Passing by the tannery on the outskirts of town, Jake rode back into Deadwater. Eight days he’d been gone, riding south to Browning afore looping back. The camp had held little word of Callihan and his men, but most agreed he weren’t as dead as folk thought and he was spoke of in hushed tones, as if the man himself might leap out from the shadows to rain hellfire and damnation on those who uttered his name. Callihan had built for himself a legend, and even Jake had cause to feel trepidation, though that was then and this was now, and Hope McElroy was his main concern.
Forcing his horse’s gait to slow as they ambled past the first saloon, he told himself he weren’t eager to return to the hotel, and he definitely weren’t eager to see her, though she’d been in his thoughts from the time he rode away from her until this moment when he returned. More than like he would think of her until he stood before her once more and assured himself she were unchanged.
It was confounding as all hell what he found so fascinating about Hope McElroy. It weren’t like she did anything to attract his attention, she didn’t flirt or preen, she didn’t show she were interested in anything aside business. However, he couldn’t stop thinking of her mouth with its thin upper lip and full lower one, or if her slight breasts would disappear in his hands, and whether her skin would be paler in the places that weren’t shown in public.
More than that, though, he wanted her opinion. On everything. He’d discovered some information she was wanting in Browning, and he wanted to hear her tell him in her flat voice that she wanted more, that she expected more, and then he would delight when he gave her the more she wanted. The corner of her lip would then tilt into a slight smile, and he’d feel he’d conquered a whole range of mountains.
Cursing himself, he shook his head in disgust. Yeah, true it was he weren’t goddamn eager to see her.
Reversing direction, he headed for the bath house. It would put another hour between this time and the time he saw her again. Being as it were so early in the day, though, it were mostly clear of people, and he was washed, shaved, and on his way in less time than it took to rub down his horse. Reluctantly, he headed for the hotel. He couldn’t put it off forever, though perhaps he could delay a little more by ordering himself some breakfast, in a fool attempt to convince himself he weren’t in want of her. Deliberately he set his feet to the dining room, ordering a meal that would take him the better part of an hour to get through.
As he bit into a biscuit slathered with a surprisingly delicious butter, the reason he weren’t eager pulled out a chair and sat before him. After his attempts to avoid her, she saw fit to put herself in his path. Miz McElroy looked the same as she always did, dressed in a nondescript gown with her hair pulled back. There was little colour in her cheeks, and her pale gaze held his own levelly. Nothing of welcome and even less of flirtation. Why did he find her so goddamn fascinating? “Mr Wade,” she greeted.
He waited until his mouth weren’t full of biscuit before replying. “Miz McElroy.”
She watched as he buttered another biscuit with firm, deliberate strokes. “When did you return?”
“A couple hours ago.”
“Ah.” Her expression was still, but he was well-versed in the minutia of her and saw a wisp of hurt. She glanced from him, her gaze lowered.
The biscuit turned to clag in his mouth. Cursing himself, he tightened his grip on his knife. He’d meant only to hurt himself with the delay, not her. He never wanted to hurt her.
The murmur of other diners invaded the silence between them. After a moment, she asked, “What did you discover?”
Her gaze was still lowered. “Enough. Callihan is still on this earth.”
Pale eyes lifted to his. “That was my supposition; I knew it had to be true. A man such as he would not bless us all with an early demise. Was there more?”
A reluctant smile tugged at him. Always she pushed him for more. “There is more. Callihan will most likely return to Deadwater for the winter.”
Her eyes widened, just a fraction. “The winter approaches.”
“It does. I heard he raises camp just outside town, and his men come in for supplies and liquor on a regular-like basis. Sometimes they’ll even come in for, uh, female companionship. They’ll stay until the snow melts and then they’ll be off again.”
Her gaze turned distant. “So we will have a month, maybe two.”
Still distant, she nodded. It were clear she was distracted by her thoughts. Breaking another biscuit, Jake slathered it with butter.
Her gaze focused on him as he took a bite. “Mr Wade?” She seemed strangely hesitant, though it were clear something was on her mind. Ever so slightly, her shoulders squared. “I would like you to have intercourse with me.”
He choked on his biscuit. “What?” he managed.
Her expression remained impassive, as if she had not just asked him to fuck her. “I am almost thirty-three years of age. I have not found someone who interest me in that time. We seem to have an attraction to each other. It behoves me to seize the opportunity while it is here.”
Bamboozled, he stared at her. She met his gaze, her own calm, but the grip on her hands clasped in her lap were tight. Chin rising slightly, she said, “If you are not amenable—”
“Hang on, darlin’, I ain’t never said that. You’ve…you’ve thrown me a bit.” Abandoning his breakfast, he rubbed his jaw. This…He could never have seen this coming. She were right in there was an attraction. Occasionally he had seen her glance at him, and now and then it seemed they had shared a moment, but he had not thought she had felt strong enough to prompt an action. Now she’d raised the notion, he wanted. He wanted by all that was holy to discover for himself what lay beneath her drab clothes, what sounds she would make when his mouth was on her, when she came. He wanted to know if she would let him hold her after they were done, if she would relax in his arms, and if she would let him treat her with the affection he felt.
“Shall I leave you to consider?”
Her voice broke into his thoughts. She regarded him with the same expression she always did, and to those observing them it would seem she felt no emotion. He could see, though, the anxiety in the faint crease of her brow and the slight tightening around her eyes. “No, darlin’, I would be wanting some of the particulars first. The hows and whens, as it were. What, exactly, do you intend?”
“Of course. I know something of the act, of course. I am not an innocent.”
God damn, but she could be amusing. “I should never have thought so.”
She continued, oblivious for once to his teasing. “I should not wish to become with child. While I understand there is no method that guarantees such a thing, I am willing to accept the consequences. You should have no concern I should ask anything of you.”
He lost his smile. “Hold up, darlin’. You saying you would take my child from me?”
“I am saying I expect nothing. This is solely for our own edification, our pleasure, and my education. If a child should result, I have the means to care and provide for them.”
“And I don’t?”
Colourless eyes regarded him levelly. “What do you have, Mr Wade, besides your horse and your gun? That I have more wealth than you is not a debate. It is fact.”
A sourness took him. She weren’t wrong, but…. “You’re not tempting me to acquiesce.”
“I am merely stating facts. We are both grown and will enter this with eyes open.”
Eyes open. If his eyes were open, he would acknowledge this were a terrible idea. He was already more attached to her than was wise, and she intended this to be temporary. If he weren’t careful, she’d return to California and he would remain, with memories and a gaping hole where his heart had been…but he were getting ahead of himself. Maybe it was they would get what they both wanted from the enterprise and part ways friends when the sex was done.
“Darlin’, my eyes couldn’t be any more open,” he said softly.
Her own widened. Lips parting, she stared at him, her tongue wetting the corner of her upper lip. He tracked the movement, his chest tight and his cock hard, and he tortured himself with the thought of how she’d taste, of the sound she would make if it were him slicking her lips with his tongue.
Then she stood, breaking their connection. The plates on the table rattling with the haste of her motion. “I shall give you some time to consider. We can discuss the particulars should you agree.” Her words held a slight breathlessness, and she almost stumbled as she departed, her narrow shoulders hunched.
Placing his utensils either side of his plate, he stared down at the mess of eggs, bacon and biscuits. It took some time to for his breathing to return to normal. She were…something else, were Miz McElroy. Were Hope.
He savoured her name. He could say it now. She’d asked him to fuck her—or, as she’d put it, have intercourse with her—and that intimacy could lead to another. It were obvious Hope knew next to nothing of the practical applications, and the thought of showing her all the possibilities had his already-stone cock hardening to pain. Well, hell. Now he couldn’t stand up, or he’d embarrass himself before the other patrons.
Drumming his fingers against the table, he stared at the stairs visible through the dining room door. The stairs she’d ascended. She would be in her room, working. Her hair would be scraped back but perhaps a wisp or two would have fallen, and her distraction would make it so she hadn’t noticed. A faint flush would colour her cheeks, a reminder of the proposal she’d made him, and though her expression would be calm, her pulse flutter wildly, betraying her emotion….
Abandoning his breakfast, he loped up the stairs. Her voice called out permission to enter at his knock, and she seemed startled to see him, a delicate colour staining her pale skin. He devoured her with his gaze, and it were only when he opened his mouth to tell her he agreed to her proposal he realised someone else were in the room.
The black woman Hope had hired to be her secretary watched him with interest, a knowing smirk on her face. His own cheeks heated, and the fire that had driven him to Hope’s side diminished somewhat. “Miss Margaret,” he said, feeling awkward as hell.
“Mr Wade. I see you’ve returned and you’re wanting to speak with Miss McElroy. I’ll just step into the hall a moment, shall I?” she said with arched brow.
“Thank you.” Hell, he wished he had his hat so he had something to do with his hands.
As she passed him, she murmured, “Only a moment, mind,” and her pointed look left no doubt she knew how bad he wanted Hope.
He nodded tightly, forgetting her the instant the door closed.
Hope stood opposite him, uncertainty in her posture. “Was there something else we needed to discuss, Mr Wade?”
“Yes.” He crossed the room so he stood barely a breath from her. He inhaled, the scent that was her teasing him. Washing powder, clean skin, and…something fresh and sweet, he weren’t sure what. But he would dedicate himself to discovering it. “I agree.”
Her throat moved as she swallowed. “You do?”
Slowly, he inclined his head, holding her gaze. Her pupils were dilated. Christ. “I surely do, darlin’.”
“Jake,” he interrupted. “If we’re going to be sleeping together, I think it is you should call me by the name my mama gave me.”
“Mr Wade—Jake,” she said thickly. “Please do not look at me so.”
“How am I looking at you, darlin’?” he said softly.
She swallowed. “As if you would like to devour me.”
“Well….” He leant closer. Hunger licked at him, his hands desperate to fill themselves with her. He denied himself because she felt it too, her chest rising and falling rapidly, a flush rising from the collar of her gown. “That’s because I do.”
Pale eyes turned glassy as he traced a thumb along her cheek, the pulse in her neck fluttering wildly.
“The particulars and the whyfors are these,” he continued, his tone still soft. “We’ll ease into this, darlin’, good and slow. You being a novice means we’ll take our time, explore what makes you gasp, what makes you moan. We’ll make it so you won’t know what it’s like to be in want of me, of my touch, and every inch of your skin will be branded with my fingers and my tongue. And then, when you’re used to the slow, we’ll do it all again. Fast. Hard. Rough. Do you agree?” he finished, his voice rough.
She nodded drunkenly.
Ignoring how goddamn hard he was, he dropped his hand from her. “I’ll see you tonight.”
He felt her gaze on him like a brand as he sauntered from the room, pretending he weren’t on fire for her. Miss Margaret was on the other side of the door, her arms crossed and her look arch. He tipped his head at her, and she shook hers as she returned to the room, closing the door behind her.
For the longest time, he stood on the landing, rubbing his jaw and willing his body to something approaching calm. Abandoning it as a lost cause, he made his way back to his breakfast, his thoughts occupied by what, exactly, he would do to Miss Hope McElroy once night came.