Hope McElroy’s hand was light on his arm.
Keeping his gaze straight ahead, Jake ignored the feel of her fingers, the way her touch raced along his skin through his coat and shirt. Such a small touch shouldn’t cause his heart to race and his body to harden, but that didn’t seem to matter none. He were breathless, and it were with nothing more than her hand on his arm and the step of her by his side.
Night had settled over Deadwater, the main street lit with lamps burning in windows and sconces and light spilling from saloons and parlours as they plied a raucous trade. The compacted dirt of the ground was damp and filled with ridges and holes, countless feet churning it during the daylight hours.
This night was the beginning of his plan, one that was more than what she’d asked and one he’s spent most of the day determining. From her words as they’d made their way to Deadwater, it seemed she had few people, and even fewer who she felt close to. Jake would warrant there was her uncle and then no one, and even he she’d held at a distance. Jake couldn’t blame her. He would too if he’d lost all he loved to Callihan.
Most of what he considered he’d discarded, nothing seeming to be good enough for her. Finally, he’d landed on the idea of courting, as if marriage were their aim rather than a bed. She deserved to be wooed and seduced, for blushes to pinken her pale skin and her eyes to darken with anticipation and lust. He had a need to give her those things, just as much as his need to make her scream and moan.
At the thought of her beneath him, he shifted. Christ, he needed to think of other things if he were going to keep his body under control. Like a fool, though, he risked a glance at her. Her pale hair was scraped back as always, but instead of harshness he noticed the graceful curl of her eyelashes, that her nose sloped into a slight bump at the end, and that her lips were a pale kind of pink.
Again his body hardened. With a silent curse, he pulled his gaze from her. Goddamnit, he would keep himself under control even though all he could think of was hauling her to him and parting those pale pink lips, tracing them with his tongue as he filled his hands with her….
Forcing a slow breath, he spoke, if only to goddamn distract himself. “You needn’t worry.”
Her gaze swung to him, though he kept his eyes ahead. “Pardon?”
“This camp ain’t really the place for a woman after dark, but you needn’t worry.”
“Why would I be worried?”
“Some would. There aren’t many decent women in camp, and those that are would be behind their own door once night fell.”
“Are you saying Margaret is not decent?”
Was her tone arch? It sounded arch. “I’m not saying that, I’m saying—”
“I know what you’re saying.” He could hear a smile in her voice, though her features remained calm. “I’m not worried. I’m with you.”
Something deep, dark, and warm unfurled in his chest. Clearing his throat didn’t rid him of the feeling, one he couldn’t readily identify and he couldn’t recall feeling afore in the entirety of his life. It was, however, one he were one he was feeling more and more. Around her.
This were so different from their beginning. Then, she didn’t trust him to tell her the time of day but now she would take his hand and allow him to lead her without comment, into a night that could hold terrors and danger, and she trusted him to keep her well. She trusted him.
For a time, they walked in silence, and he were still focused on the weight of her hand on his arm, the warmth that bled through cloth from her skin to his.
“Besides, I am no different from Margaret or the women she works with, and they are often out after dark. Whether I am with you or not is immaterial.”
Jake’s lips quirked. Lord, he knew her well enough now to know she didn’t mean it like it could be taken. She weren’t denigrating his skills, she were merely stating fact, and the fact was she felt safe with him, even though there was no reason to feel fear. He could read her now…well, he could read her some. He would never think he would ever fully know her. “Are you wondering where we’re going?”
“I thought to ask, but this is part of your stratagem, isn’t it? The anticipation is thrilling.”
He couldn’t stop his smile this time. “Stratagem? What do you know of my stratagem?”
“Nothing. I assume you will tell me what I need to know, and demonstrate when applicable.”
Jake almost groaned at the thought. Christ, he was looking forward to demonstrating. “I surely will,” he said, his voice a rasp.
Hope swallowed, and her fingers tightened on his arm. Hope. He loved her name. It were too long since he had any hope of his own, any determination apart from living the next day, and the one after that, and earning coin along the way. Hope had vengeance and purpose, was looking to rid the world of a bad man and win herself some peace at the same time. She weren’t broken by her tragedies, and she’d taken what her uncle had given her and built herself an empire in the meantime. He’d seen how hard she worked, how the shipping company employed many and had even more moving parts. She kept them all spinning, even here in the middle of nowhere. It was a long time since he believed in anything even half as much as she did, but he were beginning to believe in her.
They approached a soft glow spilling from a side street and music made by foreign hands floated to them. Steering them toward the light, he led her through the side street, and after a turn or two they came out into a wide clearing where a sea of colour greeted them. Lanterns made of paper were strung on a thin rope held aloft by slender wooden poles, flickering candles painting the light with colour. Folks who originally hailed from China crowded the streets, eating and talking and laughing. Some of the revellers eyed them warily as they passed. Jake didn’t blame them none. His kind were not known for their tolerance of people who held the slightest difference.
Hope looked around them, surprise and wonder painting her features. “What is this?”
“The Chinese camp. They’re holding a festival to celebrate harvest.”
“How did you know about it?”
“Someone mentioned it.” He didn’t add he’d asked around the camp for something to take her to, something that would impress her and bring her a joy he was certain had been sorely missing in her life.
Approaching a food vendor, he handed over cash for a wedge of a strange-looking cake and a cup of steaming tea. He offered both to Hope.
She took the delicacy from him. “What is it?”
“I don’t rightly know, but it looks delicious.”
Her finger traced the intricate design on top. “What do you think this means?”
The corner of her lip lifted.
Something tugged at him deep inside.
Concentrating intensely, she cautiously brought it to her lips. Her tongue darted out, tasting the filling. He stifled a groan. Christ, he wanted that tongue.
Taking a bite, her brow clearing in surprise. “It’s sweet.”
“Can I have a taste?” At her nod, he captured her wrist, the skin between her glove and her sleeve warm under his fingers. Bringing the cake to his mouth, he slowly took a bite, his gaze locked with hers.
Eyes darkening, her lips parted as she drew in a faltering breath. Licking his lips, he savoured the sweetness of the pastry even as he knew it would be half as goddamn sweet as her. Her gaze followed the movement and something hesitant crossed her features, barely there but it was there.
Abruptly, nerves assaulted him and with them, doubt. What was he doing, thinking he could teach her anything? He might have some experience, but he was now responsible for how she would regard it all from this moment on. How did he even know if he were good enough? If he knew enough to make it good for her? He ain’t never been with someone who didn’t know what they were doing, and it could be he would lead them both to disaster. “Have you been kissed?” he asked abruptly.
“I—My uncle used to kiss my cheek.”
“By a man.” Jake cleared his throat. “A suitor.”
Hope’s cheeks looked flushed, but it could just be the colour from the lamps. “Twice.”
“Twice,” he repeated. Goddamn nerves. She’d asked for this. She wanted it. He wanted it. He would make it as good as he could and fuck his goddamn nerves.
His fingers were still about her wrist. With a slight tug, he drew her closer. She looked up at him, a question her eyes but as he leaned down, she realised the answer and she reached up as his lips brushed hers.
Fire jolted through him. Surprise held him still a moment, that such small caress could cause such an intense reaction. Eyes closed, she stretched up to him, pressing her lips to his once more. The simple kiss consumed him, and he wanted to bring her closer still, to conquer her mouth and claim her with his tongue, but she’d only been kissed twice before and he would not frighten her. Instead, he would kiss her slow and sweet, his tongue gentle on the seam of her lips, a delicate tasting rather than the plunder he craved.
Her hands curled around the lapels of his jacket, crushing the fabric as her fingers tightened. He kept himself under ruthless control, kissing her again and again as she whimpered softly, each sound driving him further to the edge.
Finally, with a sigh, she pulled back. Gaze lowered, she smoothed the lapels of his jacket until he stilled her hands with his. She glanced up at him, and her pale eyes held him captive. Supressing a groan, he kept his groin angled away from her as she petting him over and over, her touch light and soft. Eventually, she gave him a small smile and turned back to the lanterns.
So released, he expelled a shaky breath. He were shaken, is what he was. He knew he felt for her, but he didn’t know how deep it ran. Could be this was a mistake.
He glanced at her. She watched those around them avidly, the faintest of smiles curving her lips as if she were happy. She glanced at him and that small smile intensified. As if he had made her happy.
Taking her hand, he laced their fingers. She squeezed, and in her touch he read so many things, things he could be reading wrong but damn it, he wanted to believe and here, where colour exploded around them, he damn well was going to.