Lucy Garth stared mutely out across the landscape. Before closing her red-rimmed eyes, she could just barely perceive the lone equestrian riding across the distant meadow... away from her and all she had offered.
Snugging the blanket tightly about her bare shoulders, she forced her eyes open again, watching until the rider became a distant dot, and then totally vanished into the wilderness, swallowed up by the hills that were so much a part of his being.
Blinking rapidly in a vain attempt to hold the burning tears, Lucy struggled to swallow the oversized lump in her throat.
A devastating sense of loss seeped into her heart with every stride the big black bay horse took. As horse and rider finally vanished from sight, she felt as if her heart had been shattered into a million tiny pieces.
He had warned her this very thing would happen. She had acknowledged and accepted that warning, and yet foolishly, she had persisted, going ahead with her eyes and her fragile heart wide open, blithely believing she could keep up her end of this devil's bargain.
She had told herself she could handle it, just as she had every other obstacle life had thrown her way. She had told herself she was a strong woman, strong enough to do whatever was necessary. She wondered now if she had been wrong. She couldn’t help wondering if she had only known then how devastatingly difficult it would be if she would have ever agreed.
From the very start of their friendship, Vin Tanner had warned her he was not the type of man to form attachments or lasting relationships. He had never lied to her nor had he ever led her to believe there might be a future for the two of them. She knew and understood his reasons; however, she had ignored those tiny inner voiced warnings, wanting so desperately to be with him.
Vin's air of mystery had intrigued her as well as the sense they had known each other before. She had once heard that some men charmed with words and some with their silence. Mattie's father had charmed with words and false promises, destroying her faith in others, yet Tanner's reticence only served to draw her desire even further, his honesty rebuilding her faith.
Lucy had fallen in love with Vin the first moment she looked into those azure eyes. She had pushed those feelings aside, fully intending to turn him in for the bounty on his head. Five hundred dollars was a lot of money… Money she had desperately needed for the survival of her daughter and herself. Yet, when it came down to it, that was something else she hadn't been strong enough to do.
Lucy had made do with little in her life: little love, little money, little wants. But now, she had found something she craved. Lucy wanted Vin Tanner. She wanted him to return her feelings so badly she had chosen to ignore his admonitions and her own common sense.
She wrapped her arms about herself, clutching the blanket to her, suddenly chilled without his presence as she recalled his expression the previous evening when she had laughingly told him he was a good man.
His visage had darkened and his blue eyes had become guarded as he growled, "Ya don't know me, Lucy."
She had smiled. "I know all I need to know," she admitted. "You're good and kind and gentle…" She trailed off as his expression had darkened even further still.
"Ya don't know me," he had again growled in that raspy tone which was his and his alone.
"Nor you me!" she had arched back, hurt at his seemingly uncaring attitude and wishing he would admit he longed to learn all there was to know about her.
"Know 'nough," he'd muttered, not looking at her, but off into the distant hills as if something …or someone…out there was calling him away from her.
That sudden thought had startled and frightened her. What if there was someone else out there, some woman who already owned his heart? 'Was he talking like this to hurt her deliberately so he did not have to tell her? All right, if you don't want to be with me, or tell me face on, then fine,' she reasoned, her feelings hurt. 'No,' she mentally stomped her foot, 'it wasn't fine.'
That wasn't Vin's way. He'd been brutally honest with her from the very beginning so why this sudden change? What had happened to make him pull away?
"Oh? And just what is it you think you know about me, Mister Tanner?" she had challenged, her angry tone more than a bit biting.
Tanner had focused on her angry face, his blue eyes flickering with emotion. "Yer stubborn, strong willed, and worry too much 'bout the future. If ya didn't have this place and Mattie, ya'd like to be a drifter and see the country, and all them places ya read 'bout in 'em books in there on them shelves of yourn. Ya see the drifter in me and yer drawn ta it, but," his voice dropped quietly, "I move on outta necessity, not choice….Sometimes it's my choice, most times it ain't..." He trailed off as she stared at him in stunned surprise, all previous thoughts, and anger vanishing instantly.
He had just described her to a 'T'! It suddenly scared her he had known her for such a short time and yet had seen so much in the small amount of time they had been together.
Misreading her stunned expression, he had hurried on with his explanation. "I ain't nice, Lucy. Ya need ta know that," he pointed out, his gruff voice grave. "I am a survivor and I done what I needed ta do ta stay alive. I survive as best I can and sometimes it ain't all that pretty… and it sure as hell ain't nice. Sometimes I wish things could be…" He fell silent, chewing his lower lip, afraid of admitting anything further as his blue-eyed gaze again shifted to the mountains in the distance, looking for all the world like he wanted to escape there now.
Lucy had leaned forward and touched her hand to his scruffy cheek wondering when she had become such a brazen hussy. "I wish, too, Vin," she whispered. "And I do know you. You are a good man, Vin Tanner. I know it, your friends know it, and deep down inside, you know it too. Ya go outta your way to help others. You put yourself in danger for other people! You're a intelligent, giving, proud and loving man. You want to be able to settle down someday.” She hesitated, seeing the truth in his face. “It's one thing for you to be looking over your shoulder all the time when it's just you and quite another when you have to worry about your wife and kids getting hurt or worse... seeing you hang for something you didn't do. I'm not naïve, Vin. I know you've killed before… and you will again. I know just like everyone else, you do what you have to ta survive and you're right.” Memories of her own life and her own struggles surfaced, but she pushed them aside. “Sometimes it ain't nice, but that don't mean you're not a nice man."
Tanner had shaken his head and started to pull away from her touch, then, his eyes burning blue fire, he whispered, "A nice man wouldn't do this…" He bent closer, his lips hovering over hers, his breath warm on her cheek, his vivid blue eyes alive with hidden smoldering fire…
Her lips had burned under his as he leaned closer still and captured her soft lips with his wind chapped ones. Lucy sighed and melted against him, raising her hands to wrap them about his neck, her fingers twining in his long hair.
It had been Vin who broke away, dropping his hands from where he had tangled them in her hair. "Damn, woman!" he swore, turning his back and staggering away from her. "I can't…"
She had grabbed his arm and he spun him around to face her. "Why not?" she demanded to know in a choked whisper. "You want me just as much as I want you! I know you do!"
"Damnit!" he swore again. "Look at me, Lucy! Look at me! I'm a drifter, a range bum with nothin', but a price on my head and bounty hunters doggin' my trail. I ain't some solid dependable rancher or shop keeper who can give ya what ya need and deserve! I can't afford the luxury---"
Hurt surfaced in her gray eyes at his rejection. "Fine, Vin Tanner! If all you want is to be alone the rest of your life, then go! Don't let me keep you here! Just go now!" Lifting her chin defiantly, she stormed past him, doing her best to contain the tears that burned her eyes.
She had ignored his call and kept walking.
"Lucy, wait!" There was a heartbeat of silence, then "Please?"
The hoarse plea broke her heart and she stopped, but hadn't turn to face him as he came up behind her.
Tanner had laid his calloused hands on her shoulders. "If … if I stay here with ya tonight… If we … I can't promise ya tomorrow." His voice was solemn. "Ya gotta understand, I can only give ya now," he'd whispered.
The depths of what he was saying struck Lucy as surely as if he'd slapped her face. A wanted man with a price on his head had no future to offer her. He was trying to do what he thought was best for her. Yet… it didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was that he loved her. She had turned to face him, her eyes shining. "I'll take what you can give me, Vin. I promise I won't ask for tomorrow…" Lucy had vowed, meaning every word. "Just tonight. Just here and now be with me. I'll only ask for what you can give when ya can give it and nothing more..."
His intense blue eyes had searched her face. "Are ya sure Luce? I don't never want ya ta have any regrets," he whispered and at her nod, he'd lifted her into his arms and headed for the cabin.
Vin frowned as he urged Peso along the narrow trace in the dust. He had headed for town, but had veered off, reining instead into the vast wild country, not up to facing the closeness of other people just yet.
'What the hell's happenin' ta me…?'
He had been perfectly content with his life. He snorted aloud, spooking the bay gelding under him and the animal crow hopped sideways in alarm. He soothed the horse with a gentle hand and urged him onward.
He couldn't lie – not even to himself. He hadn't been happy or content with his life. Truth be known, he was lost and lonely, searching for something-- someone -- without really knowing what or who it was he longed for.
Perhaps, he mused, that was why he had hooked up with Larabee, from a wanting-- a craving -- for friendship. For the need of someone knowing he had lived when he died.
That he wouldn't die alone and unmourned….. After all, death was his constant companion. If not some accident in the wilds, then by a bounty hunter's bullet… or a Texan lawman's noose.
Along with Larabee, the other five men had filled an aching void in his life and he had accepted them, accepted the friendship they proffered. He had not asked for it…but it had been freely given and like a drowning man thrown a line, he had grabbed onto it with both hands, afraid to let it slip away, afraid such a priceless jewel would never be offered to him again.
Then why had he rejected Lucy's offer? She had offered something far more valuable and he had turned his back on her and ridden away.
Damn, but he was seven kinds of a fool!
She was a wonderful woman and from the first time he had seen her, he had sensed something about her. Something that only served to confuse and alarm him. It was as if something somewhere deep inside his being knew her… Knew they had cared for each other in some other place or time and their hearts still held that intimate closeness, refusing to be severed by time or distance…
That was nonsense! He snorted again and curbed Peso's sideways jump. There was no way they knew each other.
All they had was the here and now.
Here and now….
In the here and now, Lucy had made it plain she would welcome him in her life. Here and now, he had an opportunity to find happiness, perhaps even love. She had freely offered him those very things without asking anything in return.
Here and now ….
He chewed his lower lip and looked off in the distance. The wild country and far off hills were calling to him, their siren's song stirring his blood, urging him to get lost in the vastness as he always did when he was overwhelmed by the unquenched emptiness in his soul.
That reality shook him to his very boots. It was true. He was afraid. Afraid to let anyone get so close to him. But absolutely terrified for Lucy. Terrified if he stayed with her, she would be caught up in whatever happened in his life. Afraid she or Mattie would be hurt when the bounty hunters finally found with him.
He remembered all to well what had nearly happened when they had first met. Lucy had saved his life and it had nearly cost the rancher her daughter when the bounty hunters had caught up with him.
'Last night should never have happened. Ya ain't no better than some scavenger, usin' other people ta fill your own desires,' he mentally berated himself.
Logically, he tried to reason; he was shielding the woman and her fragile heart from further harm., Protecting her reputation. Protecting her by riding away. Leaving Lucy alone was for her own good…and Mattie’s. In time, the woman would come to realize that.
At least that was what he struggled to convince himself as Peso loped further away from Lucy and closer to the beckoning distant hills where Vin could lose himself.
He had lost himself the previous night, his inner voice whispered as he resisted the sweet memory of what had transpired in the quiet little cabin under the cottonwoods. He and Lucy had made love, and spent the night wrapped in each other's arms. He could never before remember such feelings. A feeling he couldn't describe or begin to put into words. His last reflection as he drifted to sleep had been the utter feeling of peace and joy at being with someone he loved and who loved him equally in return.
He had awoken before Lucy and had quietly laid there, a strange feeling of contentment stealing over him as he simply watched her sleep, her cheek nestled on his chest, safe in the protective shelter of his arms. He had felt as if his heart would burst from happiness. It had seemed so right, so perfect for her to be there.
The sun had arisen, its morning rays peeking thru the thin curtains and washing the sleeping woman in a golden glow. He'd watched the light spread over her, and then silently, quietly, like some thief who had come stealing in the night, he dressed. Boots in hand, he had bent to lightly drop a kiss on the crown of her head and as she snuggled deeper into the pillow they had shared, he slipped from the cabin.
Saddling Peso, he had ridden away.
It was for the best he had repeated to himself as the miles stretched between them, but his heart kept refusing to accept that.
Tanner reined Peso to a stop and stepping from the saddle, he took a long swallow of warm water from his canteen to wash the dust from his throat. Pouring liquid into his hat, he offered it to the horse who greedily sucked the water from the makeshift container.
He walked several yards from the gelding and turned to face the animal. "It's fer 'er own good," he blurted out angrily.
Peso snorted and shook his head, his mane shifting in the slight breeze.
"Like ya'd know…" Vin muttered sarcastically.
Lucy was too sweet and kind to throw her life away on some wanted saddle bum with a price on his head. She had Mattie to look out for and he couldn't --wouldn't-- risk putting either of them in harm's way. It had already happened once, and he did not want a repeat, ever again. He did not want Lucy to know the terror of her daughter in danger, or the child scared out of her wits, used as some pawn to get back at him. No, he would not let that happen. He cared too much….
That realization shook him, and he fought to deny it. He could not care… he would not care…. He would ride away and never see the woman or her child again, never run that risk of putting them in danger…. Never experience the love he saw in Lucy's eyes again, or the joy in little Mattie's when she threw herself in his arms, hugging his neck. He couldn't risk attachments…. He just couldn't!
Still, he had to admit, there was something about the pretty young woman which stirred parts of him he had long ago made it a point to ignore. He wasn't exactly a stranger when it came to women and the delightful pleasures they offered. However, unlike Buck who hop scotched through the ladies, taking his pleasure from any willing woman, Vin wanted more. He wanted what he knew Wilmington was really searching for. He wanted love – real love -- with one special woman….
One like Lucy, his inner voice murmured sagely, but he refused to acknowledge the fact as he continued making up excuses to justify his callous riding away.
Not a woman like Lucy...Lucy!
She was the woman he wanted and while he didn't want to admit it even to himself, his heart belonged to her.
The timing was all wrong. It was hard for him to focus on life's pleasures when the awareness that bounty hunters were after him was forever on his mind. A man with a price on his head had no future…. For himself or to give to a woman, no matter how willing she was to accept him.
He swung back up on Peso and let the horse pick his way down the rocky slope, moving deeper into the wild desolate country.
Lucy had come to him willingly, freely…. He closed his eyes, trying to shake the sweet memory of her lying in his arms… A man looking over his shoulder couldn't look ahead to a future… Or could he?
The previous night, for the first time in so long he couldn't recall, Vin had let down his guard, refusing to worry about what was waiting for him around the next bend and had simply lived in the moment with Lucy. It had been so easy to do and while he knew it had been wrong, it had been so right.
He had to admit things were changing around him. He had accepted Larabee's help in watching his back. Now, with the other five men, he felt a safety here in Four Corners he hadn't known in ages…. If ever. There was a strange comfort in that sense he didn't have to always be on guard, always watching, always alone. He had friends now who watched out for him, protected him, and would fight beside him if need be. That fact had been proven more than once.
Maybe it was time he relaxed a little and started thinking about a possible future once they helped clear his name. However, not knowing how long that could be, did he have the right to ask a woman --- no, not any woman, but Lucy --- if she would wait for him? He somehow knew he did not even have to pose the question to her…. He knew deep in his heart she would wait for him forever…
He reined Peso to a stop and focused on the dusty hills before him. He had always found solace there, lost in the wilderness. There was something in the wilds that soothed his wounded soul, made him complete and whole again when he was hurting… Nevertheless, this time, the distant ridges seemed to mock him and he knew he would find no answers in that lost lonely place….
The words again echoed in his mind. He pulled off his hat and raked long trembling fingers through his dusty hair, and immediately slammed it back into place as the action recalled the feel of Lucy's gentle fingers doing the same thing…
Damn, was she going to haunt him for the rest of his days?
He raked his troubled gaze over his surroundings. There was nothing here but bone chilling loneliness. He turned in the saddle and looked back the way he had come.
Perhaps…. A sudden fear flooded over him. What if Lucy wouldn't have him? After all, he had ridden away without a word…. Had he thrown away the best thing to ever happen to him? Had he destroyed not only the love she offered, but the friendship as well? His shoulders sagged and the emptiness surrounding him seemed to sift into his soul….
After several long moments of being ignored, Peso moved on of his own accord…
Lucy Garth stood on her front porch, her arms wrapped about her middle, her shoulders hunched as she stared unseeing off in the distance. That morning, Vin had ridden out without a word, his blaze faced bay gelding loping away, growing smaller and smaller in the distance, taking his rider out of her life forever….
She had known from the very beginning it was a devil's bargain, but she hadn't been able to resist the man. She hadn't been able to ignore her own desires, her own heart. And to satisfy that, she had made a vow not to ask for more than he could give and she would not break her word. She would not be some clinging vine, wrapping her arms around the Texan, choking him with her good intentions. She had promised him she wouldn't regret her decision. But she had never dreamed he would ride away without a word.
She had always been a good judge of character. She had to be to stay alive and raise Mattie, and her instincts had never failed her… until now.
Shaking her head, she finally moved back into the cabin. She should saddle up, ride to the Wells' place, and get Mattie. She was sure the elder Miss Wells knew her intentions when she'd taken the child to their ranch to spend time with Casey. She had once promised Nettie she would never hurt Vin, and she had no plans of breaking that promise either. But she couldn't quite make herself move to the barn and saddle up to make that ride. Instead, a million thoughts raced through her mind, each trying to justify the tracker's departure.
Lucy knew Vin was leery, having suffered loneliness all his life, but she had suffered the same sort of loneliness herself. After Matthew abandoned her and her parents had thrown her out, she had been so terribly alone except for the child growing inside her.
Had it not been for that child, Lucy would never have been able to bear the utter isolation and solitude which had surrounded her. She vowed her child would grow up being loved and held and hugged and cherished… the very things she herself never had experienced.
Her parents had been cold, pious people, incapable of expressing love and Matthew had only used her for his own pleasure. She had never known warmth and love, never been cuddled and held, and made to feel as if she were worth something. To love and be loved in return. She needed –craved – that experience just one time in her life. Just to know what it was like to mean the world to someone…
She had seen and sensed that same need, that same craving, in Tanner's sorrowful eyes the first time she had looked into their blue depths. Moreover, she couldn't help but wonder how long it had been since he had been held, needed or loved.
Lucy wanted to be the one… the only woman the tracker came to, wanted to be the one woman which meant the world to him, and cherished him…. She had wanted to tell him that and would have, had he not ridden out while she still slept. She wanted to tell him she knew loneliness, and longed to fill the void in his life, just as he filled the one in her own. However, he had not given her that chance….
Perhaps he was afraid, her inner voice whispered. That thought startled her. Vin Tanner did not strike her as a man afraid of anything.
Anything he could sight down a rifle barrel, the sage voice added.
Was that it? The Texan was scared, afraid of the unknown? Afraid of the closeness he had never known? Afraid to admit his need for her….? Afraid of what would happen if he allow ed himself to return her feelings?
Lucy shook her head and moved into the bedroom, stopping in the doorway. The sheets still held the imprint of his lean body and the room had the faint scent she had come to recognize as his: an earthy mixture of pine, dust, horse, and leather. She closed her eyes and could still see him, his blue eyes smoldering with a love she had never known… and perhaps would never know again.
Shaking her head, she squared her shoulders and moved to jerk the sheets from the bed. There was no need mooning around. Vin Tanner had left. He had flaunted her and left her. Best get that through her head and get on with her life.
Lucy angrily wadded up the covers and carried them through the house to the back door. Tossing them on the back step, she pulled down her washtub and carried water from the well, heating it over the open fire. Dumping in the covers, she added lye soap and began scrubbing, trying to ignore the tears that flowed from her eyes as she struggled to scrub the blue eyed Texan from her soul.
It was some time later when, sweaty, bedraggled, her anger and humiliation somewhat diminished, she wrung out the sheets and carried them to the line to hang them. She felt exhausted, physically and mentally. And lost… as if a piece of her heart was gone. How could she ever begin to explain to Mattie why the man she was so fond of no longer visited? It would break her daughter's heart…
Struggling to hold the sheet and pin it in place, the young woman felt the breeze catch the ends and she scrambled to seize the material before it landed in the dirt. But as she grabbed, a hand appeared over her shoulder, firmly grasping the sheet in place.
Lucy, her eyes wide with fear spun around, the clothespins dropping from her mouth as she realized who was standing behind her…. She knew she must have said his name, but it did not register on her ears.
Vin reached out, taking the wooden pins from her apron pocket and securely fastened the sheet to the line. Then, head down, he stood looking at her as if unsure what to say.
Drained almost beyond words, her voice was low. "What are you doing here?" She dare not even hope she knew his response.
"Why did you come back. Vin?" Her voice sounded breathless and she was certain he must be able to hear the pounding of her heart. Had he come back out of guilt? Was he here only because his sense of honor demanded it?
He looked away and closed his eyes, then opened them and focused on her face. "I had ta. I know it won't be easy, but I know I don't want no life without you and Mattie in it. I don't wanna be alone no more. I can't promise security and happily ever after like in 'em books of yourn, but I can give ya my word, as a Tanner, I'll…. I'll love ya forever if ya let me…." He drew in a deep breath and choked out in a whisper, "And iffen ya don't, I understand why and I got no one ta blame, but my own stupid self. I know I hurt ya, ridin' out like that, but…."
Lucy remained silent, afraid even to breathe, terrified even the slightest thought, or action would jar her from this unbelievable delusion. How many times had she dreamed of those very words? How many times had she longed to hear this very thing from the tracker? Here and now, it slowly registered on her it was real….
Here and now, this was no illusion. Vin Tanner was real.
Here and now, standing before her, his words were genuine…. Not some longed for fantasy.
Here and now….
Vin misread her silence and after staring at her for several long moments, he shook his head and turned to go.
"Don't!" The one word escaped her lips. The tracker spun on his heel, his blue eyes wide. "Don't what, Lucy?" he questioned, his raspy voice hesitant.
"Don't go!" She threw herself in his arms, and he caught her, holding her close as she sobbed against his shoulder.
He gently cradled her to his chest. "I know I'd hurt ya so bad…" he murmured. " I didn't mean ta….All I know is here and now, I wanna be with ya…. iffen ya'll have me…" His gravelly voice held a shy hesitancy as he stared down at her with wide blue eyes, smiling that endearing lop sided smile she loved so much, awaiting her response.
"…thought I'd lost you…" she choked out.
He gently placed his calloused hands on either side of her face and turned her head up until her tear bright eyes met his. "Ya ain't lost me, Lucy. Ya just found me."