Knowing he wore a damn fool smile, Jake cut into his eggs. Yolk oozed out, the eggs cooked just as he liked, and he mopped it up with thickly-sliced toasted bread. Breakfast was his favourite meal of the day, and it was all the sweeter because he’d passed the night in Hope McElroy’s bed.
She’d been so sweet lying against the sheets, her pale eyes closed and barely-there lashes resting against her cheeks. He’d wrestled with the powerful need to kiss her forehead before he left and he’d lost that battle, her skin warm and smooth beneath his lips. The trek to his own room was one he always dreaded and he’d wished he could stay with her, watch sunlight play over her features as she awoke to greet him with a faint smile that would tempt him to taste. Her arms would lazily circle his neck as the kiss deepened, as she took his tongue as she would take his cock, warm and wet and welcoming…
Christ, and now he was half hard. Shifting, he took a bite of his toast, and thought instead of the day ahead. He’d taken to escorting Hope around the town as she went about her business. She might not be mindful of the danger posed to a respectable woman in a town such as Deadwater, but he were. There was no way he was allowing her to put herself in harm’s way because she had need to send a telegram to her people in Sacramento. She never commented on his presence, and he’d passed it off as a desire to stretch his legs, but she weren’t dumb, his Hope. She knew what he was about, and maybe she would level her gaze on him, and maybe she rolled her eyes some, but she were safe and well and free from harm. She could make as much fun as she wished as long as she was well.
At the sound of her voice, pleasure shot through him. Schooling his features, he looked up to find Hope dressed for another day around town. Rising, he pulled out the chair opposite. “Miss McElroy.”
Nodding her thanks, she seated herself and folded her hands as was proper in her lap. The dichotomy drove him crazy. She sat there, all prim and proper, and the folks around him would think butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, while he knew her taste, her scent, the way she gasped when he—
“Mr Wade, are you well?” Hope wore the smallest of smirks on her face, as if she knew the direction of his thoughts.
Christ, he’d been daydreaming and his body reacted as it always did. Heat rushed along his cheeks. “I’m good. Were you saying something?”
Smirk still tugging at her pale, lush lips, she said, “I wish to visit the printer’s today and wondered if you would accompany me.”
“Of course. When were you looking to go?”
“Soon.” She looked down at his plate. “How long will it take you to eat that?”
Her gaze flew to his. “All of that in five minutes?”
There weren’t nothing out of the ordinary about his breakfast, he ate much the same every day, especially those days where there were a bought meal at his disposal and he had the cash to purchase. “Course, darlin’. This ain’t much.”
Disbelief rose her brows. “Four eggs, three pieces of toast, and two rashes of bacon? Are you going to inhale it?”
“I weren’t planning on it, but could attempt it should it be your direction?”
“Oh, and you always adhere to my direction?”
He lowered his voice. “I did last night.”
Colour lit her cheeks and she ducked her head, but not before he saw her eyes glazed with memory and arousal.
His own arousal a low burn in his belly, he leaned back. It were fun to play with her, it surely was. “Now, darlin’, why don’t you go get your hat and I’ll be ready by the time you come back.”
Not quite steady she rose, cheeks still flushed and her eyes still darkened. Clearing her throat, she asked, “Five minutes?”
With a nod, he watched as she left the dining room. Once he could no longer see her, he shovelled food in his mouth. He’d said five minutes and he intended to prove that was all it would take.
Hope’s arm linked in his, Jake escorted her down the boardwalk. The days were getting colder and preparations for the coming winter were around them, businesses installing sturdier shutters and deliveries of salt filling up stockrooms. The faint scent of wood smoke laced the air, and smoke wound lazily from chimneys. In the distance, snow capped the mountains, and the trees between there and here were shedding their leaves.
The population of Deadwater had increased in recent weeks, as those on the outskirts drifted in search of shelter from the colder weather. The boarding houses and any room to let were slowly filling, and the main street bustled with more traffic. More people meant the potential for more trouble, as people not used to society found themselves rubbing shoulders with strangers hither and yon. The only way to battle it was to stay alert, and ensure Hope encountered no trouble.
“Why are we going to the printers?” he asked.
Hope glanced at him. “I have questions.”
“What sort of questions?”
“Questions about the newspaper.”
“What question about the newspaper?”
A faint smile touched her lips. “I hope you are more subtle when questioning your suspects.”
“I can be subtle when there’s a need, but I know you prefer me blunt, darlin’”
That faint smile still playing about her lips, she shook her head. “I wish to know about distribution. In a small town such as this, it is surprise there even is a newspaper, let alone one that seems to have a wide readership. I’m assuming there is distribution to other settlements and, if my supposition is correct, they may even reach larger settlements and towns. It’s even possible content is wired to news outlets in Cheyenne. Thus, I would like to talk with the editor.”
“W ho is also the journalist.”
“And the printer. And the distributor.” She glanced at him. “As I said. Questions.”
“And why do you have these questions? Are you looking to expand your empire into newspapers and printing?”
“Not at present. I am…That is, I….” She exhaled. “I have an idea.”
He waited, but she didn’t expand. Turning to regard her, he lifted a brow. “What meaning should I take from that?”
“Whatever meaning you want.”
His eyebrow rose higher. “Are you really not going to tell me?”
“It’s not even really an idea. More like a notion.”
“Of the faintest kind.”
“And so, on this fine morning, when the air is crisp and the mud is thick, we are going to the printers to explore ‘a notion.”
A smile touched her lips. “Yes.”
He whistled. “You’re right, darlin’, why would I be wanting an expansion on that? It satisfies all curiosity and puts at ease a troubled mind. You have allayed my doubts and addressed my concerns, and any further dissection is stupidly excessive.”
“You have concerns?”
“I’m speechifying, darlin’. Don’t interrupt.”
Her lips twitched. “My apologies. I won’t interrupt again.”
“See that you don’t. A man is libel to—”
The roar stopped him in his tracks. Hope bumped into him, a question on her face.
A man stood in the middle of the street, his coat hooked behind the guns strapped to his hips. A rough beard covered his jaw and his hat sat low, shielding his eyes. A grin pulled at his mouth as he man sauntered toward them, his hands resting on the pistol handles. “Wade, I’ve been looking for you.”
Stepping in front of Hope, Jake fixed a genial smile on his face even as he took note of the distance between them, the confidence with which the man handled his weapons, and the likelihood of the man getting the drop on him. “Well now, friend, you have the better of me. You know me, but I don’t know you. Care to introduce yourself?”
“I don’t believe it much matters who I am, it more matters who I represent. Hear tell you’ve been poking around where you don’t belong, looking for information on those who wish to stay hidden.” The man’s hands tightened on the guns. “You could say I’m here to discourage you.”