It were the middle of the afternoon of the following day afore they rode into Deadwater. The path had been longer and more fearsome than Jake remembered it, and though he’d hidden it from Miz McElroy, he’d had some concern they would not reach the town intact. The bad man who’d stumbled into their path had been not much more than a bother, but where there was one, there could have been others. If he’d been alone, he’d give it not much more than a thought, but with Hope…. He wasn’t fixing for anything to happen to her. It had been a time since he’d last doubted his abilities, since unease had had him so firm in its grip. He couldn’t say he much cared for the experience.
However, now they’d arrived in Deadwater and a different kind of danger faced them. The fledgling town had grown since last Jake had passed through, but they still garnered suspicious looks and curious glances. More than one hand twitched towards a holstered gun, recognition and calculation on their features. He’d made sure to shield Miz McElroy from those glances, though no matter how he protected her some danger would transfer from him to her by virtue of her being by his side. Unease would not leave him just yet.
“Well, ain’t this just a lovely patch of earth,” he said dryly, pushing unease aside.
The faintest of smiles curved Miz McElroy’s lips, her grip loose on the reins as her horse ambled beside his.
Deadwater was now more permanent structures than tents and lean-tos. Buildings made of wood lined the pounded earth of the main street, flanked by boardwalks and some windows boasting costly glass. The town even had a telegraph office and a printers, and it seemed a bank was being run out of the general store. For all its improvements, though, it still held a roughness, a disreputable-like air that hung over the shiny windows and the newly constructed buildings, something that said not long ago this town weren’t much more than a collection of tents stealing land from the native folk of these plains.
“Were you wanting the hotel?” he said.
“I think that to be the most logical course of action. A base should be established, and we can refresh from our journey.” Pale eyes glanced at him. “Was this your thought, too, Mr Wade?”
They were mesmerising, those pale irises under light brows. She were always so steady in her gaze, so calm and centred.
Realising his thoughts were heading in a direction he had no business entertaining, he cleared his throat. “That was also the thought—I mean, I too had the thought—” Again she watched him steadily as he stammered and stuttered. Heat felt like a furnace on his cheeks. “Yes. The hotel.” He kicked his horse forward, damn eager to leave the steady gaze behind.
The hotel still weren’t much more than a boarding house. He helped Miz McElroy dismount, and waved off her hands when she tried to take her bags from him. A thin, peaked kind of woman stood behind the counter, watching them impassively as they approached the desk.
Placing the bags on the floor beside him, he said, “Two rooms.”
Arms crossed, the woman looked him up and down. “We don’t want no trouble here,” she said flatly.
He flashed his most charming smile. “Neither do we, ma’am. We’re looking for rooms and the use of them. This lady here is Miss Hope McElroy of McElroy Transport and Logistics. You’ve heard of them, of course.”
The woman just regarded him.
He flashed his teeth again. “Miz McElroy is looking to expand her business and believes Deadwater to be ideal for her purpose. She’ll be wanting a room for some time and is willing to pay what’s fair.”
The woman remained unimpressed. “Room is two dollars a day, meals included. Laundry is done on Mondays but only for those what leave their requirements outside their door.” She grabbed two keys and handed them over. “Upstairs and to your left.”
Miz McElroy had watched the entire exchange without comment, her features impassive, and still she said nothing as he led the way to the rooms, the journey to the first room shorter than expected. The room itself was well appointed and clean, and even held a cheeriness he weren’t expecting from the establishment.
He dumped Miz McElroy’s bags on the bed and moved to the door, shifting his own bag on his shoulder. She watched him without comment. “You took some liberties,” she finally said.
Haloed by light, her pale hair was almost white while her slender form approached ethereal. Why was it he so badly wanted to prove she was corporeal by running his hands over her? “Beg yours?”
“You offered compensation with my money.”
Christ on a stick, had he been in the wrong? “Was I in the wrong to do so?”
“No.” A frown creased her brow. “I beg your pardon, Mr Wade, I have not made myself clear. Please feel free to offer whatever compensation you believe fair, and engage any assistance you require. I trust you.”
A warmth started deep in his chest. She trusted him. Not just with her safety. Not because she paid him. Because…because she did. He ducked his head so she wouldn’t see the red that no doubt ruddied his cheeks “Once I’m settled, reckon it is I’ll go to the saloon,” he said. “See what talk might be in the wind.”
“I should hope you would make certain—” she stopped, took a breath, and then gave a sharp nod.
“What’s this?” he said with the beginnings of a grin. “Could it be Miss Hope McElroy is thinking I can do my job without her assistance?”
The faintest of colour rose on her cheeks. “I have work to do also,” she said.
The grin pulled harder, until it took shape on his mouth. “And further, Miss Hope McElroy is validating my occupation by comparing it to her own. My, it is a red letter day.”
The colour on her cheeks intensified. She didn’t appear to know what to say.
The warmth suffusing his chest grew, and a strange kind of giddiness took possession of him. “Will this room suit your purpose?”
She looked up, and he knew her well enough now to see the query in her expression.
“For your work,” he clarified.
“It will do as well as any other. There is a desk, as you see, and a chair to sit upon. I have paper to give my direction, and I observed a telegraph office as we entered the town. I would venture I could set myself up nicely.” She hesitated. “And you are content to continue your employment?”
“I don’t suppose my employment is at an end. You ain’t found your man, yet.”
“But we have discovered the town and I make my lodgings. It could be many weeks before Callihan returns.”
“Could be. Could also be he is no longer numbered amongst the living. Or it could be he saunters in tomorrow. Whatever eventuates, I am not at the end of my employment.” He had a hankering to rub at his chest, a hurt settling beneath his ribs at the thought of leaving. “Why are you asking anyways?”
“I can imagine a man of your talents would be in great demand.” She gazed at him direct, those light coloured eyes regarding him steadily. He might have been teasing afore, and it might be he had an inkling she’d changed her mind, but to hear her say it so simply, to know she thought him capable…well, he didn’t know how to describe how he felt, but he was sure pride was in there, and a desire to do the best he could for her. To make her glad he stood by her side.
The air weighed heavy between them. Her chest rose and fell sharply, her slight breasts pushing against her bodice. The faintest wisp of hair floated along her cheek, highlighting the sharpness of the bones beneath the delicate skin. He wanted nothing so much as to stride across the room, cup the back of her head and cover her mouth with his.
Christ. Clearing his throat, he shifted the bag on his shoulder and ignored such thoughts. “Well, I’ll be away. If you need anything, you be sure to let me know.”
She nodded, that clear gaze locked on him.
He shifted, uncomfortable under such directness. It made him feel…He didn’t know how it made him feel, and he weren’t hankering to think any further on it. He nodded his head sharply, and made to depart.
“I look forward to your report. At dinner.” The faintest, most hesitant of smiles.
He couldn’t say no, and what’s more, he didn’t want to. He nodded again. “Miss McElroy,” he said, and shut the door behind him as he left her standing in her room, that steady gaze following him as he made his way to his own room.
Dumping his saddlebags on the bed, he ran his hand over his mouth. Christ. She were a high, fancy lady and maybe it was she would want the same things he did but she was his employer. It never did well to take pleasure where there should only be business.
So resolved, he jammed his hat on his head and departed the hotel, shooting as charming a grin as he could manage to the hotel proprietress as he passed, intensifying it at her sour look in return. He were about to pass her by when he reversed his direction, settling an elbow on the counter and fixing her with another smile. “I reckon it might be you would know the going-ons around this town and yonder.”
No expression cracked her face. It seemed he was doomed to inscrutable women in his life. “Could be,” she said.
“You would most like be an authority on where it is a man could go to enjoy revitalisation after a journey of many days.”
“This here hotel is a good place for that.”
“I have no doubt of that, ma’am. I’ve seen for myself the high quality of room on offer and would venture it’s of a mighty comfort when one lays one’s head down of an evening. I was more thinking along the lines of an establishment that serves beverages, mostly of the alcoholic variety.”
“Would you be wanting female company as well?”
He didn’t react, though he wouldn’t think to look at her she would be willing to discuss such women. Just proved a book and its cover were not always in agreement. “Not this evening.”
“Then the Whistle and Star is your best bet.”
“Much obliged.” He made at hesitation. “I’ve heard tell this town sometimes hosts people that claim to be well-known.”
“Who in particular?”
“Sharp-shooters and gunslingers.”
She stiffened. “Some.”
He wanted to push but he could see he would get nothing out of her. He gave her another grin. “Thank you for your advice, ma’am. Might be I’ll check out the Whistle and Star.”
He tipped his hat and departed the hotel. Maybe it was the saloon would hold more information, and so, he set out to discover it.