Hope tightened the strap holding her bag to the saddle, the horse placid beneath the sharp tug. It butted its nose against her upper arm, seeking food or comfort or…or…she didn’t really care. She had no idea about horses and less desire to learn. She shrugged her shoulder, but the horse didn’t take the hint, the warm, broad nose continuing to nuzzle her.
Exhaling, she abandoned the strap and the horse, glancing at the sky. The sun had broken through the horizon, stretching light and warmth through mist that yet lingered. Trees bowed over where they’d made their camp, sheltering them from the rain that had threatened the previous evening, and the faint sound of rushing water broke through the early morning stillness, the rich earthiness of a damp forest permeating the air.
Winding her arms about herself, Hope kicked at the ground. Besides tightening the saddle straps, she’d already checked the fire was properly doused, repacked the pack containing the kitchen supplies, and rolled and re-rolled her blanket three times. The day was wasting, she was fast running out of busy work, and Jake Wade still hadn’t returned.
How long did it take to wash up? Wade had been gone over forty minutes by her estimation, and she’d seen hide nor hair of him in that time. She had no idea what he was doing to take so long. It had barely been light and she’d still been mostly asleep when he’d crouched beside her to tell her he intended to bathe. She’d broke her fast alone, packed and tidied her belongings, and now she was left to await his return.
Pain lodged behind her eyes and spread to her temples, matching the ache in her stomach and thighs. She’d had occasion to ride a horse in Sacramento, but not for hours at a time and each day besides. Her body screamed at her, but she would endure. The work of years was close to culmination and she could not waver now. It did not matter she was bone weary, that her muscles ached, that she felt vague. She was on the path to collision with Callihan. Finally.
Pacing, she rubbed her upper arms. For three days they’d been headed for Deadwater, and there was no indication the town was anywhere near. They’d encountered no other body on this trail, and Wade had given little hint as to how long the journey would take. He seemed completely unconcerned with the length of their travel and followed no course she could surmise. If it were up to her, they would already be at least an hour into their journey, maybe more, and yet she waited on Wade’s return. How did they know Callihan would be at their intended destination, that this slow meander through brush and forest wouldn’t make it so they missed him before they’d even arrived?
Water continued to rush in the distance. Her fingers bit into her biceps. She should wait. It was what a sensible person would do. Wade had said repeatedly he knew what he was about. She had to trust him to take the lead.
Breath exploding, she stalked toward the river. Maybe it was she should wait, but nothing in her experience suggested waiting brought results. She’d achieved what she had by forging ahead, and she’d be damned if she acted differently with Wade.
The trees cleared as the ground sloped down, earth giving way to pebble and rock. The stream snaked through the clearing, boughs bending as if the water had forced its way through the brush and the trees had acquiesced, and Wade stood in calf-deep water, trousers rolled and lacking his shirt.
Her breath caught.
Water ran down his chest in lazy rivulets, catching in the light smattering of dark hair dusting his skin. His trousers hung low on his hips, intriguing grooves bracketing the lean muscles of his abdomen. Made darker by the water, his hair hung loose about his face, framing sharp cheekbones and a jaw darkened with stubble. He ran his hands through his hair, slicking it back, and she watched the play of his muscles, her teeth biting into the corner of her lip as his biceps, his forearms, his chest, flexed; as his trousers dropped lower on his hips.
A dull beat began between her legs. He was, even to the dispassionate eye, astonishingly attractive. Lean muscle and golden skin. Wicked dark eyes that invited one to join him in laughter. A soft, sinful mouth and an attitude to match. For years, she’d had one goal, one focus. She wanted justice for her family. She hadn’t allowed distractions, had allowed nothing to deter her from the path she had set herself on.
Jake Wade distracted her.
Shaking herself, she called, “Mr Wade.”
Glancing in her direction, his eyes widened as he spied her before the corner of his mouth lifted. “Miz McElroy.”
“The day is wasting, Mr Wade,” she continued, telling herself she no longer noticed his naked chest. “Are you finished bathing?”
“Not quite,” he drawled, passing a hand over his chest.
The move drew her like a magnet. Jerking her gaze up, she scowled. “The day is wasting and I’m not paying you to spend a ridiculous amount of it bathing.”
He tugged his forelock. “Of course, miss. Wouldn’t think anything other, miss. Could be, though, I had other things to do afore I settled in to bathe, such as checking the perimeter and making sure we remained safe. Also, could be I plotted our route for today, and how to combat any dangers along the way. This is still Indian country, and just because we haven’t encountered a scout as yet don’t mean we won’t. There are other wicked men, and dangers beside, and it could just be careful planning will see us through. Could be I was doing all that.” He scratched his chest. “Or it could be I’ve just been bathing.”
Something that felt like shame twinged in her chest. Turning her cheek, she squared her shoulders and ignored whatever it was that unsettled her chest. From the corner of her eye, she saw him wade towards the bank, stripping the water from his skin as he strode to the shore. He threw on his roughspun shirt and leather waistcoat, the long coat he wore, strapping his guns about his lean hips and raking his hair back before affixing his hat atop his head.
“I’m presentable now, darlin’,” he called. “You can turn your gaze back to me.”
Reluctantly, she did. He was still alarmingly alluring. Thoroughly annoyed with herself, she said, “Are we to begin our day, then?”
He swept his arms wide. “Don’t you want to luxuriate some more in such a fine vista? We could take an hour or two, spend our time observing the movements of the wind.”
“Mr Wade—” She knew he was being annoying in response to her poor behaviour, but he didn’t understand. He had no concept of what this meant to her, and perhaps that was her fault, but she had not the words to tell him. She didn’t know how to describe that every time she closed her eyes, she dreamed of blood and death. She didn’t know how to tell him how it felt to have a family one day and none the next, to have those you loved torn from you in one terrible moment. How did one describe the shattering of a life?
A thumb smoothed her brow. Startled, she jerked her gaze to him. Somehow he’d come closer, so close she could see the flecks of green in his brown eyes. So close that he touched her. So close she could see he looked surprised that he had.
“You always look so worried,” he said softly, his thumb now on her cheek, his fingers resting lightly against her neck. Against her scar.
Her breath locked. It seemed the world narrowed to he and she, tingles radiating from his touch. Nervously, she wet her lips.
His eyes darkened, his own lips parting.
Her gaze dropped. How would his mouth feel against her? His top lip was thin but the bottom was full and sensual, and looked surprisingly soft against the hard line of his jaw. Would he taste of the mints he chewed, or would it be a flavour wholly his? Would his arms be solid and hard around her? Would the heat of his hands penetrate her clothing as they splayed across her back, as he drew her closer to him? How would he feel?
The sound of a rider and horse broke through. Hope blinked, the forest around them returning in a rush as the heat in Mr Wade’s eyes disappeared, his features shuttering as he looked past her. Briefly, she hung her head. Again he distracted her. So easily.
A genial smile now on his features, Mr Wade lifted a hand in greeting even as he put himself between her and the new arrival. “Hello there, friend.”
The man, grizzled and looking to be older than either of them by at least twenty years. “I ain’t your goddamn friend. What are you doing by yon stream?”
Mr Wade became, if possible, even friendlier. “We’re making our way to the passage to the mountains. Seeing as you came from that direction, perhaps it is you could share some knowledge of the path.”
Frowning, Hope glanced at him sharply. Mr Wade continue to smile at the man even as he lied about their destination, but his hand strayed to hover near the gun strapped to his hip.
The man snorted. “There ain’t no point heading for the mountains. The passes are closed.”
“It’s not even October.”
“Don’t matter. The mountains don’t care what month it is. Ain’t no one coming down or going up that mountain ’til well into spring.” He looked them up and down. “You don’t look the mountain type.”
Still strangely unruffled, Mr Wade said, “Much obliged for that information, friend.”
The man shifted, crossing his forearms over the pommel of his saddle. “And what are you offering in return?”
Hope looked between them. Mr Wade might appear relaxed, and the man clearly thought he was, but his hand strayed every closer to his gun, and his stance was such she felt certain he would pivot to action should it be required. “I hadn’t thought to offer anything,” he said. “Seeing as sharing a little information is the neighbourly thing to do.”
Taking his time, the man raked his gaze over Mr Wade, and then shifted his regard to her. “This one here’s wearing enough that can be converted to cash to set me up for a season or more. Your horses must be nearby. I’m thinking you should hand over what’s in her saddlebags, as well as your own.” He smiled nastily, his teeth yellow against the matt of his beard.
“I reckon you’ll be moving along with what you brought, friend.”
From nowhere, the man drew a rifle and levelled it at Mr Wade. “Who’s gonna stop me?”
Every on of Hope’s muscles seized. She couldn’t move, couldn’t think, could only stare at the barrel of the rifle pointed at them.
Mr Wade, though, appeared unaffected. “I’m hoping your conscience will, but if that don’t work, then I reckon I’ll have to.”
“With what? That itty-bitty peashooter at your hip?” The man used the rifle to gesture at her. “Or maybe this one here will fight your battles for you.”
“There’s still time, friend.” How could Mr Wade be calm? How? “Move on.”
The man cocked his rifle, aimed. “Who’s gonna make me?”
The crack of a gun split the air.
The man’s surprised expression was almost comical. He slid from his horse, landing on the ground with a dull thud.
Wade started to swear. He holstered his gun and strode to the man, kicking the man’s gun to the side. “Stupid goddamn idiot. Why did you force my hand? We could have ended this peaceably.”
The man just groaned.
Crouching next to him, Wade examined the damage wrought. Apparently satisfied, he rose to his feet and turned disgruntled eyes to her. “Pick up the gun.”
Numbly, she did as told. The rifle was heavy in her hands, the metal and wood cold.
Suddenly, she couldn’t breathe. Everything went distant, and the thundering in her ears competed with the ring of a gunshot and her mother’s screams. Her father lay on the floor, the pool of read beneath his head growing larger with every second….
Squeezing her eyes shut, she forced breath through her mouth. A soft breeze. Gently waving green. Distant laughter.
Years, eons passed.
Slowly, panic receded. Exhaling shakily, she turned the rifle over in her hands.
“Wanna hang on to it, darlin’?”
Blinking, she raised her gaze. Wade hadn’t noticed, so it couldn’t have been more than seconds. “Pardon?”
Wade lifted his chin at the gun she held in her hands. “The rifle. Wanna keep it? Might be you’ll feel a tad safer with it strapped to your saddle.”
“I couldn’t take this man’s firearm, Mr Wade.”
“Why not? He was seeking to take our belongings.”
Mutely, she held the rifle out to him.
He shrugged. “Suit yourself.” Taking the rifle, he dismantled the weapon in moments, dropping the pieces near the still moaning man. Returning to her, he placed his hand at the small of her back. “Well then, the day’s a-wasting. Let’s get to it.”
Even after everything, the polite move surprised her. Her brows shot up, the feel of his hand warm and heavy against her. His grin didn’t slip, but his cheeks ruddied some.
Her gaze drifted to the man Wade had shot. He was moaning softly, his hands clutched to his side and stained red. Her stomach clenched. “What about him?”
Mr Wade shrugged. “It won’t kill him. The nearest town’s a day’s ride from here, and the main trail is less than a mile. Someone will come across him, if he don’t rescue himself. He’ll be fine.”
“What if he isn’t?”
“Then he won’t be. I warned him, Miz McElroy. More than once.”
It was true. He had. Rubbing her arms, Hope looked away from the injured man. The man who would have injured them.
The pressure on the small of her back increased. “Shall we?”
Nodding, she allowed him to guide her back to camp. Silently, they prepared their horses and then they set out. Wade led the way along the trail and she trained her gaze on his back, deliberately thinking only of the journey to Deadwater…and to Callihan.