Intensely aware of Hope behind him, Jake sauntered into the street, proffering a lazy grin even as his heart pounded in his ears. The gunslinger watched his progress with a smirk, never looking beyond him. Good. The more the man looked at him, the less he were likely to notice Hope.
He weren’t noticing Hope.
With that thought, emotion fled. Clinically, Jake assessed the gunslinger. Though he wore a cocky grin, the man’s hands rested on his belt, his fingers twitching over the grip of his guns. Sweat beaded at his brow and in his moustache and his gaze shifted, flicking ever so slightly from Jake’s eyes to the guns strapped to his hips. He weren’t as old as he first appeared, barely out of his youth for all the fulsome moustache he sported and the fancy clothes he wore.
Some part of Jake were aware of the townsfolk observing though most of him were aware of Hope. He wanted this over with, and her out of danger.
“Can only think you’re here representing Josiah Callihan,” Jake said, looping his thumbs through his belt. “Which to my way of thinking confirms he still numbers amongst the living. So which are you, one of his gang or some offsider looking for an in?”
As if unable to help himself, the action drew the gunslinger’s gaze. His smirk slipped, fear taking its place before he recovered the smirk once more. “Don’t much matter what I am. What matters is you’ve been asking questions best left unanswered.”
This needed to be over and done, and quick. There would be something, a tick or a tell, and then Jake would know what course to take to grate on the man. It were just a matter of time afore he found whatever it was that would rub the man wrong. “Turn on your heel and leave. You won’t be making a reputation today, and I warrant Callihan wouldn’t much care besides. A reputation is more than challenging those who are you superior. I would advise turning on your heel afore you get shoved in that direction.”
“Who are you to be saying anything, old man?”
And there it was. The tell. The fulsome moustache. The too-fancy clothes that didn’t quite fit. The man knew he weren’t long out of boyhood and it grated him something fierce. “One with more experience and a better eye. You sure you can draw before me, son?”
“Don’t call me son. And I ain’t concerned with that.”
“Seems to me you are. Son, I hate to break it to you—”
“I’m not your son.”
“—but you ain’t got nothing noteworthy about your demeanour or your stance. Why don’t you run on home, son? Leave this job to the men.”
“Don’t call me son!” The gunslinger shouted, and drew his gun.
Time slowed, and then a gunshot split the air.
The gunslinger cried out, falling backwards as his hand clutched his shoulder.
Heart pounding in his ears, Jake holstered his gun. The boy—he weren’t much more than a boy—thrashed about, whimpering and moaning.
A boy. Christ.
A man with a tin star pinned to his chest approached. “This part of your business?”
Blinking, he focussed on the sheriff. “Not as such.”
“I told you when you rode into town trouble tended to find those who wanted to outrun it. This your trouble?”
“Not as such,” he repeated.
“Well, reckon it is it don’t matter none. The boy was seeking trouble and seems to me he found it. You hit his shoulder?”
Jake nodded sharply.
“The doc will take a look and can’t see any pronouncement being anything but the boy will live.” The sheriff glanced at the gunslinger. “Don’t reckon I’d want to get on the wrong side of you. That were a precise shot.”
Jake went to wipe his jaw, only to stare at his hand in surprise. It were shaking.
“Well, anyone would tell you that were a fair fight. All the same, I’d appreciate it if you stayed out of sight a few days. Don’t need more of the likes of him in this town.”
“Yes, sir.” Nodding, he turned to make his way back to Hope. She watched him approach, her already pale skin paler and her colourless eyes wide.
What had he been doing, goading the gunslinger? Usually, he would find a way to talk men down. His draw was quick, and it were unlikely he would lose if forced to it. He had no desire to see another in pain, especially by a wound he’d caused. But this time, with this boy, in this place….
Hope. Pale skin paler. Colourless eyes wide.
Hope could have been hurt. She was why he’d goaded that man, why fear had run through his veins a split second before he’d forced himself to focus.
Reaction clouted him. His knees buckled and he staggered toward her, his limbs suddenly weighed down. She caught him, panic writ on her face, her slight frame bearing him as they stumbled to an abandoned alley. A pained keen came from her as she frantically ran her hands over him, rifling his clothes. He stood beneath her ministrations, a roaring in his ears.
“You’re not shot.” Her hands stilled, resting on his chest. Closing her eyes, her throat worked. Then, she jerked his head down and took his lips with hers.
Lust stormed through him, sudden and desperate. Hitching her to him, he wrenched control, devouring her mouth with his. Hands twisting in his shirt, she gave back to him in spades, her tongue duelling with his as she hauled him closer and closer still. Her taste sat sweet upon him as fire burned through his veins, and he hauled her closer still, wishing there was nothing between them and his skin was against hers.
Wetness brushed his cheek.
The feel of it cut through his lust and he pulled back. With his thumb, he wiped away the tears on her cheek. “Here now, what’s this?” he said, his voice ragged.
She shook her head.
Her chest rose and fell. “You could have been hurt,” she finally said.
He smoothed her hair from her face. “But I wasn’t.”
Bowing her head, she wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“It’s what I do, Hope, and what’s more, I’m good at it. There’s no call to fret.”
She shook her head, her hair a tickle against his lips.
“Do you still want to go to the printers?”
Her gaze jerked up and, finally, she met his gaze. Her eyes were wide, and troubled, and then they shuttered. “No.”
He frowned. “Hope….”
“Let’s go back to the hotel. I’ve had enough excitement for one day.”
He studied her. She met his gaze levelly, revealing nothing. There was something wrong, he knew it like he knew the shape of his gun in his hand. He couldn’t force her to speak of it, though, not when she’d set her mind to it being otherwise.
Taking her hand, he hooked her arm around his and they walked back to the hotel, he lost in his thoughts and she in hers. She said goodbye to him at the foot of the stairs, claiming business to attend. He watched her ascend, and he wanted to know what she’d thought, what had caused her tears, and why, after she’d clung to him so hard, she’d shuttered herself to him.