Authors: Leigh Talbert Moore
Tags: #Love, #Romantic, #Survival, #Small Town, #Paranormal, #Suspense, #Adventure, #action, #female protagonist
“I haven’t seen him since lunch,” I heard Ovett say.
“I checked the barn, the yard, his cabin.” It was Cato, and she sounded agitated. “I had to help Oma with the milking this afternoon.”
Gallatin looked down and gave me a mischievous grin as if he’d just pulled the best prank. My eyebrows pulled together. I didn’t understand his response, but I couldn’t help smiling in reply. Then he peeked around the corner again.
“Maybe he is with the little one,” Ovett said. “The one who was injured?”
“She’s in his thoughts too much.” Cato sighed. “I don’t like it.”
Gallatin didn’t look at me this time, and my stomach felt squirmy being pressed so close to him now.
“I thought he’d chosen celibacy. With his uncle and how dangerous it is—”
“He’s too young to make that choice,” Cato snapped. “I’m not even sure it’s the right one for him anyway. Gallatin’s too much like his father to be celibate.”
I watched the muscle in his jaw move, and he kept his chin lifted, not meeting my eyes. I might not have the best vocabulary in the world, but I knew what
meant. I just didn’t understand what it meant with regard to him.
Was Gallatin some sort of priest?
“Please try and stay calm, your grace,” Ovett’s voice was gentle now. “He’ll turn up, and we’ll be leaving soon.”
“That’s what worries me. If anything happens to him—”
“We’ve received no alerts of danger. As far as we can tell, the plan’s working. I just spoke to his grandfather last night.”
“As did I. Not much longer, it seems.” Cato exhaled a delicate sigh.
“We’ll be gone in no time. Everything here will go back to the way it was before, and your brother will be safe.”
Their voices grew quieter, and I could tell they were walking away. So many questions hung in the silence they left behind. I was sure there was no way I could avoid asking at least a few of them. We didn’t speak as he helped me past the guards’ quarters and across the empty yard. At the grove in the center he turned to me, but his expression was troubled.
“Are you okay?” I said.
Instantly it vanished, and he smiled. “Yes. Thank you for going with me today.”
“Thank you for taking me.”
“Would you like to do it again?”
I couldn’t figure him out, but I decided to go with whatever he was doing. For now. “Is that okay? I mean, do you think it’s safe?”
My investigation wasn’t complete, so I nodded. “I’d love to.”
“We might have to do our afternoon shift first.”
“Or your sister might get mad?”
“I don’t want to jeopardize our escape.”
His choice of words made me pause, but the dinner tone was sounding. I let go of his arm and he checked me a moment to be sure I was okay. I nodded and then watched as he quickly cross the yard toward the barn, my curiosity flying off the charts.
I wanted to know more about this boy with the scars who was either a prince or a priest—or both? I still wanted to escape, to rescue my friends and find Jackson, but I also wanted to know why his sister was so fearful for his safety. I wanted to know about this grandfather and his uncle and why all of this was happening. And if they were leaving soon, and we’d be free, should I do like Braxton and D’Lo kept saying? It was all so confusing and I’d only just scratched the surface. I had to find out more if only to understand why.
he hot sun dried the creek water from my skin as I lay on my back on the blanket. It felt delicious, and I wondered how I’d ever made it through the hours before our daily trips to our secret escape, as Gallatin called it. Only three days, and I was addicted to the icy water washing away the sweat and humidity of the morning.
I was also walking more on my own. Gallatin was quick to catch me if I lost my footing or even winced in pain, and his care had effectively removed all my hesitation around him. I’d become so accustomed to his touch, it seemed ridiculous that I was ever afraid of him before.
“Bully is growing so fast.” He lay on his stomach beside me and pulled a blade of grass. “Probably because he eats constantly.”
As he spoke I studied the movement of his lips, the way he positioned his dark hair back over his facial scar.
“You don’t have to do that.” I rolled onto my side to face him.
“Cover it. Your scar doesn’t bother me.”
He looked down and didn’t reply. I wanted to know how he’d gotten it, but I was still hesitant to ask that question. So I watched the water shimmering in the sunlight, the sun passing in and out of the clouds. As the light rippled on the small breaks, a sparkle would be followed by a blinding flash that hurt my eyes. I sat up and then stood, walking to the edge of the water. Brown, red, and white rocks lined the creek bed, and a long-legged fly swirled down like a falling leaf. When it touched the pond, it went into its ice-skating walk across the surface. My eyes followed it until I looked up and saw Gallatin watching me.
“When I first saw you, I wondered why you were so small,” he said. “If it meant you were a runt or somehow inferior. Weaker than the rest.”
“Thanks.” My lips pinched into a frown, and he laughed that low, rippling sound.
“I’m sure you know by now I do not think less of you. You’re very smart, and very different from the others. So very strong.” The last part he added softly.
“No, I’m not.” I spoke a little louder, going back and slowly easing to sit next to him. “I’m just a dumb little hick.”
“That’s not true at all.” He sat up straighter. “Your friends look up to you. You’re a leader.”
His words shot a nervous flash across my stomach. Being a leader was dangerous. We’d all seen how that played out with Cleve. But instead of threatened, Gallatin was completely relaxed. He seemed pleased with me.
He smiled and reached out to slide a strand of hair off my cheek and behind my ear. I let him do it and didn’t pull away like I should have, and as always, his touch somehow erased my fears. In their place, something wholly unexpected emerged—I was proud of myself. I liked impressing him.
“So what happened?” I said quietly.
“There.” I reached out, only a little surprised by my boldness, and lightly touched the damaged skin on his cheek with my fingertips. His eyes softened, and he caught my hand.
“What’s in Jackson?”
I jerked my hand away, instantly alert. “What?”
“The night you were hurt, when you were sleeping, you kept saying Jackson.”
Bending my knees, I hugged my arms around them and looked out at the water. These last few days I’d allowed my guard to relax, and Jackson had drifted from my mind. Now it was all back in my face. I remembered everything—what I had to do and why, and I was ashamed that I’d been letting my mind drift to thoughts of this guy beside me. I’d been thinking about him as a person and wanting to know him better in a kind of sentimental, affectionate way instead of staying focused on my goals.
“I’m sorry,” Gallatin said. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“It’s not that. I just remembered someone.”
“Jackson’s a person?”
“He’s my fiancé.” I cleared my throat and straightened up. “He’s not here, but I’m going to find him.”
Instantly, my companion’s demeanor changed as well. He moved away from me and then stood, walked over to the creek, and stepped down into it. I studied his back as he lifted his arms and dove under the surface.
The little grove was silent as I waited for him to emerge, and when he did, he was on the whole other side, my old side, by the fallen log. I didn’t know what to do now. It was like we’d gone all the way back to the beginning in the space of a few words. But that didn’t make sense. The possibility of something more than friendship was never why I spent time with Gallatin. Was it possible that was why he spent time with me?
I watched him exploring the hill where the stream met up with the larger pond, then I noticed the position of the sun.
“We probably should start back,” I called, standing and pulling on my coveralls.
He looked back and then made his way around the edge of the pool. I picked up the blanket and started to fold it as he stepped into his pants and the pulled the t-shirt over his head. His eyes avoided mine as he loaded the pack and swung it onto his shoulder.
“Do you need help?” he asked as we began to walk.
“No,” I said, feeling guilty although I had no idea why.
We walked in silence to the top of the small hill. Then I stopped and caught his arm.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“Of course not,” he said, but our eyes didn’t meet.
“You seem angry or something.”
He turned and started walking again with me close behind.
“Gallatin,” I said. “I thought we were friends. Friends talk about things, right?”
We were back at the fence, and he paused. This time his eyes did meet mine, and they were sad.
“Sometimes being here, in this little town, makes me feel... I don’t know.”
“Like you miss the desert?”
“Yes. But at the same time...” His eyes traveled around my face. “It’s like something’s happened to me.”
He turned, and we slipped past the cabins. Then he paused to drop the pack by his door. “It’s early still. Want to see Bully?”
“Sure,” I said, following him the back way to the barn.
We entered at the stall, and there was the growing calf with its mother. Gallatin climbed up on the wooden fence and watched him, and I leaned my head against the rail, looking through the space in the boards.
“We probably should move them to a bigger yard,” I said.
“I’ve thought of that, but I’m not sure we have space.”
I leaned back and put my foot on one of the boards, raising myself until I was level with him. Then we faced each other. He looked at me and smiled.
“What?” I said.
“So you’re planning to be married?”
I shrugged. “That was the plan before all this happened.”
“Did you lose your ring?”
I studied the back of my left hand. “I didn’t have a ring.”
“But I thought it was customary in this country to give a ring with a proposal.”
“We weren’t officially engaged. Yet.”
“I don’t understand.”
I looked up at his curious eyes. His previous disposition seemed to have changed somehow, and he wasn’t quite so sad anymore. I chose to believe it was because of Bully. We both liked watching the little bull that brought us together.
Shrugging, I tried to explain. “It was always just sort of understood that we’d get married after we graduated, next year or something. We didn’t have an exact date.”
Gallatin nodded and turned his attention back to the calf, and I wondered why in the world I was telling him so much information about my personal life. The whole point was for
to get information about
to help us escape this darn prison camp. Why did I have to justify myself to him? Or back down from what had been set in stone between Jackson and me since forever.
“So this is your last summer as a girl,” he said, thoughtfully.
“I guess.” I needed a way to turn the focus back on him. “Did you have anybody special? Back in Arizona?”
“Sort of,” he said. “But she wasn’t what I thought she was.”
So shut my mouth. I never expected to feel so curious or disturbed by hearing those words from him.
“What does that mean?”
“It means sometimes people aren’t who you think they are.” Then he laughed. “But that isn’t anything you need to worry about. Your future’s all settled, and as smart as you are, I’m sure you’ve found the right person.”
“That’s right,” I said, turning and climbing down from the fence. “I have. And your business is not my business.”
I started walking back to the entrance to the barn, but he was at my side in two steps.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to make you angry.”
I to laugh and failed. “Neither of us has any reason to be angry.”
“So we’re still friends?”
My blue eyes met his amber ones and for a moment we didn’t move or speak. My whole body was strangely tense, and I wasn’t sure how to answer him. After what felt like an eternity, I exhaled and nodded.
He squeezed my arm. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
he rest of the evening, I was seriously bothered by my emotions. I’d never doubted my future or my plans with Jackson, but now this prolonged separation was getting to me—messing with my head.
It was clearly Stockholm syndrome or something—although I wasn’t quite sure how that worked. What I did know was I missed having the relationship I’d always had with Jackson, and as a result, I was using Gallatin to fill his empty spot. That’s all it was. I was lonely, and the best cure for my loneliness was to get the answers I needed and to get us the hell out of here. I’d worry later about why that prospect made me feel so sad.
As I walked in the line to dinner, I thought about the last several days. I’d been spending too much of my free time with Gallatin at the creek, swimming and relaxing. This wasn’t a vacation, and I was getting soft, both in my resolve and in my feelings toward him. I had to refocus on being strong. Being the leader Jackson would be if he were here.
I needed to talk to someone about our old life. Maybe Braxton or Flora. I needed to spend more time remembering what our world used to be like and thinking about reality. Not this mixed-up summer camp existence I’d somehow fallen into believing we were living.
We took our trays to our places, and as I slid pieces of meat to Flora, I forced myself to think about how weak she was becoming, being made to work in the hot sun. Yes, she’d been moved to easier chores in the barn, but still. She missed her mother, and she cried in the night and felt alone and afraid.
I remembered how I was kidnapped off the road and taken from my future plans against my will. Taken away from Jackson and our dreams until I slowly started to forget them. Well, I had sort of been put in an easier position and been given charge of the cows, and since my injury, I wasn’t required to do as much. Gallatin was quick to get me out of anything I didn’t want to do.