Authors: C.L. Stockton
On the bright side, maybe we would be allowed to spend an entire night inside a house. Surely Colton’s good night’s sleep included a place to stay. Oh, and food. But I was willing to settle for a bed to sleep in. And a bath would not go amiss.
Almost without my being aware of it, I adjusted the position of my head, so I was now resting it against the side of his throat. My hands were entirely contained in my lap, and my legs hung beside Colton’s. There were less comfortable places to spend an afternoon.
Was it possible my father was a spy? Colton seemed convinced he was, and he wasn’t the type to follow assumptions. He would first verify the truth, and then make a decision. So he must have proof of these allegations against my father. But none he could show me (which I didn’t quite believe, but at the risk of destroying our companionable silence, I decided that was an argument for another day).
If he was spying, who was he spying for?
I would think, taking into consideration two not so friendly countries, that would be pretty self-evident. It had to be either Bolien or Goran, and I had to admit it would most likely be Bolien. It was my father’s home country, and the rest of our extended family resided there.
“If my father is a spy, who is he spying for?” I preferred the direct approach when it came to getting answers.
“We don't know. We have plenty of proof he is spying, but whom he spies for is less clear.” Colton spurred Brutus into a canter. The rhythmic strides deepened our embrace.
“There are only two options. It is either Bolien or Goran. They‘ve never been friendly, and Father picked a side.”
“Ah, but there is a third option.”
“Let me guess. You cannot tell me about it.”
“Goodness, Colton, you are annoying.”
“I’ve been told my ability to keep a secret is admirable.”
“Obviously you’ve never kept a secret from the person in question.” I sighed. “Are we almost there?”
“Is it dusk?”
Through the trees, I assessed the slant of the sun. We were still a good couple hours shy. “No.”
“There’s your answer.”
I did another eye roll that was sadly wasted on the horse.
We were back in the thick of the forest, the trees growing closely together. It was dim and hazy, and I missed the sun. What little light that filtered through was quickly crushed between the trees. Even the path appeared squeezed, bare ground cutting through the grass.
I straightened in the saddle in an effort to stretch my back when he dropped his head to briefly nuzzle my neck.
“What was that all about?” I drew my upper body away from his. Well, at least I attempted to. Brutus did not appreciate my move and took a few bouncy steps to correct our weight alignment.
“What was what all about?”
“You nuzzled my neck!” I accused, my voice shrill.
“Now, sweetheart, don’t get upset. My nose itched and my hands were occupied with the reins. I wouldn’t have touched you if I knew you were so sensitive.” How did he manage to make it sound like it was my fault?
“Oh, never mind!” I had more important things to worry about than whether or not Colton nuzzled my neck.
Hours passed, marked only by the jingle of the bit and the creak of the saddle. Having nothing to do, I felt myself becoming cranky. For the life of me, I couldn’t find a comfortable position to rest my head so I could nap. First his shoulder, than his collarbone, and finally his neck were too uncomfortable.
Yes, I was fretful. I wanted off the horse and I wanted off now. On the verge of asking Colton if we could again walk for a bit, I saw a house. And then another.
Please tell me his decent night’s sleep lived here.
I perked up considerably as the town filled out. Not overly large, but big enough to provide enough people for a decent social life, the town promised to provide shelter for the night. Whether we’d stay at the local inn or with a friend, I wasn’t too concerned. Rest was in sight.
Obviously having been here before, Colton guided Brutus down a few streets, then over a couple, until he finally stopped before a generously proportioned home. It was now full dark and even I could tell this house was unoccupied. No welcoming lights in windows, no door opening or stable boy running forward to take the horse.
I doubted Colton lived here. More likely, we would break a window and let ourselves in. With no time to formulate a plan to convince him not to break in, Colton dismounted and extended his hands, sliding me from the saddle and down his body to the ground. I liked to think it was fatigue that made me sway into him.
Smiling, he steadied me and strode confidently to the front door. Running his hand along the top of the doorway, he withdrew a brass key. It fit cleanly into the lock and he swung the door inward.
He came back toward me, picking Brutus‘s reins off the ground. “Please go in while I settle Brutus for the night.”
There wasn’t really a reason to argue. Whether or not the house was his, I didn’t care. I only wanted to be fed and put to bed. My problems would keep for another day.
It was dark inside, too dark to move around as I found when I tripped over a chair leg and went crashing into a small side table, but really, who put chairs and side tables in entryways? Thankfully neither the furniture nor my body was broken, so I carefully walked through the first doorway on the left, hoping to find some sort of lamp to light.
I had just found the matches when a light approached from the back of the house. Brutus must be settled, then. A part of me was annoyed that Colton tended to the horse first, but that only showed he cared about his mount. He used his lamp to light one located to the right of where I’d been searching and then proceeded to light a few others so the room took shape as a study of sorts with a desk and assorted bookshelves.
Colton claimed my attention, a hand cupping my elbow. “You might like a bath in your room. I can show you the way.” This last was offered to ensure I actually went where he wanted, and not because of any concern on his part. He trusted me about as much as I trusted him.
“Thank you, but no.” The thought of a bath appealed so I revised my earlier thought. I wanted to be bathed, fed and put to bed.
He gave me a quizzical look. Then those killer blue eyes narrowed. “What are you planning?”
“Nothing. And stop asking. You’re making me paranoid.” I walked to the staircase back in the entryway, and put my hand on the smooth wooden banister. “Which room am I in?”
“The second door on the right.” He watched me ascend the stairs.
“Thank you,” I called over my shoulder, already half way up the stairs. Thoughts of warm water and finally getting out of these horrid clothes made me giddy.
Much of the house was still dark and the light from my lamp was sufficient to light my feet and not much else. With my hand to the wall, I found the second door on the right and turned the knob.
After lighting both bedside lamps, I sighed with pleasure. The walls and counterpane were a deep cornflower blue. White rugs matching the lacy curtains scattered beneath the bed. A half open door on the wall alerted me to the possibility this house had indoor plumbing.
I couldn’t undress fast enough. First to go was the crinkled and stained green walking dress I’d worn the past two days. Next my under garments joined the pile on the floor. I would rinse those out before my bath and hang them to dry. Wanting the dirty clothes as far away as possible, I opened the door only wide enough to shove the dirty clothes into the hallway.
Of course, Colton happened to be walking past just then. To my horror, he stopped to chat. I would have slammed the door shut, but my arm was still outside.
“I suppose I should be thankful you no longer have any clothes in which to run away in.” His eyes focused on the bare shoulder peeking through the doorway. “What are you wearing, anyway?”
“I should think the answer obvious.” I withdrew my arm to begin closing the door on Colton’s interested gaze.
“Ah.” That single syllable, uttered in a tone of heated intensity was enough to arrest my progress in closing the door.
“What business is it of yours if I’m naked behind this door?” Maybe I shouldn’t have been so explicit in my description.
“I am intently interested in everything about you, sweetheart.” Stepping that much closer, he rested a hand beside the doorframe. “Any chance you’ll allow me inside?”
“There’s a reason it’s called privacy.” I slammed the door shut.
I heard his laughter muffled by the closed door, which only ignited my temper. The nerve of the man! We weren’t even friends and he expected me to just open the door and discover what more we could become?
While I might be susceptible to tall, blonde and good looking men in general—who wasn’t—I was going to resist Colton. There were too many unknowns about this. I didn’t care that his smile fluttered my knees and increased my heart rate. As long as I wasn‘t certain about his motivation for keeping me close, I could never view him as anything more than an adversary.
I was attempting to figure out what annoyed me more, my father being in the wrong or Colton not sharing information, when I sank into the warm water of the tub, and all such thoughts escaped along with my sigh. I set to work scrubbing every inch of my body with rose scented soap. I did my best with my hair, but even after washing it until the water went cold, it still hung in tangled clumps.
Wrapping a towel around me, I ventured back to reality. What I saw next brought tears of gratitude to my eyes. Lying across the bed was a pair of trousers and loose cotton shirt. I was not a crier, but seeing the clean clothes, pressed and ready to be worn, almost made me begin bawling. Acts of kindness always spoke the loudest. The fact it must have been Colton in my room while I bathed was something I rapidly discarded.
After dressing, I began on the real problem at hand: my hair. I attempted to run a hand through the back of it, and succeeded in finding a rather large tangle. Picking up a silver handled brush left on the bureau, I was only able to run it through the top couple inches. I hadn’t realized how tangled my long hair had become after only two days of not being combed or otherwise cared for.
I needed help combing my hair. This more than anything else demonstrated again how dependent I was on the man. I could not even brush my own hair and the only person who could help was Colton.
My stomach growled, reminding me I would have to eventually come out of the room, tangled hair or not. I might as well eat before begging for his help. A full stomach always put my problems in perspective.
While I’d been changing, Colton had lit more of the lamps downstairs and I was easily able to track the light to the kitchen in the back of the house. The number of doors along the hall meant the house was quite large, and I again wondered whose it was.
I found him opening various drawers in the kitchen in search of who knew what. I only hoped this house came with a fully stocked kitchen. His short hair was still wet, darkened from sun kissed to dirty blonde and his outfit of open necked white shirt and casual brown pants was new as well.
At my entrance, he glanced up quickly and followed with a second glance after seeing the grip I held on the brush and the state of my hair. He stopped in the act of reaching for a loaf of bread. His tone was carefully measured as he asked “
“My hair.” I bit off the two syllables as though they were poisoned.
“Yes…” he trailed off, probably wondering how best to approach the clearly deranged woman in his kitchen. He slid to block a drawer, probably the one filled with knives.
“I can’t brush it.” I brandished the brush.
As my grip on said brush was more conducive to hitting than actual brushing, he again chose his words carefully, “May I be of assistance?”
“Have you brushed hair before?”
“A time or two.”
I frowned. Of course he had experience with long hair. Long hair meant women and men who looked like him had lots of experience with long haired women.
“Here, give me the brush.” His approach was slow and easy as if any motion would send me over the edge into even more of a mess than I already was.
My fingers loosened of their own accord and I watched the brush change hands. His fingers just barely brushed mine in the exchange, sending warmth into my cheeks. When he had full possession of the brush, he walked around me to better survey the damage. As he passed, I noticed his scent had changed from that of the cheap smelling inn soap to the spiced, crisp citrus like he had when we’d first met. Of course I liked it more than I should.
The first stroke of the brush didn’t succeed any better than mine had. He tried a few different angles but couldn’t get the brush to reach below my ears. His sigh was labored.
“How much are you willing to lose?”
“This hair will take hours to untangle and even then, I cannot guarantee I will reach all the tangles. It makes better sense to cut the tangles out. Besides, changing your hair might allow me to hide you a little better.”
Obviously this man knew nothing about hair. Spinning to face him, I tore the brush out of his hand. “You are not cutting my hair.”