Authors: C.L. Stockton
“Fine.” His shrug told me it was nothing to him. “Then please, continue combing your hair while I find something for dinner.”
“Fine.” I pulled a section of hair over my shoulder and began working the brush through it as he continued assembling food on the table.
His familiarity with the kitchen told me he was a frequent guest at the house if not the actual owner. I watched as he placed bread, ham, plates and glasses on the counter. From a drawer, he pulled a large knife and began to cut slices of the bread. When he finished, he spent the next few minutes watching me attempt to comb my hair.
“Enough.” His patience finally snapped. "Do you really wish to spend the entire night brushing your hair?”
Part of me wanted to snap back that I could do whatever I wanted with my night but he was right. It made more sense to lose it. “Have you ever cut hair before?”
“Of course not.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” I watched as he took a pair of scissors from the same drawer the knives were kept.
“At least it won’t hurt.” I watched as he approached, again admiring the lithe movements that comprised his walk.
“Physically.” With one hand he regained the brush, tapping my hip with his other to turn my back to him.
We fell silent and I strained my ears to hear the first unclench of his scissors. Instead, I felt the brush of his fingers at the crown of my head, the side of my neck, the ends of my long hair. I heard his even exhalations, felt my hair move in response to his breathing.
My nerve endings were firing, telling me he was too close, he wasn’t close enough, how big his body was in comparison to mine, how his strength would be intriguing against mine. Would his skin be rough against my body, would his hand be the perfect shape for my cheek?
It was a relief when the first lock of hair fell. I sighed. Why should I be so concerned about the loss of my hair when I’d lost everything else? More minutes passed as he moved behind me, not caring that the touch of his fingers against my back when he pulled a lock of hair away made me shiver.
He stepped back to survey the damage. “I’ve cut out all the tangles. I will have to take off a lot of length to even it out.” He brushed a lock of hair from my shoulder.
“Do what you have to. I am willing to agree to anything to have untangled hair again.”
My bravery wasn’t what it should be, and I kept my eyes tightly shut during the entire time he cut my hair, which made me even more sensitive to the careless touches from his fingers and even body. I heard the sound of the scissors and brush hitting the kitchen counter and knew it was done.
“You can open your eyes.”
The first thought I registered was he is so handsome followed quickly by does he have to stand so close? My hair was relegated to the third thought but only for three seconds. My hand flew to the short ends.
My once to the middle of my waist hair now hung just below my ears. It was quite a change. My head was lighter, my back colder. I spared a thought to what I must look like, and if Colton liked the change.
“How bad is it?” If I could, I would have reached into the air and snatched the words back. Why was I constantly handing this man the tools to hurt me?
He did not answer immediately. Reaching for me, one hand touched the point of my chin, turning it upward. Then his fingers turned my head to the left, then to the right. As we were so close, the tilt of my head brought our mouths close together. All I needed to do was take a half step closer and I’d be in his arms.
His blue eyes trailed from my hair to my face and then to my lips. The air stilled, heated. My pulse increased, pounding out the question of what I wanted, of what he wanted, of the possibility an empty house bestowed.
Would he kiss me? It hung in the sudden stop of his breathing, the flush in my cheeks. My weight was already shifting to my left foot in preparation for stepping close to bring our mouths together.
I never took the step for in the next moment, he was releasing my chin, stepping backward. I would not be kissed by him.
“It’ll do,” was the answer flung over his shoulder as he grabbed the two plates, moved them to the wooden table in the center of the room. “Will you bring the bread please?”
I looked at my feet, seeing the pile of hair. “Shouldn’t we clean up?”
His shrug was unworried. “After we eat.”
After grabbing the requested bread, I seated myself carefully in the chair he held out for me that happened to be next to the one his plate sat in front of. I watched as he prepared sandwiches from the ham and bread, serving first me and them
himself. Not having the strength to go on a hunger strike, I picked up the bread and an uneasy silence descended. It wasn’t until I’d nearly finished the food that I risked my first question.
“Why am I here?” It was as good a place to start as any.
He finished chewing before answering. “You are here because I wish you to be.”
“As if that is an answer.” My eye roll was wasted on him as I was looking at my sandwich, deciding which section to eat next.
“It is all the answer you will get. And please do not pout. I do not like pouters.”
“I am not pouting.“ I quickly pulled my lower lip back in. Looking around the kitchen, I asked, “Do you stay here often?”
“Not as often as I’d like.” His gaze was heavy on my profile but I refused to look at him.
I decided to begin a game. I would count every question I asked that he did not answer. “What do you do exactly?”
“I am more interested in you and how involved in your father’s work you are.”
One. “Since I do not know the first thing about dying cloth, I would say I know nothing.” While I appreciated the fact my father’s career as a cloth merchant kept a roof over my head, the finer points of it escaped me.
I sensed rather than saw him turn to look at me. “At least look at me when you lie.”
“Why are you so certain I am lying?” It was quite tiresome having to convince someone I was telling the truth. My blue eyes met his and I pushed aside the drop of my stomach. I would not let him affect me.
“Because your last name is Summerlynn.” He held my gaze much longer than I could. When I looked away, his words drew my gaze, “It would be much easier to protect you if I understood what was going on in that head of yours.”
“No one asked you to protect me.”
“Your father did.”
“No. He asked you to take me to Lisbon, which you did. It is you insisting on protecting me, from what, I don’t know.” I jabbed a finger in his chest. “Why can’t you leave me alone?”
He grabbed the finger in his chest. “Because if you truly understood what is happening, you would be begging to stay with me. I cannot take the risk you are not innocent in all this.”
“I am innocent.” My eyes were hypnotized by the sight of his hand enclosing my finger. I was fast learning any kind of physical contact between the two of us would undermine any independent thought I might have.
Thankfully, he released my finger but not my gaze. “Then you are perfectly safe as long as you stay with me. Should you venture out on your own, I make no promises.” He gave me a half smile. “You may as well give in to the inevitable, sweetheart. For better or worse, you are stuck with me.”
“I seem to be experiencing quite a bit of worse lately.” The brief energy I’d experienced from the food was quickly fading. I could barely keep my eyes open and had visions of falling face first into my plate.
Noticing my fatigue, Colton said, “Perhaps you’d like to retire for the evening?”
“If you are positive you don’t mind.” I placed my napkin beside my plate and raised a hand to Colton, who was in the process of standing. My mental list of his qualities expanded to include has manners. “Please sit. I can find my own way upstairs.”
Colton had to be even more exhausted than I. I saw the heavy bags beneath his eyes. Shouldn’t he be the one begging off dinner?
Perhaps he was waiting for me to retire before finding his own rest. What he did with his own night was not my concern. I was more than happy to retreat to the comfort of my bed, and not have to deal with him again this evening.
I was awakened by a hand gently shaking my shoulder. Cracking open an eye, I managed “Yes?”
Fully dressed, Colton stood beside my bed. Either the man never slept or he needed much less sleep than other humans. “We are leaving as soon as you’re dressed.”
Of course we were. Have to stay ahead of
whoever was chasing us and last I checked,
was chasing us. The man was supremely paranoid. His words from last night came to mind. If he was right, there was another game afoot that I had no idea about.
Perhaps it was best to stay with him.
“I am not getting dressed until you leave.” I hardly knew the man and was certainly not getting out of bed wearing only my undergarments.
“If you go back to sleep, I will dress you myself.” Leaving the challenge in the air, he left my room. Or his room. Or wherever I was.
My stomach gurgled with hunger. I thought briefly of not ever leaving the comfort of the feather bed, but I had no desire to become a permanent houseguest of Colton‘s. His superiority alone would drive me mad.
Not that Colton would allow me to stay. He’d drag me out of bed if I didn’t show up for breakfast. I briefly imagined what that might entail, but abruptly cut those thoughts off by swinging my feet onto the cold floor.
I’d draped the trousers and shirt from last night over the bedside table. I pulled them on, again checking the fit. They were a bit long, and the loose waistband was taken care of by again knotting the back of them. I was so relieved not to be wearing a dress for my next journey on horseback that details like fit didn’t bother me.
What did bother me was owing Colton yet again for a favor. If only he was more likable, if only his story more believable. If I lived to tell this tale, it would surely rival some of the fairy tales I’d grown up hearing.
But, this was real life, not a fairy tale. If this had been a fairy tale, my father would be waiting in Lisbon, Colton would take himself off to the wilds, and I would not be standing, shivering, in borrowed breeches in the half dawn light sneaking in through the windows.
I pulled the loose blue cotton shirt over my head and called myself dressed. Oh, except for socks and shoes. Those I found kicked into the far corner of the room.
When I finally made it down to breakfast, my mood was not improved from the attractive male body seated at the kitchen table as he ate what appeared to be another sandwich.
Abruptly, Colton straightened at my entrance, eyes sweeping down my body.
“Good morning,” he greeted, pulling the chair beside him out for me. To avoid an argument this early in the morning, I mumbled a greeting and subsided into the offered chair.
Once seated, he pushed the bread and meat toward me. His chivalry stopped at actually making my sandwich for me. Thankfully. I‘d hate to skewer him with the scissors from last night.
To the best of my ability, I ignored the man beside me. He, too, was dressed in trousers and a light grey cotton shirt that stretched across his shoulders. I couldn’t tell if the shirt was naturally grey, or had simply lived a very full live. Whichever it was, the thin cotton only emphasized the strength in his arms and shoulders.
My eyes focused on the length of his fingers as they gripped his sandwich. Though long and slender, they bore their fair share of calluses. I noticed he ate very properly, his elbows off the table. Whoever Colton was, he had impeccable manners. At least when he remembered them.
The sound of chewing filled our next few minutes. I was deciding what to engage him over this time, when he spoke first, “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you.” It would have been polite to ask about his own night but I didn’t want to think of him lying in bed. At all.
I risked a look at him, wondering if he’d comment on my rudeness. He wasn’t looking at me, meaning I received a fine view of his profile. The straight nose, curving lips, and flat forehead looked vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t quite sure why.
“Any chance you’ll take me to Currington? If we hurry, I can—”
“Cadrian.” He cut me off with a word, turning his head to fix those intense blue eyes on me. Again, I realized how forceful a personality this man was.
“What? It makes perfect sense. I go home to Bolien while you get on with doing whatever it is you do.”
“No. You stay with me.”
“Quit being so stubborn. If I am in Bolien, you will have the time you need to investigate my father without me underfoot. It makes perfect sense.”
“Except I promised to keep you safe. I can’t do that if you’re not with me.”
“What could possibly happen to me in Bolien?” I scoffed.
“You’ll never find out because you’re coming with me.” He lifted a hand when I would have vocally protested his arrogance in thinking I would do anything he wanted.
I took a moment to compose myself so I wouldn’t shriek at him like a fishwife. “And that’s it?”
“We shall see about that.” I engaged in a staring contest with him for all of ten seconds before I threw my napkin over my plate. I would have surged to my feet in a fit of anger, but his hand grabbed my wrist and kept me in my chair.