‘That’s it, y’all can stop now.’ Irish Tom rolled the last barrel out of the still smouldering barn. He was covered in soot, sweat and dirt from the top of his shaggy, bearded head to the thick soles of his heavy boots. He looked tired, his deep set blue eyes red rimmed and there was a tremor in the big, gnarled and veined hands where they rested on the wood. He stood the barrel next to the others, then sank down onto one of the worn and lumpy car bench seats set around the firepit and coughed. It sounded like his lungs were coming up through his throat.
Charlie was over by the trees and looked up but kept working the handle of the pump bringing water from the river. She looked as grimy as the old man, her clothes stiff, hair, and every exposed inch of skin streaked with thick layers of mud and soot. ‘If we keep going we can still save this end of the barn.’ She had to shout over the noise of crackling flames and collapsing beams.
Monroe was not only dirty but wet as he held the hose, directing a stream of water to a flare up near the big double doors. He heard Charlie and stepped back, shaking his head at the creak and groan of burning tortured timber. ‘Not sure about that.’
The Irishman nodded and spat out a stream of blackened spit. ‘Yeah, buildin’s integrity’s gone, no comin’ back from that.’ He waved at Charlie, ‘you can stop pumpin’ now, darlin.’ His voice was hoarse but still strong. ’And don’t worry, I’ve got the makings of a new still out back of the house and the clans’ll send help to build a new barn.’ He sniffed and rubbed a hand over his beard. ‘Least they will if they want more of Irish Tom’s Fireball.’
‘Is that what we’ve been rescuing?’ Dropping the hose near the pump, Bass Monroe walked up to join him, flopping down onto one of the other seats, ‘I’m impressed, didn’t think anyone made it anymore.’ He reached down for one of the bottles of water on the ground near it, and had a long drink, teeth very white against the dirt on his face. ‘I haven’t had Fireball whiskey since Phil...’ He broke off, taking another swallow.
Irish Tom studied him for a moment, serious now. ‘These days I only make it when someone can get me cinnamon, sugar and some other stuff. But once upon a time I made it for you.’
Monroe looked up, eyes narrowed, the bottle frozen a little way from his lips. ‘For me?’
The old man nodded, ‘yeah, apparently you liked it too, your people at the big house kept askin’ me for more.’
‘My people.’ Monroe was very still, every muscle tense.
Tom sat back and held up a big hand, the car seat groaning as he moved. ‘Relax, General. It’s ok. I don’t believe everythin’ I hear, in fact I thought you did a pretty good job of things up until General Matheson ran out on you, on all of us come to that. The way I figure it, sometimes things happen and people have to move on. Take me. I moved out here from back east after I retired from the catering corp a few months before the bombs dropped, built myself a whiskey still and never looked back. Just in time…’ He shrugged and frowned at the barn. ‘Lucky I guess.’
Monroe put the bottle back on the ground and sat back again, still alert but curious. ‘So you were in the Militia?’
Tom flipped his hand to show the wrist, the familiar brand pale, outlined in dirt. ‘Thought you’d gotten fried along with everybody else.’ He leaned forwards a little, smoothing his beard. ‘Then a couple bounty hunters came by about a month ago maybe? Had wanted posters with your name on them from the so-called new government, so I thought, what the hell, you musta bin out of the city when it happened and these folks had taken over.’
Monroe nodded, grim. ‘I was in Colorado at a pre-blackout government base, trying to get the power back. Turns out the man who said he could do it just wanted the power on so he could nuke Atlanta and Philly. Soon as he did that it all went off again and everything went straight to hell.’ He stared at the fire still burning in the barn, the flames lining the framework of the roof and the walls like bright paint, flinching when a beam fell sending sparks flying. ‘I’m sure as I can be that he was one of these new guys out of Cuba, the ones that call themselves the new fucking government. Patriots.’ His eyes darted to the other man, his face bleak, angry. ‘They’re trying to blame me for sending the bombs, and if they’re anything like the guy who actually did then the rest of us are in a whole world of trouble.’
Tom stared at him, thoughtful. Then he grunted. ‘Maybe. They weren’t around when we really needed ‘em, that’s for sure.’
Charlie walked up, flopped down next to Monroe and reached down for the water bottle, looking from one man to the other. ‘Hey, why so serious? We got the barrels out. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?’
She glanced at his face and frowned, there was something in his eyes, something harsh, dangerous. ‘What is it?’
He shook his head and looked away. ‘Nothing.’
She stared but decided not to challenge him about it, not in front of the old guy anyway. She tipped the bottle up and took a long, welcome swallow. It’d been a couple of hours hard work, but at least they’d saved the whiskey, and Irish Tom had turned out to be ok, more than ok, in fact he’d promised them one of the barrels in exchange for their help to drink or trade so hey, they were ahead.
She looked down at herself then across at Monroe. They’d have to get some more clothes and soon, or they’d be travelling with their asses hanging out. A picture of Monroe sitting bare ass driving the wagon flashed across her mind and rocketed down to her toes like she was still standing next to the fire, especially now she knew exactly what was hanging under those pants. Maybe running out of clothes wouldn’t be so bad? She passed the bottle back, felt his fingers linger on hers as he took it and her eyes met his again.
The blue gaze had softened, a kind of apology.
Her eyes narrowed and she looked away, telling her hormones to quieten down. Apology not accepted, not until he told her what was going on anyway. She turned to the old man. ‘Do you have any soap, Mr Irish?’
The grizzled face broke into a smile as he looked her up and down. ‘It’s Tom, darlin, and while I gotta say it’s not somethin’ I put a priority on for myself, I think I can help you out. I got some stuff in the house for cleanin’ the still and there’s a good spot for washing down by the river a little ways down stream.’ He winked at her, ‘don’t want you two muddying up my whiskey water.’
She grinned at him, in a way he reminded her of her grandpa. The same kindness in his eyes. ‘Wouldn’t want to do that.’
He heaved himself up out of the seat then paused, looking at Bass, ‘I’ll go get the soap while you pick a barrel ‘n load it in your wagon. Then you’d better go. I’m expectin’ some of Gould’s and Duncan’s guys anytime now from New Vegas, in fact I thought you were some of ‘em at first.’ He nodded at the barn and the smoke rising into the air, ‘and much as I’d like to invite you to stay, ‘when they see that they’ll come hurryin’ along to make sure I ain’t burnin’ their whiskey, and I don’t trust any one of ‘em to be polite.’
Bass stood up. The last thing he wanted was for Gould’s or Duncan’s men to find him, not when he’d found a way back to Miles. And then there was Charlie. She’d changed everything. Right now though she was pissed judging by the look she’d given him and he knew her well enough now to know why. She didn’t like being excluded. He’d have to fix that later. ‘What’ll they do when they find out you’re a barrel short?’
The old man chuckled, ‘don’t worry ‘bout that, I’ll just say it got burned up.’ He turned to Charlie. ‘You two just jumped on in and started helping even before I said I’d give you a barrel for your own. If you hadn’t I don’t think I’d’ve gotten any out at all. I figure those guys owe you at least one.’
They made it out a couple of minutes before the riders came.
The wagon had just cleared a bend in the road past the cabin when the sound of galloping hooves came echoing from the other direction. Lots of them.
‘Shit.’ Monroe flicked the leathers, getting the horses going faster then reached down with one hand, grabbed the rifle and passed it to her. There was no hesitation this time, no demands to do follow his lead although the heat and promise of discussion later in his eyes sent shivers down her spine. ‘Try not to shoot unless we’re shot at, ok?’
She took the gun and sent him a look, still pissed at him for not being straight with her before. ‘I’m not a complete idiot, Monroe.’ Then she twisted round, climbed up onto the bench, braced her knees against the back rail and bent over the top of the wagon, rifle aimed and ready to go although for now anyway it looked like none of the riders were coming after them. Grunting with the effort of holding position as the wagon bounced over potholes and ruts in the old road she waited until the smoke was out of sight and all she could see was trees then swung round and sat down again, balancing the shotgun over her knees. ‘I think we’re clear.’ She snapped him a glance. ‘D’you think he’ll be ok?’
He urged the horses on, glancing at her then back to the road. ‘He’s a valuable asset, they’ll look after him.’
‘I liked him.’
‘So what was the problem back there?’
He didn’t answer, just stared ahead, concentrating on getting the horses round the next bend in the road.
She tried again. ‘What happened?’
He glanced at her again, eyes shuttered. ‘He was in the Militia, knew me from Philly. He retired up here just before the bombs and started making whiskey.’ His tongue flicked out over dry lips. ‘It brought back a lot of stuff.’
Charlie stared at him. Crap. That did explain why he’d looked angry enough to kill something, and she didn’t like to think it of the sweet old man but sixty diamonds was a whole lot of motivation. ‘Will he tell them?’
He shook his head. ‘Don’t think so.’ He urged the horses faster as they hit a smooth part of the road, the turn off to the river Irish Tom had told them about just ahead. He glanced at her, strangely neutral. ‘But maybe we should put off having that swim, just in case?’
She nodded. ‘Yeah. Maybe we should.’ She braced her boots against the footrest as they bounced over another few holes in the road and jumped as an overhanging branch brushed her hair. The trees were so close on either side of the road the leaves on the lower branches rustled as they passed. Then she glanced at him again. ‘Did you just ask for my opinion?’
His lips twitched as he kept them going straight past the turn off. ‘Maybe. But don’t let it go to your head. I don’t aim to make a habit of it.’
Her foot slipped and she nearly fell off the bench as she choked on a laugh. She didn’t know exactly what it was that was happening between them except that it was the opposite of boring and she didn’t want it to stop.
Three hours down the road and fine black dust was flying off them like smoke as it dried in the wind.
It didn’t help any, Charlie’s jacket, tank and jeans had dried so stiff they felt like sandpaper on her skin and she was still coughing smoke out of her lungs. She glanced at Monroe. If he felt as crappy as she did he wasn’t letting on, he just kept on driving like it was nothing, in fact he looked bored. It was a tad irritating so she tried to sound as though she didn’t care. ‘Is this far enough?’
He slid a glance at her, his eyes roving over her face and lingering on her lips before going back to the road. ‘Yeah, we’ve got to rest the horses anyway, been pushing ‘em pretty hard.’
The hungry look in his eyes sent her skin shivering with sensation and her belly tight as she looked up the road, shading her eyes from the afternoon sun. So he wasn’t as bored as he looked. Good. ‘There’s a turn off towards the river a couple hundred yards up ahead.’ She pointed, ‘see?’
He nodded, his voice tight and not bored at all. ‘It’ll do.’
Monroe found a good spot to park the wagon just off the road hidden from the road and the river behind some trees and only a short walk to a sandy beach, fresh water and a bath.
They took care of the horses first.
Charlie fetched buckets of water from the river while Monroe took the harnesses off and tethered the two tired beasts out to graze, rubbing them down with handfuls of long grass.
She set the buckets down close to the horses then went to gather kindling for a fire. Neither of them had said anything but the late sun was setting everything aflame and it felt like the air was burning with tension. The river was a luminous ribbon snaking off into a bright hazy distance, birds flew by like streaks of light, the trees wore haloes of red and orange and even the grass had red shadows as the sun sank lower. She wandered through the trees and stroked the smooth, almost flesh coloured bark of a sapling, her fingers wrapping around the slim trunk, the feel of it bringing back the vibrant, velvet strength of him in her hand, the touch of his lips on hers.
It was going to happen tonight. She knew it, wanted it so much she ached.
When she got back Monroe had finished with the horses and was doing something at the back of the wagon. She watched as he walked towards her, his walk smooth, graceful even though he had to be as tired as her, holding a mug in each hand. For a moment he was backlit by the sun, a black silhouette surrounded by a glowing haze that dazzled her for a moment, blinding her. She blinked again, getting focus and then he was there in front of her, his tall figure and broad shoulders cutting off the light.
He held out one of the mugs. ‘Here. I think we deserve this.’
She took it, lifted it to her nose. A powerful waft of cinnamon and strong whiskey rose up to meet her, making her eyes water and almost taking her breath away. Her eyes shot up to meet his. ‘What the hell is this?’
He slanted a grin, wicked. ‘You mean you haven’t had Fireball whiskey before?’
She shook her head, ‘no…’ She had another cautious sniff, then looked at him again, quizzical. ‘Do I want to?’
An eye brow went up and he moved a little closer. ‘Are you telling me Charlie Matheson is chickening out?’
Her head went up. ‘Fuck you, Monroe.’
‘Promises, promises.’ He lifted the mug to his lips, his eyes taunting blue. ‘Come on. I dare you.’ He tipped the mug towards her, just a little. ‘On three?’
She nodded, ‘ok.’ No way was she backing out now. ‘One.’ She lifted the mug, her eyes holding his.
‘Two.’ He licked his lips.
‘Three.’ She tossed it back in one and for a moment the world went sparkling white and she couldn’t catch her breath. She gasped, her words coming like she was being strangled. ‘Hot… fucking… damn.’ She fell forwards, hands braced on her knees, panting like a fish, the alcohol burning its way down and setting her veins on fire then coming back up in a rush that had her spluttering and laughing like a fool, the sound echoing in her ears like it was a long, long, long way away. Then she realised that the echo was Monroe and looked up.
He was laughing at her, showing off lots of white, even teeth.
She really, really wanted to knock the grin off his face but then the whiskey hit the part of her brain that governed her pussy and other bits and filled it with even more mushy, smutty thoughts than she’d been having anyway. Damn it, he was cute, although that word didn’t work for Monroe. It was way too innocent, too… small. Too insignificant. She thought of another one. Even covered in layers of dirt and dust he was hot. Hotter than hell, even hotter than the damn whiskey. She stood up, carefully, because the crazy stuff was wicked strong and her head was spinning but in a good way and held out her mug for a refill. ‘Does Miles know about this stuff?’
Monroe took the mug, the smile fading. ‘He was the one who remembered the recipe and got someone to make it for us. Could even’ve been Tom. We had to import the cinnamon from Georgia because they were the only ones trading overseas at the time and we paid through the nose for it. Miles figured it was worth it though, and he was right. People lined up to buy the stuff. Made us a pile of money.’ He tipped his head towards the wagon, ‘I don’t know where or how they’re getting the stuff now, but that one barrel in there has to be worth a fortune.’
She peeled off her jacket, it was stiff and smelled of smoke, although everything she was wearing smelled of smoke. It’d just have to stay smelly though as leather didn’t wash. ‘So we’ll be able to trade for some new clothes?’
His eyes rested on her neck then drifted down over her shoulders, dropping lower until he snapped them back up to her face, his expression reserved, almost distant now. ‘Yeah, if we’re careful it’ll keep us in food, clothes and weapons till we get to Willoughby.’
She stared at him. ‘It’s worth that much?’
‘Absolutely. Good pay for a couple of hours work, old man did us proud.’ He held her mug out, ‘you want another one?’
She shook her head, changing her mind. ‘Not if we can sell it. I’ll wait till we get some of the straight stuff.’
‘Suit yourself.’ He turned for the wagon, calling back over his shoulder, ‘you go down to the river and get started and I’ll get the blankets. It’ll be cooler when we get out.’
She watched him go. He’d withdrawn from her somehow, as soon as she mentioned Miles.
Damn it, why did everything and everyone in her life have to be so complicated?
Her eyes narrowed. She’d give him complicated. Accuse her of chickening out? Dare her to try some of that hothouse whiskey? He hadn’t seen anything yet. Charlie Matheson didn’t chicken out. Ever.
With the warmth from the whisky still burning in her belly, she strode down to the water’s edge, undoing her boots on the way and kicking them off on the soft sandy beach that hugged a long bend in the river. The air was warm and soft on her skin and the bugs weren’t out yet. The river had widened out and the water was running fast a little further out, but here by the beach it was still, clear and very inviting. Lovely.
She stripped out of her tank, jeans, socks and bra and laid them at the edge of the water to soak, adding some of Tom’s soap then stomping on everything to start loosening the dirt. Her stiff, dirty hair felt scratchy on her shoulders, but the breeze felt cool on the heat between her legs. She put a little shimmy into her hips and a bounce to her breasts, dancing and enjoying herself, doing it just a little more when she felt Monroe’s eyes on her from back at the wagon. She could just see him if she turned a little bit.
He was just standing there, watching her.
She pretended she didn’t know, left her boots and her clothes to soak and walked into the water holding the soap in her hand, wriggling her toes in the soft river sand and watching the dirt from her skin and clothes float away down river in long, dark streaks against the glitter and sparkle of the clean water. She went in deeper, the water bubbling and rising up her legs and ass into every little crease and crevice, tickling the sensitive flesh between her legs like hundreds of little fingers, making her shiver with delicious need and anticipation. She opened her legs wider, enjoying the sensations, wriggling her toes into the sand and stretching her arms high above her head, reaching up to the sky.
He was still watching, his gaze leaving scalding hot trails over her skin, giving her goosebumps and nearly steaming the water around her.
Ok, time to give him more of a show. Starting at the top she worked the suds into her hair until it felt soft and clean between her fingers, then started on arms, lingered over breasts and belly and sliding lower, the soap feeling rough and big between her legs, slipping through the folds of her pussy and the crease of her ass, back and forth, her breath coming in little, desperate pants, her body buzzing and alive.
His eyes were fixed on her but he still hadn’t moved.
So she sank into the river, letting the shallows take her, feeling her hair swept out into long strands by the current, the dust and dirt of the road and the fire just drifting away. Lying back on the soft, wet sand she closed her eyes and spread her arms and legs out wide, the water covering her ears, making the sounds of the world hum… She floated, letting the sun and the river do what they wanted with her, blissing off into a kind of dream, forgetting everything else.
Everything except him.
The fingers of one hand drifted over a breast, playing with the nipple, her other hand sliding down over her taut stomach to the wet curls below, parting them, her middle finger sliding over her clit just the way she liked it, circling gently, then harder, thinking of that velvet hard thickness in her hand, imagining it sinking into her, long and slow...
Something rippled the water next to her, splashing her skin and her eyes flew open, reflexes kicking in on automatic and she was standing before she knew how she did it, arms raised, hands fisted, even though she knew who it was.
She relaxed, at least as much as she ever did around him. ‘Monroe’
You expecting someone else?’ His voice was a harsh growl.
He was standing in front of her, so close she could feel the heat of his body, his eyes so blue they were like burning shards of the sky, his tall body bare, wet, glistening, all sleek, sharply defined muscle and rampant male.
She sucked in a breath and just looked at him, anticipation making it hard to breathe. The water was deeper here, lapping just above his hips and she could see his strong thighs and the thick stem of his cock rising against his belly, swaying gently just under the water above the furred weight of full, tight balls. Lifting a hand to shade her eyes so she could see him without squinting she took a step towards him, her other hand stroking up the smooth skin of his chest to his shoulder, fingers finding the curve of muscle there. ‘I don’t know what to expect, one minute you want me, the next you’re off in the distance somewhere.’
He looked down at her, serious. ‘I want you, believe me.’ He reached out a long finger and traced down the edge of her cheek to rest on the swell of her bottom lip, ‘more than I’ve wanted anyone for a very, very long time’. Then he let go, reluctant. ‘But sometimes I don’t know if I should.’
She stared up at him. ‘This is because I mentioned Miles, isn’t it and because you think he won’t like it that you want me.’ Her hands clenched, the one on his shoulder sliding down his chest and catching a small nipple on the way, relishing the way it made him suck in air. ‘Listen. It doesn’t matter what Miles thinks, not to me. Willoughby is still weeks away and even if somehow we make it there, with all the crap that’s happening he’s just as likely to be dead as alive when we get there anyway.’
He frowned. ‘He’s not that easy to kill and we will make it.’ His eyes hardened, ‘and when we do, you and me and Miles are going to make those bastards pay for what they did. For what they’re still doing.’
She stepped back, away from him, the water swirling around her thighs. ‘Ok then. So what about the two of us? Do we just keep driving and pretend that you don’t want me and I don’t want you so we don’t upset Miles?’
He went very, very still. ‘Is that what you want?’
She felt the air just fall out of her mouth. Complicated just didn’t cut it, this was torture. ‘No you moron. That isn’t what I want.’ Suddenly it was just too much and she lost it, surging forward she shoved at his chest with both hands with all her weight behind it, pushing him as hard as she could, which wasn’t far, he was like a rock damn it, so she did it again and again, so furious she could hardly speak. ‘Why the fuck do you think I was doing the shimmy shimmy out here with the soap if I didn’t want you to see me and do something about it?’ She shoved him one more time, just for emphasis then stood there glaring, eyes sparkling with angry tears and her slim curves shimmering in the sunset light. ‘Are you really that stupid?’
He staggered back a little but didn’t fall, eyes wide with shock and something else, a searing intensity that rocked her to the core, ‘Charlie.’
She kept on glaring. ‘Yes. That’s me, take it or leave it. But if you don’t take it, I’m leaving.’