Heart beating a rapid tattoo, Hope resisted the urge to look back. Beside her, Jake kept a step or two behind, a steady presence she knew would shield her from any who sought unwise retribution. It would not be Callihan, though. He was broken. She had broken him. Even now he moaned after them, pathetic and ineffectual. By morning, all within a ten mile radius would know of his defeat. By the end of the week, all of the western territories. In a month, all of the country. His legend was destroyed. Finally, after all these years, her family was avenged.
Something leaden weighed heavy in her chest. Pushing it aside, she made her to the jail. The sheriff stood on the boardwalk, his expression slack, his gaze on the pitiful figure Callihan made. Ignoring the unsteadiness in her knees, Hope approached. “I believe there are multiple warrants outstanding on Josiah Callihan.”
The sheriff picked up his jaw. “There are. No one’s ever been able to make ’em stick.”
“Before now. No one has been able to make them stick before now.” She had lawyers and plenty of money to spend. He would not escape justice again. “You may arrest him.” Hope waited. The sheriff didn’t more. “Now, sheriff.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The sheriff almost clicked his heels before scurrying to obey.
She started toward the hotel and again Jake flanked her. Silently, they entered and ascended the stairs. Entering her room, she left the door open. She heard Jake follow her, heard him close the door quietly.
Coming to a halt, she stood in the middle of the room, uncertain. Her hands. They looked normal. Clean, trimmed nails. Calluses from her pen. Small nicks where papers had cut her. They looked normal. How could they look normal?
Her chest hurt. She didn’t know what to do now. Should she work? What should she do? Her fingertips were numb. Her chest hurt so much.
Knees buckling she fell to the ground. She couldn’t get enough air into her lungs, and she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what to do.
Jake stood with his back against the door, jaw set and eyes hard. She didn’t want this, not before him, but she couldn’t stop. Why couldn’t she stop?
Folding her arms before her, she started rocking. And rocking. And rocking. There was as screaming building inside her but she couldn’t let it out, it was stuck and she couldn’t— She couldn’t—
“Ah, Christ,” she heard Jake mutter. A moment later, strong arms surrounded her, pulling her into a warm, hard chest. The scream built and built and she burrowed into him, her chest on fire, her skin cold, and she wanted his warmth, his strength, wanting to hide in him forever.
“Darlin’,” he murmured, and the scream broke free. Red, so much red, and in the middle of it her parents. Her sisters and brothers. They were gone. They were gone.
Great sobs racked her and he held her through them, his deep voice soft and crooning.
“They’re dead, Jake,” she managed.
“He killed them.”
“They’re gone. They’re gone, they’re gone, they’re gone.” Burrowing into him, she cried. She cried for her family. She cried for her lost childhood. She cried for the revenge that drove her, the consuming need that was gone and now she didn’t know what to do.
Eventually, there were no more tears. Eyes hot and skin dry, drawn and rung out, exhaustion took the place of emotion. She didn’t know how long she and Jake stayed there, his arms tight about her, but it couldn’t last forever. Arms loosening, he shifted his weight and she closed her eyes, digging her fingers into his forearm. No. She wasn’t ready. Don’t move. Don’t leave.
But he did. He withdrew, and she had to let him, had to let him sit beside her, his arms on his updrawn knees.
Wiping at her cheeks, she averted her face, not knowing what to say. She could feel his gaze upon her, could feel the cautious shape of it. Silence stretched between them, tense with things unsaid.
“It’s a thing you’ve been wanting a long while. Must be a strange feeling now it’s done,” he finally said.
Folding her hands in her lap, she nodded.
“It was a good. Your plan.”
The plan he’d told her was foolish. The one she’d kept from him. The one where anger had made her utter false words. “I’m sorry I said those things. About you being only a hired man and your opinion unworthy. I didn’t mean them.”
He was silent a moment. “Didn’t you?”
She shook her head violently. “I didn’t— I was—” She closed her eyes, swallowed. “I apologise.”
He regarded her a long while and she sat under his contemplation, not knowing what else to say. “I apologise, also,” he said. “I was afeared for you and spoke words too harsh.”
Unable to speak past the lump in her throat, she nodded.
Putting his hand to the floor to brace himself, he made to get to his feet. “I’ll leave you to your contemplation.”
Panic filled her. He was going to leave. He was going to walk out her door and she would never see him again. She would never— “I don’t want you to go.”
Half-risen, he paused and dark eyes searched her.
“I don’t want you to go,” she repeated, her voice strengthening. “Jake, I don’t want you to go.”
“What do you want me to do, darlin’?” he said softly.
What did she want from him? Of a sudden, she knew. She had always known. “I want you to stay with me. I want you to be with me.” She took a breath. “I want you to come to Sacramento with me.”
Dark eyes gave nothing away. “As your hired gun?”
“No.” Pulse racing, she lifted her chin. “As mine.”
“Yours.” Thumb rubbing his lip, he contemplated her. She waited, anxiety and agony swirling inside her.
Slowly, that wicked smile he saved just for her spread across his face. “Well now, darlin’, I don’t know as it is I can be your fancy man.”
A fierce blush lit her cheeks even as she scowled, as her stomach churned. What did that mean? Did he want to come? Did he not? Did he—
“I reckon it is I would be wanting something more permanent,” he continued. “Something with a ring and a promise.”
Joy almost blinded her. She felt the loony shape of it on her face, felt it fair to burst through her skin. “I would want that also,” she managed.
“And maybe, after we’ve squired around Sacramento and all know I’m yours, we might even have a kid or two.”
Children. He wanted to marry her, have children with her. He wanted— “A family,” she said softly.
He nodded, that smile she loved kicking the side of his mouth. “A family.” Cupping her face, he lowered his head.
Lips brushed over hers, over her cheek, her brow, and then took hers so sweetly. Lacing her fingers over his, she kissed him back and for the first time, she could see her future. For so long, it had held vengeance and cold retribution. Now there was Jake, and children.
Placing her forehead against his, she said, “I should love to be a family with you, Jacob Wade.”
“And I with you.” His thumbs traced her cheeks as dark eyes smiled down at her. “Darlin’.”