Gun Shy

Reaper Book Two

Before the cure, Lieutenant Lyle Dalton's job was simple: kill the Reapers. Now, under orders to inject all captured flesh eaters with the serum that restores their humanity, his Rangers at Fort Dougan face entirely new dangers. Someone wanted the Reaper cure badly enough to spill blood for it, and Lyle needs to steal it back if he hopes to hold the border.

Jane Fisher escaped Scraper crime boss Gideon Moore with only the clothes on her back. What he took from her can never be replaced, but her new home at Fort Dougan is the first safe one she's known. Or was, until the remaining supply of serum was stolen, flown high into the mountains on Gideon's command. Serving as Lyle's guide through Scraper territory means revisiting her own personal hell, but it's also an opportunity—for closure or revenge, Jane isn't quite sure.

Beautiful, proud and haunted, Jane is a temptation Lyle's worked hard to avoid. The mountains are the last place she needs to be. But if Jane can find the courage to face down a man like Gideon for the sake of the fort, no force on earth will keep Lyle from her side.

Excerpt

Chapter One

 

 

            Lyle spat out a mouthful of dust and lifted his face. A pair of hawks circled gently overhead, black specks against the crisp blue sky. It was the kind of late autumn day that should be spent baling hay, sipping cider or making fence before the frost set. No sign in that beautiful calm heaven of the hell surrounding him down here. Not even a cloud to show how fiercely the wind was blowing.

            With the sound of gunfire still echoing in his ears, he holstered his revolver and looked over the field to make sure that all of his men were accounted for. The rocky ground at his feet was littered with the bodies of about a dozen Reapers. All of them disabled for the time being, none dead. Their one injured Ranger, Garrett, was already in the medical tent with Doc. Cam had seen him there. Four scouts checking for tracks to be sure there were no stragglers and the other Rangers were in the field making sure none of the Reapers would give them trouble until transport arrived.

            Only a year ago, they’d have been running cleanup by now, lopping off the heads of the dead before they resurrected. Now, they shot the Reapers to disable them and then worked in groups to shackle and load them onto reinforced wagons. They’d cart the snarling, stinking bunch back to the fort, tie them down, inject them with the cure and then stand back to see if they survived. Close to half didn’t, but the ones who pulled through seemed to recover fully.

            The Rangers gave the survivors a change of clothes, a pair of boots and money for their next meal. And then they sent them on their way. Doc worried about what happened to them after that, but Lyle had never been able to muster up much sympathy. Life was hard. It was hard all around. This was his job—bullets, blood, chains. He didn’t have the time or the energy to worry about what happened to former Reapers once they left the fort.

            He turned at the sound of his name to see Cam about fifty yards distant, waving his arms and standing right next to the medical tent.

            “Damn.”

            He set off at a jog, weaving between the downed Reapers, careful not to come within grab range of any of the twitching bodies. Garrett had been with the patrol for nearly twenty years, a good run. Most didn’t make it that long. He was far too experienced to have made such a stupid-ass mistake, assuming the Reaper with the head wound wasn’t a threat. He’d hurried. Hadn’t waited for Cam to cover him and when he reached for the thing’s legs, the Reaper came to. They were ravenous when injured and this one had taken a shot to the gut. It needed meat to heal itself and Garrett had practically served himself up on a platter.

            Lyle tried to read the news on Cam’s face as he approached. Hands planted on his hips, legs braced, Cam looked ready for a fight. Seemed he was always ready for a fight these days. Could have been any number of things that had set him off. The scowl was reassuring. That was anger, not grief, and Lyle took it as a good sign.

            Cam waited until Lyle was within earshot before speaking. “Talk to him.”

            Lyle looked at the tent. The flaps were down, rope ties dangling, thudding against the post in a drumbeat. A gust of wind pushed at the canvas and just as abruptly bowed it in the opposite direction. “To who? Doc?”

            “He’s gone soft in the head.” Cam removed his hat and shook the sand off the brim. “You have to talk some sense into him. He’s as bad as Abby. They’re Reapers, not fucking people. Not yet. Maybe not ever again.”

            “What are you talking about?”

            “I’m talking about Doc sawing off Garrett’s damn hand that’s what I’m talking about.”

            “Stand aside and let me see what’s going on.”

            Cam hesitated, looking as if he’d like to say more, but then jerked the flap of the tent back. Lyle ducked inside and paused while his eyes adjusted to the dim light. It was almost shockingly quiet inside the tent with the heavy canvas blocking the brunt of the wind. The walls were moving, sucking in and out with every gust. It was like being inside a pair of bellows. Lyle stifled a cough. Doc looked up sharply at the sound. “What the hell are you doing here?”

            “Apparently, I’m talking sense into you.”

            Doc snorted and set back to work. “That’ll be the day.”

            Garrett was stretched out on a wooden plank, moaning softly in his drugged state. Lyle dodged a swinging lantern and came to stand beside the table.

            “How bad is it?”

            Doc swiped sweat from his brow with his forearm though it wasn’t particularly warm inside the tent. The scent of blood made the air seem thick.

            “He’ll lose his hand,” Doc said flatly. “The rest will heal eventually so long as there’s no infection.”

            In the past, they’d have just hacked a limb from a newly slaughtered Reaper and attached it to the wound. The same parasite that made men turn into Reapers gave them an amazing capacity to heal themselves. You only had to place the severed limb to the site of the wound and it would bind itself to the host. In a normal man, the parasite healed the wound but turned the man into a Reaper. Because Rangers were immune to Reaper infection, the parasite-laden blood could only heal their bodies, not take over their minds. Rangers had been patching themselves up with Reaper flesh for the better part of the past century, but that was before the cure.

            Lyle’s whole life was split in half by that one point. There was everything that had happened before the cure and the uncertain, still fucked-up world they were trying to figure out now.

            “All of the Reapers are salvageable,” he told Doc. None of them had been accidentally decapitated this time around. The Rangers were beginning to perfect the new art of capture. He met Doc’s sharp gaze and said what they were both thinking. “Half of them won’t survive the cure.”

            Doc’s mouth tightened and he shook his head. “Trouble is telling which half. I can’t cut off one man’s hand to replace another’s.”

            That was the thing though, wasn’t it? “There was only one man injured today. A dozen Reapers. One man.”

            Doc gave him a look. A whole lecture in it though it lasted all of a heartbeat. Lyle swore under his breath. “I hate this.”

            The expression on Doc’s face softened a bit. “No one likes it. We have our orders and they’re sound. You know they are. You signed off on them same as I did.”

            Lyle gestured toward Garrett. “Do you need someone to hold him down?”

            As if he could hear them talking about him, Garrett cried out and swung his injured hand onto his chest. Lyle turned away from the blood-soaked rag covering the mangled stump. Doc hesitated for a moment and then nodded. “Nobody squeamish this time.”

            Lyle turned and left the tent. Waving Jess over, he pointed. “Doc needs you.”

            Jess’s face paled. “You want me to help with Garrett? Lieutenant, I don’t think—”

            Lyle shoved him toward the tent. “An order, Jess. Don’t test me, not now.”

            He didn’t wait to make sure Jess obeyed him. He didn’t have to. Jess would follow orders now and make him pay later with surliness and dragging feet.

            Cam whistled from a dozen yards away. “Over here.”

            Lyle jogged over to where Cam squatted beside a dying Reaper. The shot that had taken the Reaper down had gone right through his skull so he likely wouldn’t be rousing anytime soon. The meat was still fresh. Lyle looked at the layers of dirt. The red stain around his mouth. His matted hair long and tangled. Years. It took them years to look like this. Decades, even.

            “No one’s looking for this one,” Cam said. “Not anymore. There’s not one person left alive to mourn him if he never comes back. He’s as good as dead and buried anyway.”

            Somehow, that seemed sadder to Lyle than the loss of a hand.

            “Lieutenant,” Cam snapped. Pissed—he only used the title when he wanted to get under Lyle’s skin. “You need to make a decision. We’re running out of time.”

            Lyle rubbed the grit from his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Damn it.”

            Cap would have his head for this. “You have the knife?”

            When Cam nodded, Lyle grabbed on to the Reaper’s shoulders even though it made his skin crawl. Trying not to think about the gritty, oily, bug-ridden flesh he was clinging to, he pressed the full force of his weight down. “Go on. Do it.”

            Cam didn’t hesitate. Not that he enjoyed this any more than Lyle did. Cam wasn’t a bloodthirsty man, would likely be puking into the bushes as soon as he walked away. But a weak stomach had never stopped him from doing what needed to be done. It didn’t stop him now.

            Lyle ignored the sound of flesh parting beneath the blade, the bone snapping. He closed his mind to the wrongness of it all. Later, he’d chew it over and maybe figure out what he could have done different. For now, he focused on holding the thrashing Reaper steady enough so that Cam could finish the job.

            It seemed to take an eternity but was probably only a matter of minutes. By the time the arm came off, they were both covered in warm blood and Cam had turned a shade of green that paled only where his lips were pressed tight together. Wordlessly, Cam handed Lyle the limb and sat back on his heels. His hands were shaking and the knife slipped from his fingers to fall to the ground.

            Leaving Cam to deal with the mess, Lyle brought the Reaper’s hand to the medical tent himself. Doc already had Garrett’s arm strapped to a length of wood. Jess stood near his head, looking green but ready to hold Garrett down when Doc began to cut. Lyle threw the arm on the table and took Jess’s place. Jess looked as though he might weep with relief when Lyle told him to leave.

            Doc stared at the arm for a moment and then glared at Lyle. “Where did you get this?”

            “What the hell kind of question is that? You know exactly where it came from.”

            Doc swore even as he grabbed the limb to examine the cut. When he saw the raggedly sawed tissue, he cursed again. “Our orders are to inject Reapers with the serum, not use them for parts.” He grabbed hold of a short-bladed saw. “We’re saving them now, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

            “I noticed.” Lyle lifted his chin toward Garrett. “Save him first.”

            Doc set to work, measuring the Reaper’s arm against Garrett’s and marking both. He cut through the flesh and bone with all the delicacy of a butcher. Lyle was aware that most people found the whole process disgusting but he’d always been more fascinated than appalled. This procedure in particular, watching as the hand from a Reaper reached out to attach itself to a Ranger’s bloody stump... No matter how many times he saw it, it always seemed like a miracle to him. A prayer fell from his lips as the wound begin to heal. A little disconcerting, that. It reminded him of the time his friend Rachel had let him press his hand against her pregnant belly and the babe picked that moment to roll over. This was a different kind of miracle but a miracle just the same.

            He looked up to meet Doc’s glare.

            “I’ll have to report it.”

            “I know.”

            “You’ve seen enough of them healed now you know the cure works. We’re already sending them out into the world with nothing but the clothes on their backs. How about we let them keep all the parts they were born with?”

            “Report it. I’ll take what’s coming to me. I did what I needed to. I expect you’ll do the same.”

            With a dramatic sigh, Doc grabbed a rag to wipe the blood from his hands. Lyle braced himself for a lecture but it never came. Instead, Doc sat down without a word, his back to Lyle as he set to work cleaning off his tools. Doc could be as pissy as a farmwife when crossed but he’d get over it. Eventually.

            Taking his silence as a dismissal, Lyle left the tent.

            Cam was waiting for him outside, sitting on a rock with a flask of whiskey in his hands. He stood up as Lyle came toward him. “Doc give you trouble?”

            Lyle shook his head. “Not much. Come on.”

            He led Cam back to the Reaper they’d harvested the hand from. Already, the blood flow had slowed to a trickle. Not because he was out of blood but because his body was beginning to repair itself. Between the head wound and the loss of his hand, it would take him a very long time to heal. If he ever healed completely. They’d all seen the lurching monsters leftover from injuries not even the parasite could fully repair.

            “Do you want me to take his head?”

            Lyle scowled at Cam, who shrugged. “It would be a mercy. We can’t throw him in with the others. You know the weak ones don’t survive. They’ll tear apart the wagon trying to get to him and we can’t shackle him now anyway.”

            “Separate him from the others as best you can,” Lyle said. “We’re keeping him alive until his hand grows back.”

            Cam’s eyes widened. “That could take more than a year. He’s not a pet.”

            “See that he makes it back alive. He gets his chance just like everyone else.”

           

 

 

            Chapter Two

 

 

            It wasn’t every day that a federation flagship visited a small border town like Split Creek and the entire community had turned out to marvel at the spectacle of it. The monthlong gathering of the eastern and western councils was to begin in less than a week and the ship was coming to pick up the fort’s delegation to the assembly. The Goliath was far too large to land inside Fort Dougan’s courtyard and the nearest level plot was Johnson’s sheep pasture, located midway between the fort and the town. Though all of the livestock had been relocated to another field before the plot was tidied up for the occasion, it still smelled like sheep. Sheep...and other things that didn’t bear thinking about.

            Jane wrinkled her nose and lifted the hem of her skirts as she stepped onto the path leading down to the newly constructed landing pad. Red-and-yellow flags, mounted on posts, circled the landing area so that it could be easily spotted from the air. The flags snapped and twisted in the breeze adding to the carnival atmosphere of the gathering.

            Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best, in lace and frills, wide-brimmed sunhats. Few of the men owned suits but their shirts were clean and their boots polished. They sat on blankets and on sturdy wooden benches which had been hauled out for the occasion. The wise had arrived early with picnic lunches to claim a spot in the shade and their children darted through the spectators playing tag. There wasn’t any room left beneath the wide-spreading boughs of the old oak trees at the top of the hill overlooking the pasture, but then, Jane hadn’t really come to see the ship.

            Ahead of her, Toby Mason tugged at his mother’s skirt and pointed. Jane squinted up at the sky. Right on schedule. When she’d left the women’s barracks at the fort, the ship had been nothing but a speck on the horizon. Now you could clearly see the shape of it, but not the details. It was big and coming their way at a brisk clip. When the crowd hushed, you could make out the faint sound of the engines.

            Jane turned her attention from the ship and began to push forward again, poking Willie Braxton in the back when he planted his feet in the middle of the path to gape at the sky. Once she managed to slip past him, she spotted the small platform where the delegation waited with their luggage.

            The delegation consisted of only three people—Captain Jones, Abby, who was a Ranger, and Jake, Abby’s husband. Abby would be serving as Cap’s guard and Jake, who’d been successfully cured of the Reaper infection last year, was going as living proof that the cure actually did work.

            Cap looked surly as ever, clearly not pleased by the hoopla. He’d stripped off his formal dress jacket in the heat and tossed it over one of the trunks behind him. He was a large man, imposing and stern, but his expression didn’t scare her. She had a soft spot for the grizzled captain who’d been kind to her when Cam brought her to the fort last year. Bruised and battered with nothing but the clothes on her back, she’d expected Cap to send her away. Instead, he’d given her a job and a place at the fort. A home. He might look like a bear and he might growl like one, but there was a good man beneath it all.

            Abby—possibly the only woman not decked out in her finest—sat on one of the other trunks, her legs crossed, kicking her foot impatiently as she watched the ship. She looked surly too, though she smiled brightly when Jake bent to whisper something in her ear. Newly wed, the two of them were practically joined at the hip.

            Down there was where she needed to be. Cam would want to see his friends off and while everyone else might have come to gape at the ship, she’d come to see Cam. As if summoned by her thoughts, the sun came out from behind the clouds just then and lit upon him in the crowd. It was his hair. He wasn’t wearing a hat today and his guinea-gold curls caught the light, making him glow like a beacon. He was at the bottom of the incline, not very far ahead of her. Though she was tempted to call out, she held her tongue and quickened her pace.

            Now that she’d caught a glimpse of him, he was easy enough to track even though he was dressed in brown like most of the other Rangers. It helped that he was walking beside Lyle, who stood taller than most men. The time or two she lost sight of Cam, she could still see the lieutenant pacing beside him and she was right—they were making a beeline for the waiting delegation.

            She didn’t particularly relish the thought of approaching him while he was surrounded by his friends but he’d taken to avoiding her. Not eating in the mess hall during her assigned hours and rarely spending time at the town’s lone saloon, a place he used to visit frequently. He was the whole reason she’d agreed to come live in this godforsaken town in the first place, the least he could do was be civil.

            Once off the path and onto the cut grass of the field, the crowd split up, people moving away to find friends and family. She had no family here and very few friends so there was nothing to distract her. Not breaking stride, she opened her umbrella to shield her skin from the bright afternoon sun. She freckled and then burned, there was no tanning her skin to protect it. The curse of being a redhead.

            “Dirty breeders.”

            A woman’s voice. It was pitched low, but there was no mistaking that Jane was meant to hear it. How could she miss it when the speaker was staring right at her from only a few feet away?

            The muscles in her neck tightened but she controlled her reaction before it went any further than that, forced herself to keep walking even as she looked down her nose to meet Mrs. Boyd’s sneer with a smile. Of course it was Mrs. Boyd, one of the sharpest thorns in her side.

            She was one of the most respectable women in town as well as the cruelest. Last year, when the captain allowed Jake and Abby to marry in a break with Ranger tradition, women started looking at the Rangers as potential spouses. Mrs. Boyd hoped Cam would court her eldest, a good Christian woman. Unlike the trash who chased after the Rangers hoping to conceive a star-marked child.

            All children were tested at birth with an injection that formed a starburst-shaped scar in the immune and all the immune were drafted by the forts to be Rangers. Only Rangers begat Rangers and the children were usually male. In order to keep the birthrate up, the forts paid out a huge child price for the birth and rearing of every star-marked child. Scrapers, the people rich enough to live up in the mountain cities, saw women like Jane as no different from prostitutes, but people on the plains tended to be more tolerant. After all, their lives depended on the arrangement.

            On the one hand, Jane understood Mrs. Boyd’s disapproval of her kind. If Cap let one of his Rangers marry, it stood to reason that he might let others do the same. Jane stood in the way of her plans for her daughter. And there was the principle of the thing. Mrs. Boyd was big on principles. She had very high standards that she adhered to assiduously. And that would be fine...if she didn’t expect everyone else to live by her rules too.

            It was the umbrella she objected to this time around. Jane saw how her beady little eyes lingered on it. The stripes, cream and emerald, marked the owner as available, which Jane was. It was a design that whores often used to mark they were open for business, but it was also common for single women in the cities to use the color combination to mark themselves as women seeking a husband. This one had been a gift from a dear friend. The people of Split Creek knew that she wasn’t a whore and she’d needed the umbrella to shield her skin from the sun. She wasn’t going to get rid of it just to please a few self-righteous women who wouldn’t even look her in the eye when she bumped into them on the street.

            But a confrontation just now was out of the question. For one thing, she didn’t have time for it. For another, it wouldn’t do a damned bit of good. People were stubborn in their opinions, particularly in the ones that kept them on top.

            Before the cure, no one had cared if you were a married woman or a whore, what your skin color or your lineage was. Those things mattered up in the Scraper cities, but the only thing that mattered on the plains was whether or not you were star-marked. The Rangers were special, everyone else was just trying to survive.

            Now that there was a cure, things seemed to be changing and not always for the better. The city council wanted the brothel moved out of town and she’d heard some rumblings about the dark-skinned captain that she didn’t like one bit. All the old prejudices were coming out, like a mold that’d been there all along and was only waiting for the right conditions to start spreading.

            That’s why Mrs. Boyd thought she had the right to look down her nose at her. Mrs. Teak, too, sitting right beside her on the old quilt. They didn’t have that right. They’d never had it in the first place.

            Jane ignored the whispers that followed her through the crowd, tugging on her attention the same way the breeze teased her skirts. She kept her eyes on her quarry and made her way to the platform. The smell of newly cut wood nearly masked the smell of sheep.

            Cam and Lyle had already arrived and settled in to conversations. Lyle with the captain, Cam with Abby. Jake stood quietly behind his wife like a guard, legs braced and his arms crossed over his chest. He was the only one who noticed Jane approach and he nodded politely as she stepped onto the rough platform.

            She twirled her umbrella and angled it to block the sun. The movement caught Cam’s eye just as she’d hoped it would, but he only scowled. Abby turned to greet her.

            “Jane! You decided to come, after all.”

            Jane smiled at her friend, one of the few she counted as such here at the fort. “How could I miss it? I would have been the only one and everyone would have felt the need to tell me about it. Repeatedly.”

            Cam’s eyes narrowed on her face. It wasn’t a friendly look, but she forced a smile as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, that look wasn’t really out of the ordinary of late.

            “You didn’t come out here to see an airship,” he said, with a hard note of underlying suspicion. When Abby kicked him in the shin, he glared at Jane as if it was her fault he was being an ass.

            “Not the ship, maybe. But I did want to see the delegation off. Same as you, I imagine.”

            A muscle jumped in his jaw as he clenched his teeth. They were straight teeth, all there, and mostly still white. When he smiled it made him even more handsome. Being a Ranger meant his body stayed fit. Tan skin. Golden hair and blue eyes as bright as the summer sky. Sometimes, she wondered if this all might be a little easier if he was just a little less handsome.

            He looked as if he wanted to argue with her, but instead gave a small shake of his head and resumed his conversation with Abby. Every so often, he’d dart a look her way but all in all he seemed determined to ignore her. For now, she was willing to let him do just that.

            She turned her attention to Jake. As dark as Cam was fair, his black eyes were steady as he responded to her proper hello. “Nice of you to stop by, Miss Fisher.”

            When she’d first met Abby’s husband, he’d scared her. Not only because he used to eat people when he was a Reaper but because he was the type that was near impossible to read. She’d grown accustomed to that though, and she respected the way he treated Abby, as though the sun rose and set with her.

            After she and Jake exhausted all pleasantries about the fine weather and the turnout, they fell into a surprisingly comfortable silence, watching as the ship made its final approach. It was an older model, opulent in the showy way of the pirate barons from a half century past. The engine sounded new though, smooth and deep. She could feel the rumble of it in her bones. A familiar ache hit her in the chest and she gripped the handle of her umbrella tighter. Jake noticed her reaction. When his curious gaze met hers, she shrugged.

            “The ship. It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen one this close.”

            “I forgot that you came from the city. Any last-minute advice for us?”

            She didn’t like to talk about her time in the mountains but she felt honor-bound to warn him. “It’s a different world up there. They’re more interested in shine than truth. Everyone will pretend they’re happy to see you, but you can’t trust they’ll do the right thing just because they seem sympathetic.”

            “They’re threatening to cut funding to the forts. We need them sympathetic.”

            “Just don’t mistake sympathy for intent,” she said. “The fort tax has never been popular and if they can find some way to weasel out of it, they will.”

            He gave a short laugh. “Without the forts to protect the farms and supply lines, they don’t eat.”

            She thought of Eyrion, the enormous houses staffed by armies of servants. The people they’d be dealing with up there weren’t ever going to go hungry. The problem was that Scrapers didn’t have to worry about Reaper attacks. They might depend on the Rangers to keep the farmers and ranchers alive but they didn’t see the danger up close and personal.

            “You’d probably have better luck convincing them to pay up if you brought along a live Reaper instead of a...” She trailed off, trying to figure out a graceful way to pull her foot out of her mouth.

            “A former Reaper like me,” Jake finished, not sounding particularly bothered. The corner of his mouth tilted up. “I’m not terrifying enough for you, Miss Fisher?”

            “You don’t terrify me, Jake.”

            “I’m losing my touch, then. Maybe I should put a little extra work into my glower.”

            “Just be careful.” Her gaze lingered on Abby, her reckless friend who didn’t have a subtle bone in her body. She lowered her voice. “Watch out for her.”

            “We’ll stay out of trouble,” he reassured her. “State dinners and meetings listening to long-winded Scrapers drone on about things they don’t understand. Cap only wanted me along because he thought some people might be swayed by the testimony of a cured Reaper and Abby wouldn’t let me go alone.”

            No, she wouldn’t. Theirs was a love match, as unlikely as that seemed. She and Cam had more of a hate relationship but they were just as tightly bound. That Cam chafed at the binding was unfortunate, but it didn’t change facts.

            The bulk of the airship blocked out the sun and she looked up along with everyone else to watch it glide into position. The ship was a beauty, an incredible work of fine engineering and sheer artistry. Brass gleamed in the sunlight and the wooden hull, centered perfectly above the landing pad and slowly lowering, was polished and waxed to a shine. The drag sails made a mighty clap as they caught wind and the sound from the engines deepened.

            The crew was well trained, as was to be expected, and they were showing off. Apparently not trusting the local men to properly anchor the ship, they dropped rope while still about twenty feet up. Down came two dozen men, smartly dressed in dark green uniforms. As soon as their feet touched the ground, they turned and, still holding on to the ropes they’d descended upon, began to spread out in a perfectly expanding circle, dragging the ship lower until they reached the anchors which had been placed around the field. Once the ship was tied off, folding iron stairs were lowered from a hatch in the hull.

            The Goliath’s captain was the first down, raising his hand in greeting to the gathered crowd.

            “Well.” Abby slapped her thighs and stood. “I suppose that means it’s time to go. Thanks for coming to see us off, Cam. Jane.”

            Cam accepted her hug and Jane looked away, pretending not to notice Abby whisper something sharp in his ear. Abby shouldn’t get involved. She truly didn’t wish to drive a wedge between Cam and his friends. Jake shook Cam’s hand and inclined his head toward Jane before tossing his leather bag over his shoulder and following Abby toward the ship.

            And then Jane was standing alone with Cam. Before he could escape, she slipped her hand through his arm. The muscle flexed beneath her fingertips and she thought he meant to pull away, but he didn’t.

            “I only wish to speak with you.”

            “Really? That’s all you want?”

            Impossible as it was to miss the bite in his words he stayed by her side, watching as the crew finished securing the ship and loading the brass bound leather trunks into the storage hold.

            “A gentleman would offer to escort me home.”

            “I’m not a gentleman.”

            “A kind man, then.”

            “Kind? You never stop playing games, do you?” He lowered his voice, though there was no one near enough to hear them over the sound of the engines. “You came here to corner me after I told you I’m done with you. No more, Jane. I mean it.”

            “It wouldn’t cost you a thing.”

            A muscle in his jaw jumped. “You think it wouldn’t cost me?”

            “One night.”

            “You’re crazy.”

            She couldn’t help but flinch at that. It’s what everyone thought, she knew it. Cam noticed her reaction and his expression softened. “It’s over, Jane. It’s past time you accepted that.”

            The crew already had the luggage mostly stowed. The captain was ushering the delegation toward the waiting stairs himself. As soon as the ship lifted off, Cam would run again, and this time he’d be even more determined to avoid her. Why did he have to be so stubborn?

            Lyle stood watching the ship but she could tell he was well aware of what was happening behind him. Him she could read and he was trying very hard right now to give them space. He wasn’t happy about it either, her confronting his friend in such a public place. Lyle was in charge of the fort while the captain was away. It wouldn’t do her any good to get on his bad side. The captain might be sympathetic to her situation but that didn’t mean Lyle would be.

            “I don’t understand your reluctance, I truly do not. It’s such a small thing.”

            He gave her a hard look. Men.

            “You know I didn’t mean it like that.” The only thing that kept her from laughing was the hurt look on his face. “Is that what you want? Flattery?”

            “What I want is for you to go away. Stop hunting me down like I’m a damned Reaper.”

            Didn’t he think she would if she could? Before she could think of way to convince him, the ship lifted off to whoops and cheers from the crowd. Slowly and steadily, it gained altitude until it cleared the trees and then turned to the west, taking her hope of getting Cam to seriously consider her offer with it.

            Once the ship was on its way, Cam tried to pull his arm free. She tightened her hold and he sighed. “Let go of me.”

            “Please. Just talk to me.”

            “I’m done talking.”

            He moved to brush past her and she reached out to stop him. His hand shot out and wrapped around her wrist. She jerked away just as he released her. He didn’t intend to let her fall, she knew that about him. No matter how sour he’d turned, she’d never known him to intentionally hurt someone weaker than himself.

            But he let go faster than she anticipated. The resistance she’d expected simply wasn’t there and she sucked in a surprised gasp as she fell, losing her balance and tumbling back faster than anyone around could catch her. Her heel slipped off the platform. Her full skirts and petticoats flew up in a flurry of lace and cotton and her breath went out in a whoosh as her tailbone struck the unforgiving ground.

            A stunned silence fell over the crowd. Lyle spoke sharply to Cam who snapped something right back but she couldn’t focus on the words. She could barely hear them over the pounding in her ears. She managed to sit up, pushing her skirts down to cover her exposed legs. The ship was only a mile up but hardly anyone seemed to be watching it. Everyone was watching her now, waiting to see what she’d do. They were all well aware of her pursuit of Cam. Some people had placed wagers on the outcome and were probably hoping to collect after this confrontation.

            Except, there wasn’t going to be a confrontation today because Cam turned and walked away. That was so unexpected she couldn’t do anything but stare at his retreating back until Lyle blocked her view. Dark brown boots, worn but well cared for. Plain brown trousers and the bottom edge of the duster he always wore. She couldn’t force her gaze any higher than that.

            “Come on, Janie.” He took her hand and pulled her up, nearly lifting her off her feet. Once she was steady, he tucked her hand around his arm and began to push through the crowd. “Let’s get you home.”

            * * *

 

            Lyle guided her deftly through the crowd. She’d expected everyone to disperse once the ship was gone but no one seemed in a hurry to be off. The band was playing, enthusiastically if not well, and Delilah, the saloon owner, was serving ale from a large barrel in the back of her wagon. There was already a line forming and Jane was sorely tempted to go stand in it. Lyle still had a firm grip on her arm though and his brisk pace said he had no intention of letting her go.

            Instead of walking toward the road, he turned left down a narrow path of trampled grass. A deserted path. They weren’t heading into town. She glanced up nervously. Lyle was handsome, not in the golden, dazzling way that Cam was, but appealing all the same. Strong jaw, straight nose. Gray eyes that were a little too piercing for her comfort. A big man.

            “Where are you taking me?”

            His jaw tightened but he didn’t look her way or break his pace. “We need to talk.”

            The irony of the statement was not lost on her. It seemed to be a day for uncomfortable conversations all around. She thought about digging in her heels but decided against it. If Lyle wanted to have his say, she’d hear him out.

            They walked for several minutes in silence, the sound of the crowd fading with every step. When they came to an old stone stile connecting the pasture to the one adjacent, he released her arm.

            “Go on. Have a seat.”

            “I don’t need to sit,” she said crossly. “I can’t imagine you have much to say.”

            He’d turned half-away but he glanced back at that, a fleeting smile creasing his face. “I’ll come right to the point then.” He pointed back down the path. “Whatever it was that happened back there...whatever is going on between you and Cam, it has to end.”

            She lifted her chin. “Maybe you should talk to Cam about that.”

            “He’s at the end of his rope, Jane.”

            “I’d like to see him at the end of a rope.”

            Lyle studied her face for a moment and then shook his head slowly. “You don’t mean that.”

            “Of course I don’t.” Some of the fight drained out of her and she walked to the stile. She sat down on one of the rough stone steps leading into the next pasture, the pressure on her bruised tailbone making her wince.

            “Are you okay?”

            “I flashed my garters at the whole town, broke my favorite umbrella and bruised my...” His eyes flickered with amusement and she gave him a sour look. “Pride,” she finished. “Bruised my pride. It wasn’t my best day.”

            Instead of trying to reassure her, Lyle grinned. “It was a sight to see.”

            She tried not to smile back, she truly did, but it was no use. The airship and the sheep pasture. The whole town set out in their Sunday best and her on her back with her skirts flying in the air. She buried her face in her hands and groaned. Mrs. Boyd and her cronies were probably still ripping her apart like coyotes with a fresh kill.

            For some reason, that brought tears to her eyes and because she didn’t want Lyle to see them, she kept her face buried as she heard him step closer. With a sigh, he sat down next to her on the step, close enough she could feel his warmth but not close enough to touch.

            “It’ll pass,” he said gently. “There’ll be another scandal in a week or so and everyone will forget about the color of your bloomers.”

            God. She’d worn the scarlet satin ones today. She groaned again. Lyle leaned closer and knocked his shoulder into hers companionably. “You’ve got to give up this thing with Cam though. He hasn’t been himself lately and neither have you. Why do you want him anyway when there are a hundred men who would worship the ground you walk on?”

            “Cam’s a good man.”

            “One of the best,” he agreed. “And he’s like a brother to me which is why I can say for certain that the two of you don’t suit. Never did. Never will.”

            “I think we suit just fine.”

            “You can say that even after today?”

            “He was upset.”

            “Because you’re hounding him.”

            “He’ll come around.” Or not. It was time to consider the possibility that he might not ever come around.

            She sniffed a little and Lyle pressed a handkerchief into her hand. For some reason, that felt more humiliating than her fall. She took it anyway and blew her nose. She didn’t like the soft cast to his eyes, didn’t like it at all. The last thing she wanted from anyone was pity, particularly not from Lyle.

            “Just tell me what’s really going on here and give me the truth. I don’t want to have to send you off. Meet me halfway and help me to understand it.”

            Send her off... Where would she go? She couldn’t go home and standing here on the border between human and Reaper territory, there was quite literally nowhere left for her to run. But how to explain it all to Lyle? No good could possibly come of this conversation. Cam knew exactly what she wanted and that was bad enough.

            “I think he cares beneath it all,” she said carefully. “Don’t you think that he might? He wouldn’t have brought me back here if there wasn’t...something.”

            Lyle shifted, angling his head to see her better. The brim of his hat blocked the sun, cutting a line of shadow across his face. The weight of his arm pressing to hers felt reassuring. “There are all sorts of caring, Janie. He doesn’t want a wife. I bet if you asked him, he’d be pleased to see you happy with someone else.”

            “He was the one who asked me to come here.”

            “As a Ranger and a friend. I know him. He wouldn’t have offered more.”

            “I don’t want anyone else.”

            “Is this some kind of game then?” He frowned, his eyes narrowing. “You chase Cam so everyone else backs off?”

            She didn’t answer, just pressed her lips together and looked away. She should have kept her foolish mouth shut. He wasn’t going to understand it. She barely did herself. She stared off across the plains, the grass rolling softly in the breeze, burned brown by the summer sun, the trees beyond gold and scarlet.

            Lyle let that silence stretch for a moment and when he spoke again, his voice was gentle. “You don’t need to do that. If people here thought you were available, I’m sure there’d be interest but you can say no. If you’re unwilling, they will back the hell off.”

            The vehemence that crept into his tone at the end brought her attention back to his face. His expression was grim, hard as she’d ever seen it and she was touched by that. He’d misunderstood and she was tempted to correct him. But what was the point?

            Earnest, that’s what Lyle was, looking at her with those sharp gray eyes thinking he understood what was best for everyone involved. That he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about didn’t change the fact that he was going out of his way to make sure nobody got hurt. It was far too late for that but she didn’t quite have the heart to tell him. It was none of his business anyway. Nobody’s business except hers and Cam’s. She looked him square in the eye and gave him the plain truth. “I want Cam. It’s as simple as that.”

            “You’re playing a dangerous game. He’s still a man. You might think this is safe or entertaining or whatever it is you get from it, but what are you going to do if he takes you up on your offer?”

            That made her smile. “I’d have credited you with a better imagination than that, Lieutenant. Or at least a dirtier one.”

            “My imagination is just fine. Cam is used to women throwing themselves at him. You’re beautiful but so are plenty others. He’s not that desperate to get laid so if you’re trying to wear him down that way, it’s not likely to work.”

            “That’s not what I’m trying to do.”

            “Are you trying to annoy him into bed?”

            She didn’t answer him right away. Instead, she took a good long look at his expression and then shook her head. “This is how everyone sees me, isn’t it? Desperate and lonely and pathetic.”

            “I don’t think you’re pathetic.”

            Just desperate and lonely. “Well, that’s a comfort.”

            “That’s not how I meant it.”

            She knew it. He wasn’t the type to wound a person for the pure sport of it.

            “There’s no shame in being lonely,” he said.

            That was entirely beside the point. “He’ll change his mind.”

            Lyle started to reach for her, lifting his hand just an inch or two before checking the motion. It unnerved her. She didn’t know what she would have done had he actually tried to give her a hug.

            “I’m not unattractive.”

            “No,” he agreed quietly.

            “Not diseased or crazy.”

            Lyle held his tongue on that one.

            “I’m not asking for more than he can give. I would walk away.”

            “Would you?”

            She nodded without hesitation. She could tell by the expression on Lyle’s face that he didn’t believe her but, rather than argue the point, he simply waited for more.

            “Why doesn’t he want me?”

            That startled a short, dry laugh from him. Something flickered in his eyes and he shook his head. “Honestly, Janie? I have no idea.”

            “He’ll change his mind?” It shouldn’t have come out as a question.

            “Do you think you can wait until the captain returns from the assembly before poking at Cam again?”

            “If Cam isn’t man enough to stand up for himself—”

            He groaned. “Just keep it between the pair of you. It’s all I’m asking. No more scenes like today. No more trying to draw everyone else into your strategies and I’ll gladly keep my nose out of your business. Think you can manage it?”

            “I think you like my business just fine, Lieutenant. That’s what I think.”

            She wanted the words back as soon as they were out. It was an ugly thing to say and she knew it. Especially when he’d always been respectful.

            All the warmth and humor drained from his expression like water through a sieve and it made her feel like crap. She was tired, sore, sweating and covered in dirt. Nothing about today had gone as she’d planned it. But that was no reason to take it out on Lyle.

            “I’m sorry.”

            “You don’t need to apologize to me.”

            “I do.” She looked down at the ground. She needed to get away from him. From everyone. She felt bruised all over, body and soul. Lyle sat, patient and quiet, waiting for her answer, watching her with a strange gentle look on his face. But she didn’t mistake that for lack of resolve. If he’d taken her out here to warn her to quit Cam or be sent from the fort then he meant it. She could appeal to the captain when he returned but the captain wasn’t here now.

            She climbed to her feet and shook out her wrinkled skirts. When she’d gathered her composure, she looked him in the eye.

            “You don’t have to worry about me, Lieutenant. I won’t cause you any more trouble.”