Read Soul of a crow Online

Authors: Abbie Williams

Soul of a crow

Advertising Download Read Online


Praise for Heart of a Dove

* Gold Medalist - 2015 — Independent Publishers Awards

“Set just after the U.S. Civil War, this passionate opening volume of a projected series successfully melds historical narrative, women's issues, and breathless romance with horsewomanship, trailside deer-gutting, and alluring smidgeons of Celtic ESP.” — Publishers Weekly

“There is a lot I liked about this book. It didn't pull punches, it feels period, it was filled with memorable characters and at times lovely descriptions and language. Even though there is a sequel coming, this book feels complete.” — Dear Author

“With a sweet romance, good natured camaraderie, and a very real element of danger, this book is hard to put down.” — San Francisco Book Review

Also By Abbie Williams

Forbidden

~ The Shore Leave Cafe Series ~

Summer at the Shore Leave Cafe

Second Chances

A Notion of Love

Winter at the White Oaks Lodge

Wild Flower

The First Law of Love

Until Tomorrow

The Way Back

~ The Dove Series ~

Heart of a Dove

Soul of a Crow

Grace of a Hawk

Copyright © 2016 Abbie Williams

Cover and internal design © 2016 Central Avenue Marketing Ltd.

Cover Design: Michelle Halket

Cover Image: Courtesy & Copyright: Christopher Martin Photography

ShutterStock: Oleg Gekman

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Published by Central Avenue Publishing, an imprint of Central Avenue Marketing Ltd.

www.centralavenuepublishing.com

Published in CanadaPrinted in United States of America

1. FICTION/Romance - Historical

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Williams, Abbie, author

Soul of a crow / Abbie Williams.

(Dove)

Issued in print and electronic formats.

ISBN 978-1-77168-036-3 (paperback).--ISBN 978-1-77168-037-0 (epub).--

ISBN 978-1-77168-051-6 (mobipocket)

I. Title.

PS3623.I462723S69 2016 813'.6 C2015-907436-3

C2015-907437-1

Not a day goes by when I do not think of you

Prologue

Leave it, Sawyer,we'll not be needing a fire this night,” Gus told me. “It's warm enough.”

I obeyed, sitting back on my bootheels, and continued to stare fixedly at the kindling I had arranged in the shallow fire pit, freshly scraped into the earth with the blade of my knife. I blinked and attempted to refocus upon Angus Warfield's face; behind the full, unfamiliar beard, his flint-gray eyes were steady and blessedly recognizable. He was still the man I'd known in my old life, the life to which the path leading back had been obliterated. I knew that I would not ever find my way along its length again, despite the fact that the War ended.

The country was formally at peace.

Word came to us that Lee walked from the courthouse with his sword in hand; it had not been tendered in the Surrender. Eleven days later, modeling himself after Grant at Appomattox, Sherman formally accepted Johnston's surrender of the Army of Tennessee. All of the officers in attendance were allowed to keep their sidearms. Despite our lesser status in the eyes of the army, Boyd and I retained our .44 pistols, first issued to us as cavalrymen in 'sixty-two; Gus still had his Enfield rifle strapped to his horse, a solid, dappled gelding named Admiral.

Boyd and I found Gus by a stroke of sheer luck only days past; he had been riding west from Virginia, where his regiment spent its final weeks. Gus had been with Lee's army to the end; I couldn't look into his eyes for any great length of time, overwhelmed by the anguish that lingered there, just beneath the surface.

“We're going home now,” Gus said, crouching near me and studying my face. He said, low, “Sawyer, by God, it is good to see you. I haven't seen a soul from home in close to two years.”

Home.

Where in God's name was home anymore? I could not have answered this question had my very life depended upon a response. I was so tired. I was tired way down deep inside my bones. I could feel it sapping at me, draining me of everything but the urge to sink into slumber. I could not deny that my mind flirted, however unwillingly, with the notion of death—it seemed an entity which crawled seductively near these days, as close as my own shadow at times, whispering a promise of rest, a cessation of the nightmares which plagued the meager sleep I could claim. It was all I could do to refrain from scouring the darkening woods for a glimpse of the black-winged death specter skulking amongst the tree trunks, whose concentrated gaze I could sense with a soldier's instinct.

Go, I ordered it, though I didn't look its way.Go, now. We have given you enough.

But it remained unmoving, observing silently, and a distinct unease skittered along my spine.

Jesus, Sawyer, I reprimanded myself, unable to restrain a shudder at what my imagination conjured. With a sincere determination, I shut my eyes and fixed a thought of Tennessee, which I had once called home, firmly into my mind.

The dusky evening, the pile of kindling, vanished as I imagined the Bledsoe holler where I'd been raised, a captivating place of early sunsets and old-growth trees, grapevines trailing my shoulders and icy creek water around my ankles as I explored with my brothers and the Carter boys. I had at one time known every gnarled tree root that snaked along the ground, every secret hiding place that young boys neglecting their chores could seek out.

Warming to this vision, I pictured the wide front porch that ran the length of my boyhood home, upon the railings of which honeysuckle grew so thickly that its flowering limbs seemed to support the porch rather than the wooden beams beneath. I saw the adjacent two-story barn silhouetted against the breast of a pale sky, gilded by a mellow amber afterglow of sinking sun, its upper windows propped open to the sweetness of an evening breeze. I recalled long afternoons spent playing in that barn, my brothers at my side, as they had been to the last.

My brothers…

Ethan…

Jere…

Just the thought of their names was painful as a blade between the ribs, with a slow death to follow, blood draining away like wine from a tipped bottle; I had witnessed many such sluggish deaths. Despite various injuries, my body survived the War and still remained functional—all of the death was in my mind, sticky as an orb spider's web, just as difficult to brush aside. The skeins of it clung.

No.

Do not think of being too late.

Do not think of crawling through the ditch with cold red water seeping over your wrists.

Oh Jesus, please…make it stop…

My head ached and I closed my eyes even more tightly, and there, just yonder in my memory, I could see ghost mist that rose up from the ground on spring evenings, tinted a haunting blend of indigo blue and deep green. I could smell the rich earth of Cumberland County, the syrup of the honeysuckle blossoms, the dusty, hay-filled barn and the horses therein, all scents as familiar to me as my own skin. Mama and Daddy would be waiting for me at the top of the porch steps, side by side; Daddy would have an arm about Mama's waist, holding her close, as always. I'd not received a letter from my parents in many months, but post had long since ceased to move freely; it was a gamble sending correspondence anywhere these days.

Though perhaps now that the War was over…

Boyd and I had spoken those words to one another as though mired in a dream when the news first came to us, in Georgia. Our regiment had been camped there, and we'd been eventually discharged. No money was paid out, though we'd been allowed to keep our armaments; our commanding officer's exact words were, “I don't give a flying fuck. And you'll need them on the way home, poor bastards.”

It was still surreal. The Confederacy, the dream of it, was dead, reduced to ash. I felt as insubstantial as ash myself, ready to scatter to pieces on the faintest breeze. If someone were to ask me why I'd fought, why I'd spent the last two and a half years as a soldier, I could not have articulated a response. I stared now at Gus without saying anything, and he gently curved a hand around my right shoulder, squeezing me the way my own father would have, had he been here in the clearing with us.

“It will be all right, Sawyer,” Gus said quietly. Though he said no more on the subject, I knew he understood what I was feeling; he did not press for a response.

Boyd joined us momentarily; he'd walked into the cedars for a bit of privacy. He bore dark smudges of fatigue beneath his eyes. With a thick black beard obscuring the lower portion of his face, he closely resembled his father, Bainbridge Carter, and appeared a good decade older than his actual age. I was certain the same could be said of me; I had not scraped a razor over my jaws in months. With sincere determination I kept my thoughts upon my parents, James and Ellen Davis, and upon Bainbridge and Clairee, imagining how they would rejoice to have us home again. And little Malcolm, who was close to ten years old by now. Malcolm, the only brother left to Boyd. My brothers had been slaughtered on a battlefield strewn with rocks within two months of leaving home; Beaumont and Grafton Carter had both been dead by the following summer, of 'sixty-three.

If I closed my eyes too long when awake and not numbed by the haze of exhaustion, images sprang forth, unbidden. The specter would scuttle closer, its black-bright eyes intent. I pressed both hands over my face, catching the scents of dirt and smoke from my skin. Boyd and I slept beneath the distant stars, though close to one another, our backs nearly touching, since leaving the regiment; the warmth of another person was the only thing that offered any hope of alleviating the night terrors, for the both of us.

Boyd and I had served together for the duration of the War and had seen more than any one person should be asked to bear witness to in a single existence. I prayed that in good time we would be able to speak of it, at least to one another. Boyd was the only person on the face of the Earth with whom I felt as though I could be completely honest, could speak without having to carefully guard each word. Perhaps Gus now, as well. Gus had been a soldier. He knew. I spoke little these days as it was; Whistler was the only one I could manage more than a few sentences for. My horse, my sweet girl. She had saved my life time and again.

And you kept her safe, in return.

You couldn't manage to keep Ethan and Jeremiah alive.

Don't let Mama and Daddy blame me.

I blame myself. I will always blame myself for it.

Gus's low, strained voice penetrated my desperate thoughts. He crouched on the opposite side of the cold fire pit and said, “I figure we'll be home by end of the week, if the weather stays fair. I've not a word from my Grace in months.”

It was concerning him greatly; he'd mentioned this at least three times. I tried not to let the knot of unease in my lower belly take precedence over my already-tenuous control. None of us dared to acknowledge what could await us upon returning home; I reminded myself that Sherman had not sliced so brutally through Tennessee, as he had Georgia…

Oh dear God…

Boyd held half a day-old biscuit towards me and his forehead wrinkled as he asked a silent question. I shook my head at once, not the least hungry, though we'd eaten little since mid-morning coffee and hardtack. Hunger seemed a trivial thing, food a luxury I could not bear just now.

“They've surely heard word,” Gus continued. “Doubtless they're expecting us any day.”

From the near-distance, perhaps a few hundred yards, came the sound of laughter, further adding to the nightmarish unreality of the evening. Men's laughter, rapidly approaching our position. We were not upon a well-traveled road and all of us tensed at once, hands lifting to the pistols strapped upon our hips.

“Shit,” muttered Boyd.

We hunkered, animal-like, wary as criminals in the gathering darkness, armed but still vulnerable; despite the fact that the War was indeed over, running across a group of Federals was not an encounter any of us were eager to experience. It would be inevitable, eventually, but I would much rather it be in daylight hours. Wounds were keen-blooded and raw, and animosity would rage for a long time, I felt certain. I listened hard, but we needn't have worried in that moment. The sounds of their passage, whoever they were, soon faded to silence.

“Come, let us retire,” Gus muttered.

Sleep came upon me like a heavy cloak, and so it was with an exaggerated sense of disorientation that I startled awake at some later point in the night. I blinked, confused, as though engulfed in ghost mist, the low-lying fog of home. I stared at the bare branches entwining their fingers high above me, mind reeling to full consciousness, and then heard the noise that had surely jolted me from sleep in the first place: Whistler's frantic whinny.

I moved fluidly, driven by instinct, knife in hand before I was even upon my feet. The moon was only a few nights past the new, just bright enough to lend the clearing a pale, eerie glow in which I could plainly observe two men, working swiftly to untie our horses. A third, mounted, lingered in the trees and whooped a wordless noise of alarm upon hearing me, lifting his pistol at once. Moonlight glinted off the long, slender barrel as he called over, with an almost jovial tone, “Hold up there now, Johnny Reb!”

Drunk. I could hear it in his voice. Boyd and Gus scrambled to their feet as I disobeyed the order and stalked towards the horses.

Shoot me, bastard, I thought.You couldn't know how little I fucking care.

“Stand down!” he yelled, and fired twice when I did not.

No matter how grim my thoughts, instinct sent me instantly into a crouch. He discharged a third round. I heard the bullet strike a trunk mere feet from my head. Gus and Boyd disappeared into the cover of the trees, where they would certainly circle in an attempt to flank the thieving bastards. I kept to ground, ducking into dense brush, and whistled to my horse; I was heartened to hear her immediate nickering response. I knew she would dig in her heels until I could get to her.

One of the Federals whistled back, in mockery, as though for an errant dog. He called from the darkness, “Where you hiding, Johnny?”

“C'mon, let's ride!” a man urged from a different direction, and I sprang into flight, towards that voice.

They had reclaimed their own mounts and were preparing to flee, not twenty paces to my left, and I charged them. They had all three of our horses by their lead lines, somewhat hampered by this burden. I heard two shots fired at a right angle to my position, and knew it was Gus or Boyd, from the trees. Two of the Federals fired back repeatedly, cursing, and I was nearly upon them, breathing hard, fury lending my limbs additional strength. I came abreast of Whistler and caught her halter, forcibly stalling their forward motion.

“Sonofabitch,” the man holding her line grunted, forced to rein to a halt. I didn't release my hold. He turned swiftly in his saddle, aimed directly between my eyes, and fired. The cylinder clicked on an empty chamber and he spat his frustration. Heart pulsing at this narrow escape, I saw the silver length of his blade flash seconds before the tip of it scoured my right cheek, sending trails of hot blood at once down my jaw.

Had he leaned forward even a fraction, he would have stabbed well into my face and rendered me incapable of responding; it was his misfortune that I was further enraged by this slicing of my skin. I was conscious of the surroundings only minimally behind the red haze that descended. My fingers closed around the wrist of his sword arm and before I realized I'd yanked, he was flat upon his back on the ground before me. I fell to my knees almost atop him, breathing harshly, knife already poised to kill.

Gunshots rang out directly above, but I didn't stop to see from where they were fired.

In the milky moonlight I saw how his eyes widened in surprise—the body is always surprised by death, even an expected death—just before I plunged the blade into his throat. I'd aimed true; it sank without resistance to nearly its hilt. The handle slipped in my sweating grasp as I wrenched it free and then stabbed again, and again. A madness fell over me, as blood flowed down my neck from the superficial wound on my face, coppery-scented and far more heated than my skin. His blood flew in arcs, wetly striking my lap, and still I stabbed.

“Sawyer!” I heard somewhere behind me, as though Boyd was shouting at the other end of a long tunnel. He fired twice in quick succession, almost over my shoulder, and then Gus's arm came around my chest and he dragged me backwards.

Hooves thundered away into the night. This was the only sound I could discern above those of my ragged breathing, my heartbeat which seemed ten times amplified. Gus released me, his own breathing fast and uneven. I staggered to the edge of the clearing and vomited repeatedly; the knife fell, striking the ground with a muted thud.

“Well, you done kilt him all right,” Boyd said, though I was unable to stand straight to look over at him. Absurdly, he laughed. It was unhinged laughter, in no way acquainted with any sort of humor. He added, “He's dead as a goddamn stuck pig, that's what.”

“Sawyer, your face,” Gus said quietly.

I was rendered wordless, hands braced on my knees. Another round of nausea engulfed me, though surely there could be nothing left for my stomach to expel. I could smell bile, and blood.

Boyd said, “Jesus Christ, we oughta ride after an' kill them other two.”

Gus shook his head, I could see from the corner of my gaze.

Boyd insisted, “We oughta, I feel it. I feel it, strong.”

Gus said firmly, “No, let it go. Let us ride, boys, we cannot remain here. Jesus, we'd be hung.”

Boyd came near and caught up my knife, wiping it clean on his trousers. He said, low, “Let's go, old friend. Let's gonow.”

Together we grabbed the heels of the dead Federal and dragged him through the debris of the woods and into the cover of the cedars, before we rode out.

The crow remained amid the tree trunks, watching, its sleek black wings hunched as it sat sullenly and, for that night, silently let us go.

- 1 -

I narrowed myleft eye to a slit, taking careful aim; I did not intend to miss this shot. The last two rabbits I drew a bead upon were little more than startled at the echoing report of the gunfire, leaving me with a sore shoulder and ringing ears, not to mention wasted ammunition, rather than fresh meat. Merely the prospect of a spitted rabbit roasted to a juicy crisp over our cookfire was motivation enough to continue in the frustrating endeavor of hitting such a fast-darting target.

“Steady,” Sawyer murmured, his voice scarcely more than a breath. Though he was armed with his squirrel rifle, he carried it loosely in the crook of his right elbow, its long barrel directed at the ground three feet before us. He could have easily taken the animal with one shot, I knew, but he refrained, patiently allowing me the practice. I released a slow breath, a trickle of sweat slipping wetly between my breasts. It was thickly overcast and had grown increasingly humid, the heavens quilted with fat-bellied clouds, promising objectionable weather before long. I scarcely formed the thought before a cold drop flicked my ear, and then several more my left cheek, tilted slightly upwards above the rifle's metal sights.

Do not be distracted. You have been practicing for this, I reminded myself, and centered all focus upon the creature. The prairie, cloaked in dour grays this day, the grasses appearing all the more vividly green against such a drear backdrop, receded to the distant horizon. The small midges that seemed to adore flying into one's nostrils and eyes, the increasing patter of rain, the restless grumble of thunder to the west—all were silenced and stilled. By contrast, the rabbit's outline grew sharp, the bunched energy of its long hind legs, the slender peaks of its ears, the single watching eye, each etched in charcoal by the intensity of my focus.

Squeeze the trigger, rather than pull, I heard Angus instruct.

And so I did.

The stock punched hard, as I anticipated, sending me quick-stepping backwards despite having braced for the impact; Sawyer reached instinctively, cupping his free hand beneath my right elbow and keeping me stable. A flock of blackbirds hidden by the tall grass were disrupted by the shot, now furiously taking wing into the pewter sky, fanning out like spread fingers. I could not hear Sawyer over the ringing in my ears, but the smile upon his face indicated that my aim proved true; it was the first time I had struck something other than a tin can, and I felt an answering smile bloom over my face.

He leaned closer to me and his mouth formed the words,Good shot!

Together, we hurried to claim the prize before the rain grew heavier, and Sawyer bent to catch up the creature by its ears. My hearing at least partially restored, his words were only slightly muffled as he said admiringly, “Clean through the head.”

“I hit it!” I rejoiced, perhaps disproportionately pleased at this truth, but proud of myself nonetheless. The squirrel rifle in my grip once belonged to Angus, and was a heavy firearm, but I neatly shifted it to my elbow so that I could take the rabbit from Sawyer.

“It's messy,” he warned, and indeed my fingers grew slick with blood as I accepted it from his grasp.

“I cannot wait to show Malcolm,” I said, refusing to behave squeamishly. I had gleaned from my time in Missouri many invaluable lessons, far more demanding than any imparted upon me at my mother's knee, in the luxury of a loving home. Here in the wilds it became quickly apparent that learning required the completion of tasks at one point in my life unfathomable; the result of refusing to acknowledge this was the inability to survive, a truth as simple as that.

If there was one thing I had learned, with great humility, it was how to survive.

“He'll be in a tizzy if you bagged a rabbit and he did not,” Sawyer recognized with amusement, and even in the darkening, rainy gloom of the afternoon and the shadow of his hat brim, his eyes glinted with golds and greens, captivatingly beautiful, and dearer to me than I could have put into words.

“I hope he did, as I intend to eat this one entirely myself,” I said, only half in jest.

My appetite had been poor of late, and welcome hunger now grumbled in my belly, echoing the strengthening thunder. The words barely cleared my lips when Sawyer silently held out his arm, indicating that I halt, bent swiftly to one knee and raised the rifle with a movement as graceful as a heron lancing a fish. Rising just as effortlessly to his feet, he jogged to retrieve the second rabbit; upon his return, he held it aloft and said, “I was just making certain that you're able to, Lorie-love.”

Whistler and Admiral were tethered in copse of cottonwoods fifty paces east, closer to the river and our camp. Sawyer and I had not ridden far, as it was still difficult for me to sit the saddle for long periods of time; in the days since we traveled at a deliberately slow pace north from Missouri, having cleared the Iowa border just yesterday, I had been content to ride on the wagon seat. Today was only my second attempt at horseback, and to my considerable relief it had not proven painful; I'd not shed any additional blood since miscarrying nearly a fortnight past, and the saddle burns welted upon my inner legs healed over remarkably well.

All of the irreparable damage was emotional, the toll exacted for my having survived when Angus and his unborn child had not. Only a wooden marker, painstakingly crafted by Sawyer and Boyd, gave a hint as to the reality of the man who lay beneath the ground, the brave and kind man who had recognized me as the daughter of a fellow solider, who had subsequently insisted I leave behind, as of that very night, the indignities of my life as a whore and accompany him and his companions on their journey north. Angus saved me from the horror of my existence at Ginny Hossiter's, and no words could effectively convey the enormity of my gratitude.

As I had dozens of times and in various incarnations since riding away from Angus's body and the wooden cross Sawyer constructed for the child, I thought,Forgive me, dear Gus. Please, forgive me. You would have done right by me, this I know to the bottom of my heart. You did not deserve to die in such a terrible way. Please forgive me. I know that you will look after our child in the Beyond.

“Storm's rolling in!” Sawyer said, moving closer to me as we hastened our strides, reaching the cottonwoods and their meager shelter as a towering thunderhead unleashed a torrent perhaps a half-mile to the west. Whistler and Admiral danced on their tethers, agitated by the rapidly-advancing storm, the whites of their eyes visible, indicating their unease. As we neared, Whistler nickered in clear relief, nudging at Sawyer's side as he hurried to unwind her lead line, while I tugged free Admiral's. The big dappled gray tossed his head, nervously side-stepping, but I held firmly and he stilled.

“Look there!” I cried, and could not help but pause, one boot in the stirrup, captivated by the sheeting rain; it appeared a near-solid mass of roiling silver, a sight as eerie as it was impressive. A blinding bolt of lightning erupted in a crackling pulse, striking the ground where we had only minutes before been standing, and my spine twitched.

“It's not safe beneath these trees!” Sawyer shouted, and he took the rifle from me, securing it in the saddle scabbard before replacing his own, then helped me atop Admiral; I was wearing Malcolm's trousers, and could have taken the saddle with no assistance, but Sawyer was protective, more so than ever since our ordeal in Missouri, and made certain I was settled before mounting Whistler with his usual easy grace. Together we cantered across the prairie, each clutching a rabbit, arriving just ahead of the rain. To the east of our small camp the Mississippi rolled at a clip, crested with white arrows of waves as the wind blew fitfully. Fortune and Aces High, along with Juniper, were all three staked within sight, indicating that Boyd and Malcolm were here.

“Twister?” Boyd yelled in our direction, competing with the wind to be heard as he emerged from his and Malcolm's wall tent, twenty paces away. He stood straight and shaded his vision against the gale, looking westward.

“Take these and hurry inside,” Sawyer leaned near to tell me, and while I would have helped him secure the horses, I gathered the game and did as he asked instead, recognizing concern in the way his eyebrows were knit.

“We didn't catch a glimpse of one!” I called to Boyd as I neared, the ground already growing muddy beneath my boots.

“You bag them hares?” he asked, nodding at the limp creatures in my grasp.

“One of them!” I said proudly.

Malcolm's freckled face appeared in the pie-shaped opening of his and Boyd's tent, and the boy called, “I shot me a foolbird, Lorie! You shoulda seen it!”

He used the common name for prairie fowl, plump and tasty birds with less sense than chickens, and I called, earning a grin from him, “I plan toeatit!”

“We ain't gonna eat nothing but day-old biscuits 'less this storm clears out before nightfall!” Boyd said. He told me, “We'll skin them critters when it blows over.”

I nodded agreement and ducked into the tent I shared with Sawyer, lacing all but the bottommost entrance tie. I stowed the rabbits near the edge of the canvas farthest from our bedding, laying them neatly atop the flattened grass, and then stepped on the heels of my boots, one after the other; once barefooted, I shucked free of my wet clothes and shivered into a dry shift, one of two that I possessed, next wrapping into my shawl. The wind increased in strength and the rain in tempo, thunder detonating so near our tent I pictured it hovering only an arm's length above as I knelt beside the small porcelain wash basin and scrubbed the blood from my hands. To my relief, I heard Sawyer returning after the next shattering blast of thunder; I listened as he hastily stowed our saddles beneath the awning.

“You're chilled,” was the first thing he said upon entering, re-lacing the ties against the surly weather before unceremoniously stripping his boots, wet shirt, suspenders and trousers, leaving only the lower half of his union suit, a thin garment rather in need of repair. I had dried my hands but not yet lit our lantern, and reached wordlessly for him. He grinned in immediate response, catching me close and taking us at once to the rumpled bedding, where he promptly drew the quilt and snuggled me to his bare chest. Despite having just come in from the rain he was warm as an ember, and issued the low, throaty sound of contentment to which I had grown blissfully accustomed, declaring, “Much better.”

“Worldsbetter,” I agreed, closing my eyes, thankful beyond measure; there would never come a time, even if fortune was kind enough to allow us the rest of our lives together, that I would take for granted the feeling of being held secure in his arms.

“It was a good shot,” he said again, gently stroking my hair. Though I had neatly braided its length this morning it was currently half-undone, tangled and damp with rain, but Sawyer was undeterred. I contentedly rested my nose at the juncture of his collarbones, feeling the rasp of his stubble, as he cupped the back of my head and pressed his lips to the slim, white scar near my left ear.

“I put them over there,” I mumbled, drowsy with warmth; I did not manage to open my eyes as I indicated vaguely in the direction of the dead rabbits, though I flinched inadvertently as thunder sliced apart the sky. Sawyer's arms tightened in response, and I whispered, “Boyd said we'd clean them after the storm.”

“You rest, darlin',” Sawyer said, his voice low and sweet, so familiar to me; the soft cadence of Tennessee lingered in his words. He said, “There are shadows beneath your eyes, and I mean to see them gone. You rest, and I'll hold you.”

* * *

When I woke, the air outside was utterly still, the canvas wall slanting above our heads tinted with the placid auburn tones of an evening sun; from outside, near the smoldering fire, I could hear the comforting rise and fall of Boyd and Malcolm engaged in quiet conversation. Sawyer was snoring, flat upon his back, one arm stretched outward, the other curved about my waist, and his forearm was no doubt numb, pinned as it was beneath me. I was rolled into the quilt like a sausage in a flapjack, and smiled at the sight of him asleep. Unable to resist, I smoothed my fingertips along his fair hair, trailing over the blue-striped ticking of his pillow, softly as a cottonseed alighting upon the surface of the river.

Sawyer issued a particularly loud snore, almost a snort, and I muffled a giggle, stretching to kiss the small dark mole on his neck; it was one of four on his upper body, the other three positioned in a neat row on the left side of his powerful chest. I leaned to kiss him in that exact place, my loose hair falling over his nose and chin, and he snorted again, groaning a little and then moving with purpose, engulfing me in his arms and exhaling a rush of air directly against the side of my neck, where he knew I was enormously ticklish. My breathless laughter was followed by the immediate sounds of Malcolm scrambling to our tent, curious about the racket within.

Positioned just where the entrance was laced, Malcolm demanded, “What you-alldoingin there?”

“Never you mind, kid,” Sawyer teased, while I climbed atop him and ineffectually attempted to poke his ribs. Sawyer was too quick, rolling to his front side and blocking with his elbows, preventing my jabbing fingers from making contact, and I could suddenly smell roasting meat. When I looked that way I saw that the rabbits were gone; surely Malcolm must have crept within to retrieve them for Boyd's knife. The resultant scent was rich in the air, and my stomach responded accordingly. I left off tickling him and aligned my front with Sawyer's back, hooking my chin at the juncture of his neck, so that my breath was near his ear. Face buried in the pillow, his laughter was muffled.

“We best join them,” I murmured, with reluctance, and in fact found myself latching one thigh even more securely about his hip in order to keep him here a little longer, forcibly if necessary; I sensed rather than saw his grin. I shifted to rest my lips between his shoulder blades, feeling his hard muscles beneath my breasts and belly. He turned effortlessly, keeping me atop his body, stacking both forearms under his head and grinning at me in the way he had that set everything within me to quickening. I gripped his ears and rested my forehead against his for the space of several heartbeats, studying his eyes at close range. My long hair fell all around us.