The Paladin's Lady Partner (Part 12)
Sadie had never been alone in a bedroom with a man before, at least not when she was planning on spending the entire night with him. All right, that wasn't quite true. She'd nursed her grandfather until he died, and taking care of Elliott as he recuperated from being shot probably didn't count, either.
Yep, all things considered, this was different. Right now she wasn't sure if she was excited or nervous or both. All she knew was that her hands were shaking too badly to undo a single button on her dress. Nor could she bring herself to look Elliott in the eye right now. All but dragging him into her bedroom was brazen by anyone's standards.
His big hands settled on each side of her face, gently raising her gaze up to meet his. "If you've changed your mind about wanting me in here, all you have to do is tell me to go."
He brushed the pad of his thumb across her lower lip. "As much as I want to stay, Sadie, I don't want to rush things between us."
Bless the man, his offer to leave only convinced her how right it was for him to stay. "I want you here, Elliott. I know I promised to go slow and think things through carefully, but my heart says I'll always want you here with me."
"Believe me, there's no other place I'd rather be." His dark eyes gleamed in the soft glow of the lamp on the dresser. "Brace yourself, Sadie, because I'm going to kiss you."
She stepped into his arms, which felt like coming home. Her eyes drifted shut just before his lips claimed hers. For a man so used to violence, it amazed her how gentle he could be. He kept the kiss soft and so very sweet.
When he broke it off, he tucked her head against his chest and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, apparently content to simply hold her. After a bit, he said, "This is what I want tonight, Sadie. For you to sleep in my arms, just the two of us together. The rest of the world and all its problems can go hang itself, at least until morning."
"But don't you want to…you know."
He was already shaking his head. "I sure do, but later when we've put the problems with your mine and Putnam all behind us."
He leaned back enough to smile down at her, "I want to take it slow and easy and make it last for days on end when we…you know."
Elliott grinned and waggled his eyebrows when he said those last two words. She faked a frown and said, "Are you making fun of me, Mr. Jones."
"A little bit, but I meant what I said, Miss Benton. Whatever this is between us, it's special and deserves to be treated that way."
Maybe she should be disappointed, but in truth she was a little relieved. While she didn't doubt the strong feelings she had for this man or that he had the same for her, they'd only met a couple of days ago. If this rush of emotions was strong enough to last, then they had time to slow down and savor the journey.
She tugged his face down for another kiss. "Hold me close."
"It will be my greatest pleasure."
Morning came far too soon. After much discussion-some of it heated-the four of them finally agreed the best course of action was for Sadie to ride toward town with the three men right before dawn. Mack's deputies would be riding out to meet them just outside of town to start the hunt for Putnam and his men. One of the deputies would be charged with escorting Sadie the rest of the way into town. Elliott wasn't sure how she felt about the situation, but he was relieved that she would be staying with one of Mack's deputies at the jailhouse instead of remaining alone at her house.
Meanwhile, Elliott, Jethro, Mack, and the rest of the posse would ride out to find Putnam. They'd start with his house and office in town and go on from there. One way or another, they were all determined to make sure the threat to Sadie ended today. Mack might object, but Elliott personally planned to make sure it was a permanent solution. No man who came after a woman like Sadie deserved to live.
They mounted up and rode out at a fast clip. The sun had yet to crest the horizon, but it was already growing lighter. They wanted to reach town before most people were out and about. But even with three heavily armed men surrounding his woman, he feared for Sadie's safety. Although he tried to hide his worry, she picked up on it.
"I'll be fine, Elliott. Once we're in town, I'll be inside brick walls and thick doors that lock. No one will get to me while I'm in there."
But right now, she was vulnerable. All it would take was for that bastard Putnam to have posted any of his men along the road between Sadie's place and town. A couple of crack shots with rifles could pick them off before they had time to take cover.
Sadie gave him a worried look. Maybe it was simply because they were close to where they'd first met under a hailstorm of bullets and where she'd unwittingly buried him alive, but he didn't think so. At that same moment, Jethro dropped back to ride beside him, his hand on the grip of his pistol. "The back of my neck itches. Not sure if someone is really out there or if I'm imagining things."
"No, I'm feeling it, too."
Mack had been riding easy in his saddle, even though he kept his eyes sweeping the terrain ahead of them. Just that quickly he went on full alert.
Not bothering to keep his voice down, Elliott called out to him, "What did you see?"
The sheriff slowed his horse until they caught up with him. "A flash of movement in those trees up ahead. Might be nothing, but my gut says we're riding into an ambush. For what it's worth, my gut is rarely wrong about these things. How do you want to play this?"
Elliott considered their options, which were admittedly pretty damn limited. Without knowing how many shooters were waiting ahead, they couldn't chance a run toward town. If he was Putnam, he would have told his men to spread out along the road and wait until their targets passed by before closing in behind them. Either way, the four of them were being herded into a trap.
"Sadie, just as we reach the bend in the road ahead, turn and ride hard for those same boulders where we took cover the other day. With four of us, we stand a better chance of holding the bastards off."
Her pretty face was pale and her eyes wide with fear, but the woman had gumption. She checked the slide of her rifle in its scabbard as she nodded her understanding.
They kept moving forward at the same pace until he ordered, "Now!"
The bullets started flying before the last of them cleared the road. They all seemed to be coming from the same direction, making it easier for the three men to shield Sadie. Mack and Jethro returned fire. It was impossible to know if they hit their targets, but at least it kept the enemy from charging after them.
The minutes it took to reach the boulders were some of the longest of Elliott's life. He dismounted and grabbed the reins on Sadie's horse while she did the same. Jethro and Mack were but seconds behind them.
Sadie was already shooting toward where their enemies had gone to ground. When she stopped to reload, she met his gaze with fierce determination. "I count seven, maybe eight men out there."
Elliott moved up beside her. "Sounds right. That doesn't mean more aren't circling around behind us."
They both knew what had happened the last time when the enemy had found a way to come up behind Elliott. Her eyes immediately sought out the pile of rocks where she'd buried him, thinking him dead. He gave her a quick hug. "We'll be fine. We just have to hold out long enough for Mack's men to get here."
A bullet nicked the boulder over his head, sending rock chips flying. One caught Jethro on the cheek. He muttered a curse under his breath and sent a volley of bullets back in the shooter's direction. A scream of pain was followed by a horse bolting out of the trees with no rider in sight.
Mack grinned at the other Paladin. "Nice shot! One down."
The three men then turned the whole affair into a grim contest, but both sides were hunkered down behind good cover, making it unlikely anyone was going to come out the winner. Shooting from the other side had become intermittent, making him wonder what they were up to over there.
Elliott studied their surroundings. Were the shooters trying to keep them pinned down while others were circling around behind them again? That wasn't going to work a second time.
"Jethro, I'm going to see if I can work my way around to behind them. If I can pick off a few of them that way, maybe we can bring this dance to a close."
Mack didn't look happy about the plan but finally nodded. "My men should be here soon, so don't get yourself killed trying to be the hero again."
He was afraid Sadie would try to talk him out of going, but instead she gave him a soul-shattering kiss. "Don't get shot."
That wasn't a promise he couldn't swear he'd be able to keep. He settled for saying, "I'll try."
"Try hard. I've got plans for you, Mr. Jones."
The flicker of heat in her eyes warmed him straight through to his bones. "I'll be back."
Then he took off crawling through the boulders and prepared to take the battle to the enemy.