Soon after sunrise, Sarah awoke, stiff and sore and hungry. She rolled over, wanting to cling to sleep until Lucilla's maid brought the morning chocolate. She'd had the most awful dream about some gray-eyed man carrying her off to a hot, desolate place. He'd been handsome, the way men in dreams were supposed to be, but in a rugged, almost uncivilized way. His skin had been like bronze, taut over his face. He'd had high, almost exotic cheekbones, and the dark shadow of a beard. His hair had been untidy and as black as coal-but thick, quite thick, as it had swept down past his collar. She'd wondered, even in the dream, what it would be like to run her hands through it.
There had been something familiar about him, almost as if she'd known him. In fact, when he'd forced her to kiss him, a name had run through her mind. Then he hadn't had to force her any longer.
Drowsy, Sarah smiled. She would have to tell Lucilla about the dream. They would both laugh about it before they dressed for the day. Lazily she opened her eyes.
This wasn't the rose-and-white room she used whenever she visited Lucilla and her family. Nor was it the familiar bedroom she had had for years at school. Her father's house, she thought, as everything came back to her. This was her father's house, but her father was dead. She was alone. With an effort, she resisted the urge to bury her face in the pillow and weep again. She had to decide what to do, and in order to decide she had to think clearly.
For some time last night she'd been certain the best thing would be for her to return to town and use the money she had found to book passage east again. At best, Lucilla's family would welcome her. At worst, she could return to the convent. But that had been before she'd begun reading her father's journal. It had taken only the first two pages, the only two she'd allowed herself, to make her doubt.
He'd begun the journal on the day he'd left her to come west. The love and the hope he'd felt had been in every word. And the sadness. He'd still been raw with grief over the death of Sarah's mother.
For the first time she fully understood how devastated he had been by the loss of the woman they'd both shared so briefly. And how inadequate he'd felt at finding himself alone with a little girl. He'd made a promise to his wife on her deathbed that he would see that their daughter was well cared for.
She remembered the words her father had written on the yellowed paper.
She was leaving me. There was nothing I could do to stop it. Toward the end there was so much pain I prayed for God to take her quickly. My Ellen, my tiny, delicate Ellen. Her thoughts were all for me, and our sweet Sarah. I promised her. The only comfort I could give was my promise.
Our daughter would have everything Ellen wanted for her. Proper schooling and church on Sunday. She would be raised the way my Ellen would have raised her. Like a lady. One day she'd have a fine house and a father she could be proud of.
He'd come here to try, Sarah thought as she tossed back the thin blanket. And she supposed he'd done as well as he could. Now she had to figure what was best. And if she was going to think, first she needed to eat.
After she'd dressed in her oldest skirt and blouse, she took stock of the-cupboard again. She could not, under any circumstances, face another meal of cold beans. Perhaps he had a storage cellar somewhere, a smokehouse, anything. Sarah pushed open the door and blinked in the blinding sunlight.
At first she thought it was a mirage. But mirages didn't carry a scent, did they? This one smelled of meat roasting and coffee brewing. And what she saw was Jake Redman sitting cross-legged by a fire ringed with stones. Gathering up her skirt, she forgot her hunger long enough to stride over to him.
"What are you doing here?"
He glanced up and gave her the briefest of nods. He poured coffee from a small pot into a dented tin cup. "Having breakfast."
"You rode all the way out here to have breakfast?"
She didn't know what it was he was turning on the spit, but her stomach was ready for just about anything. "Nope." He tested the meat and judged it done. "Never left." He jerked his head in the direction of the rocks. "Bedded down over there."
"There?" Sarah eyed the rocks with some amazement.
He looked up again. The look in his eyes made her hands flutter nervously. It made her feel, though it was foolish, that he knew how she looked stripped down to her chemise, "Let's say it was a long ride back to town."
"I hardly expect you to watch over me, Mr. Redman.
I explained that I could take... What is that?" Jake was eating with his fingers and with obvious enjoyment. "Rabbit."
"Rabbit?" Sarah wrinkled her nose at the idea, but her stomach betrayed her. "I suppose you trapped it on my property."
So it was her property already. "Might've."
"If that's the case, the least you could do is offer to share."
Jake obligingly pulled off a hunk of meat. "Help yourself."
"Don't you have any... Never mind." When in Rome, Sarah decided. Taking the meat and the coffee he offered, she sat down on a rock.
"Get yourself some supper last night?"
"Yes, thank you." Never, never in her life, had she tasted anything better than this roast rabbit in the already-sweltering morning. "You're an excellent cook, Mr. Redman."
"I get by." He offered her another hunk. This time she didn't hesitate.
"No, really." She caught herself talking with her mouth full, and she didn't care. "This is delightful." Because she doubted that his saddlebags held any linens, she licked her fingers.
"Better than a can of cold beans, anyway."
She glanced up sharply, but he wasn't even looking at her. "I suppose." She'd never had breakfast with a man before, and she decided it would be proper to engage in light conversation. "Tell me, Mr. Redman, what is your profession?"
"Never gave it much thought."
"But surely you must have some line of work."
"Nope." He leaned back against a rock and, taking out his pouch of tobacco, proceeded to roll a cigarette. She looked as fresh and neat as a daisy, he thought. You'd have thought she'd spent the night in some high-priced hotel instead of a mud hut.
Apparently making conversation over a breakfast of roasted rabbit took some skill. Patiently she smoothed her skirts and tried again. "Have you lived in Arizona long?"
"I-" The cool, flat look he sent her had her fumbling.
"I don't know about back in Philadelphia." Jake took out a match, scraped it on the rock and twisted the end of his cigarette, studying her while "But around here people don't take kindly to questions."
"I see." Her back had stiffened. She'd never encountered anyone to whom rudeness came so easily.
"In a civilized society, a casual question is merely a way to begin a conversation."
"Around here it's a way to start a fight." He drew on the cigarette. "You want to fight with me, Duchess?" "I'll thank you to stop referring to me by that name."
He grinned at her again, but lazily, the brim of his hat shadowing his eyes. "You look like one, especially when you're riled."
Her chin came up. She couldn't help it. But she answered him in calm, even tones. "I assure you, I'm not at all riled. Although you have, on several occasions already, been rude and difficult and annoying.
Where I come from, Mr. Redman, a woman is entitled to a bit more charm and gallantry from a man."
"That so?" Her mouth dropped open when he slowly drew out his gun. "Don't move."
Move? She couldn't even breathe. She'd only called him rude and, sweet Mary, he was going to shoot her.
"Mr. Redman, I don't-"
The bullet exploded against the rock a few inches away from her. With a shriek, she tumbled into the dirt. When she found the courage to look up, Jake was standing and lifting something dead and hideous from the rock.
"Rattler," he said easily. When she moaned and started to cover her eyes, he reached down and hauled her to her feet "I'd take a good look," he suggested, still holding the snake in front of her. "If you stay around here, you're going to see plenty more."
It was the disdain in his voice that had her fighting off the swoon. With what little voice she had left, she asked, "Would you kindly dispose of that?"
With a muttered curse, he tossed it aside, then began to smother the fire. Sarah felt her breakfast rising uneasily and waited for it to settle. "It appears you saved my life."
"Yeah, well, don't let it get around."
"I won't, I assure you." She drew herself up straight, hiding her trembling hands in the folds of her skirts. "I appreciate the meal, Mr. Redman. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a number of things to do." "You can start by getting yourself into the wagon.
I'll drive you back to town."
"I appreciate the offer. As a matter of fact, I would be grateful. I need some supplies."
"Look, there's got to be enough sense in that head of yours for you to see you don't belong out here. It's a two-hour drive into town. There's nothing out here but rattlers and coyotes."
She was afraid he was right. The night she'd spent in the cabin had been the loneliest and most miserable of her life. But somewhere between the rabbit and the snake she'd made up her mind. Matt Conway's daughter wasn't going to let all his efforts and his dreams turn to dust. She was staying, Lord help her.
"My father lived here. This place was obviously important to him. I intend to stay." She doubted Jake Redman had enough heart to understand her "Now, if you'd be good enough to hitch up the wagon, I'll go change."
"Why, my dress, of course. I can hardly go into town like this."
He cast a glance over her. She already looked dolled-up enough for a church social in her crisp white blouse and gingham skirt. He'd never known gingham to look quite so good on a woman before.
"Lone Bluff ain't Philadelphia. It ain't anyplace. You want the wagon hitched, I'll oblige you, but you'd better watch how it's done, because there's not going to be anyone around to do it for you next time." With that, he slung his saddlebags over his shoulder and walked away.
Very well, she thought after one last deep breath. He was quite right. It was time she learned how to do things for herself. The sooner she learned, the sooner she'd have no more need of him.
With her head held high, she followed him. She watched him guide the team out. It seemed easy enough. You simply hooked this and tied that and the deed was done. Men, she thought with a little smile. They always exaggerated the most basic chores.
"Thank you, Mr. Redman. If you'll wait just a moment, I'll be ready to go."
Didn't the woman know anything? Jake tipped his hat forward. He'd driven her out of town yesterday. If he drove her back this morning her reputation would be ruined. Even Lone Bluff had its standards. Since she'd decided to stay, at least temporarily, she'd need all the support she could get from the town women.
"I got business of my own, ma'am."
"But-" He was already moving off to saddle his own horse. Setting her teeth, Sarah stamped inside. She added another twenty dollars to what she carried in her reticule. As an afterthought she took down the rifle her father had left on the wall. She hadn't the least idea how to use it, was certain she wouldn't be able to in even the most dire circumstances, but she felt better having it.
Jake was mounted and waiting when she came out. "The road will lead you straight into town," he told her as she fastened her bonnet. "If you give Lucius a dollar he'll drive back out with you, then take the wagon and team back to the livery. Matt's got two horses of his own in the stables. Someone from town's been keeping an eye on them."
"A dollar." As if it were spun glass, she set the rifle in the wagon. "You charged me five."
He grinned at her. "I'm not Lucius." With a tip of his hat, he rode off.
It didn't take her long to climb up into the wagon. But she had to gather her courage before she touched the reins. Though she considered herself an excellent horsewoman, she'd never driven a team before.
You've ridden behind them, she reminded herself as she picked up the reins. How difficult can it be? She took the horses-or they took her-in a circle three times before she managed to head them toward the road.
Jake sat on his horse and watched her from a ridge. It was the best laugh he'd had in months.
By the time she reached Lone Bluff, Sarah was sweating profusely, her hands felt raw and cramped and her lower back was on fire. In front of the dry goods store she climbed down on legs that felt like water. After smoothing her skirts and patting her forehead dry, she spotted a young boy whittling a stick. "Young man, do you know a man named Lucius?"
"Everybody knows old Lucius."
Satisfied, Sarah drew a coin out of her bag. "If you can find Lucius and tell him Miss Sarah Conway wishes to see him, you can have this penny."
The boy eyed it, thinking of peppermint sticks. "Yes, ma'am." He was off at a run.
At least children seemed about the same, east or west.
Sarah entered the store. There were several customers milling around, looking over the stock and gossiping. They all stopped to stare at Sarah before going back to their business. The young woman behind the counter came around to greet her.
"Good morning. May I help you?"
"Yes, I'm Sarah Conway."
"I know." When the pretty brunette smiled, dimples flashed in her cheeks. She was already envying Sarah her bonnet. "You arrived on the stage yesterday. I'm very sorry about your father. Everyone liked Matt."
"Thank you." Sarah found herself smiling back.
"I'm going to need a number of supplies."
"Are you really going to stay out there, at Matt's place? Alone?"
"Yes. At least for now."
"I'd be scared to death." The brunette gave her an appraising look, then offered a hand. "I'm Liza Cody. No relation."
"I beg your pardon?"
"To Buffalo Bill. Most people ask. Welcome to Lone Bluff."
With Liza's help. Sarah began to gather supplies and introductions. Within twenty minutes she'd nodded to half the women in Lone Bluff, been given a recipe for biscuits and been asked her opinion of the calico fabric just arrived from St. Joe.
Her spirits rose dramatically. Perhaps the women dressed less fashionably than then-counterparts in the East, but they made her feel welcome.
Sarah turned to see Lucius, hat in hand. Beside him, the young boy was nearly dancing in anticipation of the penny. The moment it was in his hand, he raced to the jars of hard candy and began to negotiate. "Mr..."
"Just Lucius, ma'am."
"Lucius, I was told you might be willing to drive my supplies back for me, then return the wagon and team to the livery."
He pushed his chaw into his cheek and considered.
"Well, now, maybe I would."
"I'd be willing to give you a dollar for your trouble." He grinned, showing a few yellowed-and several missing-teeth. "Glad to help, Miss Conway."
"Perhaps you'd begin by loading my supplies."
Leaving him to it, Sarah turned back to Liza. "Miss Cody." "Liza, please."
"Liza, I wonder if you might have any tea, and I would dearly love some fresh eggs."
"Don't get much call for tea, but we've got some in the back." Liza opened the door to the rear storeroom. Three fat-bellied puppies ran out. "John Cody, you little monster. I told you to keep these pups outside." Laughing, Sarah crouched down to greet them.
"Oh, they're adorable."
"One's adorable, maybe," Liza muttered. As usual, her young brother was nowhere in sight when she needed him. "Three's unmanageable. Just last night they chewed through a sack of meal. Pop finds out, he'll take a strap to Johnny."
A brown mutt with a black circle around his left eye jumped into Sarah's lap. And captured her heart. "You're a charmer, aren't you?" She laughed as he bathed her face.
"A nuisance is more like it."
"Will you sell one?"
"Sell?" Liza stretched to reach the tea on a high shelf. "My pop'd pay you to take one."
"Really?" With the brown pup cradled in her arms, Sarah stood again. "I'd love to have one. I could use the company."
Liza added the tea and eggs to Sarah's total. "You want that one, you take it right along." She grinned when the pup licked Sarah's face again. "He certainly seems taken with you."
"I'll take very good care of him." Balancing the dog, she took out the money to pay her bill. "Thank you for everything."
Liza counted out the coins before she placed them in the cash drawer and took out Sarah's change. Pop would be pleased, she thought. Not only because of the pup, but because Miss Conway was a cash customer. Liza was pleased because Sarah was young and pretty and would surely know everything there was to know about the latest fashions.
"It's been nice meeting you, Miss Conway."
Liza smiled again and walked with Sarah to the door. "Maybe I'll ride out and see you, if you don't mind."
"I'd love it. Any time at all."
Abruptly Liza lifted a hand to pat her hair. "Good morning, Mr. Carlson."
"Liza, you're looking pretty as ever." She blushed and fluttered, though Carlson's eyes were on Sarah. "Samuel Carlson, this is Sarah Conway."
"Delighted." Carlson's smile made his pale, handsome face even more attractive. It deepened the already-brilliant blue of his eyes. When he lifted Sarah's hand to his lips in a smooth, cavalier gesture, she was doubly glad she'd come into town.
Apparently Lone Bluff had some gentlemen after all. Samuel Carlson was slim and well dressed in a beautiful black riding coat and a spotless white shirt.
His trim mustache was the same rich brown as his well-groomed hair. He had, as a gentleman swept off his hat at the introduction. It was a truly fine hat, Sarah thought, black like his coat, with a silver chain for a band.
"My deepest sympathies for your loss, Miss Conway.
Your father was a fine man and a good friend."
"Thank you. It's been comforting for me to learn he was well thought of."
The daughter was certainly a pretty addition to a dust hole like Lone Bluff, he thought. "Word around town is that you'll be staying with us for a while." He reached over to scratch the puppy's ears and was rewarded with a low growl.
"Hush, now." Sarah smiled an apology. "Yes, I've decided to stay. At least for the time being."
"I hope you'll let me know if there's anything I can do to help." He smiled again. "Undoubtedly life here isn't what you're used to."
The way he said it made it clear that it was a compliment. Mr. Carlson was obviously a man of the world, and of some means. "Thank you." She handed the puppy to Lucius and was gratified when Carlson assisted her into the wagon. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Carlson."
"The pleasure was mine, Miss Conway."
"Goodbye, Liza. I hope you'll come and visit soon." Sarah settled the puppy on her lap. She considered it just her bad luck that she glanced across the street at that moment. Jake was there, one hand hooked in his pocket, leaning against a post, watching. With an icy nod, she acknowledged him, then stared straight ahead as Lucius clucked to the horses.
When the wagon pulled away, the men studied each other. There was no nod of acknowledgment. They simply watched, cool and cautious, across the dusty road.
Sarah felt positively triumphant. As she stored her supplies, the puppy circled her legs, apparently every bit as pleased as she with the arrangement. Her nights wouldn't be nearly so lonely now, with the dog for company. She'd met people, was perhaps even on the way to making friends. Her cupboard was full, and Lucius had been kind enough to show her how to fire up the old cookstove.
Tonight, after supper, she was going to write to Lucilla and Mother Superior. She would read another page or two from her father's journal before she curled up under the freshly aired blanket.
Jake Redman be damned, she thought as she bent to tickle the pup's belly. She was making it.
With a glass of whiskey at his fingertips, Jake watched Carlotta work the room. She sure was something. Her hair was the color of gold nuggets plucked from a riverbed, and her lips were as red as the velvet drapes that hung in her private room.
She was wearing red tonight, something tight that glittered as it covered her long, curvy body and clung to her smooth white breasts. Her shoulders were bare. Jake had always thought that a woman's shoulders were enough to drive a man to distraction.
He thought of Sarah, standing ankle-deep in a stream with water glistening on her skin. He took another gulp of whiskey.
Carlotta's girls were dressed to kill, as well. The men in the Silver Star were getting their money's worth. The piano rang out, and the whiskey and the laughter poured.
The way he figured it, Carlotta ran one of the best houses in Arizona. Maybe one of the best west of the Mississippi. The whiskey wasn't watered much, and the girls weren't bad. A man could almost believe they enjoyed their work. As for Carlotta, Jake figured she enjoyed it just fine.
Money came first with her. He knew, because she'd once had enough to drink to tell him that she took a healthy cut of all her girls' pay. If the man one of her girls was with decided to slip her a little extra, that was just fine with Carlotta. She took a cut of that, as well.
She had dreams of moving her business to San Francisco and buying a place with crystal chandeliers, gilt mirrors and red carpets. Carlotta favored red. But for now, like the rest of them, Carlotta was stuck in Lone Bluff.
Tipping back more whiskey, Jake watched her. She moved like a queen, her full red lips always smiling, her cool blue eyes always watching. She was making sure her girls were persuading the men to buy them plenty of drinks. What the bartender served the working girls was hardly more than colored water, but the men paid, and paid happily, before they moved along to one of the narrow rooms upstairs.
Hell of a business, Jake thought as he helped himself to one of the cigars Carlotta provided for her paying customers. She had them shipped all the way from Cuba, and they had a fine, rich taste. Jake had no doubt she added to the price of her whiskey and her girls to pay for them. Business was business.
One of the girls sidled over to light the cigar for him. He just shook his head at the invitation. She was warm and ripe and smelled like a bouquet of roses. For the life of him he couldn't figure out why he wasn't interested.
"You're going to hurt the girls' feelings." Perfume trailing behind her, Carlotta joined Jake at the table. "Don't you see anything you like?"
He tipped his chair back against the wall. "See plenty I like."
She laughed and lifted a hand in a subtle signal. "You going to buy me a drink, Jake?" Before he could answer, one of the girls was bringing over a new bottle and a glass. No watered-down liquor for Carlotta. "Haven't seen you around in a while."
"Haven't been around."
Carlotta took a drink and let it sweep through her system. She'd take liquor over a man any day. "Going to stay around?"
"Heard there was a little trouble on the stage yesterday. It's not like you to do good deeds, Jake." She drank again and smiled at him. In a movement as smooth as the liquor she drank, she dropped a hand to his thigh. "That's what I like about you."
"Just happened to be there."
"Also heard Matt Conway's daughter's in town."
Smiling, she took the cigar from him and took a puff.
"You working for her?"
"Word around is that you drove her on out to his place." She slowly blew out a stream of smoke from between her painted lips. "Can't see you digging in rock for gold, Jake, when it's easier just to take it."
"Far as I remember, there was never enough gold in that rock to dig for." He took the cigar back and clamped it between his teeth. "You know different?"
"I only know what I hear, and I don't hear much about Conway." She poured a second drink and downed it. She didn't want to talk about Matt Conway's mine or about what she knew. Something in the air tonight, she decided. Made her restless. Maybe she needed more than whiskey after all. "Glad you're back, Jake. Things have been too quiet around here."
Two men hankering after the same girl started to scuffle. Carlotta's tall black servant tossed them both out. She just smiled and poured a third drink. "If you're not interested in any of my girls, we could make other arrangements." She lifted the small glass in a salute before she knocked it back. "For old times' sake."
Jake looked at her. Her eyes glittered against her white skin. Her lips were parted. Above the flaming red of her dress, her breasts rose and fell invitingly. He knew what she could do to a man, with a man, when the mood was on her. It baffled and infuriated him that she didn't stir him in the least.
"Maybe some other time." He rose and, after dropping a few coins on the table, strolled out.
Carlotta's eyes hardened as she watched him. She only offered herself to a privileged few. And she didn't like to be rejected.
With the puppy snoozing at her feet, Sarah closed her father's journal. He'd written about an Indian attack on the wagon train and his own narrow escape.
In simple, often stark terms, he'd written of the slaughter, the terror and the waste. Yet even after that he'd gone on, because he'd wanted to make something of himself. For her.
Shivering a bit despite her shawl, she rose to replace the book beneath the stone. If she had read those words while still in Philadelphia, she would have thought them an exaggeration. She was coming to know better.
With a half sigh, she looked down at her hands. They were smooth and well tended. They were, she was afraid, woefully inadequate to the task of carving out a life here.
It was only the night that made her feel that way, Sarah told herself as she moved to check the bolt on the door. She'd done all she could that day, and it had been enough. She'd driven to town alone, stocked the cabin and replanted the vegetable garden. Her back ached enough to tell her she'd put in a full day. Tomorrow she'd start again.
The lonely howl of a coyote made her heart thud. Gathering the puppy to her breast, she climbed up for bed.
She was in her night shift when the dog started to bark and growl. Exasperated, she managed to grab him before he could leap from the loft.
"You'll break your neck." When he strained against her hold and continued to yelp, she took him in her arms. "All right, all right. If you have to go out, I'll let you out, but you might have let me know before I went to bed." Nuzzling him, she climbed down from the loft again. She saw the fire through the window and ran to the door. "Oh, my God."
The moment she yanked it open the puppy ran out, barking furiously. With her hands to her cheeks, Sarah watched the fire rise up and eat at the old, dry wood of the shed. A scream, eerily like a woman's, pierced the night.
Her father's horses. Following instinct alone, she ran.
The horses were already wild-eyed, stamping and screaming in their stalls. Muttering a prayer, Sarah dragged the first one out and slapped its flank. The fire was moving fast, racing up the walls and onto the roof. The hay had already caught and was burning wildly. Eyes stinging from the smoke, she groped her way to the second stall. Coughing, swearing, she fought the terrified horse as it reared and shoved against her. Then she screamed herself when a flaming plank fell behind her. Fire licked closer and closer to the hem of her shift.
Whipping off her shawl, she tossed it over the horse's eyes and dragged them both out of the shed. Blinded by smoke, she crawled to safety. Behind her she could hear the walls collapse, could hear the roar of flames consuming wood. Gone. It was gone. She wanted to beat her fists in the dirt and weep. It could spread. The terror of that had her pushing up onto her hands and knees. Somehow she had to prevent the fire from spreading. She caught the sound of a horse running hard and had nearly gained her feet when something slammed into her.