Night had fallen. Wade lounged opposite her, long legs crossed at the ankle and hands laced over his stomach. Firelight flickered over his features, bathing the sharp plains in red and gold, and he’d forgone his hat, strands of dark hair framing his face as he watched the flames.
Dragging her gaze from him, Hope instead regarded her hands folded in her lap. The day had passed as they’d travelled toward Deadwater, and they’d spoken little about the events of that morning. Now, they had once more made camp and she had no distraction from her thoughts.
She’d known, of course, that if she chose this path violence would be frequent and unavoidable, but she hadn’t anticipated how it would make her feel once it was before her. How she would remember being small and afraid, and how the pain would lance through her again, the red staining her hands and soaking her pinafore—
Closing her eyes, she shook her head of memories that had no place in the here and now.
Exhaling, she regarded again the contradictory man before her. She was used to a different kind of violence: the violence of a big city, of carriage and cart accidents, murders committed in darkness, pickpockets and thieves and a certain sort of sneakery. Brazen violence, the kind where they came and demanded something that wasn’t theirs only to kill and injure and laugh…. She’d left that kind of violence behind with her dead and her belief in a fair and just world.
She was used to making judgements and decisions in less than a moment, and for the most part she was proven correct. She’d assessed Wade to be a certain ilk, a competent marshal who would likely assist her more than hinder—but not by much. Then, this morning…
He had shown a different skin, a side she had not known possible, a cold ruthlessness she would never have thought him capable. In that moment, she had seen the truth of the reputation he held, and she cursed herself she hadn’t realised it the moment she met him. He was such a mass of contradictions, this man she hired. He seemed to enjoy laziness, he spoke entirely too much, and he delighted in calling her ‘darlin’ in that lazy drawl…but when confronted, he struck quickly and true, the lazy drawl hardening into something chilling.
He rolled his shoulder and tilted his neck, displaying his strong jaw and neck. Images of that morning, of his naked, wet chest glistening in the early morning light, dried her mouth. Swallowing, she looked away. It seemed he fascinated her for other reasons as well. What was she going to do about that?
“I reckon it is we’ll reach Deadwater tomorrow.”
She jerked her gaze to him. He still regarded the flames and though he gave the appearance of relaxation, even from across the fire she could see a muscle ticked in his jaw and his hands clenched into fists and back.
Strangely, her breath grew faster and tingles raced along her skin as she watched him. She found herself staring at his mouth, the soft flesh another contrast to the hardness of his jaw. Stillness enveloped her, and she became aware of the rise and fall of her chest, of the cloth against her skin, the slow beat between her legs….
Belated, she realised she hadn’t responded. Shaking herself of this strange spell, she thought how she should. What should she say? It was a statement. Did he intend her to answer? Should she agree? Silence stretched further between them. It was too long now, wasn’t it? It would seem strange if she spoke now.
Pushing himself up, he moved closer to the fire. “Yep, tomorrow we’ll reach Deadwater by my reckoning. Last I passed through, weren’t more than a couple saloons, and a hardware store in the throes of completion. Will interest a body to see what changes they’ve made especially population-wise, seeing it were mostly prospectors from my recollection—”
“Will that man be found?” she interrupted. “The one from this morning.”
He paused, his eyes on the fire. “Why do you ask?”
She laced her hands in her lap. “I wondered.”
Picking up the stick he used as an iron, he stoked the fire. “He would have killed us, and for no more than the few dollars he would get for selling your clothes.”
“I understand, Mr Wade. I am more concerned if he will be found, dead or alive.
Turning, he levelled his gaze his gaze upon her. “Why do you say that?”
“Should he be d-dead—” She stumbled a little over the word, over the thought that he was. “His body should be buried. He might have been a bad man, but dignity is a small thing to pay.”
“He might not deserve it.”
“He might not,” she agreed, and lapsed into silence. She was not used to explaining herself, and it made her feel awkward to do so now.
Wade remained silent a while. “It weren’t a killing wound,” he finally said. “I would wager he got back on his horse and made his way to whatever hole would have him.”
She cocked her head. “Do you say this to placate me?”
“No. I seen a wound that kills before, more times than I can count, and even more that don’t. That weren’t it.”
“Yes. In your profession. You must have seen any number of deaths.” And been the cause of dozens more.
Wade shook his head. “I try to avoid wounds, as much as I can. Better to convince a man to take himself off than to force his hand.”
“I would not have thought a gunslinger would use words.”
He scowled. “It’s those damn dime novels.”
A twitch pulled at her lips. “Oh?”
“Always getting the particulars wrong,” he grumbled. “Don’t know why they’re so goddamn popular.”
She ducked her head to hide her smile. Jake Wade read dime novels? And enough, it seemed, to be thoroughly annoyed by them. When she had control of herself, she regarded him once more. He still scowled at the flames, as if they had written the books he so lamented. “So where did you see these wounds?”
“The war,” he said, viciously throwing a twig or somesuch into the fire.
Surprise held her. The war? But he was…surely he was not old enough? “The war?”
Nodding, he threw a twig in the fire. “Uh-huh.”
“But you are not old enough,” she blurted, and immediately blanched. Lord. How very gauche of her.
He, though, seemed not to think it so. “Twelve I was, and I’ve always been big for my age. When I signed up, none thought to question.”
When she was twelve, she fought with her sisters over who had sole ownership of the pearl-backed hair brush. That, however, was before they had been killed. The stab of pain at their memory was familiar, and she allowed herself to feel it a moment before putting it away, as she always did
“Thirteen I reckon I was, the first time I saw a man killed. His eyes were wild. They don’t tell you that. Tell you how a man reacts, how a body falls. It ain’t how you imagine,” he said, slight tilt to the corner of his mouth.
“No,” she said.
His gaze flicked to her, and she could see his lips form the question.
“My family,” she said abruptly, before he could ask. “They died.”
He regarded her a long moment. “Callihan?”
She nodded once, sharply.
“Is he the one behind that scar on your neck?”
Her eyes burned. Brutally, she dug her teeth into her bottom lip. “Yes.”
She gave a bitter laugh. “Yes. Lucky.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
She stared at her hands. They were steady. Surprising. “Thank you.”
“Now the war, it weren’t all bad,” he said as if they hadn’t spoken of her family. “In fact, most of it were goddamn amusing. I should tell you the time Higgins almost got his fool arm bit off by a bear what turned out to be a rock covered in moss. Higgins was on patrol for more’n a day and he…”
Grateful he asked no more questions, Hope listened. The rough timbre of his voice washing over her, rising and falling as he described Higgins’s grand wrestle with a rock. A warmth glowed in her chest, that he somehow knew she had no wish to speak further of her family and Callihan and he instead distracted them both with these tales.
He gesticulated with his hands, a sly grin on his face as he finished that story and started the next, amusing anecdotes of fellow soldiers and ridiculous situations. Lurking underneath, though, was a grimness she didn’t think he even realised, a lie told so often and so well even he believed it. She’d been guilty of such, once. She’d told herself she was fine, pretended to others she was well. She’d let her uncle believe she was a sweet, innocent girl who had put the horrors of her past behind her, let him believe vengeance didn’t smoulder deep within her, waiting only for a tinder that would set her rage alight. He’d died believing his niece was safe and whole, and had never known the revenge she had sown, that she now pursued.
So she knew Jacob Wade lied, because she was a liar, too.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
His words interrupted her thoughts. “Like what?”
“I don’t know. Like…that.” He waved a hand at her.
She lifted a shoulder. “Deadwater tomorrow? I thought it would take a week,” she said instead.
He didn’t insist, offering his own shrug. “May be we made better time than I thought we would.”
“Hmm.” He really was quite beautiful. Flame licked at his features, creating dark hollows of his eyes and cheeks, the bones of his face stark and strong. He was bathed in a light of red and gold, and she wanted to run her fingers over the stubble of his beard, feel for herself if it was soft or if it scratched. She wondered how it would feel against her lips.
The air thickened between them. His gaze slid over her, and she felt fire in its wake. Was he thinking of her? Was he wondering if he would discover if her heart beat faster? Did he want to trace the lines of her face, her neck; did he want to cup the weight of her breast and cover her flesh with his strong hand? Did he wonder how she tasted, if her lips would part under his, if she would moan and sigh, and draw him closer? Did he wonder all these things because, dear God, she did.
The moment elongated between them, becoming forever. She imagined his hand twitched, formed a fist, and that he made that fist to stop himself from reaching for her. She imagined she tilted her head, baring her neck, wanting him to wrap his fingers about her, pulling at the strands of her hair as he drew her to him…
“We should sleep,” he said huskily.
Dazed, she nodded, wondering and wondering…
“Miz McElroy,” he said and she almost imagined a warning to his tone, as if he fought himself and could not fight her as well, as if they did not disturb this moment he would break and she would take him within her…
She blinked. What was she thinking? “Yes.” She cleared her throat. “Yes, of course. You are correct. Good night, Mr Wade.”
It seemed his eyes burned, but that could just be the fire. “Good night, Miss McElroy.”
That night, it took forever to fall asleep and when she did, she dreamed….