Authors: C.L. Stockton
"What did your father give you?"
He demanded, stepping close so I was caught between him and the horse.
My temper rose.
I'd just engaged in a shootout and this man had the nerve to yell at me? "What are you talking about?" I shouted back.
"A mob came after your father.
Some of them broke off to chase us. He gave you something, something those men want. Now what is it?" He leaned closer, probably so I could see through the darkness that he was not in a mood to be trifled with. Well, neither was I!
"He gave me nothing!
I have no idea why those men followed us!” I suddenly calmed. “Unless it’s you they want.”
“It’s not me.”
“But my father said you couldn’t afford to be seen. Who are you?”
Stepping back, he bowed.
His name was unfamiliar.
“Why can’t you be seen?”
“Your father was wrong.”
Um, ok. “Who were those men?” I stiffened my back as he again stepped forward to pin me against the horse.
“The answer changes depending on what your father gave you.”
He didn’t press for that answer again, instead commenting, “Will he even meet us in Lisbon?”
I thought for a moment. One never knew with my father. “Perhaps.
Now if you are quite finished with your overbearing and angry act, I would like some answers myself."
I'd surprised him.
He drew back slightly. "Overbearing and angry? I just saved your life!"
"I was the one shooting.
saved your life." Now was probably the time to remind him I still had his gun. "Please step back unless you'd like to lose a toe."
Only I hadn't counted on him quickly disarming me and reclaiming his gun.
He holstered it before I had a chance to do more than stare.
Clucking to the horse, he began leading it down the road.
I again realized how tall he was. Though considered tall for a woman, he easily had five inches on me. Even in the dimness of the forest, his hair gleamed a golden blonde, his beard a shade darker. Coupled with his lithely muscled body, I imagined when he smiled instead of scowled, the ladies melted.
Not wanting to be left behind, I fell into step beside him.
"Where are we going?"
“That’s not an answer at all.”
“True, but it’s all the answer you’ll get right now.”
The horse’s hooves were the only sound for a few seconds. “Your father did ask me to bring you to Lisbon, so why not?”
“My father didn’t say we had to arrive together.”
Not that I had many options.
“That was implied.”
“But not said. Surely you would be forgiven for misunderstanding.”
“What’s in Lisbon?”
I shrugged. The town wasn’t familiar to me. Of middling size, it took between one and two days to reach it, depending on how fast one rode. As we weren't riding at the moment, we wouldn't make it this evening. “Probably houses, a bakery, and if we’re really lucky, my father.”
“Has he ever mentioned Lisbon?”
“Only once, but that was years ago.” And I had no intention of talking about it.
“What did he say?”
“I don’t remember. Like I said, it was years ago.” The night was rapidly cooling around us and I rubbed my arms. “Who were those men following us?”
“People I’d rather not meet.”
“Obviously.” I shook my head. “What did they want?”
“Since we didn’t stop to chat, I don’t know.”
“But you said it depends on what my father did or did not give me. So you must have some idea of who they are.”
“I’d rather not conjecture until I have more information.”
“”Fine. We’ll talk about you, then. Why were you at my house?”
“Your father and I have business together.
The mob interrupted us, he gave me you, and here we are.”
It was certainly possible Colton might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Father hardly gave him the chance to refuse to take me.
But I wasn’t convinced.
“Oh, so you’re just a simple businessman?”
I looked him over. Men who looked like him were not simple businessmen. Besides, he carried a gun. What kind of businessman carried a gun?
I did not like the sound of that. “What exactly do you do?”
“This and that.”
“Probably here and there?”
I heard the smile in his voice.
“If you don’t wish to talk about yourself, simply say so.”
“I don’t want to talk about myself.”
“And I don’t want to go to Lisbon with you.”
I watched as he ran a hand down the horse's face. “Sweetheart, are you really asking me to leave you in the forest alone at night?” The endearment rolled from his tongue easily. He rotated his shoulders. I watched the silky play of muscles in his shoulders, thinking he could very well physically force me to accompany him.
Of course I didn’t want that, but Colton was a stranger.
I’d only just learned his name. “I don’t even know you. You could be a mass murderer for all I know.” I didn’t think my father counted a murderer among his friends, but one never knew these days. Murderers were quite crafty.
“I could be.” His calm tone indicated he was disinclined to argue and arguing was only fair when there was someone to argue against.
“Do you enjoy being characterized as a murderer?”
“Not particularly, but denying it will only increase your apprehension.” That was true. If he’d offered a heated denial, I’d immediately doubt him
Quickly I ran through my options. I could continue walking with Lucas Colton, or I could take a chance and attempt to reach Lisbon alone. Since Colton had the horse, I might want to stay with him. He seemed decent enough, if a touch arrogant. I could always reach for his gun if he annoyed me.
I glanced at the horse.
“We would make much better time on horseback.”
“Brutus needs a rest.
Have you something against walking?”
“Of course not.
I simply wanted to reach Lisbon before next month.” It was growing darker and darker as the sun set, leading to my next question. “Where do you plan to spend the night?
“I suppose we’ll bed down in the forest somewhere.
This part of Goran is not heavily populated.” His tone was completely unconcerned.
“A group of trees is normally referred to as a forest, or woods, if the term is unfamiliar.” I again heard the smile in his voice.
“I know what a forest is,
” I snapped. “I have no intention of sleeping in it. We shall simply have to press on to Lisbon.”
I am tired, as is Brutus, and, if you will admit it, you as well.” He suddenly sounded tired.
“It is only just dark, and you are tired?”
I mocked. “Perhaps it is past your bedtime?” I knew I was being provoking but there was something disturbing about this man. His very presence needled me.
“It will seem late enough after a few miles of walking.” We walked a few more steps, my feet dragging me even further behind him.
“Please stay where I can see you. I cannot have you wandering off and being captured by those men.”
“That hardly concerns you.” I stayed where I was, three steps behind and even with Brutus’ flank.
“Considering I would feel compelled to rescue you, it is very much my concern.”
Quickening my stride, I reached his side. “Why am I so important to you?”
“You’re not.” His blunt answer caused my eyebrows to rise in surprise.
“Then why insist on dragging me to Lisbon?
The town will be there regardless of whether I am.”
“Yes, but your father may not be.”
“And you must speak with my father?” At his nod, I continued, “After two entire days of talk, I should think you both heartily sick of the other.” He shrugged.
We walked a while in silence as I tried to piece together what Colton was not saying.
He had some business with my father, something so important it required more than two days of discussion. He didn’t blink an eye when I was shoved into his arms, and he kept calm during the mob’s pursuit. I was well and truly confused, and not a little intrigued about the man I was with.
“Why did my father send me with you?” I folded my
arms around my waist, the evening air chillier than the day had been. Even the exertion of our walk couldn’t keep the cooler air from raising goose bumps along my bare arms.
“He probably thought you’d be safer with me, sweetheart.” Again the endearment slipped easily from his lips.
It would. Handsome men are accustomed to female company.
“Why am I safer with you than with my own father?”
“Honestly?” Colton shot me a knowing glance. “I believe your father was matchmaking.”
He wants me to marry you?” I couldn’t help the incredulous tone of my voice. Handsome though he may be, he was not at all my type. I preferred quiet, easily handled men I could leave in the corner and not worry about.
“You are at least twenty, and unwed. He must be worried.” Instead of being offended by my reaction, he sounded amused.
“No more so than your own parents, I imagine.”
That startled a laugh from him. The sound was strangely full and carried in the stillness of the forest. “My parents have given up on me marrying.
Recently, my mother suggested marriage frightens me witless.”
“Does it?” He was altogether too handsome to be unattached. Unless he was hiding a deep, dark secret. In that case, it made perfect sense for him to be alone.
“Does it what?” His head abruptly turned, and he threw an arm out to halt our progress. Putting a finger to his lips, he looked off to our right. I hadn’t heard anything, but Colton apparently had super sensitive ears. Must make him impossible to live with.
We listened in silence for a few minutes. This reminder of our precarious situation caused me to shiver. Or perhaps it was the night air. What if the men caught us? Were they after my father or me? I wasn’t certain which side I was on, and until I figured that out, staying out of everyone’s way seemed the best solution.
Now anxious, I stepped closer to Colton. His gaze remained focused on the trees around us, as if he expected an enemy to appear at any moment. After another long minute, his stance abruptly relaxed. He clicked his tongue to the horse, and we resumed walking.
After walking a while in silence, I couldn’t stand the stillness anymore. I had to say something, anything, to stop myself from thinking about what could possibly be in the forest (wild animals, angry men, and many legged bugs came to mind).
Besides, Colton was irritating me. Did he have to stride so arrogantly through the forest? He looked perfectly at ease in the woods, ducking errant tree branches, stepping over roots in the path between the trees and remaining calm whenever a squirrel or other animal called out unexpectedly.
Whereas I startled at the slightest sound. When Brutus jangled his bit, I jumped. When I snapped a branch underfoot, I nearly cried out in surprise. I never really considered myself an indoor girl before, but I was fast finding out I was rather unprepared for roughing it in the forest.
And he meant to sleep here? No way.
“Are we close to Lisbon?” My attention caught on the torn and battered hem of my dress. I wondered if I’d ever be able to get the dirt out. Perhaps a long soak in cold water?
Looking up, I noticed Colton watching me expectantly. Oh. I’d asked a question, hadn’t I? “Yes?” I asked, eyebrows raised.
“Do you normally ask questions and meander off before people can answer?”
“I hardly meandered. It is not my fault your answers lack conviction.” I shivered involuntarily. Of all times to leave the house without a jacket, I chose today. In my defense, there had been a mob forming outside my front door, so perhaps I could be forgiven for forgetting a few things.
“I wanted to know whether you thought we were there yet.” His quick stride never faltered, no matter the path had become rocky and uneven.
“Probably not, but I was hoping you would assure me otherwise.”
“No such luck. I deal only in truth.” Glancing sideways at me, he abruptly halted. “You are cold. May I offer my jacket?”
I looked dubiously at the lightweight jacket hugging Colton’s broad shoulders. As dirty and bedraggled as it was, I would have welcomed its warmth. But, I was still wary of the man and didn’t want to accept anything from him.
“No, thank you.
I do not take things, jackets or otherwise, from strangers.” My tone was prim.
“Are we back to that?” He again started forward. Since I had no wish to be left alone, I grudgingly fell into step besides him.