Sunlight danced across her closed eyelids. Sighing, Hope stretched, the bedsheets warm against her skin.
She froze. Against her skin?
The night came back to her in a rush. The Chinese festival. Jake’s kiss. Returning to the hotel. And then….
Heat suffused her at memories of and then. Well, now she knew what pleasure was.
She turned to gaze at the space beside her, a space empty of him. After the second time, he’d murmured he would leave once she fell asleep. She’d tried to keep her eyes open, wanting more than anything for him to stay, but in the end sleep claimed her.
A knock at her door had her leaping from bed. Belatedly remembering her nakedness, she dragged on a robe, blushing a little at how revealing it was. Throwing open the door, her smile died when she saw Margaret.
Margaret’s eyebrows shot up somewhere about her hair line. “Well, I can see for myself your evening went well.”
Cheeks hot, Hope found her tongue was tied. She hadn’t even realised today was one of the days Margaret was to work, her thoughts too full of Jake.
Margaret laughed huskily. “And I don’t need to ask for any detail. That smile says more than enough.”
Good God, she was acting the greenest of girls. Wiping the expression from her face—or, at least, she hoped she did—she said, “Margaret, I have decided we shall take a day off.”
Margaret’s smirk fell. “Oh.”
What could have caused— Lord, last night really had scrambled her brain. “You will, of course, be paid at your usual rate.”
Closing her eyes briefly, Margaret nodded, and then the smirk returned. “Now that’s out of the way, if you want to talk….” She waggled her eyebrows.
“No.” Damnit, would she ever stop blushing? “I don’t need to.”
“But do you want to?”
Slowly, she shook her head. “I…wish to keep it to myself. For now. I— I may change my mind later.”
“Well, I’m here, should you wish to.” Margaret looked her over. “I would suggest you go back to bed and join the man who put that smile on your face.”
“Oh, he’s not there,” Hope said thoughtlessly.
Margaret raised a brow. “Well, I would suggest you drag him back.”
Raising her chin, Hope willed the heat to fade from her cheeks. Where was her composure? All her life, she’d been reserved, never speaking more than necessary. Now, she gave away every thought with both words and the confounded blush on her cheeks. This was intolerable.
Oblivious to Hope’s internal castigation, Margaret shook her head, still wearing a grin. “Remember what I told you about preventing a baby, and enjoy that man. Lord knows no one else is.” And with that, she gave a jaunty little wave and left.
Closing the door, Hope cupped her elbows. Even with Margaret knowing, she couldn’t find it within herself to care. Maybe she had always been reserved, but she’d never been a prude. She was glad she’d taken action, glad she’d found pleasure, and glad it had been with Jake. She loved his wicked grin, the one he directed at her and no one else. She loved how he caressed her name, how he called her darlin’ in his gravel-rough voice. She loved his dark eyes, and how they grew darker when he raked his gaze over her, when he leaned closer, when he kissed her lips, her breasts, her….
She covered her cheeks with her hands. She’d never blushed so much in her life.
Another knock sounded at her door, this one firmer than Margaret’s. A stupid grin wreathed her face, and her heart started a reckless pound in her chest. She knew that knock.
The door opened and Jake stood on the other side. His gaze raked over her, taking in the thin robe she wore and that she wore nothing else. A growl rumbled from his chest and his eyes darkened, as they had last night when he’d taken her knees in his hands and… Whatever she greeting she had been going to give promptly flew from her head as an urgent throb started inside her.
Entering, he shut the door with his booted heel and six feet of determined male stalked her across the room. “You’d better be headed in the direction of that bed, darlin’” he said, his voice like gravel.
The backs of her thighs met the edge of the bed. Falling backwards, she propped herself on her elbows and, lust coursing through her, she gave him a wicked smile of her own.
With a groan, he followed her onto the bed, covering her, and she wrapped herself around him as he took her mouth with his.
“Did you come for a reason?”
Pausing his gentle stroke against her arm, a lazy smile crossed Jake’s face. “Well, darlin’, I’m thinking we both know the reason we came.”
Ducking her head, furious heat burned her cheeks. Lord, she’d never blushed so much in all her life. They lay in her bed, tangled together after another demonstration of pleasure, her robe in a sad state of disrepair while he remained almost completely clothed. They’d been in such a whirl for each other, they’d only moved aside what was necessary, such that he still wore his boots.
Bending his arm behind his head, he chuckled. “No reason, darlin’. Couldn’t keep myself away.”
Watching how his shirt pulled over his chest, a powerful need to see him befell her. Pushing herself up, she straddled him as she gathered the fabric of his shirt in her grip. “You’re wearing too many clothes.”
That wicked grin flashed across his face once more. “Well now, darlin’, we can’t have that.” Sitting up, he smoothed his suspenders over hsi shoulders and helped her pull his shirt over his head. Placing her palms against his chest, she pushed him gently and he obeyed, lying back against the bed. Golden skin greeted her, leanly muscled and with an intriguing smattering of dark hair. Splaying her fingers over his chest, she tested the resilience, his strength, the feel of him beneath her palms.
The corner of his lip kicked up as he watched her. “Darlin’, you keep doing that and you’re going to get yourself in trouble.”
Her own lips quirked. “What sort of trouble?”
Hands tightening on her thighs, he said, “The kind we both like.”
Her gaze flew to his. He appeared lazy, relaxed, but she could feel the tenseness of his muscles beneath her hands, how he was half-hard beneath her bottom. An answering lust shuddered through her, but she lifted herself off him, tucking herself into his side as his arm curled around her.
“Will Miss Margaret be attending you soon?” Fingers dragged up the curve of her waist and then reversed down to her hip. Up her ribs, down to her hip.
His shoulder was smooth and warm against her cheek and, as she shook her head, her lips rubbed against his skin. “I’ve given her leave to take a day. I…didn’t wish to work today.”
“Didn’t you?” She could hear the smile in his voice.
Lips brushed the top of her head. “Wait here.” Pushing from the bed, he shrugged back into his shirt.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ll be right back.” He brushed a kiss against her brow and before she could protest further, he’d left.
A stupid little smile refusing to leave her lips, she collapsed against the bed and proceeded to think of nothing. Not ten minutes later he returned, bearing a tray laden bread, jelly, cheese and ham, and a pot of what smelled like coffee. Arranging a kind of picnic on the bed, he handed her a full cup.
Raising a brow, she said, “Breakfast?”
“You need your strength, darlin’. I ain’t done with you yet.”
Ducking her head against yet another blush, she sipped her coffee.
Companionable silence rose between them. From beneath her lashes, she watched him, his tongue catching a stray crumb, the movement of his throat as he swallowed. A dull throb began within her, and she wondered if he would mind if she suggested they left the rest of the meal until after.
His gaze, though, had strayed to her neck. “Can I ask?”
She paused, all thoughts of pleasure forgotten. Her scar. He wished to know more of her scar. Lowering her hand, she slowly nodded.
“What did he do?” he asked gently.
The rumpled bedspread was homespun cotton, with a cheery cross-stich of flowers and ivy. “It was just before I turned thirteen.”
He didn’t say a word.
“He— They— One day, I had a family. The next, he and his gang had taken them.” She swallowed. “I don’t know why they came. My father had a cattle ranch, but we weren’t wealthy. No like my uncle.”
She nodded. “They…They came, and they…. My brothers tried to fight, my sisters too, but we weren’t— It wasn’t enough. One of them held me down and the knife—” She exhaled slowly. “When I woke up, they were gone. And I was the only one left.”
The bedspread had a stain, faint but there. She swiped her thumb over it. And again. And again. “It took me three weeks to travel to Sacramento. I couldn’t talk, but I made it, and my uncle took me in.” She met his gaze, determination a burn inside her. “I need to find him, Jake. I need to make him pay. I need vengeance for my family.”
“I ran with Callihan,” he said abruptly. “For a month, when I was sixteen. It’s how I know him, how I know his habits.” His jaw worked. “I should have told you.”
The world felt upside down. He stared at her, his jaw set, his gaze burning into hers.
She didn’t know what to think. She’d investigated. Her secretary had found him, and then researched, and there had been nothing about Callihan, nothing about an association. There had been nothing, and she— She couldn’t—
Too much whirled in her, too much, and she couldn’t…She couldn’t think. Desperately, she pictured her sea, the grass tall, the wind gentle. Slowly, the tide subsided, becoming something smaller, more manageable.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before.” His hands clenched on the bed spread. “What can I do?”
Folding her hands in her lap, she said nothing.
He made a sound of frustration. “Don’t look at me like that. Not like before. Not with nothing in your eyes. You were smiling and now—” He smashed his fist against the bed. The plates jumped, crashing into each other. “Goddamnit!”
Dispassionately, she watched his emotion.
“Do you want me to go?” he finally said.
Did she? Decades ago, he’d ran with Callihan. He’d dedicated his life to capturing bad men. He helped her now. Did she want him to go? “No.”
Shoulders dropping, his breath left him in a rush as he bowed his head, his breath.
Still numb, she said, “Why did you ride with him?”
He raked a hand through his hair, though slow, as if he were weighed down. “Because I was sixteen, and an idiot. Because the war had ended, and I didn’t know if I were a hero or a villain. Worked out pretty damn fast the difference. Weren’t more than a month afore I ran off from the gang, and it was sure I was Callihan would come after me, like the bogeyman he is, but somehow he let me be, and it were then I dedicated myself to finding men like him, finding the bad men and bringing them to justice and— Christ, Hope. I wish I’d started with him. I wish I’d borne him to the law, but I didn’t, and… Your family….” Jaw working, he looked away.
Every muscle still, she asked, “Do you have anything else you should tell me?”
“No.” He met her gaze. “Darlin’…”
With that one word, she broke. Great sobs broke from her, and she couldn’t control them, couldn’t control herself. Taking gasping breaths, she looked from him, desperately trying to stop this, to stop stop stop.
He rushed to her, gathering her in his arms. “Darlin’. Darlin’, shh. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” His lips moved against her temple. Grasping his arm, she pulled him closer, wanting his comfort, wanting this to be over, why couldn’t it just by over, why couldn’t she feel something other than grief and anger a need for vengeance and the desire for this to be over.
“We’ll get him, darlin’. You and me. We’ll get him.”
“I know,” she managed.
“I’ll find him for you. I will.”
She dug her forehead into his shoulder. “I know.”
She pulled back. Dark eyes met her, determination burning in their depths. He meant it, to the bottom of his soul.
He would help her.
An emotion curled within her, something warm and tight and felt like relief, like a burden lifted. Something like gratitude and comfort and a million other things, something so big, she couldn’t contain it. Jake would help her. She wasn’t alone.
Lifting her hand, she cupped his cheek and she willed him to know how much she meant it, how much she believed. How much she had faith. “I know.”