Olivia decided to start the conversation over yet again as she passed Natalia on the stairs. She could think of no reason why not.
She'd come into the Beacon out of the hot afternoon sun and found Natalia scrubbing each step with soapy water. Natalia's constant scrubbing never seemed to damage the oak. Olivia imported the wood at Natalia's insistence, and it made the hotel the most beautiful and clean within fifty miles, so much so that people came to stay despite it being half a day's carriage ride from the train. There was nothing else in Campo Primavera worth seeing. Unless a traveler liked a good steak, which the Spauldings served up in style. They weren't the type to keep all the meat for the market, not when they had to live, too. And they served enough vodka to keep the town buzzing.
"Natalia, you could make more money elsewhere..." she started, even though she couldn't remember herself what the Beacon had been like before Natalia had shown up eight months ago.
Natalia lifted her chin. She was a beautiful woman. Everyone in town could see it. Every visitor asked.
Olivia was annoyed at having Natalia constantly under her protection. She hated answering questions. She hated her own desire to provoke Natalia into conversation. Even this one.
"Don't you think you pay me enough, Ms. Spencer?"
Natalia rolled her eyes and resumed scrubbing.
"You wouldn't have to work for a man." Olivia gestured. "The Marlers are independent operators. It'd be at least as nice as here. More money."
"I have my reasons."
"And what are those?" Olivia leaned against the railing.
Natalia ignored her.
"I could fire you," Olivia said. She had good reason. Natalia was stubborn, and talked back, and was generally irritating.
"Am I not doing a good job, Ms. Spencer?"
"You're doing a job that Maria could easily--"
"I like the company," Natalia said.
"And the cooking."
"Gregory's the best in El Campo. I don't care what kind of veal the Spaulding Hotel serves."
Olivia smiled, but the expression tightened as she thought of him.
Natalia caught it. "It's not your fault."
"I was there, you weren't," Olivia said. The screams echoed in her mind. Gregory's hand, caught in the gear of the drill. The one he'd designed himself. Josh had laudanum in the office, but it was an hour's ride out to get Rick Bauer and another hour and a half to bring him back, and then Gregory lost the hand. And Maria--she'd never get the steps as clean as Natalia, not with all the hate in her eyes.
Natalia sighed and dropped the rag in the bucket. She sat back on her heels and considered Olivia. "You're asking me what I'm doing here."
Olivia sat down on the steps, regarding Natalia at eye level. "It's not a good place to be."
"You're from... England, right?"
One day she'd tell Natalia the truth.
The way Sam talked about San Cristobel he made it sound like a mythical place full of dragons. No one ever believed him. She'd gotten rid of most traces of her accent. Just like Natalia had. The way Natalia--and the other Mexicans--pronounced "El Campo" was one of the few ways they let the rest of the townspeople know who was here first.
"So what are you doing here?" Natalia asked.
"I'm not--how did this conversation become about me?" Olivia asked.
Natalia pursed her lips into a smile. "Fair's fair."
"I have my reasons."
The heat flash of memory that rushed down her spine and made 20 years ago feel like yesterday. Even in Texas, where there were no castles, she watched her back. She employed everyone in town who didn't want to be a whore. No questions.
She didn't let it break her heart when Josh Lewis divorced her.
Olivia stood. "Just get that done before dinner. The judge is coming tomorrow."
"He's staying here?"
"So... You won't be going to the field tomorrow."
Olivia shook her head. Though the thought made her restless. In town was nothing compared to the heat of industry, the little patch of grazing land she'd swindled the Spauldings out of so she could produce 10 barrels of oil a day and take over the Beacon from the builders, who wanted to go back to civilization anyway. Civilization didn't have much to offer her.
Natalia nodded. "I'll send a note to Ms. Wolfe, then."
"Thank you. Natalia--" A woman who could read and write, and who was beautiful, could do a lot more than clean floors. But she knew not to even ask again.
Natalia met her eyes.
"You're so goddamn stubborn," Olivia said, stomping up the stairs.
"There's no swearing at the Beacon, Ms. Spencer," Natalia said.
Olivia slammed the door to her suite.
Maria peeked around the stairwell and dropped her hand from her mouth, letting out the laughter she'd been suppressing.
Natalia grinned and flicked water at her.
* * *
Jeffrey O'Neill rode into Campo Primavera in a black top hat, black tails, and black boots. He had stopped outside of town to dust off and polish them. He was gleaming as he pulled his black gelding up to the livery and dismounted, smiling as Alan Spaulding stepped out of the Spaulding Hotel to greet him.
"Come for a game of cards, Judge?" Alan asked.
Jeffrey shook his hand. "Maybe just a drink, Alan. Got any prisoners you haven't hung yet?"
"Cattle poacher we got last week. Lizzie herself put a bullet through his shoulder."
Jeffrey shook his head. "Why am I not surprised?"
"She's a better rifle shot than A.C. Mallet."
"Don't see why you let a boy from New York handle your security, Alan."
"Cunning, Judge. It's all about cunning."
Jeffrey grinned and met his eyes. Alan clapped him on the shoulder. They went into the saloon attached to the hotel.
From the porch down the street, Doris Wolfe shook her head. "That bastard."
"Buzz'll tell us what happens," Olivia said.
"Never understood why Buzz Cooper tends bar over there are not here," Doris said.
"I haven't got much of a bar, Doris. Besides, it's good to have him on the inside."
"Keep telling yourself that, Olivia."
Olivia shrugged. "Let's go inside. Gregory's got strawberries."
"How does a one-armed man grow strawberries, anyway?"
"I hate you, Doris."
"Did I push a button?"
Olivia sighed. "You'll make up for it when you publish that screed about how the law corrupts from within," she said.
"Black hat and black horse. Really. Does that man even notice what's beyond what he sees in the mirror?"
"I'll ask him myself when he comes in tonight."
"Is that before or after he visits the whores?"
Olivia tightened her jaw.
"What, you're not letting them in here, are you?"
"He's the judge."
"You know he's only coming here because you've got clean sheets. And now he's going to mess them all up."
Olivia shook her head.
Doris pulled out a notebook. "I'm writing this down."
"Whatever you want, Wolf."
"Can you smell besmirched?"
They walked into the dusky dining room, where a table for two was waiting with unstained white linens and a single plucked orange marigold in a vase.
Natalia watched from the kitchen door, leaning on a broom.
Doris glanced at her. "What's her story?"
"Wish I knew."
"Bet it would make a great novel."
"Why don't you write a few, and let her pick?"
Doris grinned. "There wine at lunch today?"
Doris lit up. "Really?"
"God bless Reva Lewis."
"Do not utter that in this hotel!"
Doris patted her hand. "God bless all the damn gossip we're going to get tomorrow morning. Makes life worth living." She frowned as she caught Natalia's scowl. "What's her problem?"
"She doesn't like all the cussing in this here hotel," Olivia drawled, smirking.
"Like it's hers, anyway." Doris lifted her fingers and made the rudest gesture she knew.
Natalia disappeared into the kitchen.
Doris turned her gaze to Olivia. "Let's drink."
* * *
Jeffrey made his way into the Beacon after dusk, passing by Natalia, who held the door for him and gave him an angry stare.
"Hello there," he said.
"Bienvenida al Campo Primavera," she said.
"We won the war, you know. You should really speak English."
"Yeah," Natalia said. "You won the war all the way from New York City."
Olivia chuckled, waving from the bar. "Merlot?"
He sauntered over to the bar, where Olivia had a glass of wine. Doris was smoking a cigar. The dining room was empty, otherwise. The night life of Campo Primavera was at Spaulding's, or Marler's, or the little Czech barns out past the first cotton fields.
"You've got the best vodka outside of Russia in this town and you're drinking that crap?"
"It's imported crap," Olivia said.
"You know, when something sits on a boat for months, and then a train, it gets a little spoiled."
"It ferments," she purred.
He shook his head. "I'll take a cigar, though."
Doris rolled her eyes, but nodded to the bartender. "Boudreaux."
Remy glanced at Jeffrey, and then pulled out the ornate cigar case from under the bar. He opened it and pushed it toward Jeffrey.
"My favorite. No one rolls them like Manhattan," he said.
"Only the best for you, Judge."
Jeffrey nodded. He let Remy cut and light it for him, and inhaled deeply before turning to the women. "Can we get a table? I want to tell you what I told Alan."
"Let's hear it." Olivia led them to a table by the bar. Remy brought brown bread and butter, and Maria brought tea.
Jeffrey smoked, and when the night settled and the kerosene lamps cast a warm glow and Gregory closed up the kitchen, Jeffrey began to talk.
"We're in Campo Primavera because we've been tracking a fugitive. Wolf, have you seen the telegraphs?"
Doris shook her head. "We were just told that you're coming. Nothing about anything else. It's been quiet on the lines."
"Too quiet?" Olivia asked.
Jeffrey nodded. "We don't know what his ties are to Campo Primavera, but we know he has them. He's been suspected of attacking a colonel a few years ago, though that's just a story. We do know he was a courier for the rangers, back when he was a young kid. But now he's knifed someone up in Shreveport, and he's on the run."
"People get knifed all the time in Shreveport. Why chase this one?"
"Why not?" Jeffrey asked.
Doris narrowed her gaze.
"Why on Earth would he come here?" Olivia asked.
"Like I said, we don't know. But we've got a squad coming, and troops in San Antonio if we need them."
"Troops? The war's been over for years," Olivia said.
"The war isn't over yet. Not while--Or are you a Republican?"
Olivia rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Who's this fugitive who's going to crawl into town?"
"We're sure he has aliases, but the name we've got is Raphael Rivera."
A glass shattered.
Olivia, Jeffrey, and Doris looked toward Remy, who nodded toward the kitchen. But all was still.
Jeffrey said, "Someone recognized that name."
"I'm sure it was just a coincidence."
Natalia appeared at the doorway. "Sorry," she said. "I was drying them and it broke. You can take it out of my pay, Ms. Spencer."
"I will," Olivia said. "Go away."
Natalia stepped back, but not out of sight.
Jeffrey said, "She's clumsy. I don't understand why you keep her around."
"She fluffed your pillows, Judge."
"Did she pluck the geese for the feathers, too?"
Olivia scowled. She turned to Jeffrey. "Any other glass-shattering news?"
Jeffrey kept his gaze on Natalia. "Nope. I should get to bed. It was a hard ride, getting out here. I won't be leaving Campo Primavera until this thing is done."
Olivia nodded. They all stood.
"Besides," Jeffrey said, stubbing out his cigar. "I have that poacher to deal with." He smiled.
"Goodnight, Judge," Doris said, smiling pleasantly and heading for the door.
"She lives in town?" Jeffrey asked.
"Above the telegraph room," Olivia said. "Down from Bauer's. I don't think she likes wide open spaces."
Jeffrey shook his head. "Who in their right mind would? Good night, Ms. Spencer."
As soon as he was upstairs and out of sight, Remy and Olivia rushed to the kitchen.
"The Hell?" Olivia demanded, dragging Natalia up from where she was picking up the glass. Maria knelt and took over the work.
Natalia looked at her with a frightened expression. One Olivia had never seen before. Natalia's fear seeped into her, making her heart pound.
"She's bleeding," Remy said. He wrapped a rag around Natalia's hand.
"Natalia. What is it?" Olivia brushed hair out of Natalia's face, trying to meet her eyes.
"I don't know--what I overheard, but--" Natalia faltered, looking down.
"But?" Olivia's fingers moved to her cheek, tracing tears.
"Raphael Rivera's my son."
* * *
Remy pushed Natalia into a chair at the kitchen table and opened the rag, now that the bleeding had stopped. He'd have to pick glass out of her skin.
Olivia sat in front of Natalia. She took Natalia's free hand. "Hey."
Natalia met her eyes, still looking like a frightened doe.
Olivia said, "When you hear bad news, Natalia, you can't squeeze."
"Those are hand-made in San Antonio. I'll have to talk to Reva. You know I hate talking to Reva."
"Don't," Olivia said. "I don't want to hear it."
Natalia looked down again. Olivia was left with her own thudding heart, that emotional cascade that tormented Olivia whenever she got close to Natalia. Annoyance, which she tried to overlook, for the hotel's sake. And delight, that was the only thing to call it, because Natalia was funny, and had manners, and brought something good into the Beacon. Which created in Olivia a kind of need she tried to push down under all that annoyance. Except for moments when Natalia was bleeding all over her finest tablecloths, and bringing trouble into her life.
Olivia wanted to help her. Had wanted to help her since Natalia first showed up on her doorstep with a basket of carrots and potatoes and leading a paint pony called Snowflake.
"Tell me everything," Olivia said.
Natalia glanced at Remy, who nodded, before meeting Olivia's gaze.
Natalia said, "We're Republicans. Of course." She glanced at Remy again. "Rafe, he was a courier for the rangers. He never--I swear he never participated in any violence. He was just a boy. He took messages up to Galveston. The Germans--" she shook her head.
"I remember," Olivia said. She squeezed Natalia's fingers.
Remy leaned back in his chair. Natalia's hand was clean of glass and rubbed down with alcohol.
"But then he went west, and it changed him. I mean, he was always kind of a sensitive boy. Always full of passion. But the uprisings made everything so crazy. He was safer there than anywhere else, considering, I knew that. But there was no one to trust. I wish I could say his work hardened him, but it didn't. He felt everything that went on. Right down into his heart. And then he was just plain wild after that. When he saw his choices were picking cotton around here or picking whatever elsewhere, he took off. I figured he'd gone back to Houston. Back home."
"Does he know you're here?"
Natalia said, "I wrote him a few letters, via the rangers. I didn't think he got them. But maybe..."
Olivia knew that didn't answer the main question that had always hung between them. But there was no space for that now. She just asked, "Does the boy know to come here? To the Beacon, I mean?"
Natalia shook her head. "I don't know."
"Then we'll have to alert everyone. I can't ride out tonight. Jeffrey and Alan will suspect something. At first light. Remy?"
"You want to use Mel's place? Won't that be the first place they look?"
Olivia smiled. "Maybe. But she sure as Hell wouldn't let them inside."
Remy nodded. Then he frowned. "Wait, Raphael Rivera? I know him."
Olivia's eyebrows lifted.
"Well, not know. I know of him. He's the 'Bible Bandit.'"
Remy said, "It's in one of The Wolf's novels. He travels through Texas, protecting whores, stealing from their customers, and trying to convert them."
Natalia put her face in her hand.
Remy said, "I thought she made it up."
Natalia said, "I'm sure she made most of it up."
Olivia said, "Great. Sounds exactly a guy I'd protect, rather than shoot."
"Sorry. Look, let's get you to bed." Olivia stood and put her hand on Natalia's shoulder.
Remy stood. "I got--I've got chores." He went out the back.
Gregory and Maria had a one room cabin of sorts on the other side of the kitchen garden, past the chicken coop. Remy had the hotel's attic, which had a good vantage point and its own porch. Even though he was a better shooter at close range, it helped him keep an eye on things.
Natalia had the room under the stairwell, despite Olivia knowing it would scandalize the diners if they knew. Natalia was always out before breakfast, and in after the kitchen closed. Tonight, Olivia helped her in and watched as Natalia turned on the lamp, illuminating books and the crowded, oppressive feel of the room. Olivia wondered where she kept her money.
"I'll be all right," Natalia said.
"Are you sure?"
Natalia sat on the edge of her narrow bed. She cradled her wrapped hand in her lap and met Olivia's eyes in the lamplight.
"What?" Olivia asked.
"Why are you helping me?"
Olivia pursed her lips.
Natalia shook her head. "Don't measure your words. Tell me."
"So you'll stay," Olivia said.
Natalia's eyes widened.
Olivia backed out of the room. She said, "You're good for business."
"Thank you, Ms. Spencer."
How Olivia hated those words. She closed the door and then went out onto the front porch.
The stars were out, illuminating Main Street better than the two lamps at either end of the town. Olivia looked up for a moment and then walked east, out of town, and past a copse of young trees to where the ground sloped, barely a valley.
Blake Marler was sitting on her porch. She gave Olivia a wave. When Olivia was in range, Blake asked, "Looking for company?"
"Of a certain kind," Olivia said.
"We have all kinds," Blake said. "Even me."
Olivia chuckled. "I want what comes for free."
"Then you'll have to stay on the porch." Blake waved her into a rocking chair.
"Thanks," Olivia said.
"Something's afoot, isn't it?"
Olivia nodded. "Probably means good business for you, though."
"Be here any day."
"For God's sake, why?"
"They're hunting a fugitive."
"Anyone I know?"
Olivia shook her head.
Blake leaned forward. "Anyone you know?"
"We'll have to see."
Blake nodded and leaned back. "Sure is a beautiful night."
Olivia looked at the stars.
Blake asked, "What's your favorite constellation?"
"I like bears," Blake said.
Blake snorted and brushed her shoulder.
Olivia rocked, and kept her gaze on the stars, and thought about how in the heavens, justice was made of scorpions.
* * *
Emma Spencer flew down the stairs and ran right into Natalia, who was sitting at a dining room table, polishing silverware.
"Where's mommy?" Emma demanded.
"She had to ride out to the oil field, honey," Natalia said.
"But it's early."
"I know. She had to take them some news."
Emma's face fell. "News is always bad."
"Honey, why would you say that?"
"That's what Bill had when he came in and got Maria that time, to take her out to the oil field. He said he had news, and took her. And she's been mad at me ever since."
"She's not mad at you." Natalia put down her rag and cupped Emma's cheek. "I promise."
"Mommy said she'd take me riding," Emma said.
"I'm sorry. She'll be back real soon. She's going to stay in town for a few days."
Emma brightened. "Really?"
Emma leaned against Natalia. "Will you take me riding? Can I ride Snowflake?"
"Sure. But after the lunch crowd, okay?"
"For now, do you know how to make biscuits?"
Emma shook her head.
"Gregory makes the best in town. Let him teach you." Natalia got up and took Emma's hand.
"You think I could ever make them that good?"
"At least," Natalia said.
"Hey, Emma?" Now that they were alone, she could ask. Now that Olivia was ten miles away and would never hear about it. "Who's your father?"
"I don't have one," Emma said. "Mom said the angels brought me to her."
"Were you born here in Campo Primavera?"
Emma nodded. "Doctor Rick delivered me. He brags about it all the time. He says there aren't many babies born right in town. He's usually delivering calves and baby goats."
Natalia put her hand on Emma's head and guided her into the kitchen. The girl had Olivia's face, that was certain. She hadn't been dropped on any doorstep. But there was a light in her that Olivia didn't have. A different kind of wildness. Josh Lewis?
Gregory smiled at Natalia and then offered Emma a biscuit.
"I'm not the father, if that's the kind of information you're after," Jeffrey said from the doorway.
Natalia turned around.
"Cafe, Arbitro?" she asked.
"I don't know why you do that," he said. "Just to screw with me?"
Natalia shrugged her shoulders and went into the kitchen. She brought out ham and eggs and cheese and put them on the table along with biscuits and strawberries and coffee.
Jeffrey smiled at her. "De nada. Why don't you join me?" He reached for her waist.
She twisted away. "You're at the wrong hotel for that, Arbitro," she said.
He spread his napkin on his lap. "That's what they keep telling me. I just wish I could satisfy all of my urges in one place. Shouldn't business be all about patron satisfaction?"
Natalia didn't look back at him as she walked to the kitchen, where Emma was laughing.
She wished Olivia were around. Things were better when Olivia was around.
* * *
Josh Lewis was already covered in oil by the time Olivia rode up past the fence and to the main drill.
"Reva's going to be thrilled," Olivia said, swinging down from her horse.
"Tell me about it. It's not even ten yet. Gah, this stuff is hard to get off." He wiped his hands on his pants and looked at Olivia. "What is it?"
"Am I that transparent?"
"Only to me."
She smiled. "Bill around?"
"I think he's already drunk. Didn't make it back from the Marlers until I was having breakfast."
"Heartbreak," Josh said. "He'll get over it."
"He's going to get himself killed."
"I took all the bullets out of his Colt weeks ago. He never noticed," Josh said. "Besides, I remember when you used to go drinking with Bill. Whoring with Bill. You two were the toast of the town."
"Heartbreak," Olivia said coldly. "I got over it."
Josh had the decency to blush.
Olivia said, "I need to talk to you."
She nodded. They walked together toward the shack at the edge of the field.
Josh asked, "How was the ride?"
The sun had just changed all the gray to golden, and was offering pinpricks of heat that weren't yet unpleasant. The sun was out, she was alive, all of Texas was before her. She'd kicked her horse into a gallop. She'd put all of last night's starlight behind her. She'd felt stronger than she had in weeks.
The office was darker but still oppressively hot. Josh poured her a glass of whiskey and sat down across from her.
Olivia said, "Jeffrey O'Neill's in town."
Josh looked at his glass. "Heard he was coming."
"He's talking about bringing in a militia."
"For that poacher? If it'd been Mel instead of Lizzie Spaulding we wouldn't even have that problem."
"If it had been Mel shooting down a stranger, no matter how poor and hungry, we'd have an entirely different problem on our hands."
Josh looked steadily at her. "We would have taken care of that problem."
She nodded. She took a sip of whiskey.
"So. It's not the poacher," Josh said.
"They're hunting a fugitive."
"Anyone we know?"
Olivia took another drink, and said, "Natalia's son."
"I know who Natalia Rivera is. I didn't know she had a son."
"I didn't, either. But there was some kind of scuffle up in Shreveport, and they think he's running home to his mama."
Josh nodded. He considered the whiskey. He didn't drink any.
Olivia looked at her hands.
"So," Josh said. "This is another problem we're going to take care of?"
"I don't know." She got up. "I don't know, Josh. I mean, if he's a bandit--if he's a bad guy--what's wrong with giving him to the judge? He's an asshole, but he's the law, he knows what he's doing."
"Sure," Josh said.
Josh watched her pace the tiny room. Watched her sit down again.
Olivia said, "I just want to get to him first."
"You want control, as always." Josh pointed at her.
"I want to help Natalia."
"Maybe putting a bandit from Shreveport in prison helps Natalia."
"Maybe. We've got to find out for ourselves. We don't have enough information without that kid."
Josh reached across the table and took her hand. "We will."
Olivia smiled. "You'll be handsomely rewarded."
"I already get to work with you every day, Ms. Spencer." Josh sat back. "So what's the plan?"
"We'll put him at Mel's."
Josh nodded. "Judge staying at the Beacon?"
"Whole lot easier if he stayed at the Spaulding place."
"Sure. But the man likes his amenities."
"Don't know why, when he's got the whole prairie out here to see."
Olivia shook her head. "Tell me about business."
Josh opened the map book on the table. "We've been scouting again. Here are the places we want to dig..."
* * *
At early evening, when it was too dark to see the cotton but not dark enough to make the saloons invisible, Olivia walked into the Spaulding saloon.
All noise stopped.
She smiled. "Love doing that."
"Olivia." Alan beckoned her from a booth in the back corner. Jeffrey was there with Mallet.
She walked past the poker games and the craps table and the men drinking and staring into nothing.
Buzz blew her a kiss from behind the bar. She winked.
Mallet slid over, leaving her the spot next to him. She sat right across from Jeffrey O'Neill.
His eyes burned into her.
"Caught your little friend yet?" she asked.
Jeffrey shook his head.
Alan said, "I'm glad you could join us, Olivia. Since you're one of the prominent citizens in town."
"Mighty kind of you, Alan," she said.
He waved the compliment away.
Jeffrey said, "Mallet said you have a lot of men under you."
Olivia leaned forward and purred, "But enough about me in bed."
Alan's expression hardened.
Buzz brought over plates of ribs with vinegar and pepper. "Fresh from the slaughter," he said.
"Fantastic. Tell the cooks 'Thank you,' Buzz," Alan said.
Buzz nodded. He didn't look at Olivia, or anyone else, as he walked back to the bar.
They ate. They drank. No business talk at a supper table, so Alan told boring stories about cattle.
And then Jeffrey, instead of telling them about his cases, told them stories of his youth. A summer spent in San Cristobel, one of the northmost islands between Europe and America. He'd been seasick the entire month from New York to the island, but it had been worth it.
Olivia stopped eating. "When were you there?" she asked.
"Oh, 20 years ago. Before I went to Columbia. One last chance to explore my wild side." Jeffrey laughed.
Alan clapped him on the shoulder. "Out here, that never stops."
Olivia thought she might be sick. She shifted away from Mallet, who seemed to sense her discomfort and pressed himself against the wall.
"Oh, those islands. You could have anything you wanted. Didn't even have to pay." Jeffrey winked at Alan.
"The businessman in me is offended," Alan said.
It's the beard, Olivia thought. Without the beard she would have recognized him. Even 20 years later. "I have to go," she said, getting up.
"What? We haven't even--"
Olivia surveyed the crowd. "There's Bill. He'll fill me in tomorrow." She surged toward the door.
Buzz caught her.
"I need to go outside," Olivia said.
He dragged her to the door.
Jeffrey glanced from a stony Mallet to a shocked Alan. "Well. That's interesting."
"It certainly is," Alan said. "But then, when is she not?"
Buzz got Olivia to the street before she threw up, choking on the dust that blew back into her face. He held her upright.
"What is it, Olivia?" he asked when she could stand on her own again.
"I think I've seen a ghost."
He put his arm around her. "Let me walk you home."
"No!" She shoved him off. "I can do it."
"I can." She took an unsteady step. Then another. "See? I'm fine."
Buzz stood watching her until she climbed up the steps of the Beacon.
* * *
The Beacon dining room was half-filled with people eating supper. Olivia went past them, through the kitchen, and got the shotgun Gregory kept by the fire box. She considered. Jeffrey would come back eventually. Maybe she could kill him in his sleep.
Gregory came in, carrying dirty dishes.
"Where's Natalia?" she asked.
He gestured toward the library.
She nodded, put down the shotgun, and walked back through the dining room, then through the game room, to the little area filled with cheap books. Natalia was the only one reading. Olivia didn't care if people took books to their rooms, so people never lingered.
Natalia stood up. "I wasn't--You look--"
"Is that the Bible Bandit book?"
"Yeah. Have you read any of Doris Wolfe's stuff? It's--"
"I haven't read this much of the Bible outside of the, you know, Bible. Ever."
"What drives her?"
"What drives The Wolf? God, Natalia, like I know." Olivia flung herself into a chair.
Natalia sat on the reading table beside her. "You've had a bad night."
"You look awful."
"I--" Olivia faltered, until she looked into Natalia's concerned eyes. She sat up and took Natalia's hands. "Natalia, I will do anything to protect your son. I swear to God."
"Because..." Don't measure your words. "Jeffrey O'Neil is my mortal enemy. I swear on all that is Holy in your stupid book. So the enemy of my enemy is my friend. My friend's son."
"El Arbitro is just a man, the law is--"
"It's all just men out here. I'm telling you, I'm casting my lot with you. Don't bother arguing."
Natalia squeezed her fingers. "So what do we do?"
"Do you know how to shoot?"
Natalia's eyes widened. She shook her head.
"That's where we'll start tomorrow." Olivia stood up.
Natalia kept hold of her hands. "Wait."
Olivia raised her eyebrows.
"You look pale. Sit down. Stay awhile. It's early."
Natalia tugged her hands gently until Olivia sat down again.
"I'll read to you," Natalia said.
"The daring exploits of the Bible Bandit?"
Natalia cringed. "No. What's your favorite book?"
Natalia wrinkled her nose. "Really? That's so boring."
"All right." Natalia scanned the shelves until she found a copy. "From the beginning?"
Olivia shook her head. "Just open it and start reading."
Natalia looked at her strangely, but opened the book, and after a breath, began to read.
"As she slowly drew nigh, from my lofty perch at the fore-mast-head, I had a good view of that sight so remarkable to a tyro in the far ocean fisheries—a whaler at sea, and long absent from home..."
* * *
Jeffrey was having breakfast in the dining hall when Olivia descended, freshly washed but groggy and already sweating in the blouse Maria had left for her.
"May I?" she asked.
Jeffrey smiled. "Of course. Please, Ms. Spencer."
"So formal at breakfast."
"I know you haven't had your coffee yet," Jeffrey said.
"That's the truth." She closed her eyes, blessing Gregory as he brought out a full pot and a mug and filled it and topped off Jeffrey's.
"Why, thank you." He toasted her with his mug.
She took a sip. "I love how strong he makes it."
"Yes. The awfulness is a nice counterpoint to the delicacy of the food."
She snorted. "So, Judge, I admit I've been wondering. Are these troops of yours going to stay here at the Beacon?"
"I'm afraid not. They'll have their own tents. Mallet's offered us a plot on the edge of town."
"Lovely." She took another sip. That was better.
He stretched out his legs, his boots poking out from under the table. "I have a day of canvassing ahead of me. What about you?"
"Oh, you know," she said, smiling and meeting his eyes demurely. "Business."
* * *
The walk through town to the livery took her up to the green--which was more of a pale brown--and if she stayed to the sidewalks, in the shade, Olivia could watch the jail without being too noticed. Frank Cooper sat on the stoop, leaning back against a post, looking asleep under the sun. His hat was half over his face. But the star on his chest was polished and the gun in his holster was clean. She thought about asking to see the poacher, but she had no use for him.
Probably better if she didn't look into the face of a dead man.
Whether or not Frank saw her now, he'd surely notice the livery boy leading two more horses as she took Triste back to the Beacon. She contemplated the most plausible lies. But when she reemerged from the stable with Triste blowing against her neck, Frank was gone. The jail looked abandoned, and as Olivia walked back, she had the sense of the whole town being empty. But the boy was leading the pony right next to her, and Emma ran down from the Beacon's porch to throw her arms around the pony's neck.
Olivia gave her a relieved smile.
Natalia came to the door, in a sturdy skirt and a shawl wrapped around her torso. She looked despondently at the horses.
"Come on," Olivia said.
Natalia squinted into the sunlight. But she let Emma grab her hand and pull her to the big bay mare Olivia had brought. Emma made formal introductions between horse and rider. Natalia allowed herself a smile.
Olivia let out the breath she'd been holding, but she didn't look back at the police station, as they rode out of town.
* * *
The land seemed like an endless, dull plain, but as they rode farther out of town, the ground shifted, like wrinkles and curves in a blanket on a bed, and Campo Primavera vanished from view. After an hour's ride they could be anywhere in Texas. But they were at a shooting range. Two scarecrows, painted macabre colors and wearing bullet-riddled clothes, posed on either side of a wood target. Broken glass gleamed in the dirt.
"Careful, Em," Olivia said.
"I've got boots on," Emma said.
Emma swung off Snowflake and led him to the hitching post.
Natalia patted the bay she was astride. "Her name is...what, again?"
Olivia dismounted and glanced at Natalia's horse. "Star."
"And Snowflake is? It's just a horse, Natalia."
Natalia smirked. She tossed Star's reins over the post and asked, "This is Mel Boudreaux's land, isn't it?"
"I don't know her that well," Natalia said.
"You don't know anyone that well," Olivia said.
"Mother," Emma said, tugging at Olivia's pants leg.
"Right, right." Olivia opened the gun scabbard hooked to Triste's saddle. She pulled out a lightweight rifle and handed it and a pouch to Emma. "You know what to do."
Olivia grinned. "Don't worry, she's not a very good shot."
Natalia folded her arms.
Olivia said, "Couldn't hit the broad side of a barn."
"Mother," Emma complained.
"Sorry, dear. You get that cleaned and polished and you give it a try."
"She's just a little girl," Natalia said.
"I might not always be there to take care of her," Olivia said.
"Why not? Look around. Pick a reason. Think about why you're out here."
Natalia looked away, toward the horizon. Like she could see for miles. Nothing coming. But she couldn't see Mel's little prairie house, and she couldn't see the Beacon. Though if she looked east, and squinted, she thought she could see the very top of the oil wells. She turned back to Olivia.
"Why are you helping me?" Natalia asked.
"I told you."
"It was a strange answer."
"I'm a strange person," Olivia said.
"So are you," Olivia said.
The sound of a gunshot drew their attention. Emma smiled up at them as smoke rose from the barrel of the rifle, which was pointed at the direction of the central target.
"Did you hit anything, baby?" Olivia asked.
"Probably. I mean, who can say?" Emma asked.
Olivia shook her head.
Emma knelt in the dirt in her dress and began the arduous process of re-loading.
Olivia checked over the revolver she pulled out of its holster. "Okay, Natalia. This is a Schofield Smith and Wesson."
"Did you name it?" Natalia asked. "Like Star?"
Olivia scowled. She checked the ammunition again and handed it to Natalia.
"What do I do with this?"
"Shoot at things."
Natalia raised her eyebrows.
Olivia gestured at the targets, shrugged, and went back to the saddlebags.
Natalia held the revolver in front of her. She looked at the target. She shifted. She turned to the side and held it against her chest. She held it with one hand. With the other hand. She glanced at Emma.
Emma said, "Use the sights."
Natalia lifted the revolver and lined up the sights and pointed it at the target.
"Wait," Olivia said. She'd been buckling a gunbelt around her waist, but finished clenching it and came to Natalia.
"What?" Natalia asked.
"You're going to break your nose. Here." She drew Natalia's arms out in front of her, straightening them. "Now look."
"It was easier my way," Natalia said.
"You've got the right idea. And you're right. Easier to hold closer to your body. But you'll hurt yourself."
Olivia let go and stepped back.
Natalia pulled the trigger. The pain in her wrists and arms was instant. She stumbled. The grass ruffled.
Olivia steadied her. "Good. Now you'll know what to expect."
"I have to do that again?"
"After Emma's turn."
Olivia's hands stayed on Natalia's waist as Emma lined up the rifle--half as long as she was--and squeezed the trigger. A scarecrow lurched.
"Good," Olivia said.
"One more time," Olivia said. "Then you're through."
Emma knelt to reload.
"She's hopeless," Olivia murmured.
Olivia nodded. "Try again."
"I want to see you shoot, first."
"Like mother, like daughter." Olivia drew a Remington revolver.
"That's the smallest revolver I've ever seen," Natalia said.
"Why don't I get that one?"
"The Smith and Wesson is fine."
Olivia squatted, putting her arms out in front of her much like Natalia did, holding the handle with both hands. "Remy says I'd be a smaller target if I could do this sideways, but I can't hit a thing that way." She shot.
The target shuddered.
She shot twice more, leaving the wood clanging.
"So I should at least be able to do that," Natalia said.
"Because I can?"
Natalia smiled. "Then anyone can."
"Just try again."
Natalia aimed the revolver, spending long minutes lining up the sights just right, as Olivia's arms encircled her, bracing her elbows. Natalia wanted to lean back against the warmth, against the strength, instead of shoot. Comfort should come before violence. She felt safe with Olivia there.
She glanced down at Emma, who was smiling, watching them both.
Olivia couldn't hold Rafe like this.
"The things we do for our children," she said.
"We'd kill for them, wouldn't we?" Olivia said, quiet but unnervingly close to her ear, "This gives us a fighting chance."
Natalia closed her eyes and pulled the trigger. She opened them. No sound had reported from the target.
"You hit the grass," Olivia said, patting her shoulder. "It helps if you keep your eyes open."
"One more time."
Natalia let her eyes focus and refocus. Sight. Target. Sight. Target. Her arms ached, but Olivia held her up. She fired.
A scarecrow cried out.
"Good job," Olivia said.
"I was aiming for the round target."
"Still. Better than Emma."
Emma kicked dust at them.
"All right," Olivia said. "One more time, Em." This time she knelt next to Emma in the dust and helped her hold the rifle.
"Mother," Emma complained.
"Hey. We can do it together."
"Just so long as you let me pull the trigger."
"Go for it, Em. When you're ready."
Emma aimed, and shot, and the scarecrow lost a foot.
Olivia kissed her head.
Emma turned and beamed. "I did it."
"You were fantastic. Let's ride up to Mel's, and let Natalia practice."
"You're going to leave her alone?"
"We're making her nervous."
Natalia bit her lip and smiled.
Olivia smiled back, and took the rifle from Emma and reloaded it and carefully set it on the ground. Then she reloaded her Remington and set it next to the rifle. She took off the gunbelt and dropped it.
"Practice with everything."
"Do I get to ride Snowflake again?" Emma asked.
Olivia shook her head. "Let's ride Triste together up to Mel's, okay?"
Emma grinned. Olivia scooped her up and put her on the saddle and then swung up behind her. "We'll be back in an hour. Maybe have more information then."
Natalia's smile turned pensive.
Olivia gave her a wave and then kicked Triste into a trot.
Natalia picked up the rifle.
* * *
Mel's cabin smelled of thyme and a meat Natalia couldn't identify--something wild but subtle. She inhaled. The thyme--that smelled fresh.
"It's snake stew," Olivia said.
"I've never had snake."
"What does Gregory feed you?" Mel asked, pushing a plate closer to Natalia and dumping chunks of meat, potato, and carrot onto it from the pot.
"He can cook an egg a dozen different ways," Natalia said. She picked up her fork.
Emma said, "Fried, scrambled, poached, French-rolled, omelette, pancake, soft-boiled, hard-boiled..." She faltered.
Olivia stroked her hair. She was standing, surveying the two-room cabin. She glanced uneasily at Mel, but didn't say anything.
Natalia looked around, to see what she was missing. There were books in great wood cabinets, and two glass windows. She chewed snake meat and tried to focus on the book titles. Medicine, law, herbs. Each one probably cost more money than she'd ever seen.
"You study law?" she asked.
Mel said, "Anything I can get my hands on."
Natalia furrowed her brow. "Why don't you..." she glanced at Olivia, who was no help, so finished, "...go east?"
"You mean where I could be a lawyer? If I dressed up like a man? Or maybe I could do his typing?"
"Or nurse," Natalia said.
Mel nodded. "I could do all that there, but I want to do it here. But I can't do it here. And I can't take my cabin with me, can I?"
Natalia said nothing, but met her eyes.
Mel said, "This is my land. Mine. My name on the deed. My money paid for it. They may have run us out of government, but they're not going to run me out of my land."
Mel leaned across the table. "You think I'm being stupid?"
"No, I just think...I know you're doing it for love." Natalia looked pointedly at the ring dangling from the chain around Mel's neck.
She thought about whether she'd ever seen it before, but she hadn't. In town Mel wore high-necked and long-sleeved gowns with perfect white gloves. She never spoke to anyone but Remy. Natalia had never seen the ring before.
Mel fingered it. "You're right. That bastard."
"He wants to stay?" Natalia asked.
"We both do."
Natalia bit her lip.
Mel glanced at Olivia. "Why is she here?"
Olivia said, "Her son--"
"No, I mean, why is she in El Campo?"
Natalia said, "This is fantastic stew, and I thank you, but I'd better--"
Olivia grabbed her wrist before she could get up. "Sit."
Natalia yanked her arm away.
Olivia said, "You have to hear the plan."
"I don't want to cause this woman any trouble."
Olivia said, "You'll repay her. You've already got her secret to keep."
"How are you so sure?" Natalia asked.
Olivia met her gaze. "I'm just sure."
* * *
The message came with Bill Lewis, riding hard at nearly three in the morning, up into town, not caring who heard.
Gregory had the door open and Bill inside the Beacon before anyone else made it to the street, but lights were going on all over town.
"Wake Olivia," Bill said.
Gregory nodded, and then shoved Bill into the kitchen.
Remy appeared on the landing as Gregory ascended. Gregory nodded and went back downstairs. He only had to knock twice before Natalia was there, opening the door of her room, slipping past him. He pointed to the kitchen.
Bill turned when she entered, but he looked disappointed.
"Is he here?" Natalia demanded.
He said nothing until Olivia appeared, pale and in a robe, with Remy behind her.
"He showed up on Cooper land. We got him, but not before--" Bill glanced at Natalia. "He got shot. Just in the shoulder. Bullet went right through. But we've got to bring Doc Bauer."
Olivia said, "Remy, get Bauer and ride up there with him. We'll go separately. Let me guess, Bill woke up half the town."
Bill said, "You said to come tell you. I did."
"Well, let's go before anything else happens. Natalia--" Olivia shook her arm. "Natalia!"
Natalia turned toward her with unshed tears.
"It's going to take us at least an hour to ride out there. Get changed."
Natalia still didn't move, so Olivia pushed her toward the door. "Hurry."
Remy had already gone for the doctor. Gregory slipped away to get the horses.
Olivia stared at Bill.
"I got here as quick as I could," he said.
"What's the kid look like?"
"A goddamn Mexican. What are we doing, Olivia?"
"We're helping a friend."
"No friend of mine."
"Well, who said you had any taste in friends, Bill Lewis?"
He scowled, sulky and pretty, and stomped out to the porch. Olivia wanted to wrap her arms around his waist and cajole him and comfort him, but she hesitated on the threshold, and then went upstairs to change.
* * *
They had Raphael Rivera in the office, bleeding onto canvas, groaning in pain. Josh had to tie him to the table so he wouldn't bolt again. The boy didn't believe his mother was coming. But he hadn't said anything else, about Shreveport or otherwise. Just that he didn't believe them, and that they could all go to Hell.
Reva said, "This mouth, from the Bible bandit."
"I didn't write that book," Rafe said.
"Maybe you should at least read it," she said.
He spat at her.
Josh kicked him, and smiled.
A whistle pierced the air.
"That's the guard," Josh said. "They must be riding up."
"Your ex sure will make any excuse to see you," Reva said.
"Hush, woman. She'll take this kid and they'll both be gone."
"If Bauer says he can be moved."
"Untie me and find out," Rafe said.
Josh went to the door. "There they are."
Natalia burst through the doorway first, crying out Rafe's name. He sat up straighter. "Ma!"
"See?" Reva asked.
Natalia threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. "Rafe," she cried.
"Hey, hold on, he's injured," Olivia said.
But Natalia only held him tighter. She cupped his face and traced his shoulders and then asked, "Why is he tied up?"
"He's squirmy," Josh said.
"Well, untie him!"
Josh reached for a hunting knife. He glanced at Olivia. "Is she always like this?"
Josh cut Rafe loose, and he tried to embrace his mother, and grimaced in pain.
Bauer came through the door. "Okay, most of you need to get the Hell out."
"I'm not leaving," Natalia said.
"Me either," Josh said.
"Fine. Everyone else, go."
Reva gave Olivia a dirty look, but followed her out. Remy came out and closed the door and leaned against it.
Olivia said, "Thank you for doing this, Reva."
"I didn't do anything. What the Hell, Olivia?"
"You know me and my schemes."
"Sure. I'm just confused by the lack of a man."
"Maybe I've secretly got my sights on Bauer."
"If so, this is pretty elaborate, even for you. And you know he's a married man. Not that that's ever stopped anyone."
"You can see right through me, Reva," Olivia said.
* * *
Rick and Remy left to take Rafe to Mel's, and Natalia watched them ride through the gate and then buried her face in her hands. Josh's clan had gone back to bed. Olivia was looking at the horses. Thinking about how hard the ride back to town would be. Thinking she might faint if she had to do it.
Natalia sobbed. "I just don't know what to do. He's going to get killed, or I'm going to get killed. Or one of you, for helping us."
"Shssh," Olivia said. "It's fine. Just stick to the plan and it's fine."
Natalia shook her head.
Olivia didn't know whether or not to touch her--but Natalia turned toward her and hugged her close, weeping against her chest, before she could make up her own mind. So Olivia held her up, clutching her waist.
"It'll be all right," she said.
"I don't know what to do," Natalia said.
"Don't do anything."
Natalia pressed her cheek against Olivia's neck.
"I mean it," Olivia said, tightening her embrace. "You have to trust that this is going to work."
"I'm used to being on my own," Natalia said.
"You're not anymore."
Natalia breathed more calmly and loosened her grip on Olivia. Olivia pressed her shoulders to keep her close.
"It isn't right to put anyone in danger."
"That's the way life is."
Natalia tilted her head back to meet Olivia's eyes, and said, "This isn't your fight."
"I told you, it is."
"Tell me why."
Olivia stiffened. She tried to step back, but Natalia cupped her cheeks, forcing her to keep her gaze locked.
"Please," Natalia said.
"He's just a lawman," Natalia said.
"I'm not from England," Olivia said.
Natalia's eyes widened.
"I'm from an island. San Cristobel. And Jeffrey O'Neill was there. I think--I think he used to be someone else. When he was young. But--"
Natalia gently stroked her cheeks, catching tears on her fingers. "But?"
"He took advantage of me, I guess is what you'd say," Olivia said.
Natalia's face turned white. Her hands tightened on Olivia's face.
Olivia pulled Natalia's hands down to her chest, cradling them. "He's not going to do it again. To anyone."
Natalia studied her, and then stepped closer, to better look into her face. "So it's personal."
"It always was."
Natalia stepped back. "So my son and I are just pawns?"
"No. No, I told you, I just picked sides. That's all. I picked yours."
They stood there facing each other, breathing hard, Natalia crying, Olivia sickened with fear, thinking about the distance between them.
Natalia looked down, wringing her hands.
Olivia took the step, pulling Natalia back into her arms, because that made the breathing easier, filtered by the dark hair against her cheek, across her lips. She sighed when Natalia's arms wrapped around her torso. She smiled when Natalia's own breathing seemed to gentle.
"What do we do?" Natalia asked.
"I don't know. But we'll do it together."
Natalia nodded against her shoulder.
Olivia cupped Natalia's head and closed her eyes and wished the rest of the world would go away.
* * *
They rode back together, mostly walking the horses, so it took until almost seven in the morning. The sun was up. Natalia had been fine for the ride, but being back in Campo Primavera reminded her of how the night journey had started, and she was agitated. She had been standing on the porch, staring at the dusty road, staring at the sky. Olivia dragged her back inside.
"It's not safe," Olivia said. "People will wonder what you're doing out there. Especially after all that commotion Bill brought earlier."
"Looking at the morning? Let me stay with my son, Olivia."
"It's not safe."
Natalia glanced at the doorway, knowing it was true. She'd heard the shouts and the laughter from the darkened Spaulding saloon. She'd seen riders come through town on their way to camps or ranches.
"Stay inside," Olivia pleaded.
Natalia sighed and looked around the empty dining room. There was already the smell of coffee and baking bread. "At least he's got books at Mel's he hasn't read. He's dangerous when he's bored. He gets restless."
"Not cut out for riding cattle all day, eh?" Olivia asked.
Natalia shook her head. "There's no peace in that boy."
"What did he want to be when he grew up? I assume not a bandit."
"His father--Well, his father disappeared, but we always assumed he'd joined up for the War. And then he just...never came home. Rafe thought about being a soldier. A real one. But he never quite got it together."
"So he just... reads."
"He's just a boy, Olivia. This is all too much for him."
"Why didn't he go to school? Go east?"
Natalia folded her arms. "This is his home. This is our land. For generations. Why should he go somewhere away from us?"
"There are opportunities--"
"There should be opportunities here."
"This is a wild--"
"A wild what? Maybe for his grandparents. But Texas is all divided up now. My land has names and counties and the railroad's coming to lock everything down, once and for all. Maybe once the railroad comes we'll have a real school. Why should we leave, any more than Mel and Remy?"
Olivia rubbed her jaw.
Natalia turned to her. "You're the damn interloper. You're the one from--" She covered her mouth.
Olivia ignored the remark and asked, "What about Alan Spaulding?"
"His family's been here a long time. They came with the Russians. Maybe fifty years ago a Spaulding seized El Campo, or bought it, or swindled someone out of it. But whatever happened, it's his now. And now you're trying to steal it from him."
"That's the lesson Rafe doesn't get. He doesn't share. But he had so little, in Houston. He thinks he's entitled to more."
"And sure, why not," Olivia said.
Silence descended between them in the dark dining room, free from lamplight, closed off to the morning sunlight. Olivia glanced around, at the library, at the stairs. Fifteen people slept in her hotel that morning, including the Judge, not counting Remy back in the attic, keeping watch.
"Come upstairs with me," Olivia said.
"I have a secret to tell you."
Natalia glanced at the door.
Olivia said, "Don't tell me I have to lock you in here to keep you from going to your son."
Natalia exhaled, her breath full of tears. "Just distract me."
They ascended the stairs together and went to Olivia's suite, which had an empty room between her and any guests.
Olivia let Natalia light the candles and washed her face and sat on the edge of the bed.
"What is it?" Natalia asked.
"No one else knows I'm not from England."
"Don't tell me you're Mexican."
Olivia smiled, tilting her face up to Natalia. "No. I told you I'm from San Cristobel. My parents--I mean, they must have come from Europe at some point, but they were nothing special. Fishermen."
"Olivia, why is this a secret?"
"I don't know. It just became... easier to sell the other story. To pretend I was something more refined than a fisherman's daughter."
"What does it matter? Even my son's read Antigone."
"Spoken like a true American," Olivia said. "But I'm not one."
"What did you do?" Natalia asked. "After Jeffrey?"
"I left. And look at me now. Leaving can be very rewarding if you let it."
Natalia went to the window. Despite being in the suite, having no escape route, she couldn't help but look longingly at the land beyond the town.
She said, "It's worse, knowing he's so close and I can't be with him. Worse than when he was far away."
"Just a different kind of pain," Olivia said.
Natalia looked over her shoulder. "I suppose you want me to read to you."
Olivia looked wan. Emptied by the night. She got too little sleep, and Natalia and the Judge had brought forth on her more excitement than she'd experienced in months of travelers and cattle and industry.
Olivia shook her head. "No, it's your son out there. I'll read to you."
Olivia, I can just go to my own room and--I'm just the maid."
"Just the maid. I couldn't run this place without your help. Not anymore. So I'm in your debt."
She couldn't do the work while looking like death warmed over, Natalia thought. Not while looking so gray.
Olivia persisted. "Fair's fair."
"See? I've already gotten you to call me that."
"Only in private, Ms. Spencer."
Olivia snorted and patted the bed. She slipped to the other side and opened a glass case, where books more ornate than the tattered dime novel by the candle were kept. Books that cost more money than Natalia had ever seen. Carried from England--No, not England--
"Where did you get that?" Natalia asked, as Olivia pulled out a volume.
"How long were you there?"
"Just long enough to cause trouble. There's a lot of competition in New York. Not here."
"Of course. You like having the town all to yourself."
Olivia grinned and then opened the book gingerly, as not to crack the spine, or tear the gold-gilded pages. She traced the ribbon.
Natalia picked up a paperback book by the candle. "Not The Emerald-Eyed Cowgirl? And where would Wolf get a story like that?"
Olivia rolled her eyes. "That one was left by a rancher on his way out of town. And I hadn't read it yet."
Natalia smiled and put down the book and knelt on the bed.
"As I'll ever be," Natalia said. She looked toward the window, and then back at Olivia, squinting at the page in the dim light. "Hey--"
"Shut the Hell up."
Natalia bit her lip.
Olivia read, "All this while the storm increased, and the sea went very high, though nothing like what I have seen many times since; no, nor what I saw a few days after; but it was enough to affect me then..."
She read slowly, and carefully, giving an accounting of each word. Being precise. She had lulled men before with her voice. She had seduced them just as easily. The siren within her crafted a monotonous river of words that Natalia had to follow, away from her bleeding son out in the night, away from the prairie, to this little room and this little bed where she could sleep.
Olivia closed the book with satisfaction. But now Natalia slept at her side, taking up half the bed, intruding with her presence.
"Clearly, I hadn't thought this through," Olivia said aloud, stroking Natalia's hair out of her face.
She got a blanket from the foot of the bed and covered Natalia up, ignoring mumbled protests. Then she surveyed the suite. She listened. Only peace. She blew out the candle and left to check on Emma in the tiny side room. Emma didn't stir. So she returned and lifted the blanket and slipped in beside Natalia. She wished for a monotonous voice to drown out the voices in her head, so she could sleep, too.
Then she got it.
* * *
Rafe got caught the second day, all thanks to a woman. Daisy, the half-orphaned kid of Josh Lewis and some outlaw, had come to Mel's for help with a snake bite. James Spaulding dragged her in, tears streaking his young face, and left her there for a hard ride out to Bauer's.
"We were fishing," Daisy said, panting as Mel cut off her stockings. "Goddamn cottonmouth."
"You weren't fishing," Mel said.
Rafe crept down from the rafters. Mel looked at him sharply.
"Let me help," he said.
"Like you'd be any use."
Daisy, in pain and wide-eyed, looked to Rafe. "Who the Hell are you?"
"Raphael Rivera, the Bible Bandit." He bowed.
"The what?" Daisy asked.
"Want to be of use?" Mel asked. "Build up the fire, then put those in there." She pointed to the knives on the table.
Rafe swallowed, but went to the fire.
Daisy watched him, watched his back move under his shirt, and watched him brush hair out of his face to lean down.
Mel squeezed Daisy's leg.
"Ow! Ow, Jesus."
"It'll hurt," Mel said, "But you're not going to die from it."
"I don't want to hurt from it, either."
"I can only clean it." Mel reached for a clean rag. "Doc Bauer'll have something for the pain. And it'll help if Mr. Spaulding remembers to tell him what kind of snake."
Rafe stuck a knife into the fire.
"Water, Rafe. The pump outside."
Rafe grabbed a bucket with his good hand and stumbled outside.
"Is he really a bandit?" Daisy tried to sit up. "Are you kidnapped, Mel?"
Mel shook her head.
"You could shoot him! Right now, in the back!"
"God, you're more hysterical than a Wolf novel. Calm down. He's going to help you."
Daisy was sweating. "Is he?"
Rafe pushed the door open and set the bucket on the table. Water sloshed out.
"Thank you, Rafe. Now hide."
"I'm not going to leave," he said.
Daisy met his eyes. He took her hand. She bared down until he winced, but he stayed at her shoulder.
When they heard hoof beats, Mel said, "It might not be Bauer, you'd better--"
Then it was Frank Cooper coming through the door.
Rafe dropped Daisy's hand.
Frank had his gun drawn as Rick followed him in.
Rick said, "Mel, Frankie and I were having a drink at Spauldings' when James came--Holy Hell what's this?"
"Put up your hands, son," Frank said.
Rafe looked at Mel, who nodded.
"Rafe," Daisy called out, grasping for him.
He raised his arms.
Frank glanced at Mel. "You tell me, Mel. Did he hurt my daughter?"
Mel shook her head.
"What's he doing here?"
Mel soaked a rag in the water and nodded at Rick. Rick dumped his doctor's bag on the table.
Frank sighed. "Are you Raphael Rivera?"
"I'm going to have to take you into town."
Daisy said, "He was trying to help."
"I'm sure he was."
Daisy screamed as Rick took the knife and sliced her wound.
Frank studied Rafe. "Your shoulder. You injured?"
Rick said nothing, just offered Daisy a handful of pills.
Frank rolled his eyes. He took Rafe's good arm and hauled him out, with Rafe looking over his shoulder at Daisy until he was out of sight.
Rick calmly made Daisy scream again. Then he said to Mel, "You'd better get word to Olivia before someone tells the judge."
Daisy sat up. "What does Olivia Spencer have to do with anything?"
* * *
Frank got Rafe locked up in a cell before anyone else noticed, at least enough to stop him, and then he settled onto the rocker on the jail's porch, and waited.
Natalia was the person to come, nearly running toward the jail, with Emma Spencer in tow.
Frank stood. "What's going on? Why's Emma out?"
Natalia said, "Her mother's sick today. I was watching her and word came that you'd caught Rafe and--I couldn't shake her."
"Natalia's upset," Emma explained, clinging to her hand.
"Why?" Frank asked.
"Is he here? Can I go inside?"
"Of course, but why?"
Natalia looked down. "He's my son, Deputy. Don't make me--"
"The Bible Bandit's your son?"
Emma swung her hand. "So can we see him? Can we see the bandit?"
Frank stepped back from the door. Natalia surged for it. Frank caught Emma.
"Hey, Emma, let's give mother and son a moment, all right? Why don't you tell me how your mother is today?"
"She's tired. Natalia says she was too ani--anim--excited--yesterday. She had breakfast with Judge Jeffrey and then she went back to bed. She told Natalia to wait and see if Uncle Bill came, but he didn't."
Frank nodded. "Is the Judge there now?"
Emma shook her head. "He went riding off somewhere. To see Cyrus again, I think."
"One thief knows where all the others are hiding?"
Frank looked over his shoulder at the jail. Then he turned back to Emma, and said, "It's been a while, Emma, and I've been practicing. I bet I can beat you at tic tac toe."
"No you can't," she said, laughing.
He got a stick and began to draw in the dirt past the porch.
* * *
"It's going to be all right," Natalia said.
"Ma, they're going to hang me."
"They won't. We'll get help."
He hung his head. She clutched his hands through the bars.
"Rafe," she said. "Why'd you come here?"
"I... I didn't do it, Ma."
"Didn't do what?"
"I didn't kill that guy. Up in Shreveport. I swear to God. On daddy's grave."
She squeezed his fingers.
He said, "I'm a coward. Even out west, I was--"
"No, Rafe. You've got a good soul."
He shook his head.
"We'll get you out. It was just bad chance that you got caught up today."
She met his gaze.
He asked, "Who's we?"
* * *
Olivia came down the road, holding aloft a black parasol, wearing a black dress that dragged in the dust.
"What's going on?" Olivia asked. "Remy said... Remy said Natalia and Emma were here."
"We caught the Bible Bandit," Frank said.
Even though he said 'we,' she could hear the pride in his voice. She nodded. He offered her an arm and she stepped onto the porch. Emma took her hand.
"What happens next?" she asked.
"I guess the judge'll set up a trial. Don't know if they'll take the kid somewhere or hold him here for that. Then..." he glanced at Emma.
"I know that part," Olivia said. She headed for the door.
"Wait," Frank said.
She shook off his help and stepped into the dim office. There were three cells along the back, behind the desk, and Natalia stood weeping at one of them. She lifted her head as Olivia approached.
"Ms. Spencer, this is my son, Rafe."
Olivia peered through the bars.
Emma pressed her face against the iron. "He's a bandit?"
Rafe knelt. "You seen many bandits?"
Emma shook her head. "Only Cyrus. But mother says he's not a real bandit. Just a crock."
Natalia covered her mouth and grinned.
"A crook, honey," Olivia said.
Emma looked up at her mother, chagrinned, then back at Rafe.
"You're just a boy," Emma said.
"I bet I'm... let's see... at least twice as old as you are."
Emma held up seven fingers.
Rafe held out all ten of his, and then closed his fists and opened eight fingers.
Emma counted. "You're old!"
Olivia swayed and reached for a bar.
Natalia said, "You know what, Emma? I have to get some things for Rafe, why don't we all go back to the Beacon?"
"I can take her back, and have someone send stuff," Olivia said.
"It's fine," Natalia said.
"I don't want you to have to leave your son."
"It's just for a few minutes."
Rafe stood and glanced back and forth between them.
Olivia said, "I'll have the Beacon send over some dinner for him." She looked at Frank. "He only eats Beacon food, all right?"
"You don't think Daisy's a good enough cook?" Frank asked.
Rafe leaned against the bars. "I want to eat Daisy's food."
Three pairs of eyes stared at him.
He worked his jaw.
Olivia said, "We'll be fine. What do you need, Natalia? Clothes? A Bible?"
"I'll go," Natalia said.
Natalia took Olivia's elbow and began to lead her toward the door. Olivia stumbled. Frank caught her.
"Hey," Frank said.
"I'm fine. Unhand me, ferocious Deputy."
Frank lifted his hands graciously.
Natalia, however, resumed pulling.
"Nice meeting you, Rafe," Olivia called, just before she was led out the door.
Rafe asked, "Who was that?"
"She owns the Beacon Hotel. Your mother works there."
Rafe narrowed his eyes.
Frank leaned against his desk. "What were you doing at Mel Boudreaux's, Rafe?"
"The lady whose cabin I found you in."
Rafe set his jaw. "She was my hostage. Your daughter messed up everything."
Rafe asked, "What's going to happen to me?"
"It'll all be decided when Mallet and the Judge come back. Expect 'em by dusk."
* * *
Olivia fussed as Natalia led her down Main Street. Natalia still had a good grip on her elbow, and held Emma's hand with her free hand.
"You shouldn't be up and about," Natalia said.
"I had things to do."
"Not for my sake you didn't."
"Oh, don't be so proud. I wanted to see what my net had caught by daylight. Don't I have the right?" Olivia asked.
"Tomorrow," Natalia said.
"Tomorrow he might be--" Olivia stopped, and glanced at Emma.
Natalia said, "Not tomorrow. Surely not tomorrow."
Hoof beats and dust preceded Doris riding up on her red dun stallion. "Olivia," she called.
Olivia halted and brought the parasol up to shade her eyes.
Doris didn't dismount. She said, "Telegraph wire's down. Can I borrow Gregory for the ride out?"
"Sure thing, Doris, but if you think someone cut it..."
"We won't go looking far. It's too late today. Just ride out a couple of hours and back. Hopefully it's nothing. A tree fell, or bandits long gone. Though why they'd hit the telegraph line and not the damn railroad up there..."
"Think only Campo Primavera got hit?"
"Don't know. Can't get a response from Halletsville."
Doris said, "So. I'll just get Gregory."
Doris kicked the dun into a trot.
Natalia said, "I never get tired of seeing that horse."
"Aw, he's nothing compared to Snowflake."
Natalia snorted. "Red Steel's worth quite a bit more."
"More than my hotel. And all she does is ride him around looking at her damn wires."
"It doesn't sound good, if we can't get word out," Natalia said.
"The judge won't be able to tell anyone about Rafe."
Natalia gasped. "Did you--"
"Nope," Olivia said. Then added, "Wish I had thought of it."
"Olivia. You're no rogue."
"First time I ever heard that."
Natalia took her elbow and resumed marching her toward the Beacon. "The sun is affecting you."
Olivia wrinkled her nose.
Emma asked, "Now that the bandit is here, are you going to stay at the jail?"
"Just for a little while, Emma."
Olivia pulled back from Natalia and climbed onto the Beacon porch. From the side entrance, Gregory walked around, stopped short when he saw them, and gave a little wave. Olivia shooed him off.
Natalia knelt and said, "How about you come to the jail sometimes and help me? In fact, you can decide what Rafe gets for dinner tonight."
Emma bounded into the hotel.
Olivia settled into a rocking chair. Natalia leaned against the railing in front of her, and asked, "I hope that's all right?"
"It's fine," Olivia said.
Olivia wasn't looking at her, but out at the street, where wagons passed by.
Natalia said, "It wasn't your fault."
Olivia lifted her chin. "What wasn't?"
"Rafe getting caught."
"No. But I'm going to find out whose fault it was."
"And I am going to pluck their head from their body and feast on their brains."
"Okay, now I know you're not well. You stay there and I'll--"
Olivia waved her off. "Don't you need to pack a bag for Rafe?"
"Yes. Don't move."
"Bring me that Cowgirl book, and I won't."
Natalia allowed herself a small smile and then went inside.
* * *
Emma and Natalia walked side by side up Main Street, back toward the Beacon. They were laughing, and when they saw Olivia still on the porch, Emma laughed harder.
Natalia's expression fell.
"Did you eat?" she asked Olivia.
"Every bite. What about Rafe?"
"He ate every bite too," Emma said. "And then he told me a story about a train robbery!"
Olivia glanced at Natalia.
"That he'd heard," Natalia said.
Olivia said, "Emma, go inside and see if Maria'll get you washed up and ready for bed."
Emma darted inside.
"Be right back," Natalia called.
And she was, carrying a blanket, which she tucked around Olivia's waist.
"This really isn't necessary," Olivia said.
"I think it is. Seen anything on the road today?" Natalia asked as she lit the lantern that hung from the porch railing.
"No. I had my eye out, I guess, for Judge O'Neill. But no one of any repute has been by. Doris and Gregory haven't returned, either."
Natalia frowned as she settled into the rocking chair beside Olivia's.
Olivia asked, "How's the Kid?"
Natalia rolled her eyes. "He's fine. He's...cheerful when Emma's around. But Frank Cooper told me that when we're not there, Rafe just paces and curses. Back and forth."
"So, what have you been thinking about, all this time?"
"You were barely gone. What, two hours? I was eating."
Natalia folded her hands.
"You sure are having quite a day, Natalia Rivera," Olivia said.
"My son's back. I'm on top of the world." Natalia smiled.
Olivia let the smile echo on her own lips. "f you must know, I was actually thinking about the opera. Tristan und Isolde. Have you seen it?"
Natalia shook her head.
Olivia said, "I saw it in New York. Beautiful. Passionate. German. Tragic, of course. I wish I was there now, seeing it again. Instead of here, looking at all this dust."
Natalia held her breath.
Olivia chuckled. "I know you won't believe it, but I was a nobody in New York. I was... poor. And nothing made me feel more like a poor nobody than sitting with a thousand other faceless poor people at the Academy. I wanted to be on stage instead. I wanted to be Isolde. To command that kind of power. Over men. Over us. I learned. Anyway. She died horribly, so there's that."
Olivia said, "That's what I was thinking of. When you were gone. And here's Alan Spaulding."
Alan walked up Main Street, coming from his own hotel, dressed smartly and smiling far too much.
"Olivia," he said, taking her hand after he climbed the porch. He ignored Natalia.
"I was hoping I could borrow Remy for the night. To play. We've got some big men in from Houston and the county seat, and I'd really like to show them what Campo Primavera can do."
"He doesn't like to play for you," Olivia said.
Alan turned red, but only said, "I know, I know. But double his fee. This really is an important night, Olivia. For him, too."
"For him, too?" Natalia asked.
"Natalia, would you ask Remy if he wants to play?" Olivia asked.
Natalia got up and went inside.
Olivia frowned at Alan. "You really think Remy playing will make much a different if a militia decides to come down here?"
"Well, I'm hoping O'Neill's men will just take the Bible Bandit and leave now that he's been caught. Have you seen the good judge? I expected him to be at my hotel this evening."
"He hasn't come back yet. He's with Mallet."
Alan rubbed his chin.
Olivia regarded him silently, straightening her posture, though not moving from the warmth of the blanket and the rocking chair.
Alan said, "Seems quiet in town tonight. Now that I've stepped away from the saloon."
Olivia pursed her lips and said, "Telegraph's down."
"What in Hell's going on here, Olivia?" he demanded. "If that woman Doris Wolfe has--"
Remy came onto the porch, in a tuxedo and white gloves.
"Thank you, Remy," Alan said.
Remy didn't say anything.
Olivia looked away.
Alan said, "Send a message, Olivia, if the situation we just discussed changes."
Natalia had been leaning in the doorway. She stepped onto the porch as Alan left.
Natalia settled into the other chair, and said, "Is it just my impression, or does he not like Doris Wolfe much?"
"No one likes Doris Wolfe much. She wears men's clothes, she's too independent, she has a horse every man in town wants for himself, and she won't give the time of day to any of them."
"But you're friends."
"We're sometimes allies. Sometimes rivals." Olivia looked at Natalia. "I'm not like her."
Natalia tilted her head. "Never said you were."
Olivia drew the blanket up to her chin.
Natalia said, "There's a rumor that she knows Blake Marler pretty well."
"You mean, Blake Marler's establishment."
Natalia looked out at the street.
Olivia found it harder to see the street as the sun set. She was exhausted, and knew Natalia must be. Guests passed by them on the porch, on their way to and from the nightlife's offerings. Gregory was still out riding and Remy was down the street. Her hotel was unprotected. And if she turned away for one second, something was going to happen.
Natalia frowned, but before she could get up, Olivia said, "There's Holly Norris."
Holly, in an elegant evening dress that seemed to draw no dust, and a shawl Natalia was pretty sure was silk, strolled toward them.
"Why is it that ladies like that are the only ones to hold their heads up in town?"
"And Doris Wolfe," Olivia said.
"And you. But you know what I mean."
"They know men couldn't survive without them. Gives them power."
Natalia rolled her eyes.
Holly stopped just beyond the porch. "Olivia."
"Holly. Why don't you join us?"
"While I enjoy your porch, I don't think it affords the best view."
Olivia leaned forward. "So you think something's coming, too."
"All I know is, it's quiet up at the House. No one's seen anyone of repute in town tonight. Except for Alan Spaulding. Are your people safe tonight?"
Olivia rubbed her cheek.
"There's a rumor," Holly began, "That Jeffrey O'Neill has a suitor out there."
Natalia's eyes widened.
Olivia asked, "You think he got separated from Mallet?"
"I'm not sure he wants A.C. Mallet to keep his secrets for him."
"Who?" Natalia asked.
Holly glanced at Olivia.
Olivia closed her eyes. "Reva Lewis."
Holly said, "Natalia Rivera, the last innocent soul in Campo Primavera."
Natalia narrowed her eyes.
Olivia said, "She's been busy dealing with her bandit son."
Holly smiled. "Most of us have two or three lovers. Don't we, Olivia? Come on, Natalia, don't you want a hard, lean body between your--"
Natalia stood up. "Would you two like tea?"
"I would," Olivia said.
Natalia went inside.
Olivia said, "You know, I've offered."
Holly took the seat Natalia vacated. "You've offered what?"
"To find her better employment."
"Almost anything would be better employment than working for you."
"Exactly. I can't figure her out."
"Maybe she likes you," Holly said.
"Or maybe she's doing penance. Know anything about her sins?"
"I'm busy with my own, Ms. Norris."
Holly smiled. She accepted the tea Natalia brought her. "What do you think's going to happen tonight? Let's speculate."
"I think it's all going to shit."
"Well, you're no fun." Holly sighed. "Will we need guns?"
"Not tonight. Alan's got the big men getting drunk and singing along with Remy. We should be good until morning."
Holly gave her tea cup, half-drunk, back to Natalia, and stood. "I'd better finish my rounds."
"Let me know what you see," Olivia said.
Holly nodded. She spared a glance for Natalia, and then descended the steps.
"All right," Natalia said, putting down the cup. "That's enough visiting for tonight."
"That's enough visiting?"
Natalia took away her blanket.
"Come inside, Ms. Spencer."
"It's early. Half the guests are still out. Remy--"
"I promise you, if something happens, you will be the first to know."
Natalia hauled her up. Olivia let herself be led inside.
* * *
Spaulding's was rowdy and happy. Soldiers and statesmen and wide-eyed travelers crowded around the piano, all singing at the top of their lungs, full of vodka and pressed against buxom and gifted women.
The noise blanketed the town, and insulated it from the sound of the gunshot. Not a mile out of town, Jeffrey O'Neill fell face down in the road into a pool of blood.
His horse sniffed at him once, and then began walking.
* * *
Mallet stomped into the Beacon at dawn, stopped by Remy holding a shotgun.
"Where is she?" Mallet demanded.
Remy looked over at the staircase.
Natalia appeared. "She's getting dressed. What's wrong, Sheriff?"
"Tell her Judge O'Neill is dead."
Natalia covered her mouth. She scrambled down the stairs.
Remy lowered the shotgun.
Mallet said, "Shot in the back."
Olivia came downstairs and stood beside Natalia. "By who?"
Mallet tugged at his gloves. "We don't know."
Olivia put her hand on Natalia's back.
Mallet said, "I've got to tell Alan Spaulding."
"What can we do?" Olivia asked.
Mallet turned to Remy. "Why don't you all account for your guests? Who was here, who wasn't. Who might have come in smelling of gunsmoke."
"We'll ask around," Olivia said.
Mallet nodded. Then he turned on his heel and walked out.
Olivia surveyed her empty dining room. "Where the Hell is Gregory?"
Remy said, "He wasn't here when I got back, and I don't think he's here now."
"He must still be with Doris," Natalia said.
Olivia nodded. "I'll ride out today, then. But--" She stumbled back to the staircase.
Natalia glanced at Remy, and then followed her.
Olivia sank to her knees once she was inside her suite, tears already falling on her cheeks as Natalia closed and locked the door behind them.
"The Judge is dead," Olivia said.
"Are you... sad?"
Olivia shook her head. "I didn't think it'd be like this. Like--but--" She choked on a sob, and pressed forward, leaning against the bed.
Natalia knelt beside her. She hesitated, putting a hand on Olivia's back. When Olivia quivered under her in response, she took Olivia into her arms.
Olivia said, "I feel like a weight has been lifted. An anvil, right off my chest."
"He's gone from this world, and you're still in it," Natalia said.
Olivia cried, and let Natalia hold her, until Remy knocked on the door to tell them Alan Spaulding was downstairs.
* * *
Alan was pacing up and down the living room. Olivia beckoned him into the library.
She asked, "Who do you think did it?"
"You know damn well who did it."
"It's your maidservant there whose son was about to be hanged."
"She was with me all night," Olivia said.
"Oh, she was, was she?"
"You saw her yourself."
"She could have ridden out--"
"On Snowflake? The pony? All the way out to Cyrus? Alan, the judge was my guest. She could have just smothered him with a pillow."
Alan sighed and began pacing again. "It's connected to you. If not the woman, then what about Josh Lewis?"
"Josh Lewis has about as much to fear from Judge O'Neill as I did," Olivia said.
"Oh please, Olivia."
"He was going out to see Cyrus. With Mallet. Maybe Mallet--"
"Mallet and Cyrus were riding a fence line, while O'Neill headed north that night. You know where he was going. Your land."
Olivia hesitated. Then she said, "But he was shot near town."
"So someone tracked him."
"Easier to shoot him on my land, dump him in the well."
"All you're saying is that this was not a well planned crime. So it was a crime of passion."
Olivia folded her arms.
"That you would have done it better is not exactly a defense, Olivia."
"Wouldn't you have, too?"
"Of course. Shooting a man in the back is despicable. And on the road, like a dog."
Olivia nodded. "Means something, doesn't it?"
"All it says to me is that someone really hated O'Neill. Who would, that much?"
"The whole town?"
Alan exhaled. "Just your half, Olivia."
"He was bringing the militia. I didn't have Remy at my saloon last night to ward that off."
Alan gritted his teeth.
Olivia smiled. "It's our problem, now."
"I had enough problems already."
* * *
Doris rode back into town around noon, just in time to settle in at the Beacon for lunch.
She reported, "Pole was scorched about 30 miles out. Thought we'd never find anything. But it looked like a lightning strike."
Natalia set full plates in front of them, and then glanced worriedly at Olivia.
Doris paused, spoonful of beans halfway to her mouth. "What?"
"Someone shot Jeffrey O'Neill dead last night," Olivia said.
Doris put down her spoon. "Well, fuck."
Olivia took a sip of wine and smiled blithely.
Doris said, "I guess I'd better let Houston know."
"After lunch," Olivia said.
"After lunch. Of course."
* * *
Natalia walked from the general store, the basket around her arm, past the jail. She'd seen Rafe only an hour before, but there was Frank, on the porch.
There was her, full of questions.
She was considering whether or not to approach him when he gave her a friendly smile.
"Morning, Deputy." She approached. "I've heard some rumors... Can I ask you a question?"
"A question about some rumors? This regarding Judge O'Neill? Because we don't know--"
"No. Not directly at least. I don't think it's a question you're going to like."
Frank's features got tense, but he nodded. "All right."
"I heard," she said, and faltered. She chased after her courage for a moment, and then said, "I heard that Olivia Spencer runs all the guns in this county."
Frank considered her. She met his gaze evenly.
He said, "Guess you don't know much about how Olivia Spencer earns her money."
She expected a snap of "Curiosity killed the cat," but he kept regarding her thoughtfully, and finally he seemed to make up his mind.
He said, "She rode into town, from England or whatever, seduced Josh Lewis, got half of what was his. All that land. Like she gives a crap about oil. Oh, I can light my lamp. Big deal." He shook his head. "And then she seduced Phillip Spaulding, and got everything of his. That's how she got the Beacon. She's broken nearly every man's back in this town."
"Including yours?" Natalia asked.
She wished she hadn't asked, because his expression hardened.
"And Alan's," he said. "She's a dangerous woman, Natalia. Don't you ever think otherwise."
She looked toward the Beacon, and felt a pull. She turned back to Frank. "Thank you for looking after my son."
"He's a good boy, Natalia. He thinks about things."
"Runs in the family. But I'd better be off."
He nodded. "Good day, then."
She strolled toward the Beacon, wondering how many people in El Campo knew Olivia was sick.
Maybe no one knew.
But there was Holly Norris, in an opulent dress and wearing diamonds, pausing in front of the Beacon. Looking at the hotel as if it was haunted. Natalia looked down, walking past her without acknowledgment.
So one other person knew. That should have been comforting, but Natalia's heart ached.
She dropped her packages off with Maria and then climbed the stairs, all the way to the attic. Remy was gone, so she could sit by his window and look out at the passersby. People heading to San Antonio, or to no man's land, toward Mexico and the rivers, or the ocean. Or coming back. People with their sights set on Dallas or New Orleans, but had only made it this far. Might only make it this far, with cotton ripening and money to be made.
She thought about the ocean. She should be with Rafe, now, soothing him in her arms, her little boy. Or she should be with Olivia. She should let Frank look at her the way he wanted to. She'd come to town just as Eleni was leaving for California. She'd seen his broken heart. But she couldn't heal it, any more than she could heal Olivia's body or Rafe's soul.
Looking out at all the people on the street, she just felt alone.
* * *
Alan regarded his town from the steps of his saloon. The sunset was like fire. Olivia Spencer, in demure dress under a heavy coat, took the steps to his porch. She paused in the middle, leaning onto the railing. He offered her his hand. She glared at him and resumed ascending.
"You called me for a meeting?" she asked. She seemed to be breathless.
"Judge O'Neill may be dead, but you can't keep Texas out of Campo Primavera," he said. "The men are still here, after all. They've been bribed enough. The railroad's coming through."
"I have no problem with the railroad."
"Even if it comes through your land?"
"Show me a map and we'll talk about it."
"Olivia, this isn't the frontier anymore. This is a town. A real town in a real state. With a county seat. The wars are over."
"Civilization, yeah, I've heard the speech."
"It's not just a speech. Fences are going up all over. There's not going to be any room for..."
"For what, Alan?"
Olivia nodded. "Good thing we're such upstanding businessmen, Alan."
"Good thing," he said. "You look a little pale. Want a drink?"
"I want two," she said.
This time when he offered his arm, she took it.
Despite the shooting, the night continued as usual in Campo Primavera. Bill rode in to talk to Remy, and then rode out again. No one left town, per Mallet's orders, but new guests had come to and check in. Jeffrey's room was given to someone else.
Natalia talked to Frank and her son for hours.
Olivia had been right. With Judge O'Neill dead, a peace, a lightness, had come into Campo Primavera.
* * *
An hour after dawn, a man rode into town on a ghost white horse. He wore all black and his hat hid pale golden hair. He glanced at the Beacon as he passed, but hitched his horse at the Spaulding Hotel.
Moments after he entered, Buzz Cooper appeared, nearly jumping to the street, breaking out into a run as he headed for the Beacon.
* * *
The sun was high by the time Doris reached Mel's land. She hated the heat. She hated the wildness out here, where the corn wilted and the mustangs that Red Steel called to answered with high-pitched cries of freedom. She was a woman of the mind. Of books and poetry and the sounds through the telegraph wire, blips and vibrations, that became words. Messages of life or death. She was a woman of the ceiling fan at the Spaulding Hotel and the blackberry tarts at the Beacon.
But town wasn't safe, and that angered her, to be driven out into the land. Into the emptiness.
The shot-up scarecrow's silent greeting only made her shake her head. She tied Red Steel tight to the hitching post.
She pulled the rifle out of its scabbard just as Mel rode into view.
The coal-black horse danced across the dirt, nearly shimmering in the heat, and it seemed to take forever for Mel to cover the distance.
"That's some rifle," Mel said.
"Ain't it? Brand new. Heard it was designed by some dentist."
"Where'd you get it?"
"Where'd you think?"
Mel nodded. She pulled rolled parchment out of her scabbard and covered the paint target.
Doris grinned. "We making a bet?"
"I win, I get to be in one of your books."
"As you are?"
"I win?" Doris asked.
"You can be in one of mine."
Doris grinned. "How about you let me borrow that Nietzsche."
Mel pursed her lips.
"Come on Mel, I'm not going to spill coffee on it."
"Then why's my Gray's Anatomy got all them brown streaks?"
Doris raised the rifle to her shoulder. "I come here for redemption."
"You come here because town is dangerous."
"Town shouldn't be. Dangerous, I mean."
"If shooting breaks out," Doris said, "I know what side I want to be on."
"You don't want to just out-think everyone, Wolf?"
"You have any ideas for that?"
Mel shook her head. "How's the Bible Bandit?"
"That damn kid. You think if we hanged him everyone would go away?"
"Don't think an eye for an eye is going to satisfy them. Attack a judge is like attacking Texas itself."
Mel folded her arms.
Doris pulled the trigger. Her bullet barely nicked the target.
"Fuck," she said.
Mel drew her revolver from her holster and fired three times, hitting the target in a neat little triangle in the center.
Doris said, "You're not using a rifle."
"This is just some rustled Colt I picked off a--Anyway, I thought it'd be a handicap."
Doris grinned. "You really want me to write you just as you are?"
Mel said, "With a nicer house."
"And nicer land," Doris said.
Doris fired again. She hit the target, a foot from Mel's holes.
Mel shot the scarecrow.
Doris rubbed her reddened hand on her vest and rotated her shoulder.
The rattle of wagon wheels drew their attention to the south.
Holly sat regally on the wagon seat, with the reins in her left hand and a parasol in her right.
"She brought a wagon. You know what that means," Mel said.
"That you're not going to like whatever she's going to say."
Mel gritted her teeth.
Doris helped Holly down from the wagon and then stayed as much under the parasol as possible. Holly's hair was streaked with grey and her face was lean and narrow, but she walked with a purpose Doris could only muster with Red Steel.
Holly said, "Mel, I think--just for a few days, it isn't going to be safe."
"Your stuff packed?"
"Not as much as should be. But we can get it moved tonight. Where?"
"The usual places aren't safe, I think," Holly said.
Doris asked, "So back into town?"
Holly said, "For now. It's calm." She looked at Doris.
"The telegraph's on fire."
"How long?" Holly asked.
"Three or four days until Hell descends. At most."
Holly nodded. She looked at the target, and then back at the women. "Let's think about who's not here."
Doris grinned. "I thought we weren't inviting Reva anymore."
Holly smiled thinly.
Mel settled her reloaded Colt into her holster.
Doris asked, "How is she, Mel?"
"He won't talk about it."
Holly said, "With regards to that subject, we've got another problem. As I was riding out of town, I saw someone riding in."
* * *
"Phillip Spaulding is back. And he's crazy. We have to go," Olivia said, throwing things into her trunk. Emma was in the attic, crying, with Remy and Gregory. Natalia could hear her through the ceiling.
"You're not going anywhere," Natalia said.
"You don't understand. We'll bring Rafe. You can come with us, and help me, or you can stay here and watch your son hang, and run the damn hotel. The judge is dead, Phillip's back--I don't really care."
"Olivia--" Natalia reached for her hands.
Olivia swatted her away, but Natalia held her fast. "Olivia," she said again.
That got her attention. Natalia didn't use her given name willingly. Certainly never twice.
Olivia quieted, all the tenseness going inside her, making her tremble.
Natalia said, "You can't leave."
"I have to."
"You can't. We had a deal."
"That doesn't--Phillip will take her."
"I promise, he won't. I'll protect her. We'll protect her. But you can't go on the run."
"Why in Hell not?"
Natalia reached up and brushed hair away from Olivia's eyes, and cupped her cheek. "Because you'll die," she said. "You'll die... faster."
Olivia's eyes closed.
Natalia stepped closer, moving to cup the back of her neck, and bring her into an embrace. Olivia tolerated it, letting her hands drop to Natalia's back.
"He's going to..." Olivia tried to say.
"All that matters is that we're safe, and we're alive. Right? Isn't that what you said about Rafe? In this moment, we're safe."
Natalia stroked her hair. "Spend what time you can in this town. With your family. With people who care about you."
Olivia laughed. "No one cares about me."
Natalia just held her tighter.
"Okay," Olivia said. "Okay, I won't leave tonight."
"That's a start."
"You're so goddamn demanding."
Natalia smiled and pressed her lips to Olivia's shoulder, through her sleeve, and said, "Then I have another demand."
Olivia stepped back and regarded her with a wary gaze.
Natalia said, "Take a bath."
"Now? It's kind of late. I'm sure Maria's dumped the water for the night."
"I'll get Emma calmed down. You get yourself calmed down."
Natalia went to the door.
Olivia called out, "Wait."
Natalia hesitated on the threshold.
Olivia asked, "How'd you know?"
"All I had to do was look at you."
* * *
The bath left Olivia limp and drained and smiling, smelling of lavender with Emma in her arms in bed as Natalia came in, bringing hot milk. Maria followed, and took Emma into her own room.
Olivia took the milk. "Thank you. Will you read to me?"
"No. Something in Spanish? I need a change of scenery."
"You speak Spanish?"
"Si, claro. Vivo en Texas, no?" Olivia rolled her eyes.
"Tell that to Alan Spaulding," Natalia said.
"The dumb bastard. Know your enemy."
Natalia frowned. Olivia shooed her out and she went downstairs to her little room. The dining room was empty but there were voices on the porch and sounds from the library. Later, people would stumble in from the saloons or the Marlers. Some only by sunrise. She wanted to ask someone, anyone, why Phillip Spaulding mattered. But she couldn't tonight.
She retrieved a book and ascended the stairs, one at a time. She was afraid of what she might see when she pushed open the door to Olivia's room. But Olivia was still there on the bed, smiling with the lantern light giving her a golden glow. That light inside her still shone through her eyes. It hadn't gone out. Natalia let out her breath. She bypassed the chair and walked to the other side of the bed and sat down.
Olivia raised her eyebrows but said nothing.
Natalia leaned against the headboard. "Okay."
"I own just two books," Natalia said, "And if I brought up the Bible, you'd argue with me all night and never go to sleep."
Olivia bit her lip and looked contrite.
"So hush," Natalia said, "And listen."
Olivia closed her eyes.
Natalia read, "'Calla, amigo Sancho,' respondió don Quijote; 'que las cosas de la guerra, más que otras, están sujetas a continua mudanza; cuanto más, que yo pienso..."
* * *
Olivia woke to sunlight. Her pounded, but she cautiously opened her eyes. Natalia Rivera slept beside her.
"Natalia," she called.
"Natalia, my head is killing me."
Natalia got up and closed the shutters, and then left the room. Olivia groaned and rolled onto her back. Natalia returned. She set down a tray and dipped a rag in water and then draped it onto Olivia's forehead. Olivia smelled coffee, but was still in too much pain to move, so she just let Natalia cup the back of her neck and lift her slightly. There was a loud pop. Natalia began to massage.
"Natalia," Olivia said again.
"About last night, I can explain."
Natalia said nothing.
Olivia said, "Phillip is Emma's father."
Natalia's fingers stopped.
Olivia sat up and rotated her neck and then took the white powder from the tray and washed it down with coffee.
"That's arsenic," Natalia said.
Olivia nodded. She squeezed the bridge of her nose.
"Why is Doctor Bauer giving you arsenic?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I need to tell you about Phillip Spaulding."
Olivia said, "We all thought he was dead. For a year, we thought he was dead. Then I got word he was in a mental institution in Utah. He's been there three years."
"Oh yeah. He's crazy."
"Why is he here?"
"I don't know. Jesus, I don't know. I can't believe the Mormons set him free."
"Maybe he escaped--"
"And rode right into town?"
Natalia asked, "I knew you were married to Phillip Spaulding, and that he'd gone--somewhere--but I didn't--Emma?"
"Yes. Emma's a Spaulding. That's why Alan lets me exist, even though he hates me. And the more I do in this town, the more he hates me."
"Alan Spaulding wouldn't try and take Emma away?"
"Oh, he's tried." Olivia looked away. "But now he knows he'd have to kill me. And at the moment, I'm more useful to him alive than dead."
Olivia sighed. "I have friends he doesn't. Friends he can't afford to have, even if they'd want him. And whatever Alan's personal feelings--which are despicable, let me tell you--Campo Primavera is important to him. This land. This trade. He wants Texas to matter, and he wants it to matter right here."
"So you share a goal."
Olivia turned and gave Natalia a thin smile. "I don't really care what happens to Texas. But I want my daughter to grow up safe."
"Here? Why not in a real city? With, I don't know, schools and neighbors and industry and--"
"No," Olivia said. "I'm never going back."
Natalia reached for her arm.
Olivia swatted her away. "This is a good place, Natalia. Alan Spaulding and I are going to keep it that way."
"I know," Natalia said. "But what about Phillip?"
"He makes it unsafe. And I hate him for that."
* * *
Olivia didn't descend from her room until Doris came at midday. Natalia had already seen Rafe, who had the jail to himself. With the judge dead, Mallet and Frank had quietly sent the poacher away. But someone else would come for the boy.
Natalia, despite Olivia's best efforts, now knew why Doris came to see her every day, why Bill came when he could, why she didn't ride out or leave the cool dining room if she didn't have to.
Doris settled in and stared at her enchilada. "What the Hell is this?"
"Natalia's been teaching Gregory some new recipes."
Doris frowned, but took a bite. She chewed. Then she said, "All right. Any word on O'Neill?"
"I was hoping you'd heard something."
Doris shook her head. "Maybe it was Indians."
"Oh, come on."
"You're right. Strangers don't hate Judge O'Neill enough to shoot him like that."
Olivia shook her head.
Doris took another bite, and then asked, "Think it was Reva?"
"Reva wouldn't keep quiet about it."
"Neither would Lizzie. Or you. Or Hell, even Alan. Only one person we know would have both the skill to murder someone and the decency not take credit."
"What are we going to do?" Doris asked.
"Hope it blows over."
Olivia had slept well enough after the chaos last night, but she felt weak. She felt completely incapable of coping with any more news. From the Bible Bandit to the Judge to the Ghost, she felt like she were trapped in a story. Her princes were all used up. The sober ones hated her. The drunk ones downright reviled her.
Doris was saying, "He was a fucking Texas Judge. I got a telegraph. They're sending a Ranger out."
"Just one? Not a whole army?"
"Just one. The militia's already coming, after all. One shooter doesn't need two armies."
Olivia nodded dully. She asked, "Hear about Phillip?"
"Yes, I damn well did hear about Phillip Spaulding. Alan's got him locked up somewhere in the hotel."
Olivia considered her wine, but didn't drink any.
Doris took her hand. "Are you all right, Olivia?"
"I was going to take Emma and leave. But I can't."
Doris said, "He's back for a reason."
"Maybe it has nothing to do with you."
"He took Emma once before."
"Well, that was a whole big damn mess, and that was a long time ago. Things have changed."
Olivia looked away.
"Olivia, you want to go on the run, I'll help you. But it's not your best option."
"Your best option is to eat," Doris prodded, squeezing her hand.
"You sound like Natalia."
"Where is the mysterious maid?"
"The Mysterious Maid? Please, Doris, don't tell me that's the title you're going to use."
"Just trying it out. No good?"
Olivia shook her head.
Doris said, "You're going to have to see Phillip."
"I don't have to do anything."
But Doris just said, "Eat," in a sharp tone, and Olivia ate.
* * *
Olivia spent the rest of the day inside the Beacon, talking to her guests, reading in the library, playing games with Emma. By the time supper finished, she was restless.
Natalia had returned from the jail in order to help with the meal, and now she straightened in the library, trying to avoid Olivia's pacing.
"Ms. Spencer," she said.
"It's Olivia. And don't tell me to rest. I don't need rest."
"Buzz Cooper brought me ribs. The best ribs I ever tasted. And Gregory somehow got a pineapple."
"Trader came through from Galveston today. Gregory bought fifty."
"How many did Alan Spaulding buy?"
"Just two," Natalia said.
Olivia shook her head. "Jackass."
"Alan doesn't have enough money to run an elegant hotel," Natalia said.
Olivia looked at her, her eyes widening.
Natalia said, "He runs his own supply line for the beef and the whores and the vodka. Anything outside of that isn't worth having."
"Someone's been paying attention."
"I have." Natalia stepped closer and took Olivia's elbow. "Let's go out."
"Want to go dancing?"
Natalia smiled. "We'll take Triste and the bay and go see Texas by moonlight."
"You're in a good mood."
"I have my son because of you."
"Frankie's the one who caught him."
"You caught him. Frank Cooper just stole your glory."
Olivia smiled and shook her head.
Natalia said, "I'm happy. Let me see you happy, too. The Judge is--"
"I can't be happy with Phillip around."
"Would him being dead make you happy, too?"
"No. No, I loved Phillip Spaulding."
Natalia squeezed her arm.
"Fine. Let's go get Triste and Star."
"I am not calling her that."
"Star, Star, Star. Estrella."
"There you go."
Natalia gave her arm a tug, and they walked out into Campo Primavera.
* * *
They rode up along the river and at Olivia's urging galloped together, letting the wind blow their hair and the horses lope easily side by side. Three miles above Campo Primavera the river curved and there was a tree line, and beyond it grass and rocks and the water. They dismounted and let the horses graze.
Olivia looked at the sky. There were thousands of stars. She wanted to count them. Her gaze strayed to Ursa Major and she smiled, thinking of Blake.
Natalia came up beside her.
Olivia asked, "What's your favorite constellation?"
Natalia smiled. "It reminds me of you."
"The vain queen. That's me."
"And beautiful," Natalia said.
"What was your favorite constellation before Cassiopeia?" Olivia asked.
"It was always Cassiopeia," Natalia said. "It was always you."
Olivia closed her eyes. She blocked out the starlight and the river. She blocked out everything but the heat of Natalia standing too close. She licked her lips, and asked, for the hundredth time, "Why did you come to Campo Primavera, Natalia?"
"They said you were the most powerful woman in this part of Texas," Natalia said.
"Everyone has a town. Small enough town and you hear about the one or two men who own it. Alan. Mercer, up in Hyattsville. Ruby, in Galveston. You were the only woman."
Olivia turned toward Natalia, opening her eyes, looking into the blackness of Natalia's. "So. What did you want from me?"
"From--" Olivia didn't finish the sentence. Didn't want what flashed through her mind.
Natalia said, "It was hard, in Houston. And every day, instead of getting easier, it got harder. Every day Rafe got older it was less of an excuse. And then he was gone, and I--I needed to get out of there."
She laughed, just when Olivia's chest was clenching.
Natalia said, "I got lost, anyway. Snowflake found you."
Olivia glanced at the horses.
Olivia looked back.
Natalia reached up, cautiously, and touched the side of her face. She said, "Everything they said about you pales in comparison to who you are."
"I've got to work harder on my reputation."
Natalia smiled. "I wanted a home, here. Out here, on the land, without the city noises and the smells and the people, all strangers, no one caring."
"And now I have my son."
"Sort of," Olivia said.
Natalia's fingertips traced her skin. "I have enough."
Olivia put her hands on Natalia's arms, keeping her close.
"What is it?" Natalia asked.
"From the first moment I saw you, I knew I was meant to help you."
"You believe in fate, Ms. Spencer?"
"I don't know what I believe. But I trusted it--my instinct--and it led us here."
Olivia's heart pounded. She looked past Natalia's shoulder at the trees, and then back to her face.
Natalia's smile brightened. She stilled her hand, cupping Olivia's jaw.
Olivia said, "If you were a man, I'd call this..."
Natalia didn't move. Didn't laugh.
"...romantic," Olivia finally finished.
Then Natalia leaned closer, sliding her hand around Olivia's neck.
Olivia kissed her, surprised by the warmth of Natalia's lips, surprised that they slid against her own, that Natalia kissed her back and held her head close. Olivia gasped and kissed Natalia again, then brought little kisses along her mouth and across her cheek. Natalia turned her head to follow her lips and stole them again. Olivia opened her mouth at Natalia's insistence. Her hands moved to Natalia's waist. She'd never actually kissed a woman before, not like this, but she saw what Doris liked about it. The delicateness of Natalia's tongue aroused her, as did the heat of Natalia's body, curving against hers. Natalia's hand settled against her sleeve, clutching at the fabric.
Olivia broke the kiss and held Natalia close, her chest heaving, her gaze blurry.
Natalia kissed her ear, and then whispered something into it.
Olivia stroked her back. A horse neighed. Natalia loosened her grip just enough so that they could both breathe.
Olivia asked, "Did you know what you wanted, when you came to Campo Primavera?"
Natalia said, "I just wanted peace. I had no idea you were such a--such a force to be reckoned with."
"I'm a dangerous woman, Natalia Rivera."
Natalia said, "You told me, before we got Rafe back, that you were casting your lot with me."
"I'm casting my lot with you," Natalia said. "I have wanted to do that for--" She shook her head.
Olivia pulled Natalia back to her and kissed her.
Natalia tangled her fingers in Olivia's tousled hair, keeping her close, but said against her lips, "We have to go back."
"We never have to go back."
Olivia sighed. Natalia's mouth covered hers again, stealing kisses from her, until Star bumped her shoulder.
"The horses want to go back," Olivia said.
"It's warmer in the livery."
Olivia looked up at the stars. She nodded.
Natalia took her hand, rubbing it between her own.
"I'm fine," Olivia said.
"You will be."
* * *
The hotel's patrons had gone to sleep without them. Only a few men sat on the porches of the saloons, talking and smoking, sobering up, looking at the stars.
Olivia put her hand on the staircase railing.
"Wait," Natalia said. She slipped to Olivia's other side and wrapped an arm around her waist.
Olivia sighed, and slowly began to climb the steps, leaning heavily on Natalia.
Natalia asked, "Do you want anything to eat?"
Olivia shook her head.
Natalia smiled. She walked Olivia to Emma's room, and they both looked in on her, sleeping soundly. Remy, sitting in the rocking chair beside the window, shotgun across his lap, nodded.
They crept back to Olivia's room. Olivia sat on the bed.
"Let me help you," Natalia said.
"I'm not going to stop you."
Natalia unbuttoned Olivia's dress. Her fingers shook nervously as she moved lower, and Olivia's gaze, traveling over her body as she worked, did nothing to calm her. She coaxed Olivia back into standing, and slid the dress down, letting Olivia step out of it. Natalia carefully hung the dress, not quite looking at Olivia.
"You've done this before, Natalia," Olivia said.
"Only when you were too sick to notice."
Natalia said, "Would it be easier if I--"
Natalia began loosening her own dress, until Olivia beckoned her closer. Natalia shivered as Olivia disrobed her, leaving her only in her corset, petticoat, drawers, and chemise. She blushed as Olivia took her hand. Olivia kissed the backs of her fingers.
"Let me," Natalia said, taking her turn again. She began unlacing Olivia's corset. "This can't be comfortable."
"You have no idea."
Natalia pulled back the corset, noticing breathlessly that Olivia's breasts were freer, fuller, under the chemise. She wanted to feel them against her. She moved away from Olivia's eager fingers, removing her own corset herself, letting Olivia make due with shucking the petticoats, folding them and placing them in the wardrobe.
"Very practical," Natalia said, of the one-piece chemise that ended with lace drawers.
"They're just for riding." Olivia pulled a nightgown over her head. Then she settled onto the bed. "Are you staying?"
"I can't leave this room half-naked."
"I have more gowns."
"You can. You must. You certainly cannot sleep in just your underwear."
Natalia smiled. She slipped into a robe she found in the wardrobe, sighing at the feeling of fabric against her arms.
"You know why I think I trust you?" Olivia asked.
Natalia looked over her shoulder.
"Any true gold digger would have started with the fancy clothes and the seduction. Not be forced into them. It's been how many damn months? A confidence man is never that patient."
Olivia picked a brush. "Come here."
Natalia sat on the bed and let Olivia brush her hair. She closed her eyes as Olivia's fingers grazed her scalp, her neck, her chin. "Olivia." she said.
"Please tell me that you brought me back to your room to kiss me."
"I brought you back to my room to kiss you," Olivia said against her ear.
"No. You're not some common--"
Natalia sighed as Olivia kissed her neck, drawing her hair away. She sat with her hands in her lap as Olivia nuzzled her ear, and then set down the brush. Then Natalia turned, finding Olivia's lips. Needing them. Wanting Olivia against her. Wanting Olivia's strength between her and the world. Wanting Olivia's hands against her.
"Please," she breathed.
Olivia only coaxed her down on the bed and into her arms. She took Natalia's hand and pressed it to her chest. Natalia shifted to press her ear to Olivia's heart.
"Sleep," Olivia said. "We have a lot to plan in the morning."
"The Ranger's only a day's ride out. And if Phillip--we have to leave, Natalia."
"We have to."
Natalia clutched Olivia tighter and closed her eyes and willed the morning not to come.
* * *
Natalia fed Snowflake from her own hand. The mare blew across her skin. Triste watched warily from the next stall. Natalia was glad Snowflake and the gray gelding had become friends. Even with the stench of horses in the dark barn, there was a peacefulness. She reached for another carrot.
A whinny came from behind her.
She turned. The white stallion stood behind her, tied in an open stall. He was as bony and ghostlike as his rider. Natalia hissed.
The horse shook his head, straining for a carrot.
Natalia broke a carrot in half and approached.
The horse delicately curled back his lips and took the carrot and chewed.
"He likes you," said a voice behind her.
She swerved around and there stood Phillip Spaulding, all in white. She gasped.
Phillip said, "He doesn't like many people."
Natalia scanned for an exit, saying, "I like horses."
"Most people just see them as transportation," said Phillip.
Natalia shook her head.
Phillip glanced at Snowflake. "You have your own?"
"Sold everything I had in Houston and bought her. And she saved my life."
Natalia swallowed. "I got lost. Out there in the fields. All the roads are just shepherd's paths. I was so thirsty...I think I passed out at some point. She dumped me in a creek."
Phillip laughed. He had a nice laugh. Whole and alive.
She said, "Then she led me to El Campo, and I've been trying to repay her."
"How many carrots will it take?"
Phillip took a step toward her.
She backed away.
He paused, holding up his hands. "Look, I just want you to give a message to Olivia."
"She doesn't want to hear from you."
"I know. Tell her I didn't come back for her."
"I came back to see my father."
"People say you're an orphan."
"Whatever I was, I'm a Spaulding now. Do you understand?"
"I'd love to see my daughter--the daughter we made when we were married. We were in love, Natalia."
Natalia looked down. "That's what she said."
"We're not, anymore. But I'd still... I'd just like to see."
She didn't say anything.
"Natalia. Are the rumors true?"
She went white.
"That she's sick?" he asked.
She looked up, meeting his eyes. Kind eyes. But she didn't say anything.
"Rick Bauer is--was my best friend. He says its leukemia."
Natalia turned away.
Phillip said, "I don't want her to live her last days in fear. I want to help her--I know, that's probably not possible. But I at least don't want to get in her way."
Natalia thought of Jeffrey O'Neill. She thought of the absurdity of holding this conversation in a stable.
She said, "You sound like a changed man."
"No, I think I changed then. When Olivia--Well, it's wrong to blame Olivia. I should forgive her, and hope she forgives me. I want to be the man I was when I met her. A good man."
"And is she a good woman?"
Phillip smiled. "Maybe she's changed."
Natalia said, "I can't give Olivia your message."
"If she knows you sought me out--that you talked to me like this--she would bolt. She would take me and Emma and vanish."
Phillip lowered his head.
"So," Natalia said. "Write it down. Put it in a letter and have someone bring it to the Beacon and I promise she'll read it. Even if I have to read it to her myself."
Phillip nodded, and asked, "Why would you do that?"
"I don't want her to live in fear, either. And since she's unwilling to shoot you--"
Phillip raised his eyebrows, but absorbed the information without comment.
"--We might as well try this. Why'd you come back, Phillip?"
"This is my home. Do you know what home is?"
He said, "I just couldn't go anywhere else."
* * *
No one took much notice as he rode through town, his hat down over his forehead, his pretty spotted pony bouncing under him, as boyish as the smile on his face. He had spurs but kept his badge in his coat, and he hitched the pony outside the jail and went inside and saw the Kid before the Deputy had even gotten out of his chair.
"This is the bandit?" he asked.
Rafe got up and leaned against the bars and gave him a hard look. "I'm the bandit. Who the fuck are you?"
"Rafe." The deputy came around the desk and offered his hand. "Deputy Frank Cooper. Bienvenida."
"Nicolas Augustino. But you can call me Gus. Everyone does." Gus shook hands.
"You're the Ranger they sent down for Rafe?"
Gus glanced at Rafe. "I guess I am."
"Just try it," Rafe said.
"Rafe," Frank warned. To Gus, he said, "He's not usually like this."
Gus smiled. "I understand he's scared."
Frank lifted his hand before Rafe could respond. Then he said, "So, are you taking him right away, or--"
Gus said, "I also understand Judge O'Neill was murdered here."
"I didn't do it, hombre," Rafe said. "I was here all night."
Frank folded his arms. "We're still looking into that."
"The Governor's office asked me to help. If that's all right with you."
"Absolutely. Let me show you my notes."
Frank settled back at his desk and Gus perched on the side. Rafe watched them both, wary and angry.
"Here's who we've talked to, what we gathered at the site. Which I can show you. I'd offer to take you on a tour of the irregulars, but that's just what the judge was doing when he--" Frank shook his head.
"Campo Primavera was a regular stop, right?" Gus asked.
"Yeah, he was down here two, three times a year. Most of the stuff we handle locally, but you know, the presence of law helps."
Gus nodded. He took off his coat and tossed it into a free chair. Underneath he had a linen shirt and suspenders, and the cleanest Colt Frank had ever seen strapped to his belt. Gus looked at Rafe.
Rafe looked at him.
"Doesn't seem like much," Gus said, smiling.
Rafe scrunched his nose.
Gus added, "For a guy someone would kill a judge to protect."
Frank shuffled his papers and said, "Well, there's always a possibility they're unrelated."
Gus raised his eyebrows.
Frank said, "Judge had a lot of enemies in this town. And a few friends he couldn't trust."
"Yeah," Rafe said. "And I didn't even know him."
Gus asked, "How'd the Kid end up here?"
Frank said, proudly, "I caught him at a hideout."
Rafe rolled his eyes.
Daisy stepped through the open door with coffee and a basket. "Lunch, boys."
Gus stood and wiped his hands on his trousers.
Daisy's eyes widened.
Frank said, "Daisy, this is the Texas Ranger we've been expecting. Gus Augustino--That's really your name?"
"Nickname," Gus said.
Frank shrugged, and said, "Gus, this is my daughter, Daisy."
Daisy curtseyed. She glanced at Rafe.
Rafe gave her a wan smile.
"It's all right, Daisy. Let's have lunch."
The men ate at the desk and Daisy sat just outside the cell, feeding Rafe through the bars.
Gus asked, "How'd you end up as Deputy here, Frank?"
"Oh, you know. Fell into it."
Gus smiled, the question still in his eyes.
"You actually want to know?"
"Sure." Gus took another bite of bread.
"Grew up in Cleveland. My father left when I was a boy, for the war down here. Lost track of him after that. When Morgan came up there I joined the militia. Got captured, actually. Spent some time after that in the war. I killed a few men. I was good enough at it, and not much good at anything else, but I didn't really like it. Didn't really have it in me. Decided to track my father down and ended up here."
"Is this work less distasteful?" Gus asked.
"More or less," Frank said, glancing at Rafe. "Not always easy to keep the locals from killing each other, but sometimes I feel like I'm doing good."
"What about you, Ranger?" Frank asked.
Gus swallowed another piece of bread.
Daisy asked, "Does anyone know the Ranger's here?"
Frank asked, "Anyone see you ride through town?"
"Don't think so. It was busy out there on the streets."
Frank said, "Daisy, why don't you go to the Beacon, and then see if you can track down the Sheriff."
Daisy nodded. She squeezed Rafe's hand and then darted out the door.
Gus looked around. "Wasn't there a poacher?"
"I don't see a poacher."
Frank said, "If you're going to stay here, you ought to get a room. The militia's pitching a few tents outside of town, and some men from the county seat are at the Spaulding Hotel."
"Those are my choices?"
"Judge O'Neill was staying at the Beacon. That's where Daisy got your lunch."
Mallet was the first to arrive, striding into the jail with polished boots and his hand out. "Ranger?"
Again they went over Frank's notes, and were just getting to the interviews with Holly Norris when Natalia came through the door.
The men rose.
Olivia trailed in after, just in time to hear Natalia's shriek.
"Nick?" she exclaimed.
Olivia glanced at Frank.
Natalia threw her arms around Gus's neck. "I can't believe it's really you. What are you doing here?"
She squeezed him tighter. "Nick. I thought I'd never see you again."
At that, he finally embraced her back, burying his face in her dark hair. "I've missed you, Natalia. So much."
She let loose a contented sigh.
Rafe asked, "Ma? Who the heck is this?"
Natalia let Gus go. She turned to Rafe, beaming, and said, "Raphael, this is--this is your father."
* * *
"I'm what?" Gus asked.
"What?" Olivia echoed.
Natalia went and took Olivia's arm. "Sit."
"I think I should really go back to the Beacon and--"
Mallet guided Olivia into a vacated chair and took a post by the door.
Gus looked from Rafe to Natalia and back again.
Olivia's head was spinning. She could feel the last of her life seeping from her, drained by Natalia's joy at seeing this stranger. This man she had fathered a child with. She ignored the coffee Frank pushed toward her. She couldn't hear anything above the pounding in her ears. She was going to be sick. Natalia absently stroked her shoulder and patted her hair and scalded her. She jerked away.
"Nicky, what are you doing here?" Natalia asked. "You can't--You can't take Rafe away."
Natalia touched his face, smoothing his jaw. He smiled at her.
"You haven't changed, have you?" she asked.
"No ma'am. Neither have you."
Natalia kissed him and he brought her into his arms.
Olivia would have liked to have slumped to the floor to die, had it not been such an effort.
Alan Spaulding rushed through the door, nearly bumping into Mallet.
Gus looked up.
Alan said, "Mallet, the militia, they want to scour the whole countryside. Starting with--" he breathed, looking at Gus. "Who in the Hell is this? Every day Rivera's got a new Mexican on her hands."
Rafe cursed at him.
"This is the Ranger from San Antonio," Mallet said.
Frank asked, "Starting with who?"
"Who the fuck do you think? Melissande Boudreaux. And someone already slipped the word to Bauer. He's gone." Alan turned to Olivia. "We're going to lose the whole town, and it's all your fault, Olivia. You and this--these--"
Olivia managed a scowl.
Frank said, "Maybe he'll get there in time. Convince her to leave."
"Over her dead body," Olivia said.
"Olivia's right," Alan said.
"I have to tell Josh," Olivia said. She tried to get up.
Natalia pushed her back down. "You're not going anywhere."
Gus said, "Hold up, everyone hold up."
Everyone looked at him.
Gus said, "Now what we have here is a situation."
* * *
Doris arrived at the jail and was just as quickly sent out with Mallet for a hard ride to Mel's.
Gus said, "Where are the militia leaders?"
Alan said, "They're still at the saloon."
"Maybe I can convince them revenge takes planning. I just got here." Gus rubbed the back of his head.
"I'm going with you," Natalia said.
"You can't go to a saloon."
Frank coughed discreetly.
Alan actually chuckled.
Natalia said, "I'm not letting you out of my sight, Nicky Augustino."
He smiled, bashful, and then they were kissing again, like innocent, long-lost lovers.
Olivia wanted to throw coffee at them. Her mind went to Isolde. Here she was the one mortally wounded, but Natalia had reunited with true love. Despite their time by the river, they were not, after all, man and woman, meant to be.
She got up.
Natalia was immediately by her side. "Let me help you."
"You--" Olivia raised her finger. "You, stay here with your son. Explain this to him. The Ranger is just going to be across the street, for crying out loud. No one's going to shoot him. I can walk back to my own damn hotel."
She didn't stay for the hurt expression in Natalia's eyes, or for the murmured assurances whispered to Nicky Augustino. She walked out onto the porch. She looked at the cheerful brown and white pony tied to the post.
She called back, "What do you call your horse, Ranger?"
"Spot," Gus called.
Then he grunted, as if Natalia had hit him in the stomach.
Olivia smiled. She kept walking.
* * *
Olivia sat at the bar of her own hotel, smoking a cigar Remy had prepared for her. The smoke didn't help but it was something to do.
Remy asked, "You think they'll really go after Mel?"
"They'll start with all the outsiders first. Mel. Cyrus. Maybe even Shayne's homestead. The small farms. The Czechs can protect themselves, and maybe the Lewises, but the harder land--"
"Then they'll work their way inward, until they find someone who confesses."
"Why don't we just turn over whoever shot the judge?" Remy asked.
"Yeah, why don't we?"
Gus and Natalia came through the doors, hand in hand, laughing. When they saw Olivia they made their way toward her.
Remy said, "Too late to run now."
Olivia flicked the cigar at him.
Natalia said, "I'm going to go get supper for us, all right?"
"Gregory can--" Olivia started.
"I'll do it."
Olivia regarded Gus as he slouched against the bar, facing her. She finally said, "I've never seen her so happy."
"Me either, to tell you the truth. I don't think we were properly introduced. Gus Augustino."
"Olivia Spencer. She calls you Nicky," Olivia said.
"I'm not a little boy anymore," Gus said.
Olivia looked him up and down. "No, you're not."
She was gratified by his blush. So easy to slip into that mode, to just let her nature take its course. But her body, even with this fine specimen in front of her, ached for Natalia. Well, she would never have that again. She'd have to make do.
"Gus, I don't know what Natalia told you about me."
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing," he said, grinning. "But she insisted we come back here and see you after our meeting. Very intriguing."
"I can tell you're a people person, Ranger. I have a daughter--"
Natalia came back to the bar, carrying two bowls of stew. Gregory followed her with another and spoons.
Remy glanced between them, and then set out the bourbon.
"That smells good," Gus said.
"It's amazing what Gregory can do with the bones that Alan just throws away," Natalia said.
Remy said, "Alan doesn't grow the right herbs in his garden, that's why."
"Remy," Olivia said.
He raised his eyebrows.
"Go eat, and then go see your sister."
"I can't leave," he said.
"I just told you to."
Olivia nodded toward Gus. "I've got a Ranger here. He'll shoot Phillip."
Remy headed for the kitchen.
"Who's Phillip?" Gus asked.
Natalia gestured at the food. Gus and Olivia ate dutifully. Natalia explained Phillip and Emma and her work at the Beacon with such detached discussion that it turned Olivia's stomach. She couldn't have eaten if the food wasn't so good.
"What about the militia?" Olivia asked.
"I've convinced them to wait until morning," Gus said. "That's about all I can do, for now."
Olivia nodded. "Good. You can stay here tonight."
"No, I'd better stay at the jail. With--" Gus glanced at Natalia. "With Rafe."
"I'll go with you," Natalia said.
"You don't have to."
"I want to."
He smiled. She hugged him.
"That's fine," Olivia waved them off. "Fine, fine."
* * *
Olivia half-slept, half tormented herself, lying in bed, wearing the robe Natalia had the night before, breathing too deeply. Emma had stayed with her for the first few hours, curled around her, but then Maria had taken her and had given Olivia a note from Doris Wolfe instead. Another layer of dangerous anticipation to keep her awake.
Near midnight, Natalia slipped into her room. The moonlight illuminated her as a dark form.
Olivia was awake enough to roll over and stare. "What are you doing here?"
Natalia struck the lamp. Olivia blinked back from the dim light.
"Olivia. You're a mess."
Natalia went to the basin and wet a cloth and washed Olivia's face.
Olivia swatted her away. "I asked you what you were doing here."
"I had to see you. I'm used to seeing you."
Olivia closed her eyes but let Natalia dab her with cool water. She made no protest when Natalia undressed and got into bed with her and lifted her arm to slide the cloth along her skin.
Natalia said, "Rafe's asleep. Nicky's asleep. Frank's looking over them. Frank--" she paused.
Olivia opened one eye.
"Frank looked like you do now."
Olivia tried to roll over on her side, but Natalia stopped her. She put aside the rag and leaned closer. Olivia seized her for a kiss, passionate and needful. Natalia gasped and kissed her back, settling over her. Olivia groaned as Natalia's hips connected with hers.
"We can't do this anymore," Olivia said.
"Olivia." Natalia kissed her cheek and then buried her face in Olivia's neck.
Olivia stroked along Natalia's sides, dumbstruck by the response of Natalia's body, arching into hers. Her own heartbeat was rapid. Natalia's breasts, pressing into hers, ended in hard points that dragged across her and left her breathless.
She tried again to speak just before Natalia's open mouth settled onto hers.
"I'm going to die, and you and Gus can live happily ever after, reunited, and--"
"I know," Natalia said, cutting her off with a kiss. "I know all that."
"You've always been too smart for your own good."
Olivia rolled to her side, taking Natalia with her. Their kisses continued, quick and light, almost biting, hungry. Natalia worked her hands under Olivia's chemise. She touched bare skin.
"I had to see you," Natalia said.
Olivia ran her fingers down Natalia's arm. Natalia shivered and pressed a thigh between Olivia's.
"I had to see you," Natalia said again. "There's not much time left."
Olivia shifted, straddling Natalia. She let Natalia touch her breasts and her belly, but mostly she rode Natalia's hips, back arched, head thrown back, eyes closed, trying to lose herself. Escape herself.
Then Natalia's hand slipped under her chemise and touched her. She was already too wet, too swollen, too desperate. Natalia pressed upward. Olivia shuddered, falling back down to kiss Natalia, moving against Natalia's relentless, rubbing hand.
"Natalia," she groaned.
Natalia's lips tightened at the sound of her own name. She held Olivia through the wrenching release that robbed Olivia of the last of her energy. She sagged onto Natalia, seeing spots, and then seeing black. Natalia cradled the back of her head. Natalia's breathing, harsh and sweet against her cheek, eased her back to the world.
She kissed Natalia's neck. Natalia worked fingers into her hair, scratching her scalp, and sighed. Olivia kissed her chest and then her breast. Natalia's nipple rose against the linen, offered to her kisses. But when she moved lower, toward Natalia's stomach, Natalia's fingers tightened in her hair to stop her.
"Don't," Natalia said.
Olivia didn't move.
"I can't," Natalia said. She curled away from Olivia, slipping out from under her.
Olivia caught her before she could leave the bed.
"Natalia," she said.
Natalia sank back into her embrace, stretched out on her side.
Olivia kissed her hair. She was still caught up in her own pleasure, in her own satisfaction. That Natalia didn't want what she'd had didn't make any sense to her, but she loosened her grip and settled for stroking Natalia's hair with one hand, looking at the back of her head.
Natalia's shoulders trembled.
"Look at me, Natalia," Olivia said.
Natalia shook her head.
Olivia heard the rustle of fabric, saw and sensed Natalia moving in the same way she had underneath Olivia. That recognizable rhythm. Natalia hissed. Olivia traced Natalia's back.
"Natalia," she said.
"This is unholy," Natalia said.
Natalia's voice was hoarse. Olivia moved closer, taking Natalia in her arms again, gently, looking down at her sweaty cheek. Feeling her move. Natalia clasped Olivia's arm with her free hand, holding it to her. Her hips moved, between her hand and Olivia behind her. Olivia didn't think it was unholy.
She whispered, "You've brought nothing but goodness into my life."
Natalia turned her head, looking up to meet Olivia's eyes. "And Nick is my reward? Did he come from God?"
Natalia's expression was pleading as she said, "Maybe he's a sign that the path I'm on--I've waited so long for the right--"
Olivia succumbed to her aching desire to be close to Natalia and kissed her parted lips. Natalia lifted her head, pressing back against her, and then cried out, quaking in Olivia's arms. Then rolling onto her back and pulling Olivia into an embrace. Chaste, now. Safe.
"Stay," Olivia said. "Stay with me."
Natalia held her close.
* * *
Olivia was looking disinterestedly at the two fried eggs that gazed up at her with their big yellow eyes when Gus Augustino strolled into the Beacon.
"Hello, Ranger," she said. "Join me for breakfast?"
"I was hoping you'd say that."
"Don't like what Alan has to offer?" She smiled.
"Johnny cakes and canned beans? Buzz Cooper took pity on me and sent me here. He said, uh. He said the judge ate breakfast here."
Gus sat down and Maria came out, bringing coffee.
"How do you like your eggs?" Olivia asked.
"Scrambled, with a little cheese and a lot of chilies," he said.
Maria rolled her eyes and went back to the kitchen.
He took a sip of coffee. "So, if I can show you a map, I think the group is going to hit the--"
"Please, no business talk at breakfast. It doesn't help the digestion."
Gus nodded, blushing slightly. He asked, "Tell me about Natalia, then."
"Truth be told, I thought she'd settled. Here, I mean."
Gus nodded again and sipped coffee.
Olivia asked, to get on any other subject at all, "How's Rafe?"
"You really think he's my son?"
"It doesn't matter what I think," Olivia said.
Gus said, "I think that he's just like me. It's uncanny. I remember being like that. Looking like that. Hard to believe Natalia put up with me."
"What was Houston like?" Olivia asked.
"Crazy. I wanted to be a cowboy so bad, though. I wanted to get out of town. When I was old enough--Before I was old enough--I started riding protection. The war was on. Things were crazy. Houston has a lot of trade."
Olivia nodded. "And you never came back?"
"There was one job or another and--I didn't know she was pregnant."
"You didn't want to get married?"
Every question hurt, but she couldn't stop herself. She felt like she was falling down a hill, getting bruised by boulders and covered in dirt.
"Olivia," he said, ducking his head. "I am married."
"Up in San Antonio. I've got two boys. I met her on a job, and--she just stole my heart. And half my gold. And my best gun."
Olivia looked at him speechlessly.
He said, "I don't know what I'm going to tell Natalia. Or Rafe. Or anyone."
"Who?" she finally croaked out.
"Her name's Harley Cooper, and--"
Gus gave her a confused look. An adorable confused look. She wanted to take his face in her hands.
She said, "You met the deputy, right?"
"Sure, Frank Cooper." Gus's eyes widened. "No."
"Yes. His sister. She's a wanted woman around here, Ranger."
Gus looked around the dining room.
Olivia said, "You can't say her name to anyone else in town. To anyone."
"What am I going to do?"
Olivia said, "I guess you're going to show me that map."
* * *
The mission chapel was five miles outside of El Campo and Snowflake labored by the fourth. Natalia dismounted, leading the horse. She should have taken Star instead, but she wanted Snowflake with her. The one thing that was hers. That and the boy. But he was half Nick's. Snowflake nipped her shoulder. She stopped walking and buried her face in the horse's neck.
She shouldn't have come. Not when people needed her.
She should have brought more water. But there'd be water at the chapel. She took Snowflake's reins and began walking.
The chapel did have fresh water in its trough and in its fountain. She left Snowflake to drink and went inside, into the shade where it wasn't actually cooler. But she was alone. She could breathe. She could pray.
* * *
Gus, Frank, and Mallet sat around the desk, the map between them, weighted down at the corners by revolvers.
Mallet said, "How many are they?"
"Twenty. I know some of them from San Antonio. Tough guys. And they brought their friends."
Frank asked, "What are they making on this?"
"If they bring someone back alive to San Antonio, they get a bonus. But it ain't about the money."
"It's always about the money," Mallet said.
Frank said, "People from Spaulding say O'Neill had something on the side."
Gus raised his eyebrows.
"She doesn't involve money," Mallet said.
"Not her," Frank said. "They think O'Neill was hoarding gold out here."
"It's just a stupid rumor. But you know how... things happen."
Gus asked, "If Judge O'Neill was hiding his fortune out here, wouldn't someone know about it?"
Frank said, "I'm just saying, it could get ugly."
"Uglier," Mallet said.
Frank said, "Well, let's just keep the townspeople from getting shot..."
They leaned over the map.
From the cell, Rafe and Daisy listened to every word.
* * *
The silence wasn't helping Natalia. Pain came with each moment. Longing. Anguish. She prayed for stillness and only got itching skin and heat in her palms and the growing, sinking sensation that she was in the wrong place.
A footstep came on the threshold. She looked over her shoulder, startled.
Buzz Cooper, in a calf-length black leather coat and a matching hat that he took off and held over his heart, came to sit behind her. He crossed himself.
She looked back at the altar. "I didn't know you were Catholic, Mr. Cooper."
"I'm not. But I like to make the rounds."
She nodded. She'd never been inside the Orthodox church on the edge of town, but they were bringing in stained glass, and it was going to be the pride of El Campo someday.
Buzz said, "Are you troubled, Natalia?"
She didn't answer.
Buzz said, "I'm troubled. Troubled by Phillip Spaulding being back. By Alan deciding that he's going to win this at any cost. That if he can just turn the state militia to his side, he can clean out--Whatever he wants. He can make sure nothing can threaten him."
Natalia nodded, looking at her hands.
Buzz said, "I'm troubled by the fact that a woman who used to dance with me every weekend and drink Lizzie Spaulding and Holly Norris both under the table at once hasn't been in my arms in months."
Natalia drew a deep, shuddering breath.
"Does that trouble you, Natalia?" Buzz asked.
"Lo sabe hace."
Buzz nodded. "Campo Primavera sure isn't what it used to be."
Natalia lifted her head. "Is that why you're here?"
"No. I'm here on business."
Father Ray came down the steps from the bell tower. He stopped when he saw Natalia. His gaze strayed to Buzz.
Buzz said, "Her first."
Natalia offered Buzz a warm smile.
"Natalia," Father Ray said.
Natalia stood. "I'm here for confession, Father."
He nodded and waved her toward the parlor.
She followed. This room was darker, and she could barely see as Father Ray made the sign of the cross. She mimicked him and they sat on a bench side by side.
She wished he would light a candle. Anything.
She said, "Bless me, Father."
"It's been six weeks since my last confession." At that, she felt guilt, but he did not look in her direction.
She went on. "I had--I had relations. With someone of my same--my same--"
Father Ray's jaw tensed. His eyes widened.
"She was--And I made love to her. Father." Natalia took a deep breath.
Father Ray said, "And you did this deliberately?"
"With knowledge? And consent?"
"That is a mortal sin, Natalia."
"Do you have anything else to confess?"
She shook her head. "I ask for penance, Father."
"Perhaps you should revisit the books of wisdom. If you need guidance for your path, Natalia."
"Will you make an act of contrition?"
She opened her mouth, but the words would not come out. The Latin, both ancient and rote, stayed in her throat until she trembled and looked at the door and the brighter light beyond it.
"Are you contrite, Natalia?" Father Ray asked.
She stood up.
"Are you going to commit this sin again?" he asked.
"I'll--I'll read what you told me to read, Father." She left the parlor.
Father Ray said, "Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."
Buzz Cooper appeared in the doorway.
Father Ray stood.
Buzz glanced behind him and said, "Whatever she did, probably wasn't a sin."
"Her actions will have consequences."
Buzz nodded. "That's why I'm here."
* * *
Olivia made it to the porch as the dining room bustled with the meal crowd. Some travelers had left, wary of the soldiers milling in town, big and mean. But others had come, even circling to get to Campo Primavera. The only civilized place in 50 miles. Olivia shook her head.
Remy brought her pineapple slices and cool, white wine from the cellar. She picked at them. She watched the street. Just as she was beginning to wish for some warmth, Josh Lewis rode up.
She stood. He smiled as he hitched his horse and came onto the porch.
"Finally," she said. "A real man."
"Thought you could use one," he said.
"As usual, you were right."
She wrapped herself around him, burying her face in his neck. Oh, how she remembered this smell. These arms encircling her. She wanted to pull him inside, past the bar, into the game room, right where that stuffed ocelot posed. He'd caught it himself and presented it to her on their first wedding anniversary. She kissed his neck.
"What's that for?"
Josh pulled back and looked into her eyes, smiling. She touched his cheek, rough with beard. She didn't have to drag him anywhere. She could kiss him right here in front of her hotel. No one would pay her any mind. And if they did, fuck them. She wouldn't have to deal with it soon. Her fingers curled around his neck and she pulled him down for a slow, lingering kiss, forcing his mouth open with hers, and then just as he was about to gasp, pulling back. She picked up a piece of pineapple and pressed it to his lips.
Then she kissed him again, tasting the sweetness. She was having fun. Kind of. Nothing compared to last night.
Josh took her hands and pulled them to his chest. "Olivia."
"What's going on?"
"Can't a girl show a little appreciation?"
"Maybe you should--" He looked over her shoulder.
She turned, drawing his arm around her waist.
He asked, "That the Ranger?"
Gus was almost past the Beacon, heading toward the livery. Rafe rode at his side.
"Hi there," Olivia called.
Gus turned his horse. "Hi," he said. He smiled.
Part of Olivia was still strong enough to melt at that. She leaned back into Josh and smiled back at Gus. She was having a very good moment. She tried to hang onto it.
Rafe looked surly, aboard--Star?
Gus said, "Natalia told me this morning we could take Star out if we got a chance this afternoon. Hope you don't mind?"
Spot nipped Star's flank.
Olivia winced. "It's fine. My horses are Natalia's horses."
Her good moment was quickly slipping away. She turned to Rafe. "Who let you out?"
Gus said, "I thought it would be good, you know, to talk. What's he going to do? I'm the Ranger." He grinned.
Josh murmured in Olivia's ear, "Who is this guy?"
"The bandit's father. Natalia's--"
"What?" Josh asked.
She elbowed him. "I'll tell you all about it later."
Gus said, "It's real nice, you letting Rafe borrow books and things."
Rafe looked down at the saddle horn.
Olivia said, "Well, they're about him."
Emma darted onto the porch. "Mother, Gregory says I can't have any pineapple--Rafe!" She bounded down into the street.
Rafe leaned over and took her arms and lifted her onto Star. She giggled.
Olivia said, "Emma, introduce yourself."
Emma held onto Rafe's neck and leaned around to see Gus. "I'm Emma Spencer."
Gus offered his hand. "Gus."
"You're Rafe and Natalia's friend," she said.
"And yours too, I hope."
Olivia didn't realized she was sagging until Josh's grip tightened around her. He lifted her back up. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Stay for dinner?" she murmured.
He nodded against her hair.
Emma slithered around behind Rafe, sitting with her back to him, on Star's rump. Her dress was askew and she'd probably be dead if Star bucked, but Olivia couldn't help smiling. Gus told Emma a story about San Antonio. He was good with kids. He'd be good with hers. He already had a built in family--but no, Harley Cooper was not to be trusted. Not with her child's life.
She looked back at Rafe, who didn't dare smile, but looked relaxed and natural up on the horse. He must have been a good courier.
"Well, this is cute," she drawled.
Josh chuckled and ducked away from her, picking up pineapple.
Natalia came up the street, riding a laboring Snowflake in a steady trot.
Gus hesitated in his story.
Olivia asked, when Natalia dismounted, "Where've you been--"
"--all day?" Gus finished.
Natalia looked from Olivia to Gus. "I had something to do. You look good up on that horse, Rafe."
"It's Star," Emma said. "She makes anyone look good."
Rafe jostled her. She giggled, but let Natalia help her down, sliding into her arms.
Olivia said, "Emma, there's pineapple. Go ahead."
Emma darted to the plate.
"It's suppertime?" Natalia asked.
Gus nodded. "We'll just return these beasts and head on over to the jail."
"I'll bring something over," Natalia said.
"Natalia," Olivia said. "Don't you have duties here?"
Natalia met her eyes and pursed her lips.
Olivia said, "Nevermind. I'm sure Maria's handling things. She can do that for a day or two."
"If there's a problem, Ms. Spencer--"
Olivia shook her head and walked into the dining room.
Josh gave them a weak smile and followed her. "Hey," he said.
"She's fine. Everyone's just dandy."
"I'm furious. Isn't that my version of being dandy?"
She settled at a table near the bar. He joined her. "Olivia, tell me what's going on?"
She leaned across the table and took his face in her hands. "I just want some peace. Can't you give me that, Josh?"
He kissed her hand. "For a little while."
* * *
Gus and Natalia held hands as they walked a little ways behind the jail, far enough to see the stars.
"Natalia," Gus said. "I think we should talk. About things."
She nodded. "I know."
"I want to help Rafe. And you. I want to help you." Gus wiped his free hand on his trousers.
"But you don't... love me."
"Natalia." Gus turned and kissed her. Kissed her until her lips parted and she was smiling and he could smile, too.
"This is like a dream," Natalia said.
Gus ran his thumb across her cheek.
"A dream I've waited my whole life for. We were just kids, Nick, and I feel like a kid again."
"Natalia," he said again.
"I don't want the dream to end."
"It's going to. Probably when the shooting starts."
"But what happens after?" She hugged him, settling her head onto his shoulder. "You'll take Rafe back to San Antonio."
"No. I mean, I could, but. I won't arrest him. I won't see him hanged."
"Nick, you're a Ranger. Justice--"
"I believe he's innocent."
"Don't you?" he asked.
"I hadn't seen him in five years," Natalia said.
Gus threaded his fingers through her hair.
"I haven't seen you for nearly twenty."
"And look how that turned out. Why not believe in Rafe, too?"
Natalia lifted her head and kissed his chin. "It's different when he's my son."
"When he's family."
She didn't meet his eyes.
He took her chin and turned her back toward him and kissed her. She let him, but when his hands strayed to her breasts she grabbed his wrists.
"Isn't this part of the dream?" Gus asked.
"Not out here. Anyone can see us!"
"There's starlight. It's romantic."
"Nicky Augustino, have you always been this much of a cad?"
Gus grinned. "Don't you remember?"
She pulled him in for another kiss. "I guess I do remember."
* * *
Rafe sat in his cell with the door open, playing checkers with Frank.
Frank asked, "Rafe, if you manage not to--end up the way Judge O'Neill intended... you given any thought to the rest of your life?"
Rafe shook his head. He jumped Frank's checker. "Always figure I'd die young. Like--"
"Like what, Rafe?"
"I was there, Frank. In El Paso. A few years ago, when it all went to Hell. And people my age--My ma wouldn't let me fight when I ran away to the rangers, sure, and after that I just stayed good at what I did. The cavalry--anyway."
"El Paso. Whose side were you on, Rafe?"
"Well, you had the law, and you had the Mexicans."
Rafe's eyes widened. "How about the not chopping people up with axes side? Do you know what it was like there?"
Frank nodded thoughtfully.
Rafe tossed over the checkers board.
Frank said, "You're going to clean that up."
"Yeah. But it felt good."
Frank got up and went to the cell door. "Didn't mean anything personal by it, Rafe. I just wanted to know."
"If we survive the next few days, I'll tell you."
"Just don't call me a bean eater, deputy."
"You haven't called me an olive picker. It's only fair."
Rafe grinned. "Hadn't thought of that one."
Frank closed the cell. "Stay away from my daughter."
* * *
A Russian prince condescended to sit in a corner for an hour and talk with a massive lady, dressed like Hamlet's mother in black velvet with a pearl bridle under her chin. A Polish count, aged eighteen, devoted himself to the ladies, who pronounced him, 'a fascinating dear', and a German Serene Something, having come to supper alone, roamed vaguely about, seeking what he might devour. Baron Rothschild's private secretary, a large-nosed Jew in tight boots, affably beamed upon the world, as if his master's name crowned him with a golden halo. A stout Frenchman...
Natalia slipped into Olivia's room before nine when Olivia was still reading by gaslight, when she would have been down at Spaulding's just getting started in her younger days. Olivia closed her book.
"What are you doing here?" Olivia asked.
"What are you reading?"
For a moment there was a stalemate. They stared at each other, hard and determined.
Olivia put the book on the table. "Little Women," she said.
"I like Jo."
Natalia smiled. She came to sit on the bed.
Olivia said, "You look like you're roaming vaguely about, seeking something to devour."
Natalia's eyes widened.
"Maybe reading is bad for you."
"How are you feeling?" Natalia asked.
"I don't want to talk about how I'm feeling."
Olivia took her forearms and urged her closer. "I don't want to talk about anything."
Then they were kissing, fast and hungry, and Natalia was half-on top of Olivia, clutched by her. Olivia's fingers bruised her arms. Natalia yanked at Olivia's gown.
"Off," Olivia said.
Natalia stood by the bed while Olivia got out of it and turned down the lamp. In the shadows Olivia could undress herself, pulling her gown over her head, following quickly with the chemise, with every stitch of fabric until she was naked in front of Natalia, gaunt. Shivering.
Natalia followed suit, shedding dress and boots, but letting Olivia help her with the corset, not touching Olivia until it was done, until Olivia kissed her and pushed her against a wall, and though it was her hands on Olivia's breasts, and her thigh between Olivia's, Natalia was the one groaning. Olivia's teeth sank into her shoulder. Natalia was being marked, being mauled. She wanted more. She wanted to remember this, to feel this down to her bones. She wanted Olivia to take her and to ravage her.
There was no talking. When Olivia sank to the floor, Natalia didn't stop her. Didn't worry about the cold wood on Olivia's knees or about her own soul or her own son. She just gave in.
Olivia's mouth was like liquid gold, searing her with heat and riches. Natalia pulled her hair, urging her closer. She'd never felt this, not in her whole life. If Olivia died, she might never again. She wanted to plead to Olivia and to God, but she could barely breathe. She closed her eyes. Olivia's hair brushed across her thighs. Olivia's tongue--
She came undone. She panted obscenely. She sweated against the wall. Olivia stood at her urging, and only when Olivia's eyes met hers did she let go of Olivia's hair.
She thought, but did not say, that Olivia should be in bed. But Olivia obediently consented to the chemise and the drawers again and Natalia dressed and joined her, curling up at her side to kiss her. The taste of Olivia's damp lips only made her crave more. She kissed until the taste was in her own mouth, and then transferred it to Olivia's breasts, pushing up the silk, finding the pliant curves and the hard tips for herself. Everything she wanted. She touched Olivia, circling in wetness that rose to meet her, feeling guilty that as Olivia shuddered and cried out, it weakened her.
She brought Olivia into her arms again, trying to imbue some of her own life force. Olivia smiled, limp and unmoving, but there was a light in her expression Natalia hadn't seen before.
Natalia smiled back, hoping to send the worries gnawing at her away, back behind the door. Out the window. She turned up the lamp, and then Olivia kissed her sweetly. The press of lips against hers, and then a retreat, a coaxing, and then the touch again. There was still no talking, but there was a promise. Olivia retrieved the book. They read together, shoulder to shoulder.
The pleasantest room in the house was set apart for Beth, and in it was gathered everything that she most loved, flowers, pictures, her piano, the little worktable... Father's best books found their way there, Mother's easy chair, Jo's desk, Amy's finest sketches...
* * *
Doris was halfway through her toast when Olivia joined her at the table.
"You're late," Doris said. "And you look--surprisingly good."
Maria set down breakfast. Olivia took a sip of coffee and reached for the parchment of white powder.
Doris grabbed her wrist. "What's that?"
Doris set down her fork and plucked the parchment from Olivia's fingers.
"Hey," Olivia said.
"You're not taking that!"
"Give it back."
"Olivia, I'm sure Reva could get you opium, or there's cocaine at the apothecary. Or whatever Mel grows."
Olivia took the parchment back. "Doctor's orders."
"He's a quack."
"You said yourself I was looking good."
Doris said, "I had assumed you weren't alone last night, that's all. Who'd you fuck, Olivia?"
"Please tell me it wasn't a Lewis."
"Who would you prefer? Josh? Bill? Both at once?"
Doris rolled her eyes. "I come bearing news and rumors. I deserve some of my own."
"I screwed the maid, all right?"
Doris threw up her hands. "You're impossible."
Olivia said, "Tell me what I missed while I was oversleeping."
"The militia left at dawn. Without the Ranger. Or Mallet or Frank. You know Augustino, right?"
"We're getting acquainted."
"I want to hear everything, when this is all over. I already have the title. The Maid and the Marshall."
"He's a Texas Ranger."
"It's fiction." Doris waved her off. "Alliteration is important in fiction."
Olivia asked, "Why would state agents leave without the local sheriff?"
"They think they know where Judge O'Neill hid the money."
Doris gave her a look. "You know what money."
Olivia sipped coffee.
"You know whose money."
Olivia narrowed her eyes.
"I'd think you'd be more concerned about any operations Reva Lewis involved herself with."
"Doris, look around. That mirror behind the bar. The oak on the railing. The napkin in your hand."
"So you corrupted a judge."
"Reva stole my husband. This is what I get in return. It's not a good arrangement. Now show me whatever you came over here to show me, because the militia is going to circle back, probably by tomorrow, and we're all dead."
"You think they'll come after me? I operate the telegraph. They don't want to be cut off from the outside world."
"You know that's not why." Olivia kicked the leather satchel Doris had at her feet.
Doris sighed and opened it, pulling out newspaper sheets.
Olivia read aloud, "'Corrupt Judge Gunned Down.' Fantastic, Doris."
"Turn it over."
Olivia flipped over the page. "Militia Conducts 'Witch' Hunt in Resource-Rich Town." She sighed. "Alan's not going to like that."
"No one's going to like that."
"Printing that has consequences, Doris."
"That's why they call me The Wolf."
"What about us? I don't want my hotel burned down because you can't keep your mouth shut."
"It's the truth, Olivia."
"What is truth?"
Doris slapped the table. "You think the wars are over, so we can just live in our sleepy little cow town and pretend everything's fine? You think the railroad is just going to make everyone richer and happier? You think the shooting is going to stop?"
Olivia put her head in her hand.
"You know I'm right."
"You're a pain in the ass. Alan is looking to clean this town out."
"It's not his to clean out."
Olivia slapped her head. "This is a fucking nightmare."
"Bienvenida al Campo de Pesadillas."
Doris took another bite of toast.
* * *
Olivia expected to find Gus at the jail, but he was at the livery, saddling Spot.
"Headed out?" she asked.
"Yeah. Hey, thanks for taking such good care of Natalia."
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about," she said.
"I want to talk to you, too." But he was looking away, testing the girth, checking the straps.
She tugged on his arm. "Gus."
He turned around.
"Gus, I need--Just for a little while longer. Then you can--"
"I need her," Gus said. "I'm leaving soon, but before that--"
"Can't you stand a little less cleaning just for a few days?"
Olivia exhaled. She let go of his arm.
Gus said, "This is a dream for me, Olivia. I mean, after all these years. To hold her in my arms. You don't know what it's like."
Her eyes burned. She rubbed them. She wouldn't do this, not here. Not in front of him.
"Look, in a few days, I'll tell her about Harley, and Rafe'll be free, and you'll never have to see me again."
"I need her now."
Gus met her gaze, startled. She must have been trembling because he took her arms. "Olivia."
"Gus, I don't need her to clean. For God's sake. I'm dying."
"Olivia." He took a deep breath.
"She's all I have left."
"Emma's going to lose me. She needs a mother."
Olivia felt the blood rushing from her head. She felt faint and didn't resist as Gus held her close.
Gus said, "We'll both help you. Natalia and I. We're in this together."
* * *
Bill ran into the office, his voice barely audible over the oil machine outside. "Riders!"
"Militia?" Reva asked.
"Who else would it be?"
Reva was on her feet and getting the shotgun off the wall before Bill had time to catch his breath.
"Not the shotgun, Reva," Bill said.
"They're not coming on this land."
"Reva, they're the law."
"And you think we have much use for law on this land?"
Bill rubbed his chin, following her outside, into the sunlight. "I think they have use for us."
"They just want what's ours."
Bill shook his head, but mounted his horse, and they rode out toward the gates to meet the riders.
* * *
"Fifteen," Reva breathed, as they trotted down the gravel to wear the soldiers milled by the gate. "Where's Josh?"
"He's coming," Bill said.
Other workers were coming, making a wide half-circle around Reva and Bill. Mostly armed, mostly mounted, some with hands sticky from oil, others riding in from the grazing lands.
Reva raised the shotgun.
The lead rider rode forward. "We're going to search your land. We don't need your permission."
"What are you looking for?"
"Jeffrey O'Neill's killer."
"And why do you think he's here?"
"We never said anything about no he. Now, we know this was the last place he was before he got shot."
Bill glanced at Reva.
Reva sighed. "Bill Lewis, this is why you always lose at cards."
Bill set his jaw and looked back at the men.
Reva asked, "I thought there were supposed to be twenty of you."
The leader said, "We went to the witch's cabin but no one was home. Nothing inside, neither. No books, no medicines. No pictures or heirlooms. Not even a quilt on the bed. Sure was strange. So we left a few men there. Looks like someone's on the run."
"If you've got someone in mind, why the Hell are you here?" Reva asked. "Where's Mallet?"
"Sheriff Mallet is guarding the prisoner."
"The prisoner?" Bill asked.
"He means the Bible Bandit," Reva said.
"And he's got an accomplice. We know he hid out there for a few days. Now she's gone. Figure someone might be hiding her here."
"We're not--" Bill started.
Reva lifted her hand. "Hiding who?"
The leader laughed. "You know who. And if she's not here, we'll go on our way peacefully."
"She's not here," Reva said.
"That isn't good enough."
Bill tapped his horse forward. "Her word isn't good enough?"
The leader asked, "Why do you keep this one around? I saw him every night at Spaulding's, drinking himself sick."
Reva said, "He's the fastest draw this side of Texas."
"Oh, sure he is."
"And he's pretty."
The leader dismounted and tossed his reins to the man next to him. He looked at Bill.
Bill slid off his horse.
Reva looked skyward. "Oh, Jesus Christ."
Bill asked, "We going to settle this the old fashioned way? Like men?"
One of the leader's riders leaned down to him. "We've got the law behind us. Let's just search and leave."
The leader shook his head. "These people are complicit in the death of a judge. That cannot stand."
Reva said, "You son of a bitch. I never wanted Jeffrey O'Neill dead."
"Reva," Bill warned.
Reva lowered her shotgun.
Bill said, "As far as I'm concerned, I guess, you're trespassing."
"As far as I'm concerned," the leader said. "You can go to Hell."
Bill said, "I'll let the honorable lawman draw first."
The leader snorted.
"Where is Josh where is Josh," Reva muttered to herself.
The leader pulled his gun.
Bill shot him.
Another gun went off and the man closest to the leader toppled off his horse and into the dirt.
Bill and Reva raised their guns.
No one else moved.
Josh and Mallet were riding side by side, up behind the militia.
Mallet called, "What's going on here?"
Bill said, "He drew first."
"But you shot first," Reva said. "Now we've got a damn war on our hands."
Mallet looked evenly at the militia.
The men scattered.
"They'll head back to town," Mallet said.
"They'll regroup first. They've got to pick a new leader."
Josh shook his head. "You picked the wrong side, Mallet."
Mallet dismounted and leaned over the body of the leader. He said, closing the man's eyes, "So far I picked the side that ain't dead. You guys going to take care of this?"
"We will," Josh said. "You take care of Campo Primavera."
"You should really ride into town."
"I will," Bill said.
"What? After all this, I need a drink."
"There's a reason we don't let you drink here."
"Hey, I just saved your land."
"That you did, brother." Josh gave Bill a shove.
Reva asked, "Where the Hell is Melissande, anyway?"
Josh said, "You don't want to know."
Reva's eyes widened. "No."
"Yup. Blake Marler's Palace of Delight."
* * *
Spot bounced into town an hour after sunset. Gregory got Olivia, who got Doris, and the two women hurried into Spaulding's.
"There's been a change of plans," Gus said.
"What?" Olivia asked.
"Some things went down at the Lewis ranch."
Olivia covered her mouth. Doris touched her shoulder.
"No one was hurt."
"That's not true," Bill spoke up from a poker table. "I killed a guy dead."
Gus sighed. "No civilian, I meant. How are you already--anyway. Two of the militia are dead. They're regrouping up by the river. They'll come this way next."
Alan pounded his fist on the bar.
Frank came into the saloon followed by Natalia.
"Where's Mallet?" Frank asked.
Gus rubbed the back of his head. "Still out there."
Alan said, "I want every house and building in town to set a watch."
Gus nodded. "That's a good idea. Wolf?"
Doris turned to him.
"I need you to telegraph San Antonio and tell them the prisoner escaped."
Doris raised her eyebrows.
"Say he's headed to Wharton. Can you do that?"
Doris hesitated. She glanced at Olivia, and then Alan, and said, "Yeah. Yeah, I can do that."
Gus nodded. "Do that."
Doris headed for the saloon doors.
"It's so good you're here, to be strong throughout this," Olivia said. She leaned half on Gus, half on the bar.
Natalia rolled her eyes.
Frank asked, "What about the boy?"
"I think he'll be safe where he is, at least for tonight."
Frank said, "I'll stay with him." He headed for the door.
"Frank?" Gus called.
Frank looked over his shoulder.
"Arm him," Gus said.
Frank nodded and left the saloon.
Olivia nuzzled into Gus's throat.
Natalia grabbed her arm. "Olivia, now is not the time."
Gus said, his chin on Olivia's hair, "Actually, Olivia and I, we were talking and--"
"You were talking?"
Olivia straightened. "We were just--"
"You don't have enough men in your life? You had to go after Nicky, too?"
"Hey." Gus stepped forward.
Buzz stopped him with a gesture.
"That's the big joke, isn't it?" Natalia asked. "Olivia Spencer, the town whore."
Olivia glanced around the bar.
Men ducked their heads.
Natalia said, "Doesn't have prostitutes at the Beacon because she doesn't like the competition."
Olivia asked, "Me? You want to talk about me? Let's talk about you."
"You, Natalia. You with your poor sob story and your stupid little pony and your--your smile!"
Natalia raised her eyebrows.
"You thought you could get in with me. You thought I was weak. I'm not that weak, Natalia. You, what, came for my money? Tricked me out of my fortune? But your partner here came to soon. Harley's little friend arrived a few days too early."
"Hey!" Gus said.
"Harley?" Buzz asked.
Olivia waved him off. "Is that what you want, Natalia? My gold? My daughter? My hotel? Take it. Take it all!"
Natalia shouted, "I came here for protection!"
"What? From him?" Olivia pointed at Gus.
Gus pointed at himself and blinked.
Natalia took a deep breath. "You know from what."
Olivia covered her chest with her hand, nearly shuddering with the energy it took to shout.
Natalia said, "You're sick, Olivia. You need to sit down."
"I don't need to do anything, Natalia, but forget that I ever knew you."
Natalia's face crumpled.
Olivia leaned on a table and closed her eyes. She could feel her own heartbeat, making her hands ache. Her knees were weak.
"Enough. Clean this up," Alan demanded. "The men have work to do. Bill, take her out of here."
Bill sighed scooped Olivia over his shoulder. "This is why we aren't together anymore, you know."
Olivia smacked his ass.
Bill staggered out.
Natalia gave Gus a pained look, then followed them.
Gus turned to Buzz. "Nice little town you got here."
"Want a drink?"
"That'd probably be best."
* * *
"What is wrong with you?" Natalia demanded. She closed the door. Olivia had gone right to the Beacon, right upstairs, but she hadn't managed to shut Natalia out. Not yet.
Olivia paced. "I'm sick."
"No. What is wrong with you?"
"I'm scared." Olivia stopped in front of Natalia, meeting her eyes.
"Olivia. On this of all nights, you can't be scared. You can't. We all need you--"
"Everything's happening too fast. I didn't think it would happen this fast."
Natalia took Olivia's face in her hands. "It's going to be all right."
"Nothing's going to be all right."
But Natalia stroked her hair and petted her cheeks and traced her lips with gentle fingertips, and when Olivia's breathing had subsided from gasps, when the tears had stopped flowing, Natalia lifted her head and kissed her.
Olivia pressed into the kiss.
Natalia drew her into an embrace. "Olivia," she said, and kissed her again.
"Hm?" Olivia's lips were still closed, but she was allowing Natalia's affections.
"Everything's going to be all right."
Natalia coaxed Olivia down to her, and was rewarded with a searing, passionate kiss. Her mouth opened to Olivia's heat. Her knees buckled, but she was caught by Olivia's strength. A glimmer of what it would have been like if--And then the bed, as Olivia pivoted them and pushed her down. Natalia wanted her kisses everywhere. She couldn't unbutton her blouse fast enough for Olivia's mouth to find her chest. She tugged at Olivia's hair. She begged.
"Take me, Olivia."
She still had the bruises from last night, but they weren't enough. They would never be enough. She turned on her side, facing Olivia, meeting her eyes before their mouths met again in a kiss. They couldn't be apart for long. Natalia reached for her, found her.
Olivia gasped. She was so close. Natalia wondered if she'd been this excited even at Spaulding's. Wanting her. Not Gus.
Natalia pulled back to see Olivia's face.
Olivia gave her a faint smile.
Natalia withdrew her hand and licked her fingers. The darkening of Olivia's expression only encouraged her. She touched Olivia's cheek. She kissed Olivia's temple.
"Natalia," Olivia started. "I'm sorry."
"Don't. I can be loco sometimes, too."
Olivia raised her eyebrows.
Natalia shook her head and kissed her. She didn't want anymore words. She wanted Olivia, and reached for her again, and this time, didn't stop until Olivia's lips bruised hers as she shuddered.
"Olivia," she breathed.
Olivia kissed her, and then rolled over onto her back, freeing her hips from Natalia's relentless pursuit.
Natalia put her head on Olivia's shoulder.
"Natalia," Olivia said. "I don't know what's going to happen."
"I would hope you know what's going to happen in the next ten minutes or so," Natalia said.
Olivia rolled her neck to look at her.
Natalia smiled. "Don't disappoint me."
Natalia slid out of bed to undress down to her underwear, until Olivia's smoldering gaze was too much to resist. Olivia lifted herself into a crouch. Natalia slipped into bed and touched her cheek, her nose. Olivia settled over her.
"Yes," Natalia said.
"Yes, what?" Olivia asked, her hands sliding down Natalia's body.
"Yes, this is what I want. You, on top of me. You, inside me. All the time, it's all I think about. Olivia, please."
Natalia dragged Olivia's hand between her legs. Olivia rode her, eyes meeting hers darkly, with Natalia's free hand around her neck.
They were moving together. They were--
Alan flung the door open. "Olivia." He took in the scene. "Oh, for Pete's sake."
Olivia lifted her head. "What the Hell, Alan?"
"Olivia, we all know what's going on and that's your business, but you don't have to rub it in our faces."
"You came into my bedroom!"
"We've got a problem. I'm hoping you've sobered up enough."
"A real problem, Olivia."
Olivia sighed. "I'll be down in five minutes."
"You're going to finish?"
"Five minutes, Alan."
Alan left, slamming the door.
Olivia bent down to kiss Natalia.
Natalia turned her head. Olivia's lips brushed her ear. Natalia said, "We can't do this."
"Natalia, when I walk out that door... Natalia, look at me."
Natalia looked up.
Olivia said, "I don't know if I'm coming back."
Natalia squeezed her eyes shut.
Olivia resumed moving against her, touching her, kissing her neck and her shoulder until her lips burned and she breathed instead, heavy and hot on Natalia's skin. Tears stung Natalia's eyes, but she reached for Olivia, holding Olivia against her body, feverish and needful. Then Olivia's fingers were inside her and she gasped, rising up to meet Olivia, thrust for thrust, trembling, trying not to cry. Trying not to fall apart too soon.
"Natalia," Olivia said.
Natalia keened, lifting herself one last time against Olivia's hand. She clung, stilling, while Olivia moved relentlessly. This time it came with pleasure, a white hot joy building inside her. She kissed Olivia's lips, trying to transfer it back. Trying to smile through her tears.
Olivia kissed her, slowly, fully. At first, the kiss was a promise. And then a goodbye.
Natalia gripped her shoulders. "Don't."
Olivia slid out of bed. "Alan's waiting."
Natalia rolled onto her side. She watched as Olivia got dressed, as she put on a heavy coat, and then put a revolver inside her pocket.
"Natalia, I have to go."
Olivia was at the door.
"Olivia. Olivia Spencer, I love you."
Olivia turned in the doorway and blew Natalia a kiss. Then, smiling, she was gone.
* * *
Frank shook Rafe's shoulder. "Wake up."
"You haven't been awake for hours."
Rafe squinted. "It's midnight." He felt like he hadn't slept at all. He sat up. His back ached from the hard cot.
Frank said, "It's only ten o'clock at night. Get up."
Frank stepped out of the cell and Rafe stood up, rubbing his eyes.
"Come here," Frank said.
Rafe cautiously stepped over the threshold.
Frank offered him a gun belt. A rusted six-shooter and thirty bullets, he estimated. If the thing worked at all. He hadn't seen a gun like that since the Army.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"Well, it's like this. The ranger said to say you'd escaped."
Rafe backed into his cell. "No. I don't want to get shot in the back and buried in a pasture. I'm not escaping nothing until I talk to my mother."
Frank shook his head. "This isn't to escape. I need your help. You know about the soldiers."
"We think they're going to turn on us."
"Don't get greedy, son. Your mother's life is at stake. Among others."
Rafe rubbed his jaw. "The ranger said this? You trust him?"
"He's your father."
"I just met him a couple of days ago."
"I trust him," Frank said.
"My gut, that's all. The look in a man's eyes. I trust you, too, Kid. And you're part him." Frank gestured with the belt.
Rafe took it. "All right. What are we doing?"
"You're going to stay with me and do exactly what I say at all times."
"You know I'm a lousy shot? I was accused of knifing that guy in Shreveport. And I've got a hole in my shoulder."
"Want your knife back?"
Frank got it from the desk drawer and handed it to him. Rafe stuck it in his boot.
"Doesn't matter what you do, Rafe," Frank said. "As long as you're not here when they come looking for you."
"I understand. But I'll do what you tell me. I don't trust some cowboy that'd run out on his family."
Rafe said, "But I guess I have no reason not to trust you."
Frank squeezed his shoulder, and they went out into the night.
* * *
Olivia found Alan on the porch. He was smoking a cigar and looking toward the corral.
"Alan," she said
She pulled the coat tighter around herself. Between the drinking and the indecent acts she was too exhausted, too drained, to deal with the night on top of the day. She'd put on a brave face for Natalia, but as soon as she had stepped outside her suite, her own spirit had left her.
Alan nodded. "It's quiet in there," he said.
"I sent all the guests out of town. Didn't you?"
He frowned. "No. No, I didn't."
"You'll take care of that, won't you? Tonight."
"What are you going to do?"
"I came to tell you I'm going to ride out to the camp. I'm going to negotiate."
"Do you think that's a good idea?"
"Of course I do."
Her head was spinning. She risked moving her hand out of her pocket to rub her cheek.
"Olivia, I'm only going to ask you this once. Who killed Judge O'Neill?"
She took a deep breath. "I have no fucking idea."
"I'm dead serious, Alan. I woke up and the man was dead."
Alan looked back at the street. "Well, fuck."
She asked, "Want me to ride out with you?"
"No. No, I'll take care of this. Olivia, remember, we share a common goal."
"And what's that, Alan?"
"Preservation of Campo Primavera at all costs."
"Sure, Alan. Let me go clear your hotel for you while you ride out of town. I thought this kind of stuff was over."
"So did I. But you know? I'm starting to get the impression that it will never be over."
Olivia nodded. She went down the steps.
Alan snuffed his cigar.
* * *
Natalia found Gus at the corral. He leaned on the post, watching the cattle. He smiled when Natalia approached him.
She touched his back.
He asked, not looking over, "Why so few? Steers, I mean."
"It's not time for the big push. These are just what Spaulding keeps in town."
"How many cattle in Campo Primavera? You think?"
"Twenty-five to thirty thousand, I've heard."
"Why are you asking me about cattle, Nicky Augustino?"
"Just trying to get a feel of the land. Every town is different. You wouldn't think, but--It's not San Antonio."
"Houston, either," Natalia said.
Natalia studied Gus's profile. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him.
"You ran off," he said. "Missed all the battle plans."
"Fill me in."
"Frank's taking the south side of town, Mallet's gone with Alan to negotiate at their camp."
"Bribe, you mean."
"Alan Spaulding has ideas. They're not all clear to me."
Gus asked, "How's Olivia?"
"She's…calmer. Alan Spaulding came and got her."
"On the way out of town, I guess."
Natalia didn't say anything.
Gus said, "I remember standing with you on a night like this. The sky was so beautiful then, too. You could see every star."
"The last time we--"
"Yup. You think that's what brought on Raphael?"
Natalia shook her head, grinning. "I think that happened the first time."
Gus said, "No, come to think of it, the best time was on the roof. That's when we made magic. Made him. You remember that?"
"We broke into that hotel."
"We didn't break in. Your father was a cook there."
"He didn't know we were around."
Gus said, "If he did, he would have thrown me off that roof."
"And good riddance, too," Natalia said.
Natalia squeezed his waist. "That time on the roof. That was the last time, wasn't it? Before--"
"Before my father died."
Gus said, "I'm sorry I left."
"You had to go."
"I could have taken you with me."
"I wasn't going with you."
Natalia said, "I didn't know, then. That Houston without you would be so terrible."
Gus lowered his head.
Natalia shifted to cup his jaw and pull him down for a kiss. He smiled, kissing her back, and then settled his forearms over her shoulders.
She raised her eyebrows.
"Olivia Spencer said some things back at Spaulding's," Gus said.
"She sure did."
"What's this about you coming to Campo Primavera for protection?"
"That's my concern," Natalia said.
"I lived a lot of life after you left, Nicky. Want me to ask what you've been doing?"
His smile turned bashful. "I suppose I don't."
Natalia kissed his palm, and then drew his arms down to hold his hands. She said, "Let's just be grateful for the places our lives overlapped."
"I am, Natalia. I am. Sounds like you've landed, though. You got a good thing going."
Natalia nodded, looking away. She asked, "You too, Nicky?"
She swallowed. "So here we are."
He squeezed her fingers. She looked back and stepped closer, settling against his shoulder.
He said, "Standing like that, you're going to miss all the shooting stars."
"But this way, I can hear your heartbeat."
He kissed her temple.
She said, "Rafe grew up to be just like you."
"He's a mess, that's for sure."
"But he'll have a good heart," Gus said.
"Hopefully he got the good half of each of us."
"He definitely got your good looks."
Natalia asked, "Charmer. Going to keep watch all night, Nicky?"
"Yup. Going to stay here with me?"
"As long as it's calm, and we can see the stars, I don't want to be anywhere else. Just for a little while."
Natalia squeezed his side.
Gus said, "If I could see your face, I'd know that wasn't true."
"Everything is going to change--"
Natalia covered his lips with her fingertips. "Shssh. Everything is going to change tomorrow. Let me have tonight."
"All right. Let's see which star will be the last one standing by morning."
Natalia untangled a hand and pointed. "That one."
"You always were a little loco."
"Fine, you pick."
Gus pointed. "That one."
"You've been picking that same star for twenty years."
"I like that one best."
"It's all yours, Nicky."
He laughed and pulled her closer, and they stood together, looking at the night sky. Listening for horses.
* * *
Buzz Cooper had vodka waiting for Olivia by the time she made it to the bar. Even at this hour there were men playing cards and men drinking, but the saloon was mostly quiet and her presence didn't cause much of a stir.
"You look like Hell," he said.
"So do you."
He adopted a hurt expression.
She squinted. "Sorry, reflex. Thanks for the drink."
"You're welcome. Beacon out?"
"Alan sent me to make sure you get all the guests out of town before the shooting starts."
"Can I have another one?" Olivia waved her empty glass.
"Nope," Buzz said.
"And why not?"
"I've got a question, Olivia."
Buzz leaned across the bar and took her hand. "Will you marry me?"
Olivia drew back from him.
Buzz said, "It may be our final night on Earth."
"Brings a new meaning to 'Until death,'" she said.
"When you were fighting with that maid of yours--"
"Sorry," Olivia mumbled.
Buzz shook his head. "You said--You said that you were--I mean, I had some suspicions, but--"
"Why didn't you tell me outright? When you knew?"
"I didn't want to see that face. I didn't want to do that to you."
"And I still wouldn't marry you, Buzz Cooper. Marriage ruins everything."
He raised his eyebrows.
She asked, "And why would you want to marry something that's been married to Alan Spaulding?"
"We've all done things in our past we're not proud of," he said. He looked at his hands.
She covered them with her own. "Buzz."
He didn't look up.
"This about the war?"
"That was a long time ago," he said.
"Sure. And I can tell it feels that way."
Olivia said, "You should talk about it sometime."
"Maybe I should. But not with you."
"What will you do with me?" she teased.
"Well, if I'm not sleeping with you, and I'm not talking with you, I guess it's back to drinking."
Buzz poured another shot.
Olivia picked it up. "I hate vodka," she said.
Buzz clinked the glass with his bottle.
Olivia said, "I've seen you pour a lot of drinks. I've never seen you drink one."
"I hate vodka, too."
Buzz said, "You should get some sleep, Olivia."
Olivia drank her vodka.
"It's just--" she hesitated, and didn't look him in the eye. "I haven't slept alone in a few days. I'm not looking forward to it."
Buzz opened his mouth.
"Oh, don't look at me like that, Buzz, I've only got a few weeks to live. I might as well enjoy them."
"So enjoy them." He spread his arms.
"Every memory of every time, Buzz Cooper," she said.
"And now? If it's Remy Boudreaux I may strangle you," Buzz said.
"Who, then? Josh isn't--"
"Oh, he did," Olivia said, smiling. "But we didn't. None of the Lewises, before you run down the goddamn list. If you haven't figured it out, you're the last man in town who--and you know? I kind of like it that way. Keeps me pure, Buzz Cooper."
Olivia slid off the bar, and teetered. "Take me home. Then throw all these people out of this hotel."
"Only if you tell me who you've been shacking up with."
"Tomorrow, Buzz. Tomorrow."
* * *
Olivia woke to the sound of gunfire. She slipped out of bed and went to the window, pulling her robe around herself. Dawn had not quite come. The sky was gray. The streets were empty, though the gunfire was a constant, scattered popping. She got dressed in riding clothes, checked her revolver, and was nearly to the door before Remy blocked her.
"Hey! Let me pass."
"To go where, Ms. Spencer?"
"To--To stop this."
"By what? Asking nicely?"
Olivia pushed his chest.
"Have you ever asked nicely for anything?" Remy asked.
"Remy, I have to--Natalia's out there, somewhere."
"How do you know?"
"Well, she's not very stupid, is she? Gregory and Maria are gone. All the men in town are armed and prepared to fight."
Olivia listened to the gunfire. "You're not."
"My place is here."
"You should be with--"
"My sister can take care of herself."
"So can I."
"You'd just get yourself in trouble."
Olivia snorted. "She won't?"
"You can argue all you want. You can insult me. You can shove me. But you are not getting through that door, and I am not leaving until this over."
"How's it going to end, Remy?"
He smiled. "Hopefully with us eating breakfast."
She stepped back from the door, looking forlornly at the glass windows, at the sanded and painted porch, at the oak stairs. She had a feeling something was going to get broken.
"I'm cooking," she said. "You'd burn the water."
"That shotgun loaded?"
"Plan on shooting anyone?"
"No, ma'am. I hope not."
"Me too," she said.
* * *
Olivia had settled into the easy chair in the attic, where she could just see into the street. The shooting had stopped but Remy wouldn't let Olivia do anything. Emma had been with them for a while, but Remy put her down for an after-lunch nap. Olivia hadn't moved since then, in over an hour.
Remy exhaled and shifted the shotgun on his knees. "Ms. Spencer, if you don't mind me saying…"
"When have I ever minded?"
"You look terrible. Really terrible."
Olivia sighed. "I know."
"Making breakfast really wear you out that much?"
"Everything wears me out these days."
"Even sitting wears me out," she said, and then asked, "Remy, why are you here?"
"The pay is decent, the job is decent. Not many people that will hire someone like me, and I sure as Hell don't want to farm. Why not?"
She shook her head. "Tell me. Really."
He ducked his head, grinning, and focused on staring out the window.
"Oh, Jesus Christ, Remy. For Natalia?"
Olivia raised her eyebrows.
"Pleasant," Olivia echoed. "She sure is. You think so, Frank Cooper thinks so. I think Shayne gives her half-off at the general store every other week."
Remy said, "Yup. And Cyrus Foley sent her flowers. I know the lay of the land. And Alan Spaulding kissed her once."
"What?" Olivia sat up.
"Yup. Lizzie Spaulding told Mel. You'd sent Natalia out to the saloon on some errand, and Alan just up and grabbed her."
"Why did I not know this?"
Remy's grin widened. "Everyone figured you'd kill Alan Spaulding if you heard."
"I will. I will kill Alan Spaulding."
"No doubt you'll get your chance someday."
Olivia nodded. "Who else has kissed Natalia?"
"No one, I swear, Ms. Spencer. Natalia doesn't pay anyone much attention."
Olivia gritted her teeth.
Remy shrugged. "She's just… Nice. Not like people around here."
"Maybe you should go to Houston, Remy, find yourself a woman."
"Maybe. I've got my sights set on Philadelphia. Maybe Chicago."
Olivia said, "I can help you. If you decide."
"You just want me out of Natalia's hair."
"Out of mine."
They heard the horses, but didn't see them. The fire bomb came through the back, crashing through the library windows downstairs. The upholstery burned, and then the books. Remy was on his feet as the smoke came through the floor.
"I'll get Emma," Olivia said. "You get the Hell out."
"Go! Find Natalia and... just go!"
Remy grabbed the rifle and took the stairs two at a time. He opened doors along the way.
Emma was in her room, playing with her doll house. Coughing. Olivia imagined it in flames. The little people melting. She yanked Emma away.
"Emma, we have to go."
"I was playing--"
Olivia scooped Emma into her arms. Emma screamed.
"This is not the time for a tantrum, Emma Spencer." Olivia hauled her out into the hallway, her own heart already pounding from the exertion. Already failing. She couldn't carry her own daughter.
Emma saw the smoke. She stopped screaming, and went silent in Olivia's arms. Quivering enough to shake them both.
Olivia went to the stairwell. Orange flames came up the stairs. Burning the oak Natalia had made her buy. She took a step. The heat greeted her as a wall, unbearable.
"It hurts!" Emma said.
Emma slid to her feet and took her mother's hand. They went to the far door, then out onto the balcony. The heat was under Olivia's feet. Any second the porch would give way underneath her and the flames would consume her. Smoke poured into the street. The Beacon wasn't the only structure on fire. The hardware store burned. The houses down the street. But not Spaulding's. Nor the livery.
"Remy," she called.
"Olivia!" a voice answered.
Olivia looked over the edge of the balcony.
Phillip Spaulding waved his arms.
She pulled Emma back.
"Throw Emma down," Phillip said.
"Never," she said.
"Throw her down! I'm not going to see my daughter burn to death."
"I'd rather--" She looked at Emma.
"What's he talking about? Who's the man with the white hair?"
"Emma," she said.
"Goddamnit, Olivia, throw her down now. Let me save her."
Olivia knelt. "Emma, give me your hands."
Emma took hers.
Olivia leaned over the roof, pulling Emma with her, over the low ledge.
"No, stop!" Emma cried.
Olivia groaned with the effort, but held Emma until she was dangling, feet-first, toward Phillip. There was still a ten foot drop between them.
"It's okay, Olivia," Phillip said.
Olivia didn't want to die, not like this. Not watching him take her daughter away from her.
"Emma, look at me," Olivia said.
Emma looked up, crying.
"Emma, I love you."
"Mother, don't let--"
Olivia closed her eyes and let go.
She heard an "Oof!" and then laughter. She looked down.
Phillip was spinning Emma around. He set her down.
Olivia breathed. That had been the hardest thing she'd ever done in her life. And now she could lie down and--
"Olivia," he called.
She coughed. The smoke was thicker now. She could barely see him.
"Now you," Phillip said.
"Jump. I'll catch you."
"You can't--Don't you want to watch me burn?"
"Oh, sure. Jump off a burning building."
Phillip smiled. He opened his arms.
Olivia looked at Emma, who was still crying. Still hoping.
"You could take Emma and run," Olivia said.
"Look, can we talk about this later, when there's not a burning hotel and gunfire on the street?"
Phillip wiggled his fingers.
Olivia sighed and worked her way over the ledge. She clung with her fingertips.
Phillip said, "Trust me."
"I wouldn't trust you to--"
Olivia let go, falling. Phillip caught her around the waist and they toppled backward together, into the dirt. Landing hard. Then Emma was on top of her, nearly strangling her with hugs and kisses. Olivia knelt, taking Emma in her arms. She looked over her shoulder at Phillip, who'd managed to stand up.
"I don't understand you," she said.
He smiled and said, "You did once." He offered her his hand.
She let him pull her to her feet.
"The hotel," she said.
"It's gone. Don't even look back."
Olivia looked, though, at the smoke pouring out the front door. But the flames were in the back, and on the stairs. She could--
She ran inside.
Olivia tried to hold her breath. She made it to Natalia's room, flames just above her head, and used her handkerchief to yank the door open. The metal burned despite the cloth. She ducked inside into the darkness. She breathed. That was a mistake. There was no good air. She coughed, doubling over, but grabbed Natalia's Bible and a packet of letters and the jewelry box that held Natalia's rosary. She stumbled back out, her lungs burning, her head pounding, with the effort of not breathing.
Phillip caught her arms. "Don't do that!"
Olivia coughed. "Too late."
"What were you getting?"
Olivia looked at the treasures in her arms. Phillip shook her shoulders.
"Triste!" Emma said.
They turned as the horses, one gray, one white, came through the smoke like spectres.
Remy led them bridled and saddled, riderless.
Olivia said, "Phillip, you take Emma and you go."
"Anywhere. The Lewises. Whatever friends you've got with the Czechs."
"Everyone's coming here. To fight back."
"Not you. Not Emma."
Phillip sighed. He took the reins of his horse.
Olivia said, "Emma, you have to ride Triste now, all right?"
Emma shook her head. "No. I hate riding Triste."
Phillip raised his eyebrows.
"Emma--" Olivia started.
"He bites," Emma said.
Triste leaned over and nipped Phillip's arm.
Olivia said, "Emma Spencer, don't argue with me."
"I want to stay with you."
Phillip knelt in front of her and said, "You can ride my horse. He doesn't bite."
The white horse lowered his head and waited until Emma stroked his nose.
Phillip said, "We'll go see Josh, okay? You and me and--" He glanced at the other man.
"Remy," Olivia said.
"I'll fight," Remy said.
"The Hell you will."
Phillip straightened up. "Why are you staying, Olivia?"
Olivia put the Bible and the letters into Triste's saddle bag. She pulled out the rosary and slipped it into her pocket.
"Emma," she said. "Take good care of Natalia's things, all right?"
Emma rubbed her eyes. "What about my doll house?"
"We'll get you a new one."
"I liked mine."
Phillip asked, "Can you--"
"I have gold everywhere."
Phillip said, "Alan didn't have enough. To pay them off. That's why they're going to destroy the town. They think someone will give up Jeffrey's."
"Why didn't he ask me?" Olivia asked.
Phillip looked away.
"Why isn't his hotel on fire?"
Phillip smiled grimly. "One at a time, I guess."
"That's now how you burn down a town, Phillip."
"And you would know. Come with us, Olivia. Let's get out of Campo Primavera."
Olivia waved away the smoke. She squinted as Natalia ran toward her. Then she broke out into a run herself, catching Natalia in her arms. Natalia hugged her back, squeezing her neck.
"Olivia," she said. "Remy said--I thought--"
"Everything's all right," Olivia said.
Natalia pressed her face into Olivia's throat. "I thought--"
"The fighting's moved south. Out of town. We have them on the run."
Olivia listened for gunfire. She heard none. Just Natalia's heart pounding in her chest.
"It's not safe on the street," Olivia said.
"Go to the oil field. With Phillip."
Natalia looked over Olivia's shoulder at Phillip. He shook his head.
Natalia asked, "Are you going?"
Olivia shook her head. "I have to see this through."
"It's my town!"
"It's burning down, Olivia," Natalia said.
"I can help. I can--" She thought of her conversation with Alan. And now her hotel was on fire. The bastard. She asked Phillip, "What did Alan give them?"
"I don't know," Phillip said.
"Go. Take Emma and go."
Phillip put Emma onto his horse, and then swung up behind her. "Find us, Olivia."
"With my last breath," she said.
He nodded and kicked the horse into a gallop.
Remy caught Triste's reins.
Natalia still clung to Olivia's shoulders. "I'm not leaving you," she said.
"Me either," Remy said.
"I'm tired of sitting around."
Olivia shook her head. "You know who you need to protect."
"Does no one listen to me?"
Remy rolled his eyes, but dropped Triste's reins and ran up the street.
"Go," Olivia said. Then to Natalia she said, "Please. I can't do the things I need to do and--" She took a breath. "Worry about you, too."
"Olivia." Natalia's grip tightened.
Olivia turned enough to kiss Natalia's cheek, and then her lips. Natalia pressed back, holding her close.
"Go to Marler's, at least. Please. You'll be safe there. They've got a plan. Please, I'll find you later."
"With all my heart."
Natalia cupped Olivia's cheek, and then she turned and ran.
* * *
Natalia slipped into Blake Marler's parlor and was overcome by the smell of incense. She coughed and pinched her nose and looked around.
Holly Norris stepped out from the back room. "Natalia," she said. "You've finally decided to join us."
"It's not what you think."
Holly pursed her lips.
Natalia said, "Half the town is burning down. You can smell the smoke from here. This isn't the time to--"
Holly waved her away. "The soldiers have already been and gone."
"Several times, in fact," Blake said, stepping into the room.
Natalia folded her hands.
Blake said, "I want to introduce you to someone, Miss Rivera."
Mel entered from a ride room, wearing a gold dress that revealed her legs and arms, and a headdress with gold and silver coins.
Natalia's eyes widened.
Mel said, "I look ridiculous. African Queen, really? Could you be more demeaning, Holly Norris?"
"It's for your own protection."
"Protection has a price," Mel said.
"It sure does. We disguise you as anything else, they'll look underneath. But this--It's so obvious."
Natalia covered her mouth with her hand, smiling.
"Careful," Mel said. "They've got a nun outfit for you."
Natalia swallowed. She glanced around. "Where are the others?"
"Sadie and Beatrice? They went to Spaulding's. There are four girls there, we're inviting them over until the shooting stops."
"It's business. I'm down to two, and if I could control all the offerings in this town, so much the better," Holly said.
"Control?" Mel asked.
"Take care of," Holly said.
Blake flung herself into a chair. "Mother and I don't always agree on business."
"Your talents lie elsewhere, dear."
Blake smiled. "No one can get the men to talk like I do."
"What am I supposed to do?" Natalia asked.
"Just like that."
* * *
"Stop right there, Alan Spaulding!" Olivia shouted.
The exertion hurt her throat. She stank of smoke. But he heard her and drew his horse to a halt. She'd found him two miles south of town. What was south of him, she didn't want to know. She slid off her horse and wobbled on her feet. That had been a mistake. She didn't have the strength to stand.
Alan stayed mounted. "It's over, Olivia."
"The Beacon burned down. Took half the town with it."
Alan smiled. "Then you can work for me. Or exile yourself to the Lewis ranch. Or leave town."
"Can I? How about you go to Hell."
"I just saved Campo Primavera, Olivia."
"Yeah? How'd you do it?"
Alan dismounted from his horse and sternly approached Olivia, crossing his arms.
"Does it matter, Olivia?"
"I lost everything."
Alan's smile continued. He straightened his coat. "It was what I had to do."
"You told them I killed the judge, didn't you? She poked his chest. "Didn't you?"
He stepped back. "I only told them the truth."
"I didn't kill him."
"You had motive. That meeting in the saloon, where you looked like you'd seen a ghost. You ran back and got your shotgun. I've seen that look in your eyes before."
Her blood went cold. "He wasn't killed with a shotgun."
"I know your collection of rifles is…extensive, Olivia."
"But I didn't kill him. You son of a bitch. Is that why they torched the Beacon? With me inside? With Emma? Alan. Alan, you could have come to me for money."
Alan's expression hardened.
Olivia moved back further.
Alan said, "I was never going to let you ruin this town, Olivia. It's mine."
"It was ours."
"And then you fucked Jeffrey and put everything in jeopardy!"
Olivia's face flushed, but before she could answer, he amended his rant.
"If it wasn't you," he said, "It was that whore Reva Shayne. And she attacked the soldiers. She started this."
"You're crazy, Alan."
"I'm doing what's right. What Jeffrey O'Neill came here to do."
"He came down here on some wild goose chase."
"That's how you'd see it, of course. You're the one who employs the relatives of killers."
"Oh, yeah. I'm the only one." Olivia patted down her pockets. The revolver was there. Alan was twenty feet away.
Alan settled his hand on his holster. Fine leather. He'd probably stolen it off a guest.
"Try it," Olivia said.
"You think I'd shoot a woman?"
Hoofbeats sounded, too loud and too close. They both turned. Gus rode Star into view from the north. He was clutching the reins and his abdomen with his left hand, and had his Colt in his right.
"You," Alan said.
"Funny," Gus said. "I didn't know we were done fighting. But then you were up and gone."
Blood coated Gus's fingers. His shirt. Her horse.
Gus winked at her.
Olivia smiled. "Alan," she called. "You're not getting out of this alive."
"The Hell I'm not." Alan drew.
Olivia's revolver didn't even clear her pocket, but Alan staggered back, his eyes wide. Then he was gone, staring blindly at the sky.
Olivia contemplated kicking him. She settled for saying, "Not a very honorable shot, Ranger."
"It's still justice. Olivia--" he sagged over Star's side.
"Wait, wait." Olivia ran over. "You've got to stay on the horse."
Star nickered and tossed her head.
Olivia grabbed his thigh and pushed at his waist until he was righted again.
He smiled down at her. "You look like you're about to faint yourself."
"It's only two miles back to Campo Primavera. We'll make it."
"Sure. Let's see if you can get on that horse."
Olivia threw back her shoulders and stepped toward Triste. Then she hesitated, her head swimming. Her chest tight. She beckoned instead.
Triste walked to her.
"Doesn't count," Gus said.
"It does if I get on."
She used all of her strength to haul herself onto Triste's back, and then straightened as if she weren't sweating and panting from the exertion.
Gus smiled like he hadn't been shot in the stomach. She leaned over and took Star's reins anyway. The horses began walking side by side.
He said, "That's a nice horse. Where'd you pick up an Arabian, anyway?"
"Won Triste in a bet."
"You did not."
"I bought him at auction in Chicago."
"You've been to Chicago?"
"I've been everywhere."
Gus nodded. "But you like El Campo best."
They crested a hill, and green fields spread out before them. In the distance, the river glimmered in the afternoon haze of smoke.
"I do," she said. "It's home. Gus--"
"I know. In another life, we would have been great friends."
"I don't know. You're such a scoundrel."
He grinned. "That's my point exactly."
* * *
Rick stepped cautiously into Marler's Parlor. He knew Blake's women. He gave them salves and examinations and was one of the few in town to take their money instead of giving it to them--the curse of being a married man. But he didn't know the new girls. He took in the sight of a Spanish dancer, complete with boa and fan. And little else but the scarves that covered her. His eyes went round.
"Doctor Rick? What is it?" the dancer asked.
"You--You look like something out of an operetta," he said.
Natalia folded her arms over her bosom. "I do not, and this was not my idea."
Holly Norris, who just looked herself in a black gown and a black shawl, shook Rick's arm. "No men in here unless they're paying or explaining themselves," she said.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Natalia--" He wasn't sure he could do this.
"Olivia?" she asked, covering her mouth.
"No. No, it's Augustino. The Ranger."
Holly grabbed Natalia's waist before she could collapse, sobs already escaping her throat.
Rick said, "He's at my office. There's nothing I can do for him, Natalia."
Holly asked, "Is he still alive?"
"There's not much time. Natalia needs to come. Right now."
"There's a fire--" Holly protested.
"Now," he said.
Natalia bowed her head as Holly covered her with the black shawl, as Rick led her onto the porch.
"Saint Anthony, the answer to my prayer may require a miracle..."
* * *
Gus groaned in pain. Rick had packed his wound efficiently before leaving nearly a half hour ago, but there'd been no medicine yet. Nothing to dull the agony of a bullet tearing up his gut. Nothing to focus him now that the battle was over. He'd been placed on the examining table, and Olivia sat on a stool at his side. She looked as bad as he felt.
She squeezed his hand. "I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere."
"I need you to--to tell Harley something. Find her and tell her."
Olivia looked down, pressing his hand to her cheek.
"Tell her she was the love of my life."
"I will," she whispered.
"Tell the kids--"
He gritted his teeth against a wave of pain but it overtook him and he howled in agony. Olivia's tears dripped over his fingers. He turned his head to meet her eyes.
Olivia smiled and touched his cheek. "I'll tell them everything."
"Good. Thank you." He grimaced and looked back at the ceiling.
He wet his lips. "What?"
"Please don't die."
He laughed. "You, either."
"Oh, I'm fine. Best day of my life."
"Mine too. I got to save your little town."
"You did. We'll name it after you. Augustville or something. Campo Augusto."
"Please, swear on your life you will not do that."
She kissed his fingers and smiled. "Sure, why not. I swear on my life."
"Good. Jesus Christ, when is the doc getting back?"
"You don't want Doctor Rick back in here. He's going to make everything worse."
"I heard that," Rick said, pushing through the door.
Natalia rushed past him. She yelped at the sight. Rick took her shoulders. "Natalia."
She pulled away. "Gus. Gus, are you--"
"Hi," he said, smiling.
Olivia let go of him and covered her face with her hands.
Natalia touched his chest. "Mi amor," she said. "Te necesito. Por favor--"
She put her head on his chest, sobbing. He stroked her hair.
Rick got his stethoscope. "How are you feeling, Olivia?"
"How the Hell do you think I'm feeling?"
He slid the stethoscope over her chest. She swatted him away.
"That's not going to tell you that my blood is failing," she said.
Gus looked back at her. "How long does she have?" he asked.
"Weeks?" Olivia asked
"A couple of days," Rick said.
Natalia groped for Olivia, letting out an anguished cry when Olivia squeezed her hand.
"I can't lose them both," Natalia said.
Rick snorted. "What, you want to choose? Extract the healthy parts their half-dead sorry asses together and make one whole Guslivia? You think I can perform miracles, Natalia?"
Olivia said, "I don't think he can perform a basic stitch."
Natalia scowled. "This is not funny."
"What am I going to--" Natalia wiped at her cheeks. "Oh, just drop dead, already."
"You first," Gus said to Olivia.
"On the count of three, let's hold our breaths," Olivia said.
"One..." Gus started.
Natalia moved to the other side of the table, pushing herself between Gus and Olivia. She took Gus's face in her hands, and kissed his forehead, his cheeks, his lips, his chin.
Olivia sank against her, stroking her hair.
"Olivia," Natalia said.
Olivia rubbed Natalia's back and cupped Gus's head with her free hand.
"Olivia," Natalia said again and turned, kissing Olivia's cheek and then her jaw.
"Natalia," Gus said.
"What can I do?" She tilted his head down to see his eyes.
"Just make it stop hurting. Please, Natalia."
"I will, Nicky." She rubbed his cheek. "Doc?"
"I'm working on it. It would help if--"
Mel came through the door, carrying a leather bag.
"Aha," Rick said.
"It's not my fault you decided to hide your entire apothecary under the floorboards of a goddamn whorehouse, Rick," Mel said.
"I supposed it's accurately Olivia's fault."
Olivia narrowed her eyes.
Rick said, "Just give me the laudanum."
Mel passed him a bottle, and then went into the back room. "I'll make tea," she said.
Natalia said, "It's good she changed clothes. I wish I had."
Olivia leaned against Natalia's back and closed her eyes.
Rick said, "All right, Augustino, you can't choke on this. And it might make you sleepy, so--"
"Bring it on, Doc."
Rick used the pipette in the bottle to drop laudanum onto Gus's tongue.
Gus licked his lips. "More."
"There's a lot of alcohol in this, so--"
"Just give it to him," Natalia said. She'd pressed herself against Olivia's side.
"Listen to the lady," Gus said.
"I'm the professional here."
"You're just a quack with some building," Olivia said.
Rick squirted laudanum into Gus's mouth. He swallowed, and coughed.
"Is it working?" Natalia asked.
"It's taking the edge off," Gus said. "Feels... Feels real good."
"It's just for the pain." Rick said.
"How did this happen?" Natalia covered Gus, taking him in her arms as best she could, cradling his head.
Olivia looked down.
Rick asked, "Who shot him?"
"I don't know," Olivia said. "He was like that when he found me."
"Found her," Gus said. He touched Natalia's hair. "Had to get her out of trouble."
"I was fine."
"You were about to be shot yourself," Gus said.
A shudder went through Natalia.
Rick slipped into the back room.
"I'm fine. I'm fine. We'll just put your guts back together and--"
"Olivia," Gus said.
Natalia smoothed his face. "We didn't get enough time."
"We never do."
"Hey, at least the time we had was great, right? We didn't waste it. Not a single moment."
Natalia sobbed. Gus reached around her and took Olivia's wrist. Olivia met his eyes.
He said, "I don't want to die with you. I don't even know you."
"I don't think you have a choice."
He shook his head, and then groaned at the pain it caused. "You've got to--You can't leave her alone. She doesn't have any--"
"Neither of you can," Natalia said. "This can't be happening."
"We knew it could happen," Olivia said.
"You, shut up." Natalia straightened, turning around. "You, with your pessimism and your reality and your expectations of what is and isn't all the time. Don't you have a heart?"
"Natalia," Gus said.
Olivia let go of Gus's hand and cupped Natalia's cheeks.
Olivia said, "I don't want to die."
Natalia let out a cry. She reached for Olivia. Olivia pulled her into an embrace.
"But--" Olivia started.
Olivia cupped Natalia's head, stroking her hair as hot tears fell against her neck. She looked past, at Gus. Gus was lying perfectly still, as not to antagonize the wound, or the careful, painful packing that slowed his bleeding. He raised his eyebrows.
Olivia said, "Campo Augusto." She pulled the rosary from her pocket and pressed the beads into Gus's hand.
"You--" Natalia said.
"We'll talk about it later," Olivia said.
"We can pray together," Natalia said. "All three of us."
Mel came back with tea. "This is for you, Olivia."
Olivia inhaled the licorice and cinnamon but frowned at Mel.
"Just drink it."
"Is it going to make my lips numb? The last time my lips went numb."
Mel said, "Natalia."
"Please?" Natalia asked.
Olivia rolled her eyes but took the mug. Natalia untangled herself enough to let Olivia drink.
Rick leaned in the doorway. He said, "I have an idea."
Three heads swiveled in his direction.
Gus smiled at the ceiling.
Rick said, "I was looking at Gus's blood under the microscope, and. Well. This might kill them both. Quickly. But I can take a part of him, and put him in you, Olivia, and--"
"No!" Natalia said.
"What are you saying, Doc?" Gus asked.
"Maybe--" Rick looked from Olivia to Gus. "Maybe I can help Olivia. At least buy her some more time. There's a procedure."
"What?" Natalia asked.
"You're a madman if you think--" Olivia said.
"Do it," Gus said.
Olivia asked, "So I'd die in a few hours instead of a few days?"
"Exactly," Rick said.
"I'd never see Emma again."
Rick asked, "Where is Emma?"
"She's with Phillip."
Mel frowned. "She's with Phillip Spaulding?" She glanced at Rick.
Olivia said, "They're supposed to be headed to the Lewises, but maybe they're on the run. Maybe..."
"God would not be so cruel as to not you see your child one last time," Natalia said.
"What? Gus is shot. Alan is dead. All those men are dead. And--"
Rick looked grim.
Olivia whirled to face him. "What? Who?"
"Mallet's dead," Rick said.
"Olivia." Natalia clutched her shoulder.
"And you think God draws the line at me getting to see my child? You don't think people die every day without getting to see their children?" She looked at Gus.
Gus closed his eyes.
Natalia said, "I prayed for a miracle."
Rick said, "I'm offering one."
"Just take the bullet out and let them live happily ever after," Olivia said.
Rick came and took her hands. "Olivia."
"You can't ask me to do this. I have a chance at a few more days. I have a lot to do. I have to tell--" She turned to Natalia. "So many things."
Natalia cupped her cheek.
Rick shook her hands. "And this might give you a few more months."
"Please," Gus said.
Olivia pressed her forehead to Natalia's and closed her eyes.
Gus said, "This is better than Campo Augusto."
"Says you," Olivia said.
Rick turned to Mel. "Get ready."
"What about me?" Olivia asked.
"Can you get undressed and... lie down next to Gus? I think there's room."
Gus gave her a saucy smile.
Natalia began unbuttoning Olivia's vest.
* * *
Olivia pressed along Gus's side. He was warm and alive. His eyes met hers.
"You're just a bit indecent," Gus said.
She wore only her chemise. A blanket covered them both at the hips. His covered his wound, though his shirt had been removed. She ran her fingertips down his bare chest.
"Olivia," Natalia said.
"She is the least enjoyable person I have ever met," Olivia said.
"You should have seen her in Houston. She was wild then."
Olivia looked over her shoulder.
Natalia rolled her eyes.
Mel brought a new mug. "More tea, Olivia."
"Please, no more tea--Is that brandy?"
"Lots of brandy."
Olivia propped herself up on an elbow and took a long sip.
"Oh, now she's got energy," Natalia said.
"She gets it from men," Mel said. "Didn't you know? Sucks the life right out of them."
Natalia turned away.
Gus covered Olivia's hand with his and pressed it to his chest. "Maybe Natalia can get on the other side."
"Dying people only on the table."
Natalia settled onto the stool at Gus's other side. She tapped his nose, and then reached across to push hair out of Olivia's face.
"I know, I'm a mess," Olivia said.
"And also loco."
Gus added, "And she smells like smoke."
Olivia shouted, "Doctor Rick, where are you? I feel like you're stalling." She looked at Mel. "He's stalling. It's been hours."
"He's waiting," Mel said.
There was a knock at the door.
Mel went to it and let Remy in, followed by Father Ray. Natalia pressed her mouth to the back of her hand, trying not to cry.
Gus coughed weakly. "Hey, a priest."
Natalia said, "Nicky, this is Father Ray."
"He was hard to find," Remy said.
Father Ray gave him a sharp look.
Rick came into the room and said, "Remy, why don't you and Mel check on the Marlers, and then see if you can find Frank Cooper and The Wolf and see what's left of town."
Mel said, "I can help."
"No, I can do it. I don't want you mixed up in this."
Remy tugged on Mel's sleeve. Mel gave a last pitying look to Natalia and then let Remy lead her out.
Father Ray came to the table, looking down at Gus.
"Father," Gus said. "I'd like to make a confession."
Gus glanced at Natalia.
"You want me to go?" she asked.
"You and the Doc. Just for a minute."
Olivia said, "I get to stay." She winked.
Natalia didn't say anything, but let Rick take her into the back room.
Father Ray sat down on the stool she vacated.
Gus said, "It's been--Four days since my last confession."
"You are a good boy," Olivia said.
Father Ray took Gus's hand. "Are you a Catholic?"
Father Ray glanced at Olivia. "Ms. Spencer."
"Oh, I am too. For the first sixteen years of my life. And today."
Gus smiled. "Ladies first."
* * *
Natalia said, "Last Rites?"
Rick said, "Natalia--"
"For both of them?"
Natalia took in the wooden syringes, the tubing, the bottles of poisons and powders that Rick had laid out on a tray.
Rick took her shoulders. "You're going to have to be strong."
"What are the chances that this is going to work?"
"One in four?"
Natalia closed her eyes.
"Natalia, I wouldn't even try it if they weren't--"
"They're already dead in there, Natalia. What do you want me to do?"
She looked at his tray.
He pulled her chin up and met her eyes.
She said, "I want you to save Olivia. Save her. I don't what I'll do if--I don't know how I'd go on."
Rick pulled her into a hug. "I'll do everything I can."
* * *
Olivia was laughing when Natalia and Rick came back into the main room. Her forehead was shiny with oil. Natalia wanted to brush it away.
Father Ray stood. "They are in God's hands and yours."
Natalia slipped onto the stool. She stroked Gus's chin.
"Hurts less," he said. "But I'm so cold."
"You're going into shock," Rick said.
Natalia wiped blood off the corner of Gus's mouth.
"Oh," Gus said. "Is that all?"
Rick smiled. "Maybe Natalia will build us a fire."
"Wait," Olivia said, beckoning. "Wait. Natalia."
Natalia moved around the table and bent over as Olivia whispered. She nodded, and then whispered back, and kissed Olivia's ear.
Father Ray touched Natalia's back. "I'll be at the hotel. Come get me when... When you need me."
Natalia nodded. Rick waited until Father Ray had left and then clapped his hands together. Natalia kissed Olivia's temple. Then she went to the fireplace.
Rick said, "So. Blood transfusions. Our modern technique has been around for a good sixty years. I hope that fills you with confidence. And--" he faltered.
Heat came from the newly glowing coals in the fireplace. Olivia pressed closer to Gus, but still he shivered.
"And?" Natalia asked, rising.
"There's a pretty good chance Olivia will get toxic shock. We'll mix their blood together, but that may not be enough if Gus isn't compatible. And--"
"Why would he be?" Natalia asked.
"Oh Hell, Natalia. Why wouldn't he be?"
"I like that," Gus said, and coughed. "Our blood, mingling together."
Olivia put her head on his shoulder.
Natalia asked, "Will this... what will this take away from Gus?"
Rick said, "Natalia, this is going to shorten his time. He needs every bit of that blood that's left in him, but so do I. I need all I can get. And if I take it..."
"He only has what?"
Gus closed his eyes.
"Minutes," Rick mouthed.
"Do it," Gus said.
"Don't do it," Olivia said. "Don't you dare take away--"
"Both of you, stop." Natalia shook her head.
Rick asked, "Gus, how's your chest?"
Gus said, "Tighter than a drum."
Rick nodded. "As soon as we do this, it's more laudanum for you."
"Do I get more brandy?" Olivia asked.
Natalia said, "How about more chamomile tea?"
Rick said, "This won't hurt a bit," as he jabbed his syringe into Gus's upper arm.
Rick sighed. "He's lost a lot of blood already."
"It's all over Olivia's horse," Gus said. "Sorry."
"We'll just call her Red Star," Olivia said.
Rick put a tube in Natalia's hand and made her raise it. He went into the back.
Olivia said, "Natalia, I--"
Natalia shook her head.
Gus said, "I feel good."
"Your lips are turning blue," Olivia said.
"No, I do. Father Ray... He helped me get a lot off my chest. I'm not cold anymore. And Olivia--Olivia knows what to do. Back in San Antonio."
Olivia put her lips close to Gus's ear. "I promise."
Natalia brushed away her tears.
Rick came back and dabbed Olivia with iodine until she snapped at him. Then he inserted the needle and freed Natalia's hand.
Natalia cradled Gus's head. "It's going to be okay, Nicky."
"Natalia, would you--"
"Always." She kissed his forehead, and said, "Jehová es mi pastor; nada me faltará..."
Gus whispered, "En lugares de delicados pastos me hará descansar..."
Olivia held him, careful of Rick's contraptions above her. Her fingers touched Natalia's arm. Gus covered her hand with his. She closed her eyes.
Olivia whispered, as Gus's fingers stilled, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life."
Every bit of energy she'd had left had been wrung from her. Somewhere beyond the blackness of her closed eyes, the aching fatigue in her bones, and the silence of the body against hers, was the sound of Natalia's crying. And then Natalia's lips in her hair.
Olivia brought Natalia's palm to her lips and kissed it.
"Don't leave me," Natalia begged, against her ear. "Stay with me, Olivia."
"Take care of Emma..."
Then, with Natalia's prayers against her ear, she succumbed to the blackness.
* * *
Natalia rode through the gates of the oil field without seeing a soul. A whistle pierced the air. She took in the brown, industrious look of the land, and then realized that in her months in El Campo, she'd never actually been to the Lewis ranch in the daylight. Snowflake plodded along showing no signs of stress. But Natalia hadn't pushed her horse. Once she'd been on the road the silence had taken hold of her. She'd eased, and let herself uncoil from the pain, let herself become part of the horse, the ground, the sky.
Then she'd felt another presence enveloping her. Warm. Not like Gus's cold lips. As she rode on, the presence faded into the background, leaving her with the prairie.
As she approached the main building she sensed movement. Then Phillip opened the door and Emma darted out.
Natalia slid off Snowflake just in time for Emma to hug her.
She asked, "Is everything okay, Emma?"
Emma nodded vigorously. "Where's mother?"
"She's still in town." She'd practiced that answer for half the ride. It came out choked.
Emma nodded against her stomach. Natalia looked at Phillip. Behind him, Josh Lewis came out of the office.
"Emma, why don't you get Snowflake untacked?"
"Are you staying?" Emma asked.
"A little while."
Emma took the reins and with a glance over her shoulder, led Snowflake toward the trough.
Natalia gestured at Phillip. They settled onto a bench beside the well fence.
Phillip said, "Everything's fine here. I kept my promise. Buzz took James and Lizzie to the Czechs. Only half their crops got burned."
"I know. Thank you, Phillip. I came to tell you--"
She faltered. He was watching Emma, with his gray face and his white hair, looking concerned and yet, utterly calm.
Natalia looked at her hands. "Alan Spaulding's dead."
Phillip inhaled sharply.
Natalia said, "I'm sorry, Phillip."
Phillip nodded. She studied his profile and then left him to watch his daughter, going into the office.
Josh poured her a drink. "Natalia," he said.
She sat down in the chair. Exhaustion was overtaking her. She was too tired to mourn. Too tired to cry.
Josh pressed the glass into her hand. "Drink it."
Too tired to argue. She sipped, and then drank, letting the alcohol burn her throat and warm her stomach. Josh poured more and she drank again. He poured some for himself.
He sipped and then folded his arms. She looked into his kind, stern face.
He asked, "What are you doing here? Did you come to tell me--"
"I don't know. Dr. Rick performed a miracle. I think. He's waiting. We're all waiting, waiting to see." She studied her glass.
"Do you believe in miracles, Ms. Rivera?"
"I don't know."
"I don't want Olivia to die."
She shook her head, tears coming to her eyes. He took her glass away and drew her hands into his. She took a deep breath and met his gaze.
"When will we know?" he asked.
"I stayed with her, until--He said if he had poisoned her, she would have died within hours. So now. Now a few days? It will either work, or do nothing. And she'll just--"
He squeezed her hands.
She said, "The Beacon--"
"Phillip told me."
"I had to see Emma. She's all that's left."
"You're always welcome here. Come on."
Josh got up and gently took her elbow, raising her to her feet. They walked outside. Emma had Snowflake at Phillip's bench, insisting that he pet the horse.
Emma called out, "Natalia, I cleaned her hooves."
"Thank you, Emma." Natalia leaned heavily on Josh. "Will she be all right with Phillip?"
"Phillip's an unknown quantity. Much like Olivia."
Natalia nodded. "Alan Spaulding's dead."
Josh stopped short. "Shit."
Natalia said, "Everything seems okay here. I should go back. I should--"
Josh squeezed her waist. "Natalia, you can barely stand. Who's with her?"
Josh began leading Natalia past the office, toward a tree-lined road. "He'll let us know if anything changes. In time."
"We're hours away."
"He's uncanny." Josh shook his head.
Natalia was too exhausted to argue much, to do anything but be led. When the machinery was out of sight behind them and it was just the road, she stopped.
"Daisy. She's a Lewis."
"But she lives with the deputy."
"Her mother was a Cooper. And I wasn't--ready to be a father, I guess. I wasn't a very good man. I'm not now, either, in particular. Frank Cooper's a good man."
She furrowed her brow.
"Why do you ask?" he asked.
"Olivia told me something, after Nick--she woke up long enough and she left it to me, to sort out, to arrange everything for him and for when she--"
Natalia's rising anger was stopped by her own sobs breaking out of her chest. She would have fallen into the dirt but Josh brought her close. He held her as she wept. No matter how hard she shuddered against him, his grip never wavered. Then she'd recovered enough to walk again, tears still dripping onto her cheeks, and they resumed. She tried to tell him everything, with every word hurting, twisting her gut.
He led her into the dining hall. "Hungry?"
She shook her head, taking in the room. The presence of Cross Creek seeped into her, flooding her with the history of Josh and Reva's life there. Love and hate made, children born, peace and fire wrought. For as long as she'd known Gus, they'd known each other. Then the picture hanging over the mantle at the far end of the room drew her attention.
"Why is there a picture of Olivia hanging in your dining room?"
He followed her gaze. "Oh, that's not Olivia--It's a long story. I forgot how strange that must look."
"Come on, that portrait is at least two hundred years old."
"She looks like she could be on Louis XIV's court."
"She probably was."
Natalia followed him through a doorway, feeling Olivia watching her. She climbed steps methodically. Then Josh ushered her into a room mercifully free of portraits.
"Our best guest room," he said.
She looked dully at the bed, the basin, the window looking south. Josh pulled off her coat and unpinned her hair. He left the room before she could even thank him. So she sat on the bed. Then she fell sideways and had only enough time to whisper a prayer before she was asleep.
* * *
Josh found Reva in the dining room, staring at the painting with red-rimmed eyes. He sat down at the table.
"How is everything?" she asked.
"I don't know," he said.
"So Natalia Rivera is our responsibility."
"Just for tonight."
"Shouldn't she be in town?"
"Buzz Cooper is taking care of things, is what I hear. She needs rest. We don't know what's to come."
Reva gave him a wan smile. "Doesn't much matter what's to come. As long as we have each other."
He nodded. "And Bill and the kids."
She rolled her eyes. "And now goddamn Natalia Rivera."
Josh only smiled.
Reva said, "There's ribs for dinner, anyway."
"Reva, you didn't."
"Just one or two. What's left of the Spauldings will never miss them."
Josh narrowed his eyes.
He sighed. "It has been a hard couple of days. I could probably actually eat a whole cow."
"See, Josh, I'm always looking out for you."
* * *
By dawn the remnants of Campo Primavera began to revive. Holly Norris called a meeting at Spaulding's at midday. She appreciated that there wasn't a Spaulding in sight. The staff also seemed to be appreciative, though Buzz Cooper was nowhere to be found.
"Where does Remy get these again?" Doris asked, regarding her cigar with interest.
"I get them from Manhattan," Reva said.
Holly rolled her eyes.
"All right, I get them from a man St. Louis who claims they come from Manhattan."
"Via the riverboat?"
"Well, if I was just going to have them shipped, I'd go to Galveston," Reva said. "They come by train."
Holly asked, "And how is the train project?"
"Still coming," Doris said.
"To a town plunged into anarchy?"
"Since we've killed a judge and a ranger, they're writing us off," Doris said.
"So much for progress and civilization."
Mel brought over a bottle of vodka. "Let's toast, then. To Texas."
Blake shook her head and poured. "So Alan Spaulding is gone, and with it goes Campo Primavera."
"You don't think Phillip has some designs of his own?" Reva asked.
Doris leaned forward. "Does Josh Lewis?"
"Not a damned one. That boy lacks ambition," Reva said.
"Something you like in a man," Holly countered.
"Oh, don't start."
Natalia pushed through the saloon doors. She wore a black dress and shawl and hat, and closed Olivia's old black parasol before she entered.
"Ms. Rivera," Holly crooned.
"Sorry I'm late."
"Reva said she brought you into town. You don't want to stay here?" Doris asked.
Natalia glanced around Alan's saloon. "Here?"
Blake said, "We were just thinking of renaming the town."
Reva said, "Hell, we should just translate it, since it's Texas now. Our land." She looked at Natalia.
Natalia looked at her.
"No hablo espanol," Reva said. "What the Hell is Campo Primavera, Ms. Rivera?"
"Oh Hell," Doris said. "It's spring field. Would it kill you to learn another language, Reva Lewis?"
"I know French. Fuck you. See?"
"Yeah, pardon you," Holly muttered.
Natalia didn't say anything, just sat down in an empty chair and let Mel pour her vodka.
"Fine." Blake threw up her hands. "El Campo it is."
"Moving on to other matters," Mel said. "Mallet's gone."
Natalia crossed herself.
Doris shrugged. "I think Cooper has that covered."
"You want Frank Cooper to be the Sheriff?"
"He doesn't really have a killer instinct," Reva said.
"Works for me," Mel said.
Natalia sipped her vodka.
Reva shifted, stretching her legs out in front of her. "Still, I nominate Lizzie for deputy. Who's taking over Spaulding's operations, anyhow?"
"Phillip," Mel said.
"From father to son," Natalia murmured. "You going to put that in a book, Wolf?"
Doris smiled. "You don't think I really write those things, do you?"
Natalia's eyes widened.
Mel refilled her vodka and drank it down quickly.
Blake said, "Doris writes telegraph messages. Stop. And political screeds. Stop. And wants to share all the news no one cares about. Stop!"
Reva said, "And then she whispers outlandish, ridiculous things in someone's ear and gets a book back three months later."
"Hey," Blake said. "It's something to do in the daytime."
"But why?" Natalia asked.
"The Wolf has connections. Distribution. The wire. I don't care about all that." Blake waved her hand.
"And I could never bring myself to write that trash. But it sells. It's a perfect partnership."
"Perfectly loony," Reva said.
Holly covered Reva's hand on the table. "I'm so glad you're here."
"Oh, fuck off. I'm just glad Alan Spaulding's dead."
Mel raised her glass. "May his spirit free itself from his shot, bloated, vulture-pecked corpse and rest in peace."
"Hear, hear," Doris said, raising her glass.
Natalia didn't raise her glass, but Holly caught the tiny smile that formed on her lips.
Holly clinked glasses with the women. She winked as Natalia took a sip.
"It's a new day," Holly said.
"Same as the old," Mel said.
"To the rest of El Campo not burning down," Doris said, and raised her glass again.
* * *
Olivia groaned. The birds outside her window were entirely too loud and the sunlight entirely too bright. She didn't know when Campo Primavera had gotten birds. All the trees had been cut down thirty years ago to slot out the land for the town. Maybe the river--She had no idea where she was. Her memories were of shadows and spoonfuls of broth and tongue tastes of laudanum that never freed her from her dreaming. But this morning--or this afternoon, maybe--nothing hurt. Not even her arm, where the needle had been stuck. When Gus--She shivered.
Hands touched her face, and then smoothed her cheeks. Then left.
A blanket covered her. She tried to open her eyes. They didn't cooperate.
"I'm trying to open my eyes," she said.
A cool, damp cloth touched her face, washed her eyelids, her nose, her neck.
"Try now," Natalia said.
Olivia opened her eyes.
Natalia gazed down at her, serene and sweet, taking Olivia's breath. She freed an arm from the blankets and pulled Natalia down. Natalia kissed her. Olivia closed her eyes again.
Natalia sat up. "Those need to stay open."
Natalia pried her eyelids up.
Olivia scowled but blinked and gazed at her. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Two and a half days. In and out. Doctor Rick thought it was best to... see what happened. If your body rejected the blood, apparently it's... very painful."
"Nothing hurts," Olivia said.
"How do you feel?"
Olivia touched Natalia's arm. "Better. I feel better."
Natalia smiled. "You'll be on your feet in no time."
"Natalia, where are we?"
"This is Cassandra Winslow's farm. I was going through your papers and saw you had it in trust, since she left after Tammy--"
"I figured you didn't want to be at the saloon."
Olivia smiled and said, "No, I wouldn't want to die there."
"You're not going to die."
"I might if you don't come closer."
Natalia kissed her brow.
Olivia stretched. "Help me get up. I want to see."
Natalia helped her sit up, and then put one arm around her waist and hauled her to her feet. Olivia wobbled.
"How do you feel?" Natalia asked.
Natalia nodded and walked Olivia to the window. In the pastures below, Triste and Star grazed near Phillip's ghost-white stallion and Jeffrey's black one.
"Where are the other horses?"
"Phillip and Emma took Snowflake and Spot for a ride. Just to the river for a picnic and back."
"You can talk to him at dinner."
Olivia turned away from the window. "I don't want to talk to him."
"I want to talk to you."
Natalia gave her a nervous, small smile. Olivia hobbled back to the bed and sat. She beckoned Natalia to sit next to her. She took Natalia's hands in hers.
"I'm sorry. About Gus. I'm so sorry."
"No, he should be here, not me."
"You didn't shoot him, Olivia."
Olivia looked down.
"No. I don't know who did. Maybe Alan. I don't know."
Natalia brought Olivia's hands to her chest.
"His blood is in your veins, Olivia. He's a part of you, now. That's more than I would have gotten to keep, anyway."
Olivia nodded and said, "I need to talk to Frank."
"It should be--"
"Tomorrow," Natalia said.
"You're so bossy."
"I know what you need."
"What about what you want?" Olivia asked.
"I've always known what I wanted."
Olivia raised her eyebrows.
"It's right here. We had a deal, Olivia Spencer."
"I honor my deals."
"I know," Natalia said.
Olivia scooted closer until Natalia let her hands go and wrapped herself around Olivia instead. Olivia dipped her head and kissed her. Natalia smiled against her lips, but pulled away when Olivia tried to deepen the kiss.
"You're too weak," Natalia said.
Natalia shook her head. "When this is all over, we'll talk."
"You mean after I've talked to everyone else?"
"Dinner's in two hours. Go back to sleep."
Olivia rolled onto her back, but she only stared at the ceiling. Smiling.
Glad to be alive.
* * *
Olivia eyed Phillip, sitting across from her at the table.
He smiled politely.
She'd managed to make it all the way from the front bedroom where they'd stashed her to this one, and though she wasn't tired she felt faint. Weak. Sitting helped, though.
She said, "I can't help but notice I'm the only one eating broth."
Olivia surveyed. Emma to her left, Natalia to her right. Phillip at the head of the table. Smirking.
"Have you been staying here?"
He shook his head. "I'm staying at Spaulding's."
"Then you're just here for--"
"We should talk, Olivia."
Olivia ate some broth. Natalia got up to refill the water pitcher. Olivia watched her with lidded eyes.
Phillip said, "She's not going anywhere."
"She saved my life."
Olivia said, "And you saved my life."
"Just so she could save yours."
"You didn't have to--"
"Olivia, I'm not staying."
Emma whimpered. Olivia reached out and took her hand.
Phillip said, "I needed to come back, to see, I suppose. To ground myself. But I'm not done. I have to find--" he faltered.
"You think that Beth isn't really dead? You're crazy, Phillip. You've always been fucking crazy."
"She couldn't have drowned. Something happened. I've been going through Alan's record."
"Alan saw her drown, Phillip. You've always been crazy, and now you're endangering--"
"Alan saw. Alan said. Don't talk to me about Alan, Olivia." Phillip hit the table.
Emma yelped. Natalia moved around the table and put her hands on Emma's shoulders. Olivia narrowed her eyes.
Phillip said, "I need to leave. I'm having the papers drawn up. I'm giving the hotel to you."
"I have no interest in running a hotel, Olivia. I want to find Beth. Give me the money to do that, buy me out, and I'll be out of your hair."
"And if you don't find her?"
"I'll keep searching."
Olivia said, "Emma's here, Phillip. James and Lizzie. They just lost the only family they knew. They're here. Not out there."
"I know. I know, but I'm not whole, Olivia. Don't you understand?"
She closed her eyes.
"Olivia," he pleaded.
"I understand," she said. "But you should stay. Just a few more days. I don't know how long--"
"I'll come back to check on you. In a couple of months, between leads. I won't abandon the children. I just can't stay, Olivia."
She nodded and opened her eyes. Natalia watched her with a stricken expression.
Olivia smiled. "I feel great. Mm, broth."
* * *
Natalia helped Olivia back to the front room.
"You're putting me to bed? I've only been up two hours," Olivia said.
"More like four."
"Can I read?"
"It's too dark. You need to sleep."
"I do not."
Natalia reached for Olivia's robe.
"Oh," Olivia said.
"I'm just going to get you washed up. I do this every night. You haven't been paying attention."
"I haven't been paying--Where do you sleep, Natalia Rivera?"
Natalia looked away. "Right here."
Olivia smiled. She stood and let Natalia undress her completely and and wash her and rub oil into her skin. Then she sank onto the bed, panting. She reached for Natalia.
"Not so fast," Natalia said.
Olivia shook her head. Her skin was warm and tingling where she'd been touched. The soup had revived her. She was content enough to protest Natalia trying to work a silk chemise over her head.
"You want me to sleep in silk?"
"I thought it would remind you of home."
"I know what reminds me of home," Olivia said.
Natalia smiled. "I'll be back in five minutes."
"Where are you--" But Natalia was already gone.
Olivia finished getting dressed and sank into the bed. Her eyes drifted closed. She was half-asleep when Natalia sat on the bed.
"What are you doing?" Olivia asked.
"I don't want anything to happen to you."
Natalia stretched out on her side and took Olivia's jaw, turning her head until Olivia blinked at her in the semi-darkness. Olivia kissed her palm. Natalia smiled.
"All is well," Olivia said. "How are you?"
Natalia worked her way into Olivia's arms and began to cry.
* * *
Rafe settled into the rocking chair. His stomach was full of supper, his feet were propped up on the railing. He turned to Frank.
Frank had his hat over his face.
"Frank, I can't keep sleeping at the jail."
"I know." Frank tipped his hat back. "Remember I told you we'd talk after all the fighting ended."
"And it did, I guess."
Rafe remembered Mallet's body being dragged by his horse, his foot still in the stirrup. He remembered his mother shaking at Gus's burial in the graveyard of the unfinished Orthodox church. She wanted to be near him, she said. She made Father Ray consecrate the ground.
Rafe said, "Hard to believe I'm still alive."
Frank squeezed his shoulder.
Rafe folded his arms.
"You were good out there. Brave. Didn't let yourself get distracted."
"I've been through a lot."
Frank nodded. "Rafe, with Mallet dead, and you looking to stay a while--you are looking to stay, right?"
Rafe thought about Daisy. But he said, "Yeah. Until my mother stops crying, at least. At every little thing."
"Olivia will take care of her."
Frank said, "Anyway, I'd like you to help out here. Be a deputy."
"Think you got the stomach to be a lawman?"
"Well, I do. And I've got our first task already mapped out."
"We take Daisy to San Antonio, and we tell my sister that her husband is dead."
Rafe set his jaw.
Frank put his hand on Rafe's shoulder. "Think you can do that?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I can."
* * *
Olivia waited until they were in the midst of the peach orchard, the sweet smell all around them, the horses and gardens between them and the house. She wanted to pluck leaves. She wanted to busy her hands. But she took Natalia’s and drew Natalia around to face her.
"Natalia," she said. "I want you to be honest with me."
Natalia’s first expression was of trepidation, but she seemed to gather herself up and face Olivia with a determined look. And then Olivia didn’t know where to begin. Natalia brought their links hands to her heart.
Olivia asked, "Why are you here? Really? You couldn't have known I--"
"Would fall to my charms?" Natalia smiled.
Heat came to Olivia's cheeks. She looked away.
Natalia said, "It wasn't about that. What I told you was true. You had a reputation. I cast my lot with you."
"My reputation doesn't invite that, Natalia."
Natalia only squeezed her hands. "You're wrong."
Olivia bit her lip, but stayed silent.
Natalia said, "If I wanted--if I wanted that--I could have stayed in Houston. There were opportunities. More than here. Why does anyone leave the city and go west? Go into the wild? I wanted my own life."
"Maybe you were drawn," Olivia said.
"Maybe God sent me."
Olivia stepped back.
Natalia followed her. "Olivia, this is never going to make sense to either one of us. Call it a fairy tale if you want, but good people have--your friends, too. It's just the way life is."
"I don't want it to just be the way life is," Olivia said, shaking her head.
"Then… Then I guess it was meant to be."
Olivia took Natalia into her arms. "You're staying?"
"We had a deal. The new hotel is going to take a lot of work."
Natalia pressed herself to Olivia. Olivia kissed her mouth chastely, and then kissed her neck, less chastely, and whispered in her ear. "I'm feeling strong now."
Natalia shivered against her.
Olivia said, "Let's go back to the farmhouse."
"So many people there," Natalia said.
"Would you rather stay out here?"
Her hands down Natalia's sides, to squeeze her hips, and then traveled up her front, over her breasts.
Natalia clutched her neck. "Maybe we can sneak in."
Natalia drew back, to see her face. "You already have a plan, don't you?"
Olivia shook her head.
"You're just going to make it up as you go along?"
"Well, I have some ideas."
"Olivia, I want you to know--" Natalia faltered.
Olivia stilled her hands on Natalia's arms. She waited, gazing into Natalia's eyes, as they focused on her.
Natalia said, "Once you've dragged me to wherever you intend to have your way with me, you insolent, rakish--"
"Let's see. Baroness?"
Natalia pulled her closer. "I am going to give myself to you. Completely."
Olivia's breath caught.
Natalia said, "I don't think I've done that yet. Not completely." She placed her hand on the side of Olivia's face. "Let me show you."
Olivia tugged Natalia into her arms, and as she cradled Natalia's head against her cheek, looked out at the peach trees. Beyond them, she saw nothing but grass. They could be the only two souls in Texas.
Olivia said, "I want to be with you."
"Tell me why," Natalia said.
"Because you want to know why."
"I don't have any power, or money, or--"
"How about sweetness, sense, good humor, and charm?" Olivia asked.
"I definitely don't have charm."
Olivia kissed Natalia's ear, and then whispered, "I might have a different opinion."
Natalia ran her hands up Olivia's back. "If you don't take us inside soon, I'm going to come up with my own plan."
Olivia let Natalia go and began striding toward the farmhouse.
Olivia grinned. Natalia caught her hand and they walked side by side.
Phillip and Emma waved from the blackberry patch.
"They're going to be sick," Olivia said.
"They're going to ruin their dinner."
"Should we stop them?"
Natalia shook her head and pulled on Olivia's hand, quickening her strides.
"They might suspect something if we run."
"They've already stopped paying attention," Natalia said.
Olivia glanced over her shoulder.
Emma was throwing blackberries at Phillip.
"I see," she said.
Natalia hesitated in the kitchen, but Olivia kept moving up the stairs and into their bedroom. The blankets had been changed and the rags put away. Olivia lit the oil lamp and its light joined the late afternoon sun coming through the windows. The room was a patchwork of gold and shadow.
Olivia stood in front of Natalia and cupped her cheek. Natalia smiled and covered her hand.
"I don't know how much time I have left," Olivia said.
"But I'm going to spend every moment of it with you," Olivia said.
Natalia smiled. "What if it's twenty years?"
Olivia stepped closer. "I have done nothing to deserve it, but I'll take advantage of every moment of twenty years."
Natalia kissed Olivia's palm.
"It won't be easy," Olivia warned.
Olivia stepped closer, stilling her hand and kissing Natalia's lips. She succumbed to her own desire to draw Natalia's lower lip down, to open her mouth, to find the sweet warmth and tickling caress of Natalia's tongue, darting against hers.
Natalia pressed closer. She wrapped herself around Olivia and let Olivia kiss her. Her eyelids fluttered closed. Her heart pounded against Olivia's breast.
"Natalia," Olivia whispered, as her kisses strayed to Natalia's cheek.
"I meant what I said." Natalia squeezed Olivia's shoulders. "I want to give myself to you."
Natalia stepped back, her cheeks tinting.
"Please," Olivia said.
Olivia raised her eyebrows.
Natalia took her shoulders and pivoted her. Olivia looked at the bed. Fabric rustled behind her. She imagined Natalia naked.
"You should…" Natalia suggested. Her voice was hesitant. Almost shy.
As if they hadn't done this before. As if it hadn't become their way of breathing.
Olivia's fingers went to the buttons of her dress. She had to concentrate to work open the fabric, and it distracted her from the vision behind her. Then hands touched her shoulders and slid her dress down. She closed her eyes.
Natalia's fingertips trailed down her back, creating rivulets in the chemise, leaving fire in their wake. Then Natalia's arms slipped around her torso and Natalia pressed against her back. Olivia could tell her breasts were bare. She closed her eyes. Natalia's hands moved over her stomach, then lower, pushing down drawers, then sliding over bare calves. Olivia shivered.
"Take off the rest," Natalia said. Her voice sounded far away.
Olivia grasped the edge of her chemise. She hesitated. Now that this wasn't scrambling, wasn't desperation, wasn't need, but want, slow and warm in her stomach, pounding in her chest, she wasn't sure. The strange blood in her veins--how different did that make her?
Natalia traced her thighs.
Olivia wanted more of that. She wanted Natalia to touch her. Whatever cost, she was willing. She pulled the chemise over her head. She turned around just as Natalia began to say "Turn around."
Natalia knelt before her, her dark hair askew around her shoulders.
Natalia looked up, meeting her eyes. Then letting her gaze travel down Olivia's body and back again. She offered a wobbly smile. Olivia cupped her cheek.
"You're beautiful," Natalia said.
"Everything you want?" Olivia asked.
"Everything. I hoped--I would watch you work in the hotel. I'd watch you talk to the guests. I'd watch you ride, come into town, covered in dust. I'd watch you with Emma. You became more beautiful. I was--"
Olivia's breath caught.
Natalia turned and kissed her hand, and then nuzzled against her fingers. Olivia urged her to her feet. Natalia's curves were before her, just beyond her. She wanted to sculpt and taste and know.
"You're a vision," Olivia said. "You showed up at my door." She was taking deep breaths between words. Her pounding heart wouldn't let her get them out. "Like you were sent on a mission from a goddess."
Olivia said, "I never thought to chase you. Not the way I chased--" She shook her head. "--I never thought it was possible to have someone like you."
"Anything is possible."
Olivia stepped closer. Natalia's eyelids drifted down as Olivia pressed a kiss to her shoulder, and then her neck.
"Olivia," Natalia whispered.
"I want you to know that I love you," Olivia said.
Natalia reached for her, drawing her into an embrace.
"That I want you," Olivia said, pushing back Natalia's hair to blow against her ear.
"That everything is going to change."
Natalia's fingernails grazed Olivia's back. Olivia lost herself in the delicious tickle, rolling her shoulders, kissing and murmuring against Natalia's neck. She pulled her closer until Natalia was matched against every curve, until Natalia's thighs were on either side of hers.
A part of her was still caught up in the urgency. Even in the dim bedroom with the orchards and the fields outside, something might come, something might happen. Her heart might stop. She held herself nearly rigid against Natalia, not moving, willing the fluttering fears to pass. Natalia soothed her back, kissed her shoulder.
"Natalia," Olivia said. "Let me take you to bed."
"Anything you want."
Olivia stepped back, testing the strength of her own legs. She drew Natalia with her, spun her until Natalia sat down on the bed. Olivia pressed her shoulders.
"Wait," Natalia said.
"Stand there," Natalia said. "Just stand there."
Olivia stood, keeping her chin raised, her shoulders back, remembering all her mother had said about posture a lifetime ago, of how to prepare for meeting a prince, for dancing in a ball. For being beautiful.
Natalia smiled. She scooted back on the bed and then fell back onto the pillow, raising one knee. Offering one hand. A come-hither look Olivia had often adopted but had never seen for her sake.
"Olivia," Natalia coaxed.
But Olivia was rooted to her spot, her mind busy taking in the look of Natalia's body, the contrast of the blanket under her, the way the light changed her skin. She couldn't expect to control her limbs, too. Then Natalia, impatient, took her hand and brought it close enough to kiss. She grazed the knuckles with smiling lips and then nipped the tip of Olivia's fingers.
Olivia surged forward, kneeling with one knee on the bed.
"Olivia," Natalia said. "Give yourself to me, too."
Olivia stretched out along her side, propping herself up on her elbow, pulling her hand away from Natalia's face to settle onto her stomach.
Natalia's smile got wider as Olivia's lips got closer to hers.
Olivia said, "I am nothing else but yours."
Natalia kissed her, and drew back, still smiling.
"I am no one else."
Natalia asked, "You're my prisoner?"
Natalia closed her eyes and rolled back, her smile ever-present, her chest moving with easy breaths. She took Olivia's hand on her stomach and pulled it to the other side of her head.
Olivia obliged the momentum by sliding on top of Natalia, resuming the pose they'd had standing a moment ago, but now horizontal. Her own body responded with a surge of heat. She wanted what was so close. Her lips parted with hungry breath.
Natalia said, "Take me, Olivia."
Olivia kissed her, offering her tongue and her lips and her teeth to Natalia's desire. Natalia tangled her fingers in Olivia's hair. She held Olivia's head where she wanted it and rose up to offer her kisses. Olivia was met by Natalia's rough, warm tongue, but it wasn't enough.
She groaned. Natalia obliged by pushing her head lower, to breasts that heaved with her panting, with nipples that rose to Olivia's lips. How she had coveted Natalia's breasts since their first embrace. She tried to be reverent, to tug tenderly, to revel in knowing that a woman's breast, like her own, was hers, and that she could suck, and know what the answering pull would be inside Natalia.
But Natalia's mouth was now free from kisses and she used it to plead, to beg, to match the insistent pulling of Olivia's hair. Olivia bit and devoured and bruised, until Natalia pushed and Olivia lost contact with the breasts she sought, and her lips landed against Natalia's belly.
"Everything," Natalia said.
Olivia would do anything she wanted, would let herself be pushed in any direction. A life outside of Natalia, outside of this room together, held no interest for her. She was grateful enough to have Natalia without frantic, stolen moments. She shifted back, crouching, until Natalia was open before her, her scent coaxing Olivia as much as opium. That she had never done this seemed immaterial. Natalia pushed her head down and Olivia, faithfully, complied.
The first taste consumed her. She wanted more to coat her tongue. She pressed into folds, seeking, searching out Natalia's secrets. Natalia's legs shifting against her back, Natalia's moans from somewhere far away, Natalia's fingers ever-present against her scalp all became part of the taste. Olivia's eyes closed, shutting off senses beyond her lips.
Natlaia's moans became cries, then screams, as Olivia lapped, no longer exploring but concentrating on the swollen, slippery place where Natalia's hands had brought her, where Natalia's hips rose and fell against her.
"Olivia," Natalia cried, and then even her screams were silent, as she moved relentlessly, flushed, and then surged against Olivia, stilled, and then began to shake as if lightning had struck her.
Olivia's tongue relented as Natalia's movements did, and then Natalia whispered her request that Olivia return to her arms, that Olivia cover her again.
Olivia did, kissing her until Natalia's curious tongue had tasted what coated her lips and her cheeks. Natalia smiled. She held Olivia to her, on top of her.
Natalia said, "I want you like this every night."
Olivia nuzzled her cheek. "I promise."
"I want you to do unspeakable things."
Olivia grinned. "Oh, I can do--"
Natalia pressed a finger to Olivia's lips. "Unspeakable."
"I like you on top of me." Natalia traced Olivia's side, down to her buttock. "Just like this."
"I do as well."
"Good." Natalia moved her hand between them. "Stay."
Olivia smiled, kissing Natalia lightly, then lifting her head to meet Natalia's eyes.
"You're looking mischievous," Natalia said.
"Josh Lewis asked me a few weeks ago if you gave orders as a matter of course."
"Whatever doubt I had in my mind then," Olivia said. "Now I know. I have always been yours."
Natalia closed her eyes. "I'll be careful with you."
Olivia shifted, so that Natalia's hand could find enough space between her legs, could touch her in a way that was fast becoming familiar and needful. She shuddered at the first touch of Natalia's fingers.
"I love this," Natalia said.
Olivia couldn't hold back a moan. She moved herself against Natalia's hand, meeting thrusts, rubbing her breasts against Natalia's. She craved more of Natalia against her. She leaned down to kiss her.
Natalia murmured against her lips, "I could never get enough. I will never be able to walk away from this."
"Natalia," Olivia breathed.
Natalia's hand moved just a little bit lower, so that Olivia could rock against the heel of her hand, and her fingertips--they were barely inside her--
"More," Olivia said. "Please."
Natalia's free hand went to the back of Olivia's head, bringing her down for an endless, urgent kiss as she penetrated, meeting Olivia's jolting thrust. Then they were fucking, moving against each other, and all Olivia knew existed was Natalia, pushing her toward a precipice she could sense. She wanted to fall.
"I love you," Natalia said, breaking the kiss to hold Olivia against her. Olivia felt a quiet near-stillness settle through her, with only the movement of their hips, with Natalia inside her, bringing her closer to shattering from the inside out.
She arched up, tearing herself away from Natalia, needing air, needing space, as the orgasm consumed her. She couldn't stop the shudders that coursed through her. Then Natalia's hand was gone from her core, to hold her waist, to keep her from collapsing.
She breathed in.
The second breath was easier, and by the third she could kiss Natalia again.
Natalia smiled, rolling onto her side as Olivia slid off of her. They gazed at each other in the lamplight.
"I have a confession to make," Natalia said.
"I'm not a priest."
Natalia cupped Olivia's neck. She waited for Olivia to smile and then said, "Before you… I'd never been with a woman."
"Well, me either--"
"Shssh." Natalia shook her head.
Olivia pursed her lips.
When Natalia seemed sure she'd be quiet, went on. "I haven't been with a man since Rafe was born. And now he's a man."
Natalia said, "There's only you."
"There's only you," Olivia said.
Natalia smiled. "I just want you to know where I'm coming from."
"I want to know everything."
"I want to tell you everything. Let me begin..."