Authors: Patricia; Potter
He'd suddenly backed away, leaving Cara to look at him in puzzlement. “I do something wrong, senor?” she'd asked.
She was a pretty little thing, and her smile said she enjoyed her work. So did her hands that started to work on him, unbuttoning his shirt and caressing his chest. He felt his body react, but for some reason he couldn't make his mind do the same. Somehow, an act he'd always enjoyed seemed wrong. Hell, there was nothing wrong with paying for a bit of sex.
He'd tried. He'd really tried. He'd admired the roundness of Cara's body, even while part of his mind compared it with the slender grace of Nicky Thompson's. In the end, the act had been a clumsy, hurried affair that left him more frustrated than ever. He'd just wanted it over. He'd given Cara an extra large tip and left quickly. He knew he wouldn't be back.
He felt as if someone had drilled a hole into him, allowing the best part of him to drain away and leaving the worms. How in the hell had he ever gotten into such a mess?
He had to get one single thing right in this life. The problem was, he no longer knew what that one single thing should be. He'd been given a choice: Davy's life or death. But he should have known it wouldn't be that simple. It had whirled into something else completely, like a kaleidoscope he'd once seen: colors and shapes always changing. One choice was leading to another: betrayal of his best friend, or betrayal of a vulnerable woman who moved him more than he was willing to admit.
Morning was Nicky's favorite time. She usually rose at dawn and took a ride. The inhabitants of Sanctuary were almost all asleep then; they thrived on darkness.
Nicky had a particular spot she loved, a rise on the west side of the valley where she could watch the sun ascend and the soft colors brighten the earth. She knew, when she rose after a sleepless night, feeling slow and drugged, that she needed to visit her special place, needed to be alone to think.
Not another soul was yet in sight when she arrived at the stable. Molly whinnied her usual welcome. Nicky didn't bother with a saddle and bridle this morning; using only a halter, she headed the mare out of town.
She gave Molly her head, and the mare danced a few steps with pleasure. Dark night had surrendered to the first rays of a sun still lurking behind the mountains, and a soft morning gray was promising a fine day. A breeze was pushing a few wispy clouds over an otherwise clear sky like bits of lace over fine cloth.
Nicky avoided the area where she'd shot Yancy and went farther upstream where the land started to slope upward into the hills. Cottonwoods and scraggly oaks struggled to exist among the rocks, and she'd always felt them very gallant indeed to keep trying. She guessed it had been nearby that O'Brien had found the baby hawk, for she'd seen several hawks soaring around the top of the canyon wall. She wondered which one had just lost its offspring and if it mourned the loss. The thought saddened her, strengthening the bittersweet longing that still lingered inside her.
Nothing seemed right this morning, right or natural, even on a morning as sweet as any she could remember.
Molly went straight to the top of the rise. Nicky slid off the horse, taking a seat on a rotting log as Molly found a patch of grass to nibble. Light was exploding now like a halo around the mountains. In moments, the top of the sun would tip the mountain in a glorious awakening.
She swallowed hard. There must be so much life beyond these majestic walls. She had never realized how lonely she was until now. Or maybe she simply hadn't admitted it.
The sun edged up, its rays hitting the jutting boulders of the crags like flecks of silver and copper. She glanced around and noticed a rider following the wall of the canyon. He was a long distance away, but she knew him instantly. She recognized the horse, for one thing; it was a gray, and there were few grays in Sanctuary. And then there was the way the rider held himself. She watched from a distance. He appeared to be looking for something. A way out? But why? He had paid a fortune to get inside.
The guards, stationed at strategic places, probably couldn't see the man now moving along the wall, stopping occasionally as if to study an outcropping. The brilliance of the morning dulled. She watched for another few moments, and then he turned, the metal trim on his saddle glinting in the sun. Then he stilled, and she wondered whether he had seen her. He apparently had, for he turned the horse in her direction and rode at a leisurely pace toward her.
Nicky wondered whether she should mount and ride like a demon for her uncle's. She was only too aware she hadn't brought a gun this morningâbringing even her derringer stole something from the peace of a sunriseâbut her legs didn't move. She only watched as the figure grew larger.
Nicky ran her fingers through her hair, trying to comb it, recognizing the action for the vanity it was, despising herself for caring. He was an outlaw, an outlaw who'd visited a fancy lady last night. She wished, though, that her heart wouldn't thump so loudly.
She didn't move as he approached. He sat for a moment on his big gray, then slid easily down from the saddle. He took off the hat he wore and bowed slightly, just as he had that first day. The thump in her heart moved up to her throat.
“Miss Thompson,” he said. “A pleasure. I thought I would only see birds this morning.”
Nicky sought to find her voice. It came out unintentionally accusing. “I'm surprised you're up so early â¦ after a late night.”
He looked surprised. “Late?”
Nicky bit her lip. She didn't want him to think she was spying on him. And she hadn't been. She'd just been looking out the window. “Everyone goes to the saloon and Rosita's.”
“Do they now?” he said, an edge of amusement in his voice.
She wanted to slap him. She went on the attack instead. “What are you doing, prowling around?”
“I always get up early. I'm just exploring. Thought I would try to find that hawk's nest.”
He looked her straight in the eyes. “Something to do, Miss Thompson. I get bored easily.”
He raised an eyebrow in question.
“There's always Rosita's.”
“That's the second time you mentioned Rosita's.”
“I saw you go inside last night,” she said acidly. She knew she was being unreasonable. She hated allowing him to know she cared enough to mention it. But the words kept popping out, sputtering like steam from a teapot.
“I suppose you see a lot of men go in Rosita's,” he said reasonably.
“Of course,” she said airily. “I just wondered why you were up this morning. My uncle doesn't like his guests sneaking around.”
He chuckled. “I don't think I'm sneaking around. If I am, I'm doing a damned poor job of it.”
“Are you laughing at me, Mr. O'Brien?”
“No, Miss Thompson, I'm not. I'm simply trying to explain something, and I rarely do that.” His voice hardened. “Very rarely.”
She bit her lip. He confused her. One minute, he was exuding charm, the next, menace. Yet she sensed that menace wasn't directed toward her. Nicky quickly changed the subject. “I come up here every morning.”
He looked toward the east, at the sun now fully clearing the mountains. “I understand why. But isn't it dangerous?”
He was thinking about Yancy. She was thinking about Kane O'Brien. He was far more dangerous. She didn't know the rules of
game. She didn't know how to flirt and was muttering all kinds of silly things. Nicky cringed at what he must think.
“I can take care of myself,” she said defensively.
“So I noticed. But it doesn't look like you have a gun today.”
“I do,” she bluffed.
His eyes roamed over her. She felt as if she were sizzling inside. When she could stand it no longer, she stepped back, stumbling, heat rising in her face.
He reached out to steady her, his slight perpetual smile turning into a frown. “I didn't mean â¦”
Nicky would have fled if she weren't afraid that she would stumble again. His hand touched her shoulder, his gloved fingers moving to her cheek, touching it lightly.
“I wouldn't hurt you,” he said.
His fingers left her skin and she felt bereft. She looked down at his hands and watched him pull off a glove. Then his fingers were back and this time she felt his skin against hers in an agonizingly intimate way.
Intimate because she'd never felt a man's hands on her before. She didn't know they could feel this way, that a mere touch could warm her blood and make her toes curl, that a kind of fever could rip through her like a tornado, leaving ruins in its wake. She tilted her face upward to look at him. That perpetual half smile, drawn by the scar, appeared gentler.
She reached up and tentatively touched the jagged scar. “What happened?” she whispered.
“A bayonet wound during the war,” he said, turning that cheek away.
She shuddered, thinking of his pain, hurting for him.
His hand suddenly fell away. “It took
a long time to get used to it,” he said, and she suddenly realized he thought she was repelled by it.
“I think it's very â¦ handsome.”
He suddenly grinned. “No one's ever called it
“You got it honorably. You should be proud of it,” Nicky blurted out. Amusement flickered in his eyes and she felt like twelve instead of twenty-two. One of his eyebrows raised again, and he truly did look like the devil. Still, she felt no fear.
“And I haven't done an honorable thing since, Miss Thompson.”
“Why?” It was a foolish question, particularly posed to an outlaw as notorious as Diablo. But she wanted to know.
“Being honorable is not what it's touted to be,” he said with that crooked smile. “Believe me on that.”
did you go to war?”
A curtain suddenly dropped over his eyes. “I'll probably never understand that myself, Miss Thompson.”
“Nicky,” she said. “Everyone calls me Nicky.” She knew she shouldn't invite that new intimacy, but suddenly it seemed as if they were friends.
“It's short for Nicole.” Nicky held her breath as she watched his reaction. Nicole was a name for a lady, not a woman who wore her hair as short as a man's and dressed in trousers.
But he didn't laugh. “And how did Miss Nicole Thompson come to be at Sanctuary? Why isn't she married or entertaining a long line of beaus?”
Nicky snapped her mouth shut. She had already said too much. Her uncle's life, as well as hers and Robin's, depended on the image of Nat Thompson's infallibility. She couldn't tell him how much she wanted to leave, how often she'd thought about it.
She shrugged. “My uncle took us in when my father â¦ was killed. My mother had died a year earlier when Robin was born. Uncle Nat's been very good to us.”
Some emotion crossed his face. It came and went so quickly, she couldn't place it. But his shoulders seemed to stiffen, and tension radiated from his body.
“Don't you think you'd better be getting along home?” It was as if he'd slammed a door in her face. The impact hurt. She whirled around so he wouldn't see it. Confusion flooded her, confusion and hurt and a need to strike back.
home, Mr. O'Brien.
hill. You're the intruder.”
“I would think my gold makes me a very welcome intruder.” There was a sudden coldness in his eyes that made her shiver. Why had she thought, even for a moment, that he was different? He was only a chameleon, a man who used charm better than most.
“It doesn't. You're paying for protection, that's all. For extending your life. Maybe you forgot my uncle's rules.”
“Staying away from you? Fate keeps interfering. I had no idea you would be riding this morning.”
“Or that anyone else would be,” she observed acidly. “I wonder what my uncle would think of you inspecting the walls of the canyon.”
“I didn't realize I was exchanging one jail for another,” he replied, his jaw setting. The scar stood out as he did so, and the aura of danger heightened. An almost imperceptible shudder seemed to run through his body, as if he were trying, and failing, to maintain that rigid control she saw in him. “But I'm sorry to have disturbed your morning ride.”
His tone said he wasn't sorry at all. He was angry, and she didn't understand why. She had more reason to be angry than he. He
disturbed her morning, had seduced her into liking him and then had thrown it in her face.
Even worse, he had made her feel things she'd never felt before. She didn't want to feel them, not for him, not for an outlaw. Loving an outlaw had killed her mother, had kept her from a doctor who might have saved her. And her uncle, for all the comforts here, was an exile. As were she and her brother.
She often ached for normalcy, for an end to fear. Fear for her uncle, for her brother. Fear over leaving here, the only place she really knew, and fear over staying and never knowing anything else. She'd always been able to push these fears aside before, but now they smothered her.
She stiffened her back, lifted her chin defiantly and walked over to her horse.
“I'll help you,” Kane O'Brien said.
She didn't want his hands on her again. She couldn't stand that melting sensation, the yearning anguish that settled in the pit of her stomach. “No,” she said sharply and walked Molly over to the log where she'd been sitting when she'd first seen him. Nicky stepped onto the log, then threw her leg over Molly's back. She knew she wasn't graceful, but at the moment flight was more important. Without looking back, she kicked Molly's sides and felt the mare bolt in protest. The wild, uncontrolled ride was fine with her. She leaned down on Molly's neck and raced down the hill.