Kit turned to Sylvia, the worry in his eyes. If Stud was alone with Sylvia and Alex with O’Keefe. Stud saw his dilemma. The safe happy home they’d made was now threatened.
Kit pointed the shotgun at Judy and said, “She comes with me.”
Stud swallowed. The implication was obvious. If anything happened to Kit’s family, something terrible would happen to Judy.
Judy nodded. “I’m not a great rider, but I’ll come with you.”
Stud swallowed again, then said, “Give me a length of rope and we can tie him up.”
Kit nodded. “The stable.”
Stud held O’Keefe’s arm behind him and led him into the stable, then tied him to a post. Kit supervised everything from behind with the shotgun.
Kit moved Stud to the edge of the stable and said, “Anything happens to my family, she gets it.” He squirmed like it was the worst thing he could say or do, but it was obvious he felt like it was his only option.
“I know. I won’t let anything happen to them.”
Kit looked at Stud for a moment, then handed the shotgun to him. “Blast the son of a bitch if you need.”
“I’ll keep them safe.”
Kit whistled and pulled the saddle off the rack.
The picketed horse perked its ears, then ran up to him. He saddled the horse and whistled again. The other horse was saddled and Judy swung up into the saddle. For all the talk of Judy not being a great rider, she swung into the saddle easily.
“If I’d known I’d be riding, I’d’ve worn my boots,” she mumbled. The grey Chuck Taylors looked beyond out of place.
“Let me see if Sylvia’s boots will fit you. That’s not safe,” Kit tutted.
She swung down from the horse and said, “I don’t want to be a bother.”
He was back out with a pair of boots. Judy took off her Chuck Taylors and set them down.
“We’ll have to go slow with the trail and the dark, but we can’t leave this to wait until morning. Not if there’s another one of them out there.”
Judy pulled the boots on. They were worn and felt strange, but they fit. They’d be fine for a ride down the hill to the city.
“How far to Park City?” she asked.
“It’s about fifteen miles.” She shivered. It would be a long, cold ride. “Lemme get you another jacket or something.”
He was back inside the house.
Stud came up to her and said, “Be careful. I’ll have things safe and fine here, but…”
She nodded once, then moved forward, putting a soft hand on his chest, then stretching on tip toes to kiss him. The stubble on his cheek scratched at her hand, but his lips were on hers and his hands were on the small of her back. The need and the safety of his arms was everything she wanted. The knowledge that she’d be safe there, both in the past and when they got back to the future. Or the present. Or whatever they’d call it.
Her tongue slipped into his mouth and their bodies pressed together for a moment. A moment that was much too fleeting.
“Come back to me,” he whispered into her hair. His chin scraped at her neck, raising goose bumps along her skin.
“Be safe,” she whispered.
Kit came out and cleared his throat. She drew a deep breath, then pulled the jacket on. She leaned forward once more and kissed Stud again, a quick, passionate spark in the growing dark. She was up on the horse and following Kit down the trail in a moment. The fear of the unknown, the fear of leaving Stud, the fear of not knowing what was going to happen and who was going to do it or protect them.
“It’ll take us three hours to get there,” Kit said.
Judy groaned. It had been a long time since she’d ridden that long. Six hours in the saddle was going to murder her. Especially after the long day of walking yesterday and this morning.
“I’m sorry we brought this to you,” Judy said.
“No, I should have done a ride over the whole property. If they’d built a shanty up there…”
“You’ve been busy with Sylvia and the little one.” O’Keefe must have followed their trail down to the cabin. Had they brought this danger to the young family? Or maybe, that was why they were there. To take this family through the danger. Or, perhaps the universe was just willfully terrible and now they were going to face the random vagaries of the universe.
The trail tightened and Judy fell behind Kit. She slumped into the saddle a little, tired but keyed up from the kiss with Stud. How she’d fallen in with a man who called himself Stud. What kind of nonsense was that? What kind of ridiculous ideas did he have if he thought calling himself Stud was good?
But at the same time, all the hidden gentleness, the cattle, his care of them, the way he said he didn’t want the land, but was unwilling to do anything to actually get rid of it. Everything made her think that the Stud was only a facade and what was underneath, the calm quiet of Steve was real.
The smile poked at the corners of her mouth. It was more than she could deny. And more than her heart could say no to. She didn’t want to. All the horrible men she’d faced, from Kyle to every single terrible man she’d worked with until she hid behind J.R. Reynolds. If they thought she was a man, everything was so much easier. It was a shame she had to hide so much of herself. But somehow Stud saw her. He saw through all of that to her heart. To what she was and what she wanted and what she could be.
The gentle rocking of the horse calmed and soothed her. She loved horses, but stopped riding when she married Kyle. There wasn’t time. There wasn’t any of that. It was all about what she could do for Kyle and their family. Nothing about what she could for herself.
So much of her adult life was about working for other people. Still, somehow she was doing the same. She was a hostage, no matter how she looked at it, riding this horse in the dark. She wrote financial software for other people. She should just write it for herself and figure out how to game the stock market. The knowledge was there in her mind. She knew it was. But maybe she’d just listened to everyone for too long. She could do it, she knew she could and instead it was all this nonsense.
She leaned forward and stroked her horse’s neck.
“Kit,” she called out. “What’s this horse’s name?”
“She’s Sylvie’s mare. Her name is Countess.”
Judy smiled. “That’s a good name. I think she’s a little too sweet natured to be named Countess though.”
“Oh no,” he laughed. “She just likes to hide it. She’ll let you know her displeasure.”
Judy laughed and scratched the horse’s neck. “She’s a great horse.”
They rode in silence again. A sickly light was growing over the eastern mountains. An anemic moon was rising.
They rode in silence, her mind going over all the things they had talked about, being stuck over a hundred years in the past. What she’d do when they got into Park City. How much of it would look the same.
She could go for a fancy dinner in one of the Main Street restaurants. Duck confit and a bottle of a dry red wine. Her stomach grumbled. Everything about the time was beyond strange. Everything in her life, at least how it was in the future, was so safe. So easy. She didn’t have to worry about starving. No matter what happened, she’d be able to find a way to feed herself. But here? She could die here. She could starve here. She could die a horrible death and who would know?
The sway of the horse lulled into a meditative state. The ride blurred into a long tiring smear and the lights of Park City were visible in the distance.
“We might have to stay overnight,” Kit said.
Something squirmed in her belly. She didn’t want to spend the night with Kit. Not that he felt like a threat, but he wasn’t safety the same way Stud was. She didn’t know him, she didn’t trust him. Not that she knew Stud very well, but something in her heart trusted him.
“I’d rather stay back at the cabin,” she said.
“So would I, but there’s a chance the sheriff can’t come out till the morning and I want to be sure he’s with us.”
“A charge of claim jumper should be enough, right?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never had to follow it up before.”
“We’ll see what the sheriff says.” She paused, then said, “This must be killing you to leave her up there.”
He looked over at her, the light from a saloon lighting his face. “You’re being a lot nicer to me than I have any right to.”
“Because you’re holding me hostage?” She shrugged. “I’d do anything for my girl. I can’t hold it against you. And I know if I tried to make this some antagonistic thing, it would just exacerbate everything.”
They pulled up to the jail and tied their horses to the hitching post. Countess lowered her head and took a careful drink of water, then blew and wrinkled her nose.
Judy laughed. “Oh, she doesn’t like that water.”
Kit rubbed the horse’s shoulder. “No, she doesn’t.”
His horse lipped at her shoulder. She smiled at the horses.
“They have any colts?”
“Not yet. I hope they do. They’re nicely paired.”
“What’s his name?”
Kit pushed the door open and called out, “Sheriff?”
“Naw, it’s Tommy. Come on back.”
Judy followed Kit through the jail and to a desk where a bored, middle aged man rested his heels on the desk and leaned back in a chair.
When he saw Kit and Judy, he stood up and said, “Whaddaya got, Marlowe?”
“Claim jumpers. I’m gonna need a little help.”
Tommy looked from him to Judy. “Your friend?”
“Family in from out of town.”
“My wife is there with my cousin. Can we go tonight?”
Tommy shook his head. “I can’t leave the jail.” He tossed his head down the hall. “Tinker got himself all messed up and he needs to stay here until he’s sobered up.”
“What about Smith?”
“He’s home probably. I think the sheriff was going to a show tonight.”
Kit sighed, then said, “Thanks, Tommy.”
They were back out into the night. “The sheriff is at a show?” Judy said.
“He’ll be at the theatre. They’ll have shows.”
They mounted their horses and started walking again. Down the hill and back a little way. A burlesque theatre was there.
“Oh.” Judy sat back on her horse, then said, “I’ll just, uh, wait out here.”
Kit shrugged, then wrapped his reins over the hitching post. He ran in and she wondered at how things must be for the women here. What kinds of lives are they leading, here on the edges where men let them live?
Her wait wasn’t long and Kit came back out empty handed.
“He can’t come until tomorrow morning.”
Judy bit her lip and the emotion was welling in her. “I don’t want them alone with him tonight.”
Kit looked like he was about to go back into the theatre, but he mounted his horse and said, “Let’s go back. If anything, we’ll come out first thing in the morning.”
“Home, Countess,” Judy said softly. She touched her heels to the mare’s sides. The horse snorted and jumped, then began trotting up the hill to home.
Kit turned and followed her.
The fear was biting at her stomach now, the worry that Stud was hurt. And if Stud was hurt, then what would happen to Sylvia? It wasn’t that she was worried so much about herself, what Kit would do to her if Sylvia was hurt. But if Stud was hurt, what would she do? It would hurt terribly.
Their anxious ride up the hill, back to the cabin was easier with the moonlight. Less hard at least. It was still a difficult time, but it was less terrifying. And they made better time.
Her legs ached. All the walking and the night and the car accident. But in her heart, all she wanted was to know that Stud was okay. The push was okay. The push was what she needed to do.
She led the way to the cabin, trusting the horse and her memory to get her there. The horse skidded to a stop in front of the stable. She’d been in the saddle for almost five hours straight. Her legs would be agony tomorrow.
But she led the horse in and put her in a stall.
O’Keefe was tied to the post. His hands and ankles were tied, but the wrists were tied to the post and he was curled up, asleep, a blanket over him.
Stud sat leaning against the wall, shotgun in his lap, watching O’Keefe. As soon as the noise of the horses roused him, he was up and helping her put her horse up. As soon as the horse was in her stall, his arms were around Judy.
Kit rode up and pulled his horse in too.
“How’s things?” Kit asked.
“Been waiting to see if Butch would show up, but so far, nothing.”
“Good. Sylvia and Alexander?”
“In the cabin. She pulled the cord.”
“He do anything?”
Stud shook his head. “I’ve been watching him and keeping a lookout for Butch. So far, nothing.”
Judy was tucked under his chin, her head against his chest. Now that she had him again, now that they were reunited after the trip to the city, it was more than she wanted to be separated from him again.
“Let me rest a bit, then I’ll trade you,” Kit said.
Stud nodded. “I’ve got this.”
Kit put a hand on his shoulder and the other on Judy’s back. “I’m sorry for that. I just—”
“I know,” Stud said. He tightened his grip on Judy and said, “It’s all messy, isn’t it?”
“I’ll be back out in a little while.”
Kit left after taking care of the horses. Stud settled on the floor again, looking out and up the hill and at O’Keefe.
Judy sat next to him, leaning against his chest heavily. He kissed her forehead and whispered, “Go sleep. I’ll join you when Kit comes back out.”
The idea of the warm, fragrant hay and the enticing murmur of sleep was almost more than she could withstand. Her body ached. Her legs ached. Her ass and thighs were on fire after riding. Her shoulders still hurt from the car accident. She’d give almost anything for a hot bath and glass of chardonnay right now.
But the idea of leaving him alone was almost more than she could handle. Especially after the ride into town and leaving him alone to guard the cabin.
“No, go sleep. I’ve got Boomer.” The dog raised his head from his nest of hay. “Unless that traitor abandons me again.”
She laughed softly. “I’m glad you had him with you.”
He kissed her forehead. “I’m just glad you’re back.” She tilted her head up to make it easier to kiss him. His mouth was on hers, his hand in her hair, thumb along her jaw.
A warm, cozy feeling was in her belly as she kissed his cheek again. “Don’t stay up too late,” she whispered. Then she was up and scrambling into the hayloft. She fluffed her little nest of hay, fixed her blankets and was instantly asleep.