Summary: Vin Tanner's efforts to finally win the hand of Alexandra Styles is complicated by the attention of an unwanted suitor willing to destroy anyone who stands in his way, including the Seven.
Tenth story in the "Seven Scrolls" series. Follows Freedom.
She belonged to him the moment he laid eyes on her.
She was sixteen years old then, little more than a slip of a girl with the fire of a thousand suns burning beneath her breast. Even then, her ability to turn the head of every man who came across her, young or old, was considerable. Her father, the eminent but somewhat unorthodox Doctor William Styles was immensely proud of his only child. He raised her with the belief she possessed the intellect to do whatever she wished with her life. Randall found such thinking over-indulgent since the reality of women was far different than Styles's hopes for his daughter.
They met in the Caribbean Island where Styles was conducting research for a book Randall was sure he would never publish, but used as an excuse to travel the world with his daughter. Randall never forgot the sight of the sixteen-year-old beauty, running with the natives in the crystal coloured waters, freed from the propriety every other father would have enforced in the company of half-naked heathens. Styles never cared for such things because his daughter was not like other girls.
She has a head on her shoulders, he used to say. She is not silly.
To that, Randall could not disagree because Alex, as she preferred to be called, did not wish to make her debut into society and found all the womanly arts boring and trivial. Instead, she worked side by side with her father, watching him cut into bone, staring in wide-eyed amazement at how he could reassure a patient with eye contact alone, how an amputation would not ruin their lives but save it. Styles was not just her father, he was her mentor, and from him, she learned how to be a healer.
They parted company for a time when Styles moved to England, deciding his daughter had come of age. For the better part of the next decade. William Styles opened a small practice in London, using his influence and family name to win his daughter a seat at the London School of Medicine. Randall followed her progress carefully, knowing as a woman of questionable background, there was bound to be prejudice. He watched in interest at how she handled them and was unsurprised when she graduated six years later.
As soon as Alexandra became a doctor in her own right, Styles promptly abandoned his practice, and they were off again. This time she was more than just a casual observer in his research work. She took part in the studies, assisted him with his writings, and made her father happier than he ever been in his life. Randall suspected the bond would be difficult to break but knew that Styles's love for his beautiful, intelligent daughter would make no sacrifice for her too high.
It was heart-warming to see how close they were, and Randall felt a hint of envy, knowing his relationship with his very proper family never displayed this kind of affection. Alexandra adored her father, and they journeyed across the roof of the world into China before crossing the heat of the Gobi Desert and disappearing into the savage world of Arabia. Randall had no doubt this would have continued until one of them dropped dead had he not intervened first.
They met again a year later after she graduated, in Cairo, where the Giza was being overrun by treasure hunters posing as archaeologists, who discovered the awesome plunder of the great pyramids. This time, Randall was astonished by how womanhood affected Alexandra Styles. The woman who now stood by her father's side as the ever-dutiful daughter was magnificent where the young girl he remembered was merely breathtaking. Her ability to dazzle him was a fire he could not shake and refused to.
He waited a decade for her and was unprepared to wait any longer. Randall wanted her at his side always, to worship her like the goddess she was. The madness that overtook him when he saw her again was all-consuming, and though he was older than her, Randall was sure he could make her happy. He merely required the chance to prove it. The house he built for her awaited them both in England. Randall constructed it almost four years before, confident she would accept his proposal. When she was in England, there were dinner engagements and parties where Alexandra arrived at his arm as a friend of the family.
While the women hated her and said snide things about her parentage, every man in the room burned with envy. When he approached William Styles for her hand, there was no reason to believe the old man would be anything but receptive to the offer.
Except he was refused.
Randall was too old, Styles said, and more importantly, she did not love him. Randall remembered listening in growing rage as Styles made some obligatory speech to accompany the refusal, claiming he wished something better for his daughter. He wanted for Alexandra the same kind of love he felt for Alexandra's mother when Styles finally gave his blessing to any suitor. There would be no convenient marriages for Alexandra, Styles was adamant on this point. Randall was then given the indignity of the news Alexandra merely saw him as a friend, never more than that.
Certainly not someone to whom she could give her heart.
Randall came away from the meeting like a man possessed, knowing Alexandra could love him if she was pried away from her father. Even as he left the suite of rooms occupied by father and daughter, dark thoughts were already starting to enter his mind, providing a salve to his intense humiliation and his all-consuming desire.
Randall was certain the refusal was based on her father's selfish desire to keep his beloved daughter close to him instead of how Alexandra really felt. He believed she could love him. Randall became incensed by Styles's callousness, to hide such a flower in the dark. It became his mission to free Alexandra from this captivity so she could take her place at his side, in the house built for her, where his children could grow inside her.
The vision was almost beautiful in its perfection.
It was a simple matter to arrange, a wad of money to an upturned palm and a quiet whisper in the right ear. Cairo at that time was for the buying, and there was enough villainy in its bazaars and meandering streets to satisfy any desire. No matter how dark the intention. Randall was unaware of the specifics of the actual process, he was only aware of the end result. He knew nothing about the poison, or when it might be administered, he only knew that within three days of his meeting with Styles, the man was dead.
Randall was on hand to console Alexandra who was nothing short of devastated by the loss of her beloved father. He remained close by, taking care of the arrangements to have the body returned to England and all the other unpleasant chores following a death. For the first few days, she walked around in a stupor of grief, unable to believe Styles was dead. Randall felt remorse for her sorrow, but she was free now, and perhaps someday he might tell her how he delivered her from her slavery.
Then the most curious thing happened.
The night before they were to return to England together, she vacated the suite at the hotel and disappeared. Randall searched Cairo for days before learning she jumped a steamship back to Europe. He spent the next few months pursuing her across the continent, always arriving there a few days after she departed. Eventually, he learned despite her sizeable inheritance, it could not assure her a position in any medical institution in Europe. Randall was correct in assuming her background would keep her from gaining employment anywhere, despite her considerable skills.
In truth, he preferred it this way. Alexandra was to be his wife and nothing else. He wanted her to adore him and worship him as she had done her father. Randall would not tolerate patients stealing the time she should be spending time with him. It was one thing to indulge her fantasies as a doctor, but another thing entirely when it came to her role as his wife. He was aware of this, among other things, would require putting an end to when he found her, but there was plenty of time for that.
Suddenly, her letters of inquiry across the various medical establishments around Europe came to an abrupt halt. Randall was almost beside himself as he searched everywhere for the elusive Alexandra Styles. Finally, out of desperation, he learned the name of her father's solicitors in London. Using his family's considerable influence, he wrestled the truth from her solicitors. The solicitor did not know exactly where she was, but the bulk of her inheritance was liquidated and wired across the Atlantic, to America.
Randall was astonished Alexandra would travel to the one continent she never set foot upon. Contacting the notable Pinkerton Agency in New York, he invested considerable money tracing where in the United States, Alexandra might have disappeared. After almost two months of silence, he was finally rewarded with the information in his hotel room at the Waldorf Astoria. Alexandra Styles was currently practising medicine in a small town out West, in a particularly unsavoury part of it called the Territory.
She bought herself a home and established a clinic and was doing what she always wanted. He supposed her father would have been proud. Styles always liked practising his skills on the primitive masses. No doubt, the man would have delighted in knowing his daughter followed the same path.
Randall Mason gazed out the window of his train compartment, watching the herds of cattle in the distance, grazing on the dry grass of the sparse landscape while the mountains stared back with equal indifference. Eagle Bend was only an hour away, and after that, it would be merely a stagecoach journey to the town of Four Corners. He had no doubt Alexandra would be happy to see him although he questioned why she would hide in such a remote place.
In any case, Randall hoped she was not too attached to anything in this provincial village. It would only make it so much harder when she was forced to leave it behind.
The Miracle of Birth...not
"Breathe!" Alex ordered the young woman lying on the bed before her. She was no more than twenty years of age, and for Judith Dunlevy, this would be her first child. Labour had been difficult from the very beginning with the young woman unable to concentrate as she was too racked with agony to listen to any of Alex's instructions.
"Please Judy," Mary Travis pleaded as she dabbed a cold cloth over the girl's forehead. "You've got to listen to what Alex is telling you."
Her face was wet with perspiration, and her golden hair had become a stringy mess of tangled strands. She lay in the bed with legs apart, awaiting the arrival of her child with rising terror, unable to understand how such a precious gift could only be borne of such terrible pain. Her fingers tensed around Mary's hand as another contraction surfaced, prompting another powerful scream of pain. The urge to push was overwhelming and with the cry came the familiar tensing of muscles indicating she was doing just that.
"You've got to stop pushing!" Alex cried out. Dilation was not complete. The child could not make its appearance until then. "Breathe just like I showed you," Alex repeated the breathing technique again, once Judith stopped crying and gained enough coherence to understand her words. "When you feel it coming, just breathe out slowly. You keep pushing, and you're going to hurt the baby."
Judith nodded wildly, her hand grabbing the iron frame of her bed as she closed her eyes. Alex saw the perspiration running down her forehead before rolling down her cheeks to intermingle with the tears. The fear in her eyes was apparent, and in that Judith looked no different from any other woman delivering her first child. Alex wondered would she still have a similar wide-eyed look of fear when it was her time. She shook the thought out of her mind and went back to the foot of the bed so she could examine the progress of cervical dilation.
They had been in here for the better part of two hours now. Judith's husband was presently out on the range, herding cattle for some rancher and was absent at this critical moment in both their lives. The girl didn't have any family in town, a situation Alex could appreciate and prompted her call for Mary's assistance when Judith's water had broken.
It was highly likely the entire town of Four Corners was aware of the impending birth for Judith did not bear the experience well, and the raw screams of her first labour were heard throughout the immediate area. Mary sent JD Dunne to fetch Eric Dunlevy, who really should be here for this momentous occasion because his wife would need help when the child finally did arrive.
"Alex, is it going to be much longer?" Mary asked as she went to soak the small towel in the basin on top of the dresser. Although this experience was nothing new to her and Judith's pain was all part and parcel of the process, Mary could not help wishing it was over, so Judith would no longer have to suffer.
"Not much longer," Alex shook her head, aware of why Mary asked. She was similarly concerned at the way Judith was handling the labour. "We're almost there.” The doctor wiped the sweat running down from her forehead, glancing at the instruments lying within arms' reach of her when the child finally did make its appearance.
"Are you okay?" Mary asked in concern, knowing Alex had put in a long day already.
For some reason, Four Corners was having more than its share of injuries and ailments today, and Mary was personally aware Alex had been run off her feet since dawn. The Indian village where Chanu and Kojay hailed was currently suffering a severe bout of fever and Nathan was at the reservation, tending the sick there while Alex was left with the sole responsibility of treating Four Corners in his absence.
"I'm a great deal better than poor Judith here." Alex sighed as she saw Judith convulse again. She was about to open her mouth to repeat her instructions not to push when to Alex's relief, she saw Judith performing the breathing exercises. The pain travelled from her swollen abdomen and constricted in her face, turning the girl's normally pleasant features into a fist of crimson. Mary immediately hurried to her side to offer Judith her hand in support.
"That's good." Mary encouraged, stroking her hair to soothe the woman's fragile state of mind.
"I didn't know that it could hurt so much!"
"It's that way for all of us," Mary said calmly, unaware her soft voice was soothing in itself, and Judith was using it to focus following Alex's instruction. "When I had Billy, it was just like this." Mary continued speaking although the truth was, she remembered hurling nine colours of hell at Steven, swearing incoherently in language that even now made her blush, demanding an answer as to why men should have the privilege of escaping such torture.
"Okay," Alex announced feeling a surge of excitement as the moment finally arrived for this strenuous event to reach a conclusion. "You're ready, Judith. Start to push."
The woman let out a gasp of relief once given permission and immediately began heaving. Her body tensed and relaxed as instincts older than she took hold. Alex waited patiently, watching through the blood and fluid for the first signs of the new life struggling to enter the world. Her heart was pounding faster, feeling some measure of satisfaction in being present for this moment. She was never prouder of her skill than when she was called on to herald new life into the world. Alex concentrated hard on the task before her, letting Judith's cries fade into the background.
"I see the head!" Alex exclaimed as a slick of dark hair, peered out the passage of the birth canal. The head of the tiny form slipped past the walls of his mother's womb smoothly before pausing when the force propelling it forward halted.
"One more, Judith! One long push!"
Judith let out a frustrated cry of exhaustion and then ground her teeth to strain again. The pressure of her muscles pushed the child forward, allowing the whimpering babe to slide wetly into Alex's waiting hands. Immediately, Alex reached for the surgical scissors awaiting use on the tray before severing the umbilical cord. The child let out a plaintive cry in her arms, and Alex found tears in her eyes as it announced its presence with another hearty wail.
"It's a boy!" Alex announced as she placed the child on a blanket and cleaned some of the blood from its pink face and body.
"A boy!" Judith laughed through her exhaustion and allowed her head to lop back as she recovered from the experience.
"Mary, I need you!" The newswoman hurried to the doctor immediately. "You want to show Judith her son while I take care of the rest of it?" The doctor smiled as she handled the noisy bundle to Mary Travis.
Mary smiled brightly as she took the child in her arms and regarded the tiny face weeping before her. It was hard not to come away from the experience feeling the same awe and wonder she felt the first time Billy was presented to her. Mary could share the uncharacteristic emotion Alex was feeling. Her patients rarely affected Alexandra Styles, but this was one of those occasions that demanded exception.
"It would be my pleasure," Mary cradled the child tenderly as she went to Judith and presented the young mother with her first-born. The girl shuddered slightly at the sight of the small face staring at her. The baby ceased its crying and regarded the woman before him with an innocent look of indifference prompting Judith to cry. Tears of happiness ran down her cheeks as she stroked the child's soft cheek with her finger. After a moment, she looked up at both Mary and Alex with a smile on her tired face.
"Thank you so much." She said softly, weeping her tears of happiness as she thanked the two women who helped her make this moment possible.
It was late afternoon in Four Corners, but the town was still bustling with activity. In two days, it would be the anniversary of the town's founding, and the occasion was to be celebrated by a series of events designed to bring people out in droves and inspire investment by any passing visitors. As Alex made her way down the boardwalk towards home, she saw the town committee members putting up colourful streamers and other garish decorations.
A banner hung across the main street announcing the 12th founding of Four Corners, with a brief list of events to celebrate the occasion. There was apparently something called a hog-tying contest and a picnic basket auction, not to mention a dance which she had no intention of attending. Still, the hog-tying event begged attendance just so she could see what it was.
As she continued down the walk, she noticed shops being swept out and cleaned with everyone trying to make the town tidier. She wondered why it was necessary, considering most of the people attending the celebration would be townsfolk, and they already knew what the place looked like clean or filthy.
Alex knew she was a little cynical, but today she could not help it. In the last eight hours, she delivered a baby, mended at least five broken bones on five different people, made three house calls for ailing children, not to mention dealing with one drunk who had fallen off his bunk in the jailhouse and knocked out three teeth.
She was ready for bed.
She did not progress very far down the street when she happened along the new Emporium opened for business in the past week. It had been under construction for more than a month and from what Alex was told, was doing brisk business ever since the doors opened. She observed the store with its bright awning and its fresh paint and felt a passing curiosity that vanished as soon as she remembered who owned the establishment.
Although it was almost two months since Alex and Ezra Standish dissolved their relationship, it still stung every time Alex saw the gambler in the company of Julia Pemberton. It wasn't that she still pined for him, on the contrary as a matter of fact. After what transpired between her and Vin Tanner, Alex was already starting to have her doubts about the gambler. No, it was knowing she lost him to someone like Julia Pemberton that galled her so much.
Deciding she was only going to work herself up into a venomous mood if she kept her eye on the place, Alex faced front and continued walking towards her clinic. She would console herself by putting up her feet and soaking in a hot tub for the rest of the day.
She no more passed the store when she sighted Vin riding through town like a bat out of hell. His eyes searched the streets as he rode past and Alex hoped no crisis was coming to town, requiring her to replenish her stocks on bandages and sutures. The seven men who protected Four Corners tended to attract trouble like flies to manure, and it was no wonder they needed a full-time physician among their ranks.
Alex watched him ride past, unable to ignore the look of worry on his face. He was hard to read at the best of times, but something was clearly concerning him. When their eyes met, Vin immediately nudged Peso in her direction, and Alex tensed, realising he might need a doctor. Was one of the seven hurt? She did not see any of the lawmen today and was unaware of any trouble in town. Stepping off the boardwalk onto the street, she went to meet him.
"Alex." Vin dismounted the animal and tipped his hat slightly as he approached her, his blue eyes staring intently at her as always.
"Is something wrong?"
"You need to come to Nettie Wells's place.”
"What's wrong? Is Nettie hurt?" Alex asked with concern.
Nettie and Casey Wells owned a farm some distance out of Four Corners and performed work on the property that should have been undertaken by several farmhands. Unfortunately, Nettie was too proud to ask for help and too poor to pay for it. Alex knew Vin occasionally stopped there to do some of the more burdensome chores and hoped nothing unfortunate had happened to the feisty old lady.
"Nettie's fine. Dulcie ain't though." He explained as he steered her towards Peso. He noticed Alex had her doctor's bag with her and was pleased they would not need to waste time going to her house to retrieve it. There was little time to spare as it was.
"Dulcie?" Alex did not recognise the name and found herself standing before Peso with no idea how she was manoeuvred there.
"Dulcie's baby is coming out wrong. She needs your help."
Another baby ? Was there something in the water that was sending every pregnant woman into labour today?
"A breach?" Alex frowned, knowing how dangerous that could be. "Help me up.”
Vin wasted no time helping her into the saddle and Alex tried not to blush at his touch, remembering just how delightful his hands could be when employed for an entirely different purpose. Shaking such thoughts out of her head, Alex reminded herself there was an emergency awaiting her at the Wells's farm.
Vin climbed onto the horse once Alex was settled in place with her arms wrapped around him. A small smile stole across his face at the memory of the last time they rode together like this. He certainly hoped this short trip to Nettie's would not end up like that three-day ordeal to Agnes Doherty's homestead and checked the sky just to make sure.
They galloped out of town quickly, leaving the frantic preparation of Four Corners' anniversary far behind. In truth, Alex did not mind a few hours out of the town limits for some peace and quiet. After the day she had, a ride away from all the noise and people of Four Corners was welcomed. There was even a part of her that would enjoy doing it with Vin. It didn't occur to her until after they left town, riding double on Peso with him was a little scandalous, even though to her, it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Since the end of her attachment with Ezra, Alex kept her distance from the Seven, limiting her interactions to the occasions when they needed medical help or when she and Nathan were consulting. With Ezra's relationship with Julia Pemberton public knowledge, it was simply too awkward to be around them, to say nothing about the minefield that was Vin Tanner. They saw each other occasionally, and when they did, he would simply tip his hat at her in that subtle way of his, without saying anything and be on his way.
Sometimes, she really had no idea what to do with him.
"How long into labour is she?" Alex asked once they left the town behind.
"I don't know. I stopped there on my way back from the Indian village and helped Nettie out with some chores. About an hour ago, she said Dulcie's time was close."
"So, is Dulcie one of Nettie's relatives?" Alex took in the sight of the golden grass and the trees covering the plains now they were well and truly away from the civilisation of the town. At least, she could relax and enjoy the ride on the way there.
"No," Vin looked over his shoulder at her in confusion. "Dulcie is Nettie's cow."
"A cow! You dragged me away from a hot bath because of a cow?"
"She needs your help." Vin rolled his eyes in exasperation, supposing this civility between them could not last. It never did. Sooner or later, they would be fighting about something. With a smile, Vin forgot how much fun that could be. "Nettie can't afford to lose her."
"I know that!” Alex grumbled, torn between helping and stepping beyond the scope of her expertise. "But I don't know anything about cows!"
"How different could it be?" Vin winked at her and decided this was absolutely the reason why he had not told her Dulcie was a bovine before they left.
Alex swatted him on the shoulder and was further infuriated when she heard him laugh. “If that was your attempt to be funny, I am not amused."
"Look," Vin said in that too-soft voice of his that indicated he was about to impart something serious. "You're the only one who can help Dulcie."
Dulcie was Nettie's only source of milk, and things were difficult enough for the old widow. Besides, Vin knew Alex well enough to know she would never consciously turn down a request for help.
Alex groaned visibly because he was right. Burying her face in his back, she complained soundlessly into his buckskin coat.
"I had plans," she sighed, looking up after a moment. "I was going to run a bath and soak for hours."
"You deliver Dulcie's calf, and I'll run the damn bath for you. Hell, I'll even scrub your back if you like. Although you're going to have to pay me extra for that." He winked.
"You wish." Alex snorted but was smiling when she said it.
The next person who asked Chris Larabee if he was going to escort Mary Travis to the dance was going to die.
Chris did not give a damn if he was meant to be the law in town or not. Throughout the day, he had been accosted by well-meaning townspeople who wanted to know if Mary would be entering a picnic basket in the raffle or if he knew if she had completed the list of contributors for the dance's refreshment stand. He was being bombarded with all sorts of trivial nonsense just because he was now recognised as being her…Chris could not even bring himself to say the word.
Beau, Larabee. The word is beau.
Chris winced as he entered the saloon, hoping it would offer solitude from the madness taking place in the town. Whatever happened to those glorious days when everyone was afraid of him, and no one would say anything to him unless they could help it? The answer was plain even if it was causing him no end of irritation.
Since he was officially engaged to Mary, the respected community leader, some twisted logic on the part of the townsfolk decided he was the same. Him, Chris Larabee, the original bad element .
Of course, Mary found this all very amusing. For some reason, she delighted in his embarrassment every time one of these things happened. Each time Chris asked Mary to let her neighbours know he did not care to go to church on Sundays and didn't give a rat's ass if it was proper Christian behaviour to spend most of his time in a saloon, she would only laugh.
He tried to remember if being married to Sarah was even half as hard as courting Mary Travis and found he could not make a distinction.
"Whiskey, Inez," Chris growled as he leaned against the bar.
The saloon was half-empty because most of the patrons were outside engaged in preparations for the upcoming anniversary celebrations. Even the seven were oddly absent from the bar except for Ezra, Buck and JD. Josiah was asked to speed up work on his church so a Sunday service could be held there with a request for him to deliver a sermon for the occasion.
Chris had never seen the preacher so flabbergasted in his entire life. Josiah faced all kinds of threats since Chris met him. Killers, outlaws, confederate fanatics and not to mention your odd bounty hunter, but real terror flowed in Josiah's eyes when he was told he was going to get an audience for his usually sparse sermons.
"Is there something the matter Mr Larabee?" Ezra inquired, taking solace inside his saloon because the street outside was too frantic for his liking.
"No whiskey." He glared at Inez and received an equally scathing one from her who barely had time to fill the order. She grabbed an unopened bottle and placed a shot glass next to him.
"Thank you for your patience , Mr Larabee." She muttered and went back to serving the other customers.
"Sit a spell, Chris," Buck asked and kicked out a chair for the gunslinger with his foot. "We need a fourth with Nathan at the village, treating all those folks up there and poor Josiah working himself into a state over this sermon he has to deliver."
"How far has he got?" Chris picked up his bottle and glass from the counter and approaching his friends at the table.
"Well," Ezra smirked, picturing the last time he saw Josiah seeking inspiration for his big moment. "He has moved past the need to be poetic, favouring a more down to earth, but accessible format."
"He hasn't written a word," Buck translated. "When we left him, he was passed out in a pew with his nose in the chapter of the Bible that says ‘thou shalt not drink'."
"He's just thinking up all sorts of nice things to say that's all." JD defended Josiah in the preacher's absence. "I mean he could be dreaming up all kinds of important stuff."
The three older men looked at each other with the same thought and then snorted in unison.
"You know," Chris sighed as Ezra began to deal out the cards. "I think I might go back to my cabin and sit out this whole celebration. This town is way too lively for my taste right now."
"I can attest to that," Ezra replied. "I tried to steal Julia away for some lunch, and she practically threw me out of the Emporium. The place was wall to wall with women buying outfits for this dance. Apparently, I was ousted in favour of a perfect day at the till." With a smile, he added. "A woman who loves money more than I do, God is indeed kind."
Chris shook his head, unable to understand how that relationship worked at all.
"A dance." Chris winced, aware there was no way he was getting out of going to the event because Mary needed to be present, and it was unthinkable for her to go unescorted. Perhaps if he asked nicely, she might let him off the hook. A few seconds with that thought and Chris knew Mary would nail his hide to the wall if he made her go stag.
He missed the old days where he could shoot someone who pissed him off.
"Been a while for you, hasn't it Chris?" Buck grinned, realising why Chris was so unhappy about the situation.
"Surely you can dance Mr Larabee?" Ezra looked at him in mild surprise.
"I can dance," Chris scowled at Buck, cursing him silently for bringing up the subject. "I just haven't done it in a while."
"It's easy, Chris!" JD smiled; pleased to be able to say with confidence it was one skill he knew well, thanks to his ma who made sure he learned. JD remembered the Christmases where they would dance to the carollers outside their windows.
"Don't offer to teach me," Chris warned before anyone got it into their head to even think that.
"Are you escorting Miss Wells, JD?" Ezra chose to move on to a less volatile subject as he looked through his hand and began selecting his discards.
"Yeah and I ain't letting anyone get her basket either. I saw how Bart Cook has been sniffing around her when she's been in town. I just know he's going to try and get that picnic basket first." JD spoke with such determination, even Chris was unable to keep a smile from stealing across his jaded features.
"Go get 'em, Sheriff." Buck laughed. "I haven't asked anyone. Kind of safer that way cause then I get to pick and choose from a wide selection of poor, lonely wallflowers." He grinned with an evil gleam in his eyes that was pure Buck Wilmington.
Ezra looked at Buck in a mixture of amusement and disgust. "Mr Wilmington, you have no shame."
"Let's just not talk about who has a monopoly on bad behaviour with the ladies Ezra," Buck stared at him with narrow eyes and Ezra immediately shut up, conceding defeat.
"He's got you there." Chris grinned, because bringing up that subject wasn't getting old yet. Ezra was still being teased mercilessly for his messy break with Alex when he was caught cheating on her with Julia Pemberton.
"Alexandra seems quite recovered from that unfortunate situation," Ezra cleared his throat, still looking uncomfortable in the face of that subject.
"She and Mrs Travis delivered a baby today," JD commented. "Got me to ride out and fetch Eric Dunlevy."
"What was it?" Chris asked, curious, although he was sure Mary would fill him in on all the details later.
"A boy," JD replied. "Got a set of lungs on him too. Between him and Judith, they were both hollering to bring the roof down."
"Well," Ezra said, remembering what Maude said on the whole subject of birth and labour. "As my dear mother once put it, if you were forced to push something the size of a watermelon through an opening the size of a grape, you would have excellent reason to scream."
"Ouch." Buck laughed as he saw JD trying to visualise the image in his mind and wincing when it finally formed.
Suddenly Ezra's gaze shifted to the batwing doors as two strangers entered the saloon. Both men were extremely well dressed in one of them was wearing a gun belt that seemed inappropriate when compared to the rest of the outfit. The armed man was almost as tall as Buck, with white-blond hair and lightly tanned skin. The unarmed man was so well attired he made Ezra appear positively scruffy. He was about Chris's height with dark gold hair hanging just above his shoulders and wore the look of someone who did a great deal of travelling.
Chris watched the unarmed man's eyes study the room with an expression that could only be considered distaste. His gaze met Chris's briefly before moving towards the bar, which he and his companion approached slowly as if they were sizing up the place before their gradual arrival at the counter.
None of the lawmen said anything but instinct made them acutely aware of the new arrivals. Unconsciously, Chris's hand moved beneath the table to rest gently against his gun. JD seemed oblivious to it all, content merely to observe because it was not in his nature to expect trouble from every new face. Ezra no longer seemed interested in his cards but was maintaining the facade for the moment. Buck kept shuffling his card, but his eyes were stealing furtive glances at the strangers.
"What can I get you?" Inez greeted them politely, unaware about any of the lawmen's suspicions but gathered men dressed this well could probably tip the same way too.
"A scotch for starters." The stranger smiled at her with perfect teeth. "A whisky for my friend here."
"Certainly," she replied and went away briefly to fill the order.
When she returned, she served the two men their drinks and was paid with a fine tip. Before she could go on to her other customers, the unarmed man spoke. "Have you lived in town for long?" He inquired, unaware that his conversation was being listened to very carefully.
"Long enough Senor," Inez answered, hoping this was not some attempt at a pick-up. Rich and well-dressed he may be, but Inez really did not have time to think up a witty refusal at this time of the day.
"I don't suppose you would know if there is a lady doctor in residence here?" He asked smoothly in a pronounced English accent.
"There is." Inez nodded, unwilling to give him any information until she knew who this man was.
The mention of Alex Styles's name perked the interest of everyone at the table, especially Ezra who was now burning with curiosity to learn the identity of this mysterious stranger.
"I was a friend of Alexandra's father," he continued, seeing Inez did indeed know Alex and his long journey here was not in vain after all. "I've come a long way to see her."
"Really?" Inez nodded. Unfortunately, if this man wanted to find Alex, it was not going to be difficult, and she saw no reason to lie to him, especially if he was an old friend of the family. However, there was something about him that seemed familiar, perhaps a glint in his eye that made her naturally suspicious. "She has a clinic on the other side of town. If she is not making calls, that is where you will find her. May I ask who you are Senor? In case I see her before you?"
"I never refuse an introduction to a beautiful woman." He said with a smile. "I am Randall Mason, at your service. This is my travelling companion, Mr Rihs."
"Are you staying in town long?" The question came from Chris who wanted to know what this man wanted of Alex. Chris walked towards the counter and leaned up against it as he made a deeper study of this person now his intentions were known. Chris considered himself a good judge of character, and for some reason, this stranger with his expensive clothes and charming smile put the gunslinger on guard.
"May I ask what business is that of yours?" Randall looked at Chris in suspicion.
"Alex is a friend of mine."
Chris saw the man stiffen in dislike at the implied familiarity of the relationship, but it was fleeting.
"I see." He said pleasantly, but Chris could sense the tautness in his voice. "May I inquire about the nature of the relationship?"
"I think you best ask the lady that," Chris replied smoothly, knowing he being antagonistic, but he wanted to know why this stranger was here because the little voice in his head, signalling danger was making itself very vocal right now.
The man named Rihs moved his hand towards his gun in an overt display of force, which Chris ignored because Ezra, Buck and JD were watching the exchange closely and would cover his back if needed. Mason saw his companion's actions and spoke with that same oozing slickness.
"Now Mr Rihs," he said reproachfully. "I am sure this gentleman was just curious and acting for the benefit of Alexandra. If I were her friend, I would be cautious of any strangers coming to town and asking her whereabouts."
Chris just didn't like the man, but Randall's explanation would serve for the moment. "We'll pass it on that you're looking for her.”
"Much obliged." Randall downed the contents of his glass and then tipped his hat in Chris's direction before motioning to his companion to make a discreet exit. They departed in very much the same way they arrived, like an ill wind blowing. Chris watched them disappear out the door before he turned to Ezra and the others.
"Where is she?"
"I saw her riding out with Vin," JD announced. "They were heading out of town."
"With Vin?" Ezra exclaimed. “I am surprised she would climb on a horse with him again after the last time."
"Is it me, or does that man make my skin crawl for no good reason," Inez remarked, her gaze still on the door.
Chris did not know why he felt so suspicious about Randall Mason when the man did nothing to warrant such hostility, but Chris knew people and something about Randall just did not sit right with the gunslinger. After a moment, he finally answered Inez.
"It ain't you."
The sun had peaked in the sky when Vin and Alex finally arrived at the Wells's place. After the day she had, the ride out of town was exactly what she needed to recuperate. Alex felt so relaxed riding through the golden coloured plains with a glorious blue sky overhead, she didn't even mind the purpose of this trip was to play midwife to a cow. Besides, Nettie needed her help, and Alex knew how much she meant to Vin.
Once again, she was struck by how comfortable this all felt. The last time Alex was on a horse with Vin, neither of them was at their best. Today, she was able to rest her head against his back and relax as she held on to him, feeling the sun on her cheek as she watched the world go by. It was probably more familiar than she ought to be with him, but they were alone, and after what took place between them at Agnes's cabin, it would be foolish to deny they were more than friends.
Vin also noticed the change. It was not lost on him she'd gone out of her way to avoid the seven, except for Nathan during the last two months. And it felt damned odd not having around either. Just like they were used to Mary being a fixture in their lives, Alex had become that too. Her absence contributed to Ezra's continued torment by the seven regarding his treatment of the doctor. Occasionally, he'd run into her on the street, and she'd just look at him trying to decide what was to be done about him.
Today, Vin noticed the warm familiarity between them. She did not seem to have any difficulty touching him, and when she rested her face against him and breathed deeply, Vin had to fight the shudder of pleasure rippling through him. As much as he hated to admit it, he still warmed himself at night with the memory of how they almost made love in the cabin recently vacated by Agnes Doherty, who moved to North Carolina to live with her sister.
Maybe it was not such a good idea to keep thinking about this right now, Vin told himself.
Such thoughts were quickly brushed away when Vin saw Nettie and Casey hurrying down the track leading from the house upon catching sight of them. Judging by the expression on their faces, the situation with Dulcie had not improved and might have even worsened.
Nettie and Casey were probably anxiously awaiting his return since he rode off some hours ago to fetch Alex.
"Thank God you're here." Nettie brushed past him and looked up at Alex, who also caught the urgency in Nettie's eyes. She met Vin's gaze momentarily and conveyed to him in a glance she would do her level best to alleviate the widow's concerns.
"She's in a terrible way. I think the calf is stuck. I don't think she's going to last much longer."
Alex winced at the pain the animal must be going through fully aware of the difficulties when it was with a human enduring the problem. It was an agonising ordeal, usually ending up costing both the mother and the child's life. Alex knew there was little time to waste.
"Vin help me down please." She asked the tracker, her voice taking that air of professional confidence.
Vin complied immediately, never more impressed with Alex when she was filled with such certainty about what she needed to do. Despite whatever doubts and concerns might affect her personal life; Alex always seemed capable of rising above it all when a patient required her help. He reached for her and gently set her down on the ground, exchanging a warm smile of thanks because her air of confidence was going a long way to relieving Nettie's anxieties.
"Where is she?" Alex fell into stride with Nettie who was heading to the rear of the property where the barn stood.
"She's been in her stall," Casey explained, with an edge of fear in her voice. It was Casey who tended to the animals on the farm and Dulcie was her responsibility since the first time Aunt Nettie bought the calf from the sale yards. "You can help her, can't you?"
Casey tried not to sound like a child while fretting about the animal, but she could not hide the feeling in her eyes.
"I can't make any promises," Alex said honestly because she did not know how severely the breach affected the animal. "But I will try."
That reassurance was enough to bring a grateful smile to the teenager's face, and she was indeed a lovely young woman when she smiled, Alex thought. It was never easy to tell with Casey Wells because she was always hidden underneath men's clothes and her manner was decidedly masculine. Yet there was no doubt she was feminine in every way that mattered because she behaved like any spirited young woman.
It was not Casey's fault she lacked the social graces. Casey was struggling to do a man's work on the farm. In her attempt to lighten the load for Nettie and because her aunt taught her to be self-sufficient, expediency forced away any need for the refinements young ladies were supposed to have in this day and age. However, at rare moments like this when she smiled, Alex could well understand why JD Dunne was so enchanted.
They entered the barn, and Alex immediately heard Dulcie's agonised braying from the far end of the building. As she walked through, the familiar scent of animal spores and hay bombarded her senses. Eventually, Nettie led her to the stall at the far end of the barn. There were not many animals in Nettie's barn, just some chickens and two horses. Alex assumed one of them would be for pulling the wagon she spotted at the front of the building.
Alex understood why Vin was so determined for her to help Dulcie. The animal could not be easily replaced if it were to die. Following the sound of the animal's desperate wailing, Alex reached the pen where Dulcie was kept and saw her lying on her side.
The calf making such a difficult entry into the world was evidenced by its exposed hooves. It did not take anyone with more than a dose of sense to see those were back hooves protruding outwards. It further concerned Alex, Dulcie was now so exhausted the animal was no longer forcing the calf along the birth canal. There was no way of knowing if the calf still lived, but Dulcie's agonised wails shunted away any reservations Alex possessed about tending a sick bovine.
Pain was pain, and Alex could never refuse any creature suffering it.
She circled the cow once, before kneeling behind the animal to make a careful examination. It did not take her long to decide what she was going to have to do.
"The calf is going to have to be turned around."
Rising to her feet, she returned to the trio keeping out of her way beyond the pen. It did not take long for her to decide on a course of action even though she did not relish having to perform the procedure. Still, it had to be done, and she was the only one who could carry it out.
"How?" Vin asked, mildly fascinated by what she was going to do. He had seen animals give birth before, mostly horses and buffalo and usually a problem like this meant certain death. Most people would have simply put both animals out of their misery, but Vin knew Alex would not subscribe to such a course of action. She cared too much for Nettie to let that happen, and he also knew she hated giving up on any patient, human or animal until she at least tried to save its life first.
"The old-fashioned way," Alex replied, unbuttoning her sleeve and starting to roll the material up the length of an arm. "Do you have any flour?"
"Yes," Nettie nodded, confused at the request "I've got some in the house."
"Good," Alex nodded and looked to Casey. "Sweetie, I'm going to need some. Go get me a cup at least."
The young girl looked bewildered at the request but nevertheless hurried out of the barn, bolting across the straw. As far as Casey was concerned, no request was too strange if it meant Alex could save Dulcie and her baby.
By now Alex finished rolling both her sleeves as far as it would go up to her arms. The sleeves reached their limits, just below the curves of her biceps. Alex brushed past Vin and Nettie and went towards her doctor's bag. Reaching inside the worn case, Alex found the leather apron she used whenever she was required to perform surgery of any kind. Donning the apron over her clothes, Alex entered the stall as Vin and Nettie held back, wondering how she was going to pull up this bit of bovine midwifery.
"What are you going to do?" Vin inquired almost afraid to ask since her bare arms were making him rethink the task he asked of her. A woman should not be required to do such filthy work, no matter how necessary it was.
"Dulcie can't give birth to this baby. She's going to need help."
"I can't ask you to do this." Nettie suddenly comprehended what was required.
"Nettie," Alex stared at her impatiently. "What did you think I was going to do? There are no pills or tonic for this kind of problem. I'm going to have to go in there."
Nettie frowned because, like Vin, she believed this was no kind of work for such a refined woman as Alexandra Styles, even if she was a doctor. "It just doesn't seem right."
Casey soon returned with the flour and Alex coated her arms with it liberally, so she would have some grip when she conducted the slippery task ahead. Once she shook off the excess particles of white powder from her skin with only a thin veneer covering her arms, she stepped forward to Dulcie's rear and got down on her knees.
She slipped her skilled surgeons hands around the exposed hooves and exerted some pressure against it before gently pushing it into the orifice once again. It was difficult at first as the life inside Dulcie tried to understand what was required of it. Alex wasn't even sure it was alive to understand, and the movements were not a result of Dulcie's contracting placental sac. After a few attempts, the hooves were coaxed back into the animal's body, and Alex's hand plunged into its warmth.
She tried not to feel revulsion as she searched through the fluid and blood inside Dulcie's aching womb. She handled a man's intestine in her hands once and reminded herself this was no different to that experience. This was a patient like any other patient. She told herself to bring it up with Mary Travis the next time she saw the widow, that this town really needed a vet. Her fingers touched the shape of the tiny life struggling to escape the body and immediately examined it for a pulse.
There was a faint heartbeat, but it would not last unless it could emerge soon. As Alex suspected, Dulcie was too weakened by her ordeal and was no longer making any attempt to deliver the calf herself. It would be up to Alex to ensure its arrival into the world. Working swiftly, Alex manoeuvred the calf inside the walls of the womb, slowly manipulating it through the flow of foetal fluids to its correct position.
Alex paused, catching her breath for the smell was a little hard to take, and she took greedy gulps of fresh air before turning back to her patient. Finally, the calf was in a satisfactory position, and Alex inserted her second arm as Dulcie let out another painful groan.
"Don't complain," Alex grumbled as she felt the calf's hooves and closed her fist around them. "At least my hands aren't cold."
"Vin, I need your help." She looked over her shoulder at the tracker who was observing her.
Vin stepped forward, unable to imagine Dulcie needing another hand since it was getting crowded in there already.
"I'm here." He said quietly, noticing the sweat running down Alex's forehead and the weariness in her eyes. She really was exhausted, and now he wished there was some other way to solve this problem without dragging her out here. Still, it was too late now, and the best he could do was help her finish this as quickly as possible and get her home to her hot bath.
"Hold me, just under the chest from behind."
Vin looked at her with a smirk. "We don't really have time for this, Doc."
Alex rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Will you just do it!" She growled and found herself smiling wryly at his ability to flirt at the most inopportune times. Vin got onto his knees and positioned himself behind her, sliding his hands just beneath her breasts while telling himself this was no time to be enjoying the sensation. She obviously had a reason for asking him to hold her like this.
"I'm going to pull in a minute," Alex instructed, not only to Vin but also to Casey and Nettie who were paying close attention to what was happening. Both of them needed to be told what she intended. They were worried enough as it was. "When I tell you, Vin, pull me back, hard. We're going to try and do this as quickly and smoothly as possible."
"Okay," he nodded, all levity disappearing from his face now he understood the seriousness of what she was asking. Dulcie could not take any more of this arduous labour, and so it had to be ended quickly, or else both mother and calf would die.
Alex leaned forward and took a deep breath. With her hands already on the front hooves of the unborn calf, Alex secured her grip and eased backwards gently, pressing into Vin who took her lead and moved with her. Tugging gently at first, she felt the young cow sliding forward, fighting against the flow of noisome liquid and muscle walls rapidly contracting around it while placental fluids bled onto the stable floor. There was more resistance as the calf approached the outside world, and Alex found it soon required all her strength to keep pulling.
"I see it!" Casey cried excitedly as a pink snout and hooves appeared through the tight orifice of ringed muscle. Dulcie was tense and made the delivery all the harder. Unfortunately, telling the bovine to practise its breathing was not going to work. Alex kept straining in tandem with Dulcie, trying to maintain her gradual pace until the time was right for a burst of speed.
The head began to emerge as more and more of the calf's spindly legs were exposed. Once Alex caught sight of the first joint, making it past the threshold, she called out sharply. "Now, Vin!"
Vin yanked her back forcefully as Alex pulled the calf out in a slick whoosh of sound that made her fall back against the tracker. Dulcie let out a final bray of pain as her child was finally expelled from her body. For a moment, no one spoke as Dulcie lay her enormous head against the hay and rested from her ordeal. Alex found herself face to face with a pair of blank but grateful eyes regarding her with curiosity after its dramatic arrival into the world.
Alex let out a sigh of relief as she saw the calf blink, indicating it had come through its birth alive and well. There was a moment when Alex feared the inducement might have come too late. She was covered in placental fluid, blood and one very young calf that even now was struggling to stand, no more than a foot away from her.
Alex watched it stagger around while she rested against Vin for a moment, enjoying the feel of his body beneath hers for a few minutes and taking note of the taut muscle against her back. Suddenly, she had some idea of what he suffered through during their rides. Vin's arm remained around her waist, and he sat up against her, breathing in the scent of her hair as they both enjoyed the miracle of life trying to stand on its ungainly legs.
"You did it!" Casey exclaimed in nothing less than delight as she ran forward and tended to the calf, ushering it towards Dulcie so it could begin the essential bonding process.
"You know something," Vin whispered softly in her ear as Nettie and Casey welcomed the new arrival into their menagerie.
"You really do need that bath."
Alex gave him a look and started laughing, for she was too pleased with her first bovine delivery to be mad at the remark. Besides, he was right. She did need a bath.
Past and Present
By the time Alex and Vin finally left Nettie and Casey, it was well after dark.
While she did not get her bath, she did have the chance to get cleaned up as Nettie provided her with a washbasin, hot water, and soap. Her shirt was well and truly soiled, so she borrowed one of Casey's, which was oversized since the girl had a tendency to knot the end around her waist. Alex decided this would serve too and found some warmth in the rough texture of cloth against her skin. While she was far from refreshed, she felt somewhat civilised and ready for the ride home.
Nettie would not let either Vin nor Alex leave before they shared supper, for the widow seemed to think some sort of payment was necessary for Vin's chores during the day and Alex delivery of Dulcie's calf. While Nettie did not set a lavish table, the stew was tasty and warm, which as far as Alex was concerned was good enough because she was hungry. During days like these, meals were the last thing on Alex's mind as she went from one home to another, dispensing her skills continuously, often forgetting to stop for lunch or dinner.
Usually, Nathan Jackson's presence ensured neither of them would be pushed to exhaustion. Still, with both of them being the only healers in an area including Four Corners, the Indian reservation, several smaller communities, not to mention the numerous homesteads spread across the region, it was inevitable the demand for their services would be high.
Alex would have gone to the reservation and tended to the fever running rife through First People, but Chris Larabee would not hear any of it. It was inappropriate for a woman of her stature to be going there alone, to say nothing of actually staying there to tend the sick. During the occasions she travelled to the place, Chris always insisted she was accompanied, much to Alex's chagrin.
She wondered how Mary kept from strangling the man.
When they finally set out, the sun had well and truly set over the horizon with the sky above nothing more than a blanket of stars. Alex gazed up into the heavens as they departed, lost in the myriad of lights twinkling overhead. She travelled to many places in her life and always found the stars here to shine the brightest. Alex could not decide if it just seemed that way to her because she held such affection for this land, or because it was true. It was a sobering thing to travel the world and find the one place she could call home. How many times had she dreamed of such a thing during her travels?
"That was nice of you helping Nettie like that," Vin commented when they were some distance away from the farm. It was almost an hour's ride to Four Corners, but Vin was in no hurry to reach it, and he got the feeling Alex was not either. She was so tired Vin could feel her cheek resting against his back and Alex was more than just hanging on to him, it felt like she was holding him close as one would do to a lover. Vin liked how it felt.
"Well," she sighed, her eyes closed as she let herself drift as she clung to him. "I like Nettie, and you were right, she doesn't have the money to replace Dulcie if she lost the animal. Besides, I know what Nettie means to you."
Suddenly Vin was struck with the insight Alex made this whole journey, endured the undignified task of delivering a calf into the world not because of Nettie, but because of him . She was aware of how much Vin regarded the widow and knew any distress to Nettie would upset him, so she performed the task to spare him the worry.
"She reminds me of my ma," Vin confessed, choosing not to let Alex know he was aware of her motivations. Their relationship was still finding its feet, and he did not want to push. It was enough for him Alex no longer felt threatened by the possibility of something between them. After Ezra's foolishness letting Alex go, Vin decided he would win Alex by taking it slow. He knew she felt for him but saw no reason to rush and overwhelm her when her wounds from Ezra's behaviour were still raw.
The days when he plunged headfirst into a relationship with no idea of the woman, he bestowed his affection upon, was over.
Charlotte taught him a valuable lesson in restraint. For a man who seldom liked to express his emotions, Vin was perfectly aware of how passionate he could be when he finally let it overtake him. Vin fell in love with Charlotte for no good reason other than the fact she showed him the interest. Even though Vin knew she was married from the beginning, Vin allowed himself to fall for her when he should have stayed well away. In the end, Vin understood, he was the thing keeping Charlotte from a happy marriage.
"How old were you when you lost her?" Alex inquired, realising she knew very little about Vin's background. While she didn't like to pry and felt people were entitled to their secrets, it did strike a chord because she also lost her mother early in life.
"Young enough to not remember very much about her," Vin admitted with a hint of regret.
"Me too. I only remember bits and pieces about her." By the sound of his voice, Alex could tell this was a difficult subject for him and wanted Vin to know he was not alone in his sadness. "I remember she was a dancer, and I think I have her hands. My father adored her." Alex missed the old man most profoundly now. "He never got over her death."
"He meant a lot to you, didn't he?" Vin asked, looking over his shoulder enough to smile at the sight of her resting against him.
"For a long time, it was only the two of us. Daddy was an explorer at heart. He loved to travel, and we went to places that aren't even on maps any more. I saw more in my first sixteen years than I will ever see for the rest of my life. He wanted to make everything an adventure." She laughed, remembering her father and not realising until the first tear rolled down her cheek how much speaking about him still hurt her. Alex quickly wiped away the tear before Vin could see it because she was not ready to share that much of her soul with him yet.
Vin Tanner was still an unknown element to her, no matter how deeply she felt about him. After Ezra, Alex was unwilling to rush into another relationship, despite the powerful attraction she felt for Vin. Yet, despite all her attempts to keep her distance, Alex found it increasingly harder to deny what existed between them. Right now, as she held him close as they rode under the stars, it was perfect. With Vin, there was never any doubt or hesitation. In some way, this unrealised relationship with the tracker was far more intense than the romantic one she shared with Ezra.
"So are you going to the dance?" He asked, taking her entirely by surprise with the question.
"No," Alex stammered to find an excuse. "I never really enjoy those things. Besides, the entire town is going to make some comment about the fact I'd be going without Ezra."
"So you're gonna stay at home feeling sorry for yourself cause Ezra's with Miss Pemberton?"
"No! I've got things to do that night. I was finally going to get around to organising my father's papers in those boxes I never opened, and maybe I will curl up in bed with a good book. I have lots of things to do that night."
It was harder trying to convince herself than it was Vin.
"Sounds like it." He said sceptically and only succeeded in making Alex feel all the more stupid.
"It's not going to work, you know." She stated defiantly.
"You know." She insisted, removing her arms around him and folding them instead.
"I don't know," Vin replied casually, nonplussed by her annoyance. Accustomed to her moods by now, Vin was familiar with the best way to handle Alex when she was fired up like this. Being his usual stoic self, went further to infuriate her than openly baiting could ever do. There was something of an art to it. This much Vin learned from Chris Larabee in his observation of the gunslinger's relationship with Mary Travis.
"You're just trying to make me feel bad, so I attend this thing."
"Am I?" Vin asked, glancing over his shoulder so she could see the innocence in his blue eyes.
"Stop it!" She swatted him on the shoulder. "I'm not going."
"I wasn't asking. I was just wondering if you were thinking of going."
"No. It is too much bother, I have to go buy a dress, and then I would have to put my hair up and then finally go to this thing without an escort. I think I will spare myself the pain."
"Why do you have to put your hair up?" He hated the thought of that glorious dark hair being confined in place by pins and clips. Vin could never understand the fascination of women who put themselves through the torture of braiding and trying to keep their hair up in some strange fashion. Mary Travis used to wear her hair up all the time, and when she finally wore it loose, Vin swore Chris Larabee almost walked into a wall.
"Because it's the done thing." She hated having to justify her reasons for not going because they were really quite weak ones.
"Since when did that matter to you?"
"Okay," Alex groaned, deciding he was not going to let her get out of this with any measure of dignity. "I don't want to go!"
"Cause you'd be going alone?"
"I have no trouble going myself," Alex wished they would just get to Four Corners, so this whole embarrassing conversation would be at an end. Still, there was no sign of the town lights in the distance. Only trees and open plains seemingly running forever into the night.
"I'd take you if you like."
Alex narrowed her eyes and realised how she had been manoeuvred into this position by his skilfully placed questions. How did he do that? She bristled, hating being manipulated this way and yet admiring his craftiness at the same time.
"You might have just asked me you know?" Alex unfolded her arms and slide them around his waist so she could hold on to him like before, now she knew his intentions.
"It was more fun this way." Vin met her gaze with a smile of mischief, relishing her closeness once more.
"Can you even dance?" This was not a skill she ever saw him display.
"A little." He answered, honestly. "But I thought you didn't like these things much."
"Then why ask me?"
"Because I thought I'd take pity on you and get you out of the house for a while. Can't have you turning into a mean ol' spinster woman, can I?" He was grinning even though she could not see it.
"Mean ol'..." Alex's jaw dropped and then laughed out loud at the description. "It's a wonder why some girl hasn't snatched you up yet. You're such a sweet talker."
Vin laughed with her, glad to see she was getting into the spirit of the game they played with each other. "So, am I going to have to get cleaned up for you or not for this dance?"
“Yes, but only because you ask so nicely,” Alex hid the smile on her lips as she rested her cheek on his shoulder again, admiring the starlight above them.
Josiah stared at the blank page before him and would have sworn if it were not sinful to do so in the house of God. He tried to will the words normally flowing from his mind, like the pearls of wisdom he imparted upon his friends, onto the page. Yet no such miracle seem forthcoming after the second hour of trying, and Josiah groaned in exasperation. In truth, he tried earlier that day and decided a bottle of whiskey might assist the creative process. All that succeeded in doing was to give him a hangover, and still, no words flowed into being. He was never very good at public oratories, even when he presided over a parish.
He flipped over the Bible before him and picked up the pencil once more, determined to make some sort of start on this undertaking. The special service was two days away, and he had no idea what he was going to say before the congregation. He wished Four Corners had a real preacher, someone who was not afraid to get in front of an audience and perform a fire and brimstone sermon capable of inspiring the congregation.
"Good evening preacher." A voice said politely behind him.
Josiah was stretched out on a pew when he looked up to see the stranger walking through the doors of his church. Josiah did not recognise him, but his appearance gave the preacher the impression he was not from these parts, or even from this country for that matter.
"Good evening," Josiah rose to his feet. "What can I do for you?"
"I was just taking in the sights." Randall Mason remarked. "Not that there's much to see."
"A fledgling township is never a great tourist attraction," Josiah answered, observing the man.
"Neither is your church." The man continued, allowing his gaze to wander across the length of the old church slowly being reconstructed by Josiah as a labour of love.
When Josiah first began the endeavour, the church barely had walls let alone pews and a pulpit. Now it was fit to hold a service even if the aesthetics of the building needed improvement. Nevertheless, the residents who entered its walls for solace and comfort hardly noticed its threadbare state, knowing only that it was a house of God. All other considerations in the face of that knowledge seemed incidental.
"God's house is humble," Josiah replied, wondering what this stranger required of him. "What can I do for you, Sir?" He hoped this time the man would get to the point. Josiah had either a sermon to write or torture by writer's block to look forward to. He had not decided which way he was going yet, but he wanted to start doing it soon.
"I assume you know most of the people in town, I never met a shepherd who did not know his flock," Randall remarked, wiping away the dust he picked up from one of the pews from his jacket with disgust.
"I know some people," Josiah said evenly, realising this man was after information. He did not look like a killer, but he did appear dangerous, and that made Josiah wish he was in close reach of his gun. The preacher tried not to bring weapons onto the hallowed ground of the church and left his irons strapped to his saddle. "Whom are you inquiring after?"
"A woman," Randall said, strolling through the aisle between the pews like a tourist, his eyes still studying the place carefully.
"You are in the wrong place. I believe the saloon is where you should be making such inquiries."
"A doctor." Randall declared with a smile at Josiah's attempt at levity. "Her name is Alexandra Styles. Do you know her?"
Josiah studied the man thoughtfully, trying to decide what this stranger wanted with Doctor Styles. "I know Alex."
"I'm an old friend, and I would like to find her. I made the obligatory call to her clinic and home. She does not appear to be present. I was wondering if you might know who her friends are, so I may have some idea where she is. I have come a long way to see her."
"Alex has friends all over town. However, she is the town doctor, as you know, and this could mean she might be anywhere. I suggest you return to your lodgings and wait for her to find you."
"This is the most uncooperative town." Randall frowned, not liking Josiah's response. He was tired of waiting! He crossed an ocean to find Alexandra and would not be stopped by the provincial peasants of this frontier shantytown. "You seem to react as if I were the enemy. I'm just an old friend dropping in to say hello."
"I'm sorry," Josiah said, turning his back to the man. "I can't help you."
Randall glared at the preacher, seething in anger because his impatience was escalating into fires of fury he could not control. He wanted to see Alexandra, and he wanted to see her now. He was unprepared to wait any longer.
"I suppose I should be pleased Alexandra has such close friends," he said with a smile hiding the hatred for this entire town with practised control. "She seldom had a place to call home when she was younger. Her father was quite the traveller, you know."
"So she's mentioned,” Josiah said watching the man closely, having caught the glimmer of black surfacing in his eyes for a brief instant.
"It will be so much harder when she finally decides to come away with me."
Josiah looked at him.
"Does the lady intend on leaving?"
This was the first Josiah had heard of any intention by Alex to leave Four Corners. It was hard to think of her as being gone. Alex was now a part of their group as Mary or Inez. He hated to think of what effect this would have on Nathan, who considered Alex, almost family.
"Not yet," Randall smiled as he walked out the building. "But she will."
Josiah watched him leave, disliking the man and his slippery manner. Instinct told him to be cautious of the stranger, and Josiah felt apprehension for what his presence might mean for Alex. There was something about him that felt predatory and the glint of hatred Josiah saw in his eyes was a glimmer of darkness he knew all too well. Such men had no difficulty harming those around them, and Josiah knew his presence did not bode well for the lady doctor.
Josiah waited until the man was gone for some time before he decided on a course of action. It may well be the stranger was telling the truth, that he was indeed an old friend of Alex, but the seven lawmen felt the same kind of protection towards the doctor as they did towards anyone in their circle. He knew Chris would want to be appraised of this stranger's inquiries and the ominous nature of his words.
Deciding his sermon could wait since, in all honesty, it did not appear the inspiration for a genuinely spellbinding oratory was forthcoming at the present time, Josiah hurried out the church and went in search of Chris Larabee.
Josiah found Chris in the jailhouse where the gunslinger was hiding out most of the day following the exodus from the saloon. It was the one place in town where Chris could find any peace and quiet. Although he wanted to call on Mary, the gunslinger knew she was probably up to her ears in preparation for the celebrations. Chris remembered glancing through the itinerary of events scheduled and was frankly amazed at how Mary was able to keep track of all of it. While he did not want to get caught up in Four Corners' anniversary celebrations, Chris was aware of how important the event was to the town.
Before the arrival of the seven, Four Corners was just another wild place, running rife with drunks and outlaws who happened to breeze into town at regular intervals. Decent folk were uprooting and leaving in droves, and the only one who remained as an example to the others was Mary Travis. Chris thought fondly of the first time he laid eyes on her and realised from that moment perhaps, his heart was lost even before he was aware it was missing.
Thanks to Mary, Chris and the rest of the seven, Four Corners had prospered. He knew she wanted him to be part of the celebration, but Mary was perceptive enough to understand such things were simply not him. Chris had difficulty feeling enthusiasm for anything and did ever since he lost his family.
"Chris." Josiah walked into the jailhouse.
"Howdy Josiah," Chris greeted amiably, looking up from his book as he sat with his legs resting on the table and a half-empty bottle of whiskey on the corner of the desk. "How's the sermon coming?"
"It's moving along," he remarked and then felt a little guilty for lying. Nevertheless, Josiah pulled a chair up to the desk before taking a seat himself. Chris pushed a clean glass in his direction before Josiah poured himself a drink. "I just had a visitor."
Chris's gaze met his, in the subtle way that always seemed to expect trouble no matter how innocent the statement. Chris lay down the book on his lap and sat up, removing his feet from the desk. "Who?"
"Didn't give his name." Josiah replied, "But he was awfully interested in Alex."
Recognition flooded Chris's eyes as he remembered the face and the exchange in the saloon earlier today. Instinct told him Randall Mason was not merely going to disappear no matter who he claimed to be. Chris did not trust the man at all, and Chris believed him even less now he knew the man had taken his questions about Alex's life here elsewhere.
"You've met him."
"Yeah." Chris nodded slowly. "We've met. He came into the saloon this afternoon looking for Alex."
"Is she in town?" Josiah inquired, seeing the concern in Chris's face. This situation could be entirely innocent, but for some reason, it did not feel that way.
"No," Chris shook his head in answer. "She's out with Vin somewhere."
Josiah met his gaze, and they both exchanged a knowing smile but said nothing, choosing to let innuendo speak for itself rather than actual words. "At least we know she's safe."
"Until she gets into town." The gunslinger pointed out. Chris wondered how many people Randall spoke to since his arrival in Four Corners. Alex was well known in town by now, and the information he and Josiah were reluctant to impart to Mr Randall Mason would be readily provided by gossiping townsfolk who liked nothing better than to hear themselves speak. No doubt by the time Vin brought her back. Randall would know everything about Alex's life since her arrival in Four Corners,
"You got that same feeling?"
"I do." He responded with a slight tilt of his head. "I've seen men like him before, and they usually bring trouble with them. When he asks for her, it ain't just a question with him. You can see it behind his eyes, there's something…"
"She's a grown woman," Josiah reminded Chris. Alex was almost as wilful as Mary Travis, and Chris should be familiar with that kind of temperament by now. "She may tell us to mind our own business."
"She may, but since when do we listen?"
"Certainly not the man who went out there and dragged Mary from Sweetwater." Josiah grinned, watching Chris frown as he remembered the incident well. Especially the night that followed.
"Buck has a big mouth," Chris grumbled.
"I heard it from Vin actually." The preacher said without missing a beat.
Chris made a mental note to have a little talk with the tracker the next time Chris saw him. Hopefully, Vin would not be too much longer keeping Alex away from town. Chris wanted to talk to the woman to see if this Randall was indeed a friend of hers because Chris just knew the man was bad news. Over the years, he had come to rely upon the instincts alerting him to danger, and the first time he saw Randall Mason, Chris was almost deafened by the alarm bells that went off in his head.
Almost serendipitously, Vin Tanner made his appearance through the door of the jailhouse.
The tracker appeared as he always did, oblivious to all the excitement taking place in his absence. Vin had just left Alex a few moments ago at her clinic and was feeling pretty pleased with himself with her consent to let him escort her to the dance. It was usually not the sort of thing he went in for, but he hated thinking she would be hiding away because she did not want to face Julia Pemberton on Ezra's arm.
"Where the hell have you been?" Chris rose from his chair before Vin had a chance to say hello.
"At Nettie's." The younger man looked at Chris and Josiah with some confusion. "Was there trouble?"
"No," Chris sat back down after a second, wondering if he wasn't overreacting a little. Vin had no idea what was transpiring in town during his jaunt with Alex today. There was no reason why he should not have done precisely what he did. "An old friend of Alex has ridden into town. He's been asking for her."
Immediately, Vin's good mood disappeared.
"An old friend?" He wondered who the stranger was and what he wanted with Alex. Alex came to Four Corners straight from England. Had there been time for her to make any acquaintances in that short time? "Is he American?"
"No," Josiah answered before Chris could. "Sounds English."
"That's a long way to come." Vin did not like this one damn bit at all.
After making some headway in his relationship with Alex today, Vin hated to see it come to an end because of the unexpected arrival of some ‘old friend'. No man crossed an ocean to see a woman unless there was a very good reason for it and Vin had an idea of what it might be. He understood he could just be jealous and thinking irrationally but judging by the distaste on Chris Larabee's face and the concern in Josiah's eyes, he was suddenly tense.
"Where is she now?" Chris inquired impatiently.
"I left her at her place," Vin replied, his mind was still engaged in trying to remember who this mysterious friend of hers could be. She never mentioned a man in her life other than her father. "I got her help delivering a calf at Nettie's."
"You had a doctor deliver a cow?" Josiah exclaimed in surprise, trying to picture Alex playing midwife to a stricken bovine.
"It was a breach!" Vin felt bad enough for putting Alex through that undignified situation.
Chris sighed, trying to decide what he should do about this. He was in two minds regarding what course of action to take. For starters, Randall Mason could be exactly what he appeared to be, a friend of Alex's who came a long way to see her. As protective as the seven may feel towards her, in reality, they had no business interfering in her personal relationships. On the other hand, Chris just knew the man was going to cause trouble, he just could not say why.
"Not much we can do about it I guess," the gunslinger frowned unhappily as he sat down again. "We'll just have to keep an eye on him."
"Why?" Vin met Chris's gaze, getting the impression something was being kept from him. "What's he done?"
"Nothing yet." Josiah shared Chris's concern over the situation. "But he just reminds me of Don Paulo."
Vin's eyes widened at the comparison.
Inez obsessed Don Paulo. In fact, he chased her all the way to Four Corners from Mexico to exact his revenge upon her. Only Buck's gallant determination to protect the lady kept Inez from being dragged away into captivity. Paulo was determined to have her and his desire to possess the beautiful bartender was madness he could not dispel. Vin heard about men like this before, but until he met Paulo, never guessed how much of a sickness such intense passion could be. If this stranger was anything like that, Vin would kill him first rather than allow him to harm Alex.
"We're just guessing." Chris quickly spoke up, seeing the gleam in Vin's eyes. Vin was never more unpredictable when it came to a woman. The whole debacle with Charlotte proved that much to the gunslinger. Considering how Vin felt about Alex, if he even suspected this Randall was going to hurt her, Chris could not be sure what the tracker might do to protect her.
"Right now," he said to both Vin and Josiah, "we're just going to keep an eye on him."
"And her." Vin reminded.
"Naturally." Chris nodded. "In fact, it might be an idea for you to go back to her place and tell her he's coming if he hasn't got to her yet."
"Are we overreacting?" Josiah finally asked, always the voice of reason in any situation.
Both Chris and Vin met each other's gazes before replying in unison.
Alex was about to get into her bath when she heard the front door knock once more. Rolling her eyes in exasperation, she wondered if there was some hidden conspiracy to keep her from soaking for an hour or two. Fortunately, Alex had not stripped down to her bare essentials, so Alex was able to storm out of the bathroom and hurry to the front door. Hopefully, she could deal with whoever it was quickly before the heat seeped away from the warm water with its luxurious bath oils and soap.
"Yes?" She said, unable to hide her annoyance when she pulled open the door a second later.
Her annoyance lasted until she saw who was standing before her. The face was one from the past; catalogued in memory with those she thought she would never see again. It was not an unpleasant surprise, but Alex was astonished nevertheless. Her mind thought back to the days on the Giza Strip, with images of pyramids and balmy air caressing her skin with tiny particles of desert sand.
"Hello, Alexandra." The man beamed happily as he took in the sight of her. Through the dim illumination of her front landing, Randall could tell she had not changed in the slightest. If anything, she was more beautiful than ever.
"Randall!" She laughed and embraced him warmly, unable to believe he was here. It had been almost a year since she last saw him in Egypt. She never thought she would see him again, certainly not after moving away to America.
When they parted, she quickly invited him into the house, all thoughts of her bath now wholly forgotten. Although she could be forgiven for this, for he was an old friend from a time when they were far and few between.
"What are you doing here?" She asked after she led him to the parlour and disappeared to make tea. When she finally returned, there was a flurry of questions to be asked.
"I came to find you." He said with a smile, glad at the reception he received.
"Me?" Alex exclaimed in surprise, unable to imagine he had travelled all this distance to seek her out. No one had ever sailed the Atlantic to find her.
"You disappeared." He tried to hide the resentment from his voice. "I had no idea where you were."
Alex bit her lip guiltily, knowing she did behave inconsiderately following her father's death. At the time, she was distraught and grieving, leading her to make poor decisions. For the first time in her life, she was left without his guidance and required to fend for herself. She remembered with affection how Randall took care of everything, just as her father had. It was the discovery she was unprepared to go from the care of one man to another, that caused her to flee.
"I'm sorry Randall," Alex apologised, wondering if words would be enough to make amends for her irresponsible actions. He had obviously been very concerned about her welfare if he came all this way to see if she was all right. "I was not in the best of minds when I left Cairo."
"I understand," he smiled as she started pouring him tea. "However, I must ask this. Why in God's name did you come here? This place is hardly civilised let alone habitable."
Alex laughed despite herself because Four Corners was definitely a far cry from the grandeur of Europe and England and she could understand his ambivalence.
"What other option was there, Randall? Without father, I am just a half-breed woman with a degree that allows me recognition as a doctor but not enough to practice. I tried to find work but the closest I ever came to being recognised as a physician was the polite refusals, to say nothing of the unanswered inquiries, and the blanket astonishment at my audacity to be wish treatment as an equal. I was tired of trying to prove to them I could be just as good when I knew I was better. There is a severe shortage of doctors in this region, I came because I could practice."
He supposed he should not be surprised she would go to such drastic lengths to practice her craft. Alexandra was always too spirited for her own good. It was her father's fault, Randall thought silently.
"I can see the reasoning, but this town is dangerous. I have spent the entire day here and found it to be riddled with malcontents and some very questionable types. This is no place for a woman."
Alex fought the annoyance at that remark, reminding herself Randall was a product of the Old World, where women were meant to organise social teas and never trouble their heads with anything more strenuous than household duties. Randall came from one such family and knew no better.
"You'd be surprised how well I've adapted. I have practised more medicine here than I ever had in my life. People respect me here. I've delivered babies, fixed broken bones, conducted surgery and pulled more bullets from bodies than anyone should ever have to and you know what," she added with a smile. "I'm damn good at it."
"I always knew you would be." He offered a false smile of pride, but in truth, Randall saw his problems escalating a hundredfold. There was no way she would leave willingly and so he would have to resort to some creative thinking to extricate her from this place.
"You seemed to have made a lot of friends as well." He thought about the blond gunslinger he saw earlier that morning. The one with the eyes that saw through him as if he were privy to every thought in Randall's head. Mr Rihs was at this moment, making inquiries about the black-garbed American, trying to decipher just how close his affiliation to Alexandra actually was. "I was treated rather rudely by the crowd in the saloon."
Immediately, the Seven came to mind. "How so?" Alex looked puzzled as she sipped some tea from her cup.
"They were most adamant about giving me as little information on your whereabouts as possible. Even the holy man in the local church was most hostile."
Alex laughed softly, trying to picture what would have been said to Randall.
"You must excuse them," Alex said good-naturedly, somewhat touched they went to such lengths to protect her. It was very flattering in a strange sort of way. "Those men are the law in this town, and I've occasionally put them back together when they've been in gunfights and other unpleasantness. After something like that, you tend to become friends, and they protect me like they protect one of their own, which does make a girl feel appreciated."
Randall understood all too well, and his concerns were now validated. If he tried to remove her by force, there was no doubt in his mind these ‘cowboys' would do everything possible to prevent it. "Is there nothing further in the relationship other than friendship?" He eyed her critically because he could not imagine any of these men keeping their distance from a jewel such as her.
Alex immediately thought about Vin, before forcing him away from her mind. This was none of Randall's business, and she saw no reason to tell him of it.
"No," she lied. "They are friends and friends only."
It was not exactly a lie. Right now, Alex and Vin were in a very new place in their relationship. Vin's invitation to the dance tonight was the first time he'd made any kind of formal declaration regarding his feelings for her.
However, Randall saw the flicker in her eyes and knew she was lying to him. It took all his control to hide the anger he felt she might be involved with someone else in his absence. Whoever this rival was, he had no right to Alexandra Styles, and Randall was certainly not prepared to give her up. He waited for years to have this chance, and he was not about to let her slip through his fingers when he was so close.
"It's good to know you will be safe." Randall exuded false sincerity, his eyes never once betraying the rage he felt.
"So you came all this way just to see how I am?" Alex replied, genuinely touched by the gesture.
"I had to know if you were safe." He reached for her hand and held it, staring intently into her eyes.
"I'm glad you're here. It's good to see you again, Randall." She extricated her hand away from him gently, feeling somewhat awkward at the turn of conversation with this one innocent gesture. "It is getting late. How about we meet for dinner tomorrow night?"
He was disappointed by the sudden dismissal but had to agree it was considered inappropriate for a lady of her stature to be having male guests at this hour. Whatever she might be, Alex was a virtuous woman when one got right down to it, and Randall found he could not refuse her request for him to leave without offending her gravely. At the moment, it served his purpose for him to remain in her good graces.
"Of course." He rose to his feet and reached for his hat, resting beside him. "I'd be delighted. At the hotel?"
"Yes," Alex nodded, seeing him out of the parlour. "Seven o'clock."
"What will you do for the rest of the day?" He asked at the doorway, not liking the idea he would not see her until sundown tomorrow.
"I have house calls to make, and I might have to take a ride to the Indian village to see how Nathan, that's the other healer in these parts, is coping with a few cases of fever." She lied, knowing Nathan had the situation well in hand, but she didn't want to tell Randall what she was really doing. After his question about her relationships, she suspected it would not sit well with him.
"I look forward to our next meeting," Randall said finally before disappearing out the door.
Alex watched him leave and could not understand why her pulse was racing. It was not a pleasant sensation.
Mary Travis was in her office when Janet O'Leary made her appearance. Mrs O'Leary was one of those loud, annoying women who felt it her business to point out everyone's shortcomings because she considered it to be her Christian duty. Her husband, a tiny man who seemed to become tinier every time he stood next to the large bulk of his wife, ran the local hardware store and was seldom seen outside business premises. It was a running joke among the locals of Four Corners, Mr O'Leary worked such long hours because ending the business day would require going home to his wife.
On occasion, Mary's unconventional lifestyle raised Mrs O'Leary's self-righteous ire, and the woman was never shy with letting Mary know her opinions when such conventions were tested. Mary often found it was best to tolerate the woman for she was ultimately harmless, and most of the community had learned to ignore her self-appointed role as the moral centre of Four Corners.
Today, however, as Mrs O'Leary stormed through the front door of the Clarion's office, wearing an expression that could only be described as outright fury, Mary wondered what could have possibly happened to offend this woman to such a degree. Her triple chinned face was the same colour as her lavender dress and she almost looked strangulated in outrage. Seeing her huff to Mary's desk was enough to prompt the young widow to her feet.
"Mrs O'Leary, are you all right?" Mary came out from behind the desk to greet the woman.
"I am most certainly not fine!" She growled and sat down on a chair near Mary's desk, her arms folded as she propped them up on an unopened parasol.
"You seem terribly upset," Mary asked, hoping she would not have to play the game of prying the reason for the woman's visit from her and thus prolonging the experience. "What has happened?"
She raised her chins (all three of them) with great dignity and met Mary's blue-grey eyes with fire in her hazel coloured glare.
"Mary dear," she said after catching her breath, for she was breathing hard because she worked herself into a proper state before her arrival at the office. "I realise that as a widow, the opportunities to find a proper suitor might have dwindled. I cannot excuse you for being weak to the desires of the flesh in your youth, but you might have made a better selection before bestowing your affections so carelessly."
"I beg your pardon?" Mary looked at her blankly, unable to believe what she just heard for a moment. Was this woman questioning her taste in men? Suddenly, it occurred to Mary was what this was all about and furthermore what was coming. Trying to hide the involuntary wince that stole across her features, Mary took a deep breath before asking. "Has Mr Larabee offended you in some way?"
"He told me to my face to mind my own business, and he was going to wear anything he damn well wanted at the dance tomorrow evening!"
Mary bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing as she tried to picture the scene. Of course, everyone in Four Corners was probably secretly applauding Chris if they had been present at the exchange. "I see." She nodded straight-faced. "How did the subject of apparel come into being?"
"Well," Mrs O'Leary shrugged stiffly. "I merely thought it my duty to point out that a young man courting a lady of your calibre should attempt to dress a little more appropriately than in those awful clothes he is always wearing. The man looks positively grim."
She had guts; Mary had to admit secretly. There were not many who dared to make such a statement to Chris Larabee's face. Chris shot people for less and the fact Mrs O'Leary was here instead of wearing a butt full of buckshot was a testament to how well Chris could restrain himself. Most people tended to be intimidated by Chris and stayed out of his way. Lately, however, that was changing enough to give the gunslinger considerable annoyance, but generally, people preferred not to approach him unless it was absolutely necessary.
"Now Mrs O'Leary," Mary smiled sweetly, trying to pacify the woman. "You must understand Mr Larabee wears black for a good reason."
"What possible reason could one have for traipsing about the place looking as if he were preparing to go to a funeral?" The woman retaliated, unimpressed by Mary's attempts to explain Chris's behaviour. "I think you are too close to the matter dear to make an objective opinion."
Mary stiffened, trying not to get angry by that allegation. Shaking off the insult, Mary continued. "You are aware that he has lost his wife and son?"
It was not common knowledge, but it was no secret either. Mary hoped Chris did not mind her using the truth to calm Mrs O'Leary down. She would explain it to him when he came over for dinner tonight.
"I heard some intelligence of that nature." The woman grumbled, starting to see where the conversation might be going. "I was not aware of the specifics."
"Well they died three years ago, and Chris made a promise to mourn for them. That's why he wears black." Mary explained quietly, wondering if that was not at all far from the truth. "He wears it in their memory."
"I see," Mrs O'Leary said sombrely. "I am not at fault, of course, I had no knowledge of this. However, you cannot deny he is coarse and has terrible manners. I do hope you consider these points if you choose to enter any long-standing arrangement with him."
At that moment, the door swung open, and Alex made her appearance.
"Hello, Mary." She greeted and then noticed Mrs O'Leary sitting in front of the widow. "Hello, Mrs O'Leary."
Not wishing her embarrassment to spread any further than it already had, since the entire town was privy to her altercation with the foul-tempered Mr Larabee, the woman rose to her feet and looked at Mary.
"I take my leave of you," she said, raising her nose in the air with typical pomposity. "I hope you give some thought to our discussion. You are a young, vital woman. I am certain you can do better than that violent ruffian."
"We go where our heart sends us," Mary said with a smile, showing no signs of offence at the woman's scathing opinion of Chris.
"Doctor Styles," Mrs O'Leary said in departure. "At least you had the sense to be rid of that scoundrel in the saloon."
With that she swept out of the room, leaving Alex and Mary staring after her, wondering whether the subject was worth discussing or discarding. When the door slammed shut behind her, Alex gazed at Mary.
"What was that about?"
Mary shook her head and returned to her desk as Alex moved deeper into the room. "She took it upon herself to point out Chris ought to add colour to his wardrobe."
Alex barely managed to stifle a laugh before she covered her mouth with her palm.
"It's not funny!" Mary exclaimed and then found herself giggling too because it was really, hilarious as a matter of fact.
"How did you calm her down?" Alex asked, not even needing to hear the rest of the story to know how Chris Larabee would have reacted to that particular critique.
"I told her that he's still in mourning."
"Is that true?" Alex looked at her.
"Who knows?" Mary shrugged, throwing her hands in the air in a gesture of futility. "I have enough trouble trying to work out what he names his horse, let alone his dress sense."
Alex sat down in the chair Mrs O'Leary had recently vacated. "Are you busy right now?"
"With the anniversary only a day away, I'm always busy, but I can take a break," Mary remarked, gesturing to the mountain of paper on her desk. Alex glanced at some of the writing on those slips of paper and saw this was the paperwork for at least a dozen events taking place during the two days of celebration. Alex used to think she was busy with her medical practice but compared to the responsibilities Mary Travis was forced to assume, the doctor was a great deal more appreciative of her own situation.
"I can see it," Alex commented. "I need to go buy a dress, and I could use a second opinion."
"A dress," Mary leaned forward with interest. "Has it to do with the tall, handsome stranger that arrived out of town, yesterday?"
Chris told her about Randall Mason, and although he did not openly voice it, she had the impression Chris wanted to know as much about the man as possible since Randall questioned almost everyone about Alex's life in Four Corners.
"I suppose you've heard about Randall," Alex sighed, wondering how many other people knew about him. She assumed he had to ask around to find where she lived so the news would have carried fast around town he was here.
"He was asking around for you," Mary confirmed Alex's unspoken thought, although she personally had no idea about the man until Chris mentioned it to her.
"He's an old friend of the family. When my father died, he was a supportive shoulder who took care of all the arrangements. He tracked me down here because he was worried about where I disappeared to. I left Europe rather abruptly. That's all there is to it, really." Alex frowned, feeling uncomfortable talking about the man for some reason. Actually, now that Alex had time to think about it, Randall's reasons for coming all the way here to track her down had left some rather unpleasant implications in her mind. Alex now worried about what he wanted of her.
"He came a long way to find you, Alex," Mary remarked. "It looks like it might be more to him."
"I know," Alex frowned. "That does bother me. When I was studying medicine in London, I was often at Randall's arm at society events and balls. I mean he was very nice to me when I didn't have a lot of friends.”
“Does he think you might have some sort of understanding?”
“Not that I'm aware of. To me, Randall was always one of my father's friends. I never really thought any more of him beyond that. I just hope he has not come to Four Corners to be disappointed. I am meeting him for dinner tonight, so I can tell him that I have no intention of leaving if that's why he's come to town."
Now Mary was confused. "So why the new dress?"
"I thought I'd better buy something new for this dance," Alex admitted almost reluctantly because she knew how strongly she stated earlier she would not be attending. No doubt, Mary was going to find much amusement in her bout face.
"So you are not going to hide at home and feel miserable because of Julia?"
"Stop right there, First of all, I was not going to hide, and secondly I am over Mr Ezra Standish and don't feel the slightest bit for him anymore, even if he has that two-headed snake and Jezebel at his arm."
"Of course not," Mary said with a straight face. "It's so obvious you harbour no ill-feeling towards her."
Alex groaned conceding defeat. "Okay, okay, maybe I feel a little resentful, but I still need a dress, and I've got to go find one in a place other than the Emporium."
"Fair enough," Mary nodded, understanding Alex's reluctance to enter the establishment. It was bad enough Julia wrestled Ezra away, but Alex did not need to give the creature her money as well. "Why don't you come with Chris and me? I'm going to need the extra hand to drag him through the door."
"Actually I have an escort," Alex said quietly.
Alex wondered if she wanted anyone to know she was going with Vin Tanner. After all, when they both arrived together, it was going to be somewhat self-evident anyway. What was she afraid of? It was no sin to be seen with Vin. How many people saw them riding to Nettie's farm yesterday? If she really wanted to explore this thing between them, then a first step would be admitting it to people.
"No, I'm going with Vin."
Mary's jaw dropped open in mild surprise. "Really? How did that happen?"
"He asked me," Alex answered, wondering why Mary found this so astonishing. After all, Vin is a grown man. Surely he must have had other women in his life before she came along? "Is that so amazing?"
"Yes, it is," Mary replied promptly. She was pleased Vin finally did something about his feelings for Alex, although the widow could understand why he kept his distance until now. Vin allowed Alex the time to recover from her break with Ezra. "He's never shown interest in courting nor have I known him to take the company with the working girls in the saloon. The only woman he was ever interested in was Charlotte."
Alex recalled Mary telling her about Vin's destructive affair with a married woman during a wagon trail. It was plain to see he had been hurt when the relationship ended, and somehow, Alex wasn't surprised he would react that way. There was the heat of a furnace beneath his subtle manner when Vin felt deeply for someone. Alex knew firsthand how hurt he could be when rejected. If Charlotte had meant so much to him, Alex could see him react the same.
"The man is a puzzle." Alex mused, trying to sound indifferent to Vin but Mary knew better.
She had echoed the same feelings about Chris Larabee once, and so there was nothing Alexandra Styles felt that could surprise her because Mary was there once herself
Men and women were unpredictable creatures, but the randomness of their actions disappeared the moment their hearts were taken, and she knew without a doubt Alex's was taken, almost as wholly as Vin's. It was just a matter of time before the situation brought those feelings to the surface. It was times like this Mary appreciated the wisdom of experience.
"Don't you like puzzles?" Mary teased as she stood up to get her purse.
"Very funny." Alex laughed before the two women continued out the door.
Despite her lie, when Alex did arrive at the hotel that evening for her dinner engagement with Randall Mason, she did make several house calls. With the preparation for the forthcoming celebrations, people were becoming careless in their anticipation of the revelry to follow.
How many broken fingers due to hammers, sprained ankles from people falling off ladders and other mishaps had she mended today? The number was enough to ensure after she bought her dress at Mrs Potter's because she was definitely not going to the Emporium, Alex was busy enough to be almost late for her engagement.
Randall was already waiting for her at a table when a helpful waiter escorted Alex to it. As always, Randall was perfectly attired and seemed so out of place in Four Corners that for a brief instance, Alex almost wished he was gone. She admonished herself for such unkind thoughts because she knew he was a good man, and he had come a long way to see her.
"Alexandra," he rose to his feet at her arrival. "You look wonderful, my dear."
In truth, she looked plain and dressed simply. Favouring a crisp white shirt and dark red vest she might have worn to call on a patient, Alex had no intention of giving Randall any false impressions. She thought in length at why he came to America, and while she knew the answer, she prayed it was anything but that. He was one of her oldest friends, and she had no wish to alienate him, but Alex knew she could not give him the answer he might want to hear.
"Thank you, Randall," Alex said cordially as the waiter pulled a chair for her.
They talked of inconsequential things for the first half of dinner, trading amusing stories through the entrée and main course, while reliving old times in a world far away from this one. Randall was at his charming best, and Alex remembered why she enjoyed playing his escort in London.
He spoke of where he had been during the years following her father's demise and updated her on the welfare of his extremely affluent family. Randall's father, who owned an export company with holdings in India, the Far East and what was deemed as the West Indies, had died and left him in charge. The family name was old and to marry into it was to be accepted instantly into high society, no matter what the background.
They exhausted all topics when Randall finally brought up why he searched for Alex across the world and travelled an ocean to reach her in Four Corners. Alex realised by the time tea and dessert were served, there would be no avoiding the subject, and as Nathan often said to her, it was time to bite the bullet.
"Alexandra," Randall stared into her dark eyes so she would understand the seriousness of what he was going to discuss with her. "I'm sure you must have guessed I came to Four Corners for reasons other than seeing you safe with my own eyes."
Alex shrugged. "I had guessed." She tried to rehearse possible refusals in her mind before the moment came so the right one would be available when it was time to use it.
"Alex, this place is not for you." He let his gaze sweep past the room full of diners, with apparent distaste in his eyes at everything they were.
Despite herself, she felt her cheeks flush in irritation at his snobbery. She liked Four Corners and the people in it. Yes, they weren't sophisticated folk like those in London, but they were good, hard-working down to Earth people who welcomed her into their community.
"This is my home, Randall. I have found a place here available to me nowhere else. I won't go back to being relegated to the ranks of a nurse simply because this place is a little rough."
"It's far from rough," he pointed out. "Gunslingers are roaming about freely. If the periodicals are to be believed, one can die simply by being a bystander. I do not wish that for you."
"I do not wish it either." She replied, trying to explain. "Death finds us anywhere. Geography has little to do with it."
He reached for her hand, and Alex knew how much of an insult it would be to withdraw, so she endured his fingers enclosing her own, hoping the gesture was not symbolic but knowing against hope that it was.
"Marry me, Alex," Randall said earnestly. "Marry me, and I will take you away from this place. I will build you a clinic in London, and you can have the practice you always wanted. You don't need to be alone."
"Randall please," Alex whispered, removing her hand abruptly and realising no amount of preparation could ever make her next words easy to say. "I am honoured by the offer, but what kind of practice could I possibly have in London?" She questioned, trying to keep from saying outright what it would hurt him immensely to hear. "I was always an outcast. It's not going to change even if I have premises."
"Then I'll use my family's influence and buy you a place in a hospital. How does London Hospital sound to you?" He countered quickly. Suddenly, this had become a battlefield negotiation with thrust and parry being delivered by the opposing parties before an agreement could be reached.
"I don't want that!" Alex hissed, wondering if he understood how abhorrent such a statement was. "I am what I am because I earned it! At first, they would not even let me study until my father pressured them, but I showed them I could do it. They did everything to break me, to ensure I would never be considered good or even mediocre. I proved them wrong my own way. I've fought my entire medical career to earn the right to have patients come to me not because I bought them, but because I am good!"
"Good?" He sneered, allowing his anger to get the better of him. "Is this what you call earning their respect, mending broken bones and keeping company with men no decent woman would dare call friends?"
"Yes," Alex rose to her feet imperiously, deciding she was through explaining her actions. Four Corners was her home. It was more of a home than any place she and father travelled over the globe, and here she was staying. "Because they don't judge me."
"Are you staying because of the gambler, what's his name, Standish?" Randall grabbed her hand as she prepared to leave the table. By now, everyone in the room heard their raised voices and were staring at them in curiosity.
Alex yanked her hand away viciously and shot him a venomous look for bringing up Ezra.
"No." She said through gritted teeth. "I stay because they need me."
"You're staying for him, aren't you?" Randall glared at her with narrowed eyes, and for the first time, Alex caught sight of something so dark and vile in them, it positively terrified her. "After he jilted you?"
"Randall," Alex tried to regain some measure of calm. "I thank you for dinner, and I apologise I could not accept your offer. You will always be a dear friend but let us leave the table before even that changes."
"I will have you for my wife." He stated firmly. "Make no mistake on that."
What remained of her control now was brushed away firmly by the tidal wave of bubbling emotions he provoked within her. This fury was nothing like the arousing, and tantalising emotions felt when she was sparring with Vin. This was cold and black, with a hatred that finally found expression.
"I will be your wife when I am cold and dead. I do not love you. I never have. I apologise you had to come out here to find this out, but I will never marry you."
It was a devastating rebuttal, and she saw the sorrow in his eyes as the words made their full meaning clear to him but within that pain, the memory of what she saw earlier remained and strengthened. There was a hint of madness that struck cold fear inside of her, and suddenly Alex had the strangest feeling she never knew Randall Mason at all.
Chris could not remember the last time he went to a fair but knew if he did, he would have realised it was with Sarah and Adam. That alone was enough to force the memory deep into the recesses of his mind, in the place reserved for all things reminding him of that other life when he was more than what he was, a gunslinger. He was a father and a husband in those days, and the ache of wanting to still be one was a pain he suffered when revisiting old memories.
Of course, things changed . They almost always invariably did. Chris was not the loner he used to be, not with six friends who now rode by his side and were closer to him than family. There was also Mary Travis, the golden-haired widow whose spirited smile shone a light on the darkness that was his broken heart. Chris never liked change, but eventually, he accepted it, even though the idea of such intimacy after the death of his family still terrified him.
So, he was here now with Mary, surrounded by people enjoying all the entertainment that came with a fair, watching jugglers, fire eaters and contortionists performing their tricks to enthralled audiences willing to pay two bits for the experience. Elsewhere several pigs were being put through their paces as the hog tying competition swung into action. Chris was almost tempted to go see how Buck was faring in the games, after his oldest friend confessed a passing interest in competing.
From the corner of his eye, Chris allowed himself a bemused smile as he saw JD Dunne staying very close to Casey Wells while keeping a watchful eye over one Bart Cook who was gazing at her with obvious infatuation. The picnic basket auction was still some hours away, but JD looked as if he was preparing to ride into battle in his determination to keep Casey's basket from anyone but him.
Most of the faces moving past him were people he did not recognise and that always made Chris uncomfortable. It was to be expected new faces would appear for the anniversary celebration, attracting crowds from all over the region. He was vaguely aware Mary was saying something to him. Still, his attention wandered from the gist of the conversation as his blue eyes studied the proceedings with predatory vigilance. It was too easy to let down one's guard in such surroundings and although the occasion was festive, Chris made sure his gun belt hung securely around his waist.
He caught sight of Ezra and Julia Pemberton in the distance, walking towards the cotton candy vendor. With Ezra in his fancy clothes and Julia looking just as opulent, they resembled one of those couples that ought to be walking down a tree-lined boulevard in Charleston or New Orleans. At that moment, it was not difficult to believe they were ideally suited for one another. No matter what Ezra might claim, Chris knew the beautiful Easterner was everything to him, even if Ezra was perfectly aware of the devious nature hiding beneath her emerald eyes.
"Chris, are you listening to me?" He heard Mary's impatient voice in his ears.
Chris turned away from the gambler and his lady to find Mary had steered them towards a stall serving refreshments.
"Sorry," Chris mumbled an apology. "What did you say?"
Mary rolled her eyes with a sigh. "Would you like some lemonade?" She gestured to the stall being operated by a rosy-cheeked girl with freckles and dark gold hair.
"Yeah, sure." Chris's gaze still fixed on the voluminous crowd, growing larger by the minute. He did not believe there was going to be so many people. He now wished Nathan was coming back today instead of tomorrow from the Indian village. For a minute, Chris was tempted to ask the little girl if she had any whisky under the counter but decided against it since Mary probably would not get the joke.
God, he was mellowing with age.
He caught sight of Randall Mason standing before the shooting gallery. The foreigner was aiming intently at the painted target, and Chris observed the way he handled the gun as he fired. The ominous Mr Rihs was nowhere in sight, and it unsettled Chris to not know where the manwhile he was in town. Randall cleared all his targets quickly, gathering a small collection of onlooker around him. Very soon, people were cheering him on as he continued firing with a perfect score of fallen targets.
Seeing him only made Chris turn to Mary, who was collecting their drinks from the young merchant before handing him a cup. She looked lovely today, wearing the yellow dress he liked so much. It always reminded him of sunshine, especially when she wore her golden hair down over her shoulders.
"Where is Alex today?"
Seeing Randall Mason made him wonder where she was. Chris was still unable to shake the uneasy feeling something was coming at them over the horizon, and whatever it was, Randall Mason who would be leading the charge.
"She decided to stay at home," Mary related the conversation with the lady doctor this morning. Alex had told her the specifics of her dinner engagement with Randall Mason the night before, and Mary recalled the unspoken glimmer of fear in Alex's normally fearless eyes.
"Why?" Chris asked automatically, knowing something had to be wrong for anyone to stay in on a day like this. The sun was shining gloriously in the sky with not a cloud to be seen. This was the kind of day where no one had any business staying in unless happy hour at every saloon in town was starting early.
"She's a bit disturbed after her dinner with Mr Mason." Mary knew whatever she said to Chris would be held in the strictest confidence. Besides, part of his reasons for asking was due to the reservations he had about the foreigner. Judging by what Alex told her, Chris's senses appeared to be right on the money once again. Mary wondered what it must be like to go through life with such keen insight, particularly for trouble. "He proposed."
"Really?" Chris said neutrally but immediately hid the pang of worry at how Vin might take such news.
"She turned him down of course," Mary revealed, much to Chris's relief. "Apparently, she tried to be as diplomatic about it as possible, but you can never make such news easy to hear."
Mary thought back to her own experience with Gerard Whitman and remembered the disappointment on Gerard's face when she rejected his proposal of marriage. Of course, thinking about it now, Mary could not understand what led her to accept it in the first place.
"How did he take it?" Chris's intuition suspected not well at all. Something in his eyes told Chris, Randall was used to getting what he wanted and did not take kindly to being refused.
"Not well," Mary confirmed, remembering what she saw in Alex's eyes when the doctor explained it to Mary. "He became abusive about who she kept company with and made some offensive remark about Ezra. Then he declared she would be his, no matter what. Suffice to say, it became ugly, and she walked out on him."
"Any reason why she turned him down?" Chris was hoping there might be some history of violence in his behaviour that could give the gunslinger the justification to throw Randall's erudite ass in jail until Chris could work him over and convince him to leave. Something about Randall brought out the worst in him. Men who obsessed over women, like Don Paulo, would seldom release their insane grip until they, or the women unfortunate enough to attract such madness, were dead.
"Well, she doesn't love him for a start. Not to mention she's doing what she adores in Four Corners. She has no wish to be trapped in someone's gilded cage."
Chris could understand that. He had seen Alex work with the sick and knew it was not just a job for her, it was a calling. Nathan wore same gleam in his eyes when he tended to those who needed his healing. Chris appreciated how vital it was to them, to be able to do the things they loved without inhibition or prejudice. It was almost as essential as the air they breathed.
"I'll keep an eye on him," Chris stated firmly, making no mention of the fact he was already doing that.
"Could you please?" Mary looked at Chris with some measure of apprehension in her eyes for Alex. "I think she is more afraid than she lets on. Something rattled her last night Chris. I've seen her worried about patients and their lives, but I've never seen her scared."
Chris instinctively shifted his gaze to Randall, who was still at the gallery and was keeping his audience enthralled with his shooting skills. Personally, Chris was unimpressed by the man's apparent expertise and wondered if Randall could do the same while on horseback with a dozen guns aimed in his direction.
"Might be an idea if she didn't hide in her house either," Chris pointed out, noticing Mr Rihs was nowhere to be seen.
"Well, she'll be at the dance tonight," Mary revealed and then wondered if Chris knew who was escorting Alex to the event. Part of Alex's anxieties were linked to the prospect Randall may attend the dance this evening. The moment she entered the granary with Vin Tanner, Randall was going to assume her refusal to his proposal was because of the handsome tracker.
"I thought she wasn't going." He was still searching the crowd for any sign of Mr Rihs.
"She decided she would, when someone asked her."
"So, who is she going with? I rather Alex went with one of us so we can keep an eye on her if anything happens. No local with a bunch of flowers is going to stop Mason if he gets it in his mind to take her."
"She's not going with just anyone from town, not exactly." Mary bit her lip, deciding she was going to have to disclose the identity of Alex's escort. It should not be any surprise to Chris really because he knew the same thing she did about the couple. Still, Alex had not specified she wanted everyone to know about it either.
"Mary," Chris looked at her impatiently, noticing she was unnecessarily stalling and she was never very good at it like she was never good at lying. "Unless she's going with a Mexican bandit she met in Purgatory, out with it."
"She's going with Vin."
That did give Chris reason to fall silent. He merely stared for a moment and then mumbled. "About damn time."
Conrad Rihs was a busy man.
He spent most of the two days in this God-forsaken frontier village riding back and forth from an even more barbaric place called Purgatory. Although Randall Mason believed Alexandra Styles would accept his proposal of marriage and return with him to England, Rihs was more realistic. Women were fickle things with no idea how they felt from one moment to another. He was indifferent to them and preferred to use them only for satisfaction. He would never be foolish enough to give one power over his existence as a wife.
When Randall Mason employed Rihs, his new master had strict instructions of what he required from this journey to America. He wanted the girl and would accept nothing less. He was adamant in not leaving these shores without her. Rihs was paid exceptionally well to ensure this would happen. After coming across the black-garbed stranger, Rihs made his inquiries, albeit a little more discreetly than his employer, and learned what he needed to proceed further. His investigations were not about the lady doctor, but the gunslinger who seemed so concerned by their questions at the saloon.
What Rihs learned about Chris Larabee and the six men riding with him was cause enough for concern. They were the law in Four Corners, and if they felt so partial to Miss Styles, it was almost guaranteed they would keep her from harm if Randall attempted to extract her by force. Larabee was a gunslinger whose reputation until his arrival at Four Corners was fearsome, to say the least. Here was a man walking the thin line between law and lawlessness. Rihs wondered what it took to upset that careful balance and knew he did not want to find out.
He was hardly surprised when Randall's inquiries provided him with more answers to his questions regarding the nature of the relationship between these seven men and Alexandra Styles. Apparently, she was involved with the gambler named Standish until recently, when he gave her up for the wealthy emporium owner, Julia Pemberton. Rihs made inquiries about the seven men, finding out everything he could about them and filed it away for future reference.
Just in case, he rode to Purgatory and utilising the considerable purse at his master's disposal, rounded himself almost twenty men who might be ready to ride at a moment's notice. Most had some previous altercation with the seven and were initially unwilling to seek retribution alone until the money and the strength in numbers, convinced them otherwise.
Despite his paid loyalty to Randall Mason, Rihs almost smiled when he heard the lady rejected the proposal the night before. Randall was astonished by her rejection. Rihs expected it. Alexandra was stubborn and determined, qualities that would not lend itself to the domestic situation Randall envisioned. With all doubt washed away in Randall's mind, he had no choice but to remove her against her will and took Rihs off his leash. Returning to Purgatory while Randall played the part of the graceful but rejected suitor, Rihs found his twenty men and outlined the plan to ensure the non-interference of the seven when it was time to take Alexandra Styles away from Four Corners forever.
Alex had never felt so nervous in her entire life.
She stood in front of the mirror, adjusting the skirt of the dress she bought herself, wondering if it needed further pressing and realising it was probably too late anyway. Vin was due at her doorstep in the next few minutes, which left her little time to start backtracking on the momentous decision she made in choosing to accept his invitation to this dance.
A sixth sense told Alex once they stepped out of this door together, everything between them would change.
This and other frantic thoughts raced through her mind as she examined herself in the mirror after donning the dress she and Mary Travis picked out only yesterday afternoon. The gown was scooped neck, which showed a little shoulder and accentuated her neck and the dark hair hanging against it. The colour was apricot, which complimented her dusky skin and she finished the outfit with a thin strand of gold around her neck. Remembering what he'd said about her hair, Alex wore it loose, with only an ornate hair clip holding it in place at the back.
Deciding how she looked would just have to do, Alex turned away from the mirror just as she heard the door knocking. Her stomach practically leapt in her throat when she heard the sound, and her eyes darted to the doorway, like a terrified doe caught in a hunter's sights.
Taking a deep breath and finding it did nothing to calm the butterflies in her stomach, Alex realised, she had not felt this way since she was a teenager. Grabbing her shawl as she made her way down the corridor, she questioned once again the wisdom of doing this with Randall still in town. She knew precisely what he was going to think the instant he saw her at Vin's arm. More importantly, the insult Randall would perceive at having been rejected for a tracker with a price on his head and a dollar a day as income.
Maybe so, but it was the tracker who could make her heart stop just by a kiss.
Her cheeks flushed red with embarrassment at that involuntary thought, and she calmed herself before opening the door. Vin stood before her, and the reaction in his eyes was instantaneous, even if the attempt to mask it was swift. For that moment, she saw nothing but stunned surprised at how she looked, followed quickly by sheer desire. Despite herself, Alex could not help smile at being able to knock that unflappable expression off his face, even for a second.
Vin however, looked like Vin. Combed, shaved and dressed in clean clothes but nevertheless still like Vin. He wore what he usually did, except his clothes were freshly laundered, the bandanna around his neck was absent, and his collared shirt was buttoned up to the top. They examined each other for a moment, saying nothing at first but inherently pleased by what they were seeing.
"You look like the prettiest ol' spinster woman I've ever met." He complimented, breaking the silence as she invited him in while she collected her things.
"And this is what you look like when you've scrubbed up." She commented with a smile, the memory of his first impression still providing her with satisfaction as she grabbed her purse. "I'm impressed."
"Well, I didn't want to go to that much trouble for you," he offered her his arm. "I'm only escorting you cause I feel sorry you're at home pining away."
"Thank you," She slipped her arm through his once they stepped outside the house and she shut the door behind them. "I know, I ought to be grateful for your charitable ways."
He grinned as they made their way into the street. The dance was being held at the granary floor, and after the day's entertainment, there were still plenty of people on the boardwalk. Coloured lights hung from the buildings as children ran around, carrying sparklers or blowing bubbles with soapy water.
A few people raised a brow or two at the sight of Vin and Alex together although most were unsurprised really. How many had seen her riding with him through the streets only two days ago? Since she was counted in the circle of the seven, it was expected she would be escorted by one of the lawmen.
Four Corners had a magical lustre about it tonight, with the twinkling lights overhead and sparkles following the sound of children's laughter. The air was filled with the distant sound of music coming from the dance hall. Other couples were making their way to the dance, holding hands and looking a great deal more familiar with each other than this veil of awkwardness between Alex and Vin.
Still, the tension didn't last long, and once the curious looks faded away and they saw the granary, decorated with lights and flowers for the dance it was hosting, Alex relaxed in Vin's company. Like a shift in the wind, suddenly being with him slipped into warm familiarity, not unlike their ride from Nettie's two days before.
It was when they approached the dance, did Alex remember Randall Mason.
She paused suddenly, feeling the need to tell him because Vin had the right to know why, if Randall chose to make a scene. What she saw in Randall's eyes after she refused his proposal frightened her and she did not want Vin becoming caught in the crossfire between them.
“Vin, before we go in, I need to tell you something."
"What is it?" He tensed, praying she had not changed her mind. She looked so beautiful, Vin could not bear being away from her. He could smell the whiff of rose water against her skin and was longing to run his fingers through her hair. Alex literally stole his breath away during those first few seconds after she opened her door to him, leaving him staring at her like some stupid kid. She was always beautiful to him, but at that moment, he would have sold his soul to be with her.
"An old friend of mine has come to town," she said quietly, finding it difficult to admit her relationship with Randall to Vin for some reason.
"That Mason fella." Vin nodded, pretending he knew nothing about the man than what was generally known. In fact, Vin made it his mission to keep the foreigner under surveillance since Chris gave him the instruction. He knew about the dinner she spent with Randall the night before and kept a close eye on Alex after she stormed out of the restaurant with nothing less than black rage. Vin ensured Randall returned to his hotel room and did not pursue her before he retired to his wagon.
"That's him." Alex nodded, unable to meet his gaze as she summed up the courage to tell Vin the rest of it. "He asked me to marry him."
Vin showed no reaction because her abrupt departure from the restaurant confirmed the proposal was not received well and she was with him now instead of Randall. "Did you accept?"
"Of course not!" She stared at him exasperated, wondering how he could even think such a thing. Vin of all people should understand exactly why she could not accept such a proposal. "He didn't take my refusal well, and he believes there maybe someone else. He accused me of staying for Ezra." Her face showed her obvious derision at the suggestion and completely sidestepped the issue of who she might really be staying for.
Vin did not press her on that point. "So, what's the problem?"
"He may be at the dance, and I don't know how he's going to take seeing us together. He scared the hell out of me last night Vin. I thought I knew him. He was my father's friend, but I never had reason to suspect he harboured such feelings about me until last night. When I refused him, I saw something terrible in his eyes. Something that put the fear of God into me. It's probably nothing, but I thought," she paused to calm herself down. "I thought you ought to know."
He reached for her gloved hand, pleased because she had no interest whatsoever in Randall Mason, and also because she allowed him to see the vulnerability she permitted no one else. Vin could safely say not even Ezra was aware of its existence until that fateful day when she learned about him and Julia. Entwining his fingers in hers, Vin looked into her eyes and soothed her with his words. "I won't let him hurt you, Alex."
Alex was lost in his intense blue gaze and knew he meant it. His promise made her heart swell in her chest, and this feeling of warm safety wrapped itself around her like that thick buckskin jacket of his. Smiling at Vin, she leaned forward and kissed him gently on the cheek.
"Be careful cowboy," she winked as she slipped her arm through his again and held it close to her. "I could get very used to you."
"I wouldn't," he retreated with a teasing smile. "I still think you're a stubborn mule that needs whipping."
"Oh, stop it," she laughed as they continued towards the hall again. "I can't take much more of this smooth-talking.”
"I don't believe it!" JD swore as he paced the floor near the refreshment table inside the hall. Although the expected number of people attending the dance had yet to make their appearance, there were still enough around to raise a brow at his irate behaviour.
The granary, which served more as a community centre these days, suffered the transformation into a dance hall with pleasant results. The decoration committee spent considerable effort making the place look somewhat presentable for the purpose with soft lighting and floral arrangements in strategic corners. While it certainly could not compare to the function halls of larger towns, no one seemed to notice as people filed into the building. The atmosphere was gay despite JD's awful mood.
Buck Wilmington was doing his level best to try and calm the boy down, but it seemed pacification was not going to be quite enough when JD was this upset. JD was always a little hot-headed, but this latest situation had pushed the young man to the brink of what Buck was accustomed to seeing from JD. Not that the kid was unjustified in his outrage.
Buck watched the young sheriff build his jealousy into a self-righteous fury that would be hard to contain if allowed to continue further. While ranting and raving in anger, JD's eyes kept shifting towards the direction of the main doors, searching for the young lady whose absence was the cause of all his torment.
"Now JD, all's fair in love and war."
When the words left his mouth, Buck winced inwardly and decided that perhaps this was not the best way to try and calm JD down.
"Ten dollars!" JD exclaimed with as much disbelief as he felt rage. He mouthed the words as if it was all the money in the world and felt nothing less than pathetic because he didn't have it to stop the terrible calamity of the afternoon from taking place. "How did that rotten Bart Cook get ten dollars to buy Casey's basket?" He demanded as if Buck could answer the question, which the older man obviously could not.
"I can't answer that," Buck confessed although he did understand JD's chagrin. After all, Casey was his girl, and everyone in the town knew it. Besides, it was not like the girl had any choice in the matter. Casey was powerless to refuse the sharing of her basket once Bart won it fair and square in the auction. Unfortunately, Buck's attempt to explain that to JD was quickly straining his patience. With the hall filled with beautiful unescorted ladies, it was driving Buckjmad he was not vying for their attention because he was playing nursemaid to a kid who was a hair's breadth from a nervous breakdown.
"Look JD," Buck trying to use logic since all other avenues were exhausted. "Casey's your girl and no matter how much that horse's behind, Bart may have had to pay for her picnic basket, it ain't never going to change."
JD knew the older man was right, but he could not help feeling jealous nonetheless. Part of him was still seething as he recounted the dismayed look on Casey's face when she realised he could no longer afford to stay in the bidding, to say nothing of the disappointment when Bart won the basket instead. The look in her eyes was enough to make JD want to pull out his gun and shoot his rival if he was anything but the law in Four Corners.
"I know you're right." He sighed in frustration and tried to calm down, appeasing Buck's concern with a wan smile.
"That's the way, kid." Buck grinned and patted him on the shoulder.
Ezra and Julia were coming towards them, and Buck saw a solution to his immediate problem. JD should not be left alone, at least not when Casey and Bart made their appearance, but Buck was itching to go find himself some female company. It did not help his state of mind to see as always, Julia Pemberton looked spectacular, being clearly one of the loveliest women present, except for maybe Mary and Inez who stood at the other side of the room with Chris and Josiah. Looking at her only reminded Buck of the familiar itch that required immediate satisfaction.
He left JD alone for a moment when the boy was pouring himself a drink from the large punch bowl and quickly intercepted Ezra and Julia before they reached him.
"How is Mr Dunne?" Ezra was perfectly aware of the black mood the youngest of the seven was currently experiencing. Although he had not made any bids for Julia, since he would have fainted in astonishment if he discovered she could actually cook, Ezra witnessed the usurping of Casey's basket by Bart Cook during the auction.
"Mean and fixing for a fight," Buck whispered out of JD's earshot.
"Poor thing," Julia smiled sympathetically in the boy's direction, feeling genuinely sorry at JD's misfortune. "I take it the girl in question has not made an appearance."
"No," Buck shook his head, glancing at the door as she made mention of that. "It's driving him crazy and me," the tall man complained before lowering his voice and leaning closer to the gambler. "Ezra, there are too many ladies here for me to be sitting on the sidelines. I need to get on the horse. Could you please keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn't tear Bart Cook apart when the idiot gets here with Casey?"
"Mr Wilmington, I have a lady at my arm, or did you not notice?" He glanced in Julia's direction. "I am hardly able to nursemaid JD."
"You owe me one."
Ezra blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"If you hadn't stuck your nose in and bought Inez's basket, I would have had a chance at it." Buck reminded him imperiously. "So, I figure you owe me one."
Expecting that very thing to happen, Inez requested Ezra bid for her basket, so he could enjoy it with Julia and she would escape being trapped with Buck who was determined to have her company for lunch. Thus at the bidding, Ezra made a substantial contribution that kept Buck or anyone else for that matter, from successfully winning the basket. Ezra could not even count the number of times Inez resorted to this strategy during earlier auctions and wondered when Buck would get the idea she was just too smart for him.
"Oh, just do it!" Julia shook her head, unable to stand this shameless display or the puppy dog look on Buck's face any longer. These friends of Ezra's could be so tiresome, even if she was starting to warm to them. In choosing to love Ezra, she had embraced all the peculiarities of his life, in particular, his somewhat eccentric friends and their extended family.
"The lady has spoken," Ezra remarked and looked at Buck. "Happy hunting Buck."
"Why thank you, Ezra." Buck smiled and tipped his hat at Julia for her assistance. He no sooner turned to leave when suddenly Buck's gaze caught sight of something that drove away all desire for female company from his mind. For a while, anyway. Like just about everyone in the hall, Buck gaped at the sight of Vin Tanner and Alexandra Styles making their debut into the dance as a couple.
"Well, I'll be damned. That sly dog..." Buck exclaimed with open amazement. "He didn't say a word."
"What are you rambling about Buck?" Ezra asked until he followed the direction of Buck's astonished stare and realised what he was looking at.
Ezra's jaw dropped open at the sight of Vin escorting Alex into the room. In fact, it seemed as if everybody who saw them was gripped with a similar surprise. Only Chris and Mary seemed at ease with their arrival, although the gunslinger was wearing a rare smile at the sight of Vin leading Alex across the floor.
Try as he might to ignore it, Ezra felt a tightening in his chest he could not understand. He had no right to feel anything about who Alex chose to spend her time with, now they were no longer associated in any way, but he could not ignore how it made him feel seeing her with Vin.
"My compliments to Mr Tanner," Ezra said quietly, trying to avoid the hard stare Julia was giving him.
"Damn!" Buck swore, feeling somewhat ineffectual at being beaten to the punch once again. "I knew it was too early for his weekly shave."
Ezra allowed Buck to continue his tirade as Ezra watched the couple cross the room. It did not help Alexandra looked utterly stunning, and there was not a man in the room who did not envy Vin's good fortune. With a soft sigh, Ezra had to admit they did indeed make a handsome couple. Almost as attractive as Ezra and Alex had once been.
Despite his mixed feelings on the matter, Ezra was nevertheless pleased Alex was moving on with her life after his shameful behaviour. Besides, Ezra knew what it took for Vin to make overtures to a woman, especially after the tracker's painful experience with Charlotte Richmond. The fact he was stepping out with Alex, revealed the depths of his sentiments towards the lady doctor and Ezra could not begrudge Vin the right to try if he could make Alex happy.
There was something else too, something Ezra loathed to admit as he watched them. Vin and Alex felt right together and perhaps, this was why Ezra fell so easily for Julia because he and Alex were never meant to be, and this was the proof of it.
"Regrets?" Julia made herself heard, unimpressed by his reaction to Alex's entrance.
Ezra turned to her and smiled. "Always. However, I have learned to deal with the cards I have been given."
"Surely you didn't expect her to pine away for you? She is a beautiful woman. Someone was bound to come along."
Even now, Julia still felt threatened by Ezra's history with the doctor. She knew she had his love, but rivals were something Julia Pemberton never coped well with.
"I did not expect any such thing." Ezra tried to sound unaffected but could not quite manage it. Instead, he took Julia's hand in his and held it to his lips, so she would understand Alex could not come between his feelings for this hellcat he fell for so deeply. “Never let it be said I never turn the cards to my advantage."
"You're such a scoundrel." She smiled, knowing his love for her was as real as it had ever been, and his present melancholy would fade soon enough.
Ezra glanced in Alex's direction once again, when he caught sight of someone else who captured his attention, almost as entirely.
The Englishman was glaring at the couple with nothing less than black hatred hidden underneath a mask of indifference. Ezra, who was accustomed to seeing through facades, shuddered at the intense rage he saw behind Randall's seemingly impassive gaze. The foreigner and his companion, Mr Rihs followed Alexandra across the room at Vin's side. After a moment, he whispered in Mr Rihs's ear, and the tall, blond gentlemen departed the dance floor.
For some reason, Ezra did not like this one damn bit and made a mental note to bring this intelligence to Chris Larabee when time allowed. Like Chris, Ezra felt the same apprehension about Randall's interest in Alexandra, and like the gunslinger, Ezra knew he was dangerous.*****
Alex was perfectly aware Randall was watching her and Vin with barely concealed hatred. Outwardly, he resembled the picture of calm, but she knew what she saw in the restaurant last night, and the memory of it sent a chill running down her spine, prompting her to tighten her hold around Vin's arm.
The tracker noticed the tension under her fingers and glanced at her. The apprehension he saw in her eyes gave him a reason to be concerned.
"Don't worry," he said in that too-soft voice of his that could be so reassuring and gentle at the same time. He did not miss the way Randall Mason stared when they walked into the room together and knew her fears were not unfounded. His eyes followed them with such intense scrutiny. Vin began to question whether he would keep his distance during the evening. Vin hoped the man did not intend to cause any commotion because he wanted this night with Alex to be special, not marred by unpleasantness.
"He ain't gonna do anything stupid in a room full of people." He said for Alex's benefit because she really needed to believe it.
Alex was not so sure, but being with Vin did lend some comfort to her troubled state of mind when they finally reached Chris and Mary. It was bad enough her arrival with Vin engendered such an enthusiastic response from the rest of Four Corners, she did not need the aggravation of Randall's jealousy manifesting in some public display as well.
"I hope so," Alex replied, but the doubt still lingered, as did the ominous presence of Randall's eyes upon them.
"Well, that dress certainly did not look that good in the window." Mary complimented upon their approach, knowing how distressed Alex was with Randall's presence in the hall. Hopefully, a lighter subject might ease the tension now the novelty of their arrival together faded away. "I'm glad my second opinion helped."
Their arrival had surprised everyone, even those who weren't apart of the seven and their entourage. While it was known Alex's relationship with Ezra was dissolved for some time now, not many were aware or even suspected she might have another man in her life. Vin Tanner could be considered an unconventional choice for such a refined and educated woman. Still, Mary had to admit, they did look good together.
"Yeah, she does clean up well." Vin teased.
"So do you for that matter." Mary pointed out with a raised brow, taking note of his tidier than normal appearance. She supposed it was too much to ask to expect him to leave the buckskin jacket in his wagon, but at least it appeared to have been recently cleaned. In truth, Mary could not imagine Vin in anything else.
Vin smiled faintly but noticed Chris made no response. The gunslinger's attention seemed focussed on Randall across the room. Knowing what women were like when they got together, Vin left Alex in the company of Mary and Inez, while he spoke to Chris privately.
"Trouble?" Vin knew the intense expression on Chris's face well enough.
"You might have told me." The older man replied, ignoring the question.
"It ain't anyone's business but my own," Vin said stiffly, suddenly feeling as if Chris was disapproving of his asking Alex to the dance. A bubble of anger surfaced involuntarily, even though he knew he ought to hear his best friend out before leaping to conclusions.
Chris turned to Vin, realising his remark might have been mistaken for disapproval when it was anything but that. Inwardly, he was pleased Vin had finally taken the all-important first step in making his intentions known to the doctor, but his timing was unfortunate. It should not have to weather the complication of Randall's presence, and Chris worried his arrival with Alex might ignite the powder keg that was the man's obsession with the lady.
"Come on, Vin. I didn't mean it that way. It's just that this might not have been the best time for it."
His words echoed back to the speech Chris gave Vin when he returned Charlotte to the wagon trail months before. Everyone was perfectly aware of what transpired between Vin and Charlotte, and all were quick to lay blame and make judgements. Chris was the only person who said nothing about his actions and tried to advise him without interfering. Vin appreciated it then and felt guilty in thinking Chris would react any differently now.
"I can handle it."
"I'm not worried about you," Chris met his eyes directly. "I'm worried about her." He glanced in Alex's direction. "A man does crazy things when he thinks a woman might be cheating on him and Mason's crazy enough to believe Alex is his, to feel the same."
To that, Vin could not disagree but was unwilling to let Alex cower in fear either while the man was in town. Perhaps, if Randall understood Alex had genuine reasons for staying in Four Corners, he might be willing to abandon his hopeless quest for her hand in marriage. Still, Chris had a better scent for trouble than any man alive and Vin had learned to trust that instinct implicitly. Despite his pleasure at being with Alex, he could not deny he was now afraid for her as well.
"It's too late now." Vin sighed and noticed Randall turning his attention away from Alex, once he became aware Vin and Chris were studying him with scrutiny. He disappeared into the crowd, and Vin hoped that would be the end of it for the night. Unfortunately, Chris's words could not be easily disregarded.
Chris noticed the uncertainty in Vin's face and felt slightly guilty for berating the younger man for something that was not at all his fault. Chris knew how difficult it was for Vin around women. The tracker always seemed to shy away from them, as if the lack of human contact made him uneasy at how he should behave in their company. While Chris knew Vin was susceptible to a pretty face like any other man, Chris had never even seen him with a working girl.
Charlotte was a turning point for Vin even Chris recognised, though the relationship was doomed to fail from the beginning. It never occurred to Vin a woman might find him attractive enough to pursue, and Charlotte's interest alone made Vin believe devoting himself entirely to her was warranted. It pained Chris to see Vin so lost in his infatuation, especially when Chris had some idea how it would play out in the end. Vin barely understood why he loved her other than the fact she showed the interest. Until then, Chris believed the very idea of it had never even occurred to Vin.
Josiah's return with some drinks for the ladies broke the silence as the preacher eyed both men, wondering what words were exchanged in his absence. There seemed to be an unspoken air of tension that did not dissipate with his return.
Like the rest of Four Corners, Josiah was surprised to see Alex and Vin arrived together, although, in the preacher's assessment of things, the surprise was a pleasant one. Two people who were capable of creating the sparks Alex and Vin had done over the past months were meant for something more than petty bickering. In truth, Josiah thought they were better suited for one another than Alex and Ezra ever could be.
"Something up?" He asked suspiciously, looking for Randall whose presence in Four Corners took on an even more ominous potential in the face of Vin's interest in Alex.
"No, not really." Chris shook his head, giving Vin a silent acknowledgment; everything was all right. "Just making sure Mason doesn't do anything stupid."
"He wouldn't dare here," Josiah stated.
"You're probably right," Chris relented, wondering if he was not a tad paranoid. Being naturally suspicious kept him alive, and these days he used the skill to keep his friends the same way. Still, even Chris Larabee had to let things happen at their own pace. If there was trouble, they would deal with it when it came. Besides, he knew it was no small thing for Vin to have finally taken this step with Alex and Chris didn't want to dampen the young man's spirit with the talk about Randal Mason.
"Go on, Vin, have a good time. We'll keep an eye out for him and cover your back if need be."
Vin offered Chris a nod of thanks before he rejoined Alex. The band had started playing a short time ago. Although it was no more than a quartet whose instruments included a fiddle and an organ, the music was lively and attracted couples to the floor. When Vin and Alex joined them, the band started playing a waltz, and Chris noted with amusement it was Alex who seemed more comfortable with it than Vin. The tracker kept glancing at his feet as they moved across the floor together.
"You think there's going to be trouble?" Josiah asked, not believing for one moment what Chris just told Vin.
"Lots of it."
"See this isn't so hard," Alex declared as she and Vin did the waltz. Actually, she waltzed, and he tried not to step on her feet. He was watching her movements and letting her guide him to where they were supposed to go because this was not like a barn dance where it was unimportant where his feet went.
Until now, Vin was never bothered by his lack of social graces because there was never a need for it when one was alone most of the time. When he was buffalo hunting, there were periods where he saw no one for weeks, let alone the necessity to learn how to behave appropriately in front of a lady or the refinements of learning how to dance.
"Speak for yourself," he returned still focussed on the steps. "I once tracked a killer during winter in the snow across two states before I got him. Almost got myself killed a dozen times from frostbite and being shot at. That weren't as hard as this."
Alex giggled softly, becoming carried away by the music and the idea of being with him. The concentration on his face as he tried not to step on her toes was so utterly endearing Randall was banished into the back of her mind. Once again, Alex found another reason to feel glad she decided to accompany him this evening. In fact, it was surprising how easy it was being with Vin, once her initial reservations faded.
When Vin held her like this, Alex could well understand how she almost succumbed to him in Agnes Doherty's cabin. A part of her was almost sorry she had not, considering what awaited her when she did finally return to Four Corners. Instinctively, she found her gaze searching for Julia Pemberton, who was also dancing with Ezra not far away.
Strangely enough, none of the enmity she felt during the first few weeks after her split with Ezra was present. While she would never like Julia, Alex could safely say she no longer felt anger towards Ezra. In hindsight, despite Julia's undoubtedly mean spirited behaviour, Alex realised Ezra would have attempted to end their relationship more amicably if given the opportunity. In light of what she felt after returning from the mountains with Vin, that outcome might have suited them both.
The gambler caught her staring as he danced with his partner and offered a smile which to his surprise, Alex returned without any trace of hostility or resentment. In fact, she gave him a little wink that spread a wide grin across Ezra's face, as he understood for the first time he was forgiven, and things between them were finally righted.
"How are you doing cowboy?" Alex returned her attention to Vin, who was confident enough to look away from his feet.
"I feel like a damn fool." He muttered unhappily. "Whose idea was this again?"
"As I recall yours," she reminded. "Something about saving me from pining away at home like some old spinster woman?"
"Oh yeah, I remember. I was taking pity on you."
"You're such a good Samaritan," she laughed, wondering if the reason she liked him so much was for the delight he took in trying to provoke her. "What would I do without you?"
"Probably turn into a mean ol' cuss with vinegar in your veins." He pulled her closer to him and relished it when she did not pull away.
"Flatterer." She smiled, enjoying the feel of his body against hers.
After a moment, Alex found herself asking the question that had been on her mind for some time now. This seemed like a good a time as any to ask. There was something strangely private about dancing the waltz even though people surrounded them.
"Vin, why did you stay away? After I found out about Ezra, that is."
After what they had shared together during their time in the mountains, it surprised her somewhat how absent Vin had been after she learned of Ezra's affair with Julia. She expected him to be at her doorstep because she knew he cared for her; he had as much said so despite his strange sense of humour.
Vin looked at her with those intense eyes of his and considered her question. "Cause it only complicated things. You wanted Ezra and only Ezra then."
Alex nodded, understanding his reasons with what he did not say rather than what he had. He did not want to take advantage of her vulnerability in the face of her rejection, and Alex could admit now, she was hurt enough to allow Vin to do so if he were unscrupulous enough to try.
Hearing Vin admitting this only deepened her feelings for him, and she knew with increasing certainty what she felt for Vin Tanner was what was always missing between her and Ezra. There was something safe and inviting about Vin's affections for her, something so tangible she could wrap in its warmth, and yet it still had the power to leave her breathless and wanting at the same time.
"I didn't want Ezra anymore Vin," Alex confessed, finding it easier to do so after hearing his answer. "I was angry at him for what happened with Julia, but really I just felt lost. I wasn't sure what I wanted anymore."
"Then staying away was a good idea. You needed to figure things out."
Vin was glad at his decision to keep his distance when the pull towards her had been so strong. There were moments he almost gave in, where he wanted to go to her so badly it ached. In the end, he decided to be patient, to let things happen naturally, which in light of where they were right now, was the best decision he made.
"Yes," her eyes filled with warmth for him. "I did."
For a few minutes, neither of them spoke, allowing the music to carry them across the dance floor, with eyes only for each other. At this moment, there was no one else in the world and every unspoken thing they ever needed to say to each other, passed between them in that instant. It was more than just a dance they were sharing and both Vin and Alex knew it.
After today, there would never be anyone else for either of them again.
"May I cut in?"
So lost in each other and on the cusp of expressing their feelings for one another, neither Vin or Alex noticed Randall's approach across the dance floor. Before either Alex and Vin knew it, Randall stood before them, waiting expectantly for an answer. There were no signs of his earlier hostility, merely anticipation of their reaction. Vin made no move to release his hold on her as they stopped dancing, nor did he like the idea of relinquishing Alex to Randall's ministrations.
"I don't think the lady would like that," Vin said coolly, betraying nothing of the menace he felt towards Randall and his obsession with Alex. Once again, Don Paulo's reaction to Buck surfaced in his mind. After what passed between them during their dance, Vin was even more hesitant to let this man anywhere near Alex.
"Vin, it's all right," Alex spoke up, meeting his eyes to indicate she did not want to make a scene. If one dance with Randall would keep the peace, she could endure it. Alex hoped Vin could as well. "Please, Vin?" She gave him a brave smile, reassuring him she would be fine.
Vin did not like the idea at all. Still, he was not about to embarrass her in public by getting into a brawl with this stranger. At least not yet. "I won't be far away." He gave Alex a look of reassurance and one of clear warning to Randall as he withdrew from the floor and left her to him.
Once he was gone, Alex resumed dancing with Randall, trying not to feel apprehension as they moved across the floor. She noticed Vin had taken position next to Josiah and both men were keeping watch on her. Knowing they were close at hand eased Alex's agitation somewhat. She did not know if Randall meant her any genuine harm, but ever since their dinner, she was uneasy at being anywhere near him. Alex was sure of what she saw in his eyes, especially after the way he spoke to her when she refused his offer of marriage.
"There's no need to be afraid of me Alexandra," Randall assured her as they danced to the rhythm of the music.
The band was playing Clementine, and the soft tone of the music only made the unreality of this situation more potent. While Vin was uncertain in his steps, Randall was confident and took the lead almost immediately. Yet Alex still wished it was the tracker here instead of Randall. Dancing with Vin had been delightful, almost magical while all Randall's touch produced was revulsion.
"You made some unpleasant statements Randall," Alex reminded, determined not to let him upset her. "I believe there is a reason to be cautious."
"I apologise," he answered with a facade of genuine sorrow which she knew to the core of her was false. "My disappointment allowed my anger to get the better of me." He smiled with perfect teeth on a perfect face that seemed utterly devoid of anything remotely sincere. His true nature was lurking in the dark, she was sure of it.
"I'm sorry you came all this way to find me, Randall," Alex replied and meant it. She had no wish to hurt him, but her heart was elsewhere and was never his to claim in the first place. "I've always considered us friends and nothing more. That is why your proposal took me by surprise. I don't want to hurt you, but I've ties here I'm not prepared to leave."
"Like him?" Randall glanced in Vin's direction. Vin's dark blue eyes did not shift from her while she was anywhere near Randall. Seeing him keeping a vigil on her, made Alex feel a little better even if the distaste in Randall's voice and face was apparent.
"Vin Tanner has nothing to do with my decision. I simply do not wish to marry you."
Even as she made the statement, Alex knew it was a lie. Her desire to remain in Four Corners had everything to do with the tracker. In the last few minutes before Randall's interruption, her feelings for Vin were finally realised, and the idea of marriage to Randall was not only abhorrent but also unimaginable.
"I find that very hard to believe." Randall returned, undeceived by her denial. "He doesn't appear to behave like someone with a casual interest in you and if I might say so, neither do you."
"My relationship with Vin is none of your business," Alex felt her calm beginning to slip now she was caught out. The impudence of him was wearing away at her desire to remain civil. It gnawed at the pit of her she once considered this man a friend with no idea of what kind of person he was beneath that practised veneer of charm. "Even if I had nothing to do with him, I still would not marry you."
"You would waste your time and effort on that skinned clad barbarian? What possible interest could you have in him? I wager he hasn't got a cent on him and probably never will, that is if he doesn't get himself killed first in a primitive shooting ritual common to these backwater villages."
Hearing him insult Vin like that was the last straw, and she tore herself from him abruptly. Alex stepped back, glaring at him in pure venom while people continued dancing around them.
"Maybe he isn't rich, and perhaps he will die young, but I would rather spend my life with him in absolute poverty, than living it wealthy as your glorified pet." Alex snapped viciously and turned to leave.
Randall caught her in two steps, spinning her around, grabbing her roughly beneath the chin before Alex was even aware of anything else. She felt his fingers digging into her skin as he pulled her face close to him. "You will be mine, Alexandra." He hissed softly so only she could hear him speak. The mask of charm had disappeared, and she saw the yellow eyes of a rabid animal. "I won't let you go. Not now. Not ever. I've killed to get you once before, I won't hesitate to do it again."
"Let her go." Vin's voice cut through his words with the sharpness of a knife.
Alex felt a flood of relief when Randall's fingers relaxed his grip, and she saw Vin standing there, coming to her defence. She staggered back in shock when he let her go, unable to believe he behaved this way in front of the entire town. Worse yet, what did Randall mean when he claimed he killed for her once before. Who had he killed? The answer lay hidden in the dark, whispering possibilities so terrible, Alex refused to entertain it. She could not.
No sooner than Randall turned around to face him, Vin flattened him with one blow. There was a loud crack of sound that brought the music and revelry to an abrupt halt as Randall fell flat on his back when Vin's fist met him squarely in the face. Vin hardly blinked when he turned his attention immediately to Alex, the cold fury towards Randall evolving into a warm concern for her.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes," she nodded wildly, mortified at the eyes staring at them. Randall was still on the floor. Although he was not knocked unconscious, he appeared dazed as he struggled to recover from the blow and made a clumsy attempt to rise to his feet.
Chris Larabee stepped into the fray, unsurprised by the turn of events. He almost expected this situation to come to ahead if his instincts about Randall were correct. He took up position next to Vin, showing his solidarity with the tracker's actions. If that had been Mary in Alex's place, Chris would have done a lot worse. Vin's reaction was mild in comparison to what the gunslinger's would have been, under the same circumstances.
Across the hall, the rest of the seven were watching the events with equal interest. All were standing by in case their assistance was needed. It seemed unlikely since Randall was alone without his companion, the silent Mr Rihs.
"I think you have all the answers you need from the lady," Chris said to Randall who finally stood up shakily, holding his bleeding nose. Despite the injury, the man's eyes were points of crimson fire, and Chris had no doubt that was killer rage aimed at Vin's direction. "Doctor Styles would rather you leave her alone. I suggest you do so."
"Or what?" Randall snarled, wiping the rivulet of blood from his nose.
He glared at Alex with such intensity it made her shudder. Suddenly, Alex needed to get out of this place. She wanted to be away from the eyes staring at her and the drama unfolding. Alex was a private person by nature, and this entire spectacle was too public for her liking. More than that, Alex wanted to get away from Randall because she was still reeling at his words. Until this moment, she had not realised just how dangerous he was. Knowing a man like this had made her the focus of his obsession, frightened her to no end.
"Or I'll throw your ass in jail and let you rot there," Chris warned with an expression of ice.
Suddenly Chris understood what Mary tried to tell him earlier, about Alex's fear of the man. It angered him the doctor who was usually very calm and collected, could be shaken this badly.
"On what charge?" Randall asked derisively. "Dancing with a lady?"
"You were doing a hell of a lot more than that!" Vin barked vehemently before Chris could answer.
Chris silenced the younger man with a look, ordering Vin to let him handle this.
"Harassment," Chris stated simply. "Until I can think of something else." The gunslinger smiled with a predatory gleam in his eyes that looked more sinister than the words tumbling from his lips. "Trust me, you don't want to be around when that happens. I can be mighty creative. Now you've caused enough disruption to the local events, I suggest you leave."
Randall looked around and saw Ezra and Josiah stepping forward, to illustrate the point Chris was making. Even Buck left the young woman he was attempting to seduce and made himself noticed. With his height, it was not difficult. JD merely shifted his coat, to allow the glimmer of the silver star on his vest to capture Randall's eye to ensure Chris's claim was perfectly legal. The foreigner's eyes narrowed at the realisation of the odds he was facing and what would happen if he decided to ignore the suggestion.
It was a gamble he was not willing to take at this point.
"This is not over Alexandra." He turned to her sharply as he prepared to leave. "You will marry me. Willingly or not."
With that he stormed out of the place, leaving Alex visibly shaken.
"That man is crazy," Vin said with utter conviction as he saw Randall disappeared out the door.
"Yeah," Chris agreed. "That he is."
"I need to get out of here," Alex whispered. Her eyes met Vin's. "Can we go, please?"
Chris glanced at Vin and nodded his agreement. It was probably a good idea because Alex was visibly distressed and with Randall the way he was now, it was not wise to let her go anywhere alone. The threat he made was real, just as real as his intention to drag her from Four Corners, kicking and screaming if he could have her no other way.
Chris had better think of something fast because he could see trouble coming like a twister in the desert.
"I'm sorry Alex," Vin apologised once they left the dance behind and made their way back to her house. The night had been all too brief, and Vin felt a surge of disappointment at the way things played out. He shouldn't have let his anger get the better of him, but when he saw Randall handling Alex the way he had, it snapped the reason inside him. Vin crossed the floor before he was even aware his feet were moving.
He regretted the action now, wishing there was a more amicable way to settle the situation, without resorting to violence and creating a public display. There was a persona which Alex allowed people to see and one which was private and reserved for those whom she counted as friends. She remained calm and professional for most people because they needed to see her as a confident doctor. She rarely gave evidence of the woman beneath the healer.
After her initial quarrel with Ezra regarding Julia Pemberton, Vin knew she took great pains to keep her private life from the public eye, so he could only imagine her mortification at this moment. The entire town was now aware of her personal difficulties, and he could tell by the look in her eyes; it disturbed her greatly.
Nevertheless, she still managed to look at him with bewilderment following his apology. "Whatever for?"
"For making a scene. I knew you didn't want one."
No, she didn't, but it was hardly Vin's fault. Randall caused the scene when he grabbed her the way he had.
"Vin, I'm not happy at the way things turned out, but it was not your fault. He was hurting me, and you stepped in. I'm not upset at you, I'm grateful you were there."
To illustrate her point, she was not at all angry at him, she linked her arm through his and rested her head on his shoulder.
Vin found himself warming to the affection she was now openly showing him and lowered his head gently into her hair to take a deep breath of it. He could smell that maddening fragrance of rosewater in his lungs and savoured it.
"I'm not too happy about leaving you alone tonight." He admitted when they reached the back staircase leading to the front door of her upstairs apartment above the clinic.
"You think he'd try something tonight?" She asked worriedly. After his behaviour, Alex was no longer dismissing the threat Randall posed to her.
"He might." Vin nodded, wanting her to understand this was not a clumsy attempt at seduction. Vin would not know how to anyway. That was Buck's department. Earlier tonight, he erroneously believed Randall Mason might relinquish his claim to Alex if he saw her ties to Four Corners. After what just happened at the dance, Randall likely to tear her away because of it.
"Well, come upstairs, and we can figure something out." She was disappointed with how the evening ended because she was really starting to enjoy herself at the dance and more importantly, being on Vin's arm, until Randall's unwanted intrusion.
Alex opened her door a moment later and stepped into her kitchen. She expected to be out for hours and bristled with annoyance at Randall ruining a potentially delightful evening.
"I'm going to have to do something about that man," Alex said as she closed the door after Vin entered. "I can't just let him intimidate me like some bully."
"He does want you real bad." Vin agreed with her assessment of the situation. "I can't say I understand why, though." He met her gaze with a slight smirk, hoping the remark would ease her tension slightly. "You are a real pain in the ass."
"I am," she agreed, unable to deny she could be feisty and demanding when she got it in her mind to be. "But I think you like me that way, don't you?"
Vin stared at her intently for a moment, trying to decide how to respond. It was clear now, even with their gentle ribbing, the extent of his feelings for her and it was time, well past it, he admitted them to her.
"Yeah," I do." He said quietly and aimed his blue eyes at her to show her just how much.
Once again, Alex thought back to the moment when they were in each other's arms, dancing to the music like there was no one else in the world. Before Randall's interruption, the power of what they could be finally revealed itself to her and after all her denials since that night at the creek, Alex understood, at last, Vin was what she wanted. In the face of what Randall demanded from her, Vin's gentle approach was compelling, and she could think of no reason to keep him at arm's length any longer.
"Vin." She gave him an enigmatic smile and hoped it was enough. "Will you stay with me tonight?"
"Yeah." He nodded as the same thought moved through his mind, and suddenly words seemed unimportant in the light of what he saw in her eyes.
His mouth was on hers even before he was aware he crossed the narrow space between them. He met Alex's lips with such hunger she was almost swept off her feet as Vin sent her stumbling backwards by the force of his passion. They came to a stop at the edge of the kitchen table and caused it to screech when their weight slid its wooden legs across the polished floor. Neither was aware of anything except they were halted when it came to a stop against the kitchen bench.
Vin did not care where they were, only that he had her and her lips were parting for him, allowing his tongue entry as he kissed her with all the pent up longing driving him insane over the past few months. Ever since that night in the cabin, Vin re-lived in his mind how she tasted, how her body reacted to his touch. He knew without needing to hear her say it, she would have submitted to him that night if it wasn't for Ezra.
Still in the few minutes before she pushed him away, the raw craving for her had been so intense he was somewhat surprised he let her go, instead of compelling her to remain and finish what they started. He knew it would not have taken much to force her to yield because Vin sensed how much Alex had needed him too.
In any case, it did not matter now as he felt his body pressed against hers. The heat of Alex's mouth and her feverish hands running up his back and through his hair told Vin there would be no turning back this time.
"Vin," she whispered, needing to speak up before this went any further, lest his mistook her actions as anything more than amedical doctor, familiar with the sensitivities of the flesh. For all her knowledge, her actual intimate experience was limited to the brief kisses with Ezra and their exchange at Agnes's cabin. It was why she trusted him now, why she knew as a lover, he would be kind.
"I've never been with a man before."
Vin's blue eyes flashed and his heart swelled with the admission before he responded by lifting her chin, kissing her with tenderness now he understood what was required of him.
"I promise I won't hurt you," he said, caressing her cheek, wanting her to know how honoured he felt and promised himself to make this good for her too. Alex wasn't just giving him her body, she was giving him her trust, and that was a far more precious thing to risk squandering.
When it was over, although Vin decided nothing could ever be truly over between them, he lay against her chest, thinking how right this all was. From the moment he met her, to the mutal surrender on a kitchen table of all places, Vin knew Alex would be the last thought in his head beforehe died. He was by no means a man who thought deeply on things, accepting life the way it was. Vin was capable of seeing the beauty in the quiet moments while fully aware of the ugliness that existed in the world. When Eli Joe had made him a marked man, Vin accepted he might have to face the years alone.
Fortunately, life had other ideas in mind. Chris Larabee's friendship had come out of nowhere, and with him the five men who had become his brothers. Since then, Vin accepted the gift life chose to bestow upon him with their friendship. Vin never expected there could be more surprises to come until the stage rolled into town one lazy afternoon and changed everything. Life had given him Alex and Vin knew, everyday after this one, would see her at his side. Through this life and possibly all the ones after, into infinity perhaps.
Alex let him rest against her chest, relishing the feel of his breath against her skin as he recouped his strength. She felt strangely clear about so many things as her fingers tracing small circles on his smooth skin. It was a pleasing contrast to the equally delightful sensation of the rough stubble on his face caressing her breasts.
How could she have stayed away from him for so long? Had she known this was the experience she refused that night, they would have made love sooner. In any case, she knew with perfect clarity Ezra would not have fulfilled her the same way. Alex never felt the same heat or passion for Ezra in all the months they were together, as she felt in the short periods shared with Vin.
"You know something?”
"What?" She answered him dreamily, still reeling from the after-effects of their lovemaking.
"I'm never going to look at your kitchen table the same way again."
Alex giggled softly and then responded. "I'll just have to find somewhere else to cook."
"You cook?" He lifted his head to stare at her with those incredible blue eyes of his.
"Considering your earlier performance, I'll let that remark slide." She continued to let her fingers drift across his skin. After a moment, she said in a soft, sober voice. "Thank you for making it so wonderful, Vin."
"No," Vin shook his head, kissing her lips again because he wanted her to know how honoured he felt." Thank you for choosing me."
"It wouldn't have been anyone else," she kissed his shoulder and knew it was the undeniable truth.
Vin kissed her once more, feeling very pleased with himself at that moment. He nuzzled up against her, trying to get comfortable on the hard surface. After a while, he gave up altogether. "Do you think we can move someplace else now?"
Alex looked down at him and smiled, perfectly willing to indulge him in his request and anything else he might have in mind. After all, the night was young, and she could stand being with Vin Tanner all night if he so desired. "This from the man who called me an ol' spinster woman."
"Well," he sighed with utter contentment. "I had to do something to take the edge off you."
He eased off her and allowed her to roll out from under him. They were both a sight, Vin thought with satisfaction.
"Don't worry cowboy," she gave him a suggestive smile as she padded towards the corridor. "You're not done yet."
Vin felt a familiar twinge of desire as he followed her towards the bedroom. "I suppose I can put up with you a little longer."
Alex met his gaze with an utterly wicked smirk. " Up being the operative word, Mr Tanner."
Inez would have liked to have stayed at the dance, but with the evening winding down and the couples departing the hall, she knew it was only a matter of time before the saloon's ranks started to fill again. Although she was a partner with Ezra Standish, she knew he was otherwise engaged, and she did not have the inconvenience of an escort to keep her from tending bar when those crowds arrived. Of course, Inez could have a companion if she wished it. Buck asked her to the dance several times, and several times, she refused him. No doubt, he was somewhere in bed at this moment, coupling with one of the ladies she saw him trying to charm during the evening.
As long as it was not her.
Inez had no intention of being just another notch in Buck Wilmington's very marked belt. As much as she cared for him, which was considerably more than most people knew, she was unwilling to play second fiddle to anyone. Inez wanted someone who would love her, without having to fear whose bed she would find him, each time the wind blew a different direction. The truth was, she knew she could fall very deeply for Buck, which was half the reason she kept her distance.
The sultry bartender woman continued up the boardwalk, smiling faintly as she observed happy couples strolling through the streets, eyes only for each other after the evening past. Most of the children were gone to bed by now. The extinguished sparklers lying against the dirt were all that remained of their presence earlier in the day. Most of the men on the street were on their way to the saloon, and Inez sighed, thinking about the hectic evening she would soon have to face.
As she rounded the corner, she noticed JD and Casey walking hand in hand in the moonlight. The scene brought a smile to her face the way nothing else could. Inez was pleased to see the earlier trouble had faded away. Obviously, Casey convinced JD by now that a picnic basket won by Bart Cook would have little bearing on their relationship. While she may have been forced to endure the usurper's attentions during the meal, she discarded him once the basket was empty. After her arrival at the dance, Casey and JD was virtually inseparable, and poor Bart Cook was left to sulk in the corner with the rest of the wallflowers.
Inez had only wished the evening was similarly pleasant for Alex and Vin. She wondered where the two of them disappeared to after the altercation at the dance. No doubt, Alex was probably hiding somewhere in mortification and Vin was probably brooding in his wagon, if he was not already getting drunk at the saloon. The awful Mr Mason did not make his return after he was banished so resoundingly by Chris Larabee. Inez felt a shudder of ice run down her spine when she saw how the man reacted to Alex and Vin. There were too many parallels between his behaviour and Don Paulo for her liking.
Buck secured her release, and almost got himself killed for the effort. Inez hoped it would not require Vin Tanner to make the same sacrifice.
Thinking of how Buck defended her honour, brought forth an involuntary feeling of warmth for him. If he was not so damn annoying and so forward, she might give him a little more thought. She knew if she allowed him the chance, he might surprise her and that too frightened Inez more than she would like to admit. When she was nearly assaulted some months ago, Buck was at her side, ensuring his supportive shoulder was there for her recovery. Inez was astonished by the intensity of his care since he was ordinarily irresponsible beyond belief.
Still, the memory of her ordeal surfaced to taunt her in the dark moments when she allowed herself to think of it. During the first few weeks, she often woke up in the dark, her clothes plastered to her skin with the sweat of nightmares she dared not recall. It took her a long time not to jump at every shadow or view every man as a potential monster.
She saw the saloon ahead and noted a small crowd gathering outside waiting impatiently for her arrival, or for someone to open the doors anyway. Until then, there had been people walking back and forth on the street, but after turning down the corner to where the saloon was situated, she noticed the crowds dropped off considerably. She looked over her shoulder and saw the fair-haired stranger who was a companion to Randall Mason, walking up behind her.
"Miss Inez." He tipped his hat at her as she met his gaze.
"Senor Rihs?" Inez replied politely, seeing no reason to be rude since he was not responsible for Mr Mason's behaviour.
"That is correct, you remembered."
"One does not forget a meeting like that."
In the moonlight, there seemed to be no expression on his face as she spoke of the day he and Randall first walked into the saloon and made their inquiries about Alex. "That is true, and it is unfortunate that circumstances have spiralled out of control so rapidly."
"If you are referring to the incident at the dance, I would agree, Senor." She felt for Alex because Inez knew what it was like to suffer the attentions of an unwanted suitor.
"Actually, I'm not." He smiled, pulling his lips across his white teeth with a sinister gleam. She looked down and found herself staring at his gun, discreetly hidden out of sight but with a clear line of fire into her belly if she gave him a reason to pull the trigger.
"What is this?" Inez demanded quietly, her eyes staring at the weapon for a moment before shifting to his face.
"This, my dear is a small act in a larger play." He replied. "I would ask you to accompany me to where I wish you to go, quietly. It would be a shame to shoot you, but do not doubt that I will, if you refuse to cooperate." He said this all with perfect civility even though his eyes spoke volumes of what he was capable of, should she resist.
"Maybe letting you kill me now is preferable to what you can do in the shadows," Inez said boldly as her eyes darted towards the direction of the saloon. Unfortunately, no one noticed her presence before his arrival, and they certainly did not now. If there was help to be had, it would not come from these men who were more interested in the opening of the tavern than anything else transpiring around them.
"Is that a gamble you are willing to take, Senorita?" He cocked the gun slowly, reinforcing the threat with the click of the chamber moving into position.
The courage to call his bluff did not come, and Inez saw no alternative but to agree begrudgingly to his demands. Still, she would die before allowing anyone to touch her.
She was not going to suffer any new nightmares.*****
Shortly after Inez had made the same journey, Ezra, Julia, Chris and Josiah made their way to the saloon, only to find a crowd of unhappy people, awaiting the opening of the establishment with growing impatience and rowdy behaviour. As Ezra fought his way through the bodies, barking at him in colourful language, to say the least, demanding access to the bar, he wondered what had happened to Inez.
"Gentlemen please!" Ezra spoke on top of his voice. "I shall open the doors soon enough but kindly let myself and my friends through!"
He need not have bothered for as Chris stepped through the crowd; the more disgruntled members of the group quickly stepped aside for the gunslinger. No one was foolish enough to try shoving and pushing anywhere in Chris Larabee's direction, for the man was known for his intolerance of having his personal space invaded. Ezra sighed; envying what it must be to go through life with such formidable presence that it could instantly make men tremble at the sight of you.
Within minutes, Ezra unlocked the doors, and the tavern was open for business once again. Without Inez, it was up to the gambler to take up the bartending duties and the deluge of drinkers in the first ten minutes of its opening kept Ezra too busy to think very much about where his partner might be.
With the opening of the saloon, came the inevitable arrival of the saloon girls and someone took a seat at the piano. Although nothing like the music at the dance, very soon, the air was filled with a lively and melodic tune that kept the place hopping. Ezra saw Josiah, Chris and Julia take up position at their favourite table. The gambler had an idea of what they drank and took the liberty of fulfilling their requirements once the rush of drinkers had subsided.
"I thought Inez was supposed to open up," Julia asked when Ezra returned to the table.
"She was. She left the dance early in anticipation of a full house by the time the event concluded."
Chris remembered the lady leaving the dance because he was present at her farewells to Mary before her departure. The last time Inez disappeared for a few hours, the results had the most horrific outcome. Chris hoped this absence was nothing like that. He was tempted to find Mary who was at this moment conferring with other members of the anniversary committee to make some last-minute arrangements about tomorrow's activities. Perhaps Mary was aware of some meeting Inez had left undisclosed.
"Perhaps she is with Buck?" Julia suggested.
"Only in his dreams," Josiah remarked. The comment sparked a short round of laughter from those at the table, even if it was just for a moment.
"It is unlike her to leave her responsibilities in this manner," Ezra was clearly unhappy he did not know his partner's whereabouts. The last time she went missing, he left it too late to raise the alarm and by the time she finally surfaced, Inez was abducted. This time, he was unwilling to let it go with a simple shrug of his shoulders. While their relationship was purely platonic, Inez was his friend and confidant. It was her voice that gave his conscience a swift kick in the rear whenever it chose to lapse towards some inappropriate behaviour.
Rising to his feet, he turned to Julia. "My dear, I'm going to escort you home. Mr Larabee, I do not wish to sound alarmist, but I do not like the idea Inez is not here. She is uncommonly punctual and not prone to such neglect. If she is not here, there is a reason for it."
"Are you sure?" Julia pouted, disappointed an enjoyable evening was ending abruptly. While she hoped nothing too awful happened to the woman, Julia did not feel any real concern over Inez's welfare other than what she meant to Ezra. Usually, such a relationship would have bothered her, but it was Inez's own behaviour convinced Julia she had nothing to fear.
"Chris, it is late," Ezra implored the gunslinger with genuine trepidation. Ezra seldom called anyone by their first name and that he had done so now went a long way to convincing Chris how serious the gambler was about his fears for the lady bartender's welfare.
"You're right." He nodded standing up as well. "Josiah, stay here in case she comes back.” The chances of that seemed unlikely. If Inez could be here, she already would be. "There's probably a good reason for her not being here, but until we know what that is, best not to take chances."
"And if you can see to it that my patrons do not rob me blind, I would appreciate it," Ezra added as he started to lead Julia out of the saloon.
"As long as your priorities are intact," Josiah said sarcastically as he went to take position behind the counter.
Julia locked the door behind her after Ezra saw her to her front porch and let out a sigh of disappointment at the evening coming to an end so abruptly. While she loved him a great deal, she wished he did not have such an annoyingly noble streak in him. It made for the most inconvenient interruptions. Still, she understood his need to belong and the camaraderie he shared with the six men he rode with was a bond she did not have the courage to attempt breaking.
Julia wondered what it was like to have such deep friendships, but the substance of it escaped her. All her life, Julia lived believing that other women were the enemy. There were few whose company she could keep without feeling the need to gain the upper hand. It was not that she wished to alienate them, but inevitably would do so even if she didn't intend it.
Loving Ezra Standish made her vulnerable, and Julia had no idea how vulnerable until the moment Mary Travis threatened Julia with her unsavoury past. She knew that Ezra probably suspected most of what the venerable Mrs Travis had dared to reveal. However, it was a risk Julia was unwilling to take. Finding a man who knew what she was in all her manipulative and scheming glory, and still loved her despite it, was something Julia never believed possible. It challenged Julia, she could not pull the wool over his eyes, and her attempts to try had led to some incredible lovemaking once the game was discovered.
She would not risk losing him, however remote the possibility.
She started to remove the pins from her hair, allowing the locks of red to fall around her shoulders as she made her way to the bedroom. Assuming Inez was not in any serious danger, she expected to see Ezra back later that night to share a drink and perhaps a little more than that. Instead of residing above the emporium as Victoria Kendall had done when she owned the premises, Julia opted to buy the house adjoining the property. It was not the most lavish of homes, but fortunately, she had the money to almost completely refurbish it so that it was quite luxurious according to the standards of most people in Four Corners.
Julia made her way to the bedroom to divest herself of her confining clothes and slip into something a little less uncomfortable when she walked past the parlour and noticed the garden doors were open. For a moment, she stood in the hallway, trying to recall whether she left it unlocked.
A residual effect of life in the city taught her to always keep the doors locked. Burglaries and homicides were almost as prolific in the urban centres of 19th century America as gunfights were in the Wild West. Except in the territory, you had some idea of who the enemy was. In a city, where faces were so abundant it was easy to lose track of one person to the next, everyone was a potential threat. She stared at that opened door trying to decide what to do, convinced she had not left it open.
The seconds seemed to slow before she reached the decision to close it and chalk the whole thing to her own absentmindedness. However, as she crossed the doorway into the parlour, her mind kept spinning the same question. When had she found a reason to open the door to even forget locking it? She crossed the rug in the parlour when the moonlight caught pieces of glass and beamed its bright reflection into her eyes. Julia froze at the realization she had not forgotten to unlock anything.
Someone had broken in.
She started withdrawing in rising apprehension at the discovery, swinging around to hurry out the front door in the wild need to escape. The ‘someone' who entered her house was standing behind her when she made her bid to flee. She cringed away from the smell of liquor and the stench of the man who had obviously not bathed in quite some time. Before she could scream, his filthy hand cupped her mouth and kept the sound from escaping her throat.
"Don't make a fuss now, little lady." He yanked her forward by the neck, his thick fingers squeezing her throat with enough force to drive home the point he would hurt her if she made any trouble.
"What do you want?" She asked fearfully, staring at him with wide eyes. In the darkness, she could not see him very well but knew he dwarfed her easily and seemed to be one of those men Ezra would generally call a denizen of ‘Purgatory' or some similar hive of villainy.
Sometimes she wished he would just say outlaw.
"We're taking a ride. " He smiled at Julia with teeth gleaming in the night like that of a wolf. "If you're nice, maybe it won't hurt as much."
Somehow, Julia doubted it.
There were times when Mary envied Chris Larabee.
She let out a sigh of weariness as she reached the back porch of her home, glad the evening was over, although she was not really looking forward to the next day either. The anniversary celebrations were far from over, and as a member of the town committee; she was required to assist in the supervision of all events so it would go smoothly,. The widow's eyes narrowed in annoyance when she remembered how fast Chris had vanished once he saw the flock of committee members coming in their direction. He could face up to killers, outlaws, bandits, armies of fanatic confederates and the occasional mechanical monster from the future. Put him in a situation where he might be considered civilized, and the tough gunslinger made off for the hills with a streak of yellow down his back as wide as the Rio Grande.
Still, it was a fine back, she smiled as she unlocked the door and stepped inside her kitchen. She was about to turn around and shut it when suddenly, Mary was slammed against it hard and then flung halfway across the room to the floor. Mary hit her head as she landed, feeling a wave of dizziness flare from the impact. She recovered enough to hear footsteps running through the open door and the unfamiliar sounds signalling danger.
Mary viewed the shape approaching her in the dark and knew immediately she was not about to let it reach her. Although dazed, she possessed enough presence of mind to kick outward forcefully; connecting with a nub of bone, she was sure was an ankle. The intruder let out a sharp cry of pain as his foot was swept from under him. Not allowing the man time to recover, Mary rolled on to her knees and scrambled to her feet when she heard him swearing at her. Glancing over her shoulder, Mary saw him coming after her.
"Come back here, you bitch! I'll cut you real bad for that!"
That was incentive enough for Mary to keep running. With adrenaline coursing through her veins, she raced down the hallway, panting as she heard his heavy footsteps in pursuit. She pushed over a side table over as she passed it, hearing it and its contents made a tremendous crash as it impacted against the polished floor. It was just dark enough to be an obstruction to a man unaccustomed to the layout of an unfamiliar place. Predictably, she heard a loud thud followed by more cursing and knew the ploy had worked.
It bought her enough time to reach the front door of the Clarion office which took her out onto the main street. Right into the surprised arms of Chris Larabee, who was just about to enter the building.
"Mary, what's wrong!" He demanded as his arms wrapped around her.
"Oh, thank God, Chris!" Mary said gasping in fright, never happier to see him. "There's somebody in my house!"
His eyes hardened in that way she had grown accustomed to, whenever trouble was about. "Go to the saloon and wait for me." He ordered in a tone that would not accept an argument. His hands had dropped from her shoulders, and she could see him reaching for the pearl-handled Peacemaker nestled in the holster at his side.
"Be careful." She said, kissing him hastily on the cheek as he left her and went to confront the intruder who had invaded her home for some unknown but sinister purpose.
Mary turned her back reluctantly and did not take more than a few steps when gunfire erupted behind her. She swung around, trying to decide whether to continue as per his orders or to investigate and confirm her fears were unfounded, that those bullets had not met their mark. Her heart pounded as she remained rooted to the spot, unable to move until she knew for sure. The minutes following the shooting felt like hours as Mary waited in the middle of the street, reciting the secret prayers keeping her sane whenever he rode off to face some new danger in the protection of the town.
Please let him be all right.
A moment later, she saw him step out of the open-door way, the familiar black hat rising slightly as he discovered she was almost exactly where he left her. Mary ran forward and embraced him hard before he had a chance to say a word of reproach, wrapping her arms around him before covering his face in a shower of grateful kisses.
"I was so afraid that you were hurt.”
"You know me," he smiled, pleased at her reaction and always impressed she did not need quite as much looking after as most women did. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Her hand instinctively moving to her forehead that bore the brunt of her fall. There would probably be bruising tomorrow, but she did not care. He was safe, and that was all that mattered. "Is he?" She asked reluctantly, even though she was almost certain that her intruder was dead.
"Yeah." He nodded without hesitation.
"I don't understand," Mary looked at him in confusion as she swallowed thickly at the prospect of having a body removed from her house at this hour. Perhaps a hotel room might not be a bad idea tonight. She could not face the house after such unpleasantness. "What did he want?"
"I don't know." Chris shook his head. "But I've got a feeling he wasn't alone. I think his friends have got Inez and you were supposed to join her."
"Inez is missing?" Mary exclaimed with alarm. "When?"
"After she left the dance," Chris replied as he led her away from the Clarion towards the saloon. Inappropriate as it was for her to be at the establishment, at least the place was full of people, and Josiah could keep an eye on her until Chris could get to the bottom of what was happening tonight.
"What's up, Chris?" JD Dunne asked as he saw Mary and the gunslinger on their way to the saloon. Nettie and Casey departed a short time ago for home, and JD provided escort for aunt and niece for most of the way there. Despite how independent Nettie was about such things, JD knew Vin would have a fit if the old lady made such a journey at this time of night by herself. For that matter, JD was not about to let Casey make the trip alone either. She looked so pretty tonight, he did not want to risk anything happening to her. It was bad enough Bart Cook had stolen most of her time today, JD did not intend for some varmint to stumble across her in the night.
"Someone just tried to kidnap Mary," Chris said sharply, silently fuming anyone would dare to make an attempt on her life. Although the man had started firing at him first, Chris made sure his bullets hit home to vindicate the intruder's audacity at trying to bring harm to the woman he loved.
"You alright, Mrs Travis?" JD looked at her in concern.
"I'm fine JD, just a little shaken."
"Who was it?"
"I don't know," Chris frowned. "But I think I've seen him before."
This was the first Mary knew of Chris's recognition of her assailant and had to ask, “where?"
"In Purgatory. He's one of the hired guns hanging out at the saloons up there." Chris stated, finally placing the dead body on the floor of Mary's hallway as that of Digger Sweeney, a small-time hired gun who mostly went in for rustling jobs, and could always be counted to play gunmen in any small operation.
"What would they want with Inez and me?"
"Inez is gone too?" JD exclaimed, feeling like he had walked into the middle of a play and was trying to follow the best he could.
"Mr Larabee!" Ezra's voice reached him across the street. Chris turned to see Ezra striding towards them with a grim look in his eyes. For a moment, Chris entertained the worst, that they had not intended to kidnap Inez and Mary, and murder was the real reason for the disappearances. The gambler's usually cold countenance was shaken, and the fear in his eyes was something not even his expert poker face was capable of hiding today.
"What?" Chris demanded, not wanting Ezra to waste time with his usually verbose explanations.
"It's Julia," the gambler declared. "She's gone."
The pattern emerging was obvious. "What do you mean gone?"
"Like Inez," Ezra quickly stated. "I was unsuccessful in my quest, and I thought I would stop by and let her know our search may have to be expanded so I will see her tomorrow. I found the front door wide open, and the parlour doors had been broken into. There is no sign of violence other than that, but no Julia either."
"Well, they tried for Mary," Chris growled, realizing they had a full-blown situation here.
Ezra's eyes immediately darted towards Mary's direction. "Madam, are you hurt?"
His concern for her welfare in the light of Julia's disappearance touched Mary to no end. "I'm fine Ezra and I'm sure Julia is too."
Ezra made no comment on that, but he preferred to think she was right. The alternative would terrify him, and he was no good to Julia if he was less than fully in control of his faculties.
Chris thought quickly and decided they needed to get everyone together now .
"Ezra, do you know where Buck is?"
Ezra gave Chris a look that said volumes. "Mr Larabee, bed is the most obvious answer."
Somewhere behind him, Chris heard a stifled guffaw that might have come from JD. Chris nevertheless gave the young man a stern look and then turned back to Ezra. "We need to find him."
"Chris," Mary sighed, trying to play devil's advocate here because she knew what Ezra was so delicately trying not to say in deference to her sensibilities. "Judging by how popular Buck was tonight, he could be anywhere ."
Didn't Chris know it? Sometimes, he wondered whether a bell around Buck Wilmington's neck might not be a feasible way of keeping track of Four Corner's very own Casanova. "Ezra, try and find him. I'll go get Vin."
"Where is Mr Tanner anyway? I haven't seen him since he left with Alexandra. Surely, he could not still be there?"
Chris and Mary exchanged knowing glances while it took Ezra a little longer to catch on.
"Oh." He said quietly and felt a tinge of embarrassment at something so perfectly obvious.
"Well, I can go get him, Chris." JD offered, ever the innocent and utterly oblivious to what his older companions were talking about.
"NO!" All three shouted in unison, freezing the young sheriff in his tracks.
"I'll get him," Chris spoke with perfectly straight face, betraying nothing to the bewildered Mr Dunne. JD stared at them perplexed but decided against inquiring further.
"JD could you please take Mary to the saloon and see nothing happens to her." Chris gave her a look of warmth, a stark contrast to his otherwise cool features.
"Sure Chris," JD said, feeling his confusion at the earlier misunderstanding fading away in the light of this vital task Chris assigned him. After all, Mary Travis was the most important thing in Chris Larabee's life, and that he charged JD to protect her, swelled the young man's chest with pride.
"We'll meet up at the saloon," Chris called out before he started for Alexandra Styles's clinic.
Vin Tanner was exhausted but happy.
He tightened his hold around Alex's naked waist, watching her sleep with her dark hair splayed against the pillow and knew he could do this for hours. Had it been three or four hours since they left the dance? The time had slipped by so fast after their heated coupling on her kitchen table.
Of course, the hours tended to go by faster, considering they had done nothing but rutted shamelessly like animals for most of that time. Vin and Alex had brought each other to such heightened states of pleasure he could no longer remember how many times they had made love tonight. Once she lowered the walls between them and gave herself to him completely, Alexandra Styles had literally taken his breath away.
Vin found himself drifting away on the wings of pure contentment, his body thoroughly spent. Yet, he knew all she had to do was open her eyes and give him that suggestive smile before he would find himself miraculously renewed for another bout of passionate lovemaking. He could not get enough of her and she of him. They spent hours in an exquisite exploration of each other's flesh, indulging in the pleasure there was to be found in their soulful joining. While Alex had been a novice at the start of the evening, she managed to surprise him in the hours since and he was unashamed to admit, he was the one begging her not to stop at one or two points during the night.
The scent of their union was heavy in the air, and he was more than happy to fall asleep to that intoxicating aroma. He ran his fingers against her silken lips and felt a wave of warm affection pervading his soul with an accusing finger telling him he was unconditionally lost to her. Vin supposed he had been the moment she stepped off that stage, and he saw her for the first time. Since that day, she had unknowingly chipped away at his resolve, ensnaring his heart little by little, despite all the obstacles in the way.
Now Vin was hers, and it made what he felt for Charlotte pale in comparison.
For the first time, he understood why Chris Larabee would die if Mary Travis were ever taken away from him.
Alex stirred at his touch and opened her eyes to find Vin staring at her, wearing the slight smile on his face hiding so much of how he felt at times. His blue eyes were filled with such adoration she felt her entire being warm at the sight of it and wondered if he knew, she felt the same way. It had been such a bumpy road to get to this point and yet the sweetness of the last few hours made it all worthwhile.
"Aren't you tired yet, cowboy?" She asked almost purring from satisfaction at what they indulged in tonight. She felt sore and weary, but just looking at him was enough to make her ache with desire for him once more. "I thought you were done after the last time." She ran her finger against his chest, tracing the skin with her fingertip with a coquettish smile on her lips.
Vin shuddered at her touch and leaned forward to kiss her. He rolled on top of Alex, enjoying the sensation of her soft body under him as their mouths melted against each other and knew he wanted her like this for as long as he could have her…
Someone knocked on the door.
Alex broke away first. "God, who is that?" She said breathlessly, hating to break away from his kiss.
"I don't know," Vin confessed, wondering who would be knocking at this time at night and decided it could only be a doctor's call. "I think it's for you, though."
"I don't want to get up." She whined and let her head drop back onto the pillow. Vin felt so good against her, she wanted him there all night.
Vin tended to agree, but when another knock was heard, he decided whoever was at the door was not going away, and he met her gaze with a weary sigh. "You better go see who it is, after all, you're the only doc around until Nathan gets back tomorrow."
"Slave driver." She grumbled as Vin rolled off her and allowed her to climb out of bed reluctantly. Vin watched her pull on a robe, appreciating every curve he could see in the dim light of her room and wondered if Ezra had any idea what he thewaway when he went off with Julia Pemberton. Vin decided not to ponder that point in-depth since the gambler's foolishness allowed him to win Alex's heart.
"I'll make it up to you when you get back.”
"You better," she laughed, tying the cord around her robe. "You don't want me to turn into a mean ol' spinster, now would you?"
"Nah you're safe. I think I've broken you in good." Vin winked at her.
"Oh, I'll make you pay for that cowboy." She giggled, before leaving the room, the flutter of a silk robe trailing behind her as she padded down the hallway to the door.
Alex let out a wistful sigh as she left Vin behind in the warm bed and went to answer the door. She did so hope it was only a minor house call but knew with a sinking feeling no house call made at this hour of the night could possibly be trivial. Actually, it was not really that late, she realised. They had left the dance early in the evening although as far as she was concerned, they had utilised the time alone most productively.
Whoever it was had better have a damn good reason for the intrusion, like being on the verge of death or something, she grumbled to herself when she heard another loud knock.
"Chris!" Alex stared with surprise after swinging the door open and finding herself standing before Chris Larabee. "Is something wrong?" Alex asked, recovering enough to try and sound completely casual as if she had nothing to hide.
Chris Larabee took one look at her and knew Vin Tanner was definitely here.
"We got a situation brewing," he tried not to notice the undergarments piled at the foot of the kitchen table or Vin's shirt and buckskins in a messy heap on the floor. "Is Vin here?" He asked with such complete innocence, Mary would have been proud of him.
"What makes you think he's here?" Alex asked, feigning ignorance.
"Alex," Chris sighed not wishing to embarrass her but having little time for this, not when Inez and Julia were out there somewhere, and he needed the best tracker in the Territory on their trail before worse happened to them than just a kidnapping. "For starters, you're naked under there. Secondly, you've left your clothes on the floor, and thirdly, Vin only takes that damn jacket off when he bathes, and he's done that at least once today."
Alex narrowed her eyes and scowled at him. "I really hate you, you know." She groaned before turning on her bare heels. "Come on in."
"Sooner or later, everyone does," Chris shurgged, allowing himself a little smile before following her into the kitchen and trying not to picture what went on here as he walked past the clothes on the floor and was guided into the parlour. He supposed it was no wilder than anything he and Mary had gotten up to alone. Besides, he was hardly in the position to make any kind of judgement, not when he was having himself a most improper relationship with the editor and chief of the town paper.
"I'll get him." She said with an embarrassed smile, knowing Chris could be trusted to keep her reputation intact. They were friends despite the fact she thought him to be a scary son of a bitch, and he believed she possessed an even worse temper than Mary when it came to the well being of her patients.
Vin appeared a short time later, pulling his suspenders over his shoulders as he entered the room. "What's up?" He made no attempt to explain himself and knowing with Chris it was unnecessary.
"Inez and Julia are gone," Chris said automatically. It was none of his business what Vin had been doing, no matter how self-evident it was. Besides, the entire situation was awkward enough as it was without exacerbating things by interrogating Vin on his whereabouts the last few hours.
"Gone?" He looked at Chris. "How?"
"Digger Sweeney tried to break into Mary's house and take her. I figure the men who took Inez and Julia might be from Purgatory as well."
"Ain't Sweeney a hired gun?"
"Usually," Chris agreed. "But Sweeney ain't smart, and anyone can talk an idiot into any fool thing if the money's good enough."
Vin could not disagree with that assessment. "I'll get finished up here and head out to Purgatory, try and pick up their trail if I can."
"Good idea, we'll meet you there. Make sure they know if they don't talk to you, they can talk to me, and I haven't got your finesse."
"Sure thing." Vin smiled faintly, aware that it was a valid threat. Vin had seen Chris terrify a man to pieces just by an icy glare. When he wanted to be, Chris Larabee could be an intimidating son a bitch..
Chris turned to leave and found himself unable to resist adding. "Hey, Pard?"
"You two really ought to pick up in the kitchen." Chris Larabee grinned, before walking out of the room.
Ten minutes after Chris had made his departure; Vin Tanner was dressed and ready to leave. He hated walking out the door but knew lives counted on his skills, and he was not about to let the others down, no matter how much he wanted to stay with Alex. She understood though, appreciating his tracking skills, like her ability to heal, was subject to the demands of those who needed it.
She walked him to the door, still gripped by the depths of the emotions sweeping her away since their mutual surrender. It was foolishness, this ache at seeing him go when their time apart was only temporary. Still, the intensity of her feelings for him now she had fully surrendered to it, burned white-hot and brief seemed far too long in her opinion.
"I shouldn't be gone too long," he said as he stood by the door, Vin's arms still wrapped around her waist. "Lock the doors when I leave and don't let anyone in." He neither liked the idea he was forced to leave her unguarded or the gnawing feeling that somehow, Randall Mason was connected to the disappearances of Inez and Julia.
"Okay." She nodded obediently, her mouth still plying his neck with small, tender kisses. Vin shuddered and lowered his lips to claim her mouth, indulging himself again. They were both alternating between hot, steamy kisses and speech.
"Nathan will be back tomorrow," he continued, letting his mouth travel over her cheek, while his hands ran up the curve of her back. "Tell him what's happened, and stay close to him."
"Don't worry," she nodded as he dragged himself through the door. "I'll keep out of trouble cowboy." Alex smiled finally, disengaging from him or else Vin was never going to get any further than this door.
"I'll be back as soon as I can,” his body was still yearning for her even though he was now standing outside. The night air needed to be a great deal colder before he would be able to concentrate on finding his horse, let alone Inez and Julia. "Keep the bed warm."
"Vin," Alex called out as he started down the stairs.
He looked over his shoulder at her. "Yeah?"
"Take care of yourself, cowboy," she tried to be brave, wondering how Mary coped with it when Chris had to ride off into the unknown to face God knows what dangers. Even with Ezra, she had not known this awful fear each time he went through her door, it could be the last. Then again, her feelings for Vin were of an entirely different intensity.
"Always." Vin grinned and then kept going.
Inez's head throbbed. She could hear the rumble of the track beneath the wagon, and lying on her side made her aware of every bump the wooden wheels travelled across. She remembered little after Rihs had let her to a back alley and knocked her senseless. At least in the swallowing darkness, she was spared the fear of her abduction. That period, however, was all too fleeting as she now looked up and found a canopy of stars overhead. She was moving, and the total darkness around her told Inez she was no longer in town, for there were no lights to offer illumination.
She heard a slight moan next to her, and the sound allowed her the centre to focus. Trying to sit up, she found her arms and legs bound and she could do little more than roll on to her stomach while trying to fight the jostling momentum of the wagon. Inez heard at least a dozen riders from the hoof beats around the cart, not to mention the unfamiliar voices of men making conversation.
Inez twisted herself around and saw another form trussed up with similar indignity on the buckboard next to her. She saw the crown of red hair and knew immediately it was Julia Pemberton. How had they both come to be in the same predicament, Inez wondered.
"Julia," Inez whispered.
There was another moan as the small, petite redhead came to at the sound of her name. The amount of jostling they were being subjected to indicated the wagon was travelling fast as it made its flight from Four Corners. Inez focused her attention on wakingJulia, hoping the woman had not endured worse injuries than simply being knocked unconscious. Although Inez did not like Julia very much, she knew Ezra loved her, and it would devastate him if the little witch was hurt or violated.
"Julia, wake up."
"Why?" Julia asked weakly as she rolled onto her back and saw the vista of open sky above her.
"Because we're in trouble." Inez hissed in exasperation wondering how she could even ask such a question.
"And waking up will change this how? Personally, I do not wish to know if we are going to be subjected to our captors' villainous intentions."
"I don't think this is about us," Inez confessed, now she had a little more time to think about their situation. It was Mr Rihs who kidnapped her, and instinct told her Julia's abduction was similarly orchestrated for another purpose.
"How comforting," Julia complained, her cheek flaring from where her abductor had struck her. Why did it always have to be the face with these kinds of men?
Inez was rapidly losing patience with the woman but managed to keep her exasperation under control for the moment. "I think this is about Alex."
Somehow Julia was not surprised. She was privy to the violent exchange between Vin Tanner and Randall Mason at the dance. It was too easy for the situation to be settled that simply. Randall left the hall with ugly hatred she understood all too well, and subconsciously knew he was not done with either the doctor or the tracker. However, it confused her why Randall would go to all this trouble to kidnap them. Julia never met the man and other than possibly seeing Inez in the saloon, she could not understand the connection either.
"Why kidnap us?" Julia asked, hoping perhaps Inez had a better idea than she did. Her head was throbbing too much for her to think clearly.
"As a distraction maybe," Inez strained her neck and saw a man at the front of the wagon. It did not appear to be either Rihs or Randall. "Perhaps he thinks that if we are kidnapped or worse, Chris and the others will turn the Territory over trying to find us and leave Alex alone unguarded."
Inez had no idea how accurate she was, but at the moment, it was the only theory she could formulate.
"Terrific," Julia grumbled. "So, we are to play decoy for the dear doctor."
"We've got to escape," Inez stated firmly, even though she had no idea at all how this miracle was to be accomplished.
Julia tested her bonds and then looked at her sceptically. "I'd like to see you try. I can't even get free of these things." She tried looking over her shoulder to gain a better picture of where they were but could see no further than the confines of their wagon.
Inez tried a similar action, but the knot tied around her wrist and feet allow no quarter for movement or any room to loosen the ropes digging into her skin. All she succeeded in doing was make the hessian fibres dig in deeper. Her constant wriggling did bring the unwelcome attention of two of the riders. One of them edged alongside the wagon and peered at the two captives.
"They sure are pretty.”
He was a repulsive specimen with rough skin and bad teeth. Inez could smell the liquor on him from where she was.
"I say we take ‘em anyway." The younger of the two declared, eyeing Julia with unmistakable desire. Inez saw the Easterner shudder in revulsion as the youthful blond man with unremarkable features studied her with growing interest.
"Nah," the first one replied. "Rihs says we can't touch 'em. We're only supposed to take 'em out of town and hide em for a few days."
His words more or less confirmed Inez's suspicion about why they were abducted, and she prayed the seven had some idea of this as well. Even as the men withdrew from the wagon, it was likely the seven were already searching for them.
After all, Ezra would be beside himself with the loss of not only Julia but her as well, not to mention Buck's reaction. Despite his womanizing ways, Inez knew he cared for her deeply and supposed if she ever granted him the affection, Buck could be the most devoted of lovers. However, she was unprepared to take that gamble just yet.
In any case, she hoped someone was guarding Alex when they embarked upon this search or else, Inez was not going to be happy knowing her freedom had come at the cost of her friend.
Vin was busy saddling Peso when he heard the doors to the livery building shut abruptly. For a moment, he thought it was one of the seven coming to get their horses, so they could make the ride out to Purgatory. However, following the closure of the doors, Vin heard the distinct movement and quiet footsteps common to several men attempting to make a stealthy approach. Vin looked around and saw no one but knew he was not alone. His hand dropped to his gun as he emerged from Peso's stall, a keen eye kept on everything as he made his advance.
Vin was perfectly aware of the vulnerable situation he found himself and knew while he was closed in with all these walls around him, he would continue to be at a disadvantage. He listened carefully, having learnt through the years to rely more on scent and sound than he did his eyes to track buffalo, and on more recent occasions, men. There were at least five of them, and although he could not tell precisely where they were, he knew they were closing in on him. Vin stepped out into the main floor of the livery and noted the doors at the end of the straw-covered corridor was locked. He supposed he could reach it, and in truth, he had little choice but to try to make his escape.
Gingerly, he took a step forward and knew there was every chance he was going to be ambushed before he reached it. Vin took another slow step forward, his hand never more than an inch away from his gun when suddenly, he ran forward in an unexpected burst of speed. No sooner than he had taken those few steps ahead did the enemy step out, led by Randall Mason. It took all of them to bring Vin down and even then, the ambush did not go smoothly. The tracker never had the chance to draw his weapon but managed to deliver a few punches and swift kicks before he was finally brought down by a gun butt to the back of his neck. While he did not lose consciousness, Vin could feel the warmth of blood running down his throat as he felt arms holding him in place.
"Mr Tanner," Randall smiled at him in triumph as two men held his arms, while one held a gun firmly pointed in his direction. "It looks like your evening is just beginning."
"Get it over with." Vin glared at him, perfectly aware Randall was just itching to make Vin pay for his humiliation at the dance.
"Always glad to oblige." He sneered and threw a fist into Vin's face. He followed it with another and another until blood stained his fist.
Vin had suffered worst in his time and felt blood running down his split cheek. However, he refused to allow Randall the satisfaction of seeing him in pain. Rihs was keeping watch impassively, showing little interest in his employer's enjoyment, and Vin knew he was probably far more dangerous than Randall himself. Such men often were.
Randall slammed another fist into his stomach, but Vin was ready for him, tightening his stomach muscles so the blow would do a minimum of harm, causing pain but not injury. Randall continued like this for a few minutes, taking out Alexandra's rejection on the man who did have her affection. By the time he was done, Vin was in severe pain, but he was far from incapacitated.
"Alright," Randall stepped back, having vented his revenge on this nonentity who somehow captured Alexandra's heart. Not for long, he smiled to himself as he looked at Mr Rihs. "Take him. I'll go look in on my dear Alexandra." He gave Vin a wicked sneer as he said those words.
"You touch her, and I'll kill you," Vin said in no uncertain terms.
His remark drew a string of laughter from the men around him, Randall included. Vin knew the men assisting Randall and his companion Rihs. He had seen them in Purgatory on occasion but never had cause to learn any more than that. He felt his chest tightened, knowing as soon as Randall dealt with him, whatever that entailed, he would go after Alex. With Chris and the others preparing to ride out after Inez and Julia, the woman he loved would be virtually unprotected.
"I'm afraid you'll be taking a long trip, Mr Tanner," Randall said as Rihs produced a sheath of notes and handed it to one of the men keeping watch on Vin. They were being paid in hundred dollar bills, and Vin saw their eyes widen as they took the cash from the fair-haired stranger.
"I'm sure you know the place well," Randall leaning close to Vin as he spoke, wanting to enjoy every moment of his revenge in his rival's eyes. "I'm told you'll have a warm reception awaiting you when you arrive at Tascosa."
So that's it , Vin thought, they were taking him to Texas. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Vin was nowhere near panicking because it was a long way across the Panhandles, and he knew time would allow him the chance to escape. What really terrified him was not getting back in time to save Alex from this bastard.
"Is this what it takes to get a woman in England?"
Randall punched him again with a blow struck out of anger rather than any intention to hurt. The rage Vin saw in his eyes was unmistakable and Vin heard some of the men sniggering behind him.
"I'll do whatever it takes to get Alexandra," Randall said icily, the pleasure of the moment having drained with that remark. "She will be mine still when you are dead."
"Maybe," Vin could not keep from adding with a little smile, knowing the perfect response to wipe the smug look off the bastard's face. "But she took me to her bed willingly, and she'll never go to yours, without wanting me."
Randall's eyes widened when he realized precisely what Vin meant by that remark. The thought this primitive shared his Alexandra's bed drove him to such fury he pulled the gun out of Rihs's holster and pointed the barrel square at Vin's face, intending to kill the tracker on the spot.
"Mr Mason, you do that, and you'll bring his friends running," Rihs warned as he reached for Randall's hand and slowly lowered the gun. "He's just trying to provoke you into doing something stupid."
Randall swallowed thickly, staring at Vin with intense hatred, trying to drive the image of Alexandra and him away from his mind, and knowing he would only be content with such a thing when he had replaced the image with something else. Like Tanner's dead body and Alexandra's eventual capitulation to his desires before it was even cold in the ground.
"He's yours," Randall said to the men holding onto Vin. "Make sure he gets to Tascosa and hangs."
"Don't worry." The leader, a short, stout man in dust-covered clothes, smiled at Randall with a gold tooth. "Five hundred dollars is a lot of money. We'll get him there."
"See to it that you do." Rihs stared hard at the man. "If I find out otherwise, I'll come looking for you."
For some reason, Vin's captors did not like that idea at all, and something in Rihs's eyes promised it would be a most unpleasant situation if it did happen. Vin's heart was pounding at the thought of Alex in this man's hands. Somehow, he had to think of a way to escape. The thought no sooner crossed his mind when someone cold-cocked him from behind, and Vin fell unconscious soundlessly.
"That ought to make him a little easier for travel." The leader grinned as Vin Tanner collapsed in the unyielding grip of his captors. "It's a long way to Texas."
The sudden crash she heard awoke her immediately.
Alex jumped in fright as she heard the sound of wood cracking and glass shattering at the same time. Without doubt, she knew it was her door being broken in. Alex climbed out of bed and grabbed her robe, knowing her only hope of escape lay in the stairs leading to the clinic on the lower floor of the building. Wasting no time with shoes or any other apparel, Alex sneaked out of her bedroom and found herself staring at Randall Mason and Mr Rihs at the other end of the corridor, having just broken into her house.
She let out a small cry of fright since silence was redundant as they had seen her and probably expected her emergence from the bedroom, following their loud entry into her home. She turned to run, trying in desperation to reach the steps leading to her clinic below but Mr Rihs sprang into action, crossing the floor in several long strides and bringing her down in a full-body tackle that dropped them both to the floor. She went down quickly, her side slamming hard against the floor when she landed, particularly with his weight on top of her.
The violent end of her flight left her dazed as the pain ran through her body. She felt Rihs withdraw as footsteps approached her. His hands pulled her to her feet, and Alex felt a little dazed as she was forced to stand and found herself facing Randall Mason a moment later. The hallway lamp was still burning, and she could see him staring at her intently, with an expression bordering on hate and insanity. Yet it was the blood in his hands she found most disturbing.
"Randall, what is this?" She tried playing it calm although it was fairly obvious what he intended, what he had always intended from the beginning, whether or not it was her choice.
"I said you would be my wife. I am rather surprised you doubted me, Alexandra."
Randall reached for her, making Alex back away instinctively as if his touch would scald her if allowed contact with her skin. "Don't touch me."
That resulted in Mr Rihs locking his arms around her throat and holding her in place. Alex let out a scream that was quickly silenced by the man's hand around her mouth. Reacting just as swiftly, Alex bit down on the soft flesh of his palm. Rihs uttered a short cry of pain, but he did not let her go. Instead, he grabbed her hair and shoved her headfirst into the wall. Alex felt another flare of pain as her forehead impacted against the hard surface.
"I told you she was fiery," Randall smiled as Rihs attempted to make Alex more manageable.
"Yes," Rihs responded, examining his hand while keeping Alex pinned against the wall with the other. "Are you sure you want to waste your time on this half breed? She will give you nothing but trouble."
"You are speaking of my future wife," Randall said, utterly unconcerned at what Alex was going through or the fact he was in the process of kidnapping her. With the door closed, there was no outward sign the doctor was in any trouble, and he had caused enough mischief in Four Corners tonight to ensure no one would be coming for Alexandra any time soon.
"It's your business, of course." Rihs thinking the man a fool, but feeling it was none of his concern. As long as he was paid, he cared little. Although he would not mind teaching this firebrand a lesson in the light of the teeth marks on his hand.
"I'll never marry you!"
Randall nodded at Rihs, and he yanked her back to allow enough space between Alex and the wall before slamming her into it again. Alex felt warm blood seeping through her hair as she became more disoriented from the abuse. She knew she would have to stop giving him a reason to hurt her and try and reason with him, if such a thing was at all possible any longer.
"Randall, please," Alex spoke through the pain. "I never meant to hurt you. I've always thought highly of you. We have been friends for a long time."
He came towards her and grabbed her dark hair, replacing Rihs's hand with his and yanked her head back so viciously, she felt strands come loose as her neck was craned backwards to face him.
"Is that why you played whore to that barbarian?"
She opened her mouth to deny it, but Randall cut her off before she could even formulate a response.
"Don't bother to deny it." He glared at her angrily. "Mr Rihs took note of how long he was here and his departure after the gunslinger came to find him. What did you call their goodbye Mr Rihs?"
"Extremely affectionate." Rihs offered dutifully.
"Extremely affectionate," Randall pulled back harder until she felt her neck strain so painfully, she could do nothing but groan in pain. "You will never have him again! Do you hear me! It is over! You'll be my wife, and I will share you with no one!"
"He'll never give up trying to find me!" She bit back in a surge of defiance. "Vin will never let you get away with this!"
"I think Mr Tanner has problems of his own," Randall crowed triumphantly as he shoved her head back against the wall again until Alex could see stars before her spinning vision. She refused to cry out, denying him the satisfaction of hearing her beg or ask for mercy, but his words had an ominous tone she was forced to address.
"What do you mean?" She felt dread creeping into her bones even as the question passed her lips.
"Your tracker is on his way to hang. I've paid some very nice men to take him to Tascosa, where apparently he is wanted on the charge of murder." Randall smiled at her, pulling her head back so she could see the pleasure in his face at being able to impart such news. "By the time the so-called law in this town is aware he is missing, he'll be halfway to Tascosa, and you and I will be returning to Europe."
The cold fear that gripped her heart at the knowledge Randall had fed Vin to bounty hunters was beyond her ability to process. He was right. With Chris and the others going to search for Inez and Julia, no one would even be aware Vin was gone until it was too late. She knew as soon as Vin showed his face in Tascosa, he was done for. They would hang him just as surely as if Randall had put a bullet in his head.
She had to think of something, she had to reach Vin somehow because she could not live, knowing he was dead because of her. In fact, Alex could not live at all if she couldn't be with Vin.
"Alright Randall," she said, letting out a loud sigh of defeat, letting the sound move from her lips as if it were the death knell to whatever spirit was left in her soul. "I'll go with you. I'll marry you whatever you want. I can't fight you anymore, I don't have the strength for it without Vin."
Randall looked at her in mild surprise, but his ego was quick to believe she was too weak to fight his will. He released his grip on her and stared at her critically. "Do not play me for a fool, Alexandra. I may wish you to be my wife, but I can break you a dozen times over if I wish it. Are you expecting me to believe you are now willing to accept my offer, belated as it is?"
"Yes." She looked him dead in the eye and nodded. "I have no choice in the matter, do I? You will take me with you whether or not I wish to go. If I do manage to escape, you will simply find me again and destroy anyone I care about. I do not wish to be Orestes with you as my personal Fury for all time. If peace means being your wife, then what can I do but agree? Perhaps compliance might make this somewhat tolerable."
The distaste on her face was plain.
"You were always sensible." He smiled, pleased she had come to such a practical decision on her own. However, while Randall seemed convinced of her words, Rihs was another thing entirely. He stared at her critically, not believing anything he heard and was more or less convinced this was some kind of trick.
"You cannot seriously believe her…" Rihs looked at him in astonishment.
"I have no reason to lie." Alex declared, brushing the hair from her face. There was a sliver of blood escaping her matted hair, but she had now recovered from her ordeal enough to be in complete control of herself.
"Prove it." Rihs challenged.
"Alright, I take it you are pressed for time?" She looked at both men and could see the answer in their eyes. "If we ride out tonight," she continued when they did not answer. "We may be able to catch the stage at Bitter Creek in six hours. That will take us to Eagle Bend and anywhere else we need to go."
"Very astute," Randall responded. "I am impressed."
"Well," Alex pressed on. "I need to pack and get dressed. I gather I won't be allowed to take much, but I would like a change of clothing for the journey at least."
"I see no reason why that cannot be permitted." Randall met Rihs's gaze, but the gunmen did not seem eager to let Alex out of his sight since he was still convinced this was an elaborate ruse and she was playing some game to which he had not guessed the rules.
"Thank you," Alex said meekly as she moved past the two men and slinked away to her bedroom, praying they would not change their minds before she reached the room. She took her steps gingerly, feeling their eyes burning into her back as she made her retreat into the room, holding her breath until she disappeared inside its confines.
Alex closed the door behind her soundlessly, hoping they were secure in their belief she was unable to escape because the room was above ground. She knew Randall would allow her the privacy to dress, mostly because he was insanely jealous and would allow no other man to view her in such a vulnerable state. Thinking that, sent an instant sliver of ice down her back when she imagined what he might have done to Vin after Rihs informed him of their intimacy.
She glanced at her bed and saw the unmade sheets. Alex felt an intense surge of anguish when she realised it was only an hour ago she and Vin had made searing love to each other. Just being in the room flooded her mind with memories of his touch and with it, the heart-stopping fear inside her of what he might be enduring at this moment. Alex bit her lip, trying not to worry about Vin because she needed her senses intact if she was going to be in any position to help him.
Taking a deep breath, Alex steadied herself and got to work. She did not have much time.
"She's been there for awhile," Rihs said uneasily. It was twenty minutes since the lady withdrew into the bedroom to supposedly prepare for the journey away from Four Corners. He was disturbed by the amount of time taken, and by the ease in which she managed to manipulate Randall into allowing her privacy. If it were up to him, Rihs would have not let the woman out of his sight.
Randall Mason seemed to forget beyond the visage of the beautiful woman that was Alexandra Styles, and Rihs confessed she was an extraordinary-looking female, was also the intelligence to weather six years of medical school. She was a smart woman, and Rihs feared Randall might have underestimated her.
The two men were in her parlour, waiting for Alex's emergence from the bedroom. Randall, in particular, was going through her things, shifting through the remnant of her life in Four Corners. None of it held any particular interest to him, and Rihs could see he viewed most of it with contempt. At Rihs's statement, Randall glanced at the door.
"Perhaps you should check on her."
About time . Rihs snorted to himself as he strode across the room and twisted the doorknob open. It turned quickly enough, but when he pushed against the wood, it opened enough to allow a crack of space between the door jam and the wall before coming to a stop. Rihs's gaze immediately snapped at Randall's direction as his employer realised how easily he was duped. The gunmen slammed his full weight against the door and heard the audible crack of wood before it yielded utterly.
There were no signs of Alexandra Styles within the room.
What remained after her departure, was a chain of knotted sheets leading from the bedpost to the window. Rihs swore loudly as he ran to it and peered out to see the length of white linen extending beyond the room into the street below. Randall joined him shortly after that discovery, both their eyes scanning the darkness beyond the house, seeking any sign of the lady.
"I can't believe it," Randall exclaimed, grinding his teeth in an attempt to conceal his bitter rage at her escape.
"I can," Rihs growled with similar irritation at the man's stupidity. "We better find her quickly. No doubt, she'll be attempting to reach her friends."
"It won't matter if she finds them or not," Randall responded, glaring at the room with its bureau of open drawers and clothes. It appeared as if Alex had ransacked her own room before her abrupt flight. Even her doctor's bag was opened and was emptied hastily on the bed. "She won't be in time to save Tanner."
By the time Randall Mason and Mr Rihs had become aware of her escape, Alexandra Styles was already riding out of Four Corners, having stolen the first horse she came across in the desperate bid to find Vin Tanner. She had two choices, and neither seemed very feasible. However, she dared not risk making the safer choice.
If she went after Chris Larabee and the others who were at this moment on their way to Purgatory, she could forget about bringing them back in time to intercept Vin before he was beyond their reach. That left the only other alternative, and it scared the hell out of her. Alex could go after Vin herself and help him escape before he could be delivered to Tascosa.
God, Alex hoped she did not get them both killed.
Nettie Wells heard the horse thundering up the path from her bedroom and wondered who could be arriving at this hour of the night. She stared at the clock on her nightstand and knew it was well after midnight. For a moment, she entertained the notion it might be JD Dunne but trusted Casey enough to know her niece would not indulge in any inappropriate behaviour with the young sheriff.
Besides, if it were JD, his attempts at a secret night-time rendezvous left a great deal to be desired.
Rising from her bed, the old woman got dressed and went to the corner of the room, where her trusty double-barrel shotgun kept permanent residence. After Guy Royal's attempts to oust her from her land, Nettie never kept the weapon farther away than arms reach. While she had no idea if the rider coming towards the house was a source of danger, with a young girl in the house, Nettie was taking no chances.
Swinging the door open, Nettie heard footsteps coming from behind Casey's door and knew her niece had also listened to the arrival of their nighttime visitor. Nettie put the gun down long enough to light a lamp when Casey emerged from her room. The teenager, having wisely slipped into pants, was hastily buttoning her shirt when she appeared.
"What is it, Aunt Nettie?" She asked in a hushed voice as they heard the hoof beats stop and the animal's whinied its arrival outside their house.
"I don't know." Nettie shook her head gravely as she handed the lamp to Casey and started towards the door, her gun poised to fire in case whoever came through intended them harm. It was at times like this Nettie wished they were in town or had a man about. Until Royal and his men tried forcing her from this land, Nettie never realised how vulnerable she and Casey were, so far away from Four Corners and help. If it were not for the seven men who took a stand with her, Nettie knew Royal would have surely obtained his wish of driving her off her property.
She heard the noises of a hasty dismount followed by footsteps running across the ground, crushing gravel underfoot. The steps were not loud, but they were fast and very soon, Nettie heard them stomping up the stairs towards the door. Nettie kept her gun raised, aiming to fire if any violence ensued when suddenly the footsteps paused outside the door.
Her intruder was knocking, not barging in.
Nettie was confused and reacted by exchanging a bewildered glance with Casey before their gazes shifted to the door again.
"Nettie, please open the door! I need your help!"
Both their eyes widened in recognition as Nettie lowered the gun and hurried forward. The desperation in that voice was unmistakable, and Nettie felt foolish for her caution, even though it was utterly justified considering the lateness of the hour. Swinging the door open, Nettie saw the dishevelled form of Alexandra Styles standing in front of her.
"Alex dear, what's wrong?" Nettie demanded and stepped aside as she bade Alex entry.
"I need your help," Alex cried out as she hurried into the room as Nettie closed the door behind her to keep out the cold draft sweeping in with the beautiful doctor.
Nettie was accustomed to seeing the doctor calm and collected as she had been when she put Ezra Standish together some months ago and more recently, when she delivered Dulcie's calf. It always surprised her how any woman so young could be that held together, so viewing Alex displaying nothing less than panic shocked Nettie to no end.
After closing the door, Nettie went to Alex, who was pacing the floor while Casey was watching the woman in astonishment. After the other day, Casey had come to admire the doctor's poise and calm under the worst of circumstances. It was jarring seeing Alex this way.
"Alex, calm down," Nettie said, putting her hands on the woman's shoulder to make her stop pacing the floor like a caged cat. "Casey go make some coffee!"
Alex knew she was panicking and she could ill afford to do so. As it was, she had a big favour to ask of Nettie, but she knew of no other way to help Vin.
"I'm sorry, Nettie." Alex forced her hysteria someplace deep because it would do her no good right now. She was panting, still riding high on the adrenalin that allowed her to escape from her clinic to make this ride through the darkness.
"Are you bleeding?" Nettie noticed the dried blood under her forehead as she made Alex sit down.
Instinctively, Alex reached for her forehead. "It's nothing. Just some scrapes and lacerations. Head wounds tend to bleed a great deal." She muttered, answering the question like she was talking to a patient.
Nettie was not about to argue with her. "What's happened? Who did this to you?"
"Were you at the dance?" Alex asked quietly, once her fear subsided and she was in better control of her faculties.
"No," Nettie shook her head. "Although Casey did tell me you had some trouble."
Nettie did not add how pleased she was to have heard the news from Casey, Vin escorted Alex to the dance. Vin Tanner was like a son to Nettie and the first person to guess Vin's true feelings for the doctor. Seeing Alex and Vin together the day Dulcie's calf was born, convinced Nettie how good they could be together when Vin finally got around to making his feelings for Alex known.
"The man whom Vin fought with was an old friend of my father's, who arrived in town so he could ask for my hand in marriage. He has not taken my refusal kindly." Alex paused, remembering the vile look of hatred in Randall's eyes when he realised her relationship with Vin was an intimate one. "He's orchestrated some kidnappings in town to get Chris and the others out of Four Corners. I thought Vin had gone with them, but Randall came to my house and told me he had Vin delivered to bounty hunters, who are as we speak, taking him to Tascosa to hang. I managed to escape, but Chris is already on the trail of the kidnappers, and there's no time to wait until he gets back to go after Vin."
Nettie's heart tightened at the thought of Vin in the hands of bounty hunters, greedy for a reward. Knowing Vin as well as she did, he would no doubt try to affect an escape despite the odds against him. Nettie could not imagine the lean young man absent from her life. She was accustomed to his weekend visits where he would mend fences or tend to chores around the place neither she nor Casey could manage.
Nettie enjoyed how he would smile bashfully when she would order him into supper, even though he claimed he was just helping out to get away from town. Nettie knew it was more than that. She was the mother he lost, and somehow, they filled a need in each other she could not imagine doing without.
"I need your help Nettie," Alex said as Casey hurried out of the kitchen with a hot pot of coffee and poured her a cup. Alex took the steamy beverage and offered the young girl a grateful smile before looking at Nettie again. "Nettie, I need either you or Casey to go to Four Corners and find Mary Travis. Mary knows where Chris is. She'll be able to get word to him. Randall has probably got men looking for me so I can't do it myself. Chris needs to know about Vin."
Nettie looked in her eyes and realised just how important Vin had become to Alex.
"Of course," she rose to her feet. "I'll get dressed and go immediately. Alex, you can stay here and get some rest."
"No," Alex shook her head. "I stopped here long enough to ask you to get word to Chris. I've got to keep going."
Nettie looked at her puzzled. "Go where?"
"I have to go after Vin," Alex answered simply with no more emotion than she might be announcing a trip to town.
" Alone ?" Casey exclaimed because Nettie was too stunned to respond.
"Yes, alone," Alex said firmly, not wanting to hear any arguments on the matter. She knew precisely how dangerous it was, and the possibilities of all the things that could go wrong plagued her every leg of her journey here. Yet there was no choice because the alternative would be to do nothing, and Alex was unprepared to let Vin die because of Randall's insane jealousy.
"You can't do this alone! These men who have Vin are dangerous! " Casey implored as Alex started towards the door.
"Alex, think about this." Nettie finally found her voice as the doctor started to leave. "You have no idea where he is at this moment."
"He's on his way to Tascosa, which is somewhere in the back and beyond of the Texas Panhandles. They've only got a few hours head start. It's too far a trip without making a stop somewhere. With the possibility that Chris and the others will be riding after them soon, they wouldn't take the main trail to Texas. That can't be that many routes to get to Tascosa.”
"Alex, I know what you're feeling." Nettie stepped forward; trying to be the voice of reason because she had no doubt Alex would stop at nothing to find Vin, no matter how dangerous the consequences were to herself. The look in her eyes told Nettie the intelligent doctor was no longer thinking clearly, her emotions were clouded, and decisions made with the heart could be ill-advised in this instance.
"No, you don't know!" Alex snapped, stepping away before anyone tried to talk her out of this. "Don't you think I'm not scared to death of going after him? I am a doctor for God's sake, I wouldn't know how to track a dog across the street, let alone bounty hunters across the state but if I don't, and those men get him to Tascosa, they will hang him!"
"Wait for Chris," Casey insisted, understanding how frightened Alex was for Vin's life. Still, this was madness, even she knew it. "It can't take that long to reach him."
"I can't wait!" Alex turned around and found she could not breach the doors without offering some explanation to Nettie and Casey. They cared for Vin just as much as she did. But they could not understand what it was to know this thing happened to him because of her. Randall was punishing Vin simply because Alex cared for him. She turned around, and Nettie saw the tears running down her face. "I can't let him die Nettie, not now. Not now that I know..." the words died in her throat, but she didn't need to say it. Nettie could see it in her eyes.
"You won't be letting him die," Nettie approached and tried to offer her some comfort. The turmoil in Alex's eyes was self-evident. "Vin would not want you to place yourself in that kind of danger."
"No, he wouldn't," she nodded, remembering his parting words to her. "But I'm still going to go after him. I'm not ready to let him die because of me Nettie."
Nettie knew she was fighting a losing battle because the depth of Alex's feelings was utterly clear to her now, and nothing was going to stop the doctor from walking out of this house. Nettie was to the point where she had to concede defeat because she knew exactly what Alex was feeling. She understood if it was her own husband, she would be riding after him like a bat out of hell, just like Alex intended doing now.
"Wait!" Nettie found herself crying out before Alex could twist the doorknob and leave the house.
Alex turned to meet her gaze, not wanting to depart with such ill-feeling behind her, but she would if she had to. Vin's life mattered more than anything in the world right now. "I can't waste anymore time, Nettie."
"I'm not asking you to," Nettie stated abruptly and withdrew to where she placed the gun. Picking it up, she strode over to a side cupboard and rummaged through one of its drawers. A moment later, the old woman found what she was looking for. "Casey, get me the old map at the bottom of my trunk, would you?"
Casey stared unable to fathom what Aunt Nettie intended. Her hesitation only made Nettie snap impatiently. "Get along now. Quickly!"
Casey nodded wildly and hurried into Nettie's bedroom as the old woman went back to Alex. Handing Alex the gun and the box of shells, Nettie looked at her. "Know how to use one of these?"
Alex met her eyes and managed a nod before getting to the serious business of answering her question.
"I do." She said taking the gun and the ammunition before jamming both in the pockets of her skirt. "Thank you, Nettie."
"You bring my boy back to me safe, won't you?" Nettie smiled encouragingly. She did not like what Alex was about to do, but she understood it. "He's still got the whole side of the barn to paint yet if he wants some of my biscuits."
Alex felt her stubborn facade waver slightly as she embraced Nettie, even though she was carrying a gun in her hand. "I can't lose him Nettie. Not before I have a chance to tell him. I wasted so much time ignoring what was in my heart when I should have told him long ago what he meant to me."
"I know," Nettie understood all too well what it was to love so profoundly and how awful it could be to have it snatched away before it had a chance to have its time. Nettie did not want to see it disappear for Alex and Vin now their feelings for each other were finally revealed. They deserved the chance to watch it grow.
"I got it, Aunt Nettie," Casey returned, shattering the tender moment with her arrival. The wrinkled old map was rolled up into a long tube and appeared crushed by the weight of whatever it shared the space in the trunk with.
"Alright," Nettie said, taking the map from her and quickly unrolling it across Alex's untouched cup of cooling coffee. "This map ain't the greatest, but you'll have some idea of where they might be travelling." Her lined finger travelled up a dark line, flanked by notations of towns. "I don't think they'll take this route to Texas because it's pretty busy. The railroad runs near it now, but this here," she gestured at Alex to look at a line that appeared as faded and forgotten as it resembled on this old chart. "I don't think it's used any more. There are still a few small towns along the way, and it takes two days off the trip to Texas. If they're smart, this is the way they'll go."
Alex knew nothing about tracking or dealing with bounty hunters, but reading maps and cross-country travel was something she was very familiar with. For years, Alex travelled across the world with her father to some of the most remote places in the world, often with nothing to guide them but parchment. She could do this. Alex studied Nettie's directions and knew the old woman was worth her salt when it came to the advice she just imparted.
"All right," Alex nodded as Nettie marked the route with a piece of drawing chalk before rolling up the map once more. Like the gun before, Nettie handed it to her once it was rolled up again.
"You better get going." Nettie smiled with a look of encouragement as Alex offered them both a silent look of thanks before turning on her heels to leave.
Casey and Nettie were still staring at the door when Alex closed it behind her.
"She must really love him," Casey said, breaking the silence first.
Nettie smiled faintly. "I think she does."
"Are you sure about this?" Randall Mason asked as he and Rihs descended the flight of stairs leading from Alexandra Styles's empty house. The foreigner looked at the henchman waiting for an answer, the latter did not feel inclined to answer. As it was, the situation precipitating this drastic course of action took place because Randall was foolish enough to believe a woman held to marriage at gunpoint would simply agree to it while her lover was in danger, when there was a chance to save him.
Rihs's disgust with Randall was beyond tolerance, but the man was his employer, and Rihs agreed to a contract between gentlemen. He was a man of his word, and he disliked breaking it, no matter how stupid the other party might be.
"Yes, Mr Mason, I am sure about this."
"She wouldn't even know where to begin. I gave her no such clues as to Tanner's whereabouts."
"Mr Mason," Rihs spun on his heels and glared at Randall so the foreigner would understand him once and for all and cease this foolish prattling. "You better start thinking of her as more than just a beautiful woman. She is a medical doctor, a position one does not attain without some measure of intelligence. In her case, I would say it is doubly so because she is a woman. If you keep underestimating her because of her gender, we will never find her."
Randall supposed Rihs had a point in that assertion because Alexandra had indeed escaped and was nowhere to be seen. Rihs believed she was no longer in town and Randall had to concede that point as well because she managed to escape from right under his nose with her duplicitous tongue. "But do you really think she will go after Tanner?"
"Yes, I do," Rihs replied, feeling it in his bones with a gut instinct that made it virtually undeniable. "She knows if she goes after Larabee and the others in Purgatory, they will never reach Tanner in time to save him. Intelligent she may be, but she is also a woman in love, and that does make her actions somewhat predictable. She will go after Tanner herself because the margin for her to narrow the gap between them is more achievable then it would be if Larabee attempted it."
"But she has no idea where they could be. This is a vast country." Randall pointed out and once again, called into question why Rihs was wasting time explaining.
"Unfortunately, this is a vast country with very few places to water horses and get food and rest. If Doctor Styles is smart, she can track them easily enough. Tascosa is a long way from here, but there aren't that many routes by which to approach it." Rihs continued as they moved through the darkened streets of Four Corners, oblivious to the town in every possible way, except the livery keeping their horses.
"I want her back," Randall said firmly. "You will get her for me, and if she reaches Tanner, perhaps we will dispense with the bother of letting him hang."
"That's your prerogative, but let's just find her first."
Mary Travis heard the pounding on the door and wondered if Digger Sweeney was making another attempt on her life. It took her a moment through the haze of diminishing slumber to remember Sweeney and his misbegotten carcass were now languishing at the undertaker's residence. Although the undertaker removed the body promptly out of her house, Mary still felt uncomfortable about spending the night alone. At Chris's behest, she rented herself a room at the lodging house, so anyone who came looking to make another attempt on her life would have trouble finding her.
Mary rose out of bed when she heard the familiar voice of Nettie calling out her name with an edge of desperation in her voice that drove the widow from the comfort of the warm sheets and running to open the door. This was undoubtedly going to be far from a quiet night, Mary sighed as she pulled her robe over her shoulders before going to answer the door.
"I'm sorry to bother you at this hour Mary, but I've got news," Nettie said once Mary allowed her access into the small room. The old woman managed to say all this in one breath as she burst in, swinging around to face Mary once she passed through the door.
"Good lord Nettie, what's happened?" Mary wondered what news could be so urgent to make Nettie ride out from her place at this time of the night to deliver it.
"It's Vin," Nettie announced feeling the same urgency that propelled Alexandra Styles on her reckless course of action. Nettie wondered if she seemed just as mad to Mary Travis as Alex appeared to her when the doctor announced her intentions. "The fella who he got into a fight with tonight over Alex had him captured by bounty hunters. They're taking him to Tascosa."
"But he was going to Purgatory..." Mary stammered, remembering what Chris told her when they met up at the saloon, and the gunslinger formulated his plans to retrieve Inez and Julia.
"He never made it." The old woman stated without hesitation. "Alex escaped after this old beau of hers told her."
"Mason." Mary mused, understanding everything now Randall Mason's name came into the picture. The man wanted his vengeance on Vin Tanner for having the audacity to win Alex's affections. What better way to get rid of his rival than by feeding him to bounty hunters who would no doubt take him to Tascosa to hang. "Where is Alex now?"
"She's taken after him," Nettie said grimly, not liking to impart that information any more than Mary was going to like hearing it.
Her assessment of Mary's reaction was not far wrong. The widow stared at her in shock. "What do you mean, she went after him?" It was too much for Mary to believe Alex could embark on something so foolish.
"I tried to talk her out of it." The old woman implored for Mary to believe her. She had not liked allowing Alex to go, but it was like trying to stop a runaway train. "She wouldn't listen. Had it in her mind Chris could not get to him in time, and those bounty hunters would get Vin to Tascosa first."
Mary could not disagree with that assertion. If Vin was taken shortly after Chris sought him out, then it was likely the men who held him captive had a considerable lead, and by the time Chris got on the trail, it might be too late. Still, she hated to think what would happen to Alex or Vin for that matter, in the unlikely event that Alex did manage to catch up to such unsavoury men.
"She sent me to find you," Nettie continued, unable to dismiss the dismay on Mary's face and now felt guilty she allowed Alex to leave instead of trying harder to convince the young woman to remain. However, Nettie knew in her heart, nothing she said would have been able to accomplish that feat. Until that moment, Nettie never realized how much the doctor truly cared for Vin Tanner, and she suspected, neither did Alex. "Said you could get word to Chris."
"He's gone to Purgatory." Mary revealed as it came upon her what was required of her. Outside her window, Mary saw the darkness of the night was still hours from being chased away by the dawn. The trip to Purgatory was dangerous at the best of times but a woman, alone in the night, was asking for trouble. "He's expecting Vin to meet him there."
"He's liable to be in for a long wait." Nettie pointed out as Mary pondered her options in silence.
Chris was going to absolutely kill her for this, but she hoped she could explain to him later how she had not much choice. At this moment, Alex was out there in worse trouble than Mary could possibly imagine, riding into the dark maw of danger. If it were Chris, Mary would be doing the same thing. Shewould ride across Perdition's fires if it meant saving his life. Love knew no boundaries when it was in the blood, and when it burned so hot, the heart easily overcame good sense. She had been there with Chris before, and she would probably be there for him again.
"I'll have to start riding now," Mary said decisively, searching for the clothes in the dim light of her room.
"You can't go to Purgatory at this hour!" Nettie exclaimed, wondering if there was something in the water making reckless behaviour a staple tonight. "You should not be going alone at all!"
"I've done the trip before," Mary assured her, knowing all the arguments as surely as she could hear Chris's voice pointing them out now. Alex was right about one thing; if Vin reached Tascosa, he was as good as dead. Mary had no wish to see Chris's eyes when the gunslinger learned he was absent when his best friend needed him the most. Chris would never forgive himself if he did not stop Vin from hanging.
For the second time that night, Nettie Wells was forced to sit by and let another young woman ride off into the darkness.
Something was wrong.
"Chris," Buck Wilmington said after making the rounds of Purgatory as they all had been shortly after their arrival in the shantytown. Ever since arriving here some hours ago, the lawmen had spread out, trying to seek out anyone who might have some idea why Digger Sweeney made an attempt on Mary Travis's life. So far, their search proved unsuccessful as no one was in the mood for talking. But it was not the silence that bothered Chris Larabee so much.
He stood at the counter of one of the numerous saloons in Purgatory, waiting for the others to arrive as they arranged earlier. Buck entered with JD, and although the tall man was initially furious when Ezra dragged him out of some woman's bed, he soon changed his tune when he learnt Inez was missing. Nothing made Buck Wilmington more focussed or alert than the possibility of harm towards the sultry Mexican senorita. Chris had some idea of how Buck felt about Inez, so he knew his old friend would leave no stone uncovered searching for her.
"Vin ain't here yet." He said unhappily.
"I know." Chris nodded because that was what bothered him so much.
Vin should have been the first one here, and yet he was not. After their initial intelligence gathering procedure yielded little result, Chris had asked the others to look around for the tracker who might have been more successful. Unfortunately, not only was Vin nowhere to be seen, but it also appeared he might have never arrived.
"Are you sure he said he's meeting us here?" Buck questioned. Vin was tough to understand, and Buck had never been able to get a handle on the nuances of the tracker's behaviour. While Buck was open and vocal about things, Vin was reserved and quiet, keeping counsel to himself. "You know how he is when he picks up the scent."
"He knows better than to try and take on all of them on his own," Chris said automatically, sipping whiskey as he turned around in his chair to face Buck and JD.
"He's right, Buck," JD admitted, knowing Vin's habits a little better than his older companion. "Vin ain't prone to stray when it's something this important. Maybe he found something out."
"He would have had to arrive to have found it though." Chris frowned and let his eyes scan the room. The patrons at the bar and tables were almost entirely inebriated at this hour of the night. Some were only standing by their bootstraps and not much else. Drunken men were lying with their faces flat on the table, and the general tone in the room indicated this was probably the slowest point in the evening. "And I don't think he did."
"I agree with Mr Larabee's assertion." Ezra walked in, having heard the tail end of the conversation. "Mr Sanchez and I have not come up completely empty." The dapper gambler glanced at Josiah beside him.
"You found something?" Buck demanded, glad at least someone was doing some good. Somehow, he was not surprised it would be Ezra who would manage to find some news. Despite Ezra's outwardly calm manner, he was worried as all hell about Julia Pemberton and Inez. While Buck could not say he was overly fond of Miss Pemberton, aware of the manipulations she employed to win Ezra from Alex, he wished her no harm. If anyone were to lay a finger on Inez, he would ride into hell after them just to feed them their hearts.
"Nothing about Mr Tanner unfortunately but I did learn a fair-haired stranger was in town rounding up some men to ride."
Fair-haired. The description snapped Chris into full alertness. He met Ezra's eyes and knew the gambler had come to the same conclusion. "Rihs."
"Rihs." Ezra nodded in agreement. "Thanks to my entire weeks' winnings, I was able to coax a Mr Dandridge who is currently enjoying the company of a working girl, into revealing a fair-haired stranger has spent considerable purse rounding up men for an undisclosed purpose."
"How many men?" Buck inquired.
"About twenty. Those men moved out early this evening, and I believe Digger Sweeney was in their number."
"That's when they grabbed Inez and Miss Pemberton." JD guessed, understanding something about the situation regarding Doctor Styles's unwanted suitor. "But why?"
"Because it was necessary to get us out of town!" Chris swore under his breath, wondering why he had not seen it sooner. "Randall took the women because he knew we'd go after them, leaving Alex alone in Four Corners! Goddammit!"
"Oh shit!" Buck cursed. "What are we going to do? We can't let that bastard have her, but Inez needs us!"
"And Miss Pemberton." Ezra frowned, reminding Buck it was not merely Inez who was kidnapped. He knew if the situation required it, Julia could probably find some way to keep herself alive, but he shuddered at what those methods might entail. He loved her dearly, but he knew she had no scruples when it came to saving her own skin.
"Stay calm for starters." Chris glared at them both and silenced the tirade before it could begin. "Josiah," he looked at the preacher who until now remained silent. "Ezra said you had something too."
Right now, Chris would take anything he could get to help him come up with a course of action that would not require sacrificing any of the women involved.
"It does not solve our problem," Josiah responded with a heavy look of sombre deliberation. "One of the men who went with Rihs was a kid named Jeter. He apparently wishes to be an outlaw, you know the usual type, loud and arrogant, thinks he's good with a gun ‘cause he's killed a man or two. Jeter was said to have been overheard making statements about hiding out in Wickestown."
"Wickestown?" Buck exclaimed. "I thought that place folded when Wickes died?"
"The business remains as always Buck," Josiah answered. "It's only the master that changes."
"It's a good place to hide two women for a while." Chris pointed out. "It's worth a look."
"That's all well and good," JD spoke out since everyone had forgotten to mention the one thing he did not seem to understand and wished enlightenment. "But can someone explain to me where Vin is?"
No sooner than JD asked the question, Chris Larabee's attention was captured by a series of loud whistles and wolf calls coming from outside the tent. It was far too late for Purgatory to become so excitable at this time of night and instinctively, he and the others wandered to the open flap of the tent to investigate.
Chris was still carrying his glass when he looked down the narrow path meandering through the collection of tents and corrugated buildings to see Mary Travis coming in his direction. Her eyes were searching the area carefully, even though she was extremely apprehensive about her present situation. She pulled her cloak closer to her skin as if hoping the dark material would hide her from the leers of the men who viewed her with less than honourable intentions.
Chris almost choked on his drink as he slammed the glass down on the nearest table, and strode out of the tent in disbelief.
"Chris!" She exclaimed upon seeing him, her face showing palpable relief.
"Mary!" Chris declared in a higher than normal pitch. "What the hell are you doing here? Did you ride out here all by yourself?"
"Now, before you get mad at me, I have a perfectly good reason for being here." She spoke in between the momentary pause as he caught his breath. As it was, she could recognise the thundercloud forming behind his eyes.
"Mrs Travis," Ezra saw her and understood why Chris suddenly stormed out. "What on Earth are you doing here? Surely you did not make the journey here alone?"
"I was doing the asking," Chris growled, glaring at Ezra over his shoulder. "What the hell are you doing here? Are you insane? Do you know what could happen to you in this place alone?"
"Trust me," she returned with just as much annoyance. "I don't like being here any more than you like seeing me, but I didn't have much choice. Vin's gone."
"I know that," Chris growled, wondering if she had risked life and limb to ride to Purgatory just to tell him this snippet of news?
"Oh, really?" Mary folded her arms in seething anger at his stubbornness. Did he think she enjoyed the trip to this place, terrified of every shadow, pushing Homer so fast the horse was almost dead from exhaustion, trying to reach this hellhole to find him? "Then you know Randall Mason had him delivered to a bunch of bounty hunters, who are at this moment taking Vin to Tascosa."
"What?" Buck roared before Chris could say anything. "That low down, bastard!"
"What about Alex?" Ezra asked, knowing Randall could not have done all this without forgetting that vital detail. Alex was the entire reason Randall put this sequence of events into motion in the first place.
"He tried abducting Alex, but she managed to get away from him. Chris, she's gone after Vin. She intends to reach him before he gets to Tascosa."
Well, this was just getting better by the minute , Chris Larabee thought with a slight groan and an increasing headache he was just going to have to shoot someone to alleviate. What he did not voice, the others did so promptly.
"Alone? She went after Vin alone!" Ezra wondered if Alex had taken leave of her senses by such a dangerous action.
"She thought it would take too much time to reach you," Mary explained. "She felt if someone didn't go after him, you would never get to Vin in time to keep him from a noose."
Chris did not like it, but Alex was correct on that point. The men who captured Vin had several hours start already and were no doubt anticipating trouble, so they would ride hard and fast to reach the Texas border where Vin was wanted for murder. Alex was probably going to get herself killed if she actually found Vin with these men, but for what it was worth, Chris had to admire her courage. He decided then and there he was not going to sacrifice either Vin Tanner or Alexandra Styles. He thought quickly and a plan formed in his head.
Chris turned to Ezra and the others. "I want you to keep going to Wickestown. I know the odds are tough, but Rihs paid for men who spend most of their time liquored up. You should be able to handle it."
In truth, he did not know that for sure. At this point, there was little room for debate. Vin needed his help, and Chris was sure as hell not going to let his best friend swing or a crime he did not commit. They could deal with Randall Mason later, but for now, Chris had to get going to find Alexandra Styles before she actually found Vin and his captors.
"You're going after Vin alone?" Buck looked at him uneasily. He did not like the idea of Vin reaching Tascosa any more than Chris did, but Chris going off alone always made Buck nervous. In fact, any situation, which did not include all seven of them, made him uncomfortable. There was some security in all of them being together, something unspoken they all knew but never spoke of a loud.
"I ain't got no choice. I ain't letting Vin hang."
And that was precisely what would happen if Vin arrived in Tascosa.
Alex didn't know how long she had been riding through the darkness, only she could not stop. Despite the fear of what might await her when she found him, Alex kept Vin firmly in her mind, never straying for a moment from the belief he was alive and awaiting rescue. As she rode across the flat plains, with the moon keeping a vigil over her, the cold air went some way to keeping her refreshed and alert.
When had she realised she loved him?
Probably after she cut into Ezra and found herself standing by that creek at Nettie's place, trying not to fall apart. She stood there, weeping in silence with self-pity when he came out of nowhere. Until then, he was more of an annoyance than a friend, always questioning her healing ability even though she sensed no real malice. Alex never understood the reason for his hostility, not initially because he seemed on first impression, a reasonably shy sort of man, not prone to giving opinions.
She expected Vin to laugh and make her feel stupid for her typical female sentimentswhen suddenly, he reached for her trembling hands and enclosed them with his, sending a lightning bolt through her skin from his fingertips. Alex felt it then; the powerful surge of undefined feeling awakening every sense in her at his touch. There was never that kind of reaction at any point with Ezra.
Alex stood there, flinching under the gaze of his cobalt coloured eyes, while she tried to shrug it off as some aberration. Even though the moment was brief, the damage was done. Alex decided to stay away from Vin, frightened by what it all meant and feeling a wedge between her and Ezra. Still, Alex was determined to remain committed to the gambler. It was not fair to shift her affections from man to man like a silly school girl.
That night in Agnes's cabin, she had as much cause as he to regret pulling away from Vin. When he kissed her for the first time, it never felt more right. The suspicion of what he could mean to her was more or less confirmed by the time they returned home to Four Corners. Still, Alex refused to admit what she felt because it wasn't right to break Ezra's heart.
Except Ezra's heart was never hers to break. Julia Pemberton's announcement, she bedded Ezra proved that most conclusively.
Alex was furious by Ezra's betrayal, but it was her pride Ezra injured not her heart. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, the gambler was no longer occupying the space. Alex always prided herself in being able to control her emotions. Being with Ezra allowed her to do that. Furthermore, discarding one man for another would fracture the unity of the seven and Alex wanted no part of that. There were so many reasons to stay away from Vin but only one that terrified her.
Alex knew once she fell in love with Vin Tanner, there would be no turning back.
This was not the mutual affection she shared with Ezra. This was powerful, raging love poets sang sonnets about and artists went insane trying to portray on canvas. For a woman who prided herself in never falling prey to the foolishness of her gender, submitting to that kind of passion was terrifying and she wanted no part of it, even though it really was too late.
But it became more comfortable to be with him. Discovering who Vin was under that battered slouch hat became a challenge she secretly looked forward to with each encounter. When Vin made love to her, Alex knew without a doubt in the aftermath of it, she was lost. Whatever he did, wherever he went from that day forward, Alex was and always would be unconditionally his.
Which is why she had ridden half the night, stopping in every little dirt town forgotten by time and the world, searching for any signs of the men who might have taken him. She had no idea what they looked like but knew Peso had to have been taken as well. Leaving the horse in town would have immediately alerted Chris and the others to Vin's difficulties. It made sense to remove the animal and besides, Vin would need something to ride to Tascosa.
It was almost dawn she when rode into the small community.
It was not much of a town, really. Just a collection of old Spanish type buildings, dilapidated and worn away by the desert sand. Searching every watering hole before this point, Alex knew the men who had Vin had yet to stop. This place was large enough for a group of bounty hunters to go unnoticed with their charge but small enough to hide them from someone who was looking. Alex knew she was playing a dangerous game, and she was aware of the consequences to herself if she failed, but she had something of a plan, even if the odds of success were slim. She was a woman with few resources, but Alex had come away from Ezra learning how to gamble on the improbable.
Besides, Alex had no choice.
She was almost ready to rest for the night when she saw the animal. Alex felt her heart stop as she saw the familiar black gelding with the distinct flare of white on his forehead and the one white socks on the right hind hoof. Alex had ridden with Vin enough times to recognise Peso, just as she knew the saddle mounted on the animal's back. Peso was hitched with four other horses, providing Alex with an idea now of how many men she would actually have to deal with.
They were tethered outside what appeared to be a cantina. As it was almost dawn, there were very few people on the street and certainly no one who seemed sober enough to take any notice of her. The moon was rapidly fading away in the amber of dawn, as she nudged her horse to another hitching post situated in front of what appeared to be a general store. Alex dismounted the mare and tethered it to the rail as she rummaged through her saddlebags for what she would require for this insane plan of hers. After a moment, when she collected everything she needed, Alex took a deep breath to calm herself.
She walked along the darkened street, mindful of every shadow until she reached the cantina. Other than the main entrance, there was no other way to see into the saloon without passing through the doors. Alex walked around the building and saw the back door. It would do.
The back entrance led into a kitchen that was far from sanitary. Inside a Mexican woman was wearily preparing a meal of tortillas and beans, if her understanding of Mexican cuisine was accurate. She stared at Alex startled before the doctor held her finger to her lips to plead for silence, at least until Alex had a chance to explain. The woman, who was in her fifties, stared at Alex with a mixture of curiosity and caution.
"Please madam," Alex spoke in the woman's language. Her Spanish was extremely rusty, and she hoped she was talking with enough clarity to be understood. "I need to know if the men who own those horses outside the cantina are in there."
"Si Senorita," the woman nodded. "They are five of them, drunk and dangerous. The cantina should have closed hours ago, but they will not let my husband or I go home. They want food and more drink."
"I am looking for a gringo with them," Alex explained, reaching into her pocket and producing the wad of money she ransacked her room to find before her dramatic escape. The woman's eyes widened at the sight of the bills as Alex pressed a twenty-dollar note in her hand. "The gringo is young, long dark hair, wears a skin coat?"
"Si, he is there. He is the one who is tied up. They have beaten him."
Alex felt her stomach hollow even though she expected it. Alex only hoped Vin was not too badly hurt to be able to make a hasty escape. As it was, she had no idea if she could even free him let alone wrestle with the difficulty of transporting an incapacitated man all the way to Four Corners again. No matter, she could only deal with one hurdle at a time.
"Is this food for them?" She stared at the meal of tortillas.
"Yes," the woman nodded, wondering what this beautiful young stranger intended. She was obviously a lady of refinement even though her skin was a deeper bronze than most Mexicans. She must have been from some faraway place indeed.
After a moment of quick thinking, Alex looked up at her. "Call your husband here, tell him anything but you two must leave. I will take care of these men for you."
The woman looked at her in disbelief as Alex made the announcement. "Senoriaa, these are bad men. They will hurt someone so beautiful as you." The woman implored, trying to make this generous stranger see reason.
"They won't hurt me," Alex exuded confidence she did not feel. "They won't have the chance to."
Vin did not know what was worse.
The fact he was on his way to Tascosa to hang or the idea at this moment, Randall Mason was doing God only knew what with the woman he loved. Vin found himself tied to a chair at the corner of the room under the watchful eye of the four men who were determined to collect the $500 reward on his head. His skull still throbbed from where someone knocked him unconscious, and by the time he came to, Four Corners was already far behind.
His stomach kept knotting at the thought Chris and the others would be in no position to help Alex because they would be on their way to Purgatory, trying to find Inez and Julia Pemberton. Vin promised to protect Alex from Randall Mason and had failed spectacularly. He was so infuriated at himself, he was hardly aware of the cruel taunts and jibes of the men who held him captive, while they waited for their food to arrive within the local cantina at this nameless town.
Vin had been watching them for some hours now, getting drunker which each fresh bottle of whiskey, believing he was more injured than he looked and not having one iota of knowledge on what it took to be a real bounty hunter. They were descending further into their inebriated state, and Vin estimated it would not be long before they would pass out entirely in a drunken stupor. Of course, he was also hoping they would not decide to leave before then. The night or in this case, the early dawn air might actually have a refreshing effect on them, and Vin would be back to where he started. For now, he had to wait for them to falter, so he could make his bid for escape.
Somehow, he had to get back to Alex.
Suddenly, he noticed the cantina owner, a rather fat greasy looking man answering his wife's call in the kitchen. Vin's captors barely noticed him moving out of the room, but there was something in his eyes that made Vin pay attention. The owner disappeared through the kitchen doors just as one of the would-be bounty hunters started screaming for his food. The man, who Vin had come to know as Blake, rose shakily to his feet and started towards the kitchen, no longer content to wait for his meal's arrival. Before he could reach the doorway, a slender figure emerged onto the floor.
At first, Vin could not believe it. He blinked to make sure he was not seeing things but doing so only confirmed the impossibility of what was before him. The tracker's eyes widened in utter astonishment as he saw Alex emerged from the kitchen, carrying a tray full of food.
Jesus Christ , Vin thought too amazed to speak.
She was carrying a tray full of tortillas, clad in the same dress she had worn only hours before. The men immediately forgot about their complaints as their eyes fixed on the beautiful woman walking amongst them. Vin could see the lustful intentions seeping into their drunken gazes and wondered what in God's name Alex was thinking. Vin could not even understand how she was here, let alone the game she was playing.
"Who're you?" Blake asked in a slurred voice full of lascivious intent.
"Why, I am the cook," Alex smiled in her best imitation of a Mexican accent. For a moment, she did not seem too unlike Inez. "Your meals are ready." She carefully avoided meeting Vin's gaze as she moved past Blake and set the tray of food down on their table.
Vin watched in astonishment as Alex moved through the room, serving them their meals. When she was done, she straightened up and scanned the room briefly. Her eyes met his for less than a second, but she conveyed to him all she needed to with that one look. Vin was confused, but he understood it was necessary to play along.
"You just are the prettiest little cook I've ever seen." The leader of the group smiled, slapping her on the rump as Alex turned away from the table.
Alex let out a girlish giggle that seemed utterly out of character because Vin was so accustomed to seeing her confident and refined. It took every ounce of composure to keep himself seated instead of doing something stupid, like kicking the living crap out of the bastard. Instead, Alex gave the man one of those killer smiles capable of reducing the most celibate of men to quivering wrecks. Vin ought to know she had used in on him several times tonight already.
"Now eat up Senores," she said pleasantly. "You boys look like you need your strength."
There was enough suggestion in her voice and eyes to promise them all sorts of things, and Vin glanced at the faces of the men who appeared utterly mesmerised by her. Vin had never seen Alex use her charms so blatantly and was frankly amazed at how potent a force it could be. She was one of the most beautiful women in town but never used her beauty to get anything because Alex preferred to rely on her skills and her intelligence. Now Vin knew why. If she were to use it as Julia Pemberton used it, he'd have to beat a path to her door.
"What about your friend in the corner? Does he not need food?"
"He ain't gonna live long enough to starve." One of the men chortled loudly, while heartily consuming the cuisine she served.
Vin noticed something else as Alex withdrew to the far end of the room. Retreating behind the bar as if she was prepared to assume the bar tendering purposes, she kept her eyes trained on the bounty hunters. Vin could tell by the way she was watching these men there was more going on in her performance as a cantina cook, and once again, he found his attention switching to the men.
Vin knew as soon as the food was eaten, they were going to get a taste for something more and Alex, in any shape or form was a tasty morsel indeed. He started to panic, unable to fathom what she was planning but completely aware, if any of these varmints tried to lay one hand on her, he would kill them. With their attention solely on their meals, Vin started working the ropes around his wrist, hoping he could loosen it enough to be of some assistance to Alex when they turned their attention to her.
Suddenly, Blake tried to stand up. He rose to his feet shakily, staggering forward with such ungainly steps the others started laughing at him. Blake turned around at them and glared angrily. He tried to speak, and Vin saw his mouth attempting to form words but they did not come. Blake took two steps back to the table before collapsing against a chair in a heap. The others assumed he was drunk and started chortling at their friend's condition.
"You could never hold your liquor, Blake!"
"Just like his women!"
However, the leader with the gold teeth was not smiling. He was wearing a similar look on his face as he tried to take a step towards Blake's unconscious body. His eyes shifted at Vin as some terrible realisation dawned on him and he pulled out his gun. His ability to aim was severely compromised as the gun swayed in his hand as if he was unable to make his mind where he wanted to shoot. His two companions were still laughing, too stupid to realise this was more than just a matter of alcohol.
"I wouldn't pull that trigger if I were you," Alex spoke for the first time, all traces of the false accent vanished from her voice.
All eyes turned to her as she emerged from behind the counter and took a few steps forward, examining them with cold detachment. "You alright Cowboy?" She spoke to the tracker for the first time. Her voice was calm like it was when she was performing surgery. However, he could see how happy she was to see him by the relief in her eyes.
"I reckon I am," Vin said with a smile as he started to understand what she had done to the four men.
"Who are you, you bitch!" The leader cried out, aiming his gun at her now but was no more capable of keeping his aim at her than he had at Vin.
"That's Doctor Alexandra Styles to you. I'd drop the gun before you hurt yourself."
"Alexandra?" He mused recognising the name. "You the woman that Mason fella wants so badly?"
"Apparently so." She showed no trace of fear in her eyes and Vin felt a swell of pride at how magnificently she was conducting herself. "Now tell me? Is it becoming harder to see? Your limbs should be getting tired by now."
Vin saw the nervousness in their eyes more or less confirming her questions. The leader, in particular, was straining to focus, even as his gun swayed side to side as he tried to take aim with little success. The two who had gone to see how Blake was doing was struggling to get to their feet. Instead, they kept buckling like newborn colts that had not quite found their legs to stand. Vin watched in a mixture of horror and fascination as they scrambled against the stone floor, their boots scraping underfoot as they tried to stand.
"What have you done to us!" The leader cried out and squeezed the trigger. Alex sidestepped the path of the bullet before it slammed into the wall far away enough to do little harm as it tore into the brick.
"The drug is called curare. It comes from South America actually," Alex explained into the men like she was giving a lecture on the subject. "Jungle Indians like to use it to bring down game. It's pretty effective in the use of heart treatment. Slows things down to a stop. Just a little dose of it makes people sluggish because it drops their heart rate to a crawl. You're still alive, but only a doctor can tell. Everyone else who comes across you four will think you're dead."
"You bitch! You poisoned us."
"And you were going to deliver him to hang." Alex glanced at Vin. "I don't see the difference."
"What do you want?"
"I don't want anything," Alex started towards Vin. She paused at Blake's unmoving body and reached for the blade sticking out of the man's boot. The other two were immobilised entirely by now, and Alex had to admire the leader's endurance in still remaining conscious. "This is not a negotiation. I only came for the cowboy. If you're lucky, everyone will think you're having a hangover and leave you alone until it wears off and if you're not, they may just bury you alive."
Alex reached Vin and cut him loose. No sooner than he was free of his bonds, Alex threw her arms around him and embraced him hard.
"Are you okay?" All traces of her icy demeanour disappearing from her voice as he wrapped his arms around her. Their mouths met in a bruising kiss and Vin was never more grateful to be alive than at this moment when he felt her lips against his.
"Yeah." He grinned and was unable to believe she was here and actually rescued him. "I'm not as pretty as I used to be, but I'm okay." He reassured her when she noticed the bruises on his face incurred by the beating he received at Randall's hands. Vin, on the other hand, saw the blood under her hair.
"Did he hurt you?" Vin demanded, gritting his teeth as he felt the fire of rage bubble inside him at the thought Randall might have harmed Alex in any way. The threat he made to the man in the livery was not an idle one. Vin would kill anyone who tried to hurt her. As it was, he was going to ride back to Four Corners and teach the man a lesson in humility Randall Mason was not likely to forget very soon. Not to mention the good Mr Rihs.
"It's nothing." Alex sighed, having forgotten all about the lacerations on her forehead in light of everything that had happened since her departure from Four Corners.
"Come on," Vin said, taking her hand, wanting to be away from here as soon as possible. "You can fill me in when we ride back to town."
Alex was not about to argue with him because she was just so damn grateful he was alive and unhurt. She had barely stopped to examine her actions since she embarked on this insane venture and knew she was lucky her recklessness had not cost both of them their lives. Hurrying towards the door, Vin took note of the four men who had planned to deliver him to Tascosa.
All were sprawled across the floor, seemingly dead to the world as Alex predicted. The tortillas tainted with the poison were almost fully consumed, which explained to Vin why Alex waited patiently for it to take effect until she made her move.
"Are they dead?" He looked at her as he retrieved his mare's leg from one of the men and replaced it in his holster.
"No," she shook her head. "I don't have any curare. I just gave them enough sedatives to put down a buffalo. They'll sleep for a month and wake up refreshed."
Vin met her gaze with a slow smile stealing across his lips. "You were bluffing?"
"Of course. Did you think I learnt nothing from Ezra?"
He could only laugh as he ushered her towards the door. When they emerged outside, the pale amber light of the sunrise was staring at them from the horizon. The air outside that dingy cantina felt intoxicatingly fresh as Vin strode over to Peso and untethered his horse from the hitching post.
"How did you get here?"
"I stole a horse," Alex admitted, gesturing to the mare hitched in front of the general store in the nearby distance.
"You're doing pretty good today," Vin said impressed. "We'll leave it. We need to make time fast. Randall know you were coming after me?" He asked as her as he mounted Peso and extended his hand towards her.
"I don't know," Alex said honestly as he lifted her into position behind him. "When he said he had given you to those men, I just didn't know what I was thinking. I convinced him I'd go with him and I needed to get dressed and pack. I knotted some sheets and went through the window before taking a couple of things I thought might come in handy."
Vin said nothing as Alex wrapped her arms around his waist, thinking hard as to what they would do. Randall was a hot-headed bastard who was too full of jealousy to think straight, but Rihs was not. Rihs may guess Alex might be determined enough to try and find him and if so, chances were good they would run into a party of Rihs's men.
If it were just him alone having to face the odds, Vin might have risked it, but Alex was with him and her fate if they were ambushed, was not a simple matter of dying. Randall would keep Alex alive so he could make her pay throughout her entire existence on this Earth for the sin of loving another. Vin was not condemning her to that kind of nightmare. For the first time, he understood what drove Buck to accept Don Paulo's challenge even when he had no reason to defend Inez.
"We may have to hold up a spell somewhere," Vin said as Peso started galloping out of the dusty town, beginning to awaken with the light of dawn. "If he guesses you're coming to help me, we're likely to run into him on the way back. I just as soon not let that happen."
"Where do we go?" She was glad Vin was here to make these kinds of decisions. Alex was still trying to cope with the knowledge she had managed to save him from those bounty hunters, but she was not about to test her newfound courage so soon.
"There's a little village not too far away from here in the mountains," Vin answered as they left the town behind them and crossed the flat track of land surrounding it in all directions. "We did a favour for them some time ago, and I think they'll be willing to hide us out for a day or two."
"Okay," Alex sighed, resting her head against his shoulder because she was exhausted from riding all night. "You can lead this safari. I've had all the excitement I can take today Cowboy."
Vin smiled as he enjoyed the familiar softness of her hair against his back. "I don't know. It seems you were doing alright without me. I was starting to feel a little useless."
"Don't worry," Alex laughed softly. "You can prove yourself when we get somewhere alone."
Vin met her suggestive gaze and drawled. "You're an animal Doc."
"I know," she returned his smile. "And I used to be such a mean ol' spinster woman too."
This is where they became seven.
In this forgotten little village where an amalgamation of culture was formed by the outcasts who fled here and the Indians who welcome them, the future lawmen of Four Corners shared their first adventure together. Back then, it was just a job, a pittance in payment for a week of their lives. No one knew each other really, and trust was even harder to come by.
Vin smiled, remembering JD's desperation to be accepted while Ezra was trying to cope with the notion that a black man could be a healer or an equal, while Josiah was preparing to die. Even though the odds were against them, the truth was none of them had any place to go. It seemed almost destiny when the old Chief appeared in Four Corners and offered them something more valuable than five dollars a week.
Here the seven had come together for the first time in a bond none of them knew would last, but each felt deeply in some inexplicable way. Vin found himself thinking if he and Chris Larabee had not stood across the street from each other and decided without speaking a word, Nathan was to be saved, it was likely he would still be pushing a broom in Virgil Watson'sstore. The idea of being a shop clerk made him shudder as he rode across the rocky path leading to the Seminole village.
Alex was lying against his back, trying hard not to doze off even though she was fighting a losing battle with fatigue. She rode most of the night to find him and had reached the limits of her formidable endurance. Unfortunately, Alex was just as aware as Vin, the imperative to get out of sight with Randall continuing his pursuit and remained silent about just how much she needed the rest in the hopes the journey's end was not far away.
Vin glanced over his shoulder when he felt Alex snuggling against his back. He could not suppress the smile that crossed his lips at the feel of her soft cheek, caressing him gently as she sought to be more comfortable in her slumber. He did not disturb her, realising how tired she must be after her nocturnal adventures. A part of Vin still had difficulty believing she gambled her life so hazardously to save him. It felt unbelievably good to know someone loved him enough to embark on such a quest.
When Vin left her home after making searing love to her, Vin knew her heart was well and truly his, just as his own had always been Alex's for the taking. Nevertheless, Vin was unprepared for the intensity of her love or what she was willing to do to prove it. Finally, he understood why Chris Larabee's dark demeanour diminished so much since Mary Travis entered into his life.
To have someone love you that much was an experience enough to heal even the most battered heart, and Chris Larabee certainly qualified as being the most ravaged soul he ever encountered. While Vin could not confess to suffering so much grief that Alex's love was salvation disguised, he did feel as if the walls guarding his inner soul for as long as he could remember, come tumbling down in the face of her love.
When Peso was forced to climb up a particularly steep incline of rock, the unsteady actions of that ascent jostled them both as the gelding pulled itself over the uneven stone ground. Alex woke with a start and realised she fell asleep. This was a rather dangerous undertaking when one was on horseback. Nevertheless, she still looked at him dreamily, her fear of harm easing away when Alex realised she had not dreamed Vin's rescue, but was a reality she had forgotten in her sleep.
"Are we there yet?" She asked, stifling a yawn as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She sat up straight and tried not to let the aching limbs or the fatigue in her bones bother her too much. Alex surveyed the landscape and found it to be a notch or two above desert. While it was not sandy and windblown, there was very little vegetation in this mountainous terrain with its dry weeds and outcrops, protruding at every step of the journey over its peak. It was difficult to believe this seemingly barren mountain was home to anything, let alone an entire village.
"Pretty much." Vin nodded gesturing to the winding path leading to the top of the mountain range. Once they scaled that peak, they would then descend into the canyon in which the Seminoles built their community of outcasts and misfits. They picked this unforgiving place as their home because no one would steal it from them, and its high mountain walls provided a formidable defensive capability. The village existed within a fortress of stone and was only breached once.
"We just need to get into the canyon."
"Have I been asleep long?" Alex looked at the sky and was forced to squint when the glaring brightness of the sun assaulted her eyes.
"Just an hour or so. I ain't seen no sign of Randall and his men, so I've been taking it easy."
"Would he know to come here?" She was unable to keep the fear from her voice as she asked the question. Alex could not lie. Randall Mason frightened her badly despite the burst of courage that forced her out the window in her desperate need to save Vin. It scared her that any man could be so driven to possess her like an object. She knew it was not over, not by a long shot and she sensed a showdown coming over the horizon.
"He seemed to know a lot about us," Vin confessed, refusing to discount the possibility no matter how remote. People talked, and JD had been very vocal about their first adventure together. It was not unreasonable to assume the story might have been passed on to someone smart enough to take account of such things. "He knew who to take so Chris and the others would go riding out of town. If he knew that, he may know about this place."
"He is insane." She whispered and held him tighter as the full potential of that statement seeped into her bones like poison threatening to kill her. She wished Randall would simply disappear, so she and Vin could get back to their lives and deal with the future they would spend together. Alex knew she could bear no destiny that did not involve Vin Tanner. When Alex rode out of Four Corners to rescue him, she did so because she loved him. Alex loved him with an intensity she never felt for Ezra Standish. When she was with Vin, her soul burned with the heat of a constant flame and made her feel more alive like nothing had ever done.
"Did he ask for your hand before?" Vin inquired, not knowing very much about her relationship with Randall. For some reason, she did not seem to like talking about it even though Vin's curiosity was piqued. Even after their most intimate moments together the night before, it was a subject she disliked discussing.
"Not that I am aware," Alex answered truthfully. She and Randall had run across each other numerous times over the years before her father's death and not once did she suspect he harboured such feelings for her. The last time Alex saw him, they were in Egypt, just before her father suffered his fatal heart attack. Father had always known she considered Mason a friend and nothing more.
"We met him when I was sixteen, and later when I was in medical school in London, I went to a few engagements with him, dinner, parties that sort of thing. Of cours to me, he was always my father's old friend, and I assumed he was nice to me for that reason. It never occurred to me, he thought there was more. He certainly didn't bring it up when we met in Cairo, but this was just before my father died."
An ugly thought occurred to Vin at that moment, refusing to let go now it had surfaced.
"Just exactly how did your pa die?" Vin hoped he was wrong about what he suspected, but somehow Vin didn't think he was. With what he knew about the lengths Randall would go to acquiring Alex for his own, the possibility was more than likely, if not fact.
"Heart attack." She answered, and as she did Randall's words to her at the dance surfaced in her mind.
"Are you sure?"
Everything in Vin, was convinced Alex's father had died at Randall's hand. After all, Randall proved he was not above murder to get what he wanted. What if he asked William Styles for Alex's hand and was refused? How would Randall have reacted to the rejection? If even half of what Alex told him about her father was correct, William was a man who valued his daughter more than anything in the world and would not offer her to an unworthy suitor.
Vin decided he would not even think about what William Styles would have made of him.
"Yes, I'm sure," Alex replied but no longer sounded so certain.
They were walking through a bazaar, and he'd just collapsed. Alex blinked, remembering how her father touched her face and apologised for leaving her. Closing her eyes, Alex remembered how he whispered her mother's name just before he slipped away from her. For days after, she could barely think. Perhaps if she hadn't been so devastated, she would have asked for an autopsy.
Randall had been present, taking care of all the arrangements, making sure she didn't have to deal with anything. Was it because he was responsible for her father's death?
Vin noticed her silence and realised the idea was starting to dawn on her too. "We'll get the truth from him, Alex." Vin said firmly, "I promise you."
Alex said nothing, hoping for his sake, Randall Mason's boast was idle because if he was responsible for William Styles's death, there was nothing Alex wouldn't do make sure he paid for it.
Wickestown had not changed since their last visit to the place. Its founder, the infamous Mister Wickes had built himself a small fortune in the lucrative trade of flesh, and as a whoremaster, there were none as brutal and sadistic as the man who enjoyed making women whores as much as he enjoyed breaking them. The seven had done all of womankind a favour when they finally put an end to Wickes who would not allow his charges to leave their servitude. Most of the working girls who found themselves in his employ were almost bonded slaves.
With Wickes's demise, the denizens counted as the refuse of humanity made their way to Wickestown to peddle in flesh and any other villainy that pleasure could buy. Instead of Wickes running supreme as he had in life, there were now a dozen whoremasters, varying in degree of scum, who now resided in the popular fleshpot.
As Ezra Standish and his companions rode into the place, the idea Julia and Inez might be in the keeping of such men sent a shudder of horror down his spine. He knew Inez would rather die than allow herself to be violated and feared her reaction if any whoremaster got it into his mind to use her for business purposes. Ezra knew Julia would land on her feet in a place like this because the love of his life had the amazing catlike ability to never let anything get the better of her. Ezra loved Julia Pemberton, but he knew her ability to survive, lay in the fact she had no morals to hold her back.
Wickestown had grown without the exclusive monopoly of its founder and Ezra saw numerous more buildings where there had only been open land. The place made Purgatory seem respectable. Ezra tipped his hat in the direction of a young working girl who offered him a seductive smile as they passed the row of tents.
"Hold on a minute, Josiah," Ezra said to the group as he nudged his horse in her direction.
The young woman who was clad in very little, sauntered over to him realising she had captured his interest. She was a pretty thing with blond hair and blue eyes that looked like a pale imitation of Mary Travis.
"Can I do something for you, honey?" She smiled suggestively, switching into a voice Ezra was sure she only used for business.
"Why thank you, young lady," Ezra gave her his most charming smile. "Actually, I require information."
"Oh." She said disappointed and Ezra could see she was preparing to depart when he produced a crisp note just beyond her reach. She brightened at the colour of green before returning her undivided attention back to him, encouraged with the promise of easy money not requiring her being on her back for a change.
"I am wondering if a large group of men may have come riding here in the last day or so, accompanied perhaps by two women?"
"Working girls?" She looked at him, wondering what need he had of those when she was here and willing. She did so want to offer him her services because he and his companions appeared to be the most handsome men, even the older one with the sombre face.
"Certainly not." Ezra returned quickly. "A Senorita and a white woman." He continued, dangling the note a little closer but still not close for her enough to reach.
"I saw a group of men come in late last night about ten of them," she answered after a moment's thought. "Didn't see no women with them though, just a wagon."
It was better than nothing Ezra decided and certainly worth investigating. It would be far simpler to keep two female captives in a wagon than it would be forcing them to ride peacefully on the back of one's horse. Anyone attempting that with Inez would have reason to regret it quickly. Ezra turned back and saw Josiah and Buck had made a similar assessment of the situation.
"You would not have any idea where these men would be, would you, my dear?"
"Well, they're up at Hills." She answered. "He runs a saloon and a couple of girls." Her eyes never moving from the fresh five-dollar note close enough for her to breathe its crisp scent.
"Your assistance has been invaluable," Ezra smiled and handed her her prize. Furtively she snatched it from his hand before securing it into a tight roll she slipped through the crack of her ample cleavage. Ezra estimated her master would not be made aware of this sudden boon and saw no reason to begrudge the girl the money.
"You sure I can't help you with anything else honey?" She winked at him, running a light fingertip over his leg.
"Come on, Ezra," Josiah said abruptly, cutting into the conversation with an edge to indicate they could ill afford to waste any more time here. Ezra shrugged as if he were powerless against the whims of his friends, before continuing riding past her.
"Hills, she said," Ezra announced to Josiah, Buck and JD.
"I'll scout around," Buck always seemed to be able to blend into places like this and get people talking. He was one of those naturally disarming personalities that put people at ease, in particular women. "I'll find out what I can about this Hills fella."
"I got a better idea," Josiah said, coming up with a plan. "I say we go down to Mr Hill's establishment and find us some female company." Before Buck could open his mouth to speak, Josiah turned to him sharply and added. "I mean that figuratively Buck."
JD stifled a laugh and Buck frowned at him in annoyance. "Josiah, what do you take me for? Inez is out here somewhere," his eyes surveyed the ramshackle collection of buildings and tents in the area. "I couldn't possibly imagine being with another woman until she's back safely among us." He paused and then added. "Besides, I don't have to pay for it. I still got half a dozen fillies just waiting for me to come calling tonight."
Josiah and Ezra exchanged glances before shaking their heads in disbelief.
"As long as your priorities are straight." Josiah sighed.
The room was hot and steamy. Although it was fall, the heat from the sun had turned the placewith the steel roof into a roasting oven. Inez could feel the hot,wafting air stifling her as sweat began to seep through her clothes and plastered the thin fabric to her skin. Julia, who was in formal dress, was in an even worse state with the heavy silk was slowly suffocating her skin. Her mood was only a little cooler than the temperature in the room since being tied back to back with Inez for the sixth straight hour, was slowly raising Julia's ire to the point of no return.
"That is it! I've had enough!"
"Be quiet!" Inez hissed, perfectly aware they were in a brothel of some kind, and the men outside in the saloon were becoming liquored up and uncontrollable. It was best neither woman call attention to themselves when the men were in such a dangerous state of inebriation. "Do you want them to come in here?"
"As opposed to what?" Julia snorted, trying to turn around in her confined position but having little room to move with the ropes keeping her bound to the chair. "Them coming in here and doing there worse?"
"I'm thinking of a plan!" Inez winced, wishing Mary Travis was here. The newspaperwoman was better in a crisis situation than she was. Mary always seemed to come up with the most radical solution to escape while Inez could do little but be swept away in the chaos.
"With all due respect, I have little faith in your ability to get us out of this!"
"Well, you think of something!" Inez snapped, feeling the heat provoking her temper. If she were free right now, she would knock the snotty woman on her ass just to silence her incessant whining. "You know Ezra has to be a saint to put up with you!"
"I should say the same!" Julia retaliated. "If what I hear about you, you're like a cross between a dog and his mother!"
"A dog!" Inez's jaw dropped in outrage before she narrowed her eyes in anger and slammed her head back against Julia's.
Julia swore as she felt the back of her skull flare in pain from where Inez had hit her. "Are you crazy!"
"After being tied up with you all night, you bet I am!"
"Well, maybe you need to be tied up with a man to loosen up!"
"As opposed to sleeping with everything that moves like you do?" Inez accused just as sharply.
"At least I admit I'm a woman with needs. The only one in town who doesn't think you're lusting after Buck is you! Just sleep with the man for God sakes and do yourself a favour!" Julia had no idea how to stop this unproductive screaming match, but was quite sure she did not want to stop since screaming at something was doing wonders for her morale.
"I do not lust after Buck!" Inez was horrified at the possibility the whole of Four Corners believed such a thing. Just because she refused vehemently to have anything to do with him, did not mean her indifference was based on a more profound feeling she did not wish to identify.
Suddenly, the door swung open, and the blond man who viewed Julia so hungrily during their journey came staggering into the small room. As he slammed the door shut behind him, it drowned out the rumble of drunken voices in the adjoining room. Judging by the look in his eyes, he was not only drunk but eyeing Julia like she was the main course of his next meal. Inez knew the look all too well and felt her rage at the woman dissipate in the face of the danger coming at them.
"You're mighty loud in here." He spoke with slurred speech indicating just how drunk he was. "You're supposed to sit here quiet until we get the signal to let you go."
Well, that was a good sign at least, Inez thought silently. Mr Rihs promised she would not be harmed when he initially kidnapped her. While at the time, Inez did not give any credence to the vow, it did appear the man was true to his word, such as it was. Inez guessed their kidnapping was to provide Randall Mason with a distraction while he abducted Alexandra Styles. However, this did not help their present situation because the man before them was leering at Julia with lustful eyes. Keeping them alive wouldn't prevent him from having whatever urges satisfied before their release, if Rihs even bothered about such things once Alex was in his clutches.
Julia was sick of this whole situation, and she knew the look in his eyes just as well as Inez. While the lady bartender saw the potential for disaster, Julia Pemberton saw an opportunity to escape. She raised her eyes to meet his and curled her lips into a slight pout.
"I'm sorry Mister," she said in her most girlish voice. "We're just so scared."
"Well, you got a reason to be." He muttered and took a swig of the bottle he had in his hand and swallowed the amber liquid with a loud gulp. "Rihs said we had to keep you two alive, didn't say nothing about not letting us have our fun." A slight smile crossed his face, and his eyes travelled up and down the length of Julia. "They're outside right now discussing whether or not we pay for Hills's whores or just use you."
He was trying to frighten them, Julia guessed, and she offered Inez a silent look to convey to the bartender not to give him the satisfaction. Instead of begging and weeping like the man expected them to, Julia tried a different tact.
"I'm all for fun," she smiled at him, injecting every ounce of suggestion in her voice she could produce under the circumstances.
His eyes widened at the possibility, and he took another step towards her.
"How much fun?" He asked gingerly, preferring to have her willingly if he could. This was the kind of woman men like him dreamed of having but knew were utterly out of reach, unless taken by force, kicking and screaming.
"As much as you want to have," Julia replied as Inez watched in a mixture of horror and fascination, hoping to hell Julia knew what she was doing.
His hand touched her cheek, and immediately Julia turned her head, so her lips could ensnare one finger which she sucked insistently. The man's jaw dropped slightly as arousal began to set in, and he leaned over so he was able to force Julia's mouth to his. She felt her stomach knot in revulsion at his whisky breath but endured it nonetheless, reminding herself this was a means to an end.
"If you let me go," she whispered as she moved her lips from his and let his hungry mouth move down her neck. "We can get to know each other really well." There could be no mistaking what she was offering him.
The man looked into her eyes and whatever sense might have told him this was a bad idea, was quickly swept away by the tide of his desire for a prime piece of flesh. Without thinking twice, he dipped into his boot and pulled out a knife, which he quickly used to cut through the bonds holding Julia in place of the confining chair. Utterly oblivious to Inez, the man grabbed Julia from the chair once she was freed from the ropes.
Julia endured the kisses and the hands roaming her body, her eyes ever trained on the knife still in his hand. She allowed his hands to slip past the fold of her dress until his fingers made contact with her skin. She heard his sharp intake of breath at the feel of her flesh before her hands slid down the length of his arm while she covered his neck with seductive kisses.
He was starting to groan, becoming lost in the sensations and becoming more distracted by his fevered desire when her hands reached the hilt of the blade. She started swirling her tongue against the soft skin of his neck, hoping the action would completely destroy any thought in his mind of the knife she was attempting to reach. The groan that escaped him told Julia she succeeded and without showing any signs of what was on her mind, she quickly snatched the knife from his grip as she brought up her knee.
He barely had time to cry out in pain as she connected with his groin, the intense pain forcing any sound from his throat. As he went down, Julia stepped back and grabbed the chair she had been sitting on and brought it down across his bent over form. The seat collapsed as it struck him hard, sending him crashing to the floor. For a moment, Julia was too terrified to move, fearful she had not incapacitated him because he was going to be plenty mad if he was still awake.
"Cut me loose!" Inez snapped her out of her daze and Julia skirted around the edge of his unconscious form as she approached the bartender. In a moment, the ropes keeping Inez trapped to her chair were cut, and she stood up immediately, taking the chair with her as she hurried to the door.
"What are you doing?" Julia asked before Inez jammed the chair against the door knob, barring anyone else from making an unexpected arrival.
"Making sure no one comes looking for him." She gestured to Julia's unconscious would-be lover.
"Oh good," Julia frowned wiping her mouth with the back of her hand as if that alone could get the awful taste of him from her lips. "I'm going to need a bath to get rid of that man's stench."
"Well, you did it for a good cause," Inez said abruptly once she secured the door firmly with the chair and turned her attention to the unconscious man. Using the remnants of the ropes used to hold them captive, Inez quickly bound his arms and legs in case he decided to make a sudden recovery. "I must commend you on your ability to seduce."
That did not sound like a compliment to Julia. "Hey, I got us out of here!"
"No," Inez corrected, "you got us out of the chair. We haven't gotten out of anything yet."
"Details, details," Julia grumbled and hurried to the small window barely wide enough for them to fit let alone reach without a chair. Unfortunately, going through the front door was not an option since the bulk of Randall's hired guns were currently in the saloon. Drunk or not, neither Inez nor Julia had any wish to try making their way through that sea of inebriation.
"We're going to have to go through that window." Inez pointed out the obvious.
"Really?" Julia frowned and searched around the room for something high enough to let them reach it. There was an old table languishing under years of dust in the corner of the room that did not seem very strong, but at this point, they could not afford to be selective.
"Just help me with this." Inez groaned as she went towards the old piece of furniture and started heaving it beneath the window. She heard Julia swear slightly before coming forward to help her. Within minutes, they manoeuvred the heavy desk beneath the crack of a window.
"You first." Inez urged Julia once they were ready to make an attempt.
"Why me?" Julia looked at her suspiciously.
"Cause you should go first since you're the one who had to kiss that thing." She gestured distastefully at the fallen kidnapper. "I never said I wasn't grateful."
"Your appreciation is overwhelming," Julia muttered as she mounted the surface of the table and reached for the window. There were cobwebs and dust all over it, and she wrinkled her nose in disgust as she pulled the glass forward. It was a narrow fit, but with enough manoeuvring, she could make it through with little difficulty.
Julia had pulled herself halfway through the window, wriggling past the dirt and tendrils of cobwebs when suddenly; they heard the doorknob twist. Both women froze for only an instant before Inez turned her attention to Julia and ordered with a loud hiss.
Julia needed no more encouragement as the persons attempting to enter the room, realised the door had been barricaded from the other side. She forced herself through the window and emerged into the sunlight at the back of the building. The few people in the alley stared at her in puzzlement. Julia dropped onto the dirt at the base of the wall, swearing when she felt sand and gravel underneath her palms and knees. Immediately, she looked at the window and waited to see if Inez would make her appearance soon.
Inez jumped onto the table no sooner than Julia's feet had slipped through the opening, pulling herself up by the ledge as the men behind the door, started slamming their considerable weight against it. The chair shook dangerously with each impact and Inez realised it would not take much more before the temporary barricade gave way entirely. She was halfway through the window when the sound of a loud crash signalled the ultimate yielding of the chair as it clattered aside. Inez forced herself through the confining passageway, ignoring the sound of the door breaking open or the feet running towards her.
"She's getting away!" She heard someone shout as she dangled precariously over the wall of the room from the outside. Deciding she was out of time, Inez took a deep breath and let go. She tumbled to the ground as her weight pulled her through the rest of the way. She hit the floor hard and saw Julia let out a sigh of relief.
"Let's go!" She said scrambling to her feet. "They're right behind us!"
"No arguments from me," Julia called out as they started running down the hill into the greater municipality of Wickestown. "Where are we going?"
"I don't know!" Inez shouted as she saw a bunch of furious men emerging from the front of the saloon with their eyes firmly fixed on them.
Julia rolled her eyes in exasperation. "I'm glad we both don't know what we're doing! I hate to think one of us would be left out!"
Josiah and the others were riding towards the yet unknown Mr Hill's saloon when they heard a commotion in the distance. Although they could not see the source of excitement, they did notice a group of men running after unseen prey. The men cut a swathe through the visitors of Wickestown, shoving working girls and customers aside as they ran down the meandering lanes running throughout the length of the town. Josiah tried to see what they were chasing, wondering whether it was worth the effort to investigate, having this gnawing feeling in his gut that nothing happening today was a coincidence.
"Did you see that?" Josiah asked Ezra as they saw the cloud of dust left in the wake of the men who had run by.
"Yes, I did." Ezra frowned, thinking the same thing. "Perhaps it should be worth the investigation."
"What's to bet if there's trouble," Buck followed the dust cloud as it moved further away from them. "That our girls are right in the middle of it?" Without saying another word, he dug his heels into the side of his horse and sent the animal sprinting towards the direction of the chase.
Ezra, Josiah and JD watched Buck go and decided after a moment it was a bet they were willing to take.
"Have you come up with an idea yet?" Inez demanded as she and Julia ducked into another side street. Working girls were looking at them in bored indifference as if scenes like this were commonplace in this harsh world of theirs. Inez did not know what outraged her more, that they refused to lift a finger to help or they believed her to be a working girl.
"No!" Julia barked back, looking over her shoulder to see the men gaining. The numerous streets of Wickestown made it impossible to navigate in this labyrinthine place. With tents and corrugated metal shacks wherever anyone felt the need to build it, it was virtually impossible to find their way out of this maze. The worst of it was, they did not know what they could do even if they could navigate the area. Wickestown had no form of law to help them.
They had not gotten very far when suddenly, a trio of men appeared from another lane. Inez and Julia froze and quickly changed their direction when they saw that path similarly blocked off. With a sinking realisation, both women realised they were surrounded and there was no way out.
"I think we're in trouble," Inez said in the understatement of the day.
Julia looked at her slowly as their kidnappers closed in. The working girls watching the drama as well as the customers had wisely chosen to disappear into their respective tents, content their witnessing of events was no longer required.
Hobbling through the group was the blond man Julia seduced to secure this temporary freedom. The rage in his eyes was unmistakable as he stormed towards her, his walk indicating he had yet to recover from the injury she delivered to his groin. He strode right to her and without any warning, delivered a backhanded blow across her cheek. Julia fell to the ground, feeling white-hot pain as she saw stars.
"Puta! Leave her alone!" The Latin beauty took two steps forward to help Julia when an arm locked around her throat and held her in place.
"You ain't going anywhere!" The man behind her sneered, tightening his arm around her neck with enough force to ensure she would have cause to regret it if she tried to reach Julia.
Julia's attacker grabbed her by the hair and dragged her to her feet. The small petite woman stood up painfully as he held her face close to his. "We're going to finish what you started," he sneered, his fetid breath inches from her as he made his vicious threat. The others with him merely laughed and egged him on as he dropped a hand to Julia's breast and squeezed roughly.
"Take your hands off me!" She shouted in defiance and sank her teeth on his fleshy lip, biting down so hard she could taste blood.
He screamed in rage and pushed her away, a rivulet of blood running down his mouth. When he saw the red on his fingertips, he glared at Julia in black rage and struck her again, this time he did so with a balled fist. When Julia fell, she did not get back up again.
"You animal!" Inez cried out, watching in rising fear when the woman did not stir. Without thinking, she grabbed the arm around her throat and shoved it in reach of her mouth. Following Julia's lead, she bit down hard into the skin of his arm, tasting salt as her teeth dug in.
"Bitch!" The man cried out and released her. However, instead of retrieving his hold on the fiery woman, he reached for his gun and took aim to fire. Inez had little time to react when suddenly a single shot rang out. For a moment, she thought she was shot but saw no stain on her blouse. Instead, Inez's would-be killer dropped to his knees as the blood began pouring from a newly made fissure in the dead centre of his forehead.
Chaos ensued as she heard shouts and screams, followed by gunshots tearing through the place like thunder. Inez paid no attention to any of it. All she could think to do was to keep her head down as she scrambled towards the prone form of Julia Pemberton on the ground. The woman was still unconscious, red hair loose and splayed across her face like a crown of blood. Inez kept down as she saw men falling around her, but Inez swept her fear aside and focussed her concentration on Julia. Rolling the woman over, she saw the ugly bruise forming on the side of Julia's creamy skin.
Julia was going to love that, Inez thought with a frown.
Ignoring the pandemonium occurring around her, she shook the unconscious woman. "Snap out of it!" Inez barked and drew no response. Shaking her harder, Julia started to come around at the sound of blazing gunfire.
"Why do they always have to hit the face?" She mumbled as her hand instinctively went to her bruised jaw.
"They must know you. Can you move?"
"Yes, I'm fine, thank you," Julia said sarcastically as she became aware of the gunfire. "Yes, I can move."
Inez and Julia quickly scrambled away from the shooting, mindful of the bullets whizzing past them and the bodies were starting to pile up around them. Both women had no idea what was going on but was in no rush to satisfy their curiosity until the shooting stopped.
She and Julia were about to turn the corner when Inez heard a familiar voice shouting out through the gunfire. Aburst of relief flooded Inez's chest when she realised who had called out to her. Amidst the gunfire and chaos, Inez caught sight of Buck Wilmington firing at her kidnappers while hiding behind the cover of some crates.
"Stay where you are!" He ordered, and Inez never thought she would be so happy to see him.
"That's Buck!" She turned to Julia, unabashed relief on her face.
"Buck!" The redhead exclaimed in happiness. Where Buck was, Ezra could not be far either. The two of them took cover behind some empty barrels; carefully keeping an eye on what was happening while ensuring they did not become targets themselves. The firing continued for another ten minutes, with bullets leaving holes in almost every surface. There was so much gunfire in the square, it looked like the aftermath of a battle. The dead were sprawled across the ground like uncovered graves.
After a while, it was simpler for Julia and Inez to sit quietly and let the fighting run its course. The deafening roar of bullets impacting wood, brick and dirt soon fused into one cacophony of noise that only raised the apprehension of both women in their silence. Until the shooting was over, there was no way to know if the men who had come to their rescue had been successful in their attempt, or would they find themselves in the same dire straits.
Finally, the roar of gunfire came to an end, and both women held their breath as they emerged from their hiding places, scanning the grisly scene of bullet-ridden corpses, hoping there were no faces familiar among them. Julia saw the man who had struck her among the dead and felt a thrill of satisfaction as she instinctively reached for the cheek that was still throbbing in pain.
"Son of a bitch." She kicked a bit of dirt in his dead face.
"Inez!" Buck emerged from the far corner of the street and prompted Inez forward with a smile on her face when she saw Josiah, Ezra and JD behind him. The four men seemed unhurt as they walked past the dead abductors, while at the same time reloading their weapon in case they misjudged the situation and these men had more to their number than initially estimated.
Inez embraced Buck warmly, caring about little, now she was assured he was safe. Buck returned her hug with a grin of his own, pleased by the passionate reception.
"Am I going to have to pull your butt out of the fire, every time?" He asked once she pulled away.
Despite himself, Buck felt disappointed at her withdrawal, always relishing the scent of exotic spice she seemed to exude.
"This was not our fault." She protested. "Those men kidnapped us to lead you out of town away from Alex."
"I know," Buck replied, ever mindful of the fact that at this moment Chris Larabee was trying desperately to reach Vin before the tracker arrived in Tascosa and the good doctor before she made a foolhardy attempt to rescue him.
"Gracias," Inez said thanking Josiah and JD. Ezra merely tipped his hat in her direction before going to Julia.
In a few moments, the gambler and his lady were engaged in a most passionate kiss. The others averted their gazes while Ezra greeted Julia in his own way. He noticed when he pulled away from her, she was sporting some terrible bruises.
"I take it your winning personality was not quite up to deterring someone from inflicting these injuries on you?" He asked, tenderly. Despite his outward calm, Ezra was furious that someone had done this to her.
"No." She fumed, wincing at the awful marks that must surely mar her lovely features. Julia detested injuries to her face. She dealt so much in her looks she took special pride in how she maintained herself. Although Ezra was trying to hide his concern, she could tell by the look in his eyes that the bruising was prolific. "I did manage to get us free, though."
"That's true," Inez confirmed. "She had the man who did that to her eating out of her palm."
The barmaid threw Julia a smile, and to her surprise, Julia found the respect she saw in Inez's eyes, quite welcomed.
"I do not think I wish to know how well," Ezra admitted as he ran his fingers past her cheek. He leaned closer to her ear and whispered with a faint smile. "When we return to Four Corners, I will make every effort to soothe your pain."
"I do like the sound of that." She purred.
"If you two are finished," Josiah said impatiently. "We need to get the ladies back to town and track down Chris."
Ezra shrugged and offered Julia his arm as they prepared to take their leave of Wickestown. "You know something Mr Sanchez, I think you are more looking forward to making that sermon this evening."
"Of course not," Josiah grumbled, feigning mock outrage.
"Did you finish writing your sermon, Josiah?" JD asked as the group fell into stride and made their way to the horses.
"I'm formulating a new and exciting approach to the format."
Buck and Ezra exchanged glances and replied in unison. "Right."
"You think Miss Alex and Vin are alright?" Nathan Jackson inquired as they rode into the small town in the middle of nowhere. When Chris escorted Mary back to Four Corners, it had fortunately coincided with the arrival of the healer who was just returning from the Indian village where he had been dealing with a small epidemic of fever. Although Chris hated to make him ride after that taxing ordeal, He had no idea how many men were involved in Vin's abduction, and with Alex in the mix, the whole situation was much too unpredictable for him to be caught short-handed.
"Vin can take care of himself," Chris replied as he rode through the town, studying its old buildings and stagnant atmosphere. It was one of those dying communitiesscattered through the forgotten parts of the Territory, soon to be absorbed by the desert when its people decided there was nothing worth staying for. "It's Alex I'm worried about."
"I never figured her for running after Vin," Nathan remarked, and he could be forgiven for his ignorance because he had no idea of what had been transpiring since his departure from Four Corners. "I didn't even think she liked him all that much."
Chris had to stifle an involuntary smile when he thought of what he had seen when he walked into her kitchen in search of Vin. "They went to the dance together," Chris informed neutrally.
The healer's eyes widened in surprise at the news. "I knew something was going on there," Nathan said after a moment. "I just knew it! No two people can get that fired up without there being more to it."
"Well, she's a little more than fired up about him," Chris observed as they made their way down the main street of the town.
"I guess she is to ride after him like that," Nathan said with a bittersweet smile, hoping Alex would be in one piece to tell him all about it later.
Nathan and Alex had been close friends ever since she saved his life during her first night in Four Corners. He was aware that Alex was a very private woman, hiding a great deal behind her medical degree. After the situation with Ezra, she had thrown herself into the work, with scarcely a moment spared to think about the pain of seeing the gambler with someone else. Nathan had never heard her speak about Vin Tanner at all and now that he thought about it, realised the tracker was a subject she often gave a very wide berth.
If she harboured such feelings for Vin, then Nathan could understand the reasons for her silence.
Chris and Nathan had stopped at almost every backwater town in this out of the way trail to Texas. So far, their search yielded very little success and the gunslinger was starting to wonder if Vin's abductors had brought him this way at all. However, if that were the case, they would have run into Alex already because she would not have found Vin. He noticed the cantina in the heart of town and decided the eatery and watering hole was as good a place as any to begin their search through this principality.
The morning crowd were few and what patrons there were, were more interested in eating rather than drinking. Chris and Nathan walked into the place to be greeted by the enticing aroma of Mexican food wafting through the air. After riding most of the night, Chris was tired and hungry, and the scent was terribly inviting. No one paid them much notice as they moved towards the bar. The bartender and apparently the owner as well was a Mexican dressed in a white shirt and pants that appeared more yellow than white.
"What can I get you, Senores?"
"Whisky," Chris said simply.
He went away to fill their order, and Chris looked around the place, seeing no difference in this place from the dozens of others like it scattered across the West. They all had the dark, smokey look that cried seediness and lawlessness, that only men like Chris Larabee found at home. Nathan seemed out of place here. There was no grim look in his eyes, and his face clearly showed hope. Premises like this were very much for those without that precious commodity.
The bartender returned with their drinks and Chris reached into his pocket to pay the man when the gunslinger held back for an instant. "Looking for someone who might have come through here."
"Everybody's looking today Senor. If you are after a beautiful woman with gold skin then you are not the first."
Chris' eyes showed no reaction, but Nathan's did. "Are you serious?"
"Do not tell me you are searching for her too?" The man sighed when he realised his joke was right on point.
"What do you know about her?" Nathan asked.
"Only that she came early this morning." The man answered nervously, not missing the menance in Chris Larabee's eyes. He could see that the gunslinger was not someone to be toyed with and decided not to take the gamble in offending the man. In his lifetime, he had seen fools killed for less. The other men who making the earlier request had posed the same threat.
"These five men came in late last night, and they would not leave. They kept drinking and drinking, except for the one who was tied up."
"Vin," Nathan said automatically, and Chris nodded in agreement. So Alex did actually find Vin. "Go on." The healer urged, pleased they finally had some news.
"Well, the young lady gave us money and told us to go home, and she went out to serve the men. When I opened up this morning, four of them were still here. They were asleep, but the young Senorita and the man who was tied up, was gone."
"Asleep?" Chris spoke, trying to understand how Vin's captors could simply sleep and allow them to escape if that was what indeed happened.
Nathan was thinking hard. "You said she served them." The healer asked the bartender. "Drink?"
"No, tortillas." The bartender said not understanding why the menu was of such importance.
Nathan met Chris's gaze as the gunslinger started to understand what the healer was alluding to. "She drugged their food."
"She must have knocked ‘em all out," Nathan said with some measure of wonder in his voice at Alex's ingenuity. They had underestimated the doctor when they assumed she had gone after Vin without a plan as to how she would free him from the bounty hunters. The truth was, the doctor was simply too much a creature of habit to attempt such a foolhardy enterprise without due consideration. If there was one thing Nathan had come to learn about her since her arrival in Four Corners, Alex rarely did anything without a plan.
"You said someone else was asking for them," Chris asked this time. "Who?"
"Si, two men, one very fair-haired and the other one had a strange voice. Not Americana." He replied, remembering having some difficulty trying to understand the one in the fancy clothes.
"Rihs and Mason," Chris said firmly, informing Nathan because the healer had never seen either man since he was away. "What did you tell them?"
"The same thing I told you, Senor." He replied promptly. "They left some hours ago and took the four men with them."
"That makes six men.' Nathan said unhappily, not liking those odds if Vin had to face that number alone.
"Not six," the bartender added helpfully. "There were five with them already."
Nathan met Chris's gaze. Six was bad enough but combined with five more, that changed the face of the situation considerably. Vin Tanner was resourceful, and he was good with a gun, but eleven to one odds were too much even for his formidable skill, not to mention he would have to protect Alex as well.
"We better find them quick." Nathan declared stating the obvious.
"We didn't see them on the way here." Chris mused, all thoughts about the bartender forgotten as the man slinked away to serve other customers. The urgency of the situation was paramount now, and Chris felt the pressure of time pounding in his ears.
"Maybe Vin thought it was safer to hide out a bit, to make sure no one was following Miss Alex."
"Could be." Chris nodded aware of Vin's habits enough to know he might do just that if he felt there was enough danger to warrant it. Particularly if Alexandra Styles was with him. Considering what was at stake if Randall Mason got his hands on Alex and how Vin felt about the doctor, it made sense to Chris Vin would try and find someplace to hide rather than risk a direct confrontation.
Unfortunately, with Alex in his company, his options were severely limited. Vin would avoid towns because it was too easy to be discovered. However, the immediate terrain did not allow for concealment either. Most of the land up this way was flat with little or no vegetation.
"He'd avoid the towns," Chris stated firmly. "Alex ain't that easy to hide." A beautiful woman in a place like this was noticed immediately, and Vin had enough sense to know that. "Still, there ain't a whole lot out this way.”
"There is one place, Chris." Nathan looked up after a flash of inspiration struck him. "We're not that far from the Seminole village, and I seem to recall they owe Vin and the rest of us a favour."
Chris drained his glass of whiskey with one swift tilt of his head before turning to Nathan. "Drink up. We got to go visit some old friends."
There was only one thing either Vin or Alex was interested in doing when they arrived at the village and went through the formalities of greeting old friends, and that was to get some sleep. Between both of them, neither had more than an hour or two, and it was starting to wear them down by the time they arrived at the village. Vin explained the situation to the old chief who was more than happy to offer sanctuary for the day they required it. Alex finally met Rain, the young woman Nathan periodically disappeared to see, under the guise of ‘checking up on these folks' as he often put it.
Naturally, Rain had a dozen questions about how Nathan was, and Alex got the impression she was disappointed the healer was not with them. Finally, they were shown a place to sleep, and Alex never thought an uncomfortable bed made of wicker and wood could be so enticing. Both of them lay on the mattress together, oblivious to what anyone might think about the arrangement. After the last day, they were simply too exhausted to care.
Slipping his arm around her, they fell asleep in each other's arms.
Vin held her as she lapsed into a fitful sleep, wondering how he was ever going to stand not having her in his bed, almost understanding the insane passion inspiring Randall Mason to pursue her like he was. Vin knew he could not imagine being without her now, not after those hours they shared together the night before. How he felt about Charlotte paled in comparison to this fire burning inside him when he was with Alex. This was wild and fiery passion the likes of which he had never known and yet was capable of slipping into warm and tender at the same time.
With Charlotte, Vin had felt confusion and anguish because there was never a complete certainty the relationship was right for him. He had more or less thrown every effort of help made by his friends, back in their faces. At the time, Vin felt incensed by their intrusion, but now Vin knew his anger was more to do with his own guilt. What he had done with Charlotte was wrong. The moment Vin learned she belonged to another, he should have withdrawn and left it at that. He pursued her because she was beautiful and smart and the kind of woman who would never give him a second glance, without any idea what she saw in him was what she longed to see in her husband.
With Alex, it had always been different.
From the moment she stepped off the stage, Vin knew with a certainty that was astonishing even now; he loved her. Fate allowed Ezra to win her affections first, and Vin reacted to his own desires by staying away. That night in the cabin, she more or less confirmed what he suspected since her arrival in Four Corners, that they were made for each other despite her commitments to Ezra.
Everything about that exchange seemed to scream a passion that demanded release and, yet Vin admired her when Alex pulled away. No matter how much she had wanted him, and Vin knew she had wanted him just as much as he desired her, she would not betray Ezra. Charlotte had no difficulty abandoning her husband for him, and Vin wondered if he had failed to make her happy, would Charlotte have left him in similar circumstances?
Vin drifted off to sleep with the scent of their lovemaking still on her skin, savouring her warm body against his. The last conscious thought as the dark overtook him was the determination Randall would never get his hands on her, not while there was breath left in his body...
"You better be right about this." Randall Mason grumbled as Rihs led him and the men they hired to retrieve Alexandra up the rocky mountain path.
This entire trip left the foreigner seething with rage to make Alex pay when he finally had her in his clutches. When he and Rihs discovered the men hired to take Vin Tanner to Tascosa, lying unconscious on the floor of a cantina in some blight of a town, Randall was beside himself with outrage. Not only had she openly defied him by escaping after so carefully manipulating him, but she freed Tanner as well. The length of her determination to retrieve the tracker was what incensed him the most.
"It is logical," Rihs replied, oblivious to Randall's annoyance. As far as the hired gun was concerned, he was barely remaining under Mason's employ, staying only because of some misguided notion of honour. "We didn't see them when we were riding from Four Corners, and Tanner knows we could be after them."
"He might have taken an alternate route back to town." Randall pointed out.
"No, I don't think so." Rihs dismissed the idea as the trail of horses continued up the track up the side of the mountain. "I think they have taken refuge in this village mostly because it is close enough from where he was freed and also because he believes we may know nothing about it."
"How did you find out about this place?" Randall wiped the sweat off his brow.
"When I was making my inquiries around town, I learnt Tanner's group originally banded together to drive some rabid Confederate general from a village in this area. It did not take much of a leap to pinpoint this was the village."
"They will protect him and Alexandra then," Randall guessed.
He did not want this to take any longer than it already had. Randall was furious he was being forced to such lengths to retrieve Alexandra, not to mention the jealousy he felt at knowing she would rather endure such pursuit because of a damn primitive! Randall would be satisfied with nothing less than Tanner's death before this day was over for he was never going to allow Alexandra the hope of thinking she could return to him.
"It's likely," Rihs answered, but he had prepared for that contingency. Although he did not know precisely what their defensive capabilities, he had some idea of what was required to take the village with very little force.
"I want him dead," Randall said through clenched teeth.
Rihs did not have to ask whom.
"I want him dead by the end of the day. I want her to know she will never have him again before I'm through with her."
The hired gun merely nodded in response. In Rihs's opinion, killing Vin Tanner would only ensure one thing. If by some miracle, Randall did take Alexandra away and did succeed in marrying her, it would be a marriage that would never allow him to close his eyes or turn his back on her. She was not a woman who would accept the murder of her lover without desiring revenge. Kill Tanner and Randall Mason would ensure he would not live long enough to enjoy marital bliss.
A woman who was capable of drugging four men was capable of far worse, and Randall Mason was on a collision course to finding out what that actually meant.
Vin woke up abruptly and knew he should not have slept so long. Until he actually closed his eyes, the tracker had not guessed how tired he was, and the lapse of time left him disoriented and on edge. He sat up immediately and saw Alex was still asleep. At the sudden disappearance of his warmth, she snuggled closer to him, but Vin knew something was wrong. He listened carefully outside and could not hear the sounds of the village. The silence made him reach for his rifle.
"Alex." He whispered in her ear. "Wake up."
Alex woke up suddenly. "What is it?" She asked quietly, aware by the tone of his voice something was wrong.
"I don't know." He replied as he moved soundlessly off the bed and went towards the door of the small hut they were currently occupying. "Stay there." He ordered as he peered outside.
Vin could see no one about and that disturbed him because there were always children running about the town. When they fought Anderson and his army of renegade Confederates, Ezra was barely able to move without tripping over them underfoot. It almost seemed like the place was deserted until his eyes shifted towards the town square and he saw a collection of men led by Randall Mason and the steely eyed Mr Rihs, who had most of the inhabitant penned under the vigil of their guns.
Vin withdrew into the hut and swore under his breath. "He's out there."
Alex closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. "What are we going to do?"
"You're staying here." He said firmly without any thought on that point. "I'm going out there."
"Do they have the villagers?"
"Yeah," Vin said reluctantly and knew the problem was much larger than what he was telling her. However, Alex was no fool, and he was aware she could see through his attempts to downplay the urgency of the situation.
"No, you stay here," she said instead. Vin opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off abruptly. "I'll go out there because maybe he'll let them go if he has me. You stay so you can figure out how to get me back."
"No." He shook his head, unwilling to consider that an option under any circumstances. "I'm not letting you go out there alone."
"If I don't go out there, they'll kill those people, and I won't let anyone else get hurt because of me," Alex replied softly as she crossed the floor to him. "You can get away and find Chris and the others. He won't hurt me, he wants me alive, but he'll kill you Vin."
"Alexandra!" Randall's voice called out. "I know you and Tanner are here! If you do not show yourselves, I am going to instruct Mr Rihs to start shooting."
"I've got to go." She started towards the door, realising their time had just run out.
"No!" Vin hissed and grabbed her arm, stopping her before she could leave. "I won't let you."
"I'll be okay Cowboy," she tried to smile but could not quite manage it. Alex placed her hand on his cheek and drew him to her in a soft but lingering kiss. His mouth felt wonderful against her, and once again, Alex marvelled at his power over her. More than anything, she wished she had admitted her feelings earlier because what they had together was all too brief. It should have been a lifetime, not a day.
"I love you," she whispered after a moment, meeting his blue eyes. "I think I've always loved you. I just didn't dare to admit it, I wish with all my heart I had."
"Alex, I won't let him have you," Vin replied holding her because if he let go, she was going to walk out there and sacrifice herself to Randall, but she was right, and he knew it. If he got away, there might be a chance for him to reach Chris and the others. They could get her back and finish Randall once and for all. However, Randall could also kill her if he could not have her and Vin was reasonably sure the bastard was capable of doing that out of spite.
"He'll never have me, Vin," she removed his hand from around her arm and held his palm to her lips. "I'm yours. I always will be." She produced the smile that she had been incapable of a moment ago.
"Alex," Vin wanted to say something, but she broke away from him and walked out before he could stop her, probably doing so for that very reason.
Vin hesitated for less than a second and knew he did not care what happened to him, he was not letting her face Randall alone. Whatever happened would happen, Vin decided and took a deep breath before following her out.
Randall saw Alexandra emerged from one of the huts and found himself filled with satisfaction. Rihs's plan to sneak into the village worked perfectly. The eleven hired guns managed to infiltrate the village and subdue its men while gathering anyone else who might offer resistance into the square. After that, it was a simple matter of rounding up the others soundlessly. Rihs saw no need to search the individual huts when this action would draw out their quarry far easier than any prolonged search.
Alex glared at him as she walked across the square when suddenly Vin appeared behind her. She staredat him in surprise and question, wondering why he had followed her instead of escaping. Vin offered her a warm smile, conveying to her with his blue eyes he had no intention of allowing her to endure this alone. Better or for worse, they would weather whatever calamity Randall had in store for them together.
"By the way," Vin said as they started towards Randall again. "I guess I love you too."
"You shouldn't be here." Alex sighed as Vin took her hand in his. "But I'm glad you are."
They stopped before Randall and Rihs, with the gunmen watching closely, guns brandished with no hesitation in their eyes about gunning down the villagers if Randall did not get what he wanted. Vin knew if Alex were to leave here with Randall, he would never find her again and being dead was preferable to losing her forever.
"I'm here Randall," Alex spoke. "I'll go with you, just let Vin and these people go."
"I'm afraid that's not possible." Randall declared, his eyes fixed on Vin Tanner and could only tolerate that picture if the tracker was dead. The idea this primitive had the love of his precious Alexandra drove him insane with jealousy, and it was a fire that would not be extinguished unless his rival was dead. "You come to me, and I won't order Mr Rihs to kill all these heathens. Mr Tanner's fate is not negotiable."
Alex's gaze hardened at that. "You bastard. If you harm Vin, I will kill you, Randall, make no mistake on that. You'll never know when, but I can make you hurt."
"You are a paper tiger Alexandra," Randall laughed in her face. "You don't have it in you to kill, Madame Healer. No, you will come with me, and your lover will die today. I'll not have you wishing for him for the rest of your life with me. Rest assured, I will keep a tight rein on you. You will be the compliant, obedient wife to me as you were the dutiful daughter to your father." He paused and then added. "And there will be no more of this doctor nonsense. You will be my wife and my wife only. I'll not share you with anyone."
Vin grit his teeth feeling powerless at the life this man planned for Alex and came to a decision. It was wild and desperate, but he was all those things right now. If he did not do something, he was sentencing Alex to a life of horror, Vin would not have her endure under any circumstances. If the death was the only answer, then perhaps they should give Randall Mason what he wanted. Without warning, he went for his gun.
Rihs and his men reacted just as swiftly, weapons drawn as the tracker pulled out the sawn-off Winchester, but he did not aim at Randall. Instead, he grabbed Alex to him and held the weapon to her head.
"I'll kill her first before I allow you to put her through that hell!" Vin warned.
"You wouldn't dare!" Randall cried out in disbelief at the sudden turn of events.
"Yes, he would," Alex said fearlessly. "And I would prefer him killing me to save me from being your pet slave!" She honestly did believe death was preferable to what Randall had in store for her especially if he intended to kill Vin and make her suffer that torture as well. "Do it if you have to, Cowboy," Alex whispered softly so that he could only hear. "I don't think I want to live if you're dead."
"Mr Tanner, do you take us for fools," Rihs said calmly. "Do you seriously expect me to believe that this is anything but some pathetic attempt to save both your necks?"
"You ever had any feelings for a woman, Mr Rihs?" Vin asked as he held the gun in place wondering if he was genuinely going to have to do this and knowing if he had to pull the trigger on Alex, he would not be long after her in death. Still, that fate was preferable than knowing his death would sentence her to a life of slavery as Randall'screature. Alex knew it as well.
"Can't say that I have," Rihs still refuse to believe this suicide attempt was anything but a ploy.
"Then you don't know anything for sure, do you?" Vin stared back at him with dark eyes.
"If you harm her, I'll destroy you, Tanner!" Randall screamed, possessing none of Rih's self-restraint. Behind him, the hired guns seemed uncertain of what to do. The whole object of the exercise was the woman they had come to retrieve. If they attempted to shoot Vin, there was every chance she could die in the crossfire. "Just like I destroyed her father."
Alex looked up at him and stared hard as the entire group fell silent at that statement. Even Rihs was quiet as Alex's face drained of emotion. She stared across at Randall and spoke in a tone devoid of emotion. "You killed my father?"
"He was interfering," Randall stated, seeing no reason to hide the truth any longer. "I wanted you Alexandra, and he stood in the way, just as your Mr Tanner stands in the way. I will despatch him as easily as I had your father murdered."
For a few seconds, Alex did not speak. Ever since Randall made the claim he'd killed for her once before, she had known. Even when she refused to admit it to herself, deep down, Alex knew he had done it. The idea of her father being murdered by this man, because of her was too terrible to accept. When Vin mentioned it earlier, it was because he'd guessed the truth a good deal faster than she had, Alex had prayed it wasn't true because knowing would unleash a monster inside her.
Meeting his gaze, Alex stared at Randall.
"You'll never have me, not alive." With that, she turned to Vin. "Do it. Pull the trigger and finish this." She said coldly. "I'd like to die knowing he did not get the pleasure of what he wanted."
"Alex," Vin whispered painfully, not knowing he was going to find the courage to do this because it was always been a desperate stall for time. However, the undertaking was nothing like saying the words. "I don't know if I can."
"You have to!" She said, maintaining her resolve. "He'll kill us both anyway. It will just be faster for you."
Vin was at a loss over what to do because his bluff had well and truly been called. How could he kill her when he still held her like a lover? Vin looked at Rihs who knew he was faltering even though Randall still believed him capable of such an atrocity. Behind them, Vin saw the frightened faces of the villagers who would no doubt suffer the brunt of Randall's vengeance if he did not get what he wanted. The quandary before Vin was immense, even if the answer was painfully clear.
Slowly, his fingers tightened around the trigger of the Winchester.
Then of nowhere, a loud explosion rocked the air. The impact blew out a portion of the canyon wall, sending a cloud of dry earth and rock tumbling to the ground. Vin dropped his gun to his side and turned around to see the cannon they had liberated from Anderson peeking through the doors of its hiding place. Behind it, Vin saw Nathan Jackson preparing for another blast.
Randall screamed as the first bullet slammed into his knee and brought down the foreigner. Chris Larabee was taking cover behind a scab of rock, but both of his guns were drawn. Vin needed no more encouragement, to release Alex and aim his weapon at Rihs. The fair-haired hired mercenary saw the Winchester swing in his direction and went for his own gun, however, the man had neither the time or the speed to draw before Vin fired. The back of his skull exploded outwards, splattering Randall in grey matter and blood, as pieces of bone dug into the man's skin. Randall uttered a horrified cry as he saw Rihs go down.
"Alex, take cover!" Vin ordered and she nodded wildly, scrambling away to the huts behind her. Vin pulled the trigger again, cutting down two more of the men who held their guns on the villagers. Taking advantage of the pandemonium, the Seminoles affected their own escape, some scattered while the men leapt at the confused gunmen who were trying to escape the cannon fire.
Nathan was not aiming at the village but rather over it. The roar of cannon fire served its purpose as a distraction and created disarray as the men ran for cover, desperate to avoid being obliterated by a cannonball. Chris was dropping them like flies before they had even taken two steps since the gunslinger was not about to lt them to take hostages, or escape for that matter.
Vin paused to reload since every bullet he discharged met their mark with ruthless efficiency. Not one had been wasted, and all had met their targets. The numbers of eleven men were soon cut down to two or three under his and Chris's shooting skills. Nathan had abandoned the cannon now that it had created enough of a diversion to allow the hostages to escape. The healer added his weapon to the gun battle and further decimated the would-be plunderers of the village. Nathan had not seen Rain among the hostages and was grateful she was probably out in the fields harvesting instead of being in the village when this trouble started.
Randall Mason clutched his bloodied foot and looked around to see Mr Rihs lying in a puddle of blood while he was covered in the man's brain matter. He saw the black-garbed gunslinger at a vantage point on the canyon wall, picking off the hired guns he paid so much money for with the ease of a man accustomed to firing at targets in a shooting gallery. Vin Tanner was lying on his stomach on the ground, doing the same with his Winchester. Randall's eyes searched for Alexandra and saw her running towards one of the huts with the rest of the villagers. He watched her run to safety and knew she was not merely putting distance between them, but also slipping out of reach entirely.
She looked over her shoulder at him at the sound of her name. Even Tanner averted his gaze from the battle to Randall when he called for Alex. Randall drew his weapon even before he knew what he was doing and aimed carefully…
Vin heard the explosion of chemical gases as the bullet escaped the barrel of Randall's gun. He was vaguely aware of shouting at Alex to get down, but the sound never left his throat when he saw it smash into her back, halting her in mid-step. He could not tell exactly where she was hit but that one bullet was enough to bring her down immediately. She fell on her side, blood spurting from the wound. Vin watched her collapse and could only utter a strangled scream as he dropped his gun and scrambled towards her frantically.
She was unconscious and judging by the blood pouring from the wound in the left side of her back, she was hurt badly. Just rolling her over had soaked Vin's buckskins in blood and Vin could see the life draining from her body fast. Vin was beyond emotion. He felt cold and numb as the terror of her loss gripped him with such force, it drove all the sense from his mind.
Covered in her blood, he glared at Randall and went completely mad with fury.
"You goddamn animal!" Vin was on top of the man before he was even aware of crossing the space. Pummelling Randall with savage blows, Vin was conscious of nothing as his fists flew in rage. The red haze over his eyes drowned out all sounds from his mind, and the world became the colour of Alex's blood. He was aware of nothing as his fists did their worst until Randall was no longer fighting him but taking the blows in incoherent agony.
"VIN!" Chris grabbed him and shook him back to reality. "He's done, Vin!"
"He shot her in the back!" Vin fairly screamed, his fist still pounding against the unconscious man. "What kind of coward shoots a woman in the back?"
Chris had to physically pull Vin off Randall Mason. He saw Randall drop Alex and by this time most of Randall's men were dead or ready to cry surrender. Chris descended from his hiding place when he saw Vin going after Randall and was perfectly aware the tracker was going to kill the man. He was not far wrong. By the time Chris reached Vin, Randall was no longer capable of fending off the relentless blows, crushing his face into a pulp.
"Enough!" Chris ordered, knowing how Vin felt but unwilling to let him go any further. Vin was many things, but he was not a murderer and allowing him to beat Randall into a mess of blood and bone would make him one, no matter what the justification.
Vin glared at him when Chris wrenched him away from the man. He let out an anguished sob as he tried to force away the rage tearing his soul asunder.
"I need help here!" Nathan's voice entered the mix. The healer had also seen Alex go down and once Randall's men were taken care of, hurried quickly to the doctor who was very much in need of her own skills.
Nathan was kneeling over her when Vin ran back to them. "Can you help her?" He asked, now that his senses returned to him. How could he have left her to bleed while he was venting his rage on Randall? Vin was mortified by his behaviour.
"She's hurt bad," Nathan answered tautly before looking up at them both. "I don't know whether I can save her or not."
"You gotta do it, Nathan," Vin pleaded desperately, almost hysterical from the fear of losing her. "You can't let her die!"
Nathan met Chris's gaze helplessly because he could not make that promise, no matter how much Vin might want it to be so. Chris, who was standing next to Vin, place a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Nathan will do what he can."
Nathan wished Chris had not said that because the healer was unsure whether what he could do was going to be enough.
KHAN EL-KHALILI BAZAAR, CAIRO - ONE YEAR AGO
“Where shall we go after this daddy?” Alexandra Styles asked her father.
They were walking through the ancient bazaar of Khan el-Khalili, one of the oldest in Cairo. The marketplace resided within a section of the grand mausoleum of the Fatimid Caliphate, built almost a thousand years ago. Aside from being a popular attraction for visitors, it was a place that sold everything from fabrics to produce, and was always crowded and lively. Alex could smell the odour of aromatic spices struggling to rise about the sweaty stench of too many human bodies in such a confined space.
“I thought we might try South America,” William Styles suggested, dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief. A tall, regal looking man with sunburnt skin, unusual for an Englishman, his once brown hair was rapidly greying even if his hazel eyes still danced with the fire of youth. “I have always wanted to see the jungles of the Amazon.”
“Oh, that means I better buy a mosquito net for my hats,” she smiled, liking the idea of seeing the Amazon jungles with its deadly but fascinating wildlife. The North and South American continents were the two places neither of them had a chance to visit, and Alex had to admit, she looked at the trip with some excitement. After apprenticing with her father, going to medical school and gaining qualifications as a physician and surgeon, she was eager for them to return to their travels as they had done before settling in London for her to gain her education.
Suddenly, she took note of him and saw that he was sweating, even more than usual. “Daddy, are you alright?”
“Yes, yes,” he dismissed the inquiry as foolishness, aware she could be somewhat overprotective of him. Even though he was the parent, Alex always felt it her responsibility to look after him. It was how he recognised her suitability for medicine and began training her as soon as possible. Still, it wasn't her skills as a doctor that concerned him now but something a little more personal. “Although I wonder whether we should first take a turn in England for the season.”
“What on Earth for?” Alex stared at him, grateful to leave England after she completed her medical degree and was in no particular hurry to return to it.
Styles tugged at his collar, feeling the heat more acutely now and supposing with the afternoon sky blazing outside and the large crowds around them, the temperature in the ancient mausoleum felt higher even than usual.
“Because Lex,” he said with a sigh, “you're almost twenty-five years old, and I should allow some young man to sweep you off your feet.”
Alex, who was admiring a length of fabric at a nearby stall, paused in midstep and stared at him incredulously. "Now daddy, why would I wish to get swept away by anyone? I'm having too much fun travelling with you.”
Styles smiled at her, wishing it was the case but Randall Mason's request for Alex's hand a few days ago had only driven the point home Alex was an adult now. While Styles would love the idea of her spending her life travelling with him, she needed to begin her own life too. He had to allow her the chance to explore the idea of having a husband and even a family. While he couldn't imagine Lex with Randall who apparently intended her to become some society wife, he did want Lex to have the opportunity of meeting someone who could make her happy.
"Lex,” he started to say when his chest tightened in pain and instinctively reached for it.
“Daddy!” Alex cried out in horror as she saw his legs buckle beneath him and he slid to the ground, immediately creating an island of bodies around them, as people watched in shock and surprise at the man's sudden collapse.
Styles knew what was happening. He had been a doctor long enough to recognise the symptoms even from this side of the curtain. He saw his Lex leaning over his face, saw the panic in her eyes and realised the eventuality he so feared a minute ago, had suddenly arrived far sooner than he liked. He reached for her face, letting his fingertips caress her cheek, thinking how much she looked like his dear wife. Tears were forming in her eyes as he saw she understood what was happening too, and wished he could take her pain away, but somethings were even beyond a doctor's power, just as this was.
“Daddy please,” Alex began to crumble, watching helplessly as the gossamer threads between them started to fray. There was no way she could stop what was about to happen, not in the middle of this bazaar, not when she didn't even have her medical bag and getting him to a hospital was time he did not have. “Don't leave me...”
“You'll be fine,” he croaked and tried to smile, even as the last bit of life continued to drain out of him. “Just be happy Lex, that's all you have to do to get along, is just be happy.”
“Not without you,” she sobbed, “I don't know how to do it without you.”
But he wasn't listening, because even as he said those words, Alex knew he was fading away.
“Yasmine...” he whispered, and with that, William Styles died.
Alexandra Styles lived.
She remembered running away at Vin's order as gunfire erupted around her and everything descended into anarchy. She sought shelter to allow him to do what was necessary without having to worry about her welfare. Crossing the dirt square, her intention was to reach one of the homes like the other women and children were doing. Then she heard her name rising over the noise of bullets, singing its siren song above the chaos. She paused long enough to look over her shoulder when the pain had come. She could hear with absolute clarity, the escaping bullet from Randall's gun moving through the air with a quiet whoosh.
Then there was the agony of penetration followed by the terrible darkness determined to swallow her whole. In the depths of the black hell enveloping her, she could hear voices. She heard Vin's anguish and was vaguely aware of his warmth on her hand, his distant touch anchored her to life when the haunting melody of the drowning pool wanted her to slip away for good. Alex was aware of other things, Nathan's voice speaking in grim tones while Chris Larabee was strong as always, offering comfort in his brooding voice.
Yet it was still Vin's voice that kept her alive.
When she woke up two days later, Alex was surprised to find herself in her own bed in her house. She was lying on her stomach in a fresh nightgown with no idea how she had come to be there. Outside her window, the moon shone brightly against the indigo sky filled with twinkling stars. It would have almost felt like a dream if not for the pain that made itself known approximately two seconds after her awakening. She moved slightly and felt a rush of agony descend upon her so swiftly that it forced a soft cry from her lips until she bit down to stifle it. It travelled quickly along the length of her body until every nerve she possessed was aware of the agony.
She dug her nails into the sheets, trying to control it and felt tears run down her cheeks when she could not. Moments slipped past as she wrestled to overcome it until they became minutes which stretched into tens of minutes. Alex was in no mind to calculate how much time had passed when she finally felt it subsiding. Swallowing hard, she turned her head painfully at a sound that became clear only when her senses returned to her. Alex saw Vin snoring gently as he slept on a wing chair in the corner of the room. His slouch had covered most of his face, but she knew it was him. Even in the moonlight, she recognised his silhouette and the buckskin jacket hanging from the corner of the bedpost.
Vin slept, and Alex watched him wondering how long he had been there. He did not stir as she watched him, allowing several minutes to tumble by as she basked in the sight of him, feeling herself filled with love. A flash of insight came upon her, and she realised he probably held a vigil by her bedside all day and night. Alex allowed him the slumber with no wish to interrupt such a peaceful sojourn.
But she had things to do.
As silently as a person in her condition was capable, Alex pulled the covers off herself. Gritting her teeth, the pain descended upon her in agonising waves. How she managed to slip out of bed and leave the room in her injured state was a testament to how exhausted he must have been. She left Vin in her room and struggled slowly towards the stairs leading down to her clinic. Painfully slipping her thick cloak around her body, she felt the tightness in the skin of her back that could only be the result of sutures holding her wounds close. She moved gingerly, more aware than anyone else what splitting any of those delicate stitching of catgut could do.
Her journey to the lower floor of the building was punctuated by pauses as she recouped her strength with any supportive wall or banister she came across. Her progress into her clinic was slow, but she was determined, and more importantly, her pace allowed her to continue in silence because if Vin knew she was awake and attempting this, he would carry her back to bed without a moment's thought.
The pain was unbelievable, but Alex kept moving.
She entered the familiar surroundings of her clinic, feeling some measure of comfort in the sight of her instruments, the pull-down desk and the examination table. In this room, she was in control of all things and never uncertain about anything. Alex knew what was required of her and wondered how her conscience would survive after this day.
Alex thought of her father and how he promised to show her the world, and invariably did. She remembered the injured lion cub he brought to her and let her delight in running her small hands through its soft fur before he went about healing it. Alex was given a life most women dreamed of because of the man her father was. She loved him because he was a wanderer at heart who felt trapped by walls and people. The book he had sought to write was always an excuse, even she knew that, but Alex loved he dreamed so vividly of open spaces while gazing at the stars above.
With a sudden start, she realised Vin was not so different from William Styles in that he was a spirit that could not be confined in much the same way. There was nothing more enjoyable than riding with Vin across the open plains, holding him close while they roamed the sparse landscape together. She could think of nothing more awful than trying to rein him to something so mundane as farming the land. Alex loved him because he was free. She would never want him to be anything else.
She needed no light as she moved through the clinic, gathering what she needed before slipping out of the building into the night.
The jailhouse was empty, and she could not say how she knew he was here. Perhaps in her slumber, she might have heard Chris giving Vin a report on the man's welfare or maybe she even heard Nathan speak of him when the healer had reluctantly been forced to tend the man's injuries. Alex did not know, and she did not care. As she made her way across town, allowing the night to hide her journey while fighting the pain that was becoming almost unbearable, she had only one thing in mind. It burned through her veins and gave her drive when the agony of her injury threatened to overwhelm her.
The door was unlocked into the building, there was no reason for it to be when the one person inside was locked behind bars. She entered the dim room and noted Chris had not posted any guards. On reflection, she guessed there would be little need for it. Alex saw what Chris's bullet had done to his knee. That kind of injury did not allow for any mobility unless Randall found himself a crutch and even then, he would not be able to make use of the leg for some time yet. A gush of warmth ran down her back, plastering the sheer material of her nightgown to her skin. Alex knew one of the sutures had split and hoped Nathan would not be too angry with her.
Randall Mason was lying on the bunk inside the cell when Alex pulled up a chair against the bars. She made enough sound, so he stirred and sat up quickly, wincing in pain at the exertion to his knee. She watched him become aware of her with little or no emotion whatsoever. His face was covered in a multitude of bruises and wondered who had inflicted them. It was probably Vin, she thought and felt a small measure of satisfaction at that.
But not enough.
"Alexandra?" He said in surprise. He had not expected to see her again for no one would tell him if he had killed her or not. Judging by the quality of care he had received from his jailers since he had been returned to Four Corners, Randall assumed she died because Randall had not seen Tanner since the brutal assault inflicted upon him by the primitive.
"Yes, Randall." She nodded, forcing the pain away because she would not give him the satisfaction of knowing that he had hurt her.
"I thought you were dead." He moved gingerly towards the bar by sliding across the bed.
"I almost was. You don't look much better, yourself." She indicated the bruises on his face, which was almost contorted out of shape from the intense swelling.
"You can blame this on your tracker." Randall sneered. "Such a charming man you chose to bestow your affections. A true gentleman who attacked an injured man."
"Is this before or after you put a bullet in my back?" She asked in disgust.
"You are mine, you always will be." He said with a smile. "This temporary setback changes nothing. My family will extricate me from this current predicament, and I will come back for you. I apologise for the injury, but you were running from me, and you are never to do that."
"Of course." She nodded, unsurprised by his answer. "I forgive you, Randall. What you did is unforgivable, but I can forgive you because I know you did it because you love me."
"I have always loved you, Alexandra," Randall said quickly, somewhat taken aback by her forgiveness. He had expected this audience to be laced with angry barbs, but instead, she was strangely accommodating. "I loved you from the moment I saw you. I always knew you would be mine. That is why I can never give you up. I will chase you forever Alexandra, from this barren hole to the gates of heaven itself if need be but I will have you in the end, and not even Tanner can stop me."
Alex saw his hands around the bars, peering at her like an animal in a cage. He was not an animal, but he was rabid and such a condition needed to be ended out of sheer mercy for everyone involved.
"You may try Randall," she reached for his hand through the bars. She saw his eyes widen as her fingers gently took hold of his. There was confusion in his face as he tried to decipher the meaning of this gesture. There was a moment of resistance when their skin made contact, but the possibilities he saw in her eyes left uncertainty in its wake.
"You were always my friend, Randall." She intertwined her fingers in between his own. "During those years in London, when I was struggling through medical school, your friendship meant a great deal to me. I am sorry I could not love you the way you wished, but I always felt a great deal for you which is why it pains me to do this."
Before he could understand what she meant, Alex yanked his arm through the bar with lightning reflexes she did not know she possessed. The needle, in her other hand, sank deep into his wrist all the way to the hilt as she forced the clear liquid into his body. Randall cried out in pain and tried to pull back, but Alex had saved her reserve strength for this particular purpose. She held fast and ensured every drop of fluid was injected through his skin. When the syringe was empty, she pulled it away and released him.
"What have you done to me?" He demanded as he clutched his hand and stared at the pinprick of blood oozing from the tiny fissure left by the needle.
"I forgive you for everything," Alex leaned against the wall, waiting for the inevitable to follow. "A man should not die without receiving forgiveness."
His eyes widened in realisation. Suddenly, he started to feel sluggish and had difficulty focussing. Alex watched his reactions impassively, as his head lopped against the bars while all the strength rapidly drained out of his body.
"What have you given me?" He demanded, but his speech was starting to slur, and his tongue felt useless inside his mouth.
"When I drugged those men, I told them it was curare. Of course, I had none on me at the time, so all they were given was a strong dose of morphia. However, I keep a good supply in my clinic, so what you have squirrelled away in your bloodstream is the genuine product."
"You can't do this…!" he struggled to speak. "You're not a killer!"
"You are such a fool Randall, you claim to love me and yet you haven't the slightest idea who I am," Alex stared at him, her eyes becoming as dark as the place he sent her when he stood there in front of her at that village, boasting how he murdered her father. "You're like all those snobs who thumbed their noses at me at medical school and at those society engagements we attended together. All you can see is a beautiful woman. You think you can come into my life, seek to destroy everything I hold dear and because I am a healer, be unaccountable for any of it? Were you foolish enough to believe I would let you harm Vin after what you did to my father?"
She glared at him as she watched his eyes starting to glaze over. She had pumped enough curare into him to kill a dozen men because she was taking no chances.
"Everything I am Randall, my father made me. He gave me a dream of being more than what this face could give me. You will never understand how much I loved him or how much I want you dead, because you took him from me. Did you honestly think I was going to let you get away with that?”
She stood up to leave as he fought the effects of the drug in futile desperation. Within minutes he could barely move, and the only thing she could see in his eyes was the intense fear of the dying to come. Well, she had a little surprise for him there too.
"By the way, I do not know how long it takes to die from the dose I gave you. Rest assured, you will be completely immobilised, and you won't even register a heartbeat. I wish you a speedy end Randall because I would not want to be you if you're still alive when they embalm you. Trust me, you will be awake for the experience."
Alex saw the horror of understanding in his eyes and allowed herself a satisfied smile before she walked out and left him to die.
Vin woke up and found Alex gone.
At first, he was struck with the impossibility Randall might have escaped the jail and come after her. However, he could not see how Randall could even walk upright, let alone have broken into the house without his hearing. Vin noticed her robe was gone and there appeared to be no signs of forced entry through the front door. Where was she? He wondered as he started searching the house. He supposed she could have left on her own steam even though she was severely injured.
Nathan had worked hours on Alex at the Seminole village, frantically stemming the flow of blood while at the same time removing the bullet that almost ended her life. She was in and out of consciousness the whole time, with Vin at her side through her delirium. Yesterday, she was in stable enough condition for Nathan to agree she be transported back to Four Corners in a wagon.
Rain accompanied them back on that trip, assisting Nathan as he kept a close eye on Alex's condition all the way back. All that stood between Vin killing Randall Mason during that same journey was Chris Larabee. Chris kept them apart because he understood all too well how it felt to lose someone to obession
Vin walked into the clinic on the off chance she might be there when he saw the open door leading to her back porch. He found Alex curled up on the wooden bench, fast asleep. Her dark hair cascaded over the edge of the seat, while her arms were folded under her head. For a moment, she looked almost childlike and utterly breathtaking. Vin knelt down and slipped his arms under her, preparing to carry her to bed when Alex stirred and looked up at him in a sleepy daze.
"Hello Cowboy." She smiled, seeing his face above hers.
"Now what are you doing out here?" Vin asked tenderly, leaning down to plant a soft kiss against her forehead.
"I thought I'd take a walk. It felt like I'd been asleep forever."
"Just two days." He replied, carrying her back into the clinic. "You were hurt badly."
"It feels it." She allowed her head to rest against his chest, savouring the comfort his presence afforded. "Have you been here all this time?"
"I couldn't leave you alone. No telling what kind of trouble you could get yourself into." Vin said with a hint of teasing as he ascended the stairs. Vin never knew how happy he could be just to be speaking to her like this. He doubted he would ever forget the cold terror in his heart when Vin thought he might have lost Alex for good.
"Well, you know us mean ol' spinster women." She laughed slightly as she allowed herself to drift away.
"Yeah." He said shortly. "Ain't never a dull moment with you around."
As she finally slipped back to sleep, Alex could only mutter in response. "You're such a smooth talker cowboy."
They found Randall Mason the next morning.
Chris who had arrived to check on the prisoner as they prepared him for transport to Eagle Bend, discovered the man slumped against the bars of his cell, his eyes wide open in terror during his final moments on this earth. The gunslinger could not say he was terribly sorry to see Randall dead although it did surprise him the man died without a mark on him, other than a tiny spot of blood on his wrist. For a moment, Chris was struck with a dark possibility the death may have been assisted but brushed away the idea as quickly as he cleaned the trace of blood from the man's skin. Other than that, there was no sign of any violence visited upon the body.
Upon examination by Nathan a short time later, the healer deduced the man had died of a heart attack. He was of the age to warrant such a diagnosis, and no one cared enough for the man to raise any further questions. Chris turned the body over to the undertaker, and the solution of formaldehyde and embalming fluids soon destroyed any evidence that might allude to the possibility of foul play.
Neither Nathan nor Chris made any mention of the small pinprick on the man's wrist.
It was almost two weeks after the tumultuous events left in the wake of Randall Mason's arrival that Alex finally saw the light of day outside her house. It felt like everyone was present in Mary Travis's back porch as the widow held court over a small gathering for her closest friends. She had even relented and allowed Julia Pemberton to attend although the woman was given strict instructions to keep her distance from Alexandra Styles. Rain, who helped Alex during the periods when Vin was unavailable, was staying with Mary during this period since Mary knew how Alex guarded her privacy.
It was one of those lazy afternoons where there was just enough heat leftover from the summer to make this autumn day warm as opposed to the cold that would soon set in when winter made its arrival. The delicious heat had made them all drowsy after the picnic meal Mary laid out was consumed. The group were in the garden on top of blankets and chairs, relaxing away in the afternoon sun while Four Corners was enjoying a quiet spell of trouble-free days for a change.
"Josiah, did you ever get to give that sermon?" Alex asked the preacher as she and Vin lay nestled against each other on the picnic blanket.
They were all stretched out across the garden in similar positions of carefree intimacy. Ezra and Julia were sitting on Mary's comfortable garden furniture, looking more like a couple who should have been in a boat somewhere on the Charleston River. Meanwhile, Mary was sitting upright on her own blanket with Chris resting his head on her lap as he chewed on a blade of grass, enjoying the sunshine on his face.
"Unfortunately, no," Josiah replied as he looked up at the pretty doctor from the food he was picking at on his plate. "By the time we got back from Wickestown, it was too late for me to hold the service. The reverend from Sweetwater was kind enough to do the honours." The preacher said, sounding a little disappointed even though he was secretly relieved he was delivered from the ordeal of public oratory.
"Well, you did give it up for a good cause," Julia threw the man a look of appreciation. She shuddered to think what would have happened to her and Inez if Josiah, Ezra, Buck and JD had not found them in Wickestown.
"That's a matter of opinion," Alex added, unable to resist the opportunity while giving the woman a sarcastic smirk. She found she was better able to tolerate Julia Pemberton's presence now, even though theirs would never really be a warm relationship. For the sake of Vin's friendship with Ezra and the bond shared by the seven, Alex was prepared to let bygones be bygones. Besides, she had enough on her conscience without adding her enmity towards Julia to the list.
"You are so kind." Julia returned the look and frowned at Ezra when she heard him stifling a laugh.
"Ladies," Ezra interrupted, unable to deny that he was enjoying the caustic remarks being traded between the two women all day. "Do I have to separate you?"
"I'd like to see you try." Buck Wilmington added with a grin wondering if Ezra was actually stupid enough to get entangled in this particular quarrel since he was the cause of it. "Ezra, you have so little experience with fiery women."
The man sighed as he stretched out languidly on the steps of the porch, with a bottle of whisky in his hand. Buck was enjoying this gathering immensely and wondered why they had not indulged in this before. He marvelled at how relaxed Chris looked and was secretly reminded of the summers he used to share with Chris when Sarah and Adam were alive.
"As opposed to what?" Inez looked over her shoulder as she put another serving of food on JD's plate. Like all young men, his appetite made him perennially ravenous. Of them all, it was JD who was enjoying this afternoon most of all. It reminded him of the family atmosphere he longed for since his mother passed away.
"Why darling," Buck looked at her with those eyes filled with mischief. "I have you to draw from experience."
"Well, that is all the experience you're going to get from me, Senor Wilmington."
"I live in hope." He grinned, holding his hand to his chest and Inez could only shake her head and laugh in a gaze that said she was washing her hands of him.
"Speaking of sermons," Mary chuckled, moving the conversation past Inez and Buck's latest attempts to get at each other. "Josiah, I arranged it so you can do the Christmas sermon this year. Normally we have to get the reverend, but it would be so nice if we could have someone locally."
"Christmas?" The preacher looked at the pretty widow blankly.
"Yeah Josiah," Nathan sniggered, knowing Josiah was not as comfortable about delivering a speech to so many as the others were led to believe. "It will be you in front of all those people. I think the entire town turns up for that, don't they Miss Travis?"
"Just about Nathan," Mary replied, not understanding the grin the healer was wearing on his face or for that matter, why the others were trying to hide their own amusement. Even Chris seemed unable to keep a faint smile from crossing his lips. "People just seemed to come out of nowhere."
"Think of it Josiah," Nathan was laughing now, taking note of the ashen look on Josiah's face. "You'll be standing there in front of the entire congregation."
"I shall look forward to hearing that sermon, " Ezra chuckled, joining in this playful torture of the preacher. "Perhaps you could favour us with an excerpt since you were unable to deliver it because of our excursion to Wickestown."
"May you need last rites someday," Josiah grumbled, eliciting more laughter from his friend.
"I'm sure Josiah wrote a nice sermon," JD spoke up in the preacher's defence. "I'll bet he'd be happy to recite it for you."
Josiah stared at JD in a mixture of astonishment and horror. "JD, that's not necessary."
"Sure it is, Josiah," JD said enthusiastically, unable to understand why his older companions were laughing harder. "We'd all love to hear it."
"Yeah, Josiah," Buck prompted. "We'd be hanging on every word."
"Leave the preacher alone." Chris finally spoke up, taking pity on Josiah at this point.
"Thank you," Josiah said with a loud exhale, not wishing to explain he had not even penned the first word of the alleged document.
"When do you and Rain head back, Nathan?" Vin asked, taking Chris's lead deciding a change of subject was definitely in order since it appeared Josiah already had enough anxieties with his future performance before the Christian flock of Four Corners.
"Tomorrow," Nathan flashed a smile at the tawny-haired young woman with the wild, dark hair. "Rain's gotta get back to the village."
"The harvest is almost here." She explained. "Nathan is staying with us for a few days to help out."
"You be up to it on your own Miss Alex?" Nathan asked, knowing she would be the sole medical provider in Four Corners once he departed. He felt a responsibility to her as her physician, but Nathan also had obligations to Rain, and she was needed back with her people.
"I should be all right," Alex said, not wanting him to cancel any plans because of her. He so rarely got to spend any time with Rain, and Alex knew he wanted very much to accompany her back to the Seminole village. Although Alex was still sore from her injuries, she was capable of moving around and taking on some light cases. "Mind you, I'm still going to take it easy."
"I'll just have to keep her in line if she misbehaves." Vin drawled and received a sharp jab in the ribs for his trouble.
"Like you can, cowboy." She smiled at him affectionately.
"Just as long it ain't in the kitchen," Chris replied enigmatically and drew a furious blush from Alex and a slight chuckle from Vin. The others merely looked confused but did not press, deciding some things were better left unknown.
"Yeah pard," Vin muttered just loud enough so Chris and Mary could hear. "Or anywhere on the way to Sweetwater."
"Touché." Mary giggled, knowing precisely what Vin was alluding to and it was something even Buck was well aware of because the big man almost choked on his whisky, when he started to guffaw.
"I have no idea what you are talking about," JD confessed, looking at them in confusion.
"Nevermind kid," Chris laughed himself, conceding defeat in Vin's direction. "It ain't that important."
Chris Larabee lay his head back on Mary's lap, suddenly deciding it was not so bad being considered almost respectable these days. There was plenty of bad in him still, and heaven help the man who forgot that, but when he was surrounded like this with the friends he rode with, and the women they loved, it almost felt like he was a part of a family again.
A strange family, but nevertheless family.
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