Hope stared at the report before her. The words swam in and out of focus, and she couldn’t concentrate, one thought repeating again and again and again. She had propositioned Mr Wade. And he had agreed.
That morning, Margaret had arrived shortly after the clock had struck seven and Hope had gone down to collect her mail to begin their working day. As she’d descended the stairs, her gaze had strayed to the dining room and her breath had strangled in her throat. Mr Wade sat at one of the tables, his own gaze on the breakfast before him.
At the sight of him, an intense joy had filled her, an overwhelming gladness that he had returned, that she could speak with him, that he was near. Before she’d known she’d made the decision, she’d turned her step toward him, her mail forgotten. When she’d reached him, he’d looked at her with his dark eyes and every thought had promptly flown from her head. To cover, she’d asked about his journey and what he’d discovered, and he’d barely had time to form a sentence before she was blurting out her idiotic plan for them to bed each other.
He’d blinked, and his face had slackened. Embarrassment had assaulted her, but she’d been unable to stop, outlining parameters and conditions. As she’d babbled, his expression had cleared and a kind of heat darkened his eyes, his gaze holding hers and making her heart race.
She’d left before he could answer, the beat of her heart loud in her ears. Somehow, she’d made it up the stairs and to her room, ignoring Margaret’s surprised greeting. Then, Mr Wade had come to her door. He’d entered, and all she could see was him, his dark eyes, the smirk that was both wild and a careful caress. He’d called her Hope, in that low, gravelly voice that did strange things to her. Goosepimples had risen, her nipples had tightened, and something had clenched low in her belly. Hope, he’d said, and her mouth had dried. And then, Mr Wade had agreed.
No, Jake had agreed. He’d said to call him Jake.
Closing her eyes, Hope swallowed. She still didn’t know what had possessed her. She was used to bold action when dealing with traders and vendors, but she was less than bold when it came to personal interactions. In Sacramento, she had first been numb, the murder of her family shrouding her world in haze. Eventually, the numbness had faded, but by then she had found the advantage in detachment and so she had kept others at arm’s length, and comforted herself with designing vengeance. She had come east with little more thought than bringing Callihan to his knees. She had not considered her world dull and emotionless, but Mr Wade…He’d made her…She felt things for him. Things that were bright and shining and… Lust, though, was brighter and more urgent than the others. When Margaret had put the thought in her head, she’d not been able—
Hope drew a shaky breath. That was unfair of her. Margaret had done no more than put voice to thoughts Hope already had.
“What were you and the gunslinger talking of?”
Hope’s head snapped up. Her secretary regarded her with a half-smirk, a knowing look in her eyes.
Hope’s cheeks burned. “Nothing of concern.”
“Didn’t look of no concern. He looked on a mission, that one, and you looked like he was the only answer you had care for.”
“It is nothing, Margaret.”
Margaret cocked her head. “Well, if your nothing means you have need of knowledge how to protect against a baby, you let me know.”
Ducking her head, Hope made a noncommittal sound, and she didn’t need to raise her gaze to know Margaret again wore that small smirk.
For a time, they worked in silence. Or, Hope pretended she worked, when her thoughts swirled between Mr Wade, her proposition, and the reason she’d come to Deadwater. The reason she was now putting aside in favour of a selfish desire… “Margaret?”
Her secretary looked up, a question in her eyes.
Jake would not be her only focus. Perhaps she could undertake some investigating of her own. “Do you have the acquaintance of Josiah Callihan?”
Margaret froze. “What would you be wanting with him?”
“Do you know him?” she pressed.
“I don’t have personal knowledge of him. He and his men prefer to frequent another establishment, but I know the women in that establishment do not look forward to his gang’s return, nor do they relish the time when they are here.” Her lips twisted. “Their coin is good, but sometimes coin don’t make up for what occurs.”
“So he is alive.” Hope didn’t know how she felt. Relieved was the wrong word, and she couldn’t think of those women and what they would and had endured. If all went as she planned, they would have no need to endure Callihan ever again.
“Last spring he were.”
“What is your opinion of him?”
Margaret was silent a long time. “He’s a bad man, Miss McElroy, and you should want nothing to do with him.” Her gaze sharpened. “Is he why you’re here? In Deadwater?”
The urge to confide was fierce, and strange. Hope was used to keeping her own counsel, but she’d started this quest and now she found she relied upon Margaret…and she missed Jake Wade when he was not near.
In the end, the urge to confide won out. “I—yes.”
“What did he do to you?”
Hope looked at the report before her. Again, she heard terrified screams, her father pleading. Screwing her eyes shut did nothing to remove the sight of bright red coating her hands.
“You don’t have to tell me nothing.”
Her secretary. Margaret. She was in Deadwater, and she sought to make the man who had orchestrated the events from her memory pay. Panic diminished as memory faded, as she recalled who and what she was, and that the past was far behind.
Tone gentle, Margaret said, “I’m curious because it’s my nature, but I don’t much like causing another pain, and I can see that’s what thoughts of Callihan does to you. We can talk on something else, if you prefer it.”
Her hands held no stain, and she only heard the sounds of the street outside, the tick of the clock, and her secretary. “I seek to right a wrong, Margaret, one that was done to me and to others. My family— I— It’s how Mr Wade—” She took a breath, one that shook. “It is why he is in my employ.”
Margaret watched her, her dark eyes grave. Hope gripped the edge of her desk, her fingers pushing into the wood. Vengeance was her purpose. For so long, it had driven her but Mr Wade… Jake distracted her. Was it wrong of her to want him? To allow herself distraction? They had a month, Jake had said, and surely she could not be faulted for having something else be her focus for a month. A month was not so very long a time. It was not wrong to set aside vengeance for pleasure. “Do you think me frivolous, to want Mr Wade’s…company when I’m seeking vengeance for my family?”
“Do you think it frivolous?”
The joints in her fingers ached. Looking down, she was surprised by the whiteness of skin, the pressure of her grip bleeding colour from her fingers. Letting go, she flexed her hand. “I think…it might be.”
“I think this world is cruel.” Margaret appeared to be choosing her words with care. “There is much that seeks to take from us, to beat us down and steal our hope. I have not had the easiest path in life, and I don’t fool myself into thinking the road paved for me will get any easier. I think if you find something that brings you respite—that brings you joy—you should grasp it with both hands.”
Hope absorbed her words. “What brings you joy, Margaret?”
“Right now?” She gave a small smile. “That I’m earning my coin with my brain rather than my back.”
“Margaret, should you wish, I can—”
Margaret held up a hand. “I don’t be needing a saviour, Miss McElroy. I’ve got plans of my own on that front. I am grateful you pay me more than others would, and you treat me as you would any other.” She grinned. “That is, with the same lack of care you do for any other. The only one you treat any different is the gunslinger, and even then it’s only slight. He seems to love it, though.”
Heat burned her neck. “Margaret—”
“This discourse has turned maudlin, ain’t it? Might be time we returned to work.”
Hope glanced at the correspondence before her. “Might be.”
Margaret smiled, and bent her head. Hope tried to focus, but again her thoughts were pulled between guilt and Mr Wade—between guilt and Jake.
Day faded, and it seemed only moments later she was lighting the lamps. Nerves caused her shoulders to bunch, and she pressed a hand against her stomach, wishing it would still.
The knock, when it came, made her jump. Margaret rose from her seat and opened the door to reveal Mr Wade—to reveal Jake. He wore a coat finer than any she’d seen on him, his hat held in his hands and his hair slicked back, highlighting his sharp cheekbones and strong jaw. His gaze wandered over her before meeting hers, and something smouldered deep in those dark eyes. “Miss McElroy.”
His voice was like a caress. Skin tingling, her breath left her as a burn started deep inside. “Mr Wade.”
“I’ll be on my way.”
They both looked at Margaret. Hope’s cheeks burned as she realised she’d completely forgotten her secretary was there.
Margaret gave the both a saucy grin and the door closed behind her. Silence filled the room. Nerves forced her to break it. “Mr—Jake. Would you like—”
“We’ll be going out,” he interrupted.
Confusion drew her brows. “But—”
“I’ll set the pace, darlin’. As agreed.” The corner of his lips lifted. “Never let it be said I don’t know how to show a lady a good time.”
Abruptly, she realised she wore her day dress, not nearly as fine as the garments he wore. “I need to change.”
“Of course, darlin’. Meet me downstairs?”
Dazed, she nodded. “Ten minutes?”
He gave her his slow, wicked smile. “Ten minutes.”
Ten minutes later, she rushed down the stairs, dressed in her best gown, anticipation driving her. He stood in the entrance, gazing out on the street, but he turned at her step. The hat he’d placed on his head shadowed his eyes but framed that same wicked-lazy grin as he held out his arm. “Shall we?”
Placing her hand on his forearm, she delighted in the feel of the strong muscles under her touch. “Yes.”
He curled his arm in hers.“Well, now, Miss Hope McElroy. Let’s have ourselves an adventure.”