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23.12.2018

The crack of the rifle echoed over the rock and sent a lone hawk wheeling. Sarah gritted her teeth, cocked the lever and squeezed again. The empty whiskey bottle exploded. She was improving, she decided as she mopped her brow and reloaded. And she was determined to get better still.

Lucius wandered over, Lafitte dancing at his heels.

"You got a good eye there, Miss Sarah."

"Thank you." She lowered the rifle to give the pup a scratch. Jake was right. He was going to be a big one. "I believe I do."

No one was going to have to rescue her again, not from a rattlesnake, not from Apache marauders, not from the wrath of God himself. In the two weeks since Jake had dropped her, without a word and apparently without a thought, on her doorstep, she'd increased her daily rifle practice. Her aim had sharpened a great deal since she'd taken to imagining that the empty bottles and cans were Jake's grinning face.

"I told you, Lucius, there's no need for you to watch my every move. What happened before wasn't your fault."

"I can't help feeling it was. You hired me on to keep a look out around here. Then the first time my pants're down-so to speak, Miss Sarah-you're in trouble."

"I'm back now, and unharmed."

"And I'm mighty grateful for it. If Jake hadn't just ridden up…I'd have tried to get you back, Miss Sarah, but he was the man for it."

She bit back the unkind remark that sprang to mind. He had saved her, had risked his life to do so. Whatever had happened afterward couldn't diminish that.

"I'm very grateful to Mr. Redman, Lucius."

"Jake just done what he had to."

She remembered the knife fight with a shudder. "I sincerely hope he won't be required to do anything like it again."

"That's why I'm going to keep a better eye on you. I tell you the God's truth now, Miss Sarah, worrying after a woman's a troublesome thing. I ain't had to bother since my wife died."

"Why, Lucius, I never knew you'd been married." "Some years back. Quiet Water was her name. She was mighty dear to me."

"You had an Indian wife?" Wanting to hear more, Sarah sat down on a rock, spreading her skirts.

He didn't talk about it often, at least not when he was sober. But he found he was making himself comfortable and telling his tale. "Yes, ma'am. She was Apache, one of Little Bear's tribe. Fact is, she'd've been some kind of aunt to him. I met her when I'd come out here to do some soldiering. Fought Cheyenne, mostly. That would have been back in '62.

Didn't mind the fighting, but I sure got tired of the marching. I headed south some to do a little prospecting.

Anyways, I met up with John Redman. That was Jake's pa."

"You knew Jake's father?"

"Knew him right well. Partnered up for a while. He and his missus had hit some hard times. Lot of people didn't care much for the idea of him being half-Apache." With a little laugh, he shrugged. "He told me once that some of his tribe didn't care much for the idea of him being half-white. So there you go." "What kind of man was he?"

"Hardheaded, but real quiet. Didn't say much less'n you said something first. Could be funny. Sometimes it wouldn't occur to you for a minute or two that he'd made a joke. He was good for a laugh. Guess he was the best friend I ever had." He took out his bottle and was relieved when Sarah said nothing. "John had in mind to do some ranching, so I lent a hand here and there. That's how I came to meet Quiet Water."

Casually Sarah pleated her skirt. "I suppose you knew Jake as a boy."

"I'll say I did." Lucius let go a whistling laugh.

"Tough little cuss. Could look a hole right through you. Ain't changed much. He was spending some time with his grandma's people. Would've thought he was one of them then, 'cept for the eyes. Course, he wasn't. They knew it and he knew it. Like John said, it's hard not being one or the other. I used to wonder what would've happened if Quiet Water and me had had kids."

"What happened to her, Lucius?"

"I had gone off looking for gold." His eyes narrowed as he stared off into the sun. "Seems a regiment rode through early one morning. Some settler claimed his stock was stolen, and that the Apaches had done it. So the soldiers came in, looking for trouble, hating Indians. Killed most everybody but those who made it up into the rocks."

"Oh, Lucius. Lucius, I'm so sorry." Unable to find words, she took both his hands in hers.

"When I come back, it was done. I was half-crazy, I guess. Rode around for days, not going anywhere. I guess I was hoping somebody'd come along and shoot me. Then I headed to the Redman place. They'd been burned out."

"Oh, dear God."

"Nothing left but charred wood and ashes."

"How horrible." She tightened her grip on his hands. "Oh, Lucius, it wasn't the soldiers?"

"No. Leastwise they weren't wearing uniforms.

Seemed like some men from town got liquored up and decided they didn't want no breed that close by. John and his missus had had trouble before, like I said, but this went past hard words and threats. They started out to burn the barn, raise hell. One of them started shooting. Maybe they'd meant to all along, there's no saying. When it was over, they'd burned them out and left the family for dead."

Horror made her eyes dark and huge. "Jake. He would have been just a boy."

"Thirteen, fourteen, I reckon. But he was past being a boy. I found him where he'd buried his folks. He was just sitting there, between the two fresh graves. Has his pa's hunting knife in his hands. Still carries it."

She knew the knife. She'd seen it stained with blood, for her. But now all she could think of was the boy. "Oh, the poor child. He must have been so frightened."

"No, ma'am. I don't believe frightened's the word. He was chanting, like in a trance the Indians sometimes use. War chant, it was. He figured on going into town and finding the men who killed his folks." "But you said he was only thirteen."

"I said he was past being a boy. Best I could do was talk him out of it for a time, till he learned to handle a gun better. He learned mighty fast. I ain't never seen a man do with a gun what Jake can do." Though it was hot out, she rubbed the chill from her arms. "Did he…go back for them?"

"I don't rightly know. I never asked. I thought it best we move on until he had some years on him, so we headed south. Didn't know what to do for Mm. Bought him a horse, and we rode together awhile. I always figured he'd hook up with the wrong kind, but Jake was never much for hooking up with anybody. He'd've been about sixteen when we parted ways. Heard about him off and on. Then he rode into Lone Bluff a few months back."

"To lose everything that way." A tear ran down her cheek. "It's a wonder he's not filled with hate."

"He's got it in him, but it's cold. Me, I use the bottle, wash it away now and then. Jake uses something in here." He tapped his temple. "That boy holds more inside than anybody should have to. He ever lets it out, people better stand back."

She understood what he meant. Hadn't she seen it, that flat, dangerous look that came into his eyes? That expressionless stare that was more passionate than fury, more deadly than rage.

"You care for him."

"He's all I got that you might call family. Yeah, I got an affection for the boy." Lucius squinted over at her. "I figure you do, too."

"I don't know what I feel for him." That was a lie. She knew very well what she felt, how she felt. She was even coming to understand why she felt. He wasn't the man she had once imagined she would love, but he was the only man she ever would. "It doesn't matter what I feel," she said, "if he doesn't feel it back."

"Maybe he does. It might be hard for him to say it right out, but I always figure a woman's got a sense about those things."

"Not always." With a little sigh, she rose. "There's work to be done, Lucius."

"Yes'm."

"There is one question. What have you been doing in the mine?"

"The mine, Miss Sarah?"

"You said yourself I have a good eye. I know you've been going in there. I'd like to know why."

"Well, now." Fabricating wasn't Lucius's strong suit. He coughed and shifted his feet and peered off at nothing. "Just having a look around."

"For gold?"

"Could be."

"Do you think you'll find any?"

"Matt always figured there was a rich vein in that rock, and when Jake-" He broke off.

"When Jake what? Asked you to look?"

"Maybe he might have suggested it sometime."

"I see." Sarah looked up to the top of the ridge. She had always wondered what Jake wanted, she thought, her heart shattering. Perhaps she knew now* Gold seemed to pull at the men she loved. "I have no objection to you working the mine, Lucius. In fact, I think it's an excellent idea. You must let me know if you require any tools." When she looked back at him, her eyes were as cool and hard as any man's. "The next time you ride into town, you might mention to Jake that Sarah's Pride is mine."

"Yes, ma'am, if you'd like."

"I insist." She looked toward the road. "There's a buggy coming."

Lucius spit and hoped it wasn't Carlson. As far as he was concerned, the man had been too free with his visits to Sarah in the past few weeks.

It wasn't Carlson. As the buggy drew closer, Sarah saw it was a woman holding the reins. Not Liza, she realized with a pang of disappointment. The woman was dark and delicate and a stranger to her.

"Good morning." Sarah set the rifle against the wall of the house.

"Good morning, ma'am." The young woman sat in the buggy and sent Sarah a nervous smile. "You sure live a ways out."

"Yes." Since her visitor didn't seem in a hurry to alight, Sarah walked to the buggy. "I'm Sarah Conway." "Yes, ma'am, I know. I'm Alice. Alice Johnson." She gave the puppy a bright, cheerful smile, then looked at Sarah again. "Pleased to meet you."

"It's nice to meet you, too, Miss Johnson. Would you like to come in for some tea?"

"Oh, no, ma'am, I couldn't."

Baffled by Alice's horrified expression, Sarah tried again. "Perhaps you're lost?"

"No, I've come to talk with you, but I couldn't come in. It wouldn't be fitting."

"Oh? Why?"

"Well, you see, Miss Conway, I'm one of Carlotta's girls."

Carlotta? Wide-eyed, Sarah looked her visitor over again. She was hardly more than a girl, a year or more younger than Sarah herself. Her face was scrubbed clean, and her dress was certainly modest. As Sarah stared, thick lashes lowered over her dark eyes and a blush rushed into her cheeks.

"Do you mean you work at the Silver Star?"

"Yes, ma'am, for nearly three months now."

"But-" Sarah swallowed the words when she saw Alice bite her lip. "Miss Johnson, if you've come to see me, I suggest we talk inside. It's much too hot to stand in the sun."

"I couldn't. Really, it wouldn't be fitting, Miss Conway."

"Fitting or not, I don't wish sunstroke on either of us. Please, come in." Leaving the decision in the hands of her visitor, Sarah walked inside.

Alice hesitated. It didn't feel right, not when Miss Conway was a real lady. But if she went back and couldn't tell Carlotta that she'd done what she'd been sent for, she'd get slapped around for sure. Carlotta always knew when you lied. And you always paid for it.

Sarah heard the timid footsteps as she put water on to boil. Before she could turn and offer Alice a seat, the girl was bubbling.

"Oh, my, isn't this pretty? You've got a real nice place here, Miss Conway. Curtains and all."

"Thank you." Her smile was full and genuine. It was the first time she'd had company who had thought so. "I'm more and more at home here. Please, sit down, Miss Johnson. I'm making tea."

"It's real kind of you, but I don't feel right, you giving me tea. It ain't proper."

"This is my house, and you're my guest. Of course it's proper. I hope you'll enjoy these cookies. I made them only yesterday."

With her fingers plucking nervously at her skirt, Alice sat. "Thank you, ma'am. And don't worry. I won't tell a soul I came in and sat at your table."

Intrigued, Sarah poured the tea. "Why don't you tell me what brought you out to see me?"

"Carlotta. She's been looking at all the dresses you've been making for the ladies in town. They're real pretty, Miss Conway."

"Thank you."

"Just the other day, after Jake left-"

"Jake?"

"Yes'm." Hoping she was holding the cup properly, Alice drank. "He comes into the Silver Star pretty regular. Carlotta's real fond of him. She don't work much herself, you know. Unless it's somebody like Jake."

"Yes, I see." She waited for what was left of her heart to break. Instead, it swelled with fury. "I suppose she might find a man like him appealing."

"She surely does. All the girls got a fondness for Jake."

"I'm sure," she murmured.

"Well, like I was saying, Carlotta got it into her head one day after he left that we should have us some new clothes. Something classy, like ladies would wear. She told me Jake said you could sew some up for us."

"Did he?"

"Yes, ma'am. She said she thought Jake had a real fine idea there, and she sent me on out to see about it. I got me all the measurements."

"I'm sorry, Miss Johnson, I really couldn't. Be sure to tell Carlotta that I appreciate the offer."

"There's eight of us girls, miss, and Carlotta said she'd pay you in advance. I got the money."

"That's generous, but I can't do it. Would you like more tea?"

"I don't-" Confused, Alice looked at her cup. She didn't know anyone who'd ever said no to Carlotta.

"If it's not too much trouble." She wanted to stretch out her visit, though she knew that, and the message she'd be taking back, would make Carlotta box her ears.

"Miss Johnson-"

"You can call me Alice, Miss Conway. Everybody does."

"Alice, then. Would you mind telling me how it was you came to work for Carlotta? You're very young to be…on your own."

"My daddy sold me off."

"Sold you?"

"There was ten of us at home, and another on the way. Every time he got drunk he whipped one of us or made another. He got drunk a lot. Few months back, a man passed through and Daddy sold me for twenty dollars. I ran off as soon as I could. When I got to Lone Bluff I went to work for Carlotta. I know it ain't right and proper, but it's better than what I had. I get my meals and a bed to myself when I'm finished work." She gave a quick, uncomfortable shrug. "Most of the men are all right."

"Your father had no right to sell you, Alice."

"Sometimes there's right and there's what's done." "If you wanted to leave Carlotta, I'm sure there would be other work for you in town. Proper work." "Begging your pardon, Miss Conway, but that ain't true. None of the town ladies would hire me for anything.

And they shouldn't. Why, how would they know if I'd been with one of their husbands?"

It was sound thinking, but Sarah shook her head. "If you decide to leave, I'll find work for you."

Alice stared at her, wide-eyed. "That's kind of you. I knew you were a real lady, Miss Conway, and I'm obliged. I'd better be heading back."

"If you'd like to visit again, I'd be happy to see you," Sarah told her as she walked her out.

"No, ma'am, that wouldn't be proper. Thank you for the tea, Miss Conway."

Sarah thought a great deal about Alice's visit. That night, as she read her father's journal by lamplight, she tried to imagine what it had been like. To be sold, she thought with an inward shudder. By her own father, like a horse or a steer. It was true that she, too, had spent years of her life without a real family, but she had always known her father loved her. What he had done, he had done with her best interests at heart. Once she would have condemned Alice's choice out of hand. But now she thought she understood. It was all the girl knew. The cycle had begun with her father's callousness, and the girl was caught in it, helplessly moving in the same circle, selling herself time after time because she knew nothing else.

Had it been the same for Jake? Had the cruelty he'd lived through as a child forced him into a life of restlessness and violence? The scars he carried must run deep. And the hate. Sarah looked into the soft glow of the lamp. As Lucius had said, the hate ran cold.

She should have hated him. She wanted to, she wished the strong, destructive emotion would come, filling all the cracks in her feelings, blocking out everything else. With hate, a coolheaded, sharply honed hate, she would have felt in control again. She needed badly to feel in control again. But she didn't hate him.

She couldn't.

Even though she knew he had spent the night with another woman, kissing another woman's lips, touching another woman's skin, she couldn't hate him. But she could grieve for her loss, for the death of a beauty that had never had a chance to bloom fully.

She had come to understand what they might have had together. She had almost come to accept that they belonged together, whatever their differences, whatever the risks. He would always live by his gun and by his own set of rules, but with her, briefly, perhaps reluctantly, he had shown such kindness, such tenderness. There was a place for her in his heart. Sarah knew it. Beneath the rough-hewn exterior was a man who believed in justice, who was capable of small, endearing kindnesses. He'd allowed her to see that part of him, a part she knew he'd shared with few others.

Then why, the moment she had begun to soften toward him, to accept him for what and who he was, had he turned to another woman? A woman whose love could be bought with a handful of coins?

What did it matter? With a sigh, she closed her father's journal and prepared for bed. She had only fooled herself into believing he could care for her. Whatever kindness Jake had shown her would always war with his lawless nature and his restless heart. She wanted a home, a man by her side and children at her feet. As long as she loved Jake, she would go on wanting and never having.

Somehow, no matter how hard it was, no matter how painful, she would stop loving him.

Jake hated himself for doing it, but he rode toward Sarah's place, a dozen excuses forming in his head. He wanted to talk to Lucius and check on the progress in the mine. He wanted to make sure she hadn't been bitten by a snake. He'd wanted a ride, and her place was as good as any.

They were all lies.

He just wanted to see her. He just wanted to look at her, hear her talk, smell her hair. He'd stayed away from her for two weeks, hadn't he? He had a right… He had no rights, he told himself as he rode into the yard. He had no rights, and no business thinking about her the way he was thinking about her, wanting her the way he wanted her.

She deserved a man who could make her promises and keep them, who could give her the kind of life she'd been born to live.

He wasn't going to touch her again. That was a promise he'd made himself when he'd ridden away from her the last time. If he touched her, he wouldn't pull back. That would only cause them both more misery. He'd hurt her. He had seen that plain enough when he'd left her. But that was nothing compared to what he would have done if he'd stayed.

It was quiet. Jake pulled up his mount and took a long, cautious look around, his hand hovering over the butt of his gun. The dog wasn't yapping, nor was there any smoke rising from the chimney. The saddle creaked as he dismounted.

He didn't knock, but pushed open the door and listened. There wasn't a sound from inside. He could see, as his eyes scanned from one corner to the next, that the cabin was empty and as tidy as a church. The curtains she'd sewed had already begun to fade, but they moved prettily in the hot wind. His shoulders relaxed.

She'd done something here. That was something else he had to admire about her. She'd taken less than nothing and made it a home. There were pictures on the walls. One was a watercolor of wildflowers in soft, dreamy hues. It looked like her, he thought as he took a closer study. All dewy and fresh and delicate. Flowers like that would wither fast if they weren't tended. He moved to the next, his brows drawing together as he scanned it. It was a pencil drawing-a sketch, he figured she'd call it. He recognized the scene, the high, arrogant buttes, the sun-bleached rock. If you looked west from the stream you'd see it. It wasn't an empty place. The Apache knew the spirits that lived there. But oddly, as he studied the lines and shadows, he thought Sarah might know them, too. He would never have imagined her taking the time to draw something so stark and strong, much less hang it on the wall so that she would see it every time she turned around.

Somehow-he couldn't quite figure out the why of it-it suited her every bit as much as the wildflowers.

Annoyed with himself, he turned away. She knew something about magic, he figured. Didn't the cabin smell of her, so that his stomach kept tying itself in knots? He'd be better off out in the ah–fifty miles away.

A book caught his eye as he started out. Without giving a thought to her privacy, he opened it. Apparently she'd started a diary. Unable to resist, he scanned the first page.

She'd described her arrival in Lone Bluff. He had to grin as he read over her recounting of the Apache raid and his timely arrival. She'd made him sound pretty impressive, even if she'd noted what she called his "infuriating and unchristian behavior."

There was a long passage about her father, and her feelings about him. He passed it by. Grief was to be respected, unless it needed to be shared. He chuckled out loud as she described her first night, the cold can of beans and the sounds that had kept her awake and trembling until morning. There were bits and pieces he found entertaining enough about the townspeople and her impressions of life in the West. Then he caught his name again.

"Jake Redman is an enigma." He puzzled over the word, sure he'd never heard it before. It sounded a little too fancy to be applied to him.

I don't know if one might call him a diamond in the rough, though rough he certainly is. Honesty forces me to admit that he has been of some help to me and shown glimmers of kindness. I can't resolve my true feelings about him, and I wonder why I find it necessary to try. He is a law unto himself and a man wholly lacking in manners and courtesy. His reputation is distressing, to say the least. He is what is referred to as a gunslinger, and he wears his weapons as smoothly as a gentleman wears a watch fob. Yet I believe if one dug deeply enough one might discover a great deal of goodness there. Fortunately, I have neither the time nor the inclination to do the digging. Despite his manner and his style of living there is a certain, even a strong, attractiveness about him. He has fine eyes of clear gray, a mouth that some women might call poetic, particularly when he smiles, and truly beautiful hands.

He stopped there to frown down at his hands.

They'd been called a lot of things, but beautiful wasn't one of them. He wasn't sure he cared for it. Still, she sure did have a way with words.

He turned the page and would have read on, but the slightest of sounds at his back had him whirling, his guns gripped firmly in his hands.

Lucius swore long and skillfully as he lowered his own pistol. "I ain't lived this long to have you blow holes in me."

Jake slipped his guns home. "You'd better be careful how you come up on a man. Didn't you see my horse?"

"Yeah, I saw it. Just making sure. Didn't expect to find you poking around in here." He glanced down at the book. Without a word, Jake shut it.

"I didn't expect to find the place deserted."

"I've been up to the mine." Lucius pulled a small bottle of whiskey from his pocket.

"And?"

"It's interesting." He took a long pull, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I can't figure how Matt got himself caught in that cave-in. He was pretty sharp, and I recollect them beams being secure enough. Looks to me like someone worked pretty hard to bring them down."

With a nod, Jake glanced at the watercolor on the wall. "Have you said anything to her yet?"

"Nope." He didn't think it was the best time to tell Jake that Sarah had found him out. "There's something else I haven't mentioned." His face split into a grin as Jake looked at nun. "There's gold in there, boy. Just like Matt always claimed. He'd found the mother lode." Lucius took a swig from the bottle, then corked it. "You figured on that?"

"Just a hunch."

"Want me to keep it under my hat?"

"For the time being."

"I don't care much for playing tricks on Miss Sarah, but I reckon you've got your reasons."

"I've got them."

"I won't ask you what they are. I won't ask you neither what reasons you got for not coming around lately. Miss Sarah, she's been looking a mite peaked since you brought her back from the hills."

"She's sick?" he asked, too quickly.

Lucius rubbed a hand over his mouth to hide a grin.

"I figure she's got a fever, all right. Heart fever." "She'll get over it," Jake muttered as he walked outside.

"You're looking peaked yourself." When Jake didn't answer, he tried again. "Sure is some woman. Looks soft, but that streak of stubborn keeps her going. See there?" He pointed to the vegetable patch. "She's got something growing there. Never thought I'd see a speck of green, but there you go. She waters that thing every day. Stubborn. A stubborn woman's just bound to make things happen."

"Where is she?"

Lucius had been hoping he'd ask. "Gone off driving with Carlson. He's been coming around here near every day. Drinks tea." He spit. "Kisses her fingers and calls her right out by her first name." It warmed his heart to see Jake's eyes harden. "Said something about taking her to see his ranch. Been gone better than an hour now."

"I don't know when I've spent a more pleasant day." Sarah rose from the glossy mahogany table in Carlson's dining room. "Or had a more delightful meal."

"The pleasure has been mine." Carlson took her hand. "All mine."

Sarah smiled and gently took her hand away. "You have such a beautiful home. I never expected to see anything like it out here."

"My grandfather loved beautiful things." He took her elbow. "I inherited that love from him. Most of the furniture was shipped in from Europe. We had to make some concessions to the land." He patted a thick adobe wall. "But there's no reason to sacrifice all our comforts. This painting-" He guided her to a portrait of a pale, elegant woman in blue silk. "My mother. She was my grandfather's pride and joy. His wife died before this house was completed. Everything he did from that day was for his daughter."

"She's lovely."

"She was. Even my grandfather's love and devotion couldn't keep her alive. The women in my family have always been delicate. This land is hard, too hard for the fragile. It baked the life out of her. I suppose that's why I worry about you."

"I'm not as delicate as you might think." She thought of the ride into the mountains with her hands and feet bound.

"You're strong-willed. I find that very attractive." He took her hand again. Before she could decide how to respond, a man strode into the house. He was shorter and leaner than Carlson, but there was enough of a resemblance around the mouth and eyes for her to recognize him. His hat was pushed back so that it hung around his neck by its strap. Yellow dust coated his clothes. He hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his pants and looked at her in a way that made her blood chill.

"Well, now, what have we got here?"

"Miss Conway." There was a warning, mild but definite, in Carlson's voice. "My brother Jim. You'll have to excuse him. He's been working the cattle." "Sam handles the money, I handle the rest. You didn't tell me we were having company." He swaggered closer. He carried the scents of leather and tobacco, but she found nothing appealing about it.

"Such nice-looking company."

"I invited Miss Conway to lunch."

"And it was lovely, but I really should be getting back." And away, she thought, from Jim Carlson. "You don't want to rush off the minute I get in." Grinning, Jim laid a duty hand on the polished surface of a small table. "We don't get enough company here, at least not your kind. You're just as pretty as a picture." He glanced at his brother with a laugh Sarah didn't understand. "Just as pretty as a picture." "You'd better wash up." Though his voice was mild, Carlson sent him a hard look. "We have some business to discuss when I get back."

"It's all business with Sam." Jim winked at Sarah.

'Now, me, I got time for other things."

Sarah swallowed a sigh of relief when Carlson took her elbow again. "Good day, Mr. Carlson."

Jim watched her retreating back. "Yeah, good day to you. A real good day."

"You'll have to excuse him." Carlson helped Sarah into the waiting buggy. "Jim's a bit rough around the edges. I hope he didn't upset you."

"No, not at all," she said, struggling to keep a polite smile. With her hands folded in her lap, she began to chat about whatever came to mind.

"You seem to be adjusting well to your new life," Carlson commented.

"Actually, I'm enjoying it."

"For selfish reasons, I'm glad to hear it. I was afraid you'd lose heart and leave." He let the horses prance as he turned to smile at her. "I'm very glad you're staying." He pulled up so that they could have a last look at the ranch from the rise. The house spread out, rising two stories, glowing pink in the sunlight, its small glass windows glimmering. Neat paddocks and outbuildings dotted the land, which was cut through by a blue stream and ringed by hills.

"It's lovely, Samuel. You must be very proud of it."

"Pride isn't always enough. A place like this needs to be shared. I've regretted not having a family of my own to fill it. Until now I'd nearly given up hoping I'd find a woman to share it with me." He took her hand and brought it to his lips. "Sarah, nothing would make me happier than if that woman were you."

She wasn't sure she could speak, though she could hardly claim to be surprised. He'd made no secret about the fact that he was courting her. She studied his face in silence. He was everything she had dreamed of. Handsome, dashing, dependable, successful. Now he was offering her everything she had dreamed of. A home, a family, a full and happy life. She wanted to say yes, to lift a hand to his cheek and smile. But she couldn't. She looked away, struggling to find the right words.

She saw him then. He was hardly more than a silhouette on the horizon. An anonymous man on horseback.

But she knew without seeing his face, without hearing his voice, that it was Jake. That knowledge alone made her pulse beat fast and her body yearn.

Deliberately she turned away. "Samuel, I can't begin to tell you how flattered I am by your offer."

He sensed refusal, and though anger tightened within him, he only smiled. "Please, don't give me an answer now. I'd like you to think about it. Believe me, Sarah, I realize we've known each other only a short time and your feelings might not be as strong as mine.

Give me a chance to change that."

"Thank you." She didn't object when he kissed her hand again. "I will think about it." That she promised herself. "I'm very grateful you're patient. There's so much on my mind right now. I've nearly got my life under control again, and now that I'm going to open the mine-" "The mine?" His hand tightened on hers. "You're going to open the mine?"

"Yes." She gave him a puzzled look. "Is something wrong?"

"No, no, it's only that it's dangerous." It was a measure of his ambition that he was able to bring himself under control so quickly. "And I'm afraid doing so might distress you more than you realize. After all, the mine killed your father."

"I know. But it also gave him life. I feel strongly that he would have wanted me to continue there." "Will you do something for me?"

"I'll try."

"Think about it carefully. You're too important to me. I would hate to have you waste yourself on an empty dream." With another smile, he clucked to the horses. "And if you marry me, I'll see that the mine is worked without causing you any heartache."

"I will think about it." But her mind was crowded with other thoughts as she looked over her shoulder at the lone rider on the hill.