Dignity. Despite the circumstances... No, Sarah thought, correcting 'herself, because of the circumstances, she would maintain her dignity. It might be difficult at the speed Jake was driving, and given the state of her own temper, but she would never, never forget she was a lady.
She wished she were a man so she could knock him flat.
Control. Jake kept his eyes focused over the horses' heads as they galloped steadily and wished it was as easy to control himself. It wasn't easy, but he'd used his control as effectively as he had his Colts for most of his life. He wasn't about to lose it now and do something he'd regret.
He thought it was a shame that a man couldn't slug a woman.
In stony silence, they drove under the fat, full moon. Some might consider it a night for romance, Sarah thought with a sniff. Not her. She was certain she'd never see another full moon without becoming furious.
Dragging her off in the middle of a party, she fumed, trying to give her orders on her personal affairs. Threatening to tie her up like-like a horse, she remembered. Of all the high-handed, arrogant, ill-mannered-
Taking a long, cautious breath, she blocked her thoughts.
She'd lose more than her dignity if she allowed herself to dwell on Jake Redman.
The dog sent up a fast, frantic barking as they drove into the yard. He scented Sarah and the tall man who always scratched him between the ears. Tongue lolling, he jumped at the side of the wagon, clearly pleased to have his mistress home. One look had him subsiding and slinking off again. She'd worn that same look when he'd tried to sharpen his teeth on one of her kid slippers.
The moment Jake had pulled the horses up in front of the house, Sarah gathered her skirts to step down. Haste and temper made her careless, and she caught the hem. Before she could remind herself about her dignity, she was tugging it free. She heard the silk rip. "Now see what you've done."
Just as angry, but without the encumbrances, Jake climbed down from the opposite side. "If you'd have held on a minute, I'd have given you a hand."
"Oh, really?" With her chin lifted, she marched around the front of the wagon. "You've never done a gentlemanly thing in your life. You eat with your hat on, swear and ride in and out of here without so much as a good day or a goodbye."
He decided she looked much more likely to bite than her scrawny dog. "Those are powerful faults."
"Faults?" She lifted a brow and stepped closer. "I haven't begun to touch on your faults. If I began, I'd be a year older before I could finish. How dare you toss me in the wagon like a sack of meal and bring me back here against my wishes?"
She was stunning in the moonlight, her cheeks flushed with anger, her eyes glowing with it. "I got my reasons."
"Do you? I'd be fascinated to hear them."
So would he. He wasn't sure what had come over him, unless it was blind jealousy. That wasn't a thought he wanted to entertain. "Go to bed, Duchess." "I have no intention of going anywhere." She grabbed his arm before he could lead the horses away. "And neither will you until you explain yourself. You accosted me, manhandled me and threatened to kill Samuel Carlson."
"It wasn't a threat." He took her hand by the wrist and dragged it away from his arm. "The next time he touches you, I'll kill him."
He meant it, Sarah realized. She stood rooted to the spot. The ways of the West might still be new to her, but she recognized murder when she saw it in a man's eyes. With her shawl flying behind her, she raced after him.
"Are you mad?"
"What concern is my relationship with Samuel Carlson to you? I assure you that if I didn't wish Samuel, or any man, to touch me, I would not be touched." "So you like it?" The horses shied nervously when he spun around to her. "You like having him hold you, put his hands over you, kiss you."
She would have suffered the tortures of hell rather than admit that Carlson had done no more than kiss her fingers. And that the only man who had done more was standing before her now. She stepped forward until she was toe-to-toe with him.
"I'll risk repeating myself and say that it's none of your business."
The way she lifted that chin, he thought, she was just asking to have it punched. "I figure it is." He dragged the horses inside the shed to unharness them. "You figure incorrectly." Sarah followed him inside.
Dignified or not, she was going to have her say. "What I do is my business, and mine alone. I've done nothing I'm ashamed of, and certainly nothing I feel requires justification to you. If I allow Samuel to court me, you have no say in the matter whatsoever."
"Is that what you call it?" He dragged the first horse into its stall. "Courting?"
She went icily still. "Have you another name for it?"
"Maybe I've been wrong about you." He took the second horse by the bridle as he studied Sarah. "I thought you were a bit choosier. Then again, you didn't pull back when I put my hands on you." He grabbed her wrist before she could have the satisfaction of slapping his face.
"How dare you?" Her breath heaved through her lips. "How dare you speak to me that way?" When she jerked free, her shawl fell to the ground unnoticed.
"No, I didn't object when you touched me. By God, I wish I had. You make me feel-" The words backed up in her throat. Sarah dug her fingers into her palms until she could choke them free. "You made me feel things I still don't understand. You made me trust you, and those feelings, when it was all a lie. You made me want you when you didn't want me back. After you'd done that, you turned away as though it had meant nothing."
Pain clawed through his gut. What she was saying was true. The hurt shining from her eyes was real. "You're better off," he said quietly as he led the horse into a stall.
"I couldn't agree more." She wanted to weep.
"But if you think that gives you any right to interfere in my life, you're wrong. Very wrong."
"You jumped mighty fast from my arms to his."
Bitterness hardened the words even as he cursed himself for saying them.
"I?" It was too much-much more than she could bear. Driven by fury, she grabbed his shirt with both hands. "It wasn't I who jumped, it was you. You left me here without a word, then rode straight to the Silver Star. You kissed me, then rubbed my taste from your mouth so that you could kiss her."
"Who?" He caught her by the shoulder before she could rush back outside. "Who?"
"I have nothing more to say to you."
"You started it. Now finish it. Whose bed do you have me jumping in, Sarah?"
"Carlotta's." She threw the name at him with all the hurt and fury that was bottled up inside of her. "You left me to go to her. If that wasn't enough hurt and humiliation, you told her to hire me."
"Hire you?" Shock had his fingers tightening, bruising her flesh. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"You know very well you told her she should hire me to sew dresses for her and her-the others." "Sew?" He didn't know if he should laugh or curse. Slowly he released his grip and let his hands fall to his sides. "Whatever else you think about me, you should know I'm not stupid."
"I don't know what I think about you." She was fighting back tears now, and it infuriated her. It was the gleam of those tears that had him explaining when he would have preferred to keep silent.
"I never told Carlotta to hire you, for anything. And I haven't been with-" He broke off, swearing. Before he could stride out, she snatched his arm again. She'd conquered her tears, but she couldn't stop her heart from pounding.
"Are you telling me that you haven't been to the Silver Star?"
"No. I'm not telling you that."
"I see." With a bitter little laugh, she rubbed her temple. "So you've simply found, and bought, another woman who suits you. Poor Carlotta. She must be devastated." "It would take a hell of a lot more than that. And I haven't bought anything in the Silver Star but whiskey since you-since I got back to town."
"Why?" She had to force even a whisper through her lips.
"That's my business." Cursing himself, he started out again, only to have her rush to stop him.
"I asked you a question."
"I gave you my answer." He scooped up her shawl and pushed it into her hands. "Now go to bed."
She tossed the filmy lace on the ground again. "I'm not going anywhere, and neither are you until you tell me why you haven't been with her, or anyone."
"Because I can't stop thinking about you." Enraged, he shoved her back against the wall with a force that had pins scattering and her hair tumbling wild and free to her waist. He wanted to frighten her, frighten her half as much as she frightened him. "You're not safe with me, Duchess." He leaned close to her, dragging a hand roughly through her hair. "Remember that."
She pressed her damp hands against the wall. It wasn't fear she felt. The emotion was strong and driving, but it wasn't fear. "You don't want me."
"Wanting you's eating holes in me." His free hand slid up to circle her neck. "I'd rather be shot than feel the way you make me feel."
"How do I make you feel?" she murmured.
"Reckless." It was true, but it wasn't everything. "And that's not smart, not for either of us. I'll hurt you." He squeezed lightly, trying to prove it to them both. "And I won't give a damn. So you better run while I still have a mind to let you."
"I'm not running." Even if she had wanted to, it would have been impossible. Her legs were weak and trembling. She was already out of breath. "But you are." Knowing exactly what she was doing, what she was risking, she raised her chin. "Threats come easily to you. If you were the kind of man you say you are, and you wanted me, you'd take me. Right here, right now."
His eyes darkened. They were almost black as they bored into hers. She didn't wince as his fingers tightened painfully in her hair. Instead, she kept her chin up and dared him.
"Damn you." He brought his mouth down hard on hers. To scare her, he told himself as he pressed her back against the wall and took his fill. To make her see once and for all what he was. Ruthless, knowing she would bruise, he dragged his hands over her. He touched her the way he would have touched a girl at the Silver Star. Boldly, carelessly. He wanted to bring her to tears, to make her sob and tremble and beg him to leave her alone.
Maybe then he would be able to.
He heard her muffled cry against his mouth and tried to pull back. Her arms circled him, drawing him in.
She gave, herself totally, unrestrainedly, to the embrace. He was trying to hurt her, she knew. But he couldn't. She would make him see that being in his arms would never cause her pain. She gasped, forced to grip him tighter to keep her balance, when his mouth roamed down her throat, spreading luxuriant heat. The scraping of his teeth against her skin had her moaning. Too aroused to be shocked by her own actions, she tugged at his shirt." She wanted to touch his skin again, wanted to feel the warmth of it. He was losing himself in her. No, he was already lost. Her scent, the fragility of it, had his senses spinning.
Her mouth, the hunger of it, clawed at his control. Then she said his name-it was a sigh, a prayer- and broke the last bonds.
He pulled her down into the hay, desperate for her. The silk of her dress rustled against his hands as he dragged it from her shoulders. A wildness was on him, peeling away right and wrong as he tore the silk away to find her.
Terror rose up to grab her by the throat. But it wasn't terror of him. It was terror of the need that had taken possession of her. It ruled her, drove her beyond what could and could not be. As ruthless as he, she ripped at his shirt.
He was yanking at her laces, cursing them, cursing himself. Impatient with encumbrances, he shrugged out of his shirt, then sucked in his breath when her fingers dug into his flesh to pull him closer.
Hot, quick kisses raced over her face. She couldn't catch her breath, not even when he tore her laces loose. They rolled over on the hay as they fought to free themselves, and each other, of the civilized barrier of clothing. She arched when he filled his hands with her breasts, too steeped in pleasure to be ashamed of her nakedness. Her pulse hammered at dozens of points, making her thoughts spin and whirl and center only on him.
She was willow-slim, soft as the silk he'd torn, delicate as glass. For all her fragility, he couldn't fight her power over him. He could smell the hay, the horses, the night. He could see her eyes, her hair, her skin, as the moonlight pushed through the chinks in the shed to shimmer over them. Once more, just once more, he tried to bring himself to sanity. For her sake.
For his own.
Then she lifted her arms to him and took him back. He was lean and firm and strong. Sarah tossed her common sense aside and gave herself to the need, to the love. His eyes were dark, dangerously dark. His skin gleamed like copper in the shadowed light. She saw the scar that ran down his arm. As his mouth came bruisingly back to hers, she ran a gentle finger over it. There was no turning back for either of them. The horses scraped the ground restlessly in their stalls. In the hills, a coyote sent up a wailing, lonesome song. They didn't hear. She heard her name as he whispered it. But that was all.
The hay scratched her bare skin as he covered her body with his own. She only sighed. He felt the yielding, gloried in it. He tasted the heat and the honey as he drew her breast into his mouth. A breathless moan escaped her at this new intimacy. Then his tongue began to stroke, to tease.
The pleasure built, painful, beautiful, tugging at her center as his teeth tugged at her nipples. It was unbearable. It was glorious. She wanted to tell him, wanted to explain somehow, but she could only say his name over and over.
He felt her thigh tremble when he stroked a hand along it. Then he heard her gasp of surprise, her moan of desire, when he touched what no man had ever dared to touch.
His. He took her as gently as his grinding need would allow toward her first peak. She was his. She cried out, her body curving like a bow as she crested.
The breath burned in his lungs as he crushed his mouth to hers and took her flying again.
She held on, rocked, dazed and desperate. So this was love. This was what a man and woman brought to each other in the privacy of the night. It was more, so much more, than she had ever dreamed. Tears streamed from her eyes to mix with the sweat that slicked her body and his.
"Please," she murmured against his mouth, unsure of what she was asking. "Please."
He didn't want to hurt her. With that part of his mind that still functioned he prayed he could take her painlessly. His breathing harsh and ragged, he entered her slowly, trying to soothe her with his mouth and his hands.
Lights exploded behind her eyes, brilliant white lights that flashed into every color she'd ever seen or imagined. The heat built and built until she was gasping from it, unaware that her nails had scraped down his back and dug in.
Then she was running, racing, speeding, toward something unknown, something urgently desired. Like life. Like breath. Like love. Instinct had her hips moving. Joy had her arms embracing.
She lost her innocence in a wild burst of pleasure that echoed endlessly.
The moonlight slanted across her face as she slept. He watched her. Though his body craved sleep, his mind couldn't rest. She looked almost too beautiful to be real, curled into the hay, her hair spread out, her skin glowing, covered by nothing more than the thin velvet ribbon around her neck.
He'd recognized the passion in her from the beginning. He had suppressed his own for too long not to recognize it when it was suppressed in another. She'd come to him openly, honestly, innocently. And of all the sins he'd ever committed, the greatest had been taking that innocence from her.
He'd had no right. He pressed his fingers against his eyes. He'd had no choice. The kind of need he'd felt for her-still felt, he realized-left no choice. He was in love with her. He nearly laughed out loud. That kind of thinking was dangerous. Dangerous to Sarah. The things he loved always seemed to end up dead, destroyed. His gaze shifted. Her dress was bundled in a heap near her feet. On the pale silk lay his gunbelt.
That said it all, Jake decided. He and Sarah didn't belong together any more than his Colts and her silk dress did. He didn't belong with anyone.
He shifted, started to rise, but Sarah stirred and reached for his hand. "Jake."
"Yeah." Just the way she said his name made desire quicken in him.
Slowly, a smile curving her lips, she opened her eyes. She hadn't been dreaming, she thought. He was here, with her. She could smell the hay, feel it. She could see the glint of his eyes in the shadowed light. Her smile faded.
"Nothing's wrong." Turning away, he reached for his pants.
"Why are you angry?"
"I'm not angry." He yanked his pants over his hips as he rose. "Why the hell should I be angry?"
"I don't know." She was determined to be calm.
Nothing as beautiful as what had happened between them was going to be spoiled by harsh words. She found her chemise, noted that one shoulder strap was torn and slipped it on. "Are you going somewhere?" He picked up his gunbelt because it troubled him to see it with her things. "I don't think I'd care to walk back to town, and Lucius has my horse."
"I see. Is that the only reason you're staying?" He turned, ready to swear at her. She was standing very straight, her hair drifting like clouds around her face and shoulders. Her chemise skimmed her thighs and dipped erotically low at one breast. Because his mouth had gone dry, he could only shake his head.
She smiled then, and held out a hand. "Come to the house with me. Stay with me."