at the girl with the back of her hand. "Go on, off with you."
"I'll just be a minute," Liza promised as she walked out the door. Pleased with her maneuvering, Maggie started up the stairs.
"You're about as subtle as a load of buckshot," Jake murmured to her.
With the material still in her hands, Sarah watched Jake approach her. Though she was standing in the center of the room, she had the oddest sensation that her back was against the wall. He was staring at her in that way he had that made her stomach flutter and her knees shake. She promised herself that if he touched her, if he even looked as though he might touch her, she would slap him hard enough to knock his hat off.
He had images of touching her. Of tasting her. Of rolling around on the ground and filling himself with her. Seeing her now, looking like some flower that had sprung up out of the sand, he had to remind himself that they could only be images.
He figured that was no reason he couldn't needle her a bit.
"Morning, Duchess. You come by to see me?"
He couldn't help but enjoy the way her eyes fired p. Casually he brushed a finger over the fabric she held and felt her jolt. "Mighty pretty, but I like the dress you've got on better."
"It isn't for me." There was no reason in the world she should feel flattered, Sarah reminded herself. No reason at all. "Mrs. O'Rourke expressed interest in having a dress made."
"So you sew, too." His gaze traveled over her face, lingering on her mouth too long for comfort. "You're full of surprises."
"It's an honest way to make a living." Deliberately she looked down at the gun on his hip. "It's a pity not everyone can say the same."
It was difficult to say what the cool, disapproving tone made him feel. Rage, familiar and bitter-tasting. Futility, with its cold, hollow ring. Both emotions and flickers of others showed in his eyes as he stared down at her.
"So you heard about me," he said before she could follow her first impulse and lay a soothing hand on his arm. "I'm a dangerous man, Sarah." He took her chin in his hand so that her eyes stayed on his. "I draw my gun and leave women widows and children orphans. The smell of gunsmoke and death follows me wherever I go. I got Apache blood in my veins, so I don't look on killing the way a white man might. I put a bullet in a man the same way a wolf rips out throats. Because it's what I was made for. A woman like you had best keep her distance."
She heard the fury licking at his words. More, she heard frustration, a deep, raw frustration. Before he could reach the door, she was calling after him.
"Mr. Redman. Mr. Redman, please." Gathering up her skirts, she hurried after him. "Jake."
He stopped and turned as she came through the doorway. They were outside only a step, but that was enough to have the heat and dust rising around them. "You'd do better to stay inside until Maggie comes down for you."
"Please, wait." She laid a hand on his arm. "I don't understand what you do, or who you are, but I do know you've taken the trouble to be a help to me. Don't tell me to forget it," she said quickly. "Because I won't."
"You've got a talent for tying a man up in knots," he murmured.
"I don't mean-"
"No, I don't reckon you do. Anything else you want to say?"
"Actually, I-" She broke off when she heard a burst of wild laughter from the next building. As she looked, a man was propelled headfirst through a pair of swinging doors. He landed in a heap in the dust of the road. Even as Sarah started forward, Jake shifted to block her.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"That man might be hurt."
"He's too drunk to be hurt."
Her eyes wide, Sarah looked past Jake's shoulder and saw the drunk struggle to his feet and stagger back inside. "But it's the middle of the day."
"Just as easy to get drunk in the daylight as it is when the sun's down."
Her lips primmed. "It's just as disgraceful." Whiskey might be the work of the devil, Sarah thought, but she had promised Lucius. "I wonder if I might ask you another favor?"
"You can ask."
"I need a bottle of whiskey."
Jake took off his hat and smoothed back his hair, then replaced the hat. "I thought you didn't care for it much."
"It's not for me. It's for Lucius." She was certain she heard the sound of breaking glass from the neighboring saloon as she reached for her reticule. "I'm afraid I don't know the price."
"Lucius is good for it. Go back inside," he told her, then passed through the swinging doors.
"Quite a man, isn't he?"
Sarah lifted a hand to her heart. "Mrs. O'Rourke, you startled me."
Grinning, Maggie stepped outside. "Your mind was elsewhere." She handed Sarah a bundle. "Good-looking, Jake is. Strong back, good hands. A woman can hardly ask for more." Maggie glanced over as the din from the saloon grew louder. "You don't have a fella back east, do you?"
"A what?" Distracted, Sarah inched closer to the saloon. She hated to admit it, but she was dying to see inside. "Oh, no. At least there was no one I cared for enough to many."
"A smart woman knows how to bring a man around to marriage and make him think it was his idea all along. You take Jake-" Maggie broke off when Sarah squealed. Two men burst through the swinging doors and rolled into the street, fists flying.
"My goodness." Her mouth hanging open, Sarah watched the two men kick and claw and pummel each other.
"I thought I told you to go inside." Jake strolled out, carrying a bottle of whiskey by the neck.
"I was just-Oh!" She saw blood fly as a fist connected with a nose. "This is dreadful. You have to stop them."
"Like hell I do. Where's your wagon?"
"But you must," Sarah insisted. "You can't simply stand here and watch two men beat each other like this."
"Duchess, if I try to break that up, both of them are going to start swinging at me." He passed her the bottle of whiskey. "I don't feel much like killing anybody today."
With a huff, Sarah thrust the bottle back into his hands and followed it with the fabric and Maggie's bundle. "Then I'll stop them myself."
"It's going to be a shame when you lose some of those pretty teeth."
Taking time only to glare at him, Sarah bent down and scooped up the spittoon Maggie kept beside her doorway. Her skirts in one hand, weapon in the other, she marched toward the middle of the melee.
"That's some woman," Maggie said with a grin.
Jake merely grunted. "Got grit."
"Go water down your stew."
Maggie just laughed. "She's got you, too. Hope I'm around when she figures it out."
A little breathless, Sarah dodged the rolling bodies. The men were groaning and hissing as they struggled to land punches. The smell of stale whiskey and sweat rose from both of them. She had to scramble a bit for aim before she brought the brass down with a thunk on one head and then the other. A roar of laughter, then a few cheers, poured out the doorway of the saloon. Ignoring the sound, Sarah looked down at the two men, who were frowning at her and rubbing their heads.
"You should be ashamed of yourselves," she told them, in a tone that would have made Mother Superior proud. "Fighting in the street like a couple of schoolboys. You've done nothing but bloody your faces and make a spectacle of yourselves. Now stand up." Both men reached for their hats and struggled to their feet. "I'm sure whatever disagreement you have can be better solved by talking it out." Satisfied, Sarah nodded politely, then glided back across the street to where Jake and Maggie stood.
"There." She handed Maggie the spittoon. Her self-satisfied smirk was for Jake alone. "It was only a matter of getting their attention, then applying reason." He glanced over her head to where the two men were wrestling in the dirt again. "Yes, ma'am." Taking her arm, he started up the street before she could get it in her head to do something else. "Did you learn to swing like that in your fancy school?"
"I had occasion to observe the nuns' techniques for handling disagreements."
"Ever get knocked on the head with a spittoon?"
She tilted her head, her eyes laughing under the cover of her lashes. "No, but I know what a wooden ruler feels like." Sarah glanced in the dry goods as she stopped by her wagon. Inside, she could see Liza flirting with a thin, gangly man with straw-colored hair and shiny brown boots.
"Is that Will Metcalf?"
Jake stowed the rest of her things in the back of the wagon. "Yeah."
"I think Liza's quite taken with him." She bit back a sigh. Romance was as far away from her right now as the beautiful house her father had built for her in his mind. Turning, she bumped into Jake's chest. His hands came up to steady her and stayed on her arms. Not so far away, she thought again. It wasn't far away at all when it could reach out and touch you.
"You got to watch where you're going."
"I usually do. I used to." He was going to kiss her again, right there in the center of town. She could feel it. She could almost taste it.
He wanted to. He wanted five minutes alone with her, though he knew there was no use, it was no good.
"Good morning, Jake." Twirling her parasol, Carlotta sauntered up to the wagon. Smiling slightly she ignored the warning look he sent her and turned her attention to Sarah. She'd already decided to hate her, for what she was, for what she had. Her smile still in place, she skimmed her gaze up and down Sarah. Pure and proper and dull, she decided. Jake would be tired of her in a week. But in the meantime it would give her pleasure to make the little priss uncomfortable. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?" Jake ignored her and kept a hand on Sarah's arm to steer her to the front of the wagon.
Sarah didn't recognize the basic female urge, the primal urge, to face the enemy down. She only knew she wouldn't have the woman smirking at her back. "I'm Sarah Conway." She didn't offer her hand, she simply nodded. It was as much of an insult as Carlotta's sneering scrutiny.
"I know who you are." Carlotta smiled, fully, even as her eyes turned to blue ice. "I knew your pa. I knew him real well."
The blow hit home. Carlotta was delighted to see it. But when her eyes skimmed up to meet Jake's, most of the pleasure she felt died. She'd seen him look at men that way when they'd pushed him too far. With a toss of her head, she turned away. He'd come around, she told herself. Men always did.
His mouth grim, Jake reached for Sarah's arm again to help her into the wagon. The moment his fingers brushed her, she jerked away.
"Don't touch me." She had to turn, to grip the edge of the wagon, until she caught the breath Carlotta had knocked out of her. All of her illusions were shattered now. The idea of her father, her own father, with a woman like that was more than she could take.
He'd have preferred to walk away. Just turn and keep going. Infuriated, he dug his hands into his pockets. "Let me help you into the damn wagon, Sarah."
"I don't want your help." She whirled back to face him. "I don't want anything from you. Do you understand?" "No, but then I don't figure I'm supposed to."
"Do you kiss her the same way you kissed me? Did you think of me the same way you think of her and women like her?"
His hand shot out to stop her before she could scramble into the wagon. "I wasn't thinking at all when I kissed you, and that was my mistake."
"Miss Conway." Samuel Carlson stopped his horse at the head of the wagon. His eyes stayed on Jake's as he dismounted. "Is there a problem?"
"No." Instinctively she stepped between the men. Carlson's gun had a handle of polished ivory, and it looked deadly and beautiful below his silver brocade vest. It no longer shocked her to realize that even a man as obviously cultured and educated as he wouldn't hesitate to use a weapon. "Mr. Redman's been an invaluable help to me since I arrived." "I heard you'd had some trouble."
Sarah discovered she was digging her nails into her palms. Slowly, stiffly, she uncurled her fingers, but she could do nothing about the tension that was pounding at the base of her throat. It sprang, she knew, from the men, who stood on either side of her, watching each other, ready, almost eager.
"Yes. Fortunately, the damage wasn't extensive." "I'm glad to hear that." At last Carlson shifted his gaze to Sarah. She heard her own sigh of relief. "Did you ride into town alone, Miss Conway?"
"Yes, I did. As a matter of fact, I'd better be on my way."
"I'd be obliged if you'd allow me to drive you back. It's a long ride for a woman alone."
"That's kind of you, Mr. Carlson. I couldn't impose."
"No imposition at all." Taking her arm, he helped her into the seat. "I've been meaning to ride out, pay my respects. I'd consider it a favor if you'd allow me to drive you."
She was about to refuse again when she looked at Jake. There was ice in Was eyes. She imagined there would be a different look in them altogether when he looked at Carlotta.
"I'd love the company," she heard herself say, and she waited while Carlson tied his horse to the rear of the wagon. "Good day, Mr. Redman." Folding her hands in her lap, she let Carlson guide her team out of town.
They talked of nothing important for most of the drive. The weather, music, the theater. It was a pleasure, Sarah told herself, to spend an hour or two in the company of a man who understood art and appreciated beauty.
"I hope you won't take offense if I offer some advice, Miss Conway."
"Advice is always welcome." She smiled at him.
"Even if it's not taken."
"I hope you'll take mine. Jake Redman is a dangerous man, the kind who brings trouble to everyone around him. Stay away from him, Miss Conway, for your own good."
She said nothing for a moment, surprised by the strength of the anger that rose up in her. Carlson had said nothing but the truth, and nothing she hadn't already told herself. "I appreciate your concern."
His voice was calm and quiet and laced with regret "But you won't take my advice."
"I don't think it will be necessary. It's unlikely I'll be seeing Mr. Redman now that I've settled in." Carlson shook his head and smiled. "I have offended you."
"Not at all. I understand your feelings for Jake-" She corrected herself carefully. "Mr. Redman. I'm sure the trouble between him and your brother was very distressing for you."
Carlson's mouth thinned. "It pains me to say that Jim brought that incident on himself. He's young and a bit wild yet. Redman's a different matter. He lives by his gun and his reputation with it."
"That sounds like no life at all."
"Now I've stirred your sympathies. That certainly wasn't my intention." He touched a hand lightly to hers. "You're a beautiful, sensitive woman. I wouldn't want to see you hurt."
She hadn't been called beautiful in what felt like a very long time. Since a waltz, she remembered, at a ball at Lucilla's big house. "Thank you, but I assure you I'm learning very quickly to take care of myself." As they drove into the yard, the puppy bounded up, racing around the wagon and barking. "He's grown some," Carlson commented as Lafitte snapped at his ankles.
"Hush, now." Lafitte snarled when Carlson lifted Sarah from the wagon. "He has the makings of an excellent guard dog, I think. And, thank heaven, he gets along well with Lucius. May I offer you some coffee?"
"I'd like that." Once inside, Carlson took a long look. "I've had some difficulty picturing you here. A drawing room with flowered wallpaper and blue draperies would suit you."
She laughed a little as she put the coffee on. "I think it will be some time yet before I put up wallpaper and draperies. I'd like a real floor first. Please sit down."
From the tin on the shelf she took a few of the sugar cookies she'd baked earlier in the week. It pleased her to be able to offer him a napkin she'd sewed out of scrap material.
"It must be a lonely life for you."
"I haven't had time to be lonely, though I admit it's not what I'd hoped for."
"It's a pity your father never made the mine pay." "It gave him hope." She thought of the journal she was reading. "He was a man who needed hope more than food."
"You're right about that." Carlson sipped at the coffee she served him. "You know, I offered to buy this place from him some time back."
"You did?" Sarah took the seat across from him.
"Sentiment." Carlson sent her an embarrassed smile. "Foolish, really. My grandfather once owned this land. He lost it in a poker game when I was a boy. It always infuriated him." He smiled again and sampled a cookie. "Of course, he had the ranch. Twelve hundred acres, with the best water that can be had in these parts. But he grumbled about losing that old mine until the day he died."
"There must be something about it that holds a man. It certainly held my father."
"Matt bought it from the gambler and dived right in. He always believed he'd find the mother lode, though I don't think there is one. After the old man died and I took over, I.thought it might be fitting somehow for me to bring it back into the family. A tribute. But Matt, he wouldn't part with it."
"He had a dream," Sarah murmured. "It killed him, eventually."
"I'm sorry. I've upset you. I didn't mean to."
"It's nothing. I still miss him. I suppose I always will."
"It might not be healthy for you to stay here, so close to where he died."
"It's all I have."
Carlson reached over to pat her hand. "As I said, you're a sensitive woman. I was willing to buy this place from Matt. I'd be willing to buy it from you if you feel you'd like to sell."
"Sell?" Surprised, she looked over. The sun was streaming through the yellow curtains at the window. It made a stream of gold on the floor. Before long, the strength of it would fade the material. "That's very generous of you, Mr. Carlson."
"I'd be flattered if.you'd call me Samuel."
"It's very generous, and very kind, Samuel." Rising, she walked to the window. Yes, the sun would bleach it out, the same way it bleached the land. She touched a hand to the wall. The adobe stayed cool. It was a kind of miracle, she thought. Like the endurance that kept men in this place. "I don't think I'm ready to give up here."
"You don't have to decide what you want now."
He rose, as well, and moved over to lay a gentle hand on her shoulder. She smiled at the gesture. It was comforting to have friends who cared.
"It's been difficult, adjusting here. Yet I feel as though I can't leave, that in leaving I'd be deserting my father."
"I know what it is to lose family. It takes time to think straight again." He turned her to face him. "I can say that I feel I knew Matt enough to be sure he'd want the best for you. If you decide you want to let it go, all you have to do is tell me. We'll leave it an open offer."
"Thank you." She turned and found herself flustered when he lifted both her hands to his lips.
"I want to help you, Sarah. I hope you'll let me."
She jolted, then sighed when she saw Lucius in the doorway. "Yes?"
He eyed Carlson, then turned his head to spit. "You want me to put this team away?"
Lucius stayed where he was. "How about the extra horse?"
"I'll be riding out. Thank you for the company, Sarah."
"It was a pleasure."
As they stepped outside, Carlson replaced his hat. "I hope you'll let me call again."
"Of course." Sarah was forced to snatch up the dog when he came toward her guest, snarling and snapping. "Goodbye, Samuel."
She waited until he'd started out before she put the puppy down and walked over to Lucius.
"Lucius." She leaned over, to speak to him as he unhitched the horses. "You were quite rude just now."
"If you say so, miss."
"Well, I do." Frustrated, she ducked under the horses to join him. "Mr. Carlson was considerate enough to drive me back from town. You looked at him as though you wanted to shoot him in the head." "Maybe."
"For heaven's sake. Why?"
"Some snakes don't rattle."
Casting her eyes to the sky, she gave up. Instead, she snatched the bottle of whiskey from the wagon and watched his eyes light up. "If you want this, take off your shirt."
His mouth dropped as if she'd hit him with a board.
"Beg pardon, ma'am?"
"The pants, too. I want you to strip right down to the skin."
He groped at his neckcloth. "Mind if I ask why you'd be wanting me to do that, Miss Conway?"
"I'm going to wash your clothes. I've tolerated the smell of them-and you-quite long enough. While I'm washing them, you can take that extra cake of soap I bought and do the same with yourself."
"Now, miss, I-"
"If, and only if, you're clean, I'll give you this bottle. You get a pail of water and the soap and go into that shed. Toss your clothes out."
Not sure he cared for the arrangement, Lucius shifted his feet. "And if I don't?"
"Then I'll pour every drop of this into the dirt."
Lucius laid a hand on his heart as she stamped off. He was mortally afraid she'd do it.