Summary: Vin and Inez are finally together, but trouble is brewing in paradise...
Note: The relationship between Vin and Inez progresses through several of my fics. The attraction between them begins in A Safe Haven, moves on a bit in Settin' Things Straight and is resolved in Thorn in the Flesh. This story is the next in the series. It refers to an incident from A Safe Haven, but can be read as a stand alone.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Angela for her services as beta reader, and for making so many insightful suggestions on improving the story.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. I don't own the rights to the Magnificent Seven and I don't make any money from this work.
"Come off it, Buck, that's impossible! Even you wouldn't have dared to do that. Vin - tell me you don't believe him!"
Chris Larabee grinned at JD's exasperated expression as the youngster glanced beseechingly at his fellow peacekeeper, eyes imploring the sharpshooter to come down on his side. However, Vin was oblivious, his whole attention focused on a nearby table where Inez Recillos was serving a group of three cowboys.
Chris's grin turned to a frown as he noted Tanner's tense posture. An image of a cougar ready to spring came to mind. It was clear that the Texan was on the verge of losing the battle with the anger that had been smoldering inside him all evening.
It was just over three months since Vin had begun to court Inez. Chris had been happy for his friend when Vin finally worked through his misgivings and found the courage to declare his feelings for the fiery Mexican. In his view, the two were well suited. Vin's generally even-tempered nature was a good balance for Inez's more tempestuous one, and in turn, her outgoing personality encouraged the naturally reticent Texan to be more socially forthcoming.
For the first few weeks, everything had seemed to be perfect between the two of them, but recently Chris had observed signs that a storm was steadily gathering in paradise. As manager of the Standish Tavern, Inez dealt daily with drunken, amorous men - a task she undertook with accomplished ease. Chris had always admired the humorous yet firm way she dealt with her patrons. She flirted just enough to flatter their egos while making it plain that she was off limits. However, Chris had observed that Vin was clearly finding it increasingly difficult to sit back and watch while drunken cowboys tried to paw his girl. Several times over the past few weeks, he had uncharacteristically lost his temper. So far, none of these incidents had ended in serious injury, but Chris had a feeling that it was only a matter of time. Moreover, Inez, who had initially treated Vin's overprotective behavior with indulgence, was now showing signs of impatience and irritation towards her lover and going out of her way to encourage her more amorous patrons.
This was the case tonight. The three cowboys were strangers to Four Corners, apparently passing through on their way to join a cattle trail north. Chris feared that Inez was playing with fire - from the moment they walked into the room his had gut told him that the trio spelled trouble. Nothing substantial, just small signs, such as the frequency with which their leader's hand strayed to his holster. They had all been drinking heavily and their initially loud but high-spirited banter had become coarse and bad humoured.
He watched uneasily as the leader grabbed Inez roughly, pulling her off-balance onto his lap. Instinct told him that the situation was about to get out of hand, but Vin was way ahead of him. The Texan was on his feet with the muzzle of his gun ground into the cowboy's neck before Chris had even made the decision to take action. Chris stood slowly, hands hovering close to his holsters, ready to back Vin if necessary. Buck and JD were also on their feet, and the saloon had grown silent - enough for them all to hear Vin's growled threat clearly.
"Let the lady go, or I'm gonna put a hole clear through yer thick head."
One of the cowboy's cohorts, a short, wiry Mexican, said, "Easy, we do not want any trouble." He exchanged an uneasy glance with the third man, who was tall and thickset with long, straggling blond hair.
"That's right, we're just tryin' to have some fun," the blond said. "Right, Frank?" He glared at the first man.
Frank was a big, thick-set man with a neck like a bull and hands like hams. His expression darkened at the blond's words, but after a moment, he nodded shortly and released Inez, who jumped to her feet and retreated to a safe distance. Careful not to make any fast moves, he put his hands on the table. "Like Bill said, we were just tryin' to have some fun."
Vin backed up, but kept his gun trained on the stranger. "I'd say it's time ya took yer fun somewhere else."
The trio exchanged glances and something indefinable passed between them. Then Frank laughed, and stood slowly, taking care to keep his hands well away from his holster.
"No offence meant, ma'am," he said to Inez. "Reckon it's about time we were getting back to camp anyway."
He nodded to his friends and the three walked out without a further glance at the four peacekeepers. Chris waited until they were clear of the batwing doors before slightly relaxing his posture. "JD, you might want to get a breath of air right about now."
JD nodded, understanding his mission.
Vin holstered his gun and turned to Inez. The Mexican was standing with her hands on her hips and a furious expression on her face.
"Just what did you think you were doing?"
Vin frowned. "He was trouble - he wasn't aimin' to take no for an answer."
Inez's eyes flashed. "In your opinion, any man who comes into this saloon is trouble. Would you like me to begin refusing service to anyone who does not wear a skirt?"
Vin's jaw tightened.
"I didn't say that." The Texan's tone was mild, but Chris could sense the tension beneath the words. "But those three were-"
"Trouble, I know, you already said that," Inez interrupted. "In the future, perhaps you would allow me to decide who is trouble and who is not. Do you think I am stupid? I have been doing this for a long time and I know how to deal with such men. I do not need to be rescued every time a man touches me."
Vin faced her, fists clenched, as he fought to hold onto his temper. "If tonight's anythin' to go by, I'd say yer judgment is way off."
Inez's voice was laced with fury as she replied. "I do not care what you think and I do not want your help, Vin, why can you not understand? Go and rescue someone who needs you."
To Chris, it seemed as if time stopped as the angry words hung in the air between the lovers. Vin's eyes flashed, but not before Chris glimpsed the expression of almost physical pain that shot across his face. The Texan held Inez's eyes for a long moment, and when he spoke, his voice was hard and flat.
"If that's the way ya feel, I'll be happy to oblige ya, ma'am." He picked his hat up from the table and walked silently across the room, his set expression and the force with which he slammed open the batwing doors the only physical betrayal of the anger he was still holding in.
Inez stood looking after him for a moment before her eyes scoured the room and the patrons staring at her. "What are you all looking at? Don't you have anything better to do?"
There wasn't a man in the room with the courage to meet her fiery gaze, and within minutes the usual hum of noise had resumed and the tension abated. Chris slumped back in his seat. Buck caught his eye and waggled his eyebrows.
"You know what they say. The course of true lover never did run smooth."
Chris sighed. "It's none of our business, Buck."
"So, you're not plannin' on going after Vin, then?"
Chris cocked his head. "Maybe. Maybe not."
Buck grinned. "Well, if you're not going after Vin, then I guess I'm not going over there to have a little word with Inez."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "Good luck with that one, pard. She's in a mood to take your head off."
"Nah, she wouldn't do that," Buck responded confidently. "Inez and me, we understand each other."
"Yeah, right. Well, maybe I'll head out to tackle my own grizzly." Chris stood up and smiled grimly. "Guess I'll probably catch up with you at the clinic later!"
Inez had retreated behind the bar where she now stood, mindlessly stacking glasses. Her emotions were so churned up that she could hardly tell one from another, confusion warring with the anger that still thrummed through her body, setting every nerve ending on edge.
It had not taken long for word to get out that Inez Recillos was now Vin Tanner's girl. Initially that had pleased her; she was proud to be seen with Vin and secretly delighted in the often ill-concealed envy of many of the town's women. Lately, however, she had noticed that the easy camaraderie she had shared with many of the Tavern's patrons had been replaced with a wary distance on their part. Not that she could blame them. Ever since Vin had broken Billy Turner's nose for doing little more than smiling at her, no one was prepared to risk incurring his wrath.
At first, she had enjoyed Vin's protectiveness. It made her feel warm inside that he cared so much for her that he wanted to protect her. Recently, though, she had begun to see things differently. At first, she had found it endearing. Now she was beginning to feel resentful. Just because they were together, did that give Vin the right to choose who she should and should not talk to?
"How about another round for me and the boys?"
Inez jumped at the sound of Buck Wilmington's voice and looked up to see the ladies' man leaning on the bar in front of her. Refusing to catch his eye, she poured three glasses of whiskey and pushed them across the bar to him.
Buck nodded. "Thank you kindly." However, instead of taking the drinks and leaving, he stayed where he was, and she could feel his eyes on her.
After a moment, sensing that he was not going to go away, she looked up and scowled. "What?"
Buck shrugged. "You don't reckon you were a bit hard on Vin back there?"
Wonderful. Now Buck was going to share his so-called wisdom. Well, she could hardly expect Vin's friends to take her side.
"No, I do not," she retorted tartly. "I could have handled those men myself."
Buck shook his head. "I hate to disagree with a beautiful woman, but you're wrong, and you know it. Those boys were trouble waiting to happen."
In her heart, she knew he was right, but she would rather be dragged naked through the main street than admit it. Vin's overbearing behavior over the past few weeks had brought out her stubborn streak - the more he chose to intervene, the more she determined to prove that she could handle things on her own.
She tossed her hair back and scowled at Buck, but he was undeterred.
"You need to talk to him, Inez," he said.
"There is no point. He will not listen."
"Have you tried talking, instead of shouting?" Buck asked mildly, and she felt herself flush at that insight. Every conversation with Vin about the issue had started with angry words from her.
"I know he's been a little overprotective lately," Buck went on, "and maybe there've been a few times when he's jumped the gun, but you gotta see it from his point of view. He loves you, Inez, and he worries about you."
She was silent, his words deflating her anger a little. Still, she glared at him defiantly, unwilling to admit that she might have been wrong.
Buck held her eyes, his usually good-natured expression uncharacteristically serious. "You hurt Vin real bad tonight. You need to put it right if you don't want to lose him."
He couldn't have wounded her more with a physical blow and her reaction must have shown in her eyes, for he simply nodded, then leaned over the counter and put a hand on her arm. "It'll all work out just fine." He gathered up the glasses and moved away. "See you later, beautiful."
Vin had been sitting on a bale of straw in Peso's stall for what seemed like hours, but he was no closer to untangling his jumbled thoughts. His anger - against both the lecherous cowboys and Inez for her reckless behavior - had finally subsided, leaving him with nothing but a hollow feeling inside.
He reached out and absently stroked his horse's muzzle. Peso snorted and nipped his hand gently. Vin smiled. "If I give ya any more treats, yer gonna explode, fella." He put his hand in his pocket anyway, pulling out a piece of apple and holding it out on his palm. Peso snapped it up, almost taking a chunk out of his hand in the process. Vin chuckled. There was something comforting about the relationship of horse with man. Even with a spirited horse like Peso, it was fundamentally simple - easy and predictable. Women, now, they were a different bag of beans entirely.
He felt his stomach clench as he thought again about the scene in the saloon. Just what was her problem, anyway? Why would she be upset at him for protecting her from scum like those cowboys? He sighed heavily. He knew he didn't have a lot of experience with women. Not that he hadn't been with women - there had been working girls and others over the years but he had never had a real relationship, never before been in love. When his mother died he had been brought up by his uncle and aunt, who had little time for him, and his cousins were all boys. After that, he'd spent a lot of his time in the wilderness, where he encountered very few members of the opposite sex. Since he'd been on the run from the bounty on his head, he had not stayed anyplace long enough to meet anyone.
It had taken him a long time to tell Inez of his feelings for her. This was partly because of his reluctance to allow her to get involved with a man who was wanted by the law but, he had to admit, there had been a fair amount of fear involved, too. Fear that he wasn't good enough for her, that he would mess things up. Now it seemed that his fears had been justified.
He wasn't surprised when he heard quiet footsteps enter the stable.
The footsteps paused, and then started up again as Larabee walked into the stall, stopping to lean against the wall beside him.
"How do you do that?"
"Know who's coming from their footsteps."
Vin shrugged. "Everyone has a different way'a walkin'. Ya just get to recognize it, that's all." He never understood how his tracking skills seemed to amaze his friends. Most of it was just common sense; there was nothing magical about it.
Peso bent his head down, pushing at Vin's chest, almost knocking him off the bale.
"Hey, boy, don't be so greedy. I got one more piece, then that's it, ya understand?" Peso eagerly sucked up the treat from Vin's hand and then tossed his head, nudging for more.
"Reckon I should stick with horses," Vin commented finally, glancing up at his friend. "Life's much simpler with 'em."
Chris grinned, teeth gleaming white in the lamplight. "But not half so much fun."
He pulled a bale of straw closer, straddling it. "She didn't mean what she said, Vin. She was angry - people say all kinds of stupid things when they're angry."
Vin swallowed. He had been thinking of little else but those words all the time he'd been sitting here.
"People also speak the truth when they're angry, Chris."
"Inez loves you, Vin, any fool can see that."
"Maybe." Hell, he'd said the wrong thing in anger enough times in the past to know that Chris was right, and a few weeks ago, he'd have had no doubts. But now...
"You were right about those cowboys," Chris said. "They were trouble."
"Inez don't seem to see it that way."
"Maybe not. But you know, pard, you have been a little overprotective lately-"
Vin shot his friend an indignant look. "Ya takin' her side in this?"
Chris shook his head. "It isn't about taking sides."
"I just want to keep her safe."
"You tried explainin' that to Billy Turner?" Chris asked with a wry smile, and Vin flushed. He knew he'd overreacted on that one occasion, but still...
"I understand how you feel, Vin," Chris went on, sparing him the need to try to explain. "If Inez was my girl, it'd make me mad as hell to see some cowboy pawing her."
Chris looked at him thoughtfully. "But... you know, Vin, she can handle it."
"If I'm there, she don't need to."
Chris chuckled. "That may be true, but I reckon she sees it differently. She was handling drunken cowboys just fine before you came along and she doesn't see any reason to stop now."
Vin grunted. "That's just plain dumb." He paused. "Maybe I should just tell her I don't want her workin' there no more."
Chris's tone was noncommital, but Vin could see from his expression what he thought of that idea.
"Maybe not such a great idea, then?"
"Maybe not," Chris agreed.
They fell silent for a while. Vin could tell Chris had more to say, but was presumably trying to find the right words. "Just spit it out, Chris, afore it chokes ya."
Chris grinned. "All right. Inez is a capable, independent, spirited woman. That's one of the main reasons you love her, right?"
Vin didn't need to give that much thought. It was Inez's courage and spirit which had first attracted him to her. "So?"
"Sarah was the same. When we first got married, I just wanted to protect her from anything that could hurt her. But she had other ideas. We had some pretty fierce arguments in the early days. See, it wasn't that Sarah didn't appreciate me wanting to take care of her. But she was real independent. We just had to figure out how to make that work between us, learn to give and take. I had to learn to let her do things her own way and trust her to call for help when she needed it."
"And did she?" Vin was curious to hear about Sarah Larabee. Chris talked about her very little.
"Sometimes." Chris chuckled, and then fell silent. Vin knew he was thinking back to that last time, when Sarah had been unable to handle the situation and Chris hadn't been there to protect her.
"Chris, I'm sorry," he said immediately. "I didn't mean to bring back bad memories..."
Chris shook his head, a brief smile flashing across his face. "They're mostly good memories, Vin. Point is, I think Sarah and Inez are a lot alike. And you two have to figure it out the way Sarah and I did. Let her deal with the cowboys in her own way - and trust her to ask for help when she needs to."
They fell silent again as Vin pondered Chris' words, and after a while he found he understood what the gunfighter was saying. He would hate to see Inez lose the very qualities he loved. If he'd wanted a timid woman, he would have looked elsewhere.
"Reckon ya got a point. But... what do I say to her?" Vin felt completely out of his depth on this one.
Chris clapped him on the shoulder, and then got to his feet. "You'll figure it out, pard. I'm going to turn in. Early patrol in the morning."
Vin stayed in the stable for a little longer after Chris left, trying to work out in his mind what he was going to say. Then he squared his jaw and got to his feet. If he was going to do this, now was the time. If he waited until morning, he might lose his nerve. He just hoped that Inez had calmed down a little. He had learned from painful experience that it was pointless talking to her when she was mad.
He made his way onto the boardwalk and set off in the direction of the saloon. It was late now and most of the town was in darkness, with lights burning in only a few buildings. The saloon was an exception - lights still blazed from inside where Inez was probably stacking chairs before closing up for the night.
Vin paused outside and took a deep breath. As he reached out his hand to push open the batwing doors, he heard a voice scream his name.
Inez had finally coaxed the final few die-hard patrons to leave the saloon. She was left alone with only her own thoughts as she absently stacked chairs onto tables.
She found herself thinking about a very similar incident that had taken place over a year ago, soon after her arrival in Four Corners and long before she had discovered Vin's feelings for her. She remembered it vividly, because it had taken place the day after Don Paulo's death had rid her of that evil man's threat forever. She had been serving a group of drunken cowboys, very much like the three she had served this evening. One of them had grabbed her, trying to steal a kiss, refusing to take no for an answer. Within moments Vin had been there, gun drawn, making the cowboy release her. Even the conversation had been similar - the cowboy claiming that he was just having some fun and Vin suggesting in a deadly voice that the men take their fun elsewhere.
She recalled distinctly the joy that had flooded her at Vin's intervention, at the knowledge that he cared enough to protect her from these men as he had with Don Paulo. His protectiveness had been welcome back then, when she was just beginning to explore her feelings for him.
She had tried to hold onto her anger after Buck left, but found it difficult in the face of an even stronger emotion evoked by his words - fear. She knew that Vin loved her, but it suddenly occurred to her that this was not a guarantee forever. Was it possible that she was allowing her stubborn pride to drive him away? Buck was right. Those cowboys were trouble and she'd known it as soon as they walked into the room. It was simple pride, and her desire to prove to Vin that she could look after herself, that had led her to flirt with them, thus courting disaster. And her stubbornness had ended up hurting the person she loved the most.
Her heart contracted when she recalled the very real pain in Vin's eyes when she had told him that she didn't need him. It was ironic that the words that had been uttered so thoughtlessly were so far from the truth. She had been attracted to Vin from the first moment she'd seen him and had known for a long time that he was the only man she would ever want. She loved him with a passion that sometimes frightened her with its intensity, and although they had only been together for a matter of weeks, she could no longer imagine her life without him.
So why was she pushing him away?
She was so preoccupied with her thoughts that at first she barely noticed when the doors to the saloon were flung open and three men entered. When she looked up, they were standing close, not four feet away. With a shock of recognition she identified the cowboys from earlier. She had no time to react before the first, the man called Frank who had grabbed her before, took hold of her arm in a painful grip and pulled her around to face him.
"Hello, beautiful. All alone, I see. Where's your tame grizzly?"
"We are closed and you are hurting me. Please leave," Inez said firmly, looking the man in the eye, determined not to show her fear.
Frank laughed, but it was not a pleasant sound. "Oh, I don't think we'll be leaving anytime soon. What's the matter? Don't tell me you were just teasing good old Frank earlier?" His voice hardened. "Well, I don't like a tease, do I boys? I think it's time we finished what we started."
This time, there was no question of allowing pride to get in the way. Inez knew she was in trouble. She allowed him to pull her closer, then kneed him as she could in the groin. He uttered a sharp bark of pain, but held his grip and hit her hard across the face with his free hand. The next moment she found herself on her back on the floor. The second man, the blond called Bill, had a hand over her mouth and another across her chest, holding her down. She fought back fiercely, twisting and turning to throw him off, but he was too strong and she found herself helpless as Frank knelt in front of her and began pushing her skirt up.
Dear Lord, they were going to rape her and there was nothing she could do to stop them. Fear gave her strength and she managed to bite the hand that was clamped firmly over her mouth. As Bill recoiled with a sharp cry of pain, she pulled free and screamed the only word that came into her mind - Vin! Seconds later her voice was cut off when the hand returned, pressing harder this time, and further efforts to dislodge it were fruitless. In her mind she continued to scream for Vin, all the while knowing that he wasn't coming. She had sent him away and when this was over he would never be able to look at her in the same way again.
She heard the batwing doors slam open and caught a glimpse of brown as a figure launched itself across the room, knocking into Frank and pulling him away from her. The two men crashed to the ground and Vin was up first, pulling his opponent up with a fist in his coat, delivering a hard jab to his face. Frank rallied, returning the punch, but he was no match for the savage that Vin Tanner had become. Inez had seen him angry before, but had never witnessed this raw, primitive fury. Vin hardly ever lost control, but he was lost now as he began to beat the life out of his opponent. Frank stopped trying to fight back and desperately attempted to crawl away to find protection from the blows raining down on him.
Inez became aware that the hand was no longer covering her mouth and that Bill was on his feet, face contorted in rage, a gun in his hand and pointed at Vin. She screamed a warning and Vin turned towards her. In that moment Bill fired and she screamed again as the force of the bullet threw Vin back against the bar. He slid onto the ground and lay still. Then another shot ran out and Bill fell, too, clutching his arm. A commanding voice shouted, "No one move!" as a black-clad figured moved into her line of view, but her eyes were fixed on Vin, lying on his back, completely motionless, blood pouring from a wound in his head.
Vin willed the voice to go away. Someone was already stabbing his head with a sharp instrument and the insistent voice was only making things worse.
"Vin? Come on now, I know you're awake. Open your eyes for me."
Vin groaned inwardly. He recognized that voice and knew that it was unlikely to take no for an answer. Gingerly, he opened his eyes.
He was lying in a bed. Nathan was standing beside it, and as his eyes roamed the small but familiar room they lit on Chris, standing like a statue by the shuttered window.
"That's more like it," Nathan said. "Vin, do you know where you are?"
What kind of stupid question was that? "Yeah. My second home."
Nathan grinned. "You got that right. How do you feel?"
Vin considered that for a while before replying, "Like someone's usin' my head for target practice." Speaking was painful, not just because of the knife in his head, but also because his jaw was throbbing mercilessly. "What happened?"
"Found yourself a mite of trouble," Chris remarked quietly, leaving his position by the window and coming to stand at the foot of the bed. "Do you remember what happened last night?"
Good question. The pain in his head made it hard to think, but he made the effort because something was telling him it was important. After a while, disjointed images began to form in his mind. An argument with Inez in the Standish Tavern. A conversation with Chris at the livery. Walking across to the saloon...
As memories flooded back he shot upright. Immediately the pain escalated to an unbearable level, a wave of nausea hit him and the room began to spin. Nathan rushed forward with a basin in his hand, and Vin leaned over it as his stomach rebelled and he threw up what little there was in his belly. When it was over he laid back, shaking and exhausted, a hand clamped over his eyes in an attempt to relieve the blinding pain that was shooting through his skull.
"Damned stupid thing to do," Nathan was muttering.
Vin squeezed his eyes shut as he felt someone pull his hand away from his face and replace it with a cool, wet cloth.
"Now, drink this."
For once, Vin barely noticed the bitter taste lacing the water Nathan poured down his throat. Anything to relieve the pain. He wouldn't be surprised if his head burst open at any moment. But still, there was something more important than his own agony.
"Is Inez all right?" he whispered.
"She's fine, Vin." Chris's voice. "You got there before... you got there in time."
"What happened to... those bastards?"
Chris chuckled mirthlessly. "The one you beat the crap out of won't be walking for a while, but he'll live. I put a bullet in one of the others, but he'll make it, too. All three of them are in jail under JD's watchful eye."
"Ya sure she wasn't hurt?" Vin opened his eyes cautiously, needing to know that the answer to his question was the truth.
Nathan replied this time, looking him in the eye firmly. "I checked her over, Vin and she's fine. Chris took her over to Mary's last night. She was pretty shaken up, but mostly she was worried about you."
"I need to see her."
"Later. I want you to rest up for a while longer. You were lucky - the bullet just grazed you, but you lost a lot of blood, and don't bother telling me you're not in a lot of pain. You'll need to take it easy for a few days."
Nathan didn't understand. "I need to see her now, Nathan." Vin tried to sit up again and once more, dizziness threatened. Nathan put a firm hand on his chest, pinning him to the bed.
"I told you, you need to rest up some. You can see Inez later."
"Chris?" Begging wasn't his style, but he knew he wouldn't be able to rest until he saw her.
Chris' voice held a note of exasperation. "Stubborn mule. Now, listen to me. You're going to rest up for a few more hours like Nathan says, if I have to keep you in this bed at gunpoint. Then, if you're feeling up to it, I'll go and fetch Inez myself. Will that satisfy you?"
"I want to see her now." Vin tried for a resolute tone, but his voice sounded weak and groggy. He could feel lethargy creeping over him, dulling the pain. Nathan's voice held a note of amusement as he answered.
"Soon, Vin. When you wake up, I promise. Now get some sleep."
"I..." Suddenly he seemed to have lost the power of speech and as sleep began to claim him he realized that Nathan must have laced his water with enough laudanum to down a grizzly. He'd be annoyed, if he weren't so darned sleepy...
Inez woke to the sensation of warmth on her face and a bright light shining in her eyes. She lay quietly for a moment, sensing something different about her surroundings. The bed was softer than she was used to, and larger. She opened her eyes to see the sun streaming in through a window framed with pretty flowered curtains. She glanced around the large room, noting its comfortable furniture and large dresser. Why wasn't she in her room at the saloon? Whose room was this? She looked down at the unfamiliar nightdress and touched her cheek, which felt stiff and painful.
Suddenly the memory of the night before returned in a flood of nightmarish images. The cowboy, Frank, face leering down, the weight of his body pressing against hers. Vin, his handsome features transformed into a grim mask of fury, pulling Frank away and beating the life out of him. Then a shot and Vin on the ground, covered in blood. Vin. "Vin!" she said aloud.
She jumped out of bed, heart beginning to beat faster, and noticed a sheet of paper on the dresser. It said, "Vin is fine. Come down when you are ready."
She collapsed back onto the bed, relief flooding her, and tried to remember exactly what had happened. Her recollection was a bit hazy. All she could remember clearly was running to Vin and tearing a strip from her dress to staunch the flow of blood from the wound. She had been only vaguely aware of activity around her. At some point the remaining peacekeepers must have arrived, for the room had been full of men. Nathan had appeared, gently pushing her aside. She remembered getting to her feet shakily and almost falling, and then Buck's strong arm around her shoulders and his whispered assurances that everything was going to be all right. Chris had stood nearby, tense and grim-faced, barking orders, his eyes never straying far from Vin.
Nathan had declared that Vin's wound was not as bad as it looked, yet he was still unconscious when they carried him from the saloon. When Chris had tersely ordered Buck to take her straight to Mary's she had refused to go, insisting vehemently that Vin needed her. Chris's reply was blazoned on her memory. "I think you've helped him enough for one night." She had been so shocked that she had allowed Buck to lead her away without further protest.
When they had arrived at Mary's, the shock of her near escape hit her and she had felt weak and shaky, allowing Mary to lead her upstairs unresisting. She had finished the hot drink Mary had prepared and after that everything was very vague. She thought she remembered Nathan standing over her, but that might have been a dream
She must have slept for a long time - the sun was high and the street outside was thronging with people. How could she have slept, while Vin...
No, Vin was fine. Mary would not lie to her. She shivered suddenly, remembering the attack and how close she had come to... She shook her head, reluctant to even think the word, but still, nightmarish images invaded her thoughts. Bill's hand clamped over her mouth as Frank began to rip her clothing off; feelings of helplessness and terror and the knowledge that the worst thing that could happen to a woman was about to happen to her. For a moment, she wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed, pull the covers over her head and hide from the world. Then she shook herself mentally. What was wrong with her? She was unhurt and there was no reason to be afraid any more. Holding firmly to that thought, she washed quickly in the basin of lukewarm water. A blue dress that did not belong to her was draped over a chair. She remembered that her own dress had been soaked with Vin's blood and that Mary had taken it away. She shuddered. There had been so much blood. She pulled on the dress and walked quickly downstairs, discovering Mary in the sitting room.
Mary smiled warmly when she saw her. "Inez! How are you feeling this morning?"
"I am fine, Mary, thank you. But you should not have let me sleep so long. Vin... and the Tavern..."
"Vin is fine, and Ezra opened up for you. He said he'll fill in for a while, so there's no rush. Please, sit down. Would you like some breakfast?"
Breakfast? How could she be hungry? Her mind was full of images of Vin, lying so still on the ground, and so much blood...
"Vin is really all right?"
"Chris came by a little while ago. Vin woke up briefly earlier and Nathan says he's going to be fine. He has a very bad headache, but Nathan is sure there's no serious damage. The bullet just grazed him."
Mary's words should have reassured her, but she couldn't rid her mind of the insistent image of Vin lying so still with blood pouring from the wound in his head. "But... there was so much blood..." she whispered finally.
"Head wounds always bleed a lot," Mary assured her. "I remember once when Stephen fell and cut his head on the desk, I thought he was going to bleed to death!"
Inez nodded, but although she trusted Mary, she would not be happy until she had seen Vin for herself.
Mary seemed to read her thoughts. "Chris said you can go over and see Vin later. For now, you must eat something."
"No, I... I just want to see him."
Mary nodded. "I understand. But he's sleeping now and Nathan doesn't want him disturbed. Chris said he'd let us know when Vin wakes up. Now, you sit down here and have something to eat."
Seeing that Mary was unlikely to take no for an answer, Inez sat down and thanked Mary politely when the blonde put a plateful of food in front of her. Surprisingly, she found that she was hungry after all.
She ate in silence, trying to calm her mind, then looked up to see Mary regarding her, a concerned expression on her face.
"I am fine, Mary, really."
Mary looked skeptical. "Physically, yes, but you had a frightening experience last night, Inez. You need to give yourself time to get over it."
"Did Chris tell you what happened?"
"What happened to those men?"
"They're in jail, the three of them. The judge will deal with them when he arrives tomorrow."
Inez couldn't hold back a shudder as she thought about what could have happened to her. She had known a woman in her home town who had been raped by a gang of bandits. The woman had never really recovered from the experience - physically or emotionally. That could easily have been her. How would she be feeling now, if those cowboys had had their way? Would she be angry? Afraid? Or simply ashamed? Would she be worrying about facing Vin, wondering if he would see her differently? Would her life be changed for ever?
Mary's concerned voice broke into her thoughts. She tried to smile. "I am sorry. I was just thinking about... about what could have..."
Her throat constricted and she found herself fighting back tears. Mary nodded, eyes full of sympathy. "I understand. You must try not to think about it, or about them. They're safely in jail and they can't hurt you now."
Inez wiped her eyes, determined not to give in to self-pity. "But they did not hurt me, did they? They hurt Vin, and it was my fault, Mary."
"Of course it wasn't."
"Chris thinks it was, and he is right."
"I'm sure Chris thinks no such thing. He was just concerned about Vin..."
Inez shook her head. "He told you what happened. If I had not been so stubborn... I was just so mad at Vin, for treating me like... like..."
"Like you're made of china that could easily break?"
Inez nodded. "That's exactly how I feel. But... I am so confused, Mary. Should I not be happy that he is concerned for me and wants to protect me?"
Mary laughed. "Probably, but life is never that simple. Stephen was just like Vin when we were first married. He was ridiculously overprotective of me, and as much as I loved him, it made me mad. I think what he really wanted was for me to stay home all day like some of our friends. That way, no harm could come to me and I couldn't upset our neighbors with my outspoken views."
"I am thinking that you had other ideas," Inez suggested, laughing at the idea of the strong-willed and opinionated Mary Travis allowing herself to be locked away from the world.
"I certainly did!" Mary said briskly. "In fact, I was so mad at him that I went out of my way to take risks, to do things I might not otherwise have done."
"So, what happened?"
"Oh, we had one enormous argument. I finally got him to see that if he had wanted a timid wife, he wouldn't have married me and it wasn't right to try to make me into someone I'm not. I came to understand that he didn't want to control he, he was just afraid for me, and I had to give some ground, too. I had to accept that I couldn't be as independent as I might have wanted to be."
"Do you think Vin and I can work it out?"
Mary reached across the table and put her hand over hers. "I'm sure you can. It takes time and some hard work to adjust to being with someone. The important thing is that you love each other. Just talk to him, Inez. It will all be fine, you'll see."
A little while later Mary popped out to pick up some supplies at the general store. Inez thought long and hard about her friend's words and by the time Chris arrived to escort her to the clinic, she had decided what she had to do.
Inez walked beside a silent Chris, feeling certain that he was still angry with her but unsure of what to say. His expression was as grim as it had been the night before, so she was surprised when he stopped abruptly and turned to her.
"I'm sorry about last night. What I said to you... it was uncalled for."
Relieved that she had read him wrongly, she replied immediately. "No, Chris, you should not be sorry. You were worried about Vin and you were right. What happened to him was my fault."
Chris shook his head. "Way you behaved with those men wasn't too clever, Inez, but they had no cause to attack you."
"But Vin is hurt, and that would not have happened if I had asked for help earlier."
Chris looked at her and although his expression had softened, his gray eyes were still serious. "You're right, Inez. Vin got hurt last night. But I'm not talking about the bullet."
She knew what he was trying to say. She asked softly, "Is he very angry with me?"
Chris snorted a laugh. "Best ask him, but I wouldn't worry. He loves you, Inez. Maybe you should try remembering that."
Inez smiled. Chris's words strengthened her resolve. She knew what she had to do.
"I will remember, Chris. Do not worry. I am going to make everything all right."
Vin was sitting on the edge of the bed, summoning the strength to get to his feet. He wasn't sure what standing would do to the pounding in his head, but he wasn't about to have Inez come in and find him lying in bed like an invalid. He made it to his feet and grabbed the back of a chair to steady himself until the room stopped moving. Then the door opened and someone entered the room.
Inez. He couldn't think of a single time when the sight of her had failed to set his heart thumping, and now was no exception. He stared at her, taking in the beautiful features currently marred by a worried frown. He took a step towards her. Once again the room moved and he felt himself swaying as dark dots danced at the edge of his vision. He sat down abruptly, cursing his weakness yet relishing her touch as she rushed forward to support him.
"What are you doing? Nathan said you should stay in bed, at least until tomorrow."
Vin shrugged and smiled uncertainly. "Looks worse than it is."
She reached out a hand and softly touched the bandage around his head. "Does it hurt very much?"
"It ain't so bad," he lied.
Her skeptical expression showed that she didn't believe a word, but she let it pass. He looked at her closely. "Did they hurt you?"
"No." But her hand strayed to a bruise on her cheek.
He frowned, reaching up to touch the vivid mark. "I should've killed him."
He was unable to keep the anger out of his voice and saw her expression change slightly. He had a vague memory of the previous night, of losing control and beating that cowboy. The rage that had filled him at the sight of Inez, helpless in the hands of that monster, was still simmering below the surface. He knew without a doubt that had he not been shot, he would have beaten the cowboy to death. Lord, he wished that Inez had not had to witness that side of him, the violence that was part of him and always would be.
"You're sure you're all right?" he asked again softly, searching her eyes for the truth.
She smiled. "I am all right now that I am with you. And if I were not, I would only have myself to blame," Inez said. "You are the one who is hurt and it is my fault. If I had not been so stubborn and proud, if I had not flirted with those men, they would not have come back to... they might not have come back."
Vin was a little surprised but relieved at this outburst. He had been afraid that she was still angry with him. "I reckon ya ain't the only one who was bein' stubborn," he admitted quietly. "Maybe I have been a mite overprotective lately."
She smiled. "I know it is only because you worry about me. I should not be angry with you. I am just not used to having someone around to protect me. Those things I said to you - I did not mean them, Vin. I am sorry."
Chris had assured him that this was the case, but Vin was still ridiculously happy to hear her say the words. He began to speak, but she held up a hand to stop him.
"There is something important I want to say to you," she said earnestly. "Last night, when that man shot you - there was so much blood, for a moment I thought I had lost you. And it made me think about what is most important in my life. And that is you, Vin. I love you and I want you to be happy. If it is what you want, I will tell Mrs. Standish that I can no longer be the manager of the Tavern."
Vin was stunned into silence. He knew how much she loved her job. Hell, this whole argument had been about it, and now she was offering to give it up. He had no doubt how much that decision must have cost her.
"Ya'd do that for me?"
She smiled. "I would do anything for you, Vin Tanner."
He took her hand in his, lifting it to kiss her palm. "I don't want ya to give up yer job, Inez."
Now it was her turn to be surprised. "Then, what do you want?"
"I want ya to be happy and I want ya to be-" he paused, searching for the right words. "I want ya to be yerself, because that's the woman I fell in love with. I don't want ya to change just to please me."
She looked at him steadily for a long moment and he held her gaze, hoping she could see that he really meant what he was saying. After a moment, she smiled.
"So, Billy Turner can start coming to the Tavern again?"
Vin grinned sheepishly. "I ain't never gonna hear the last of that, am I?" But there was something else he needed to say, needed to know that she understood. "Listen, if I'm gonna do what ya want and try to stop interfering, I need to know I can trust ya to make the right call. Last night..."
"Last night I was wrong. I knew they were trouble, but I was angry with you and I went out of my way to provoke them. But..."
"You need to know that I have never been good at asking for help."
Vin grinned. "I've worked that one out already! Reckon that's somethin' we have in common. But ya know, I've learned the hard way that I'm not on my own anymore. I have friends to watch my back - and so do you. Ya have Buck and Ezra and the others - and most of all ya have me."
He anxiously watched her as she carefully considered his words, and was relieved when she nodded. Her eyes filled with tears, but she was smiling when she said, "Si. I understand."
"Promise me you'll ask for help when you need it."
She nodded. "I promise."
"I guess we have a deal, then."
She put out her hand solemnly. "A deal."
He took the hand and shook it firmly, then pulled her forward into his arms. "I can think of better ways to confirm a deal."
She cocked her head. "I thought your head was hurting?"
"It is. But I can't think of a better way to take my mind off it."
He tilted her face for a kiss and as his lips met hers, a wave of contentment swept through him. He had friends - good friends - and he had Inez. Maybe he only had a couple of dollars to his name, but in every other way he felt like the richest man in the world.
"I'm out." Chris threw his cards down in disgust.
Ezra grinned at Vin, who was pondering his own hand, a slight frown on his face. Eventually he too threw down his cards, and Ezra turned his attention to JD. "Mr. Dunne. Do you have more courage than your compatriots?"
"Courage?" Vin said in disgust. "Ya'd need to be suicidal to risk a dime against ol' Ezra and his sneaky hands.
A shout of laughter wafted over from a nearby table and Chris glanced in its direction. Inez was serving a table of rowdy cowboys. As he watched, she deftly sidestepped a tall mustachioed man who was trying to coax her into his arms. She swatted his hand away and let loose a mouthful of Spanish, but she was smiling. Chris looked at Vin, expecting his friend to be halfway out of his seat. But Vin simply glanced over at the table. He caught Inez's eye and she shook her head slightly. Vin nodded imperceptibly and turned away, taking a leisurely swig of his beer.
Chris relaxed, sitting back and picking up his own drink. Vin caught his eye and winked. Chris grinned. It seemed that all was well again in paradise.