He'd figured a challenge would be the best way to get her cooperation. Sarah marched along beside him, chin up, eyes forward. He didn't think she knew it, but when she'd held the rifle that morning she'd been prepared to pull the trigger. He wanted to make sure that when she did she hit what she aimed at.
From the rubble of the burned shed, Jake selected a few pieces of charred wood and balanced three of them against a pile of rocks.
"First thing you do is learn how to load it without shooting off your foot." Jake emptied the rifle's chamber, then slowly reloaded. "You've got to have respect for a weapon, and not go around holding it like you were going to sweep the porch with it."
To prove his point, he brought the rifle up, sighted in and fired three shots. The three pieces of scrap wood flew backward in unison. "Bullets can do powerful damage to a man," he told her as he lowered the gun again.
She had to swallow. The sound of gunfire still echoed. "I'm aware of that, Mr. Redman. I have no intention of shooting anyone."
"Most people don't wake up in the morning figuring on it." He went to the rocks again. This time he set up the largest piece of wood. "Unless you're planning on heading back to Philadelphia real soon, you'd better learn how to use this."
"I'm not going anywhere."
With a nod, Jake emptied the rifle and handed her the ammo. "Load it."
She didn't like the feel of the bullets in her hands. They were cold and smooth. Holding them, she wondered how anyone could use them against another.
Metal against flesh. No, it was inconceivable.
"You going to play with them or put them in the gun?"
Because he was watching her, Sarah kept her face impassive and did as he told her.
He pushed the barrel away from his midsection.
"You're a quick study."
It shouldn't have pleased her, but she felt the corners of her mouth turn up nonetheless. "So I've been told."
Unable to resist, he brushed the hair out of her eyes. "Don't get cocky." Stepping behind her, he laid the gun in her hands, then adjusted her arms. "Balance it and get a good grip on it."
"I am," she muttered, wishing he wouldn't stand quite so close. He smelled of leather and sweat, a combination that, for reasons beyond her comprehension, aroused her. One hand was firm on her arm, the other on her shoulder. Hardly a lover's touch, and yet she felt her system respond as it had never responded to the gentle, flirtatious hand-holding she'd experienced in Philadelphia. She had only to lean back the slightest bit to be pressed close against him.
Not that she wanted to be. She shifted, then grumbled under her breath when he pushed her into place again.
"Hold still. Not stiff, woman, still," he told her when her body went rigid at his touch.
"There's no need to snap at me."
"You stand like that when you fire, you're going to get a broken shoulder. Loosen up. You see the sight?" "That little thing sticking up there?"
He closed his eyes for a moment. "Yeah, that little thing sticking up there. Use it to sight in the target. Bring the stock up some." He leaned over. Sarah pressed her lips together when his cheek brushed hers. "Steady," he murmured, resisting the urge to turn his face into her hair. "Wrap your finger around the trigger. Don't jerk it, just pull it back, slow and smooth." She shut her eyes and obeyed. The rifle exploded in her hands and would have knocked her flat on her back if he hadn't been there to steady her. She screamed, afraid she'd shot herself.
Breathing hard, Sarah whirled around. Always a cautious man, Jake took the rifle from her. "You might have warned me." She brought her hand up to nurse her bruised shoulder. "It felt like someone hit me with a rock."
"It's always better to find things out firsthand. Try it again."
With her teeth clenched, Sarah took the rifle and managed to get back into position.
"This time use your arm instead of your shoulder to balance it. Lean in a bit."
"My ears are ringing."
"You'll get used to it." He put a steadying hand on her waist. "It helps if you keep your eyes open. Sight low. Good. Now pull the trigger."
This time she was braced for the kick and just staggered a little. Jake kept a hand at her waist and looked over her head. "You caught a corner of it."
"I did?" She looked for herself. "I did!" Laughing, she looked over her shoulder at him. "I want to do it again." She lifted the rifle and didn't complain when Jake pushed the barrel three inches to the right. She kept her eyes wide open this time as she pressed her finger down on the trigger. She let out a whoop when the wood flew off the rocks. "I hit it."
"I really nit it. Imagine." When he took the gun from her, she shook her hair back and laughed. "My arm's tingling."
"It'll pass." He was surprised he could speak. The way she looked when she laughed made his throat slam shut. He wasn't a man for pretty words, not for saying them or for thinking them. But just now it ran through his head that she looked like an angel in the sunlight, with her hair the color of wet wheat and her eyes like gold dust.
And he wanted her, as he'd wanted few "things in his life. Slowly, wanting to give himself time to regain control, he walked over to the rocks to pick up the target. She had indeed hit it. The hole was nearly at the top, and far to the right of center, but she'd hit it. He walked back to drop the wood in Sarah's hands and watched her grin about it.
"Trouble is, most things you shoot at don't sit nice and still like a block of wood."
He was determined to spoil it for her, Sarah thought, studying his cool, unreadable eyes. The man was impossible to understand. One moment he was going to the trouble to teach her how to shoot the rifle, and the next he couldn't even manage the smallest of compliments because she'd learned well. The devil with him. "Mr. Redman, it's very apparent that nothing I do pleases you." She tossed the block of wood aside. "Isn't it fortunate for both of us that it doesn't matter in the least?" With that she gathered up her skirts and began to stamp back toward the house. She managed no more than a startled gasp as he spun her around. She knew that look, she thought dazedly as she stared at him. It was the same one she'd first seen on his face, when he'd ridden beside the stage, firing his pistol over his shoulder. She hadn't a clue as to how to deal with him now, so she took the only option that came to mind.
"Take your hands off me."
"I warned you, you took too many chances." His grip only tightened when she tried to shrug him off. "It's not smart to turn your back on a man who's holding a loaded gun."
"Did you intend to shoot me in the back, Mr. Redman?"
It was an unfair remark, and she knew it. But she wanted to get away from him, quickly, until that look faded from his eyes. "I wouldn't put that, or anything else, past you. You're the rudest, most ill-mannered, most ungentlemanly man I've ever met. I'll thank you to get back on your horse and ride off my land."
He'd resisted challenges before, but he'd be damned if he'd resist this one. From the first time he'd seen her she'd started an itch in him. It was time he scratched it.
"Seems to me you need another lesson, Duchess."
"I neither need nor want anything from you. And I won't be called by that ridiculous name." Her breath came out in a whoosh when he dragged her against him. He saw her eyes go wide with shock.
"Then I won't call you anything." He was still holding the rifle. With his eyes on hers, he slid his hand up her back to gather up her hair. "I don't much like talking, anyway."
She fought him. At least she needed to believe she did. Despite her efforts, his mouth closed over hers. In that instant the sun was blocked out and she was plunged, breathless, into the deepest, darkest night. His body was like iron. His arm bonded her against him so that she had no choice, really no choice, but to absorb the feel of him. He made her think of the rifle, slim and hard and deadly. Through the shock, the panic and the excitement she felt the fast, uneven beating of his heart against hers.
Her blood had turned into some hot, foreign liquid that made her pulse leap and her heart thud. The rough stubble of his beard scraped her face, and she moaned. From the pain, she assured herself. It couldn't be from pleasure.
And yet... Her hands were on his shoulders, holding on now rather than pushing away.
He wondered if she knew she packed a bigger kick than her father's rifle. He'd never known that anything so sweet could be so potent. That anything so delicate could be so strong. She had him by the throat and didn't even know it. And he wanted more. In a move too desperate to be gentle, he dragged her head back by the hair.
She gasped in the instant he allowed her to breathe, dragging in air, unaware that she'd been stunned into holding her breath. Then his mouth was on hers again, his tongue invading, arousing in a way she hadn't known she could be aroused, weakening in a way she hadn't believed she could be weakened.
She moaned again, but this time there was no denying the pleasure. Tentatively, then boldly, she answered the new demand. Savoring the hot, salty taste of his lips, she ran her hands along the planes of his face and into his hair. Glorious. No one had ever warned her that a kiss could make the body burn and tremble and yearn. A sound of stunned delight caught in her throat.
The sound lit fires in him that he knew could never be allowed to burn free. She was innocent. Any fool could see that. Arid he...he hadn't been innocent since he'd drawn his first breath. There were lines he crossed, laws he broke. But this one had to be respected.
He struggled to clear his mind, but she filled it. Her arms were around his neck, pulling him closer, pulling him in. And her mouth... Sweet Lord, her mouth. His heart was hammering in his head, in his loins...all from the taste of her. Honeyed whiskey. A man could drown in it.
Afraid he would, and even more afraid he'd want to, he pushed her away. Her eyes were dark and unfocused the way they'd been last night, when she'd started to come to. It gave him some satisfaction to see it, because he felt as though he'd been knocked cold, himself.
"Like I said, you learn fast, Sarah." His hand was shaking. Infuriated, he curled it into a fist. He had a flash, an almost painful one, of what it would be like to drag her to the ground and take everything from her. Before he could act, one way or the other, he heard the sound of an approaching wagon. "You got company coming." He handed her the rifle and walked away.
What had he done to her? Sarah put a hand to her spinning head. He'd...he'd forced himself on her. Forced her until...until he hadn't had to force her any longer. Until it had felt right to want him. Until wanting him had been all there was.
Just like the dream. But this wasn't a dream, Sarah told herself, straightening her shoulders. It was more than real, and now he was walking away from her as if it hadn't mattered to him in the least. Pride was every bit as dangerous an emotion as anger.
When he turned, he saw her standing there with the rifle. If the look in her eyes meant anything, she'd have dearly loved to use it.
"Apparently you take chances, too." She tilted her head. There was challenge in the gesture, as well as a touch of fury and a stab of hurt. "This rifle's still loaded."
"That's right." He touched the brim of his hat in a salute. "It's a hell of a lot harder to pull the trigger when you're aiming at flesh and blood, but go ahead. It'd be hard to miss at this range."
She wished she could. She wished she had the skill to put a bullet between his feet and watch him jump. Lifting her chin, she walked toward the house. "The difference between you and me, Mr. Redman, is that I still have morals."
"There's some truth in that." He strode easily beside her. "Seeing as you fixed me breakfast and all, why don't you call me Jake?" He swung up into the saddle as a buggy rumbled into the yard.
"Sarah?" With her hands still on the reins, Liza cast an uncertain glance at her new friend, then at the man in the saddle. She knew she wasn't supposed to approve of men like Jake Redman. But she found it difficult not to when he looked so attractive and exciting.
"I hope you don't mind us coming out." A young boy jumped out of the buggy and began to chase the puppy, who was running in circles.
"Not at all. I'm delighted." Sarah shaded her eyes with her hand so that she could see Jake clearly. "Mr. Redman was just on his way."
"Those sure are some pretty guns you got there, mister." Young John Cody put a hand on the neck of Jake's gray mustang and peered up at the smooth wooden grip of one of the Colt.45s he carried. He knew who Jake Redman was-he'd heard all the stories but he'd never managed to get this close before.
"Think so?" Ignoring the two women, Jake shifted in his saddle to get a better look at the boy. No more than ten, he figured, with awe in his eyes and a smudge of dirt on his cheek.
"Yessiree. I think that when you slap leather you're just about the fastest there is, maybe in the whole world."
"John Cody." Liza stayed in the buggy, wringing her hands. "You oughtn't to bother Mr. Redman."
Jake shot her a quick, amused look. Did she think he'd shoot the kid for talking to him? "No bother, ma'am." He glanced down at Johnny again. "You can't believe everything you hear."
But Johnny figured he knew what was what. "My ma says that since you saved that stage there's probably some good in you somewhere."
This time Liza called her brother's name in a strained, desperate whisper. Jake had to grin. He shifted his attention to Sarah long enough to see that she was standing as stiff as a rod, with one eyebrow arched.
"That's right kind of her. I'll tell the sheriff about your trouble...Miss Conway. I reckon he'll be out to see you."
"Thank you, Mr. Redman. Good day."
He tipped his hat to her, then to Liza. "See you around, Johnny." He turned his horse in a half circle and rode away.
"Yessir," Johnny shouted after him. "Yessiree."
"John Cody." Liza collected herself enough to climb out of the buggy. Johnny just grinned and raced off after the puppy again, firing an imaginary Peacemaker. "That's my brother."
"Yes, I imagined it was."
Liza gave Johnny one last look of sisterly disgust before going to Sarah. "Ma's tending the store today. She wanted you to have this. It's a loaf of her cinnamon bread."