Cowboy Paladin (part 4)
Patience ached from her head to her toes, but that wasn't the worst of her discomfort. No, that came from riding double with Jethro Bane, a total stranger. He'd boosted her up in the saddle and then vaulted up behind her. Even though they were surrounded by darkness, she was painfully aware that riding astride had her skirt rucked up to her knees. Her bare legs rubbed against the rough fabric of Jethro's dungarees with each step the horse took, leaving her all too aware of the press of his legs against hers with each step the horse took.
Then there was the small matter of his powerful arms wrapping around her to guide his mare over the rough ground. Patience could hardly see more than a foot or two in front of her face yet Jethro had an uncanny knack for finding the best route to take across the wooded hillside. Doing her best to ignore how comforting it was to be surrounded by the warmth of his big body, she tried to make sense of everything that happened that night. Jethro obviously knew more about those strange men than he was willing to share, and she bet none of it was good. She could only hope they'd put enough distance between them and their pursuers so that they could stop soon and rest for a while.
As if sensing that Patience had reached the end of her rope, Jethro slowed the horse to a stop in a small clearing and slid down to the ground after handing her the reins. "Stay here while I take a look around. If all is quiet, we'll stop here for the night. There's a spring just over there, so we'll have water and grazing for the horse."
He waited until she nodded and then disappeared into the deep shadows. She closed her eyes and listened to him moving in the darkness as he circled the clearing. He returned after a short time and held his hands up to her. "We should be safe enough for now. You can get down."
Patience wanted to dismount on her own, but that would be foolish pride on her part. He was right to suspect that she'd need his support once her feet hit the ground. She tried to slide down off the saddle with some sense of dignity, but in the end she tumbled down into Jethro's waiting arms. He caught her up against his chest as the impact sent him staggering back a few steps before he managed to regain his balance.
"Whoops, that was close."
For the first time since he'd appeared outside the cave to rescue, he grinned. It took years off his face, telling her that he wasn't all the much older than she was. His face was all harsh angles as if life had carved away any softness that he might have once had. Still, with that black hair, those green eyes, and that powerful build, Jethro would always draw feminine attention wherever he was.
For now, he stared down at her for the longest time, still holding her close. His smile slowly faded as his expression changed, intensified somehow as it sent a surge of heat right through to the center of her chest to spread out from there. His gaze dropped to her mouth for a second, maybe two, before once again lifting up to stare into her eyes. Was he thinking about kissing her? She shouldn't let him, but right then, for one foolish moment, she wanted to know the touch of his lips and the taste of his kiss.
Then he blinked and shook his head as if to clear it. Maybe she wasn't the only one not thinking straight. Jethro brushed a strand of hair back from her face, his expression now a mix of chagrin and regret. "Now's not the time, Patience. You've been through a lot tonight, and I won't take advantage of the moment."
She supposed she should be grateful that he was a gentleman at heart. She wasn't, and that realization had her stepping back out of his embrace. "Do you want trade off standing guard?"
Her question clearly surprised him. "No, I can handle it by myself, but thanks for offering. You should get some sleep while you can. We'll need to move out at first light."
All right, she wasn't some silly girl who didn't know how to handle a rifle. "I will do my share, Mr. Bane. I'm not some town girl who's never pulled a trigger in her life, and we'll both need our strength tomorrow, especially if those…those bastards are holed up in my home. Now do you want me to take the first watch or the second?"
His grin was back. "I meant no insult, Miss Patience. However, thanks to my job, I'm used to going without rest for days at a time when necessary. Losing one night's sleep won't slow me down none, so please just let me watch over you this once."
What kind of job required a man to stay awake that long? Not to mention, had him carrying both guns and a sword? She knew cavalry officers wore swords, but he wasn't in uniform. She was about to demand some answers when he stopped her by putting his finger across her lips.
"Don't ask, Patience. I can't tell you the truth, and I don't want to lie about it, especially not to you. Just take me at my word that I can do this."
She recognized stubborn when she saw it, but she also sensed he was trying to be honest with her. So far he'd done his best to keep her safe; she wouldn't doubt his intentions now.
"Fine, but if you find yourself nodding off, promise you'll wake me."
"I promise. Now let me get you my blanket, and you can settle in over there at the edge of the trees. There's a patch of grass there that will be more comfortable than trying to sleep here where it's more rocky."
After accepting his bedroll, she started toward the spot he'd pointed out. She'd only gone two steps when she tripped over a root or a perhaps a rock jutting up out of the ground. Once again Jethro caught her before she got hurt. In a surprise move, he swept her up in his arms and carried her the short distance to the trees. He set her back down on her feet before she'd been able to do more than sputter in protest.
This time, though, he answered a question without her even asking. "Yes, I have really good night vision. While you get settled in, I'm going to water my horse and loosen her saddle for a while. I don't want to strip off her tack in case we have to make a run for it again.
"All right." She wrapped the blanket around her shoulders, glad for its warmth against the damp chill of the night air. Or maybe it was from the leftover fear from everything that had happened. "And if I haven't said it enough, thank you for everything you've done for me, Mr. Bane. I have no doubt that I would have been dead if you hadn't happened along."
"All things considered, I think you should call me Jethro, Patience, and I'm glad I was there, too." Then, in a move that she suspected surprised them both, he brushed his lips across hers. "Sleep well."
Jethro walked through the darkness, circling the small clearing over and over again. The main reason he was too restless to light in one spot for long was sound asleep just a few feet from where he stood. Damn, he should never have kissed her. Granted his mouth had barely touched hers. Here it was hours later, and he could still taste Patience on his lips. He wanted more of the same even though he shouldn't. She was a good woman, not the kind he could bed and then ride away without looking bad.
It was scary how quickly she'd gotten under his skin. They hadn't known each other even a full day yet, but that didn't seem to matter. He liked admired the way she didn't fall to pieces over the Others' attack or being whisked away with a total stranger to end up sleeping on the hard ground. Yes, Patience was strong woman, the kind who would stand beside her man through whatever life threw at them. If he were an ordinary man, there was no way he'd ride away from her anytime soon. However, a Paladin spent his life in an endless round of fighting and dying. No woman deserved to get saddled with a man like that.
If he couldn't promise her a future, then he had no business taking a bit of her present other than to make sure that she was safe. Once they reached her home, they'd see to her animals and then he'd take her to the nearest town if he had to drag her there kicking and screaming. After he got her settled, he'd send a wire to headquarters in St. Louis requesting help to rid this area of those pale-eyed crazies. If a new stretch of barrier had opened up, they'd have station a contingent of Paladins in the area although God knows where they'd find the men.
But that was a problem for another day, not this one. The sun to the east was finally growing lighter. Soon it would be safe to head back toward Patience's farm. The vermin would have gone to ground somewhere to wait for the darkness to return. Thank goodness the earth's sun was too bright for the Others' weak eyes to tolerate for very long at a time.
He crossed the short distance to stand over Patience, watching as she slept. There was such strength in this woman, and she deserved better than life had given her. It was bad enough that her father would abandon her for days at a time because he had a weakness for Lady Luck and a bottle of whiskey. She certainly didn't deserve to be terrorized by the Others.
And she didn't deserve to be lusted after by man who had nothing to offer her except to stand between her and his enemies. It wasn't much, but it was all he had.
No use in bemoaning what couldn't be changed. He reached down to touch Patience's shoulder, meaning to wake her, only to realize that she'd been staring up at him. She gave him a sleepy smile. "Is it time?"
"Yeah, the sun's about to crest the hills to the east. I don't have much in the way of food to offer you. I was going to restock at my next stop."
"Not a problem. I'll cook us breakfast when we get back to the cabin."
She sat up and stretched. He stared as the soft fabric of her dress drew tight across the soft curves of her breasts, emphasizing their round fullness. Hoping his expression didn't reveal what he was thinking, he offered her a hand up off the ground. As soon as her soft hand settled in his, his blood exploded with a feral hunger and the need to drag her back down onto that blanket to slake this hunger for her once and for all.
Instead, he jumped back as if he'd just touched lightning. Damn, what was wrong with him? Granted, he couldn't remember the last time he'd had the time to partake of the feminine pleasures to be had up above Hannigan's saloon, but Jethro was normally in better control of himself than this. Riding double with her was going to be pure hell, but there was no other choice if they were going to get back to her farm anytime soon.
"I'll get the mare ready. The spring I mentioned is right over there if you need to, um, well if you need to."
He suspected his face was as red as hers. Let her think he was embarrassed about having mentioned bodily functions in front of her. That was better than her figuring out how close he'd come to trying to seduce her.
When she headed off into the woods, he turned his attention to his mare, the only female in his life that he knew how to handle. Jethro glanced back over his shoulder in the direction that Patience had gone and rubbed the sudden ache in his chest. No matter how the day ahead played out, he had no doubt Patience Kort would be haunting his dreams for a long time to come.