Authors: Moira Rogers
For Kanaxa, cover artist beyond compare. Thanks for bringing Archer to life, explosions and all.
It was a crying shame Grace had rediscovered affection just in time for it to be the death of her.
Her mare whinnied nervously, and Grace hurried to stroke a soothing hand down the horse’s neck. No wonder the poor thing was confused. For the third morning running, she’d crept into the stables before dawn and trudged in silence through the laborious task of preparing saddle, tack and bags, only to lose her resolve somewhere between mounting and sneaking away.
If she had a lick of self-preservation, she’d have fled Crystal Springs as soon as word came. The town was dying, and one bloodhound wasn’t going to change that. Not when the accursed Guild had taken their time dispatching someone to deal with the vampires whittling the population into nothingness. A smart woman would have taken everything that wasn’t nailed down and fled—weeks ago.
And here she was, stroking Phoebe’s mane as sunlight crept up the far wall of the stable.
She couldn’t leave the people. Not the old men fighting because the young ones were already gone, not the children who were wide-eyed and scared in ways that twisted in her gut, and not Diana. Not the first friend she’d had in years, the woman who’d accepted her…even though she’d seen through all of Grace’s pretty, careful lies.
No, Grace wasn’t going to leave Crystal Springs, and it was time to admit it to herself. Smoothing her hand down Phoebe’s back, she reached for the heavy packs, but tensed when hay crackled behind her.
“Your mount won’t be happy with that much weight.”
A stranger’s voice. Low, a little rough. The bloodhound, arriving on schedule, then—or a ghoul sent out by his vampire master to pick off anyone who trusted the dawn.
She turned and knew at once that the man standing before her was no ghoul. Tall and craggy, he looked like a man accustomed to hard living. He wore scuffed leathers and a battered hat pulled down low enough to show only an equally battered nose. His square jaw was covered in a day’s worth of beard, and it made his mirthless smile even more imposing.
A bloodhound, in all his arrogant glory, and she lowered her gaze to his boots before she could enrage him with an inadvertent challenge…or show him more than he needed to see. “I don’t have very much experience with horses,” she lied, practice making the words flow as smoothly as the truth that followed. “This is very awkward.”
“By all means, let me help.” He stepped closer and took one bag from her hand. It clinked and rattled as he shook it. “Skipping town with the good silver, sweetheart?”
Furious heat flooded her cheeks, and she could only hope he’d take it as embarrassment. Staring at his scratched boot, she fought for the calm to answer. “I’m scared.” That was the truth, at least. Only a fool wouldn’t be scared in this town. “I almost let it get the best of me. Are you going to tell everyone?”
He dropped the bag between his scuffed boots, and she looked up. “Funny thing to be concerned about, miss, but don’t worry. I’m not the law.” He thumped his hat, and the brim rose high enough for the faint light to illuminate his features.
He wasn’t a pretty man, maybe not even a handsome one. Not a man at all, if one listened to the whispers and legends, because a bloodhound was a monster under the skin—and this one showed it. A feral edge, a casual way of moving that her instincts screamed had to be a lie.
There was nothing relaxed in him, and it made her want to bolt for safety. A pity he was standing in front of the only door. “You’re from the Bloodhound Guild?”
“Mmm. And you are?”
“Grace Linwood.” She met his gaze and instantly regretted it. He looked dangerous, like a beast lurked behind those sharp brown eyes. “I am—was—Crystal Springs’s teacher.”
He laughed and shook his head. “Try again, lady. What kind of sweet little schoolmarm tries to sneak out of town?”
Her spine stiffened, and anger overrode fear. “There are no sweet people left in Crystal Springs. Maybe if your Guild had sent someone three months ago, you might have saved a few of them.”
Was it her imagination, or did guilt flash across his features? “People legitimately entitled to expensive shit don’t abscond with it at first light. They pack their wagons nice and civil-like, and they say their goodbyes.” His jaw tightened, and he took a step closer. “Only two kinds of people skulk off before dawn—thieves and liars.”
“Greed and avarice?” She held her ground but she couldn’t stop her flinch. Not with him towering over her, a man who could close one unforgiving hand around her throat and squeeze the life out of her. “You’re forgetting fear and shame, and that’s what you’ll find in this town. A lot of helpless, terrified people, and a few of us ashamed of how often we desperately want to run away.”
He stared down at her and finally shrugged. “I won’t stop you. Get on up, and I’ll even say I never saw you.”
That shame burned in her gut as she looked away from him. “I can’t. I was preparing to unsaddle my horse.”
Why? As if a decent person would need a reason to stay and do the right thing. Maybe those animal eyes saw through her, to the twisted heart of her, where she was selfish and broken. A thief and a liar, just like he’d said.
Just in case he
read lies in her voice, she offered the truth. “Because being alive isn’t much of a blessing if you can’t live with yourself.”
He backed away and removed his hat. “Who’s in charge here in town?”
Maybe the Guild hadn’t briefed him—or maybe they hadn’t cared. “No one’s in charge. Everyone with the slightest bit of authority is dead or gone.”
He muttered something under his breath, sighed and smacked his hat against his thigh. “My name is Archer, ma’am. And I guess, as of now, I’m in charge.”
Levity was inappropriate, but she couldn’t help the smile that tugged up the corners of her lips. “You have my sympathy.”
He returned her smile, slow and easy. “Something tells me I’ll need it.”
Lust hit her so fast her heart plummeted toward her stomach before she could draw another breath, a dizzying plunge like the one time she’d been in an elevator in New York. He was
when he smiled, like he’d done things to women that would send the sweet little schoolteacher she was supposed to be into a fainting spell.
Archer dipped his head and arched an eyebrow. “Grace, you said? That’s your name?”
Oh, damn it all. She was staring at him like a witless fool—or a virgin trapped in the first flush of attraction. She tore her gaze from his face and fixed it on his boots again. Sweet and demure. Submissive. She’d been faking it for a year now. “Yes, sir.”
“May I use it, or should I call you Miss Linwood?”
“Whichever you prefer.” She offered him a tentative smile. “We’ve had more pressing issues than polite manners of address. I think you’ll find Crystal Springs is more practical these days than proper.”
“Good. Manners can’t save your life.” He dropped his hat back on his head. “I imagine I’ll see you around, should you decide to stay.”
She wet her lips as all humor faded. “If you’ll wait for me to unsaddle my horse, I can take you to the saloon. People usually gather there for a few mornings after we lose someone.”
“I see. And that happens a lot.” It wasn’t a question.
Not as often as it once had, which only meant the vampires knew the town’s supply of fresh humans was wearing thin. Sometimes they’d go a week between attacks now, and Grace had to turn her attention to her saddle to keep the hound from seeing the stark terror that shivered through her. The fear that had kept her from sleeping, afraid she’d dream of the horrors vampires and ghouls could inflict on a woman over seven long days, and the knowledge that her imagination probably fell short of the truth.
He hadn’t asked a question, but answering it gave her something easy to say. “Yes.”
“I can do that for you,” he said quietly. “Take care of your horse.”
He’d already seen the worst of it. Letting him tend to her horse would give her time to collect herself—and to warn Diana that the bloodhound had arrived. “Thank you, Mr.—”
“No, just Archer.”
She peeked up at him, and her stomach flipped at the careful way he watched her, with polite deference, though he’d surely seen enough of her to know she deserved no such courtesy. “Thank you, Archer.”
He’d already turned toward the horse, stroking one hand down the animal’s mane. “You’re welcome.”
Phoebe quieted under his hand, so apparently the beastly magic that lurked within Archer didn’t alarm her horse as much as it unsettled her. “The saloon is just down the street. Unless you’d like me to wait for you?”
His hand continued down the animal’s side. “I’ll find it.”
She fled. No use lying to herself about the quick footsteps that carried her out of the stables and into the deserted street. Crystal Springs’s streets were often empty come morning, at least until the sun stood well above the hills. Those who’d survived three months of their peculiar standoff knew better than to trust the dawn’s light. Vampires might hide from the sun, but their enslaved ghouls crept out with the dawn to pick off unwary stragglers.
The town held plenty to fear, but it was the bloodhound driving her panic as she darted across the dusty main road. She passed the boarded-up building that had once held the First Bank of Crystal Springs and paused for a moment in front of the equally empty jail.
Archer wasn’t the law, and Grace wasn’t the first person to reinvent herself in a border town. People this close to the Deadlands tended to overlook a troubled past if a person worked hard enough. She’d been a good teacher with impeccable manners, and no one had dug too deeply into a past that would unravel like a ripped sweater.
That couldn’t change now that he was here. She wouldn’t let it. Because if she couldn’t bring herself to run, the only choice was salvaging the life she’d begun to build, starting with an apology to the woman she’d almost abandoned.
The place was wrong, start to finish.
Archer stood and surveyed the street. A handful of people had begun to venture out into the morning, enough that he’d taken the liberty of hiding the teacher’s forgotten saddlebags in a dusty, neglected corner of the livery stable.
The place was wrong, all right, starting with her. Polite, well-mannered ladies didn’t steal tea sets and candlesticks. He’d considered whether they might be personal or family possessions, but only in passing. Surely she’d have countered his assumptions if they’d been incorrect.
Besides, anyone with sufficient assets would have been feeble-minded not to sell or trade them in exchange for passage out of town long before now. The woman hadn’t seemed feeble in the slightest. More like…
Guilty. An emotion he recognized all too readily.
“Excuse me, sir.” A grizzled old man took a limping step forward, his hat gripped in his hand. “You’d be the bloodhound we’ve been expecting?”
Archer found himself needing to explain. “I am. I came as soon as the Guild notified us of your situation.”
The man’s tired eyes showed no surprise, only resignation and acceptance. “I figure the Guild has to make tactical decisions, same as anyone fighting a war, and our little town might not be worth much now that those with money have found their way back East.”
Archer was suddenly fiercely glad that at least some of that money was buried under dirty hay in a saddlebag. “I’m here, and I’m not leaving until the problem’s solved.” He held out his hand. “They call me Archer.”
“I’m Cecil.” Old as he was, the man had a firm grip. “I suppose there’s not much of a town government left. Just me and the ladies—the late doctor’s daughter and the teacher.”
The teacher. “I met Miss Linwood already this morning.”
“She and Diana have worked hard to take care of those who can’t fend for themselves, but there’s only so much any of us can do.” Cecil offered a self-deprecating smile. “I’m not the solider I used to be.”
No matter, since it was Archer’s job now. “You’ll do what you must. We all will.” He afforded the street one last look. “How are you situated for weapons?”
“We’ve got more guns than we have hands to hold them, but not as many bullets as I’d like, and no one skilled in making more.” Cecil scrubbed at his head. “Damn near the only thing we have enough of is firewood to power the boilers. It’s the one thing I can set the young men to doing to keep them out of trouble, most days.”