Sex: Of course!!
NOTE: There are some derogatory terms and names used for the African American and Native American peoples in this story, which have NO reflection on my own personal beliefs, whatsoever. This story takes place during the 19 th century, and simply reflects what was happening during our Nation's history, and contemporary thought at the time. I mean no offense to anyone or any group; this is a work of fiction with historic fact weaved into its tapestry.
WARNING: There is physical and sexual violence in this story, though nothing horribly graphic.
This story is dedicated to Wendy. Hope you like it, girl!
If you'd like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com .
Missouri : 1876
The celebrations were beginning to grow as the day blurred into night. As more whiskey flowed, the party got louder and spilled out into the streets from the row of taverns and saloons that lined the plank sidewalks. The holidays had arrived, November the beginning of a five week-long celebration of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.
A small woman with a large hat swished her way through the crowds, clutching the large bag she carried tightly to her body. Green eyes peered out from under the brim just before she darted, unseen in the revelry, down a dusty, dark alley. With the haste of fear and efficiency of experience, the woman strips out of her dress and the many layers beneath, shoving them into the large crack in the foundation of one of the buildings. Beneath the dress, she already wore a pair of trousers
Tucked into spurred cowboy boots. She tugged a button-up shirt out of the bag she'd been carrying – careful not to let any money spill out with it – and slipped it on.
Looking both ways as she stepped out of the alley, the woman – who now far more resembled a teenaged boy - tugged her hat lower over her eyes and shaggy blonde hair, then hurried off into the gathering crowds and dusk.
Justine Havell felt herself being tugged in yet another direction as her husband, Mayor Justice Havell, was called by another group of men. She wasn't new to these sort of functions, after all, her husband of six years was all the talk in their little town.
“Come on, dear. I want you to meet Ballard Michllin. He's the new Sheriff of Austin County ,” Justice Havell whispered to his lovely, young wife.
Justine's skirts swished across the fine, polished floor of the ballroom in the mayor's mansion, where she lived with Justice. She carried a delicate flute filled with fine, French champagne, delivered special for the holidays.
“Justice!” Ballard exclaimed, taking the hand of the new mayor and smiling at his most beautiful wife. Everyone in town was envious of Justice's bride. Justine was exquisite with her sky blue eyes and luscious curves, which played marvelously against the red velvet of her dress. This night, her raven black hair was piled atop her head, leaving the creamy skin of her neck bared in temptation.
“Ballard. Wonderful to see you. Thank you for coming,” Justice said, giving the wealthy Sheriff and business man's hand a firm shake.
“I wouldn't miss it for the world.” Ballard turned to Justine. “An exquisite ball you've put on, Miss Justine.”
“Thank you, Mr. Michllin,” Justine said softly. “Happy holidays to you.”
“And you.” Ballard Michllin took Justine's hand and brought her knuckles to her lips. “May Santa Clause be kind.”
Justine smiled, amused, but the smile faltered as thick, wet lips met her flesh. She did her best to not cringe, as she'd done so many times before. It was difficult to be the wife of such an important man, and not show her distaste at his many, influential friends. She knew, all she had to do was get through the next few hours, and then the party would be over. After that, she'd have to nurse her husband's heavy drinking and get him to bed, then get to bed herself. It was an old dance that she knew the steps for, all too well.
The snow had really begun to fall as Julie made her way towards the boarding house where she'd been staying for the past two days. She was shivering by time she reached the two-story house, her boots leaving snow cakes in the shape of footprints all along the carpeted foyer and stairs, which she took two at a time.
Relieved to be in her room, Julie tossed her hat onto the narrow bed, followed by her bag. Heart still pounding from the night's adventure, she plopped down in the chair in front of the single window, which looked down over the street. Her room was dark, the oil lamp sitting on the table next to her, unlit. This was on purpose, so as she could see out into the night, but no one could see in. Not yet, anyway. She had to make sure she hadn't been followed or spotted.
After thirty minutes gazing out into the night, and seeing no one of consequence, Julie closed the heavy curtains over the window, than lit the oil lamp, which sent buttery light over her small room. It was a room like so many others: small, narrow bed for one: solitary table and chair and a tall, narrow set of drawers with a wash basin and jug atop it. This one was a bit nicer than most, as it had actual wallpaper to decorate the walls, rather than the typical, badly painted plaster of most boarding houses. Julie didn't much care for the design, but appreciated the effort.
Wiping her running nose on the hankie she pulled from inside her shirt, she blew her nose and grabbed her bag. The chill tonight had taken its toll on her. Maybe she'd stay another night and rest. Shaking the thought loose from her head, she pulled the bag open, grinning like a fool when she saw the hard, cold cash inside. Dumping it on the bedspread, she began to count. She may not know how to read or write, but count, she could. Her daddy had always told her she was good with numbers in a natural way.
“Hot dawg,” she whispered, organizing the greenbacks into a neat stack. “Got me near one hundred dollars.” She then counted the coins, which added up to nearly four dollars. “Whoowee!”
Stuffing the money in her boot – which made for one uncomfortable instep – Julie decided it was time to get some rest. She'd decide in the morning whether she wanted to get the hell out of Dodge, o stay and rest. Lord knew, she had enough money now to do either.
The ball had been a wonderful success, so proclaimed Justice, stroking his brown mustache as he headed up to bed. Justine said nothing, staying downstairs to direct the servants in cleaning up the horrid mess left behind.
The ballroom was longer than it was wide, with a grand, marble fireplace in the same shades as that on the floor. The echoes could be fearsome during a party, but the aesthetic effect far made up for it. One of the servants was up on a ladder, using a tool to extinguish the gas flame to the grand chandelier, a task that always made Justine's heart skip a beat. She could never stop imagining the poor man falling to his death. She hated heights and always had.
“Miss Justine, where do you want these?” Sissy, one of the new, younger servants that had been brought in, asked, holding up a handful of party favors.
“Come with me, child. I'll show you,” Nelly said quietly, directing the young girl away from the mistress of the house. Though Nelly knew Justine Havell was a kind soul, she knew her husband wasn't always, and wanted to keep young Sissy out of the way of his hand – and his eye.
Not wishing to be waiting all night for the house to be cleaned up, Justine removed her shoes and began to help her small army of servant help. Though the ugly war between brothers had been over for more than a decade, the servant class – though now paid – were still mostly black. Not that she wasn't used to that: Born and raised in Philadelphia society, she'd been a young girl before, during and after the Civil War. Sissy had actually been her nanny when she'd been a child. Justine's father had agreed to allow his only daughter to take the older servant woman with her to her husband's home, after their marriage.
“Miss Justine, you should be going up to bed, now,” Sissy said, gently pushing Justine away from the huge, porcelain sink, where she was about to run wash water. “It's late, now, and you need to get your rest.”
Justine sighed, knowing Sissy was right. Finally she nodded. “Alright, but don't allow anyone to stay up too late, Sissy.”
“Yes'm, I keep them in check.”
They both smiled at that, and Justine headed for the stairs.
Justice was already dressed in his night clothes in his bedroom when he heard his wife enter her own bedroom, joined to his by a hallway, where their separate bathrooms were located. He stayed seated at the desk placed in the corner of the large, opulent room. He knew once his wife had changed, she would be in to say goodnight, as had been her custom for the duration of their marriage. Perhaps tonight he'd ask her to stay for a bit. After all, she had looked stunning at the ball, certainly the belle.
Justice smirked to himself at his own joke. Since his election to office the year before, he had found himself getting more distant from his wife, mainly because of professional obligations. But, also because he'd found himself some company for those long, cold nights in his office, slaving to assure the success of his domain. Ethel, his secretary, had been out of town for the past month, off east to care for her ailing mother. Her absence had been felt acutely, and Justice found himself more lonely than ever, lately.
As if on cue, a soft touch grazed Justice's cheek. He looked up to see Justine smiling down at him. “Good evening, dear.”
“I think the party went well,” Justine said, moving to sit on the setee, fixing her nightgown so it covered her legs.
“I agree.” Justice sat back in his chair setting the papers down on the desk that he'd been looking through. The page on top was a Wanted poster, the rough drawing of a woman stared out under the banner: PETTICOAT BANDIT.
Justine glanced at the poster, but knew better than to ask: Justice's work was not her concern, so she'd been told for the past six years, especially while Justice was installed as Mayor. Instead, she decided to be the ever-present comforting force, as she'd been taught to do by her mother.
“It's getting late, Justice,” she said softly, rising and moving to stand behind him, gently massaging his shoulders. His long, throaty groan of approval made her smile slightly. “You should get some rest. Undoubtedly you've got a long day ahead of you tomorrow.”
Justice nodded in agreement, but made no move to head to bed. Instead, he grabbed one of his wife's hands and tugged lightly, forcing her to bend over his shoulder as he placed her hand on his rising need.
Justine gasped at her husband's boldness. “Justice!'
He chuckled, but didn't remove her and. He had made his desire clear.
Julie raised her hand to shield her eyes from the sun, high above, as she saw the sign that read: WELCOME TO AUSTIN COUNTY ! YOU WILLBEENTERING TAMPSON ORE IN HALF A DAY'S RIDE!
She kicked her mount, urging her on. She tried to wrap her jacket in tighter around her. The snow was falling again, and all she wanted was to be able to find a nice, warm boarding house and bunker down for a few days. She had plenty of money to sustain her for the next six months if she wanted to. Truth be told, it didn't sound like such a bad plan.
As evening fell over the small town – much like every other town she'd been in – Julia scouted out the local boarding house and pulled in, tying her horse off at the rail in front.
As she walked into the single-story building, she noticed there was a game of cards going on in the front parlor. She took note, as perhaps she'd like to join in later, though that was difficult, as she couldn't as a woman, and few men allowed her in their game when they thought she was a thirteen year old boy.
Room key in hand, Julie was about to head off down the hall that led to the rooms when she heard, “Hey, boy! Come ‘ere.”
Turning towards the poker game already in progress, Julie searched the eyes of the men until she found the one who had called out to her.
“Yeah, you!” the man said. His brown hair was smashed to his head, a product of sweat and a cowboy hat, worn all day. His blue eyes sparkled with drink as he waved over what he perceived to be a young boy.
Julie made her way towards the table, bag shouldered and hat pulled low. She was a petit woman, and there was just no way to make herself seem a full-sized man.
“Yes, sir?” she asked quietly, her womanly voice perceived as that of a boy whose voice had yet to change.
“Come ‘ere and make sure this snake ain't lyin',” the man said.
Julie was able to get a look at him: black hair parted in the middle, greasy and seemingly unwashed. He wore a suit with black string tie and jacket, cards held in his right hand. A gold ring glinted in the light from his pinky finger.
“Who you saying is lying?” the man sitting across from him asked, his gray eyes flickering in the light of the many oil lamps' flames dancing around the parlor of the boarding house.
Silence fell as the men studied their cards, Julie moving to stand near the table. She loved a good game of cards, but was rarely asked to play. Perhaps tonight would be one of those rare occasions.
“What's your name, son?” the gambler asked, never looking up from his cards.
“Joe, sir,” Julie said, a name she had claimed many times before.
“Well, you keep a good eye out, Joe, and maybe I'll let ya sit in a hand for me.”
“Yes, sir!” Julie's grin was from ear to ear, her green eyes twinkling, even as too-long, shaggy bangs hung in front of them.
The game went forward, tensions rising in the room, making Julie feel a bit hot under the collar. By now, she'd been dealt into the game. Now, the man's back that she'd been asked to watch was the very same man that she was playing against.
“I'll raise ya two,” Julie said, tossing two more dollars into the pot, eyeing her opponent. The other players had folded, each man watching the tense game with a mixture of interest and dread. Julie met the man's eye, doing her best to keep her face expressionless. She was cradling her full house against her chest, ensuring her victory.
The gambler chewed on the stub of his cigar, not liking the little gambler one bit. He had the distinct feeling that he was about to lose, and there was no way he was going to lose to no gun-toten kid. “Two,” he agreed, tossing in the last of his money. Everything he had lay in that pot at the center of the table, as well as his pride. He'd almost rather lose to a woman than a snot nosed kid. He knew he had only one choice: Lie.
Julie was about to call it when suddenly, the table was pushed into her lap, knocking her backwards in her chair to the floor. She looked up, stunned, to see the man standing over her, a pistol drawn and cocked.
“You lyin' som'bitch!” he roared.
Julie managed to scrambled out of the pile of spilled cards, money and liquor. She reached for her own gun, only to realize that her bag had been flung across the floor with her spill. She knew she didn't have enough time to get the gun out, but hoped she'd have enough time to grab the bag and run.
“Get back here!” the man yelled, hurtling the table in pursuit of his young victim.
A shot rang out, causing a woman nearby to cry out in fear. Julie instinctually ducked as she dove to get her bag, rolling across the floor as shots continued to ring out. The only thing she had going for her was that the man was drunk, and his aim was less-than perfect. Even so, she cried out as a stinging bullet ripped into her side.
Julie managed to get to her feet and run out of the building, and out into the cold night, disappearing into the darkness before the man could follow.
The fire was warm in the fireplace, the bricks glowing with the light bouncing onto the hearth and wood floor beyond. Justine sat in a comfortable, somewhat overstuffed Queen Ann chair, as she worked on her newest knitted piece. The piece was that of a baby blanket. Dr. Ronald Burns had been to the house to see her earlier in the day, confirming what Justine had suspected for the past month. She was nearly twelve weeks along, and had yet to share her suspicions with Justice, but planned to tell him as soon as he returned from his trip east.
“IS there anything I can get you, Miss Justine?” Sissy asked softly, still learning the ropes of the Havell family.
Justine looked up at the young servant, about to turn the pretty black woman away, but noticing that the fire was burning low, as was the wood pile. “Yes. Please send Percy out for more wood, Sissy.”
“Yes, Miss Justine,” Sissy whispered with an awkward curtsey.
Justine watched the young girl go, sympathetic to her plight.
Percy Washington whistled an old tune his granddaddy had taught him as a boy, as he made his way out into the cold, snowy night. Another storm had hit, and the household was going through wood faster than a woodpecker.
Sniffling back a bit of the nose runs, Percy made his way through the white wonderland, trying to follow the tracks he'd made earlier as best he could, raising the lantern he held higher to try and block out more inky blackness. The hired hand wasn't all that fond of the dark, especially when things loomed up out of the darkness as something just then.
Percy yelped out in surprise when a body found its way into the circle of light from the flickering flame he carried.
“Good lord almighty,” the dark man murmured, a hand to his pounding heart.
Stepping closer, he peered down at the lifeless form, which looked to be a young, blonde boy, the snow around him stained red with blood.
Justine tied off her stitch and was about to put her supplies away when she heard harried footsteps coming her way. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Nelly, and she looked concerned.
“Is everything alright?” Justine asked.
Nelly shook her head. “Come with me, Miss Justine. We gots us a problem.”
Justine looked down at the still form lying on a cot in the servant's quarters. His features were extremely pale, blonde hair wet from the snow. His shirt was bloody, dried blood on his hand. He was dressed in baggy trousers and a button up shirt with suspenders. A bag – also bloodstained – lay on the floor next to the cot.
“Oh my,” Justine gasped, a hand covering her mouth. “Where did this boy come from?”
“I found him whilst out gettin' wood, Miss Justine,” Percy said, his hat in his hands. “He was lyin' in the snow.”
Justine sighed, knowing full well why Nelly had looked so concerned. Justice Havell wasn't known to be the most generous of men, and would balk at the idea of bringing in a complete stranger into their home, hurt or not.
“I can't get Dr. Burns,” she murmured, chewing on her lower lip, looking around the tiny room they were in: nothing more than the cot and a small wardrobe. She met Nelly's dark eyes.
“Mimi will help him,” she said quietly.
Justine sighed, nodding. “Send for her.” Nelly hurried from the room, leaving Percy and Sissy looking on. “Help me, let's get him moved to one of the rooms on the third floor.”
Within a half an hour, the boy had been placed on a soft bed in the smallest room at the end of the hall, near the attic entrance, with a warm fire roaring in the fireplace. Percy had headed down to tend to the horses for the night, leaving Justine and Sissy to get the boy undressed. He had begun to shiver, which was a good sign, as it meant he was alive.
“Sissy,” Justine said, “run down to the laundry and grab one of those shirts of Mr. Havell that need to be fixed.”
With a nod and curtsey, Sissy was out the door like a shot. Justine gently peeled the suspenders off the boy's shoulders, then began to work on the buttons. As the flaps of the shirt pulled apart, Justine was confused to see some sort of wrapping beneath. Once the shirt was completely open, Justine winced at the sight of the nasty wound in the boy's side, her blue eyes darting back to the wrapping. The boy's flesh was very pale and extremely soft to the touch, not a hair in sight. She wondered how young the boy really was.
“Here you are, Miss Justine,” Sissy said, laying the white shirt across the foot of the bed.
“Thank you. Work on his boots, won't you, Sissy?”
Justine's attention was drawn back to the wrappings once more, and her fingers followed suit, finding where the ends were tied together, and with nimble fingers, pulling it apart. Justine let out a loud gasp when two perfect breasts came into view.
“Oh, Lordy,” Sissy whispered, her eyes saucered. She and Justine exchanged a look. “Ain't no boy at all.”
Justine shook her head.
“Miss Justine?” Percy called, his boots making heavy footfalls on the wood floor.
“Don't let him in!” Justine said, waving Sissy out to the hall. She looked back down at the young woman. Now that she knew her sex, she wondered how she could've thought her a boy at all. Her face was lovely with pale, feminine features. Other than her short, shaggy hair, the young woman was quite beautiful. But, as she looked at her and took In her facial features, something niggled at her belly: something familiar about the young woman.
“Miss Justine, Nelly's back with Mimi,” Sissy said, entering the room followed by the two older black women.
Justine watched as the midwife worked her magic, remarking that the bullet had passed clear through the fleshy part of the young woman's side, which was good news. She cleaned out the wound then sewed it up, leaving Justine and Nelly with specific instructions on what to do over the next several days, and what to look for, such as puss or fever.
An hour later, Nelly and Justine sat on either side of the bed, looking at the woman who had been placed in one of Justine's own gowns, and slept peacefully, thanks to the sedative painkiller she'd been given by Mimi.
“I wonder what happened?” Justine said softly, wondering what the woman's name was.
Nelly shook her head. “We can ask her when she wakes up.”
Justine sighed, tired as she looked into Nelly's eyes. “How am I going to keep this from Justice, Nelly? He'll kick her out of here in a New York minute.”
“He don't have to know she's here.”
“Percy will tell him. He's been with Justice for ten years. He's very loyal to him.”
“Don't you worry none about Percy Washington . I got ways to handle him,” Nelly said with a twinkle in her dark eyes.
Justine smiled, relieved to have Nelly with her. “I looked in her bag. Nelly, she's got a lot of money stuffed in there, plus more in her boot.” She stood from her chair and leaned over the bed, getting a better look at the woman. With a gasp she covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh lord.”
Nelly followed as Justine raced down to Justice's bedroom, watching as her mistress sorted through some papers on the messy desktop.
Justine finally found what she was looking for, the woman from upstairs looking up at her from the WANTED flyer.
“Oh, good lord,” Nelly said with a cluck of her tongue.
Justine met her gaze. “What am I going to do?”
“Well, you has yourself a fugitive under your roof, child.” Nelly looked at the younger woman with challenging eyes. “Don't know, Miss Justine, but that child will be swingin' from the nearest tree, your husband have anything to do with it.”
Justine stared down at the flyer, letting out a heavy sigh. “Thank you, Nelly, that'll be all.”
Nelly nodded and left her mistress alone.
The sunlight was pouring in unfettered from the uncovered window, shining a spotlight on Julie's still form lying in the middle of the bed. She was breathing evenly, her chest rising and falling underneath the blanket. It took a moment, but Julie began to stir as the sunlight penetrated the thin membrane of her eyelids, pulling her out of the peaceful darkness with painful consciousness.
With a quiet groan, Julie's eyes blinked open, squinting at the brightness of the small, simple room she was in. She looked over at the window, able to see blue sky beyond. The walls were very white, the bed she lay in soft, and the air smelling of lavender.
Confused, Julie began to continue her perusal around the room when she realized she wasn't alone. Looking on the side of the bed opposite the window, she saw a beautiful young woman sitting in a chair, knitting. Her black hair was pulled up in propriety, her face calm and peaceful. Julie had never seen her before, and was trying to figure out what the situation was, and where she'd ended up. Most importantly, how had she ended up there?
“Excuse me,” she said quietly, her throat rough and dry. The woman looked up, pinning Julie to the spot with eyes the color of the brightest June sky, leaving Julie speechless for a moment. Finally, she was able to get her footing beneath her again. Clearing her throat, she said, “Where am I?”
Justine set her knitting aside, relieved to see the woman was awake. She'd been sitting with her since the wee hours of the morning, following a horrible nightmare, where the woman had died where she slept. “You're in my third floor bedroom,” she said calmly, pushing up from the rocker she'd been sitting in. “I'm Mrs. Justice Havell, and you are?”
Julie looked up at her for a moment, trying to get her bearings, even as her side began to throb horribly. “Julie Swain.”
“It's nice to meet you, Miss Swain. My hired man found you last night lying in the snow, shot.” Justine watched the woman carefully for reaction.
Julie had a great poker face, which she used now. The events of the previous night came back to her: the card game and the man who couldn't lose. She said nothing, not sure what to say, or how to explain such a strange situation.
“A most unfortunate circumstance put you in my yard, I'm sure,” Justine continued, bustling around to alleviate her nerves. She was well aware that she was in the same room with a criminal, and it made her hands tremble slightly. “Are you hungry, Miss Swain?”
“Call me Julie, and yes.”
“Very well.” Justine brought out a small, brass bell from her dress pocket and rang it twice. Within a moment, Sissy appeared.
“Yes, Miss Justine?” the young servant asked, quickly eyeing Julie.
“Breakfast for our guest, please, Sissy.”
“Yes, Miss Justine.” With a quick, awkward curtsey, Sissy disappeared.
Left alone, the two women were uncomfortable, both lost in their own thoughts, trying to figure out what to say. Finally, Justine cleared her throat. “How are you feeling, Miss Swain?”
Julie took mental stock of her body for a moment, wincing as another sharp pain stabbed at her side. “Fine,” she said weakly.
Justine studied her, knowing the blonde was lying. “Indeed.” Without further ado, Justine pulled the covers aside. “Let me have a look at you.”
Julie didn't fight the woman, as it was very obvious that she was on a mission, and was absolutely determined to see it through. Instead, Julie endured having her gown – which she certainly didn't recall putting on – pushed aside, and cold fingers probing at the bandaged that was pressed against her naked flesh.
“I need to change your dressings,” Justine said softly, her touch even softer as she probed the wounded area. Her gaze met that of her embarrassed patient. “I think you'll heal just fine, Miss Swain, if you stay put.”
Julie said nothing. She wanted nothing more than to be off on her own, out on the back of a horse. She loved her freedom, so hard won after three years spent in a loveless, miserable marriage. Her thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock on the door.
Justine met Sissy at the door, taking the tray filled with breakfast for one from the young servant and closing the door behind her. “Here we go,” Justine said, setting the tray down on the table beside Julie's bed. “This should help you heal nicely, Miss Swain.”
Justine ignored the blonde woman as she prepared a dish filled with Nelly's best for her unwanted visitor, setting the plate on Julie's lap, as Julie had painfully pushed herself to a sitting position, leaning against pillows.
Julie didn't want to admit it, but the smell of the food on the covered plate before her was making her mouth water. She wanted to push away this woman's apparent kindness, but knew she was in no shape to do so. “Thank you,” she finally muttered.
“You sit there and eat your breakfast, and I'll find a suitable set of clothes for you to wear,” Justine said, skirts swishing as she turned and made her way out of the room.
Left alone, Julie did as she was told, savoring each and every bite she brought to her lips, all the while thinking of a way to get out of the Havell house. Her identity was still safe within the small town she'd wandered into, but her plans for the local bank were likely a moot point, now. She'd heal and move along. She'd now been seen by Mrs. Havell, and who knew who else. It was no longer safe there for her.
Justice padded across the floor of his room, the December morning cold against his naked body. He didn't bother to look back at the naked woman lying in the warm bed he'd just abandoned, but could hear her shifting in the blankets.
“Will I see you again tonight, sugar?” she asked, her voice sultry and suggestive.
Justice glanced over his shoulder at her as he pulled on his clothing. “No. My business has concluded early, so I'll be heading home.”
Marie, the woman Justice had been spending the last fortnight of nights with, sat up, long red hair draping over her naked breasts. “Will you be comin' back?”
Justice didn't need to watch as the voluptuous woman got out of bed: he could easily imagine her full breasts and rear end, pale skin and sizzling blue eyes. “Perhaps,” he said, noncommittally, buttoning his shirt.
Marie walked over to her newest favorite client. “Well,” she murmured, pressing her naked body to his back, “you come back anytime, sugar. Marie will take care of you real good.”
Justice smirked, stepping away from the temptress behind him. “I'll keep that in mind.” He reached into the pocket in his trousers, pulling out a few bits, which he handed to her. “It's been an enlightening experience.”
An hour later, Justice pulled out his wallet, laying out a pile of notes onto the counter, the jeweler licking his lips at the sight.
“Your missus will look absolutely stunning, Mr. Havell,” he said, a bright smile on his face when his customer met his eagle-eyed gaze.
Justice Havell said nothing, simply smiled and collected the large, square velvet box.
Julie stood at the window, looking down at the snow-blanketed world below. She was getting stir crazy, having been lying in that bed for five whole days. According to the midwife who had come to visit that morning, she was healing remarkably well, and remarkably fast. Good news for her, as all she wanted to do was leave. With a heavy sigh, she rested her forehead against the glass, not even bothering to turn around when the bedroom door creaked open.
Justine was nearly horrified when she entered the room and saw Julie Swain out of bed. She bustled as quickly as her skirts would allow her, grabbing the smaller woman by the arm. “You must be in bed!” she exclaimed, the mother in her coming out even as her unborn child hadn't even caused a bump.
Julie sat heavily on the bed. “I'm bored!” she whined, lamenting the fact that she sounded like a child, even as she said the words.
Justine smiled, sympathizing, as she felt her entire life was lived in a cage, a gilded one, perhaps, but a cage all the same. “Do you like snow?”
“Yes, but even more so, I like bath water.”
Hair still slightly damp from her bath, Julie looked up at the overcast sky as her shoes crunched in the snow beneath her feet. Her footfalls were joined by the softer, much more delicate ones of her companion. Justine stayed to the cleared walkway, her cloak billowing slightly in the gentle breeze.
“I've always loved the snow,” Justine said softly, a smile on her lips. She looked at Julie. “Don't you?”
“As long as I'm not riding in it,” Julie conceded, with a smile of her own. They walked on in silence for a long moment until Julie looked over at her host of the past week. “You've been awful kind to me, Mrs. Havell. I truly do appreciate it. I think I'll be on my way in a day or so.”
Justine met the green gaze aimed at her before looking away, instead looking out over the grounds of her home with Justice. “It's been my pleasure, Miss Swain. I only wish there was more I could do for you here.”
“You've done quite enough.” Julie said, sticking her hands into the pockets of her trousers, freshly washed, all traces of blood gone.
“Can I ask you something?” Justine asked, lightly stepping over a bit of snow that had drifted up on the walkway since it had been cleared.
“Sure, but can't promise you'll get an answer,” Julie said, stopping Justine with a touch to her arm as she used the toe of her boot to kick at more drifted snow.
“Thank you,” Justine said softly, touched by the notion. “Why do you dress like a young boy?”
For a moment, Julie's mind scrambled, trying to think of a good response. There were several reasons why she dressed and carried herself the way she did, but first and foremost was a reason she just couldn't discuss with the sensitive Mrs. Havell. She decided to keep it simple.
“Well, quite honestly, it's much easier to travel as a woman with folks thinkin' you're a young boy rather than female.” She looked over at Justine. “You know?”
Justine nodded, able to understand that, even if she did know that wasn't the entire truth. “How long have you been traveling on your own?”
Julie was surprised at the conversation, as in all the time she'd spent in the Havell house, she and her hostess had only spared words of necessity. Julie was forced to push her mind beyond the past several years, and back to her past; a past she didn't often like to think about. “Since I left my husband,” she answered simply.
Justine stopped their progress, unable to take her eyes off the small blonde. She had never expected to hear that. “You were married?”
Julie met her gaze and nodded. “For three years.”
Justine mulled that over in her brain befor she spoke again. “What was his name?”
“What happened? Why did you leave him?” The mere thought made Justine feel a strange mixture of fear and giddiness. “Isn't it frightening? Being along?”
Julie smiled: only when I'm running from the sheriff. She pushed the thought away and shook her head. “Not at all. The freedom is worth the fear and uncertainty.”
Justine thought about that for a long moment, chewing on her bottom lip before remembering her mother's constant admonishments for doing such a thing. Her mother said it would ruin the perfection and fullness. She wanted to say more, but was interrupted when Nelly ran out of the house, skirts hitched up above the snow as she made her way to the women.
“Miss Justine,” she panted, out of breath from her rush. “Alan jus' got in, and he says he seen Mr. Justice makin' his way inta town!”
Justine looked at Julie, who met her gaze. “He's not due in for another week,” she murmured. “Come.” She grabbed Julie's arm, tugging her towards the house. “We've got to get you hidden!”
Completely confused, Julie was tugged along behind Justine and Nelly through hall after hall in the large, old house, finally ending up in the rafters of the house. A small room had been furnished in the tallest regions of the house, complete with narrow bed, vanity and washbowl. It reminded Julie of many of the inns and boarding houses she'd frequented over the years.
With a whoosh of skirts, Justine disappeared down the long, narrow staircase, leaving a bewildered Julie and an agitated Nelly behind. Julie looked to the older servant woman. “What was that about?”
Nelly glared at Julie with concerned, dark eyes. “The mister is on his way home, and he cannot find you here,” she said, her voice quiet but firm. “You best stay here, Miss Swain, and not be gittin' Miss Justine in no trouble, hear?”
Julie nodded. “Alright, fine.”
Without another word, Nelly disappeared out the same door Justine had moments before, closing the door behind her. Julie almost expected to hear a key in the lock, the crazy way both women were acting, but was certainly relived when there wasn't one.
Left alone, she toured the small space, noting a spider web in the corner. The room was lit by two small windows, that overlooked the front drive of the home, four floors below. As she watched, a carriage pulled up, the driver and a servant from the house, unloading the luggage from the top hold as the passenger stepped out into the cold day. She couldn't see him well at all, except to tell that he was very well dressed and poised.
“Guess that's Justice Havell,” she murmured, stepping away from the window to find some way to amuse herself.
Justine's stomach was fluttering as she breezed down the many staircases to the main floor, hoping her skirts wouldn't slip from her hands and trip her to her death. She wished she could say that her stomach was fluttering for a good reason, but it was not: she not only was harboring a known criminal within the walls of Justice's house, but she would also be informing him of her upcoming pregnancy. She knew Justice wanted a son, and she had a fifty-fifty shot that it would be that very son, but something else…. She wished she had more time to formulate how to tell him the news. Perhaps more time for the news to sink in for herself.
Shaking herself from such confusing thoughts, Instead, she hurried to the front door, where she could hear Justice speaking with the servants, his booted footfalls thudding on the stairs leading up to the front porch and door. She glanced at herself in the hall mirror, grateful that Nelly had thought to remove her cloak before she made it past the second floor; she didn't want to have to explain to Justice why she'd been outside on such a day, and with whom.
The front door pushed open, a gust of cold air blowing past Justice as he stepped inside, removing his hat before walking over to Justine. “Dear,” he said, placing a kiss with cold lips on her cheek. “It's good to see you.”
Justine followed him into the library, taking his overcoat, which he handed to her, as he entered the large room, warmed from a roaring fire. “Can I get you anything?” she asked, handing off the overcoat to Sissy, who followed behind.
“A drink.” Justice looked at the young servant. “Sissy, my special drink.”
Sissy curtsied and hurried out of the room with Justice's coat.
Justine helped her husband get settled in one of the leather chairs. “How was your trip, love?”
“Successful at best,” Justice said, blowing out a long breath, not giving Sissy so much as a glance as she lowered the silver tray on which his drink tumbler was placed. “Boring at worst.”
Justine watched as he downed half the strong drink in one shot, moving to the floor at his feet, carefully removing his boots. “I'm sorry, my love. Were you able to read some of the books I packed for you?”
Justice smiled down at his pretty wife, nodding. “Indeed, I did. With so much free time, what else was a grateful husband to do?”
Justine smiled, pleased. She placed his boots aside then started to work on the buttons of his suit jacket and waistcoat, loosening his tie. “Well, I'm awfully glad you made it home safely.”
Justice studied his wife's face as she tried to make him comfortable, noting a worry line that creased the pale skin between her eyes and around her mouth. She was far too young for such lines, like the poor women had. Something was on her mind. For a moment, he considered asking, but decided against it. He wanted to relax, not deal with the petty concerns of a woman.
Julie cried out, her body jerking out of the small bed, landing on the hard floor, making her cry out again in pain, her hand gripping her side. She sat where she was, holding her breath as she waited for the pain to subside. Taking several deep breaths, she sent up a silent prayer to God or anybody else who was listening, to make the pain go away. After a long moment, it finally did, leaving her achy and fatigued.
Getting to her feet, she cursed quietly at the lumpy bed she'd been sleeping on, the word “sleep” used very lightly. Now fully awake and restless, she chewed on her bottom lip, trying to decide what to do. She'd examined her small surrounds at least a dozen times in the hours she'd been left in there. Her stomach had begun to growl a couple hours before, and she was thirsty. No dinner or drink had been brought up to her that night, and she was worried.
Finally, she decided to head downstairs, and see if maybe she could find Sissy or one of the other servants to get her at least a piece of bread. She made her way down the dark staircase, trying her best to not run into a wall or any furniture, desperately trying to see in her mind's eye what the layout had been when she'd been ushered up and down the few times that she had.
Finally down on the ground floor, she slowed her pace even more, remembering the many pieces of art and sculpture situated around the large house. Up ahead, in the room just off the front door, she heard two quiet voices, as well as fluttering golden light, which she figured was probably from a fireplace.
Stopping, Julie flattened herself against the wall at the bottom of the stairs and listened:
“I've missed you,” said a man's voice. “I brought you something back from my travels to Boston .”
“That was kind of you, Justice,” said a soft, timid voice. A voice that sounded a lot to Julie like Sissy's.
“Anything for my dark angel.”
The voices grew quiet, but the very obvious sound of a kiss followed. Curious, Julie silently inched her way forward, peeking her head around the corner, just enough to get a quick glimpse. Sissy was indeed in the room, being held in the arms of a handsome man, the same man Julie thought she'd seen step out of the carriage earlier that day. Justine's husband. As she ducked out of the hall, she heard another round of kisses.
Not realizing he'd been spotted, Justice broke from the kiss and grabbed Sissy's hand, tugging her up from where she'd been sitting. “Come. I want to get properly reacquainted after my journey.”
Sissy allowed herself to be tugged up the stairs to the third floor, to a room just down from where Julie Swain had been for the past week. She knew the current room she was in well, spending many a night in there with Justice Havell, just as she knew she had no choice but to do, now. She accepted his kisses, responding to the best of her ability. Though she found her boss to be a handsome man, her heart belonged to someone else. Even so, she knew she had no choice but to give in, much like her mother and her people a decade before, living as slaves in Kentucky . Though she was paid wages for her work in the Havell house, there was little work for a black woman, and she had little more freedom than her ancestors.
Justice pulled away from the beautiful young servant and pulled the velvet jewelers box out of the inside pocket of his smoking jacket, grinning as he watched Sissy's eyes widen in surprise. “I hope you like it.”
She accepted the box and opened it, marveling at the beautiful necklace inside, which sparkled in the light of the oil lamp Justice had carried with them into the room. “It's beautiful, Justice.”
“As are you.” Justice removed the necklace from the box and turned the small woman around, clasping the jewelry around her neck. “You must only wear this for me, my dark angel,” he murmured into the side of her neck.
Sissy nodded her head, which fell to the side from the pressure of Justice's kiss.
“So,” he whispered, reaching around the petit woman and unbuttoning her dress. “what's happened in my home as I was gone?” He brought his hands up, cupping her breasts through her chemise, squeezing. “Remember? I put you in charge as my eyes and ears.”
Sissy could feel her stomach churn, warring inside with what she should do. Her eyes rolled upward, looking at what she knew was Julie's floor.
Julie had to stop herself from moaning as she wolfed down the sandwich Nelly had been kind enough to give her. When she'd found her way to the kitchen, she was almost overjoyed enough to cry when she saw the older woman at the counter.
Nelly, for her part, cleaned up, glancing at the blonde woman from time to time. Though she knew Julie Swain could prove a great deal of trouble for the household – Justine in particular – she liked the young woman. She cleared her throat, ready to speak.
“You've got a good appetite. With your wound, that's good news.”
Julie looked at the older woman, surprised to hear her say anything to her. She had the distinct feeling that Nelly really wanted her to leave the house. “It's not often I get such good food,” she said, in an attempt to gain favor.
Nelly smiled as she hung her damp rag on the hook to dry overnight, recognizing the ruse for what it was, but said nothing for a long moment. “How is your side?”
“Hurts,” Julie said, a hand instinctively covering it. She studied the older woman's profile for a long moment, feeling she could ask questions. “Why don't you like me, Nelly? Have I done something to offend you?”
Nelly met the sincere gaze of the pretty young woman. She turned to fully face her, perhaps finally able to get off her chest what she'd been feeling for the past week. “Miss Julie, Justine means a great deal to me. I've known her since she was a baby. I would do anythin' to protect her.”
“You think you need to protect her from me?” Julie asked quietly.
“From what you do,” Nelly nodded.
Julie could only stare, her heart pounding in her chest. “You know?” she whispered.
Nelly nodded. “We all do. Including Miss Justine.”
Julie looked down at her hands, which played with the glass of water she'd been given. She wasn't sure what to say for a long moment. She felt sick, she felt guilty, and she felt truly scared. “Why has she let me stay?”
Nelly felt a great deal of compassion for the young woman, who, though she may never understand why the girl did what she did, knew there had to be a reason. “Miss Julie, I's don't know why you do what you do, or how you got started doin' it, but I can only think there's a reason. Miss Justine has a heart of gold, and she's tryin' to understand you, but that's hard.”
Julie felt her stomach fall, both from fear and… something else. Why did she feel she'd let Justine down in some way? “I see,” she said quietly. She stared at the crumbs left by her sandwich, her mind spinning. Justine had been so kind to her, there was just no way she could possibly get her in trouble or worse. Making up her mind, she cleared her throat and looked up at Nelly. “You have nothing to worry about, Nelly.”
Nelly watched as the blonde slid off the stool and brought the plate to the counter, where she left it, just before leaving the room.
Justine looked at her reflection in the elaborate mirror above her bedroom vanity. Her hair was loose and brushed out, the long strands wavy from being pinned up all day. She had already changed into her nightdress and was ready to go to sleep. The past week had taken its toll on her, what with their unexpected guest, and everything.
With that thought, Justine glanced up at the ceiling of her bedchamber. She knew that just a couple floors up was where Julie had been settled in. Her wound was healing nicely, so she should be allowed to leave anytime. Unfortunately, she feared that the poor woman had run out of time, what with Justice arriving home much earlier than had been expected. Now, she just had to hope that he had plenty of work to keep him occupied with at the office so she could get Julie out safely and quietly.
Julie just barely made her way up the stairs before being spotted by Justice Havell, who was re-belting his robe as he made his harried way down the stairs. He didn't look happy.
Julie hurried into the attic space, deciding that tonight was a good time to put an end to this charade she'd gotten herself into. She could no longer keep Justine Havell in danger. Her wound was healing, and it was time to find greener, safer pastures.
Justine cried out in surprise as Justice burst through her bedroom door. She didn't have time to ask what was wrong before he had her against a wall, his hand to her throat.
“I leave my home for a week and I can't even trust you while I'm gone?” he raged.
Shocked and with eyes bulging, Justine tried desperately to get him to release her throat, as she couldn't breathe.
“Yes, I've heard about the criminal you've been harboring under my roof. My roof, Justine!”
Justine clawed at his hand with more desperation, her head beginning to feel light, her vision fluttering.
Finally, he let go, but still stood in her space. “Who is it?” he demanded, face red with rage.
“Who is it!” he demanded again, slamming his fist into the wall next to Justine's head. Justine was too stunned and terrified to respond. “That's just fine. We'll go find out who he is, won't we?”
Justice grabbed Justine's hand, nearly ripping her arm out of socket as she pulled her behind him, his much longer legs eating up the space between the wall and the door, Justine – despite her own tall stature – nearly running to keep up.
Justine's heart was pounding as she was drug up the two flights of stairs to the attic, the blood pounding in her ears. She knew Justice had an awful temper, and she knew that if she didn't find a way to get things under control – and fast – either she or the baby she carried within could be in grave danger.
Justice burst through the door at the top of the stairs, nearly throwing his wife in before him. Once he got a good look around, his brows drew in confusion. Had her heard Sissy wrong? Had she lied to him? The attic bedroom was completely empty. The bed was made, the chamber pot where it was supposed to be. It didn't seem like a thing had been disturbed.
Julie did her best to hold her breath as she perched on the beam in the corner, her bag held to her chest. She was up about six feel off the floor in the dusty shadows, praying to god or anyone else who wanted to listen, that she wouldn't be seen by that animal.
His anger still not diffused, Justice turned it back onto his wife. “Where is he?”
“Who?” Justine asked, her relief at not finding Julie there, but confusion of where she'd gone, nearly shattering her into tears.
“That man!” Justice boomed. “I know he was here! I know you been harboring some thief!”
Justine cried out as the first slap hit her hard across the cheek. She saw stars as she did her best to stay on her feet. She worried if she fell, Justice would kick her, causing her to lose the only precious thing in her life. “Justice, please, stop!”
Justice was far beyond the ability to control his temper. Not only had Sissy potentially lied to him, but now he felt like a fool on top of it. “Where is he!” This time he backhanded Justine, making her stumble backwards and onto the bed. Justice took the opportunity to pounce. He was on her like white on rice, his hands around her neck. Teeth gritted, he spat, “You been whorin' with him, haven't you?”
“No, Justice, please,” Justine gasped, clawing at his hands to no avail. Yet again, her world was beginning to spin into darkness.
Julie watched, her fingers itching to jump in and help, but she was torn on what to do: if she helped, she could help Justine, who had been so kind to her. But, if she helped, it could go wrong, and Justice could either hurt her nad Justine, or catch her and turn her in. Either way, her neck would likely be on the block.
As she watched, Justice put on more pressure, to the point where Justine could no longer even make a sound. Growling in rage, Julie jumped down, ignoring the vibration of pain that radiated through her and grabbed the first thing she saw: the chamber pot.
Justice pressed down harder, his vision gone nearly red from his out-of-control temper. Suddenly, a loud crash and searing pain passed through his head before everything went dark. As Justice fell, Julie stood behind him, the ceramic handle the only thing left of the chamber pot, as the rest was in shards on the floor, scattered around a felled Justice.
Justine looked at Julie, both shocked at what had just happened. Footsteps behind them startled them both out of their reveries. Justine was relived to see Nelly.
“We gotta get you outta here, Miss Justine,” the older woman hissed. Justine was too stunned to move.
Sissy ran in, followed by Percy, who was still buttoning his shirt, having been torn from sleep. Sissy took one look at Justice lying on the ground in pieces of the chamber pot, blood already beginning to pool on the floor, and a very shaken Justine. She cried out in horror and guilt, nearly crumbling before Percy caught her.
Nelly hurried over to the younger woman and grabbed her shoulders in an iron grip. “What does he know?” she demanded. Sissy looked at her with huge, startled eyes. “Tell me, girl.” She leaned in close enough so no one else would hear them. “I know you told him somethin' ‘bout what's been goin' on. What does he think?”
“That a man bandit has been here,” she said, her voice trembling, on the verge of tears.
Nelly let out a relived breath. “Go pack yourself a bag, Sissy. You can't stay ‘round here no more. You gonna have to go an' help Miss Justine. Sissy looked at Nelly, stunned. “I been in your place before, Sissy – had to deal with Miss Justine's daddy. They will kill you, seein' you as nothin' but a trouble nigger.” She moved in even closer, making sure she ha Sissy's full attention. “You betray her again, girl, and I'll hunt you down myself.”
Sissy nodded vigorously, always frightened by Nelly's larger size and strength of character. “Yes'm.”
Nelly shoved her away. “Now, go! Percy get two horses ready quick.” Without a word, he flew out of sight down the stairs. Satisfied her orders had been carried out, Nelly turned back to Justine, who was being looked after by Julie. “You two need to go, Miss Julie,” she said, knowing that Justine was in no condition to comprehend everything that had just happened, or what would happen next.
Julie nodded, her heart pounding so loud, she was worried the entire house would be able to hear it. “Go get some things together for her, Nelly. I'll meet you downstairs, then she can head off-“
“She's goin' with you, Miss Julie.”
Julie could only stare and shake her head.
“Yes, ma'am. You got her into this mess, now you is gonna get her out. You got help Miss Justine, now.”
Julie was left with her mouth hanging open and dread in her belly. She glanced over at Justine, who had collapsed on the bed, quiet sobs heard. Julie let out a long breath. “Oh, boy.”
Assured that Sissy could ride, Julie mounted her horse in front of Justine, wanting to keep the brunette close, as she was still somewhat in shock. They rode hard, sticking to the shadows I the direction Sissy pointed in, which she said would lead them out of town. Julie was worried about Justine, who had said nothing since the incident happened, but was incredibly relieved when she felt Justine's loose hold on her tighten, her body heat warm against Julie's back in the cold dawn hours.
Justine hung on for dear life as the horse beneath her pounded the earth, the woman in front of her urging the beast on aggressively. Her mind was reeling with the realizations that were rushing at her. She had no idea if Justice was alive or dead. She knew that he would likely have killed her had Julie not hit him over the head. How had he found out about Julie's existence? What would she do now?
As daylight spread across the landscape, the two riders decided it was best to stop and rest. All three were exhausted, and chances of a posse finding them was greater during sun up. Julie led them to a cave, which she'd used to camp in the year before. It was well-hidden, and she had only known about it because a Navajo Indian had showed her the way.
“We need to get some fire wood. Sissy, can you gather some?” Julie asked, dismounting her horse and helping Justine down. The young servant woman nodded and turned her mount around, headed into some dense woods they'd passed through but ten minutes before.
Justine looked around, almost as though for the first time. “Where are we?”
“A place to hide,” Julie said absently, leading her horse over to some wild grass that had managed to survive the harsh winter, we all as to a small drifting of snow for the animal to drink. “We'll spend the day here, then head out again tonight.”
Justine huddled in a corner, the winter cold bleeding through to her very bones. The three women had rejoined, Sissy bringing back an impressive amount of firewood to last through the day, if need be. Justine watched as Julie skinned the rabbit she'd caught, doing her level best to not vomit as she watched what had once been a beautiful animal become dinner.
Rabbit skinned Julie continued with the process, cutting the meat from the body, tossing bones and fat aside, her hands covered in the rabbit's blood. Sissy was getting the fire stoked and water boiling to accept the meat. Neither woman noticed as Justine held a hand to her mouth, her eyes squeezing shut as she tried valiantly to not react. Neither woman noticed when Justine hurried out of the cave and into the cool dawn, losing what was left in her stomach.
“Hand me that water skin if you would, Mrs. Havell.” After there was no response, she glanced over her shouder, stunned to see that Justine was not sitting where she'd seen her last. Not seeing her anywhere in the cramped cave, Julie got to her feet, the rabbit meat all tossed into the pot for Sissy to cook.
Julie headed out into the cold morning, lead by the sound of someone heaving. Within moments, she found Justine throwing up in the bushes, her face ashen. “Mrs. Havell?” she asked softly, placing a hand on Justine's back.
Justine let go one more time before turning to face Julie. “I'm sorry, Miss Swain. Watching you with the rabbit just got to me.”
“When on earth are you gonna start calling me Julie?”
“When you start calling me Justine.”
Julie grinned with a nod. “Fair enough. Let us say from here on out we're just ol' Julie and Justine.”
Justine took the hand that was offered, shaking it for good measure. “Julie, where are we, and what's happening?” Justine was trying her best not to fall apart into tears. She was frightened and confused.
Julie could see all of those things written across Justine's incredibly expressive face. Compassion filled her as she took Justine's hand. “We are in trouble, Misses… I mean, Justine. I'm a criminal, which you took in, and which your husband was beating you for.” Julie tried her best to not let show her hatred for a man she'd never met. “I had to stop him,” she said softly.
Justine looked away, unable to meet the sincere green gaze that burnt into her. After a long moment, she looked at Julie. “Your husband did the same. Didn't he?” Julie said nothing, just met Justine's gaze with a steady one of her own. Justine looked away, unable to continue to look into that hard, cold stare. “Well, I'm not sure what I'm doing here, or where I'm supposed to go. I'm out here on my own, Justice being the only person I know.”
“Do you want to go back to him?” Julie asked, her voice firm and matter-of-fact.
Justine sighed before looking at Julie. “I have to, Julie. I'm his legal wife, and I'm carrying his child.”
Julie felt her heart drop as fear enveloped her. “What?”
Justine sighed. “I actually found out the day you arrived at my home. Justice doesn't know. I didn't exactly get a chance to tell him.”
Julie sighed in relief. “Well, maybe then he'll only follow on revenge, and not for his blood.”
“No, he'll follow for my blood.” Justine met Julie's gaze. “He can be vicious, Julie. Nelly was right to send me out here with you, regardless of just how much of an imposition it might be for you.”
Julie sighed, running a hand through her shaggy hair. “This isn't a good situation for any of us, Justine.” She looked deeply into Justine's eyes. “Are you sure you want me to take you back? Really think about that before you answer. From what I seen of that son-of-a-bitch, it may be the last thing you ever do.”
Justine sighed again, her stomach beginning to gurgle once more. She wasn't sure what to say or what to do. She knew Julie was right, but also knew she had legal and moral obligation to Justice Havell. Especially since she was going to have his child, and especially since he, as her husband, had every right to do whatever he wished with her. The day she took her vows was the day she knew any sort of freedom she may have enjoyed as a young girl, was over.
Thoughts of her unborn child came unbidden to her mind's eye. She had always wanted children, and though delighted to find out she was pregnant, she didn't want to admit – even to herself – that now, after all that had happened, she was terrified to go back to Justice. Child or not, she truly feared he would hurt her, or worse.
Julie could see the indecision written all over Justine's face, her mind a tempest of complicated scenarios and conflicting reasoning. “I know this isn't easy, Justine,” Julie offered, trying to stay patient. She couldn't remotely understand the mere thought of returning to that cheating, violent bastard. But, ultimately she knew it had to come from Justine. Either way, Julie would move on and past the ugliness, just as she had for three years.
“I don't know what to do.” Justine sighed, looking at Julie. “You must truly think I'm a real indecisive pain, don't you?”
Julie shrugged. “It's your life, Justine. Just make sure you wanna keep it.” With that, Julie walked away, leaving Justine by herself in the cold.
Left physically alone, she felt more alone than ever.
Julie was caught in her own world of indecision. She knew she had to help Justine, couldn't just let her try and fend for herself, as she knew Justine wouldn't make it past a night out on her own. Though Julie had never lived the pampered life Justine Havell apparently had, she did know what it was like to be taught to depend on a husband, and think that life was over if you didn't have one.
Frustrated and feeling guilty for wanting to just disappear into the night on her own, Julie returned to the cave, where Sissy was getting the stew prepared. Julie took one look at her, and felt anger flare up, hot and instant.
Sissy didn't have time to cry out before she found herself pinned against the wall of the cave, the stone cold against her back. She looked, wide-eyed into furious green eyes.
“You did this,” Julie hissed. “You opened your mouth and almost got Justine killed.”
Sissy felt tears sting behind her eyes, her body sagging to the point where Julie either had to hold her up or let her fall to the floor in a heap. “I had no choice, Miss Julie.”
“I don't believe you.” Julie tightened her hold, both to hold Sissy up, but also in rage. “I saw you and that bastard together, so don't you tell me you didn't have a choice. In how many other ways have you betrayed her?”
Sissy felt her own anger flare up. “Do you think I wanna be groped and touched by that man?” she whispered.
Julie loosened her grip, but didn't let go.
“'Be my eyes and ears, Sissy,' he say. What I'm s'posed to do?”
“What did you tell him?” Julie asked quietly, ready to slam the girl against the wall again if she didn't like what she heard.
“I tell him we got a criminial under the roof by name of Ronny McGill.”
Julie was confused, dropping her hands from Sissy altogether. “How do you know Ronny?” Julie was surprised to hear the name of the man who had taught her how to rob a bank the right way. They'd traveled as partners in crime before he got drunk one night and tried to rape her. She hadn't seen him since.
“I don't. I heard he was in town and the law was lookin' for ‘im.”
Julie stared at the woman for a long moment. “You told Justice Havell that it was Ronny in his attic and not me?”
Sissy nodded. “I sorry he an old friend, but-“ Sissy didn't have time to get the rest out before she was pulled into a hug.
“Thank you.” Julie pulled away, just as Justine was re-entering the cave.
“Everything okay?” she asked, looking from her servant girl to Julie and back.
Julie nodded. “Just fine.” She turned back to Sissy. “Ronny can be like a shadow when need be. They'll never find ‘im.”
Justine stared up into the darkness, so far back into the cave were they that even the sunlight of daytime couldn't breach the interior. It was far too risky to burn a campfire, so the three women were left to shiver in the cold stone cave. Even being wrapped up in her cloak didn't stop the chills from penetrating Justine's body. Sissy slept to her right, Julie to her left, both restless as they tossed and turned. It had been a long day, filled with uncertainty and fear.
Justine thought back to Justice's actions; she knew he had a mighty tempter, and was definitely king of his castle, but she hadn't seen that total cruelty turned on her, before. She'd seen him whip the servants or completely disrespect them as human beings, a horrible throwback from the days of slavery, which had only ended eleven short years before, and which the Havell family had been strong supporters of, Justice's father owning upwards of fifty slaves at any given time. Though Justine's father had also owned slaves, she had never agreed with the practice, and had always tried to treat the negroes with respect and propriety.
Glancing over at the young, pretty servant , whom she'd heard rumors that her husband favored her. She had always pushed those nasty rumors aside, but as Sissy lay asleep next to her in a cave in the exact middle of nowhere, she had to wonder. Nelly had pushed the current events into motion, sending the three women out together. Why? Why had Nelly sent Sissy with them, and not come herself? Something was amiss, and she wanted to know what.
Glancing to her left, she looked at the stranger, Julie Swain. Though Julie had been receiving care and nourishment under Justine's roof for a week, she knew very little about the woman, and had spent very little time with her. Mostly in part because the blonde woman frightened her. Who was this woman, who had struck out on her own, leaving a husband behind? Who was this woman, who despite being part of the fairer sex, had managed to find a way to support herself and travel all on her own, even if her chosen path was that of a criminal. Justine had many questions where Julie Swain was concerned, and wasn't entirely sure she'd ever get half of them answered. And, what was the conversation about between Julie and Sissy that would result in a hug between virtual strangers?
Justine studied Julie's face, what she was able to make out in the dim daylight making its way in. Julie didn't look as pale and unhealthy as she had the night she'd been brought into the house by Percy Washington . In fact, as Justine studied her, she realized that Julie Swain was actually a very pretty woman, her features delicate and pleasing to the eye.
With a heavy sigh, Justine looked away from Julie and closed her eyes, hoping sleep would finally come.
Julie tugged her hat down onto her head, pulling the brim low over her green eyes. She felt she was being watched, and turned to see Justine standing behind her. “What?”
Justine smiled, shaking her head. “It's just amazing to me just how much you resemble a young boy in that get up.”
Julie grinned. “Exactly why it's been a great disguise for three years.”
“A perpetual boy,” Justine quipped.
“That's right,” Julie said, tipping her hat with a grin. “Let's get goin'. We need supplies, and it'd be best to reach the next town before mornin' traffic.”
The three mounted their horses after a quick moonlit breakfast of the remaining rabbit stew, once again Justine riding behind Julie. The night air was cold, blowing like the breath of ice against their faces. Justine lowered her head, trying to hide her face behind Julie as much as possible.
Later, while Justine and Sissy waited for Julie to do her business in the bushes, Justine glanced at her servant, who she noticed had scarcely looked at her since their adventure started. Though she knew Sissy was a timid sort, the servant's behavior was even stranger than usual.
Sissy could feel her mistress' eyes on her, and felt her stomach drop. Since they'd left the Havell estate, she had been hoping to avoid any sort of communications with Justine at all costs. When Julie had announced she needed a short break, Sissy had nearly burst into tears, knowing she'd have to stay with Justine. She just knew that Justine would be asking questions she didn't know how to answer. To Sissy's relief, however, Julie appeared out of the bushes.
“Gals ready?” Julie asked, completely unaware of the silent turmoil both her traveling companions were in.
As dawn began to near, the trio entered a small town called Keesterton, the main street nothing more than a beaten dirt trail, littered with weeds and horse manure. Rough wooden buildings lined the plank sidewalks, the single boarding house at the center, to Julie's distress. She was hoping that they could find somewhere to stay that would be out of the way, towards the edge of town.
“What are we going to do?” Justine asked softly in Julie's ear.
“I want to get you out of the cold,” Julie replied. “We got no choice but to get a room.”
The place was small and quiet, the tall, narrow two-story dark and seemingly empty. The boarding house owner was asleep on a cot in a backroom, behind the counter at the entryway. Justine's head had been wrapped in one of Sissy's bonnets, her face hidden in shadow. Luckily, the boarding house owner wasn't awake enough to pay much mind to the two women and young boy who wanted a room.
“Y'all wanna second room for yer nigger or the boy?” he asked, blinking sleep-heavy eyes.
“No,” Justine said quietly, having to play the role of the “white adult” in their strange little trio. Justine gave the man the money that Julie had given her outside, and accepted the key.
The three made their way to the top floor and a room at the back of the building. The room was small, and would be cramped with the three of them. There was one, narrow bed, and Julie was trying to figure out where all three would go. She eyed the chair tucked away in the corner, considering it for herself. After all, it was only for one night, and she'd certainly had worse.
The single window looked down on the land behind the row of business, Julie's eyes widening when she saw the moonlight illuminating a freshly-built gallows.
“What's out there?” Justine asked, walking up behind Julie. She saw the gallows and exchanged a look with Julie. “Why do you think that's there?” Justine whispered, her heart beginning to pound.
Julie shook her head but gave Justine a smile. “I'm not the only bank robber out there,” she assured. “It's not for us.”
Justine was quiet for a moment, then met Julie's gaze again. “Julie, do you think Justice would have … finished … had you not intervened?”
Julie's gaze did not waver. “Yes.”
Justine looked out the window again, nodding. “I think so, too.”
Julie lay on the bed next to Justine, staring out at the room. Justine refused to let Julie sleep in the chair, or on the floor, claiming her wound needed to be catered to. In turn, Julie refused to let Justine sleep in the chair or on the floor, considering her delicate condition. Sissy came up with the obvious solution that the two women would share. The bed was too small for both women to lay on their backs, so Justine was pinned between the wall and Julie, whose back was pressed into Justine's front, even as both women tried to stay properly in their own personal space. To say it was cozy was an understatement. Julie allowed herself to concentrate on that strange feeling for a moment: the body heat of another person against her. It was a strange and unusual feeling for her, not only because she'd been traveling alone for three years, but even when she'd been married, her husband knew nothing of gentleness or affection. She'd known very little human touch since her father died, seven long years before.
As she lay in a bed with a woman who was a virtual stranger, she felt lonelier than she ever had in her life. As the sun grew higher and early morning gave way for a new day, a single tear slipped from her eye and rolled across her cheek to tickle her nose. She wiped it away, inadvertently elbowing Justine in the process.
“Are you alright?” Justine mumbled, still half asleep.
“I'm fine. Go back to sleep,” Julie whispered, closing her own eyes, hoping sleep would soon follow.
No sooner had she finally found peace when rising voices outside woke her up again. Blinking her eyes several times, Julie could see that Sissy was already awake and making her way to the window. Her gasp sent Julie scrambling to the window, too. Below, a crowd had gathered, their voices rising as more people crowded in the small space around the gallows.
“Looks like someone's fixin' ta die,” Sissy murmured.
The blood in Julie's veins ran cold when she saw Justice Havell – bandage on his head – step up onto the platform of the wood structure. He raised his hands, the crowd's voices dying down.
“People of Keesterton, I have hunted down a scoundrel to your fine town, and today he will pay for his crimes. However, on this day, another criminal is on the loose, my wife, Justine Havell.”
Julie heard a gasp from behind her and turned to see Justine watching, her eyes wide, hand covering her mouth.
“She housed the filth in my house, and together with the nigger Sissy, helped him escape!” The crowd raised their voices in rage, Justice allowing it for a moment before again raising his hands. “I have posted likenesses of Justine Havell and Sissy around your fine town, and warn you: if either are being harbored within this town, I will hunt down the perpetrator, just as I did Ronald McGill!'
The crowd raised their voices again, this time Justice stepping aside on the platform as Ronny was shoved through the crowd by two armed Sheriff's deputies, and led up the stairs, to where a thick noose waited for him. He was battered and bruised, the obvious recipient of a brutal beating.
“My god,” Sissy whispered, tears in her eyes.
“We gotta get outta here now , while the town is busy with that,” Julie hissed, quickly tugging on her boots and re-packing what few meager belongings they had. “Justine, Sissy, come on!”
Sissy joined in, pulling Justine away from the window. “Come on, Miss Jutine.”
The crowd's voices rose to a near-deafening pitch as Sissy quickly helped Justine on with her disguise, then donning her own. Cheers arose as the sound of a wooden door flinging open filled the morning.
Julie hurried out into the hall, looking for another way to leave the building, other than down the front staircase. They were entirely too close to Justice Havell for her comfort. As it was, she pushed thoughts of Ronny McGill out of her mind; she'd have to deal with that later. For the time being, she found a door at the end of the hall, which was narrower than the door to a room. She tried it and found it unlocked, and that it led to the roof.
Justine was nearly bowled over by Julie coming into the room as she was about to leave. “Come on. We gotta hurry,” Julie whispered, grabbing Justine's hand and tugging her to follow.
The three made it up the narrow staircase and the door that was still ajar from when Julie had opened it before. Justine cried out, nearly pushing Sissy down the stairs as she tried to head back down. Julie grabbed her hand again and pulled her back onto the roof. Once both women were closed, she whispered the plan.
“These buildings are close. We're gonna have to make a jump for it until we get ourselves a bit further from those folks down there.”
Sissy looked skeptical, Justine downright terrified, but both agreed. As quietly as they could, they made their way across the flat top of the boarding house roof until they got to the edge. Julie said a silent prayer as she gathered her courage to make the first jump. With a deep breath, she launched herself across the three foot space, landing on the top of the next building and falling to one knee as her boot slipped on the loose gravel. Getting to her feet, she turned to the other two, indicating they should throw her the two bags they had. Catching them, she held out her arms, looking at Justine.
“I'll stop your fall,” she mouthed, beckoning Justine to jump.
Justine closed her eyes for a moment and took several deep breaths. The voices of the crowd raised in excitement far below, joined by a couple pistol shots into the air, which turned into what sounded like a battle zone. Frightened by the cheers and bullets, afraid a stray one would catch one of them, she made the jump, nearly knocking Julie over with the force of her need to get away from the crowds and gallows. Sissy quickly followed, sending the three running to the next roof, and the next and the next, until finally they pounded down the wooden stairs of the building at the end of the street.
Julie's heart was pounding as she helped Justine up into the saddle of her horse, quickly following. The horse nearly reared in protest as Julie tugged too hard on the reins in her haste to get them out of town. Finally, the two horses were pounding the earth, the three women astride terrified and eide-eyed.
It wasn't until they were out in the open plains that Julie's heart began to calm a bit. At least now she wasn't afraid it would explode. She knew they would have to stop soon, as they'd run the horses hard, and they'd be sitting ducks if one of them came lame. Slowing her mount, she looked around, trying to figure out what their next move needed to be. Justice Havell may not know of her existence, but he was sure as hell hot on Justine and Sissy's trail. She worried the boarding house keeper would put two and two together, and Justice would send his posse after them.
Julie motioned for Sissy to follow as Julie led her mount into a dense thicket of snow-covered woods. She needed to find some wild grass to feed the horses, as well as they needed to get a plan in place to feed the three of them. They had next to no supplies left, and no direction of where they were going. This was new territory for Julie, and she had no idea where she could take them that would be safe.
Julie jumped down off her mount then helped Justine off hers.
“What we gonna do?” Sissy asked, dismounting her own horse, her words coming out in thick plumes of steam.
Julie let out a long breath and looked around. “Not sure yet.” She turned to Sissy. “Sissy, get these horses something to eat and I'll try an' get us something.”
Sissy nodded and grabbed the reins of both mounts, heading off deeper into the woods. Julie met Justine's gaze. “How are you holdin' up?”
Justine was shivering, part from cold and part from overwhelming emotions of the events of the morning. “I can't believe he hung that man,” she whispered, tears beginning to trail over her cold-reddened cheeks. “Why on earth would he do that, Julie? That man had nothing to do with this.”
“No, I do,” Julie said, guilt-turned-anger edging her words. She turned away from Justine, pulling her knife out of her boot so quickly, she nearly sliced her own leg open. “That man died because of me.”
“What are you talking about?” Justine asked, a hand on Julie's arm to stop her from walking away. “What am I missing, here?”
Julie yanked her arm away. “I don't have time to explain everything to you, Justine.” She glared at Justine. “I'm tryin' to keep us alive!”
Hurt and confused, Justine took a step back, dropping her hand. She turned and headed in the direction where Sissy had taken the horses.
“Damn,” Julie muttered, even angrier at herself. Just when she thought it couldn't get any worse, she looked up to see that it had begun to snow. “Damn it all!”
Justice accepted the round bought for him by some other faceless patron in the dirty saloon. He downed the liquid fire and slammed the shot glass on the scarred wood of the bar top. He could sense someone near and turned to his right, looking through whiskey-blurred eyes at the man who stood at the bar, watching him.
“Yes?” Justice asked, his head beginning to ache again.
“My name is Henry, sir, and I think I might got some information fer ya.”
“Do you, now?” Justice asked, doubt evident in his slurred voice.
“Yes'm. See, I seen your posters on the wall over there, and I think I seen yer wife and her nigger.”
“Have a seat, Henry.” Justice turned to the barkeep. “Another round for me and one for my friend, here.” He turned to his unwatned company. “What do you do, Henry?”
“I own the boardin' house up the street.”
“Interesting. Tell me your story.”
The storm was intensifying, forcing Julie off her horse to guide her mount through the blizzard. She was chilled to the bone, her shirt and hair plastered to her. Justine huddled her cloak around her as best she could, as did Sissy, who also led her mount on foot. Julie stopped her horse and turned to Sissy.
“We've gotta find shelter and soon!” she yelled above the howling winds. Sissy nodded, her teeth chattering.
“Barn!” Justine yelled. She pointed off in the distance to show the structure off in the distance.
Relieved, Julie pulled her horse in the direction, followed by Sissy.
The barn was abandoned and unstable, but shelter nonetheless. Julie led the horses inside, and got them situated before turning to Justine, who was shivering violently, racked by a coughing fit. Julie hurried over to her and took the soaked cloak off, vigorously rubbing her hands up and down Justine's arms.
“Gotta get your warm,” she whispered, meeting the red-rimmed blue eyes. “Sissy, we gotta get a fire started.”
Sissy busied herself around the barn, looking for anything useful. There was nothing to use to make a fire; all she'd found was an old rope and the broken handle to a farm tool.
“Looks like we'll have to huddle up for warmth,” Julie said.
Sissy nodded, but said nothing. She'd grown incredibly quiet since they'd arrived at the barn, her movements slow and sluggish. She found one of the old bales of hay and made herself a seat, off by herself.
Giving her a passing glance, Julie turned her attention to Justine, who she was worried about. She pulled up her own bale of hay and leaned back against it, spreading her legs. “Come ‘ere,” she instructed to Justine, who collapsed on the ground, Julie grabbing her under the arms and tugging her back against her. She wrapped her arms around her, trying desperately to use their combined body heat to warm Justine up.
“You're gonna catch your death,” she whispered into Justine's ear, pulling her even closer against her.
“So cold,” Justine whispered back, her teeth chattering and chin trembling.
Julie brushed wet strands of hair off Justine's forehead. “It's gonna be okay. We're gonna make it.” She glanced over at Sissy, noticing the younger woman was curled up upon herself, face buried in her arms. Julie considered inviting her over to join them, but decided against it. The day had been emotionally draining for them all, not to mention cold and hungry. All they could do at this point was wait the storm out, then head out to try and find food before heading out, off into the unknown.
Hours later, Julie awoke, something catching her attention. Before she could figure out what it was, she realized that she lay on her back, Justine's head resting on her shoulder and their bodies wrapped together in a warm, comfortable entanglement. For just a moment, she realized how pleasant it was, and her arms tightened around Justine. That moment, however, was over as quickly as it began. Julie realized that what had woken her was a creaking sound.
Opening her eyes, Julie blinked several times: having slept throughout the day, she had to get her eyes adjusted to the incoming darkness. As soon as her eye adjusted, she wished they hadn't.
“Oh my god!'
Julie jumped to her feet, dumping Justine off her in the process. She raced over to where Sissy's body swung, a rope tied around her neck and connected to the rotting rafters above.
Julie climbed the stacked bales of hay Sissy had used, and lifted the girl's body with one arm as she tried to loosen the noose with the other.
Justine, awoken by the sudden jolt of being tossed aside, hurried over to help. She wanted to throw up, looking up into Sissy's face, turned an unnatural color, but held it all down. “Hand her down,” she said, raising her arms to grab hold of the young girl as Julie got her loose.
Sissy in arms, Justine laid her on the ground, Julie jumping down from the bales and falling to her knees beside her. She watched as Justine placed two fingers on Sissy's throat, than bent down, her ear next to Sissy's mouth.
“She's dead,” Justine whispered, tears in her eyes.
Julie could only stare down at the young woman, shocked and deeply disturbed. “My god,” she whispered, falling back on her butt, the wind knocked out of her.
Justine's head fell with her tears, silence stretching out between them for a long moment. As she tried to gather her emotions, she became filled with anger. Blue eyes flashing, she glared at Julie. “Is this enough for you?” she demanded. “Is this enough? Sissy hanging herself to avoid… what? To escape what? Will you tell me now? Do you have time to tell me, now?”
Julie felt sick as guilt and regret nearly crushed her to the spot. Tears fell freely down her cheeks as she looked away from both Justine and Sissy. “What do you want to know?” she asked, her voice weak, shoulders falling in defeat.
“Why did she do this!” Justine yelled, getting to her feet and towering over Julie, who seemed so small to her at that moment.
Julie wiped her eyes and took a long breath. She moved away from Sissy, slinking back down into the dirty, rotten hay. “Alright. Please sit.” Justine sat a few feet away from Julie, her back stiff from anger and dread. After a moment, Julie met her stern gaze. “I didn't wanna hurt you, Justine. You've been hurt anough in all this mess.” After a long pause, she continued. “The last night we were all at your house, I was hungry so went downstairs to see if I could find somethin' to eat. On my way to the kitchen, I heard voices in the front room. It was Sissy and your husband, and they were getting' real close.”
Justine looked away, nodding slightly. “I suspected as much was the case.” As she listened to the rest of Julie's tale, she began to feel sick, tears of anger and tears of hopelessness threatening to fall. “I never knew he had planted a spy in his own house,” she said softly.
“I'm real sorry, Justine. I never wanted to hurt you.”
Justine glanced over at Sissy, lying so still. “Such a waste.”
“In my mind, she's free from a life with no choices.”
Justine nodded, wiping at her eyes as tears began to silently fall. “What now, Julie?”
“We have to get out of here. Permanently out of here. My guess is, Justice won't stop until he's gotten his way.” Julie watched Justine, hoping for something, any thing. After a long silence, “Where can we go, Justine? Where can I take you? We can't keep doin' this, and with your baby comin' in the future,” she shrugged, “I gotta get you somewhere stable. You got family?”
Justine sighed, shaking her head. “My father and Justice are far too much alike. He'd turn me over to Justice in a heartbeat. My mother,” she sighed again. “She won't go against him, but I don't think she'll tell him, either. I can't hide there, Julie.” Justine's eyes widened as a smile spread across her wan features. “However, I do know a place we can go. At least until we can figure out how to get out of this.”
“Is it close?” Julie asked. Justine bit her lip, slowly shaking her head. “How far is it?”
“ Indiana .”
Julie could only stare at her for a moment, her heart falling. “Do you know how far away that is?”
Justine nodded with a heavy sigh. “That's all I Have, Julie. If you know of something closer, count me in. If you don't…”
Julie sighed, running a hand through her hair, trying to decide what was the best way to go. Glancing over at Sissy, she knew Sissy's fate could very well be their own, if she didn't think of a way to get them to Indiana . “Alright,” she said at length. “Let's go.”
“First,” Justine said softly, “we need to bury her.”
Justice ran a sleeved-forearm across his forehead, catching the sweat that ha dfallen into his eyes. The room was dark and filled with the humidity of the snow outside, his own sweat, and the fear of the woman who hung by her wrists before him. Garnering more strength, he snapped his whip again, scorching more lashes across Nelly's naked back. He didn't allow himself to hear her whimpers, which had long died down from the screams that had begun their exercise.
Nelly took several deep breaths, trying to forget about the horrendous sting that filled her body, starting at the torn flesh of her back. She was taken back to eleven years ago, and her time as a slave in Ohio , with Justine's family. She knew she could take it, as she'd taken it for so many years of her life. This time, however, she was trying to save the young girl that she'd felt connected to since the day she was born: Justine. She had to save her, and protect all she knew about her escape. And, the fact that Justice Havell was beating her this night meant that Julie had, indeed gotten Justine out of the line of danger.
Justine renewed his grip on the whip, ready for round two. He'd long ago forgone his shirt, which had been plastered to him with sweat. Now, bare-chested, his sweat glistened in his chest hair. “Where is she, Nelly?” he asked for the tenth time. “Who's the boy?”
“I know not,” Nelly responded for the tenth time. A series of whips and lashes rent the air, making her cry out in pain. “I don't know!” she answered honestly, no matter that she had an idea of where Justine would head, and there was no way she was going to reveal Julie's identity. She was counting on her to get Justine to safety. “I don't know.” She collapsed as much as the ropes that held her would allow. “I don't know.”
Justice dropped the whip, unable to go on anymore, and knowing in his gut that Nelly wasn't going to say anymore, whether she actually knew or not. He tossed the whip to his hired man, again, wiping the sweat from his brow. He said nothing as he left the bowels of his home, leaving Nelly tied up and crying.
Justine glanced behind her as she rocked with the motion of the covered wagon. She was amused, as Julie – mistaken for the thirteen year old boy she was trying to come off as – was placed in the back with the ten year old son of Mason and Bridgett Kemp, a pioneer family moving from Colorado to Illinois . They'd met them at a boarding house in Fleetburg, the next town after Keesterton. The couple had offered to help “Lucy” and her “brother, Billy” for a couple days, then the two were on their won. As Justine watched, Julie caught her eye and stuck her tongue out at her, making Justine laugh and turn forward again.
“So, where are you and your brother from?” Bridgett asked, continuing her knitting, even as her body rocked with the wagon, the large, wooden wheels traversing the rough terrain.
Justine had to think quick: “We started out in the Kansas Territory , steadily making our way into Missouri .”
“Do you and Billy have family in Indiana ?”
Justine nodded, wishing Bridgett would end her line of questioning. She wasn't a good liar, and didn't want to lose their chance at a ride. “My grandfather.” Seeing the look of confusion, Justine smiled. “I mean, our grandfather.”
Bridgett nodded and turned back to her knitting. Justine glanced back at Julie, only to see her smirking as she played games with John, the Kemp's son.
Justine tried to hide the pain she was in as she and “Billy” made their way to the stream the wagon was parked near. Her body wasn't used to the abuse it had suffered, riding horseback the past couple days, and an entire two days in a covered wagon, which announced every single bump in the trail with a yell and salute.
Julie, for her part, was amused as all hell. She knew Justine Havell had lived a wealthy, pampered life, and figured it was about time she was brought down to the level of a normal person. Mason Kemp had outfitted her with a shotgun so she could protect her “sister” while Justine bathed, especially considering Justine wouldn't go without her.
“You're finding this amusing, aren't you?” Justine hissed, taking it slow as she climbed some rocks to get to the water.
Julie nodded. ‘Yep.”
“Careful, or I might turn that shotgun on you .” Justine turned away, not wanting Julie to see that she was actually quite amused by the entire situation.
Truth be told, despite her fear of what the future held, she was thoroughly enjoying her little adventure. She was certainly enjoying being away from Justice; few people knew how he treated her on a regular basis, and just how unhappy she truly was. But, she'd always sucked it up, figuring that was her duty as a wife and as a woman. Julie was showing her that perhaps that wasn't true. A dangerous lesson to learn, to be sure. If she got too high on her horse, how on earth would she ever get down and live a normal life, be it with Justice or another man?
As Justine picked her way to the water, she turned to Julie, who followed at a respectful distance. “We need to get our story straight. Bridgett was asking me an awful lot of questions today.”
“What did you tell her?” Julie asked, bringing the shotgun up to rest on her shoulder, like a soldier.
“That our granddaddy lives in Missouri , and that we came from Kansas .” She glanced at Julie. “Keep to the same story.”
“Sure thing … sis.” Julie smirked again, fully enjoying Justine's discomfort.
“This isn't funny, Julie,” Justine hissed quietly, not wanting anyone to overhear. One look into the amused eyes of the blonde and Justine broke. “Okay, so maybe it is a little.”
“Just a smidge,” Julie confirmed, holding her forefinger and thumb a scant inch a part.
“You're infuriating,” Justine hissed, turning back to the water. She began to undo the dozens of tiny buttons on her dress, about to peel the garment off her shoulders when she remembered she had an audience. Bare shoulders exposed, she glanced at Julie. “Well, turn around!”
Again with a small laugh, Julie turned her back to the bathing beauty, ever vigilant in her guard.
As the night wore on, Justine lay on the ground, shoulder to shoulder with Julie. The family had finally gone to bed, after hours of Mason playing on his guitar and Julie surprising them all by singing along, her voice pure and wonderful. The two had entertained the other three members of their party for hours. Now, Justine glanced over at her companion. She had begun to realize that night just how very little she knew about Julie Swain. She knew she'd been unhappily married, had been on her own for a few years, and that Julie robbed banks. Nothing more: she hadn't asked, and Julie certainly hadn't volunteered the information.
Justine turned to her side, facing her companion. Julie's eyes were closed, long eyelashes resting upon suntanned cheeks. Blue eyes scanned the delicate features and arches brows, a shade darker than the blonde of Julie's hair. It was one of the only times Justine had ever seen Julie somewhat at peace: during the waking hours, she was pensive, a frown between her brows. Now, in the peace of slumber, Julie didn't seem to know what trouble or strife was. After a moment, Julie eyes opened.
“Are you okay?” Julie whispered, alarmed to see Justine awake and watching her.
Justine nodded, her hands tucked up under her chin. “I didn't know you could seing so well,” she whispered, not wanting to wake any of the family.
Julie grinned. “One of my many kept secrets.”
Julie chuckled. “I do.”
“Will you tell me sometime?” Justine asked, a soft smile on her lips.
Julie studied her for a long moment, taking in just how beautiful Justine really was, as well as just what kind of a weight was on her shoulders. At length, she nodded. “Yes.”
Mason Kemp watched the two “siblings”, curious about their conversation. He filed it away for another time.
The winter snows were finally giving way to early spring, which made Justine extremely happy. She loved to see the new life come to pass: trees springing new leaves and the wild flowers colorful along the trail. Above all that, the temperatures were getting warmer, which made for a much more comfortable traveling time, as well as the nights.
The group had decided to pull off the trail for lunch, the surrounding prairie and stream beautiful as a warm breeze blew Justine's hair away from her face. She raised her face to the sun, closing her eyes in pleasure as she absorbed the midday sun. For the first time since the nightmare had begun, she began to feel a sense of peace come over her, and feel that just maybe, everything would be okay. Opening her eyes, she looked out over the stream, her hands going to her belly, which was just barely beginning to pooch just a bit, just enough to let her know that a baby was growing within.
“She kickin' yet?” Julie asked quietly, stepping up beside Justine.
Justine met her smile with one of her own. “Not yet. And, how did you know it would be a girl?”
Julie shrugged, staring out over the stream. “Just kinda get a feelin' sometimes, with women who are with child.”
“To be honest, Julie, I'm a bit nervous if she is a girl – which I think she'll be, too – because I know she'll have so few advantages, as opposed to if it's a boy.” Her sigh was heavy. “But then, I don't want another Justice Havell running around, either.” She looked at Julie, sadness in her eyes. “either this child becomes Justice Havell, or marries him.”
Julie shook her head. “Not if you raise her to be strong, like my father did me.” Julie met Justine's gaze, then glanced back over her shoulder towards camp, very able to see the campfire. She took Justine's arm and led her further away. “Won't do to be overheard,” she explained, “Lucy.”
Justine grinned. “Right. Billy.” They found themselves a spot and sat down, Justine arranging her skrt around her. She grimaced slightly, disgusted by herself. She bathed often, and washed her dress as best she could, when she could, but she longed for a real bath and a change of clothes. “Is your mother no longer with us?”
Julie shook her head, tossing a small pebble into the water. “She's been gone more than twenty years. It was just me and my dad.”
“You were close, then?”
“Very.” Julie's smile was wide and filled with pride. “He taught me how to ride, how to shoot and hunt, mend fences… I can do just about anything, ‘cause of him.”
“Sounds like he raised himself a boy,” Justine laughed.
“Well, I don't think he knew any better.” Julie sighed, looking up at the gathering stars. “I'm glad, though. Certainly wasn't like Ross did much.”
“Sounds like it was never a happy marriage.”
Julie shook her head, trying to keep her emotions inside.
“Julie?” Justine said softly, turning to face her. She took one of Julie's hands in both of hers. “Why did you marry him?”
Julie took several deep breaths before releasing them and facing Justine. “I thought it was what I was supposed to do,” she said simply. “My father hated Ross, and he begged me not to marry him.” A single tear slipped down Julie's cheek, which she hastily wiped away. “But, I wasn't a typical girl,” she whispered, looking at Justine with eyes that pleaded for Justine to understand. “Dresses just never made sense to me, I mean, how on earth are ya supposed to milk a cow or build a barn in a skirt?”
Justine smiled. “It's not easy, I'm sure.”
Julie smiled before sobering once again. “None of the boys looked at me or seemed to notice me, that is, unless they needed a fourth at a card game, or wanted to make fun.” She took a deep breath again, feeling the tears threatening to come out full force, her chest heavy with them. “I knew my daddy wanted grandchildren, and I was supposed to make some man a wife. So, I said yes to the first fella who came along, who saw me as a girl.” She rolled her eyes up towards the heavens. “Boy, was I wrong.” She looked down to their joined hands. “I stuck it out a little longer after my daddy died, then I knew I had to get out. So, I did.”
Justine studied her for a long time, a soft smile on her lips. “You are so strong, Julie,” she said at last, awe in her eyes. “I wish I had half your strength.”
Julie smiled then looked away, finding it hard to look into the intensity of those blue eyes. “Thank you,” she finally said, then after a moment, “What's your plan once we reach Indiana ?”
“I'm not sure.” Justine felt her stomach drop at the question, as she tried to keep from thinking about her current situation as much as possible; it was too painful and scary. “I've considered sending a letter ahead to my mother, and pray she won't tell my father.”
“What's the chances of that?”
“Not very good. I'll tell you this: I wish my granddaddy were still alive. He'd get me out of this in a heartbeat.” Justine looked at Julie, a huge smile on her face. “He was so good to me, Julie. I think he was the only member of my family who truly loved me for me. To everyone else, I was simply a token for this or that.”
“Kinda like how you are with Justice, now.”
Justine looked at Julie for a long moment, then looked away, nodding.
Mason Kemp sat back against a log near the campfire, watching the two “sibling” through the flames. He took another swig of the strong whiskey he'd picked up in their last town. Bridgett sat nearby, knitting while John played marbles by himself in the dirt. Mason had kept a close eye on Billy, something about him that hit him wrong. Even now, barely able to see the blonde boy in the darkness, something just was… wrong.
“What's on yer mind, dear?” Bridgett asked, not even bothering to look up from her work. She knew her husband well, and could feel the tension coming off him in waves.
“What do ya think of ol', Billy?” he asked, not taking his eyes off him.
Bridgett glanced over at her husband then found the blonde in the darkness, finally returning her attention back to her knitting. “I think he's a fine young man. He's polite and helpful and is real good with John. Why?”
“Jus' somethin' aint right with ‘im, somehow.” Mason took a long drink, wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve, which his wife rolled her eyes at. She took a mental note to wash that spot thoroughly next wash day. “He don't move like no kid I ever seen. He don't talk like one, neither.”
“Mason,” Bridgett said, setting her knitting in her lap. “Those two have had it hard, what with travelin' all by themselves and all. Cut the boy some slack,” she admonished, returning to her knitting.
Mason heard his wife's words, but it did nothing to ease his sense of unease. Mayhap he'd have to find out all on his own, what this Billy was all about.
The next day the sun was high in the sky over eastern Missouri , near the border of Illinois . On the road for nearly three weeks with the Kemp family, everyday had become routine, with Julie and John off to help Mason chop wood and hunt, while Bridgett and Justine fixed up camp. Justine was beginning to show a bit more, so was starting to figure out ways to hide her pregnancy, not wanting to have to explain why she had no husband with her, yet a baby on the way.
“Pa, someone at the store in that last town was sayin' there's injun's in these parts,” John said, grunting as he swung the ax to chop up some small logs.
Mason, also chopping away, shook his head. “Don't be listenin' to no injun tales, boy,” he admonished. He set his ax down, wiping his brow with a dirty handkerchief, looking at Julie, who was spitting logs. “What about you, Billy? What you thinkin' ‘bout injun tales?”
Julie kept at her work, not glancing over at Mason, who had started to make her feel uncomfortable over the past couple weeks. “I think it's wise to keep an eye open,” she said quietly, splitting another log cleanly down the middle.
Mason walked over to her, surveying her work. “Real nice, boy. Real nice.”
Julie could feel his presence near, and fought the urge to move away. “Thank ye, sir.”
Julie scrubbed hard at her shirt, her movements aggressive and erratic in the stream. Justine glanced over at her, wondering what had Julie in such a horrible jumble.
“Hold on, now,” she admonished, stilling Julie's movements with the touch of her hand. “You're going to rub a hole right through that shirt at the rate you're washing.”
Julie turned on Justine, her voice low and filled with panic. “We need to be movin' on, Justine.”
Justine stared at her, seeing the fear in the green eyes. “What happened?” she asked, just as quietly.
“I don't know.” Julie glanced back towards the direction was parked downstream around the bend. “Mason has been doin' some funny things, and I ain't so comfortable with it.” She looked back at Justine. “I think he suspects somethin' ain't right.”
Justine sighed, setting her own finished laundry aside as she unbuttoned the dozens of tiny pearl buttons of her dress, patched many times by now. She let the garment slide down her arms, her enlarged, sensitive breasts swaying with the movement. Julie glanced at the breasts, her eyes widening at just how large they'd gotten.
“Brother Billy, it is impolite to stare at your sister's naked bosom,” Justine chastised, a smile brushing her lips.
Embarrassed, Julie looked away, returning to her laundry. “They've just gotten so big,” she muttered.
“That, they have. Anyhow, so you think Mason Kemp is up to something?” Justine asked, letting herself fall back into the deeper water, nearly moaning at just how good it felt.
Julie nodded, the unease returning to her gut. “I think it's best we start fixin' to go it on our own.”
Justine dunked her head, smoothing the dark strands back from her face as she thought for a long moment. Finally, “What will we do, Julie? We have nobody to help us.”
“We found Mason and Bridgett when we weren't lookin' for ‘em, and we'll find somebody else, too,” Julie responded, finally finished with her laundry and ready for a bath.
Justine felt butterflies of panic fluttering in her stomach. “I don't know if it's wise, though. They've got a wagon with horses and guns, too. Plus, isn't there something to be said about safety in numbers?”
Julie pushed herself out of the water, topless as she splashed over to Justine, getting to within a couple feet of her. “And what if Mason decides to check out his suspicions, huh?” she hissed. “We could both end up at the end of a rope, Justine. We ain't got a lot a slack to mess with, here.”
Justine could feel the heat of anger and fear coming off Julie in waves; it nearly made her want to take a step back, but she held her ground. “I think it's dangerous to leave.”
“And I think it's more dangerous to stay.” Julie stared Justine down, blue eyes finally falling to the water. “We ain't got many choices here, Justine, but savin' our hides needs to be top priority.”
Though Justine didn't like it, and thought perhaps Julie was being a bit over-cautious, she nodded in acquiescence. “Alright.”
Julie and Justine lay in their bedrolls on the ground, the Kemp family in their wagon, where Mason's snores could be heard echoing across the small valley as Bridgett took care of John, who had taken sick to the flu over the past few days. Julie glanced over at the companion several times, noting that Justine hadn't spoken to her since their talk at the stream, nor had they exchanged their usual nightly pleasantries before sleep.
With a heavy sigh, Julie turned back to look up at the stars above, the night sky like black velvet, stars twinkling high above. “Wouldn't it be somethin' if stars truly were diamonds?” she asked softly. When there was no response, the looked at Justine's back again. “You still mad at me, ain't ya?”
Justine nodded, but said nothing.
Julie rolled her eyes, irritated at Justine's childishness. “It's for the best, I promise.” Nothing. “Hey, I ain't got ya killed yet, have I?”
The sun rose and the daily routine had fallen into step with every other day for the past few weeks. John was still sick, both Bridgett and Justine trying to get camp settled while helping the boy at the same time.
“Let's go, Billy,” Mason said, tossing a rifle at Julie, which she caught. “You and me, boy. Let's get us some breakfast.”
Julie watched Mason head on towards the woods, a heavy feeling in the pit of her gut. She glanced over at camp, Justine meeting her eye contact for a moment before turning away. With a sigh, Julie followed Mason, checking her weapon to make sure it was loaded and in the right condition for firing. She'd noticed that Mason wasn't very thorough or careful with his guns, and more than once on a hunt, they'd jammed.
“So, what'cha thinkin' ‘bout this mornin', all quiet-like?” Mason asked, slowing his pace so his hunting companion could catch up.
“Nothin' much,” Julie said, slinging the gun over her shoulder. “Just hope we can catch somethin' to keep us all good and fat for a few days.”
Mason laughed at this, his voice booming in the dense woods. “Would be nice, yes siree.” They continued walking, getting further and further from camp, Mason's soft whistling keeping them company. “So, I was thinkin' ‘bout somethin', Billy, and I'd sure like your thoughts on the matter.”
“Alright,” Julie said, keeping an eye out for a buck or any other animal she may be able to bring down. It would be good for her and Justine to have some meat to take with them on the road.
Mason stopped, putting a large hand on Julie's shoulder to stop her, too. He looked down at her through old, worn blue eyes, lined like a road map. His beard was scraggly and streaked with gray and bits of old food. He grinned at her, showing dirty, rotten teeth. “I'm thinkin' you ain't what you say you are.”
Julie's eyes widened, but she quickly got her emotions and expression under control. She tried to step out of his grasp, but it was like iron, and wasn't letting her go anywhere. “I'm thinkin' we should just try and get us some breakfast, Mas-“
Before Julie could finish, she found herself pushed back until her back hit a tree, Mason on her like white on rice. His breath was monstrous as he brought their mouths together, his hand reaching down to between Julie's legs and squeezing: hard.
“I knew it, ye lyin' little bitch!” he hissed, using both hands to tear open her shirt and clawing inside, trying to find her breasts. “Lyin' little bitch!” he yelled.
Julie tried to push him away, turning her head to avoid another kiss, crying out as she felt his excitement press into her belly. “Mason, please,” she managed before his tongue was in her mouth again.
Justine was bringing water back to the camp when something caught her ear. She slowed, listening. There it was again: a distant scream. She hurried on to camp, making sure everyone was alright. When she got there, Bridgett, too was listening, their gazes meeting for a moment before something else caught their attention.
Justine ran to the wagon, followed closely by Bridgett, who began to hunt through everything, her breath coming in quick, panicked pants until her hand felt the cold steel of a pistol.
Mason was grunting, almost like a wild animal, as he tugged at Julie's pants, pulling them open, when suddenly he was pulled off her and dragged several yards away by his hair. He screamed, reaching back to grab the strong hands that had hold of him, but there was no getting loose.
Julie, on the other hand, suddenly had the menacing face of an Indian before her, his dark skin painted with vivid colors and his head mostly shaved, saved for a long tail down the center. He grabbed her by the throat, shoving her further into the tree, intent shining in his black eyes.
Justine grabbed John, using strength she had no idea she possessed, and carried the ten year old to the wagon and throwing him inside. She took the pistol Bridgett offered her. She knew little about guns, but knew enough to get it loaded, even as her hands trembled dangerously. She looked up, her eyes growing wide as two Indians blew in on their horses, weapons raised as they hurtled right towards them.
Julie could hear Mason screaming, but couldn't look to see what was happening to him as she was shoved again and again against the tree, her insides burning, no way to fight off her attacker. She tried to remember where she'd dropped her gun, but knew it was impossible for her to get to it. She remembered something though as her leg was brought up even further, her attacker grunting with every thrust.
Julie reached towards her boot: it took three tries, but she was finally able to grab her knife out of the boot, using all her strength – and hatred – to bury the blade up to the hilt in the man's back. His movements stilled, his eyes wide as blood dribbled out of his mouth. With disgust, Julie pushed him away from her, wincing as he roughly left her body.
“Bastard,” she whispered, spitting on his dead face. Hurting, she pulled her pants up, noting a thin trail of blood running down the inside of her thigh. She looked over at Mason, noting his dead body lying there, his head bloody, scalp missing. She gasped. “Justine!'
Bridgett shot her pistol, the bullet whizzing through the air, spooking one of the horses, but the rider managed to stay seated. He raised his voice, weapon twisted in the air as he lunged towards her. Bridgett was nearly hyperventilating as he got closer and she tried to re-aim her gun. She pulled the trigger, but nothing happened.
“Oh, no!” she screeched. “The gun jammed!” Before she could say another word, the Indian cried out, blood gushing from his chest, knocking him off balance and off his horse. He hit the ground with a grunt, then didn't move. Bridgett looked to see Justine standing there, the gun still trained on the man.
Just then, another man ran out of the woods, holding up his bloody prize in his hand, crying out in victory. Justine gasped, a good idea what it was. It was entirely too bloody to tell what color the hair was, and she was terrified it had belonged to Julie.
“Oh, god,” she whispered, suddenly feeling sick in the pit of her stomach. She raised the pistol again, aiming at him – Bridgett doing her best to deal with the remaining man – and prayed to god that she'd hit him. “No!” she cried, the gun clicking, useless.
She didn't have time to check the chamber to see how many more bullet – if any – were in it before a loud BOOM rent the air, and half the man's head was blown off, his body falling dead to the ground. Julie stood behind him, the smoking rifle still in her hands. Her hair was disheveled, her pants and shirt torn open. Before the last man could respond, he, too lay dead.
Julie looked at both women, her entire body shaking. She met Justine's gaze. “Are you alright?”
Justine nodded, hurrying over to Julie and taking her in a massive hug as she broke into tears, holding Julie for dear life. Julie held on just as tight. Justine released her just enough to look into her face and down at her torn clothing.
“Oh, god,” she breathed, cupping Julie's face. “What did they do to you?”
Unable to face the emotional storm trying to build inside her, Julie pulled away, walking past her towards the dead men. “Gather what you can from them, anythin' that'll be useful, includin' their horses, then we gotta get outta here.”
“Where's Mason?” Bridgett asked, running towards the woods. “Mason!”
Julie stopped her, using an iron grip to get her attention. She looked into the wild, frightened eyes of the woman. “Forget ‘bout him.”
“No! Mason!' Bridgett tried to get away, but was stunned out of her panic when Julie's hand connected with her cheek, a slap louder than it was painful.
“No!” Julie yelled, knowing it would be far worse for Bridgett to see her husband, especially with his pants undone. Bridgett didn't need to know what was happening before the attack: no one did. “Let's go. Now!”
Bridgett silently sobbed as she sat next to her son, who skillfully drove the wagon, taught by his dad since he was a little boy of five. The trip was slow, the wagon seeming to hit every rut in the trail. The two horses of the Indians were tied up to the back, following along patiently.
In the wagon, Julie stripped out of her ruined shirt, her hands trembled as she tried to clasp the buttons of the shirt Justine handed to her, a shirt that had once belonged to Mason.
“Let me help you,” Justine whispered, stopping Julie's hands with her own, brushing them aside and taking over. She tried to get Julie to meet her gaze, but the blonde refused. “What happened?”
Julie spared her a glance before quickly turning away, finishing the buttons on her own. “Nothing.”
Justine put her hand on Julie's arm, wanting to help. She could feel the fear and anger radiating off Julie; it was palpable. “Julie-“
“I said I'm fine!” Julie barked, glaring at Justine until she backed away, finding herself a place to sit in the far corner of the wagon.
The room was small, a double bed at the center with a small stand holding the chamber pot near the one window. Julie sat on the bed, pulling her boots off and wiggling her toes, relieved to finally get settled for the night. The room was quiet, other than the sound of her boots hitting the wood floor. Julie glanced up, finding Justine standing at the window, arms hugging herself, as she looked out into the darkness beyond.
Julie studied her for a long moment, wanting so badly to say something, any thing, but just couldn't. She wasn't sure what to say, wasn't even sure where to begin. She was saved her plight when there was a soft knock on the room door. Julie padded over to it, letting Bridgett and John enter.
“We got all settled in across the hall,” Bridgett said quietly, her face pale, shoulders slumped.
Julie nodded, closing and locking the door behind the mother and son, who both sat on the bed. Justine turned, leaning her back against the wall, not looking at Julie.
“How are you holding up?” she asked Bridgett.
Bridgett let out a long breath, giving a brave smile. “I'm scared to death, and I wish I understood what fully happened today.”
“Do you want us to continue travelin' with you, or do you and John want to go on your own?” Julie asked, her voice matter-of-fact, keeping her physical distance.
Bridgett looked at her. “I want you to stay with us. We all woulda died today without you-“ she stopped herself from saying ‘Billy', as it was very clear that wasn't the case. “Please,” she pleaded, looking from Julie to Justine and back again. “Tell me what's really goin' on, here.”
Julie looked at Justine, who met her gaze for the first time in hours, Justine nodding her consent. Julie let out a sigh, hugging herself to try and give herself comfort. “My name is Julie, and this is my friend, Justine. We're travelin' together, tryin' to get her to a safe house in Maine .” Julie glanced at Justine, hoping she'd not say a word about Julie's fib. The two were still wanted women, and Julie had no idea if Bridgett would keep their secret. “We mean no one harm, includin' you and John.”
Bridgett was quiet for a long moment, absorbing all that she'd been told. She finally looked up at Julie. “You're real convincin' as a young boy, Julie.” She and Julie shared a small smile. “What happened to Mason today?”
Julie fought the chill that ran through her blood. “We were attacked, and one of those bastards did somethin' real awful to him. I don't wanna say in front of the boy.”
“I wanna know where my Pa is!” John exclaimed, jumping to his feet, fists on his hips.
“No you don't, boy,” Julie scolded. “It's not worth the night terrors you'll get from it.” She stared the boy down until he looked away. She needed him to know just how serious she was. Turning back to Bridgett, she softened her expression. “Bridgett, Justine and I need to make it to safety for so many reasons, one of which is ‘cause she's with child, and I made a vow to get her home.”
Bridgett nodded. “I understand. We won't slow you down. If you gals wanna go on your own way-“
“We want to make sure you make it safely, Bridgett,” Justine said softly. “We're all in this together, now.”
Bridgett sighed and nodded. “Alright.” She got to her feet and put an arm around John's shoulders, guiding him towards the door. “See you gals tomorra.”
Left alone again, Julie walked over to the bed and began to unbutton her shirt, the shirt she'd borrowed from Mason's trunk of clothing. Suddenly, like a tidal wave everything hit her. The sobs came so quickly, Julie's legs gave out from underneath her, and she began a slow ascent to the floor. Strong arms caught her before she could land, and Julie found herself cradled against Justine, her face buried in the warm flesh of her neck as her body was racked with sobs.
Justine knew it was a matter of time before Julie finally broke, and was just grateful that she was there to catch her. Literally. She held her tight, whispering nonsense to her and placing tiny kisses on the top of her head.
“I'm so sorry they hurt you,” she whispered, rubbing lazy circles all over Julie's back, relieved when the sobs began to quiet then stop altogether. Even when Julie grew quiet, Justine still didn't let go of her. Instead, she led her over to the side of the bed, holding to her with one arm as she pulled down the bed clothes. “Let's get into bed.” Justine let go and walked over to the floor, where their new clothing had been placed. The first thing they'd done when entering town was to get them both new sets of clothing, including night wear. “Put this on.”
Julie nodded, wiping her tear-streaked face with the sleeve of the shirt. She finished removing the shirt, feeling somewhat awkward in just the bandage, which bound her breasts. She felt gentle fingers help her to unfasten the bindings, then Justine turned away, giving them both privacy to finish changing for bed.
The sheets were cool, and felt wonderful, compared to the scratchy blankets on hard ground they had been using for so long. Justine welcomed Julie into her open arms, tugging the other woman to her when Julie tried to be stoic and stubborn. She rested Julie's head on her shoulder and pulled the blankets up around them both, reaching over to snuff the oil lamp by the bed.
The room was completely dark, which made things easier for Julie, as silent tears ran down her cheeks. Her body hurt, and her soul hurt. She felt such horrible betrayal by Mason, which she wasn't sure what to do with. She began to feel uncomfortable with the close proximity, and began to move away.
“I should move. Might hurt the baby-“
“You will do no such thing, and the baby's fine,” Justine said, holding Julie even tighter until Julie stopped fighting. “Besides, how do you know that I don't need some comfort, too?”
Julie froze, feeling terrible. “I'm sorry,” she whispered. She decided to take a more active role in this cuddling foray, and with a grunt of exertion, rolled over onto her back, taking Justine with her. She grinned up at a stunned Justine, who looked down at her as though she'd lost her head. “You said you needed comforting,” Julie grinned.
Justine rolled her eyes and sighed, but snuggled in, now her head resting on Julie's shoulder. Though thin, she was surprised at just how sturdy the blonde's body was. “Am I hurting your wound?” she asked softly, nudging the scar where the card player's bullet had ripped through the flesh nearly a month before.
“Nah,” Julie said. “That's done healed up, now.
There was a long moment of silence before Justine spoke. “What happened to Mason Kemp?”
Julie let out a quiet breath before answering. “They scalped ‘im. I didn't want Bridgett seein' that.”
To Justine, it seemed that was more to her story, as though Julie had cut herself short. She raised her head, looking down into the pensive face of her companion. “And?”
Julie met Justine's gaze in the dimness of the room. “And, what? You want me to paint you a picture of what it looked like, or what?”
“Don't start that again,” Justine warned with a soft smack to Julie's stomach. “I'm not the enemy.”
Julie nodded. “No, you're not. And, which did you wanna hear? The damn Indian had his way, or that Mason Kemp tried to?”
Justine's eyes grew huge, her breath catching in her shock. “Julie,” she breathed. “No.”
As Julie looked up at Justine, she could just barely see her expression, but could see it well enough to know that the sympathy would break her heart in the light of day. She rolled out from underneath Justine, getting settled on her side. “It's late, Justine, and we got a long day tomorra. ‘Night.”
Justine started at her back for a long moment, knowing she should have just left well enough alone. Julie was a different creature than she was, strong and self-sufficient. Likely, she had no idea what to do with the warmth and comfort another human being. Deciding to let the conversation drop, but not the comfort – which she knew instinctively they both needed – she curled up on her side behind Julie, putting an arm over Julie's waist and pulling her near. Without a word, Julie scooted her body back until it was a perfect fit against Justine's. Within moments, they were both asleep.
Ballard Michllin lowered the tumbler, allowing the fine liquid swish around his mouth, and finally down his throat. He smiled, the tips of his finely waxed mustache rising with the action. “Fine whiskey, Justice. Real fine whiskey.”
Justice smiled with a nod, raising his own glass in salute. “I save it only for the most special of company.”
Ballard recognized Justice's words for the manipulation they were, but ignored them as he drained his glass. Sitting forward with elbows resting on his knees, he looked the younger man in the eye. “I'd give up on ever seein' yer beautiful young wife, again, Justice. We found the servant woman buried inside an old barn ‘bout ten miles outside Keesterton.”
Justice felt like the breath had been knocked out of him. He set his glass down on the wooden, Queen Anne table next to him and sat back in his chair. Gone was his charming, confident air. “What happened to her?”
“Best as we can tell, she was hanged or strangled.” Ballard stood, taking his hat from Percy, who had been standing by the door with the Sheriff's things. “Thank you, boy.” Putting on his coat, Ballard looked down at Justice, who still sat in his chair, shocked at the news. “Thanks for the drink, Justice.” He put on his hat. “I'd do yourself a favor ‘n give up on all this. She's gone, prob'ly dead somewhere.”
Justice let out a long breath and stood, extending a hand to Ballard. “Thank you for everything you and your men have done.” He turned to the servant, one of a handful that was left, after the disappearance – and now death – of Sissy, and Nelly's unfortunate demise. “Percy, see our guest to the door.”
“Yes'm, Mr. Havell.”
Left alone, Justice sank back in his chair and poured himself another whiskey. So, Sissy was dead, and Justine was likely, too. They'd gotten that no good rotten bastard, McGill, but all this meant Justice lost, and Justice Havell never lost.
Julie looked down the barrel of the newly-shined shooter, squinting one eye as she admired the glaze upon the smooth steel. She put the gun down and grabbed its twin, beginning the process all over again of taking it apart and cleaning all the parts. After what had happened the day before, she wasn't about to let Justine be in such danger again. She was responsible for her, and the previous day's events made her realize just how much, and just how close she'd come to not following through on her promise. A welcher, she was not.
Justine groaned softly as she rolled over from her stomach to her side, her back facing away from the beginning rays of the awakening sun. She opens her eyes, only to find herself nose to butt with a pistol, which lay on Julie's pillow. She saw Julie sitting on the side of the bed, her back to her, and something in her lap.
“What are you doing?” she asked, her voice thick from sleep.
Julie glanced over her shoulder and smiled. “Good mornin'. I'm getting' these guns cleaned proper. Mason's neglect made these damn things almost useless yesterday.”
Justine sat up, glancing down at the polished gun that lay on Julie's pillow then back to her friend. “How long have you been up? Did you sleep?”
“Yes,” Julie said, a wide smile on her face. She saw the doubt in Justine's eyes and reached a hand out, placing it on her hand. “I did.”
“Alright, missy. Not sure whether to believe you or not, but guess I don't have a choice.” She squeezed Julie's hand and got up from the bed, finding the silk robe Julie surprised her with the night before. “I'm going to bathe.”
“Want me to go with you?” Julie asked, holding up the gun.
Justine smiled. “My protector. No, I think I'll be just fine.”
Julie watched her go, knowing she had to trust that all would be fine. After the door to the room was closed, she took a deep breath and let it out slow. “It all has to be fine. It just has to.”
Justine closed her eyes, allowing her body to fall back into the warm water, the metal of the tub against her back. Since her life had changed so drastically, it had been an adjustment for her to get used to using things after others, especially when those “others” were complete strangers. Back at home, she'd had her own private bath, which only she used, and which was scrubbed to a shine after every use.
Now, however, after so long on the road with only lake and stream water for bathing, Justine felt as though she were soaking in a brand new tub made of gold, just for her. She just pushed out of her mind whose behind had been sitting where hers was, but moments before. None of that mattered, especially as her thoughts drifted to the previous night. She thought about how Julie's arms had felt around her, and how wonderful it had felt to be held. Justice wasn't an affectionate man, so unless he was fixin' for marital duty, touches were far and few.
She began to lather up as her thoughts continued. Julie was so gentle with her, even as she tried to be brave and distant. There were times when Justine would look into those magnificent green eyes and see such a lost soul. Sometimes looking into Julie's eyes made Justine want to cry, and certainly made her want to reach out to her. A few bits of Julie's past had been revealed in conversation, but not enough for Justine to truly understand the depth of who the remarkable woman was. Remarkable, indeed: Justine's admiration for Julie grew day by day, and the wish to emulate her grew with each breath.
Justine was tossed from her thoughts – and nearly the tub – when someone pounded on the door. “A moment, please!” she called out in irritation. With a sigh filled with wistfulness for her own private bath, Justine finished her bathing.
Three days later, the three women and ten year old boy were on the trail, Julie at the reins with Justine sitting at her side, Bridgett and John in the wagon. The day was warm, birds of prey seen in the sky, swooping for their lunch, catching rabbits and prairie dogs in their talons, and flying away on mighty wings.
Julie watched just such a display, wishing she'd seen the rabbit with her rifle first. It would be time to start hunting soon, as food was getting low after so many days on the trail. So deep in thought, she was startled to hear Justine's voice.
“Isn't it beautiful?”
Glancing at her companion, she saw that Justine's eyes were closed and her face was raised towards the warm sun overhead. In that moment, Justine looked more beautiful than Julie had ever seen her look before. She looked happy and content, a soft smile spread across her lips. She looked as pure as new snow.
Getting no response, Justine opened her eyes and looked at Julie, surprised to see Julie already looking at her. “What?”
Julie shook her head, turning back to the trail ahead. “It's a nice one for sure.” Julie silently berated herself for getting caught being so rude. “Y'all getting' hungry?” she called back to Bridgett and John.
“Yes, ma'am!” John yelled, crawling to the front and looking up at Julie and Justine. “We goin' huntin'?” he asked, the excitement of youth in his voice.
“You gonna help me?” Julie called back.
Justine rolled her eyes. “You both are brutes.”
Justine enjoyed the evening breeze on her face as she and Bridgett walked along the stream – both armed. She had been pleased when Bridgett had invited her along for a walk, as she liked the older woman, and knew their time would be coming to an end with her and John.
“You and Julie aren't related, are you?” Bridgett asked, also enjoying the walk and the evening breeze.
Justine shook her head. “No. I apologize for the ruse, but it's been our safest way to travel thus far.”
“How do y'all know each other?”
Justine looked over at Bridgett, and into her worn, tired blue eyes. They were eyes that had seen much, far too much. She knew instinctively that she could tell Bridgett the entire ugly truth and Bridgett would take it to her grave, but all the same, she decided to give as much information as would answer her question.
“Well, one night I find I have a badly wounded young lady bleeding in the snow in my front yard, so I brought her in and nursed her back to health. Turns out, she'd been shot in the side by a sore loser at cards.”
“Most men are,” Bridgett snorted. “That was awful kind of you, Justine.”
“I couldn't let her bleed out, now could I? What kind of lady would I be?”
Bridgett smiled at that. “Indeed. Was she dressed in breeches then, too?”
“Sure was. Thought I had a young boy on my hands. Imagine my great surprise while undressing her to take a look at her wound.” Both women laughed at that. “She's been wonderful to me. Looked after me, been very kind.”
“If you had a home, Justine, how did you end up on the road?”
Justine sighed, sad. “Well…” she stopped herself, knowing she was at a fork in the road of this tale, where she could either tell the full truth or lie. She saw those sad green eyes before her mind's eye, then Sissy's body, hanging from the rafters of the old barn, though suddenly that body became Julie. She gasped at the power of the image, her hand fluttering to her chest.
Taking several deep breaths, she cleared her mind and her throat. “We both decided we needed a change, so decided to make that change together.” She glanced over at Bridgett, seeing the look of confusion on her face. “I mean, to make this journey together. Safety.”
Bridgett nodded with a small smile of understanding. “Which I can't thank you enough for. My boy and I will make it safely now, thanks to the two of you.”
“I'm pleased we could help, Bridgett. I truly am. I'm just so sorry for your loss. I don't imagine this will be easy on John.”
Bridgett let out a long breath, nodding. “It will. But, I have to trust in the good Lord, that He will help us cope.” They walked in silence for a moment, then, “What will you and Julie do at the end of your journey? Do you both have kin you're going to stay with?”
Justine thought for a long moment. “Honestly, I'm not sure.” She glanced up at the full moon above and thought of the growing life inside her. “I am truly not sure.”
Later that night, Julie and Justine lay side by side on the new bedrolls they'd picked up in the last town. A fire burned nearby, Bridgett and John asleep in the wagon. Justine lay on her side, facing Julie, who lay on her back, eyes closed and a forearm tossed across her forehead. She watched Julie for a moment, noting the even rise and fall of her chest. Her conversation with Bridgett was on her mind, and she needed to talk.
“Julie?” she whispered. No response. “Julie?”
Julie's head jerked slightly as she awoke, her arm falling to her side, eyes finding Justine. “What is it? You okay?”
“I'm fine. Sorry to wake you, but I'm troubled by something.”
“What is it?” Julie turned to her side, facing Justine. “What's put that crease between those pretty eyes?” She reached a hand out, using her thumb to smooth the skin.
Justine closed her eyes at the contact, needing a hug, but not entirely sure how to ask for it. She wasn't entirely sure why she wanted it, other than the simple fact that she was scared. Yes, they still had to get to Indiana from Illinois , but she was still frightened.
“Talk to me,” Julie pleaded softly, her hand falling to cradle under her raised head.
Justine opened her eyes, which had begun to well with tears. “What happens at the end of this road?” she whispered, looking into Julie's concerned gaze. “I'm so frightened of where I'll end up.”
Julie was quiet for a long moment, not entirely sure what to say to that. These were thoughts that had haunted her, as well. “Well, I think once we get to your granddaddy's cabin, we need to take a minute to look ‘round us and see what we got,” she said softly. “Then decide from there what's next.”
“You mean, you'd stay?” Justine asked, her relief heard in her voice.
Julie grinned. “Well, I was kinda hopin' you'd ask me to. I'm not all that sure where I'd go, otherwise.”
Justine grabbed Julie in a tight hug, giggling like a school girl. Surprised, Julie returned the enthusiastic hug, not entirely sure where it was coming from. She hadn't realized Justine was so fond of their new-found friendship. She looked into Justine's face as Justine pulled away a bit, a mile-wide smile on her face.
“I'm so relieved, Julie. You have no idea.”
Julie returned the smile as well as a small laugh. “I'm so glad. Not sure what I did to earn such a hug, but guess I'll try an' keep it up.”
“Silly,” Justine said, swatting her playfully. “You just make me feel so safe. I couldn't have gotten through all this without you, and I'm truly grateful the Lord brought you into my life.”
Julie felt a warm rush wash through her, her cheeks coloring slightly at such a nice compliment. “Thank you,” she said softly, not sure what else to say.
Having already said her goodbyes, Julie stood back and watched as Justine hugged first Bridgett and then little John, Bridgett's family standing back, watching. Julie was filled with a mixture of emotions as she waited for Justine. They had completed their trek to Bridgett's family home in Illinois , getting the woman and her son there safe and sound, even if without a husband and father. Bridgett's mother had insisted that Julie and Justine stay overnight and share breakfast the next morning, her father offering them fresh horses and an old buckboard to finish their journey.
While Justine was helping clean up the breakfast mess, Julie and Bridgett's father, Thad had loaded the buckboard with all their belongings.
“You gals gonna be able to finish this on yer own?” he'd asked, adjusting the brim of his hat.
Julie nodded, leaning back on the buckboard and looking up into the early morning sky. “Yes, sir. We've gone this far, I reckon we'll do just fine the rest of the way.”
Thad shook his head, not understanding such foolishness. “Alright, then.”
Julie glanced at the older man now, a map work of lines surrounding his eyes and mouth, indicative of long days out in the sun working on the family farm. Thad met her gaze, nodding slightly in acknowledgement.
“Ready?” Justine asked, making her way to where Julie waited patiently for her.
Julie nodded. “We best get.” She nodded up at the sky, clouds gathering. “We got a rain storm comin', and need to find shelter before it hits.”
An hour later, Justine sat next to Julie, who quietly steered their team of two horses over the rough terrain, both women with the pace of horse and land. She was filled with a mixture of relief to have gotten Bridgett and her son home, safe and sound, but also a feeling of loss. They'd been traveling with the Kemp family for many weeks, and Justine had gotten used to their presence. She glanced over at Julie, wondering what was going through her head.
“You're quiet today,” Justine observed, grabbing the water skin from the seat beside her. She took a drink and handed it over to Julie, who took it.
“Thanks.” Julie drank then handed the water back to Justine. “Just thinkin'.”
“The fact that we done it.” Julie glanced at Justine, a sly smile on her face.
“We've done what?” Justine asked, her smile appearing, Julie's good mood contagious.
“We got outta Missouri . We escaped that lunatic husband ‘o yours, and got Bridgett and John to her Pa's house, alive and well.”
Justine's smile grew. “I think we make quite a good team, Miss Swain.”
“I'd agree, Mrs. Havell.”
The rain poured outside, lightning and thunder raging in the spring skies. Justine was busy laying out clothing on rocks near the fire to dry, her hair wet and stringy. She'd removed her dress once she'd gotten everything settled in the cave, wearing only her chemise, which clung to every curve. She hurried over to the fire, where she'd put on a pot of stew – vegetables picked and rabbit hunted – for supper, as Julie took care of the horses outside.
Justine glanced up when she heard Julie enter the cave they'd found, her hat brim drooping from the rain, clothing so drenched that the color of Julie's skin could be seen through the saturated material.
“Oh, Julie!” Justine cried, hurrying over to her, removing her hat and quickly working the buttons on her vest, before peeling it off her shoulders. “You've got to get out of these wet clothes before you catch your death.
Shivering violently, all Julie could do was nod and allow herself to be undressed and led over to the warm fire. She sat down on the cold, stone floor, still shivering as Justine wrapped a cloak around her shoulders and sat behind her, wrapping her warm arms.
“How are the horses?” Justine asked at length, once Julie's shivering had stopped.
“Good. I found them some shelter under a thicket of trees. Got ‘em fed and near water.” Julie allowed herself to be pulled back against Justine's chest, eyes closing as warmth surrounded her. She was surprised - and a bit uncomfortable – by the warmth that spread throughout her insides, as well. She had no idea what it was, a wave flowing through her belly, up into her rib cage, and then back south. It was confusing. She'd never felt anything like it, and wasn't entirely sure of its source.
“Are you hungry?” Justine asked, unwittingly interrupting Julie's racing thoughts.
Julie nodded. “That I am.” She pulled away from Justine, turning to her, seeing Justine's own wet garment, noting Justine's cold-hardened nipples poking through the thin material of her chemise. A new wave of heat flowed through Julie, making her turn away with a need to put distance between herself and Justine. “I'll get us some coffee started while you get changed,” she muttered.
Justine looked down at herself, then at Julie, confused. “I don't have much to change into that isn't wet.”
Keeping her back to her, as Julie didn't like the feeling she got in the pit of her stomach every time she looked at Justine, Julie continued with coffee preparations. “You can catch your death, too, ya know. What with wearin' that wet chemise.”
Deciding Julie was right, Justine fished around in her belongings until she found a second cloak that was mostly dry. She peeled the chemise off, snaking it down over her widening hips and burgeoning belly.
Julie caught a glimpse of Justine's bare shoulders and back, her gaze riveted to the sight: Justine's skin danced with golden light from the flames of the fire, her hair falling in a shining dark wave down her back, nearly touching her waist. Her gaze continued down, as the chemise pooled at Justine's feet. A shapely behind led to long legs, the flesh creamy, having never been touched by the sun.
Julie felt her heart rate increase, her breath coming in short, quiet bursts. Concerned she was coming down with something, she turned quickly away, grabbing the bottle of whiskey Thad had given them, and took a long drink, choking on the fiery liquid as it landed in her stomach with a THUD.
“Julie?” Justine asked, hurrying over to her choking friend as she donned the cloak. She took the bottle from Julie's hand before she could drop it. Justine slapped her back, concern in her eyes.
“I'm okay,” Julie croaked, her eyes watering from the choking fit. She glanced at Justine, relieved to see she was covered. Taking a deep breath, she said again, “I'm okay.”
“Are you sure? Are you sure that maybe you didn't pick up something nasty from this weather?”
Julie nodded, taking the bottle from Justine. “Just choked on the drink I took.”
Justine shook her head, making her way over to the pot of simmering stew, checking to see if it was done. “Supper's on.”
Julie poured them each a tin cup of coffee, blinking her eyes several times as her vision began to swim just a bit. She'd never been much for alcohol, as it wasn't safe for a woman traveling alone to lose her wits. The whiskey was strong, and it was going to her head nearly instantly; of course, it didn't help that she hadn't put anything in her stomach for several hours. She took a drink of the coffee, hoping it would help clear her head, when all it did was scorch her throat.
Justine was startled as suddenly Julie cried out, her cup of coffee flying out of her hand as she reached for the water skin. “What on earth?” she asked, hurrying over to her friend, bowls of stew forgotten. “Girl, you're just not doing well tonight!”
Julie laughed at herself, even as she cursed at her throat, on fire from both the whisky and the hot coffee. As Justine tried to help, her cloak pulled open, revealing the rounded form of a breast. The sight nearly sent Julie over backwards on the rock she'd been sitting on.
“My word! What's gotten into you, Julie?!” Justine exclaimed, helping Julie to sit properly on the rock once more. “You seem like the Devil, himself has taken hold.”
Julie was pale as a ghost as she allowed herself to be helped. She looked away from Justine, unsure what the problem was. What was wrong with her!? “I'm sorry,” she whispered. “I don't know what's come over me.” She took another drought from the water skin. “I think Thad's whiskey was awfully strong.”
“Indeed.” Justine grabbed the bottle and uncorked it, taking a whiff. The smell alone nearly knocked her backwards. “Good god, almighty. This seems to be a bit dangerous, so let's put this away.” She stuffed the bottle in a saddle bag then returned to the bowls of stew. “Here, eat this. Hopefully it'll help clear your head a bit.”
Finally calmed, both women sat and ate their stew and drank their coffee. Julie savored the flavors that Justine had managed to throw into a simple bowl of stew. She closed her eyes, enjoying the mix on her tongue. She smiled at the other woman. “I had no idea you could cook like this, Justine. You been holdin' out on me.”
Justine smile, immensely pleased Julie liked it. “Well, it's easier to cook real good for two, and not an entire family. Nelly used to take me down into the kitchen when I was a girl, and I'd watch her cook. She taught me a lot.”
“But, why? You had to know you'd end up with servants an' all that.”
Justine shrugged, filling her bowl for a third time, to the wide-eyed amazement of Julie. “Don't look at me like that; I'm eating for two, now.” She took a bite. “I knew I'd be expected to marry and be a mother, and wanted to know how to please my family. My mother never cooked for us, but my grandmother did when she was alive, and it was the greatest treat.”
“More personal that way?” Julie asked, followed by the giddy laugh of a pickled brain.
Justine smiled, amused. Alcohol consumption scared her, as both her father and husband had been heavy drinkers, and both would get out of hand in one way or other under the influence. With Julie, however, it only seemed to make her giddy and goofy. Justine was amused. “You get down right silly when you're drunk, you know that?”
Julie looked at her with innocent eyes. “What do ya mean? I ain't drunk.”
“No?” Justine asked, brows raised in emphasis.
“Nope. Ain't drunk.” Julie pushed up from her rock, only to fall back on her butt, giggling like a girl.
“Hmm. Indeed.” Justine got up and took Julie's bowl from her. “Care for more?”
Julie shook her head. “No, ma'am. I am full as the moon.”
Justine began to rinse out Julie's bowl from the water skin, dumping the dirty water into a corner of the cave. Julie watched her through buzzed eyes. “I bet you make the best wife ever, Miss Justine,” she said softly.
Justine glanced at her over her shoulder, a soft smile on her lips. “Thank you, Julie. That's kind of you to say.”
“Why would Justice let you go? He's a damn fool, you ask me.”
Justine stopped her task, turning fully to face Julie, who was examining the tin cup her coffee was in. She studied her for a long moment, feeling warmth spread through her heart. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I tried, but I guess I just wasn't good enough in his eyes.”
Julie looked up, meeting Justine's gaze, an eternity seeming to pass between them. Finally she smiled, shaking her head. “He's a fool, Justine. A typical man who don't appreciate what he's got. Don't ever blame yerself for his faults and flaws.”
Justine smiled, her eyes welling with tears of appreciation. “Thank you,” she whispered again. Overcome by emotion, she hurried from the cave, mumbling something about cleaning the dishes out in the rain.
Julie sat where she was, surprised when Justine disappeared.
The night was cold, the rain fierce as Justine exited the mouth of the cave. Her heart was hurting as the tears stung behind her eyes. She couldn't keep it locked away anymore, and the tears began to fall, sobs racking her entire body. She dropped the bowls, hugging herself as months of held-in emotion erupted in a burst of pain and sorrow. She began to cry even harder when she realized she had no tears for Justice. All her pain was for Sissy and Nelly.
Suddenly, Justine felt warmth behind her, as two arms encircled her waist, turning her around. She grabbed onto Julie, clinging to her as she cried, face buried in her neck. Julie held on, caressing Justine's back and whispering words of nonsense into her ear. Justine cried like she hadn't cried in years: not since her beloved grandfather had died.
Julie hung on, wanting Justine to know someone was there, and that she was safe, even as the rain poured down on them, sending a chill through them both. She pulled away from her just enough to look into her agonized face. Placing her hands on either side of Justine's face, Julie placed a soft kiss on her forehead, both eyes, and then her lips. Both were startled by the gesture, which Julie had no idea why she'd done it.
Justine's eyes opened wide, her heart beating a million miles a minute. She reached for Julie, even as Julie pulled totally away. “Wait, don't go.”
Julie stopped, feeling foolish and deeply confused. “I'm sorry,” she whispered, unable to meet Justine's gaze.
“No, I appreciate the comfort,” Justine said softly, grabbing Julie by the hand. She pulled her in for a tight, but quick hug. “I'm sorry. Guess this baby has got me awfully emotional.” They smiled, the tension broken. “Come on before I get us both sick out in this rain.”
Julie lay in her bedroll, unable to sleep. She could hear Justine breathing soft and even beside her, her body heat warm along Julie's back, as Julie lay on her side, staring at the embers that were once their fire. Her mind kept going back to those few minutes out in the rain, wondering why she had kissed Justine. Yes, she was trying to comfort and calm her, but was there more to it? Somehow, Julie couldn't wrap her mind around her motives. Yes, she and Justine had been through a lot together, and yes, it had brought them closer. But, was that any reason to bring them physically closer?
Julie turned to her back, staring up into the darkness that was the cave ceiling. It was getting cold, and she considered getting up to restart the fire. Before she could act on that, Justine moved closer, cold in her sleep, and seeking warmth. She pressed their bodies together, her head finding purchase on Julie's shoulder. Julie wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry in that moment. Instead, she wrapped her arms around Justine and pulled the coverings around them, ensuring their combined body heat could create a bit of a cocoon to keep them both warm.
Her thoughts drifted back to that kiss and back to the way she'd been affected by Justine's nakedness earlier that night. She'd never had a sister or mother, so had missed out on the close bonding of women, that she'd heard about. She'd never had a close female friend, nor any other to compare. Perhaps this was normal for women? After all, Justine didn't seem to be bothered by any of this, and in fact, she seemed to grow physically closer to Julie day by day.
Julie's hand found Justine's thick hair, fingers absently running through the silk-like strands. She thought back to a string a nights now, where Justine had found her way into Julie's arms, just as she had moments before. In truth, Julie had to admit she liked it; it made her feel warmer and somehow, like she was truly protecting Justine, even if it was just with her comforting presence. Julie rested her head against Justine's, Justine instinctively moving even closer to Julie, nearly lying halfway on top of her. Julie adjusted her embrace, one hand resting on Justine's back, the other continuing to run through the long strands of hair.
Julie's eyes closed, as she had to admit it felt wonderful. As much warmth, comfort and protection as Justine sought from her, she gave back in turn. Julie placed a soft kiss on Justine's forehead before once again resting their heads together.
“You okay?” Justine murmured, cuddling even closer before letting out a contented sigh.
“Yeah,” Julie whispered. “Go to sleep.” Justine murmured something unintelligible before letting a soft sigh, making Julie smile.
Justine walked into the cave, finally able to drop her skirts, as the ground outside was pure mud. The sun was high in the sky of blue, and it looked as though it would be a beautiful day. She walked over to Julie, who sat on a rock, counting the money she had left.
“How are we doing?” she asked, packing the rest of their belongings, Julie having packed the majority of them while Justine was outside, relieving herself in the trees.
“Got ‘bout thirty bucks left,” Julie said, tucking the rest of the money into one of the saddle bags. She stood, buckling her thigh holster into place, making sure it wasn't too tight. She slid her pistol into place, shaking her leg a bit to get everything settled. She glanced up at Justine, who was watching her. “What?”
Justine smirked. “That looks real uncomfortable.”
Julie shrugged, getting her other holder into place. “It's alright, I s'pose. Glad to have ‘em.”
“So,” Justine said, grabbing the saddle bag and her own bag. “What's the plan for today?”
“Well, I looked over the map this mornin'. We gotta head south for a spell before cuttin' across to the east. Got some rough territory ahead, an' I don't wanna meet with any unfriendlies.” Julie grabbed the remaining bag and her hat, following Justine out of the cave. Together they loaded the buckboard. “How'd you sleep?”
Justine was grateful as Julie helped her climb onto the buckboard. As she got herself settled, she responded. “I slept wonderfully, thank you.” She rocked with the motion of the buckboard as Julie climbed into the seat next to her. “You?” Suddenly, she felt very shy, as she had woken early, nearly lying fully atop Julie. In all honesty, she wasn't sure how Julie had been able to breathe under her weight.
“Fine,” Julie said quickly, trying to hide her discomfort. “Just fine.” She gave Justine a wide smile before turning to the horses, clicking her tongue to get them started. In truth, she'd gotten very little sleep. The feeling of Justine against her only added to her confusion.
Justine could sense the lie behind Julie's words, and misinterpreted it for the fact that perhaps she had made Julie's night physically uncomfortable. She felt terrible, and made the silent commitment to herself to leave Julie alone as she slept. Personally, night time was Justine's favorite time of day, as she loved how safe Julie made her feel, and to give in to the need to be physically close to her. She sighed, sad that would all have to come to an end.
Later that night, Justine sat across from Julie, their camp fire between them. She watched as Julie cleaned her guns, giving loving care to each intricate part, not saying one word to Justine. Justine had felt a tension building between them all day, and had no idea why, or where it was coming from. She wondered if she had truly angered Julie by snuggling up with her so closely the night before. That was the only thing she could think of that had set this whole day of uncomfortable quiet off.
Deciding she no longer wanted to have to face the depressing silence, Justine gathered her bedroll and snuggled up within, readying herself for a cold, lonely night.
Julie glanced up, noting Justine had gone to sleep. She turned her attention back to the gun she was cleaning, guilt gnawing at her. Justine had done nothing wrong, and shouldn't have to pay for Julie's own discomfort. Sighing heavily, Julie set the gun part aside, resting her head back against the rock she leaned against. She looked at the still form curled up in blankets, and felt an undeniable need to go to Justine and hold her. She knew Justine was cold, knew she was hurt with her and confused.
“Damn it all,” she hissed, looking up into the clear, star-filled sky. She didn't understand what was happening, but knew that she was feeling a strong need to get Justine where she needed to go, then take off and disappear.
Fighting against the urge to go to Justine and sleep beside her, as she'd been doing for months now, she put her guns back together and loaded them, then lay down herself, across the fire.
Two tense weeks later, Julie stopped the buckboard in front of the one inn in the latest town they'd reached. She pulled a couple bills from her saddle bag, handing them to Justine. “Get us a room,” she said stiffly. She quickly helped Justine down from the buckboard, then drove off to stow the horses and vehicle. Miserable and wanting nothing more than to find a good game of cards and strong drink, Julie climbed down from the buckboard and tended to the horses.
Justine entered the lobby of the small, but nice inn, money in hand. As she crossed the carpeted room, heading to the innkeeper's desk, she noticed a handsome man – well dressed – sitting in one of the chairs scattered around the lobby. His dark eyes met hers, a smile gracing his features, head nodding in acknowledgment. Justine gave him a small smile of her own and continued on to the counter.
“Help you?” the innkeeper asked.
“Yes. I need a room, please,” Justine said, nearly asking for two, but stopping herself. As the keeper took the money and got her a key and registry to sign, Justine felt the presence of another person beside her. She looked to see the man from the chair standing next to her.
“We will be neighbors for a short while, I see,” he said, a welcoming smile on his face.
Justine smiled, but said nothing, instead taking the key from the innkeeper and heading towards the stairs to find the room she'd be sharing with Julie.
Julie entered the lobby, hat pulled low over her face and saddle bags slung over her shoulder. She looked around, taking in the room and everyone in it as she made her way to the counter.
“Howdy,” she said to the man. “A bit ago my friend , Lucy checked us into a room.”
“Yes, room 313,” the clerk said, remembering well the beautiful Lucy who had checked in but a half hour before.
“Thank you kindly.”
As Julie turned away, she noticed the handsome man sitting in a chair, a scruffy-looking man sitting beside him. Both men were looking at her, almost as though assessing her. She nodded acknowledgment to them both then hurried up the stairs.
Standing in front of the closed room door, Julie took a deep breath. She decided to try and make nice, to try and stop the bleeding of the chasm between she and Justine, that she had started two weeks before. She hated the prolonged silences, and hurt and confused looks she received far too often. She took a deep breath then opened the door to the room.
Stepping inside, Julie was surprised at how nice the room actually was: large rug spread across the center of the hard wood floor. A large four-poster bed was the centerpiece, with rich cherry woods for all the furniture, including a wardrobe, small table with two plush chairs and a stand for the chamber pot. Justine sat at the vanity, brushing her hair, wincing as she worked at tangles, caused from the wind during their travels.
Julie set their bags on the floor, reaching in to pull out her money. “There was a restaurant downstairs,” she said conversationally.
“So there was,” Justine said, continuing to brush her hair.
Julie chewed on her lip, trying to figure out the best way to handle the situation. She wanted to ply her charms to win back Justine's favor. “I was thinkin' that maybe…” Julie's voice trailed off as Justine didn't so much as look at her through the mirror. Getting frustrated, she considered just toss the idea out the door, but wanted to try again. “We could-“
Before Julie could get the rest of her sentence out, there was a firm knock on the door. Without a word, Justine pushed up from the vanity bench and walked to the door, pulling it open. An employee of the inn stood on the other side.
“Ma'am, I was asked to deliver this to you by Mr. Duvall,” the man said, handing Justine a folded piece of paper.
“Who is Mr. Duvall?” Julie asked, stepping up beside Justine.
“A special guest here, sir.” With that, the man turned on his heel and walked away.
Justine opened the paper, reading the neatly printed writing within: Miss Lucy: I would be honored to treat you and your young companion to dine on the inn's fine cuisine. R
Julie looked at Justine, waiting for her to explain. “What does it say?”
“He wants to buy us dinner tonight,” Justine said, re-reading the note, a thrill running through her. For the first time in two weeks, her blue eyes lit up, her cheeks flushing with excitement. “I must change,” she said, rushing over to the vanity and looking at her reflection. “I look a mess!”
Julie turned away, fighting an unfamiliar feeling that clenched her gut: jealousy. Gritting her teeth, she closed her eyes and took several deep breaths, trying to get her emotions under control. “Who's Mr. Duvall?” she asked, her voice far more clipped than she'd intended.
“I don't know,” Justine said, excited by the mystery. She looked at Julie, only to look at her back. She could tell Julie's entire body was stiff and tight, and for just a moment, she wondered if Julie wasn't happy about the turn of events. “You are going, aren't you?” she asked, partly wanting her to, and partly not. If Julie could be so distant from her, fine. She'd have her own life.
Julie blew out a long breath and turned to look at Justine, who had turned back to the mirror, pinching her cheeks to put some color in them, and brushing her hair again. “Do you want me to?”
Justine shrugged, her stubborn side kicking in. “Only if you want to, Julie.” She turned on the bench to look at her. “I'm not your mother.”
“Then I think I'll find my own dinner, thank you.” Julie stomped over to the saddle bag, grabbing out a handful of bills then grabbing her hat. “Enjoy your evenin' with Mr. Duvall.” It took everything in her power to not spit out the man's name. Instead, she slammed out of the room, leaving a bewildered Justine.
In the lobby, Julie noted the well-dressed man was still sitting in a chair, now smoking a cigar. She watched as the same inn employee walked over to him, bending over to whisper something to him. The man pulled some coins from a pocket in his vest, clapping the employee on the shoulder just before he walked away. Julie wondered if this was the elusive Mr. Duvall. As she stared at him, he met her gaze, his eyes so dark they were nearly black. He raised a hand in greeting, Julie nodding in return.
Just as she was about to turn and head out, Julie noticed the scruffy man from earlier entering from the restaurant and hurrying over to the supposed Mr. Duvall. He knelt by his chair and they began a quiet, intense conversation. Almost as soon as he'd arrived, the scruffy man was gone.
Julie decided she didn't care, and left the inn.
Moments later, Justine made her way down the stairs, doing her best to cover her sadness of Julie leaving with the excitement of attention. She looked beautiful as she stepped into the lobby, the handsome man in the dark suit from earlier getting to his feet as he saw her.
“Miss Lucy,” he said, giving her his best smile.
“Mr. Duvall?” Justine asked, pleasantly surprised, and feeling somewhat uneasy without Julie at her side.
In response, he gave her a proper bow. “Madam.” He held out a hand. “Shall we go to dinner?” His smile widened at Justine's beautiful smile. As they walked towards the restaurant, he asked, “Where did your young friend go?”
Justine felt an instant of anger, but quickly pushed it away. “He had other business to attend to.”
“Well, I'm sorry to hear that.” Mr. Duvall's smile said the opposite. “Shall we?” he asked, offering his arm.
Justine smiled, taking it.
Julie walked into the saloon, guns holstered tightly to her thighs, the weight a comfort in a strange place. The large room was filled with smoke, the smell of whiskey and vomit, and the sight of men crowding the small, round tables. Talking and piano music filled the space, the yip from dancing girls up on stage catching her attention. Julie looked around, seeing the bar, which ran along the length of the left-hand side of the room. The bar man behind ran back and forth, tending to his customers, a mirror running along the bar so he could keep an eye on the room behind him.
“Wuddya have?” he asked, as Julie made her way up to the tall mahogany bar.
“Gimme a whiskey,” she ordered, placing a few coins on the bar to avoid any questions. She knew the keep would answer more to the sight of money than anything she had to say.
Sure enough, he nodded and hurried to fill her order, sliding the coins off the counter and into his palm as he slid her drink to her. “Anythin' else, mister?”
Julie raised her glass in salute. “Don't let these stop ‘til I tell ya.” With that, she downed the drink in one quick motion, her face scrunching up in distaste as the fire raced down her throat and into her gut. The barkeep chuckled at the look on her face, pouring her another.
As Julie grabbed for the second drink, a voluptuous redhead made her way over to Julie, both standing near eye to eye, except the redhead was about to burst out of her dress. “Well, hi there, honey.” The woman looked to be no older than Julie, red hair piled high on her head, rouge blushing her cheeks.
Julie's eyes were immediately drawn to the cleavage, as the woman worked her wares that way, ensuring the “man” saw that first and foremost. “Howdy,” she said, feeling the whiskey beginning to dribble into her brain.
“Yer new ‘round here, honey,” the woman said softly, moving even closer to Julie, a long-nailed hand making feather-light touches to Julie's chest.
Julie's instinctual reaction was to move away, as her chest was not that of a “normal” cowboy, but bound breasts. Even still, she didn't react fast enough, the prostitute's hand stopping mid-stroke. A red brow raised in amused question.
“I must say, this is dif'rent.” Her fingers trailed around Julie's breast, squashed beneath her wrappings, but there all the same.
Julie looked away, feeling ashamed at being found out. She wasn't entirely sure what the redhead would do. “Why do you say that?” she asked quietly, forgetting her male persona for a moment.
The redhead smiled, leaning in, but not removing her hand from Julie's bound breast. “''Cause I don't get your kind in here all that often,” she whispered into Julie's ear, making her shiver.
Justine and Mr. Duvall were seated at a table in the restaurant, where other well-dressed patrons sat, eating dinner and sharing chatter and quiet laughter. The atmosphere wasn't unlike what Justine was used to in her previous life with Justice and her father before. She felt right at home, and it was nice to have the familiar scene around her for a moment. She was actually able to forget about Julie's absence for a spell.
“Thank you for joining me,” Mr. Duvall said sweetly, waving the waiter over. He ordered them fine wine and even finer duck for dinner. It was obvious this man knew his delicacies.
“Of course. Thank you for inviting me, Mr. Duvall,” Justine said, delicately sipping her wine.
“I'm just sorry your companion couldn't join us,” Mr. Duvall said, eyeing Justine for an explanation.
“Billy very much has his own mind,” Justine said, the bitterness not fully kept out of her voice. She took hold of her wine glass and sipped, looking away from the man's probing gaze. “But,” she said, setting the glass down, “that shouldn't ruin our new friendship.” She raised her glass. “To new friends!”
Mr. Duvall raised his glass in kind. “To new friends.” They clinked glasses and both drank. “And, Miss Lucy, you can call me Richard.” He smiled at her. “Or, should I call you Mrs. Havell?”
Julie wasn't sure what to think, sitting in a chair at the back of the saloon, the redhead sitting on her lap. Her head was fuzzy from the two drinks she'd taken, a third sitting on the table waiting to be drunk. The redhead's painted fingers were weaving lazy patterns through Julie's hair, blue eyes twinkling with amusement at Julie's obvious discomfort.
“Ya don't need ta be afeared of me, darlin',” the woman whispered, leaning in close. Her cleavage brushed against Julie's chin, causing a shiver to snake down her spine. “Ya here all alone?”
Julie shook her head, unable to take her eyes off the full breasts before her. Her heart was pounding in her chest, her blood racing through her veins.
“No?” The redhead looked around the saloon. “I don't see no one here lookin' for ya.”
Julie looked around the saloon, as well, her vision beginning to blur from the potency of the alcohol. “She ain't here,” she muttered, her mind quickly flashing to Justine. For a moment, she felt guilt gnawing at her, able to imagine what Justine would say or think if she were to see where Julie was, and who sat in her lap. But then, she had a mental image of Justine sitting, laughing and talking with Mr. Duvall, and all guilt flew out the window. Instead, she grinned drunkenly at the prostitute. “All alone.”
The redhead grinned, trailing a red fingernail down along Julie's cheek and jaw line. “Not no more, you ain't.” She reached down and grabbed Julie's hands, which had been hanging at her sides, and placed them on her waist. “Don't be afeared to touch me, darlin'.”
Julie felt her stomach flip at the touch of the woman, her skin scorching her through the material of her dress. “I don't have no money,” she whispered, barely audible. She felt her heart speeding up, not sure what to do with the situation, or with this woman who straddled her lap.
The woman smiled, leaning in to place a kiss on Julie's cheek. “That's okay, darlin'. I'm enjoying our time together right here. Ain't you?” She chuckled at Julie's vigorous nod, even though she could tell the blonde was about to throw up. “Don't be so nervous. I ain't gonna hurt ya none, I promise.” She ran her fingers through Julie's hair again, looking into the beautiful face of the woman beneath her. “What's yer name, honey?”
“Billy,” Julie whispered, unable to take her eyes away from the woman's intense gaze. The blue of her eyes made her think of Justine, which made her look away, only to find herself looking directly into the woman's cleavage again.
“Well, Billy, you can call me Marcy if you like.” She used two painted fingers to raise Julie's chin until she was looking eye to eye again. “Or anythin' at all.” She studied the troubled green eyes of this Billy for a long moment. “What's her name, darlin'? Who's this woman yer frettin' over?”
Julie blinked several times, shocked at Marcy's perceptive observation. “There's no one.”
Marcy grinned, obviously seeing through Julie's lie. “Well, then no one won't mind a'tall if I do this.” She leaned in, placing a soft kiss on Julie's lips.
Julie started, the touch sending a jolt through her entire system.
“Shh,” Marcy whispered, bringing a hand up to Julie's face, calming her. She grinned, dimples winking at Julie. “Yer like a bran' new baby kitten, ain't'cha?” Once again, she ran a fingernail down the side of Julie's face, causing another shiver. She reached down, grabbing Julie's hand, which still rested on her waist, and moved them to her thighs, partially bared as her skirts had risen from straddling Julie's lap.
Julie gasped at the feel of bare skin beneath her hands, a jolt of warmth rush through her, landing squarely between her legs. She squeezed her thighs together, trying to quell the pulsing that had begun. She didn't dare move her hands, in fear of what she might feel next.
Marcy laughed, amused by the look of downright terror on Julie's face, though she saw the curiosity in her inebriated gaze. “Darlin', are you a virgin?” she whispered, leaning in close, her breasts almost all that Julie could see.
Julie slowly shook her head, unable to rip her gaze from the beautiful flesh before her. “I was married,” she whispered, clearing her throat as it had suddenly become very dry.
“Here, darlin',” Marcy said, reaching behind her to grab Julie's drink.
Julie downed the whiskey, almost not tasting its fire as it flew to her pickled brain. “Thank you.”
“You're ever so welcome.” Marcy used her fingernail to trail a fiery line down Julie's throat and over both breasts. She could just barely feel the stiffening nipples beneath. She took the opportunity to give the pretty blonde a real kiss, forcing Julie's lips open with her tongue.
Julie found herself being kissed like she'd never been kissed before. When Ross had his way with her, kissing was never something that was involved, unless he was devouring her mouth, causing small cuts on her lips from his teeth. Her body was ignited, the need to fidget in her seat nearly maddening. Bravely – or drunkenly – her hands traveled further up Marcy's skirts, the redhead moaning softly as Julie's fingers reached her fleshy behind, which was bare.
Marcy pushed her hips into Julie, moaning at the pressure that caused against her. She broke the kiss, resting her forehead against Julie's. “Come upstairs with me, honey,” she panted.
As Julie was being tugged up the stairs behind Marcy, she glanced out over the saloon, noting the scruffy man she'd seen talking to Mr. Duvall, watching her.
Julie slowly came into consciousness, feeling the familiar weight of Justine against her. She wrapped her arms tighter around her, marveling at the feeling of Justine's soft skin beneath her hands. Justine snuggled even closer against her, throwing one of her thighs across Julie's. She let out a contented sigh at the movement, running her hand down along Justine's naked back, then up into her hair. Justine's hot breath against her neck, where her face was snuggled into, began to quicken with the touches.
Julie gasped as two of Justine's fingers found one of her nipples, gently rolling it between them. Next came Justine's lips, enclosing the rigid nipple in soft, wet warmth. Julie groaned, eyes still closed as the sensations rushed through her body. She buried her hands in Justine's hair, urging her to continue suckling her.
The bed creaked as Justine moved her body atop Julie's their mouths meeting in a passionate kiss as Justine moved one of her thighs between Julie's, adding pressure to Julie's swollen sex. Julie thrust her hips and thigh up into Justine's movements, both moaning at the mutual contact. The headboard pounded the wall behind it with their passionate movements.
It didn't take long for Julie's body to still just before it exploded with pleasure. She clung to Justine as she convulsed, her sex pulsing with her climax.
“I got'cha, baby,” was whispered in her ear. “So beautiful….”
Julie stilled, ice rushing through her blood. Suddenly, her vision of Justine making love to her was totally shattered by the realization of who she was actually with, and just what she'd actually done. Finally, after a deep breath, she opened her eyes, seeing Marcy lying next to her, having climbed off her.
“Sorry I'm not Justine, honey,” Marcy said softly, an understanding smile on her face.
“What? How did you-“
“Yer not the first to deal with heart troubles while with me, sugar.” Marcy placed a small kiss on Julie's cheek. “Ya called me Justine all night.”
Julie looked away, mortified for far too many reasons to count. She stared out the small window, morning sunlight shining through. Her head had begun to pound, her mouth dry from too much drink the night before. “I'm so sorry,” she whispered.
“Don't be, sugar.” Marcy traced a lazy pattern with a fingertip along Julie's flat stomach. “It's ain't often I get ta do somethin' ‘cause I enjoy it.” She met Julie's tortured gaze as Julie looked at her. “True as the gospel.”
Julie looked away again, moving away from Marcy. “I need ta go.”
Feeling shy in her nakedness, she quickly moved around the room, putting on items of clothing as she found them, only to have to remove her pants when she found her underwear, and start over. Marcy still lay in the bed, her breasts bared as she watched, amused.
Not sure what the proper etiquette was, Julie dug into her pockets, finding a few dollars. She set them on the deeply-scarred dresser, then hurried from the room and saloon. As she stepped into the cool morning, she thought about Justine, guilt nearly knocking her to the dirt. What would she tell her? How could she explain why she was gone all night long? How could she even explain her behavior the night before?
“Damn it all,” she muttered, entering the inn and climbing the stairs to their room. She listened at the door for a moment, hearing nothing within. Looking at her pocket watch, she saw that it was well after eight. Justine was an early riser typically. She tried the knob, surprised to find the door unlocked. Pushing it open, she stepped into the room, only to find the bed neatly made, with one of the saddle bag lying atop it. The vanity was exactly as Justine had left it the night before: her brush lying on the top, a few strands of dark hair still stuck in the course bristles. It looked as though no one had spent the night there, the only change being the saddle bag lying on the bed.
Something hit Julie hard, and she flew to that bag, digging through it. Fear gripping her heart, she quickly grabbed the second bag from the floor, digging through it, too. Nothing. The money was gone. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
Julie flew down the stairs, ending up at the innkeeper's desk. A young woman was startled to see Julie suddenly appear before her, panting and out of breath.
“May I help you, sir?”
“The woman staying in room 313, have you seen her?” Julie demanded, nearly in the woman's face.
The woman flipped through the registry to see which guest the boy before her spoke of. “Miss Lucy checked out last night,” she informed Julie. “Can I help you with something?”
“Checked out!?” Julie grabbed the registry from the girl's hands, looking at the signature. It wasn't Justine's. “Oh, god!”
Julie raced back to the room, which obviously hadn't yet been inspected or cleaned after Justine left. She gathered up their gear as quickly as she could, including Justine's hair brush, then raced out of the inn and to the stables. There, she was relieved to find their horses and buckboard still harbored safely. Not sure where to start, she chewed on her bottom lip, looking around the stables for inspiration. Suddenly, she remembered the scruffy man who she'd seen at the saloon the night before: the one who had been talking to Mr. Duvall.
Hiding her saddle bags in the stables, she hurried towards the saloon. She needed answers, and she needed answers now.
Blue eyes blinked open, closing as pain rushed through her head. Justine tried again, swallowing back the pain-induced need to vomit. Her body hurt, aching as she'd been tied in the same position for what seemed like days. Her legs were bent at the knee, ankles tied together, hands tied behind her back. A sweat-scented piece of cloth covered her mouth.
Looking around in the dimness of her surroundings, Justine was able to gather that she was in some sort of barn or shed. The wooden planks of the structure let in tiny streams of light, otherwise, it was completely dark. Her body hurt, her stomach hurt, as she hadn't eaten anything since lunch on the road with Julie the day before.
Justine felt tears sting the backs of her eyes as she thought of her friend. Where was she? Was safe?
“Glad you're finally awake,” a man's voice said quietly.
Justine glanced to her left, seeing the silhouette of a man standing in the open doorway of the small structure. She thought it was probably Mr. Duvall from his build and voice. She tried to speak, but it came out as mumbled jargon from behind her gag.
Duvall closed the door and entered the building, squatting next to Justine. “Comfortable, Mrs. Havell?” he asked, a smile in his voice. His black eyes couldn't be seen in the dim light of the building, but they were glittering with joy. “I've sent out a messenger to your husband. I'm sure he'll be happy to know his bride is alive and well, and will be willing to pay a handsome reward for her safe return.” He reached over and yanked down the gag. “Don't you?”
“You'll never get away with this, Mr. Duvall,” she croaked, her voice dry from lack of water. “Ever. He won't pay-“ She was cut off as he put the gag back into place.
“We shall see, my beautiful lady. We shall see. And, if he won't, then I'm sure I can think of another use for you.” With that, he stood and left.
Justine allowed the tears to spill out, hopelessness grabbing at her insides.
Marcy threw the water she'd used to clean up out the window, then began to dress for the day. She hummed to herself as she chose her dress – not hard, considering she only had three to choose from. She was dressed in a chemise and garters when a knock sounded at her door.
“Come in!” she called, still sorting through her dresses. She glanced at the door, figuring it would be one of the girls wanting to swap stories, but shocked instead to see the lovely blonde named Billy. A huge smile spread across her features as she turned to her. “Well, welcome back, darlin'.”
Julie was uncomfortable, holding her hat in front of her, almost like a shield. “I only came ‘cause I need to ask a question. I'm in real bad trouble, an' I need ta find someone right quick.”
Melvin snorted once, then fell back to sleep, turning his head instinctually away from the light of late morning that rushed in through the widow. He snorted again, feeling the teasing wings of a bug glance the side of his cheek. Absently, he swiped at it, waking when he heard a gasp. Opening his eyes, he found he was staring down the barrel of a revolver. His companion for the night was backed up against the wall, the sheet held to her naked breasts. At the other end of the barrel was the snot nosed kid who'd come in with Justine Havell.
“Get that gun outta my face,” he said slow and even.
In response, Julie cocked the gun. “I wouldn't do that,” she said as Melvin began to reach for his own weapon, placed on the nightstand next to the bed. “In fact, I'll take that.” Julie grabbed the pistol, handing it to Marcy, who stood behind her. “Sit up.”
Melvin kept his eyes on Julie's as he sat up, not caring about his nakedness as the sheet fell away. In fact, he hoped it would distract the kid long enough for him to tackle him to the ground and kill him. Julie, for her part didn't flinch, as she had no desire to see his manhood, nor any other nether regions part of him. She heard Marcy snicker behind her.
“Quick night, Lily?” she asked the woman in the bed.
Melvin's face grew bright red, his rage building. Julie knew she had to get that under control right quick before she lost control of the situation. She brought the gun down, aiming it at Melvin's prized possessions to get him re-focused on the business at hand. “Answer me, or you lose ‘em.”
“What you wanna know?” he growled.
“Where is she?”
Julie's own rage reaching a boiling point, she swung the pistol, knocking Melvin upside the head with the barrel. The man was nearly thrown to the floor, but managed to keep his ground on the bed.
“I wouldn't suggest messin' with me, mister,” she said, again pointing the gun at Melvin's groin. “I ask again: where is she?” Melvin remained stubbornly silent. “Marcy?” Julie said, never taking her eye off him. “Rummage through this scoundrel's pants. Let's see what he's hidin'.”
Marcy immediately obeyed, pulling out a handful of greenbacks and coins, as well as a rolled piece of paper. Not daring to turn away from Melvin, Julie called out to Marcy.
Marcy quickly totaled up the money. “Twenty-five dollars and ninty-three cents.”
“I won that money in cards last night!” Melvin exclaimed, hatred burning in his eyes.
“I think ya mean you found that in my saddle bags, don'cha?” Julie asked, trying not to react as Marcy shoved the money into Julie's pocket, the redhead's fingers brushing against Julie's thigh on the way out.
“Got a note here, too,” Marcy said, unfolding the paper. “Somethin' ‘bout a Justine Havell and ransom.” She lowered the page. “Is this your Justine, Billy?”
Julie felt her anger boiling to a dangerous level. She grabbed her revolver with both hands, aiming it at Melvin's forehead. “I should kill you right now,” she growled.
For the first time, Melvin was becoming genuinely frightened, unsure if he'd live to see the end of this day. “He made me do it!” he exclaimed. “I had no choice!”
“Where is she?”
Marcy held the two saddle bags as Julie finished hitching the horses to the buckboard. She grabbed them from the redhead with a smile of thanks, placing them on the wooden platform.
“I have to say, it's prob'bly good yer headin' out, Miss Billy. I certainly could get used ta ya bein' ‘round here.” Marcy gave her a coy smile. “Must say, it's awful pretty ta see what yer willin' do fer the woman ya love.”
Julie gave her a small smile, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “Thank you, Marcy.”
Marcy cupped Julie's cheek, leaning in and placing a lingering kiss on Julie's lips. “You sure you don't want help with this?” she asked against Julie's lips.
Julie shook her head, slowly pulling away. “I can't get you involved in my mess, Marcy. You could get hurt real bad.”
Marcy nodded, backing away. “Good luck, Billy. You find me if'n yer ever in these parts again, alright?”
Julie smiled with a nod. I will.” She climbed onto the bench of the buckboard, giving Marcy one final wave as she pulled away from the stables.
Marcy watched Julie's buckboard head out of town. “How romantic.”
Julie could feel her stomach tying up in knots as she neared the ridge Lily had told her about. Luckily, the girls at Lucky Star Saloon knew exactly which abandoned barn Melvin had been speaking of. Several miles before, Julie realized the buckboard and team were making far too slow of progress, so she'd unhitched the team, saddling one of the horses and leaving the other hidden in a wooded area near a stream, so she could take off on the one horse and make good time.
Now, as she topped the ridge, she looked down into the wild valley below, seeing the barn as a brown speck amongst sage brush and prairie. As she guided her horse down into the valley, she was trying to formulate a plan of what she'd do once she reached the barn. Everything was quiet, no one outside.
“Yaaahh!” she cried, kicking her horse in the flank, getting the mare moving on a gallop, Julie hanging on with everything she had. Her guns jingled in their thigh holsters. As she rode, she took first one gun out, then the other, making sure they were loaded and ready to roll.
He peered out the slits in the boards of the barn, eyes nearly bulging out of his eyes whe he saw the single speck up the hill. The barn was in a perfect place: anyone coming from any direction into the valley could easily be spotted. This was the first person in two days.
Duvall grabbed his shotgun, loading it and making sure it was ready to fire. He glanced at his captive, Justine Havell, who had fallen asleep a few hours before, the trauma and fear of the past two days finally getting to her. For the best, he thought, as he didn't want to have to deal with her screaming out and causing a fuss.
Julie was having a heck of a time: she was trying to split her attention between the barn at the center of the valley, as well as keeping her horse on all four hooves. The terrain was steep, and the horse wasn't liking where she was being led. To make matters worse, a gun shot rang out, a cloud of dirt and debris exploding not three feet from the mare's back legs. The horse reared up, Julie trying to get her under control, instead falling to the rocking ground with a grunt of pain.
As the horse got to her feet and began to run away, she was shot dead, landing in a blinding cloud of dust. Though sickened, Julie used the dust as cover, running as fast as she could to a tiny clump of trees, the only trees on the entire bit of land. Her heart thundering in fear, she looked around as the dust settled, trying to see where the shooter was coming from. Seeing no one, she realized he was inside the barn.
Pulling her guns from her holsters, Julie made sure both guns were loaded and cocked, then squeezed her eyes shut, sending up a silent prayer to both God and Justine. With that done, she looked around for her next place to hide behind. Further down the hill, she saw a rotted out wagon, which might hopefully provide enough cover. Guns in hand, Julie laid a trail of bullets as she ran for her life, diving behind one of the wagon wheels, a dirt clog hitting her in the leg from the rounds released as she dove. The clog stung like a son-of-a-bitch, but Julie knew if that was the worst she sustained during this battle, it would be a good day.
Gathering her courage and anger, she eyed the barn. “Richard Duvall!” she called out, reloading the chambers of spent bullets. “The law is on its way, so's I suggest ya let your captive go now, ‘fore they get here!”
Justin'e eyes popped open, shocked to hear Julie's voice off in the distance. For a moment, she wasn't sure if she'd dreamt that. It only took one look at a panicking Mr. Duvall to know she had indeed heard Julie's voice.
“Thank god!” she whispered to herself, no more than a murmur beneath her gag.
“Get on outta here, boy!” Richard Duvall yelled back, eyeing the landscape all around the barn, seeing if what the boy said was true. He knew this Billy character was hiding behind the broken down wagon, not twenty yards from the barn. In response, he got a shot fired, the bullet whizzing three feet above is head. “Som'bitch,” he hissed, falling to his butt.
Julie grinned, hearing the thud and the loud curse, though she knew she hadn't hit him. “Justine!' she called out, trying to figure out what her next move would be. She had nowhere to hide, no way to get closer. “Justine, if you're still in there, get down as low as you can!”
Richard Duvall looked at Justine, aiming his shotgun at her. “You move and I'll kill you,” he growled.
Justine whimpered, not sure what to do, and not sure what Julie was planning. Even so, the moment Duvall turned his back on her, she slouched down as quickly as she could – not an easy task tied up in ropes. She rocked until she fell over onto her side, groaning in pain as her arm became trapped beneath her body weight.
Duvall was about to yell at his captive, but decided he had bigger fish to fry. As soon as he was able to kill the little bastard outside, he'd make Justine pay for disobeying him. Grabbing his gun in both hands, he wiggled over onto his stomach and army crawled towards a space between the boards to get a better view outside. He stopped, gun and hands over his head as another shot rang out, dust and debris falling atop his head.
“Bastard,” he muttered, continuing his crawl.
Julie listened as the echo of her shot died down, trying to figure out where Duvall was. She had no idea where Justine was, and was hugely concerned that she'd not heard her voice as of yet. She had to not think the worse, and concentrate on figuring out where Richard Duvall was. She studied the rickety walls of the old barn, almost as though she could see through them. She was nearly holding her breath, straining to hear anything coming from inside the barn when she heard the tiniest sound of something scratching across a dirt floor.
Eyes wide and guns cocked, Julie focused in on where she heard the scuffing. She didn't dare move, didn't dare breathe, as she concentrated. Another soft noise, then she froze. Through a large, low knothole, she saw just the very tip of a gun barrel being pushed out, aimed in her general direction. Bingo. Julie brought the gun in her right hand up, closing one eye as she aimed it towards that gun barrel. Hands sweating, she prayed she wouldn't lose her grip. She could feel a tingling in her trigger finger as it gently began to squeeze, the air around her stopping as the near-deafening BOOM of the shot filled her head.
Justine screamed out in shock and fear behind her gag as Duvall cried out, his shotgun flying out of his hands as they flew to his shoulder. Blood was flowing freely out of the wound that had appeared, as though through magic.
“Son of a bitch!” he yelled, trying to grab for his gun again, but his right arm wouldn't work. Before he could try again, another shot shattered the board near Duvall's leg, forcing another cry from him as he grabbed his thigh, which had begun to spurt blood.
Justine was screaming beneath her gag, trying to move as far away from the writhing man as she could. She screamed again when the door was kicked in, Julie standing in the doorway, guns in both hands. Justine's screams took on a new meaning as tears of relief began to flow freely from tear-stung eyes.
Julie's heart lurched when she saw Justine, but she knew she couldn't go to her, yet. Instead, she made her way to Richard Duvall, who was laying in a large pool of his own blood. Looking at the surprising amount of blood around his spurting leg, she didn't figure he'd last long. To be sure, she kicked his shotgun out of his reach and aimed her gun at his head.
“It's too late,” Duvall hissed, staring at Julie's gun. “I gotta guy headed-“
“Would that guy be a real ugly fella who ain't bathed in a month?” Julie grinned at the shocked look on Duvall's face. “Yeah, I seen him.” Julie pulled Melvin's folded note out of her pocket, waving it in front of his face. “This ain't gone nowhere, Mr. Duvall. Yer man was too busy givin' a little pickle tickle to a local whore.”
Duvall lifted his head as much as his weakening body could, attempting to spit on Julie's boots. “I'll see you in hell.” His head slowly fell to the side, his black eyes finding Justine. “You, too. Whore.” His last words were quiet, the final whispered as the life seeped out of his wounds.
Julie checked his pulse, finding none. No longer in danger, she hurried over to a sobbing Justine, quickly slicing through the ropes that held her, Justine crying out as her arms were finally free, the pain of renewed circulation hot and tingly.
“Are you alright?” Julie whispered, her adrenaline beginning to fade as the gravity of what could have happened rushed through her, stinging the backs of her eyes. She pushed her emotions aside, as she knew Justine needed her now, and she wanted to be strong.
Justine nodded, but her sobs were about to take her over. Her entire body was trembling from fear, relief and lack of sleep and food. As soon as her hands were free, she reached up and tore the gag from over her mouth. “Julie!” she cried, reaching for her.
Julie grabbed Justine, holding her almost painfully tight, Justine sobbing against her neck, quickly saturating the collar of Julie's shirt. “Did he hurt you?” Julie whispered. She was relieved when she felt Justine shake her head. She pulled away, just enough to cup Justine's face and look at her. She examined her, almost as though a mother would her child: she looked at her face, her neck, her dress to see if there were any tears or blood stains. Finally, her eyes feasted upon Justine's face once more. “I was so afraid I'd lost you.”
Justine's smiled, trying to calm herself. “Me, too. I figured you'd never be able to find me.”
Julie rested her forehead against Justine's, her relief finally reaching her heart, nearly making her choke on her own emotion. Her sob came out so quick and hard, it nearly knocked her from the spot where she squatted in front of Justine. She was taken in a strong hug, both women openly crying.
Justine lost any and all control, finally grabbing Julie's face and placing a hard kiss on her lips, their tears mixing. “I thought I'd never see you again,” she whispered, placing another hard kiss. “Don't ever leave me again.” She pushed Julie just far enough away so she could look into her eyes, made a vibrant green from the crying. “ Ever !”
Julie nodded, guilt flooding her, as images of Marcy flooded her mind's eye. “I'm so sorry,” she whispered, placing her own kiss on Justine's moist lips. “For everythin'.”
Not understanding, but not caring, Justine pulled Julie to her in another fierce hug before gently pushing Julie away. “We need to get out of here.” She glanced over at Duvall's dead body, his eyes still staring – sightless – at her.
Julie nodded, getting to her feet and pulling Justine to hers. “Things are gettin' dangerous, Justine. I don't think we should try an' make it to your granddaddy's cabin.”
Justine takes a deep breath, trying to think, even as her exhausted, famished brain rattled around in her head. Finally, she nodded. “Alright. We'll find somewhere else.”
Julie nodded. “First, let's get you outta here.”
Justine carefully picked her way through the second room of the rundown shack, her skirts lifted to protect them from snagging on the trash and ruined furniture scattered over the floor. She could hear Julie wandering in the other room.
“What do you think?” Justine asked, stopping and surveying her surrounds.
“It's pretty rough,” Julie said, making her way to Justine's room. “But, I think it could be fixed.” Justine looked at her, doubt in her eyes. “What? My daddy taught me well.” She gave Justine a cocky grin. “But, we gotta get ta town an' see about gettin' another horse.”
“Why don't you go and leave me here,” Justine suggested, heading for the door of the shack.
“Why would I do that?” Julie asked, following, until they were out in the bright sunlight.
“Well, this place has got to be cleared out, so I might as well get started on it.” She met Julie's own doubtful gaze. “My mamma taught me well.”
Julie smirked, nodding. She knew better than to argue. She walked over to the buckboard and grabbed Duvall's shotgun and ammo, handing them to Justine. “Don't hesitate,” she advised, voice soft.
Justine nodded, taking the gun. “I won't. Don't worry, I'll be fine.”
Julie smiled with a nod, but was extremely reluctant to leave her; she didn't want her out of her sight after what had happened. Even so, she knew she had to trust Justine, and respect her wishes. She gave her a quick, but tight hug then unhitched the remaining horse from the buckboard, heading off towards town once more.
Left alone, Justine made sure the shotgun was loaded, then headed back inside the shack, not looking forward to the task ahead.
Julie slowed her mount as he neared the outer limits of the town. She felt a bit of nerves beating at her ribcage as she neared, wondering if she'd have any trouble with Melvin. She'd never intended to step foot back in the small mining town again, so had been ruthless with the man, sending him at gunpoint out of town buck naked. Likely, he wouldn't be back, but she figured it would be wise to keep an eye out all the same.
Julie's horse trotted down the main street, Julie guiding him to the front of the general store, where she dismounted and tied her mount. Keeping her eyes peeled, she entered the store, surveying the supplies available to her. She knew the cabin was going to need a great deal of work and time, likely not real livable for weeks. They'd have to do the best they could with what they had in the meantime. The good news was, spring was in full swing, so there shouldn't be anymore cold nights.
The general store was situated in a two-story wooden building with a façade that made it seem to have a third story. The floors were wood, Julie's boots thudding with every hollow step. Wooden shelves filled the space, various food stuffs, building supplies and material for clothes making, were available. A man stood at the counter, dealing with a plump woman about the sale of some fabric.
Juilie wandered around the nearly-empty store, looking for canned goods that would hold out during the restoration process. She nearly bumped right into another customer as she rounded the corner of shelving. Looking at the person, she saw that it was Marcy. Julie was filled with mixed feelings as the two woman looked at each other: guilt, gratitude and embarrassment.
“Well, hello there, darlin'!” the redhead crowed, a genuine smile on her painted lips. “I just can't seem ta get away from you, now can I?”
Julie gave her a small smile in return. “Seems that way.”
“Tell me: did ya rescue yer Justine?”
Julie blushed a bit at the “yer Justine” part. She still wasn/t entirely clear on what she thought of that whole thing, either. “Yes, she's fine. Thank you kindly for yer help in all that mess.”
“Of course, darlin'. Nothin' more than a lady can do fer a fine fella like yerself.” They both smiled at that. “I must say, though, I figured you ta be long gone from these parts, Billy.”
Julie sighed, her worry coming back, marking between her brows. “I feel it's a little too dangerous. We found us an ould eaten out shack ‘bout a mile or so outside a town.”
Marcy's fiery brows drew in thought. “Only shack like that I know ‘bout is the old Kepple place. Ain't been no one there but wild animals in years and years.”
“Well, it'll do fer now. Needs a lotta repairin', though.”
Marcy nodded. “Sure does.” She gave Julie a quick hug. “Well, if'n y'all need help, ya know us girls will do all we can.” With a little wave and sweep of her skirts, Marcy was gone.
Justine blew out a breath, running her forearm across her forehead. She was hot and sweaty and hungry. She surveyed the front room of the shack, admiring her work, as the majority of it was now free of debris and trash, though it needed a fine cleaning. She stepped out of the shack, shaking out her skirts as she enjoyed the feel of the warm sunshine beating down on her. Raising her face to it, she closed her eyes and inhaled, a smile forming at the clean air. She couldn't help but feel hopeful in the new day, with hopefully a new home.
Absently bringing a hand down, she spread her palm out over her belly, which was gently rounded now, the life inside not yet letting her presence be known, but Justine knew that would be coming. She was alerted by the sounds of a horse, and walked towards the trail, relieved to see Julie headed her way. She raised a hand in greeting, getting one in return.
“Howdy!” Julie said, pulling the horse to a stop and carefully dismounting, trying not to kick off any of her purchases.
“Howdy, yourself,” Justine said, giving Julie a quick hug once the blonde's boots hit the dirt. “All went well, I take it?”
“It did.” Julie began to unload the horse, but Justine stopped her, taking her by the hand and leading her towards the shack.
“I want to show you something, first.”
Julie followed without question, her mouth falling in amazement as she stepped inside the cleared out main room. “Oh my,” she said, followed by a whistle through her teeth. “I just might hire you to rebuild this place!”
Justine smiled wide, pleased her hard work was so appreciated. “Well, I figure at the very least, we'll have to have a place to sleep tonight, and one that doesn't smell like urine.” Justine wrinkled her nose at the memory of the fragrant piles of trash in one corner of the room.
“Well, ya did a fine job.” Julie beamed at Justine, a warm wash of happiness filling her.
Justine walked over to Julie and took her in a deep hug, resting her head down on Julie's shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered, feeling her emotions beginning to rise to the surface. Before she knew it, she was in full-out tears.
“Whoa!” Julie exclaimed, rubbing her back. “Why the waterfall?” she pulled back just enough to look into Justine's tear-streaked face.
“I don't know!” Justine cried, fresh tears falling.
Julie felt she knew exactly what it was, and with a smile, pulled Justine back into a tight embrace. “It's alright,” she whispered. “That baby in there is makin' your feelings all whacky on ya.”
Justine laughed through her tears, figuring Julie was probably exactly right.
Julie started, straining her ears in her semi-awake state. In the distance, she heard horse hooves and wagon wheels, followed by… fiddle music? Opening her eyes, she sat up from her bedroll, her back instantly letting her know just how it felt to sleep on the hard floor of the shack. Ignoring that, Julie got to her feet, grabbing one of her guns as she did.
“What is it?” Justine muttered, still hlf-asleep.
“Shhh,” Julie hissed, holding a hand up for emphasis. She walked towards the window, the glass that remained in the pane filthy and nearly opaque. She used the sleeve of her shirt to rub a spot clear enough for her to be able to make out the outside world. As she listened, the music got louder, accompanied by voices singing and laughter. “What on earth?”
Within moments, several horses with riders came into view, followed by a small train of buckboards and wagons, all filled with people or supplies. Julie was able to recognize Marcy and Lily on one of the wagons. A smile spreading across her lips, she hurriedly tugged on her boots and hurried outside.
“Mornin'!” the first rider said, a man of about twenty with dirty blonde hair and an unkempt mustache.
“Mornin',” Julie said, bringing a hand up to shield her eyes from the morning sun. “What'cha got here, cowboy?”
“Barn raisin' party!” Marcy crowd, followed by the cheers and whoops of the entire group.
Justine stepped up next to Julie. “Barn raising party?”
Julie shrugged, a huge grin on her face.
The air was filled with fiddle and spoons as the men and Julie – fifteen in all – rebuilt the shack. All the women cleaned windows and scrubbed any floors that wcould be salvaged, as well as made sure everyone had their share of lemonade and water to drink.
Justine was having the time of her life! Though the work was hard, she had never been able to spend so much time with a bunch of women who didn't adhere to the rules and regulations of aristocratic society. She spent nearly as much time blushing as she did laughing. She and a woman named Marcy began to prepare lunch for everyone.
“How long you known Billy?” Marcy asked, helping to prepare sandwiches. As she did, she stole glances over at Justine, admiring her beauty. She could fully understand how the beautiful brunette had stolen Billy's heart: she was not only beautiful, but also as sweet as can be.
“Not terribly long,” Justine admitted, a smile in her heart at the topic at hand. “Since just after the Christmas holiday.”
“Y'all been travelin' together this whole time?”
Justine nodded. “He's been wonderful to me.”
Marcy smiled, not letting on that she knew the truth about Mr. Billy. It wasn't her place. “That's real fine, Justine. Yer a lucky gal to snag such a sweet, handsome boy.”
Justine glanced over at her new friend, surprised at the words, and the inflection behind them. She studied the redhead's profile as Marcy continued to make sandwiches, wondering at the sudden change in mood. “He's a good one,” she agreed finally.
By sundown, a brand new cabin stood in the place of the old, rickety building, that had been falling apart. Julie stood with Justine, nearly in tears in gratitude. She glanced over at Marcy, knowing full well she was behind arranging this wondrous achievement. She walked over to her.
“You did all this, didn't'cha?” Julie asked softly. Marcy would only smile, noncommittal. “Well, I know ya did, and I'm grateful with everythin' in me.”
Marcy gave Julie a quick, tight hug. “Y'all raise yerselves a nice family, an' come see me from time ta time.”
Julie looked at her. “Family?”
“The missus is with child, ya fool.” She leaned in close, whispering in Julie's ear. “Yer more talented than I gave ya credit for.”
Julie stepped away, her face turning every shade of red. “I know she's pregnant,” she whispered. “I was just surprised you could see that.”
Marcy rolled her eyes. “Are ya kiddin' me? That bug nips at the girls all the time. I'm usually the one who they turn to when ti's time.”
“Guess I'm not the only one with hidden talents,” Julie grinned.
Justine watched the interaction between Julie and Marcy, seeing a closeness between them that surprised her, and made her feel extremely uncomfortable. She was interrupted from her observations when someone grabbed her hand, tugging her along in a jig, as the small three-piece band had started up for real.
Liquor was brought out and a fire was built, burning all the old, unusable wood that had rotted through. Laughter and voices filled the night air, along with music and dance. Justine allowed herself to be pulled into the celebrations, deciding to push Julie and Marcy out of her mind: after all, who was she to say or think anything at all? She and Julie were just friends and traveling companions, after all.
All thought went out of her head as she was whipped around, the crowd around them whooping and stamping their boots to the beat the musicians were creating. Laughter bubbled up from Justine's soul as she was twirled, cowboys lining up to take their turn, until her skirts swished around her body, twirled from partner to partner, finally ending up in Julie's arms.
Julie grinned up at a stunned Justine, not stopping the momentum of their dance, everyone watching and cheering them on. “Ready?” Julie called out over the music and loud voices. Justine nodded, her smile a mile wide. Julie whipped Justine around, within the circle everyone had formed around them. Round and round Julie took them, her boots stomping up clouds of dust with every pass. As they danced, she looked into Justine's joy-filled face, and knew she'd never seen anything more beautiful in all her living years.
“You're good at this!” Justine laughed, barely able to keep up. She knew how to ballroom dance, and could do it flawlessly, but this! “This is so much work!”
Julie laughed. “Had a lot of experience! It's fun!” To prove her point, she whirled Justine around again, Justine erupting in contagious laughter.
Finally the song came to an end, and so did their dance. Julie grabbed Justine in a tight hug, both breathing hard and laughing. “That was wonderful!” Justine gushed, pulling away from her.
“It's all in yer dance partner,” Julie said with a wink.
Justine grinned, walking arm in arm with Julie out of the circle, everyone clapping them out.
Melvin slowed his horse, squinting up at the sun, which bored down on him. Looking around, he saw that he was surrounded by wide open prairie. In his mind, he could easily see himself reclining with a wad of beef jerky in one hand and his whiskey in the other. A slow smile spread, his jagged teeth coming into view.
“Time fer a break, boy!” he exclaimed, leading his mount towards a small, stand alone tree. He knew he had time to take a little break before continuing his journey.
Julie chewed her dinner, looking out over the night sky as she leaned back against her saddle. Across the large campfire, she could see her fellow drivers and could hear them talking, one playing a sad, lonely tune on his harmonica. Over the sounds of men and music, a lone coyote could be heard howling, hundreds of head of cattle answering.
Julie turned her focus away from her fellow sweaty, stinky cowboys, instead thinking about home. She could see Justine before her mind's eye, and it made her heart first skip a beat, then begin to hurt. She closed her eyes, allowing Justine's face to come to her, a small smile brushing her lips as she looked into the most beautiful blue eyes she'd ever seen. Those eyes that, in real life, she'd caught staring at her so many times, filled with love and, dare she say, longing?
A soft groan escaped her throat as she imagined Justine before her, blue eyes closing in expectation of her touch. Julie could almost imagine how soft her skin would be, the paleness like ivory and silk, all rolled in one. Her body and heart burned for her, and she had not one clue what to do about it. Obviously, Julie had the night with Marcy, and knew it was possible to love another woman physically, but what about Justine? Does she truly understand what she's conveying every time she looks at Julie the way she does? Is it truly love that she feels? That kind of love, anyway. Julie had no doubt Justine loved her; they'd been through so much together, and had more still to go.
A new smile lit Julie's face at the thought of the coming baby. She was due in just under two months, and Julie couldn't wait! She just hoped that Justine would allow her to be fully in the child's life, almost like a second mother. Watching Justine's body grow and change over the past five months had been a near miracle for her.
Julie let out a contented sigh and looked up into the night sky.
Justine fall back on her haunches, wiping a hand over her forehead, disgusted by the moisture that came back on it. The sun overhead was hot, her knees screaming at her, but she'd gotten her gardening done. Looking out over the small patch of land, she couldn't help but feel a sense of satisfaction and pride. Gary, a young man from the town, had been helping her over the past several weeks, her giving her money here and there to help her plant, weed and water, as well as he and some other young men had been working on the barn. She wanted to surprise Julie with it when she returned from the cattle drive.
Struggling to rise to her feet, she was grateful for the hand that helped her up. “Thank you, Gary,” she said, stepping away from the young man once she was steady on her feet.
“Yes, ma'am. Wanted ta let ya know I got the barn finished, Miss Justine.” The young man of nineteen removed his hat from his sweaty hair and held it awkwardly in front of him. “We got it all done. Wanna see?”
Justine followed Gary to the barn, excited to see Julie's excitement when she returned. That thought put a small pang of concern in Justine's heart. Julie was overdo, and not only did it worry her, but she missed Julie like crazy.
The barn was an impressive structure, replete with stalls for a half-dozen horses and a large hayloft above. Truly touched, Justine turned in a small circle, taking it all in, her hand going instinctively to her large belly. “Oh, Gary !” she cried, taking the surprised and shy man in her arms. “Thank you!”
Gary was grinning from ear to ear as Justine stepped out of the hug. He punched out his hat, which had been smashed between them during Justine's enthusiasm. “Yer quite welcome, Miss Justine.”
“Well, gather your friends,” Justine said, heading out of the barn. “I'll get you boys fed.”
Justine walked the boys to the door, Gary lagging behind. She looked up at him, waiting to hear what was obviously on his mind.
“Have ye got anymore work, Miss Justine?” he asked quietly.
Justine smiled, slapping the young man on the shoulder. “Come back in a few days. I'll see what I can find for you.”
Gary 's face lit up with his smile. “Thank ye, ma'am.”
Left alone, Justine turned to see the mess that was her kitchen, her hands going to her belly. She let out a heavy sigh, suddenly feeling very exhausted. She wandered through the main room of the cabin and towards her own bedroom when she stopped, looking inside Julie's quiet room. She felt a pang of emotion rise and sting her eyes as she sat on Julie's bed, closing her eyes as she inhaled. Julie's scent was all around her, bringing her tears to the surface.
She lay back on the bed, curling up on her side as much as her large stomach would allow, letting the tears flow. She'd never felt as alone as she did in that moment, Julie's absence felt acutely. What would she do if something had happened to Julie, or if Julie had simply decided to not come back? The tears fell harder, rocking Justine's entire body. It had been more than three weeks since Julie had left, promising she'd be back in two weeks with a pocket full of money, hard earned in the rugged, rough trade of the cattle drive.
“Oh, Julie,” Justine cried.
Justine nearly jumped out of her skin at the soft word, spoken in her ear. She whipped around as quickly as her seven month pregnant body would allow, her eyes filling anew at the sight of Julie sitting on the bed behind her. “Julie!”
Julie held Justine in her arms, eyes squeezing shut at the relief of being home and holding her. She'd dreamed of holding Justine for weeks, shocked at just how much she'd missed her. “Don't cry,” she whispered, caressing Justine's hair.
They ended up falling onto the bed in their embrace, facing each other on their sides. Justine pulled back just enough to look at Julie, her heart filled to nearly bursting with joy and love. She took in Julie's deeply tanned face, which made her green eyes nearly pop in color. Her blonde hair was windblown and wild, shaggy around her face. “You need a haircut,” she said with a smile.
Julie returned the smile, nodding. “I know. It kept getting into my face during the drive.” She also studied Justine's face, her fingers wiping away the tears. “Why were you cryin'?”
Justine looked away, embarrassed. “I missed you,” she whispered.
Julie felt her heart grow and insides grow warm. “I missed you, too.”
Justine's eyes filled again, her face contorting as emotion once again took her over. “I thought you'd never come back!'
Julie's heart nearly broke as she pulled Justine to her again, letting her cry and get it all out. “I ain't never gonna leave you,” she promised, again wiping tears away from Justine's eyes.
Justine looked into Julie's concerned, loving gaze, and something inside her clicked. Without fully knowing what she was going to do until she did it, she leaned forward and captured Julie's lips with her own. Even as Julie jerked back in surprise, she followed.
Julie got past her shock, quickly deepening the kiss, six months of fantasies coming to light. The feel of Justine's lips against her own was unlike anything she could have imagined in her mind; it was far better. Her lips were soft, yet her kiss firm. Justine's passion nearly singed Julie to her core.
Justine was losing herself in Julie's kiss and embrace, a passion flowing through her like nothing she'd ever known. She yearned to feel Julie's body against her own, yearning for a pleasure which she'd never known, nor did she understand. She tried to pull her closer, but the large size of her belly stopped their passion from continuing any further. Instead, giggles bubbled up, disrupting the kiss.
Julie, also laughing, looked down at Justine's belly, reaching down and placing her hand upon the firm roundness. “She's grown so much since I've been gone.”
“She's kicking like a wild stallion, too.” Justine placed Julie's hand on her belly in the area where the baby tended to kick the hardest. They both waited in breathless silence, nothing happening. “I think she's stubborn.”
“Like her momma,” Julie grinned, stealing a kiss before pushing up from the bed, helping Justine to her feet, where she pulled her into a hug again. “So glad to see you,” she whispered into it.
Justine sighed, more content than she'd ever been in her life. “Me, too.” Justine pulled away, looking into Julie's eyes, her expression serious. “Are you… bothered… that I kissed you?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper, terrified at the answer.
Julie shook her head emphatically. “Not on yer life.”
Justine let out a relieved breath. “I have a lot to show you; the boys finished the barn today, and I got my garden planted…”
Julie listened to all of Justine's babbling as she was led through the house and outside, marveling at all she was shown. For the first time in her life, she felt like she had a real home and a real family, and it felt amazing. Finally, they reached the barn, which she'd already gotten their horse settled into for the night, and again, listened to Justine as she prattled off all the virtues of the barn.
“So, what do you think?” Justine finally asked, nearly out of breath from her excitement.
Julie turned in a slow circle, much as Justine had down before, her eyes wide and twinkling with all that surrounded her. She glanced at her horse, who was already munching happily on oats in her stall, tail flicking away a few brave flies. She let out a long, happy sigh. “I think we're doin' good.” Julie pulled a wad of bills out of her pocket. “We got us money to last for a bit.” She grinned. “Life's good.”
Overcome once more, Justine burst into tears, an amused and understanding Julie taking her into her arms. “Woman, ya need ta get a cork for them tears!” Julie laughed, laughing harder when Justine delivered a playful slap to her back.
Hours later, the two lay in Justine's bed, facing each other on their sides. Justine lay with her hands tucked up under her chin, listening with wide-eyed adoration as Julie told her tales of being on the range. She let out a long sigh after Julie had finished her tale. “So, this is something you'll be doing again, then?”
“Why do you ask that?” Julie asked, reaching out to tuck a long strand of black hair behind Justine's ear.
“Well, it sounds like you enjoyed it so much.”
“Parts of it. Beautiful country out there, and an amazin' freedom bein' out there with the cattle. And,” she said with a slight shrug, “good money for us.”
“So dangerous, Julie.”
“I know. We got us a good nest egg for awhile, so let's just see what we can work out before then.”
Justine stared into Julie's eyes for a long moment, unable to hide all that she was feeling inside: love, confusion, fear and absolute joy. “Julie?” she said softly. “What is this between us? What are we doing?”
Julie studied Justine for a long moment before responding. Justine had just voiced so many of her own thoughts and questions. “I don't know,” she said at last. “But, I think we're starting our very own family.” She caressed Justine's large belly to make her point. “We're startin' over. Together.”
Justine, reached for Julie, pulling her as close as the baby would allow, their lips immediately finding each other. The kiss was soft and slow, gradually deepening until Justine let out the softest moan. Her body was on fire, and she didn't understand a single moment of it. She ran her fingers through Julie's hair, allowing the silky strands to tickle her flesh before her hand its way to Julie's back, feeling the muscle beneath the thin material of her shirt.
Julie's mind was racing, filled with all the things she wanted to do to Justine, all the ways she wanted to touch her and all the ways she knew she could make her feel. Her hand ran along Justine's side, running along the dip and valley of Justine 's exaggerated waistline and hips, and finally sliding around to rest on her belly. Something inside told her they needed to stop, as though somehow it wasn't right with the baby between them.
Gently she pulled away, caressing Justine's cheek as she did. “I should get to my own bed, now,” she said softly, placing a long, sweet kiss on Justine's swollen lips.
Justine nodded, everything inside her not wanting Julie to leave, but saying nothing. She knew Julie was right to stop whatever was starting that night. Justine had a lot of thinking to do, and she couldn't do it with Julie in her bed. “Good night, then,” she said, allowing Julie to help her up off the bed. They shared a long hug then a quick kiss.
“'Night,” Julie said, heading next door to her own room.
Milton sat at a table in the corner of the saloon, watching as patrons came and went, grabbing the eye of a pretty dance girl when he could, though very few of them gave him even a second glance. He downed his third glass of whisky, slamming it onto the scarred wooden table, signaling the waitress for another one.
“Early drinker, ain't'cha?” she asked, gathering all of the empty glasses and setting down a fresh drink, her voice gravelly from hard drinking and harder tobacco smoking.
Ignoring her comment, Milton said, “Where can I find Justice Havell?”
The waitress grinned, her red lips a slash in her pale face. “Ain't you the lucky bird today.” She pointed towards the bar. “He's sittin' right over there.”
Milton followed the waitresses finger, nodding his thanks to her before downing the fourth whisky. He hoped that Havell would be so grateful for the information he had that he'd pay Milton 's bar tab, which he really didn't have the money to cover. He pushed back from the table, straightening his jacket and running a hand through greasy hair.
Justice sipped his drink, watching in the mirror behind the bar as the dirty cowboy saddled his way up to him. “What'cha know, pardner?” he asked before the man could even get settled in next to him.
“Buy me a drink, mister, an' I'll give ya some news.”
Justice looked over at the man, brows drawn in surprise at his boldness. “Regarding?”
Milton grinned, his rotten teeth making Justice wrinkle his nose in distaste. “Yer wife.”
Justice's eyes widened. “Capi, give me a drink for this man.”
Justine, hand supporting her aching back, walked through the general store, a seemingly permanent smile on her face. She saw a small stand of flowers and immediately thought of Julie. She plucked one and brought it to her nose, wondering what kind Julie would prefer.
“Well now, if it ain't the pretty Justine.”
Justine turned to see Lily standing behind her, a welcoming smile on her painted lips. “Good morning, Lily.”
“'Mornin'. What'cha got there?” she asked, nodding at the flower.
Justine blushed slightly, putting the flower back in the bucket of water she'd gotten it from. “I was thinking of getting Billy something nice.”
Lily took a look at Justine's massive belly, her eyes widening. “Lookin' like yer ‘bout to birth any minute, honey!”
Justine smiled, her hand going immediately to her oversized belly. “Feels like it, too. Calendar says I have about a week to go. Doc says for me to stay away from stress, or she just might decide to come out wherever I stand.”
Lily laughed, then a lascivious smile spread across her lips, her head cocking slightly to the side. “Marcy been wonderin' why she ain't seen Billy ‘round town. I know she's been missin' that sweet boy.”
A stab of intense anger and jealousy ripped through Justine's gut, though she did her best to keep her composure. Her spine stiffened slightly, but she kept her expression blank, a little too blank. “Billy has been away working, but he's home now, where he belongs.”
“I'm sure, I'm sure,” Lily said, her smile still in place. “Glad ta hear it. I'll let Marcy know he's fine and dandy.”
“You do that.” Justine turned on her heel and marched out of the store, leaving all the items she'd gathered on a shelf by the door.
Lily clicked her tongue at herself. “Ye gone an' done it now, ye damn fool.”
Julie and Gary were on the roof of the barn, fixing a spot, which had started to leak in the intense late spring rains. “Hand me a nail,” she said, blindly reaching out a nail as her other hand held the board in place.
Gary was about to hand over the nail when he saw the buckboard race around the corner, a seemingly crazy Justine at the reins. He glanced over at Julie to see that she'd also heard the commotion.
“What on earth?” Julie said, watching as Justine pulled so hard on the reins to stop the horse that he whinnied out in protest. She slammed the brake home then climbed down, nearly falling to the ground. “Here,” Julie nearly threw the board and hammer at Gary , climbing down the ladder like a monkey. “Hey!” she called out, running after Justine, who had slammed into the cabin.
Justine nearly ripped the ribbon off her hat as she tugged it off her head, throwing it to her bed. She was fighting the tears and jealousy that gnawed at her like some sort of a child's nightmare monster. She heard the front door slam and heavy footfalls headed her way.
“Justine?” Julie called out, breathless from her fear and exertion to get to Justine. She saw her standing in the middle of her own bedroom, back to her. Julie slowed, unsure what to do as she neared Justine. She could tell something was terribly wrong, emotions rolling off Justine in waves. “What's the matter?”
Justine took several deep breaths, trying to get herself under control. Essentially, Julie had done nothing wrong, but she couldn't stop the feeling of nausea that raced through her at the thought of Julie and Marcy. She'd seen them together before, and it was obvious there was some sort of bond between them. The thoughts and anger became too much to push down, and she whirled on Julie, eyes brilliant sapphire fire. “Is it true?” she asked, her voice deadly quiet.
Julie had never seen such a look in Justine's eyes before, and wasn't sure what to do with it. “Is what true?”
“I don't know!” Justine shouted, turning away and running a hand through her pinned hair, tugging some of the long length loose from the binds. “I ran into Lily in town, and she certainly felt I needed to know just how much Marcy misses Billy.”
Julie felt a sick tug in her gut, and was hoping this conversation wasn't going where she felt it was. “I haven't seen Marcy since the night of the party we had here, Justine,” she said, keeping her voice calm and even. “We don't-“
“Does Marcy even know you're a woman?”
Julie didn't know what to say, her breakfast feeling as though it would make a second appearance. She looked away, desperately trying to think of a way to answer that wasn't a lie, but wasn't all-revealing, either. Unfortunately, her silence spoke volumes.
“I see,” Justine whispered, the wind and life knocked out of her so intensely that she literally had to take a step back or fall over backwards.
“Get out,” Justine said, glaring at Julie. She saw the stunned look on Julie's face, and tried her best to not let it affect her heart. Her anger and hurt built further as Julie continued standing there. “I said, get out!”
Her own hurt and anger building, Julie spun on her boot heel and stormed into her room, snatching her hat from the nail on the wall, and out of the house.
Gary, who had continued to work on the roof, saw Julie as she nearly ran into the barn, coming out a moment later on her horse, nothing but dirt tracks heralding her departure. His head whipped towards the cabin when the sound of exploding glass rent the air.
Julie couldn't get away from the cabin fast enough, her tears nearly blinding her as she rode, her horse panting hard beneath her from the fast gallop Julie demanded. It took Julie a moment to realize where she'd subconsciously headed, but once she realized where she was headed, she slowed her mount and tied him up out front, storming past the patrons as she slammed up the wooden stairs, her fist stinging from the hard pounding she gave the door. When Marcy opened the door, obviously asleep seconds before, Julie pushed past her and into the small room.
“Well, good mornin' ta you, too,” Marcy said, irritated as she closed and locked her room door. She crossed her arms over her full breasts, waiting for an explanation.
Julie paced, like a caged tiger as she ran her hands through her hair. “I give up,” she finally blurted, turning to see her friend. “I really do give up.”
“On what?” Marcy asked, padding to her bed and flopping down on it, her night dress barely covering the creamy skin of her thighs.
Julie was so upset, she didn't even notice it. “That woman is gonna be the death of me, Marcy. Her jealousy is drivin' me away!”
“What happened? Start at the beginnin'.”
Julie let out a breath and recounted the past month since she'd been back from the cattle drive. “I'm tellin' you, it's been some of the best time of my life, Marcy. We got the baby comin' soon, and I'm tellin' ya, I couldn't love Justine anymore than if I tried.”
“Does she know that?” Marcy asked, propping herself up against her pillows.
“What?” Julie asked, stopping her pacing for a moment. “Of course she does! What more can I do?”
Marcy pushed to her feet and walked over to Julie, stopping her pacing with a hand on her stomach. “No, have you told her you love her? Have y'all set any sort of definition of what y'all got?”
Julie looked at her, confused. “We live together, Marcy. What more can I do?”
Marcy gave her a sad smile then patted Julie's stomach before leading her to sit with her on the bed. “Billy, darlin', Justine's a woman. Plain and simple. She's in love with you, and you're in love with her. Do you have any idea how vulnerable she must feel right ‘bout now? Here she is, all big an' pregnant, in a place she knows nothin' ‘bout, and with someone who could leave at any moment.” Marcy looked deeply into Julie's eyes. “She's scared, honey. Her jealousy is comin' from not knowin' exactly how you feel or what you want.”
“How do you know all this?” Julie asked.
Marcy laughed. “I'm a woman, too!”
“But, so am I-“
“Don't matter, silly. Ya ain't playin' no woman in this situation, Billy. You are for all matters the man in all this. She looks to you to protect her and be with her.” She stopped, again searching Julie's eyes. “Have y'all made love?”
Julie looked away, blushing and shaking her head. “We just barely started to kiss.” Julie sighed and stood again, walking over to the window and looking out into the street. “I don't know what ta do. I really love her, Marcy. A whole lot.”
“Then you gotta find a way to let her know that, Billy.”
Julie turned to face Marcy. “My name is Julie.”
Marcy smiled. “Julie. You gotta let her know that you love her. She don't know that, and she's scared.” Marcy got to her feet and walked over to Julie. “'Cause, I think she loves you a whole lot, too. I seen how she looks at you.” She gave Julie a sad smile. “Make me kinda sad, ta be real honest. Wish someone looked at me that way.”
Julie sighed. “I wish they did, too, Marcy. Yer a real good gal, and deserve ta be happy.”
“Thank you, Julie.”
Julie pulled Marcy to her in a warm hug.
Justine wiped at her eyes again, trying to ignore the nagging voice in her head telling her that she'd just messed up very badly with the one person who had ever truly been there for her, and who she loved more dearly than anyone else. She was being stubborn, and refused to listen, instead cleaning like a mad woman to vent some of her rage.
She couldn't get the image of Julie and Marcy together out of her head, and it was breaking her heart each time it replayed itself. When had it happened? What did Julie truly feel for Marcy? What did Marcy truly feel for Julie, and would she be able to pull Julie away from her?
“This is insane!” she exclaimed, ripping her apron off and throwing it across the room. Where was all her rage coming from? What did she want from Julie?
Before she had the chance to answer those questions for herself, she gasped, a shooting pain lancing through her mid-section. She grabbed her stomach, barely managing to make it to a chair before she fell to the floor. She cried out as another pain hit, the insides of her thighs suddenly wet. She looked down to see a puddle of water forming under her chair.
“Oh, god,” she gasped, trying to get to her feet. “Julie!” she cried out, using furniture and the walls to pull herself towards the door. “Julie!” The front door opened, though Justine's relief was replaced with disappointment when she saw a concerned Gary looking down at her. “ Gary ,” she gasped, “I need the doctor.” She waved him away weakly. “The doctor….”
Gary 's eyes got huge as realization dawned on him. “Yes, ma'am!” He ran towards his horse in a dead sprint, not even using the stirrup as he grabbed the rump of the horse and pulled himself into the saddle.
Justine cried out as another pain stabbed at her. “Julie!” she screamed. “I'm sorry! Come back!”
Julie sipped her coffee, stomach full with the fantastic breakfast Marcy had prepared for her, both sitting at a table in the quiet saloon's main room. “How long have you been here?” she asked, sitting back in her chair.
“Too long,” Marcy smirked. “I'm ready ta move on, I think.”
“Another profession.” Marcy finished the last of her eggs, sopping up the yokes with the remains of her biscuit. “'M so tired of bein' used,” she sighed. “I feel like I've was ridden hard an' put back wet.”
Julie nodded. “I can understand that. Ya wannna get married?”
“Why, Billy!” Marcy joked, hand to her heart and eyelashes batting. “I thought ye'd never ask!”
Julie laughed, throwing her napkin at her friend. “I ain't. I got enough women problems.”
They both laughed, but before Marcy could respond, they were interrupted by Gary, who flew into the saloon, frantically looking around. He looked like he was about to cry when he spotted Marcy and Julie.
“Ye gotta come quick! Both of yas!” he exclaimed, grabbing at Marcy's hand to tug her to her feet.
“You lost yer mind, Gary ?” she asked, pulling her hand away.
“Now! Ye gotta come now !” He looked at Julie. “It's Miss Justine. She gonna have the baby, an' I can't find Doc Wood nowhere!”
Gary didn't have to say another word. Julie grabbed her jacket and hat from the table and was out the door like a shot, the swinging saloon doors nearly swinging off their hinges. She nearly cut the rope free when her trembling fingers wouldn't allow her to untie her horse. Finally, she got it, mounting the horse faster than she'd ever done anything in her life, and racing out of town.
Julie burst through the cabin door. “Justine!”
She saw the puddle of water on the floor, then spotted a trail of water and blood leading to Justine's bedroom. She followed it, her heart pounding nearly out of her chest, fear gripping her. She heard whimpering, and was so relieved, she nearly broke into tears. She saw Justine lying on the floor on her side, her hair plastered to her face from pain-induced sweat.
“Baby,” Julie whispered, falling to her knees next to Justine's body.
“Julie,” Justine groaned, her face screwing up as another contraction sliced in her two.
“I'm here. Help is on the way.” She carefully pulled Justine to a sitting position, then tugged her to the bed, nearly falling on top of her heavy bundle as Justine fell onto the mattress.
“It hurts so bad,” Justine cried.
“I know. Marcy's comin', baby,” she whispered, wiping sweaty hair away from Justine's face. She saw the look on Justine's face, and quickly explained. “ Gary couldn't find Doc Wood. Marcy's a midwife.”
Justine was in too much pain to argue, so just nodded.
“Justine?” Marcy called out as she pushed open the cabin door, followed by Gary .
“Back here!” Julie called out, relieved to have Marcy finally there.
Marcy entered the room, her face transforming into a woman who knew what she was doing, and would do anything necessary to ensure a safe delivery. “ Gary , please leave, Julie, get some water boilin' and some clean cloths,” Marcy instructed, unbuttoning her dress and shrugging out of it, so she was just in her chemise. She leaned over Justine, giving her a gentle smile and cupping her cheek. “Justine, it's me, Marcy. I'm gonna help ya get this little one out, alright?”
Justine nodded, crying out as she was once again racked with a contraction. At this point, the Devil, himself could deliver her baby; she just wanted it over with!
Julie returned with items Marcy had asked for, then saw at the head of the bed by Justine, trying to do all she could to keep her comforted and calm. She brushed hair away from her face, placing soft kisses on her forehead as she murmured words of encouragement.
Marcy lifted and spread Justine's legs, using a lit candle to get a good view of what was happening. “The good news is, the baby's head is crowning.”
“What does that mean?” Julie asked, grabbing Justine's hand and holding it within hers.
Marcy looked up at Julie from between Justine's spread knees. “Means it's comin', and fast!” She returned her attention to the baby. “I need ya to push real hard, Justine,” she instructed.
Justine gritted her teeth, eyes squeezed shut as she pushed with all her might, crying out with the effort, nearly breaking Julie's fingers as she squeezed with all her might. Julie kept her own cry of pain down, instead focusing on what was happening. Justine went limp, her chest heaving as she panted, sweat pasting her clothing to her.
“Yer doin' great, darlin',” Marcy grinned. “One more good ‘un should get the baby's head fully out.” True to her word, with the next push, a loud cry erupted, the baby's face and head out. “Now fer the shoulders, darlin',” Marcy said, panting in her own excitement.
Justine laughed at the sound of her baby's cry, able to forget about the incredible pain for that moment, knowing that her baby was alright.
“Almost there, baby,” Julie whispered into her ear, placing a kiss there. “You can do this.” Her own tears began to come, the emotion of the moment overtaking her. “I love you so much, Justine.”
Justine turned her head, giving Julie a quick kiss on the lips, unable to speak, but wanting Julie to know she had been heard, and heard with Justine's own heart. She squeezed her eyes shut and began to push again, feeling as though her body were being ripped in two.
“Yes!” Marcy exclaimed, gently pulling as the baby was pushed out.
Gary glanced back at the cabin from where he smoked a rolled cigarette, hearing Justine's screams. It brought back memories of his Mamma, giving birth to his six younger brothers and sisters, the last one finally taking her with him three years before. Feeling on edge, he walked over to his horse and found the flask he had buried in the saddle bag. He felt instant warmth spread through his body at the first drink, numbness with the second.
Another scream got his attention, followed by the lustful cry of a newborn child. This put a smile on his face, but his mind raced back to Justine calling for Julie, both before he had left to go find Billy, and then again he'd heard that name as he'd left the cabin before the birth. Who was Julie, and was he supposed to go find her? He'd have to ask Billy when he saw him next.
There wasn't a dry eye in the room as Marcy snipped the cord then cleaned out the baby's nose and mouth before handing the baby girl to Julie. “You've got yerselves a daughter,” she said softly.
Julie took the squirming, crying bundle into her arms, looking down at her beautiful face. “Hi, baby girl,” she whispered, a tear falling and landing on the baby's forehead. She chuckled, wiping it away with her thumb. “I think I just baptized her.”
Justine laughed, taking the baby that was handed to her and laying her on her chest, her tears falling silently as she looked down at the miracle that had just come from her body. “So, you're the one who's been kicking me for nine months.”
Marcy wiped her hands and silently stepped away from the new family, making her way outside. Gary looked anxiously at her as she stepped out onto the porch.
“How'd it go?” he asked, taking the final drag from his cigarette.
Marcy let out a long, satisfied sigh. “Went great. They got them a baby girl.”
“Who is this Julie person I'm supposed ta go get?” Gary asked, brows drawn in confusion.
Marcy smiled, charmed. “Let's go take a walk, Gary ,” she said, threading her arm in his and leading him away from the cabin.
Julie moved to lie on the bed beside Justine and the baby, watching as Justine instinctively placed the baby's mouth at her unclad breast. “She's so beautiful,” Julie whispered, brushing her fingers over the tiny head, already covered in raven, black hair. “Just like her momma.”
Justine looked at Julie, all pain forgotten. “I want her to be just like you.”
“What, short and uncoordinated?”
Justine smiled. “No, beautiful and strong.” She looked into Julie's eyes. “I just wish she could have your eyes; I love how green they are.”
Julie smiled, suddenly feeling shy and bashful. “Well, I think she'd be best to be like you: strong, beautiful and with the most gorgeous blue eyes this side of the Mississippi .”
Justine reached for Julie, bringing her in for a long, loving kiss. “I'm so sorry for earlier,” she whispered against Julie's lips.
Julie pulled away enough to be able to look into Justine's face. “I love you, Justine. With everythin' in me, I love you and…” her brows drew, “what are we gonna call her?”
“Justine looked down at her baby, her suckled from her breast. “Rebecca.”
“Rebecca.” Julie leaned down, placing a kiss atop Rebecca's head, trying to keep her thoughts pure as she noticed Justine's swelled breast. “I want us to be a family.”
Justine felt her heart swell and eyes well. “Really?”
“Yes,” Julie whispered, placing a soft kiss on her lips. “Forever.”
Justice Havell rolled his eyes, sipping his sherry as he turned his attention out the window of the rail car he and Milton were riding in. There was a part of him that understood this was the straggly man's first ride on the iron horse, but the other part of him felt the man was a freak! He had figured booking two tickets on the train would be far faster in getting to where Milton said Justine was seen rather than horse or carriage. But, now he was beginning to question his sanity.
Milton , for his part was completely oblivious to his host's annoyance with him. He was all over the place, looking at the fine interior of the car they travelled in, as well as ordering glass after glass of champagne, never tasting it before this trip to Indiana . He looked at Justice, a goofy grin on his scrubby face – even after an insisted bath by Justice. “Purty amazin', huh?”
Justice flashed a smile at the man he saw as a complete imbecile, then looked back out the window, sipping his drink.
Justine couldn't help but smile as she emerged from her semi-conscious state. It had been three weeks since she'd given birth to her daughter, and after Julie had made Annabelle's crib by hand, it was decided the large piece of furniture would be put in Julie's bedroom, her bed stored in the barn, and her new sleeping arrangements being beside Justine every night. The “practical” reason being that the crib would not fit in Justine's bedroom, as the bedrooms were incredibly small. But, in truth, Justine couldn't imagine a night without Julie by her side. So, it had been as such.
Now, she felt Julie's warmth pressed up against her back, morning light not even winking within the window of their bedroom. She couldn't help but wiggle her behind further back into Julie's warmth, pressing her back against her front, reveling in the warmth that surged through her body. A delicious shiver passed through her as Julie sighed in her sleep, gently thrusting her hips into Justine's backside. Content, Justine fell back into sleep.
Julie picked up the bale of hay with a grunt, her skin glistening with sweat from her exertions in the barn. Gary worked with her, the first time he'd been summoned to the property since Annabelle's birth, two and a half months before. Julie glanced over at him, watching as he began to spread the hay around the floor of the barn.
“Cat got yer tongue?” she asked, again grunting as she moved another large bale of hay.
Gary glanced at her then shook his head.
Julie stopped what she was doing and turned to look at him, hands on narrow hips. “Come on, Gary . What's got'cha so quiet taday? Maisy Brandywine ignorin' you again?”
Finally, Gary sighed and stopped raking, resting his hands on top of the tool. “Marcy done told me ‘bout you. Julie.”
Julie tried her best not to react to the news facially, even as her stomach flopped over. “Yeah.”
“Guess I'm feelin' a bit like a fool.”
Julie walked over to him, placing a hand on his arm. “I'm sorry I couldn't tell ya the truth. I've been livin' this way for a long while now, and just didn't feel it was safe ta be me. That's all.”
“Why not? I'm yer friend. So I thought.” Gary looked down, toe of his boot kicking at the hay.
“Hey, now. You are my friend, and I'm real sorry. Justine and I never meant ta hurt no one – specially you.”
Gary met her gaze after a long moment, a small smile quirking his lips. “No foolin'?”
“So, I'm guessin' Annabelle ain't yers then, huh?”
For a moment, Julie wasn't sure if Gary was teasing or not. Eventually though, his small smile spread into a full blown grin. “Guess not. Come here, you.” She pulled him into a quick but tight embrace. “Now rake.”
Justine stepped into the entrance of the barn, her daughter in her arms. Neither Julie or Gary realized she was there, watching. Both worked steadily, once in awhile playfully tossing hay at the other or making some sort of amusing comment. Justine's eyes turned to Julie, who was dressed in long pants and a dirt and sweat-stained undershirt. The muscles in her arms and shoulders stood out in relief as she moved the heavy bales. Justine's gaze traveled down the length of Julie's body, a visual feast. Even though she was dirty and sweaty, and likely very fragrant, something inside Justine stirred, drawn to the raw power of Julie strength: both inside and out.
Julie could feel Justine's intense gaze on her, and glanced over her shoulder, an instant smile melting her lips when she saw Justine, Annabelle tucked in her arms. She dropped the bale she was about to throw and walked over to them, running a gloved hand across her forehead as she went.
“Mornin',” she said softly.
“Good morning, yourself.” Justine's eyes once again traveled down then back up Julie's body, making Julie burn in its wake. “Looks like you've been at this for awhile, now.” She lowered her voice so Gary wouldn't hear. “I was surprised to find you gone when I woke up.”
“Couldn't sleep,” Julie said, though she didn't add that the reason was because she had woken up wanting Justine so bad, she knew she had to get physical distance between them. “Knew there was a lotta work ta do,” she indicated the bales of hay behind her.
“Well, why don't you get yourself in some semblance of not-as-fragrant order, and come to the house. I'll make you breakfast.”
“What?” Julie raised an arm and took a sniff. “Don't like the smell of rancher sweat in the mornin'?” Justine wrinkled her nose in response, making Julie grin. “Alright, alright. Be there soon.”
Justine gave her a brilliant smile. “Good.”
Julie watched her walk out of the barn, Justine's body still out of proportion with left over baby weight, though she'd already lost a great deal of it. Julie had to turn away and get back to work, as she felt her body already igniting.
Gary watched from where he worked, brows drawn in confusion. He'd seen Justine and Billy – er, Julie – together before, and any fool could see they loved each other, but now he was utterly confused. He'd thought before that Justine simply had fallen for the younger man, and it took no brain power, whatsoever to see why a young buck like Billy would fall for the beautiful Justine. But now… He shook his head and turned back to his work.
Justine made a few last touches to her hair, then looked down at herself, making sure there was no spit up anywhere that had been missed during Annabelle's last feeding. She felt eyes on her and turned to see Julie standing in the doorway of their bedroom.
“What?” Justine asked, feeling somewhat self-conscious, and certainly undeserving of the way Julie was looking at her.
Julie shook her head. “Nothing. Just admirin' the scenery.”
Justine smiled and looked down, her self-confidence faltering under the heat of Julie's gaze. “You're far too kind, Miss Julie.”
Julie grinned, stepping into the bedroom and up behind Justine. She hugged her from behind, sighing with absolute contentment at the warmth of Justine against her. She just wished she had the courage to do all that she so desperately wished to do.
Justine, for her part, could feel herself melting. She turned in Julie's embrace, eyes closed as she rested her forehead against Julie's. “Julie,” she whispered, almost as though the name were a prayer.
Julie slid her hands down along Justine's back, her fingers feeling all the contours of the dress Justine wore, and the stiffness of her corset. Her fingers burned to undo each and every tiny pearl button, revealing the flesh beneath. She could feel the need coming off Justine in waves, her own body fully responding, though her fear keeping her desire caged.
“I love you so much,” Justine whispered, her own hands traveling a bit. They found themselves buried in the soft thickness of Julie's hair, then wandering down along her jaw line, the deeply tanned skin deceptively soft.
“I love you, too,” Julie whispered back, waves of heat flowing through her with Justine's every touch. “So much.”
Justine smiled at those words, her hands sliding down Julie's neck to her shoulders, then down over her upper chest. She gasped softly in surprise when she felt the fullness of Julie's breasts. “Where are your bindings?” she asked softly, her lips still so close to Julie's.
“Decided ta just be me,” Julie responded, her hands gently pushing on Justine's back, Justine moving closer until they were body to body.
“That's good,” Justine murmured against Julie's lips. “'You' is wonderful.”
Julie couldn't take it anymore, she claimed Justine's mouth with a soft moan of desperation, Justine responding immediately. The kiss deepened nearly as soon as it started, a play of lips and tongues. Julie wanted so much to feel Justine against her, and wished more than anything that all the layers of Justine's outfit weren't between them.
Justine gasped in surprise as she found herself whirled around and suddenly lying flat on the bed, Julie on top of her. She recovered quickly, reveling in the weight of Julie on top of her, their kiss never breaking. She didn't know what she was doing, or what could be done, but did know that she wanted it.
“I guess so much for heading to town,” Justine murmured, as Julie broke the kiss to explore Justine's neck with her lips.
“Guess so,” Julie whispered against the hot pulse point of Justine's throat.
Justine's hands wandered out across the expanse of Julie's back, the heat of Julie's flesh nearly burning them. Justine moaned in appreciation as she felt the dozens of buttons on her dress being undone. She opened her eyes to see the steely determination in Julie's.
“Oh, god,” she moaned as Julie's tongue found a bit of exposed flesh, just above where her corset began.
“Too many layers,” Julie murmured against Justine's flesh.
They both stopped in their tracks when Annabelle began to cry. Justine groaned in disappointment, but allowed herself to be helped to her feet by Julie. They exchanged a secret smile, then she went to get the baby.
Julie couldn't help but feel like a proud peacock as she drove her family into town, pulling the horses to a stop in front of the general store. She took Annabelle from Justine, then helped her down from the buckboard, Julie keeping the baby as the three walked into the store.
“'Afternoon, you two,” the store owner said with a friendly smile.
“Good morning, Mr. Freed,” Justine said, walking over to the display where her homemade jams had been selling. She was pleased to see only a few jars were left.
“Done real well, Miss Justine. Real well.”
“Wonderful news!” Justine walked over to the counter where the store owner cashed out her earnings to her.
“Ya might wanna bring more peach this week. Can't seem ta keep it in the store.”
“Will do. Thank you, Mr. Freed.” As Justine headed towards her family, she was stopped by a smiling Sheriff Beaverman. “Well, good morning, Sheriff!”
“Ma'am,” the large, burly man tipped his hat, his black handlebar mustache twitching with his smile. “My wife wanted me ta tell ya that she sure did ‘ppreciate that basket ya sent over after she fell ill.” He winked, dark eyes twinkling. “Mighty good bread, ma'am.”
Justine beamed. “Thank you, Sheriff. I'm so pleased.”
Sheriff Beaverman tipped his hat again, then continued on his way.
Justine joined Julie and Annabelle at the door of the store, the two women sharing a quick glance that silently communicated all that was left unsaid. Justine felt she was floating on a cloud.
Later that night, Julie finished taking care of the horses, making sure the space was ready for the head of cattle they were planning to bring in. It was late, and she looked forward to heading inside the house and… She shook her roaming thoughts away, trying not to remember what had happened earlier in the bedroom, before they'd headed to town. At least she knew now that Justine was very much open to the idea, but there was still something inside Julie that questioned what it was they had between them.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Justine asked softly, standing at the entrance of the barn, much like she'd done that morning.
Julie was startled to find that she wasn't alone, and slightly embarrassed at just what her thoughts had been. Her embarrassment quickly left her as she took in the woman who was making her way over to her. Justine was dressed in a long, flowing sleeping gown. Her hair was free and hung in long, ebony strands down her back and over her breasts, free from the constraints of a corset.
“I was thinkin' ‘bout you, actually,” Julie said, her throat suddenly very dry.
“Oh?” Justine said, getting closer and closer, the sway of her hips catching Julie's eye.
Julie nodded. “I was.”
“And, what were you thinking about me?”
“About this. What we seem to have.” She looked into Justine's eyes, her own filled with her confusion.
Justine brought a hand up, running a finger down the side of Julie's face. “What we have is beautiful, Julie. I've never felt so loved and safe before.”
Julie smiled, nodding. “Me, too.”
Justine could sense just how confused Julie was, and it broke her heart. “Do you love me, Julie?”
“With all my heart. “
“And I love you. We both love Annabelle, and someday, when she's not a bundle of infant want and need, she'll love us, too.” They both smiled at that. “I finally have the family I've always dreamed of. No, it may not be in the surroundings I always saw myself in,” she said with a smirk, indicating the barn they stood in. “But even so, I couldn't be happier.”
“What if some handsome cowboy comes along some day, and snaps you up?” Julie whispered, nearly in tears at the thought.
“Oh, my love,” Justine whispered back, cupping Julie's face. “That'll never happen.” She took a step closer, bringing their faces within a few scant inches apart. “All that I could ever want is right before me.” She took Julie's hand in her own, placing it over one of her breasts. “And look, no buttons or layers.”
Julie nearly fainted right there, feeling Justine's nipple harden under her palm. She bridged the space between them, taking Justine's mouth in a soft, but deeply passionate kiss, her hand gently squeezing Justine's breast, causing a soft moan to escape Justine's lips.
“I want you to touch me so badly, Julie,” Justine whispered into the kiss. “I've wanted you to for so long.”
All doubts and fears gone, Julie pulled Justine against her, claiming her mouth with a need she'd never known. She was on fire as her hands roamed down Justine's back, finally cupping her backside and pulling her even closer, their hips melding together in mutual need.
After a long moment, Justine broke the kiss, softly panting. “I need to sit down before I fall right down.”
Julie smiled, taking Justine by the hand and leading her to a fresh pile of hay and gently tugging her down with her. “Care for a roll in the hay?” she asked playfully.
“You have no idea,” Justine groaned, lying down and pulling Julie down on top of her.
Remembering Marcy's fingers inside of her, Julie knew she badly wanted to be inside of Justine, but was troubled. She pulled out of the kiss, looking down at Justine. “Will I hurt you?” she asked, concerned, considering Justine had given birth just nine weeks before.
Justine shook her head. “No, just love me. Please, love me.” Justine's words were edged with the desperate need of a woman who'd never truly known love, or what it was like to be loved. A lifetime of being a pawn for her family or husband had left her bereft of what she most craved.
Julie repositioned them, moving so her thigh gently pushed Justine's apart, just enough to fit hers between. She gently thrust her hips into Justine, both moaning softly at the contact. She leaned down and kissed Justine again, though this kiss was meant to ignite and inspire: it was slow and methodical, nibbling at Justine's full lower lip and caressing her tongue with her own.
Justine moaned softly, the kiss fully having the affect on her that Julie intended. She could feel her insides exploding to life, her own hips gently thrusting in sync with Julie's. It all felt wonderful, but she knew this couldn't last long before she needed more. Her hands ran down the length of Julie's strong back, finally reaching her tight, firm backside, encased in baggy pants. Blindly, she tugged at Julie's shirt, pulling it free from the waistband, glad she didn't have to contend with the suspenders Julie often wore.
Realizing what Justine was doing, Julie pushed to her knees, not even bothering to unbutton her shirt, instead tugging it over her head, followed by the undershirt she wore. Left bare breasted, she looked down at Justine, whose eyes were feasting upon Julie's strong shoulders and arms, flat belly and small, firm breasts. Julie grabbed both of Justine's hands and placed them on her own breasts, her own hands gliding down Justine's soft arms to allow Justine full freedom of touch.
Amazed, and deeply aroused, Justine sat up, never taking her gaze from Julie's beautiful breasts. Certainly, she'd seen them many times in the year they'd been traveling together, but somehow, that moment was different. She squeezed the flesh gently, marveling as both nipples puckered under her touch.
Julie sighed in pleasure as Justine rolled her palms over her rock hard nipples, which were a deep rose color, swelled with blood. As though no longer in control of herself, she grabbed Justine and kissed her, long and deep, leaving them both breathless. She broke away, gathering Justine's gown in both hands, until she'd brought it up and over Justine's head. Her sex clenched when she saw that Justine was completely naked underneath.
“You are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen,” Julie whispered, taking in Justine's large breasts and pale skin.
“I'm not so sure after having a baby-“
Julie shook her head, meeting Justine's gaze. “No, ma'am. You are spectacular.”
Justine flushed with pleasure at the compliment, relieved that Julie liked what she saw. She'd been very worried about that, especially knowing that Julie had been with Marcy. Marcy had the all the curves a man – or woman – would want. “Thank you.”
Julie gently pushed Justine back into the hay, following, their naked upper bodies coming into contact, making them both moan in appreciation. Julie lifted herself just enough to realign their torsos to ensure their breasts were pressed firmly together. She found Justine's mouth again, Justine's fingers digging into the flesh of Julie's upper back.
“I want all of you naked,” Justine panted, yanking hard at Julie's britches.
Julie pushed herself up once more, removing her boots and the remainder of her clothing in record time. Reclaiming her place with Justine, she was surprised to see how wet she was, and she hadn't even been touched much, yet. Curious about Justine, she reached down and ran a finger through the saturated folds of Justine's sex.
Justine gasped then groaned, her hips thrusting against the sudden touch. “Julie…”
Julie pushed up onto her hands, looking down into Justine's face. She was shocked at the intense amount of need she saw in her face. Justine looked as though her very life depended on this night with Julie, as though she were discovering love for the first time. It broke Julie's heart and made her love Justine even more. Though she wasn't entirely sure what she was doing, she vowed to do all that she could to give Justine exactly what she needed.
Justine's eyes fell closed as Julie began to kiss her neck, leaving a wet trail of heat in her wake. She buried her fingers in Julie's hair with one hand while the other feasted on the tactile bliss of her skin. A soft gasp and moan escaped her lips as Julie's mouth found one of her breasts, her hot tongue lapping at the painfully hard nipple.
“When we first met,” Julie murmured against Justine's flesh, “I remember thinking you had some of the most beautiful breasts I'd ever seen.”
“Now they're all fat and swollen,” Justine moaned.
Julie moved from one breast to the other, using her hand to massage the abandoned one. She lay between Justine's spread thighs now, her stomach resting in the cradle of wet heat. She could feel Justine's hips pushing against her in a slow, rhythmic tempo, Julie pushing back as much as she could to give her some sort of solid platform to ease the aching pressure. She licked a fiery trail down the center line of Justine's abdomen, stopping at the beginning of the black thatch of hair.
Justine was far too lost in sensation to realize where Julie was headed, and certainly didn't have a clue what she was about to do. Her eyes popped open in shock when she felt Julie's fingers pulling her open, exposing her need to the warm, night air.
Julie grinned up at her, then lowered her head, nervous to be where she was, but remembering how amazing it felt, and wanting to share that with the woman she loved. She swiped her tongue through the abundant wetness, giving herself a moment to familiarize herself with Justine's taste before bringing her mouth back to her.
Shock forgotten, Justine's head fell back into the hay, her eyes closing once more as Julie feasted. She never could have imagined anything like that could be done, nor how amazing it would feel. She cupped the back of Julie's head, which bobbed with rhythm of Julie's tongue. Her hips began to lift and move with Julie's mouth, her pleasure building to an intensity that was nearly painful.
Julie wrapped her arms around Justine's hips, which were beginning to move against her, wanting to keep Justine still so she could release her. She lapped at Justine's clit, which had grown hard and slippery. She was in heaven, nearly getting as much pleasure out of it as Justine was. To round out her year-old fantasy, she brought her hand up, gently easing a single finger inside the tight warmth of Justine's opening.
Justine let out a long, throaty groan, her hips rising to meet Julie as she entered her. She could feel a hot pressure in her lower belly, something she'd never felt before. Never having had an orgasm with Justice, she wasn't entirely sure what was happening. Her body took over, pure primal instinct, as her hips moved with Julie's thrusts, her sex seemingly overwhelmed as Julie's tongue kept the same tempo on Justine's clit.
“Oh, god,” she whimpered, the pressure feeling more like a ball of fire that needed to be released. “Oh, Julie…”
Julie quickened her tongue and her thrusts inside, until finally she pressed her tongue flat against Justine's clit, then moved her head quickly from side to side, her finger keeping pace.
Justine screamed out as her body exploded, her thighs clamping shut around Julie's head, her hands holding Julie in place as she rode out wave after wave of pleasure. An uncontrollable urge to cry overtook her, tears falling unchecked down her cheeks. She buried her face with her hands, legs falling open limply.
Released, Julie climbed her way back up Justine's body, taking her in her arms, fully understanding the emotions. She left a trail of kisses on Justine's tear-streaked face, after moving her hands away. “It's okay, baby,” she cooed.
Justine smiled,. “I'm sorry, Julie. I feel so silly for bursting into tears like that.”
“You got nothin' to be sorry for.” Julie kissed her softly, tenderly sweeping damp hair from Justine's forehead. “You are so beautiful.”
“Thank you,” Justine whispered. “So are you. And that was the most beautiful thing I've ever experienced. I think that's why I cried.”
Julie leaned in for another kiss, about to back away, but Justine wrapped a hand around to cup the back of her head, holding her in place, the kiss quickly deepening as Justine forced Julie's lips open with her tongue. Julie moaned into the kiss, her hand wandering down along Justine's side. She wanted nothing more than to take Justine again.
Justine broke from the kiss, quite proud of herself, as she saw how hot and bothered her initiated kiss had made Julie. She decided to continue her boldness by pushing Julie onto her back, then following suit until she was halfway lying on top of her.
Julie ran her hands down the smooth planes of Justine's back, knocking off a few loose pieces of hay that had stuck to the sweat. “Can I tell ya somethin'?”
“But,” Julie stopped Justine's ministrations, “you can't get angry with me.”
Justine studied her for a moment, a kernel of concern blossoming in her belly. “Alright.”
“When Marcy and I…” Julie felt embarrassed and guilty, but wanted to Justine to know.
“Alright,” Justine said quietly, fighting her knee-jerk jealousy. “What about it?”
“I kept imagining you,” Julie said, bringing up a hand and caressing the side of Justine's face.
“Oh?” Justine asked, a brow raised. “And, just what was I doing?” Justine asked, her voice growing deeper as passion overtook her. Her jealousy was pushed aside by the full realization of just how much Julie wanted her. Her , not Marcy.
Julie gave her a sexy little grin, her hands sliding down Justine's back to cup her backside. “You were on top of me.”
Justine moved fully into position, holding herself up on her elbows. “Like this?”
“Close. “ Julie rearranged them so that Justine lay between her spread thighs, their centers coming into contact.
Justine could feel the unbelievable wet heat coming from Julie, which nearly burned her flesh. She looked down at Julie, waiting for further direction.
Julie's eyes fell closed, her legs parting more as she pushed her sex into Justine's. “God, you feel amazin',” she whispered. She groaned when Justine pushed back.
“Then what?” Justine whispered, her own body heating up at the amazing sensation of Julie against her.
“Then, I imagined you were movin' your hips just so,” Julie instructed, her voice breathy as her arousal grew. She reached down and covered Justine's backside with her hands, urging her to move.
Justine did as asked, utterly surprised. “Like a man?” she asked, unsure.
Julie smiled and nodded. “But better.”
Justine began to slam her hips into Julie's, just as Justice had done to her, stopping immediately when she felt Julie's hand on her shoulder to get her attention.
“No,” Julie said, hiding her amusement. “Slow.” She pushed Justine to her back, switching their positions. She held herself up on her hands, looking down into Justine's face as she slowly moved her hips, the soft sound of their combined wetness meeting heating her to the core.
Justine's eyes slid shut, the pleasure like a warm drink flowing through her system. She ran her fingers down Julie's spine until she reached her backside, resting her hands on the firm flesh. “Oh my,” she whispered, spreading her legs further, not entirely sure what was bringing her so much pleasure, but getting lost in it.
Julie was so engorged from everything that had happened, she knew she wasn't going to get past this instruction. She rose up to her hands, spreading her legs a bit so she could feel even more sensation from both centers working together. She looked into Justine's face, seeing the flushed pleasure there, which sent a new jolt through her own system. She felt her release pounding at the door, and it showed as her hips picked up their rhythm, the muscles in her arms and shoulders standing out at attention.
Justine hung on as Julie began to thrust furiously, her body finally stiffening as she released: teeth bared and eyes squeezed shut, Julie cried out, finally collapsing on top of Justine, who climaxed moments later. She wrapped her arms and legs around Julie, wanting to be as close to her as possible.
Julie raised herself to look into Justine's face, which sported a beautiful smile. “What are you smilin' ‘bout, woman?”
Justine's smile grew bigger. “Guess we kind of fell behind on that one, huh?”
Julie grinned, burying her face in Justine's neck, as she was embarrassed by her own lack of self control. “Yup,” she said, her voice muffled.
“Well, my love, we should get back to the house. Annabelle only stays down for a few hours at a time.”
Julie placed a quick kiss on Justine's lips then pushed to her feet, helping Justine to hers. “Sounds perfect. ‘Sides, I'm exhausted.”
An elaborately decorated coach arrived in front of the town's one boarding house. Justice Havell stepped out, followed by Milton, who looked as though he were about to drop where he stood. Justice tipped the driver, then ignored Milton as he headed towards the boarding house, the driver following with hands full of luggage.
Julie awoke to the sounds of a suckling babe. She opened her eyes and was greeted with a naked Justine sitting in bed next to her, Annabelle held to her breast. She smiled, realizing her own nakedness and the amazing night before that started in the barn, and continued off and on all night in their bed.
“Good morning, my love,” Justine said softly, leaning down and giving Julie a soft kiss.
“Mornin'. I'm sorry I didn't get her for ya; never even heard her cry.” Julie reached out and ran her fingertips over the silk-soft dark hair atop their daughter's head.
“It's quite alright. You were sound asleep.”
“For good cause,” Julie moaned as she luxuriated in a stretch.
Justine watched the strong body in all its glorious beauty. Her mouth watered. “You are so lovely,” she whispered, not even realizing she'd said it out loud until she saw the pleased expression on Julie's face.
“Only just beat by you,” Julie said, stealing a quick kiss before getting out of bed and tugging on her clothes for her trip to the outhouse. “So, what do you suppose Annabelle will call me?” she asked, buttoning her shirt. “Can't really all me Mamma, that's yer name. I ain't exactly Pa, neither.”
Justine chuckled, placing a kiss on her daughter's head. “I don't rightly know. Guess we'll cross that bridge once she can talk.”
Amused, Julie left the house.
The morning was beautiful, the sun just beginning to kiss the horizon. As tired as she was from the active night she'd shared with Justine, she felt like she was on top of the world, and for the first time ever, she truly knew what love was meant to be.
Her thoughts were interrupted as she was grabbed by the arm and drug towards the barn. Shocked, she nearly punched her fist into Marcy's face. She managed to stop her swing just in time, her friend ducking as she saw it coming.
“What do ya think you're doin'?!” Julie demanded. “I damn near punched yer lights out!”
“I'm sorry, Julie. I had to come warn ya. There's some guy in town with Milton , an' he's sayin' he's Justine's husband!”
Julie's heart fell as her eyes widened. “What?”
Marcy nodded vigorously. “He's here, Julie, and he wants her back.”
Julie stood tall, crossing her arms over her chest. “Well, he can't have her back.”
A moment of tension passed. “What will ya do?”
Julie blew out a heavy breath, running her hand through her hair. “I don't know just yet.”
Marcy and Julie turned to see Justine standing in the doorway of the barn, Annabelle in her arms. Julie took a deep breath and walked over to her. “Justice is in town.”
Justine could only stare at her for a long moment, the information slowly absorbed into her reality. “What?”
“He got in last night,” Marcy said, walking over to them. “May I?” she asked, hands out to Annabelle. Justine handed the baby over, Marcy cuddling her and kissing her head. “ Milton was with him, so I'm thinkin' that little cow patty is how he got here.”
“Damn. Knew I shoulda jus' killed him when I had the chance,” Julie blew out, her fear turning to anger. “Let's start packin' up. Maybe we can hide out for a bit, then come back-“
Justine cupped Julie's face in her hands. “Look at me, my love,” she whispered, the world shrinking down to just the two of them. “Look at me.” When she had Julie's full attention, she placed a soft kiss on her lips. “I need to face this and face him.”
“He'll take you away from me,” Julie whispered, the tears nearly ready to spill over.
Marcy took Annabelle over to the horses, talking to Annabelle and showing her around. She knew that the moment between Julie and Justine was incredibly personal, and she had no right to be part of it. Though it was a beautiful thing to see, it made her heart hurt. She'd never known a love like she'd just witnessed.
Justine kissed Julie again. “No one can take me away from you, my love. No one. I'm exactly where I want to be.”
“But he's yer husband, Justine. He's got a right to do what he damn well pleases.”
Justine looked Julie in the eye, her resolve hard. “I'll kill him first. Do you understand me? That man ruled my every move for a very long time, and I won't let him do it anymore. I want you and I want our daughter.”
Julie could only stare, struck. She knew better than to question Justine's sincerity, it was written all over her face and in the intensity of her eyes. She nodded, pulling Justine in for a bone-crushing hug. “I love you.”
Justice Havell looked at himself in the mirror above the vanity in his room. He adjusted the lapels of his jacket, making sure they were just so, before turning to his hair. He was a handsome man, and the reflection smiling back at him confirmed that. He noticed movement in the mirror behind him, his eyes darting to the woman who lay there, watching him.
“You preen like a woman,” she said, one of her naked breasts revealed as the sheet slid away from it.
“I'm a man of success, and not simply a whore for the taking,” he said, turning back to his reflection.
Lily threw the covers off her and began to dress, furious at the pompous ass' comments. “Well, ya sure didn't seem ta mind all that much as ya was on top of me,” she muttered, buttoning her dress, fingers trembling with anger.
Justice said nothing, instead grabbing his billfold off the side table and tossing a couple bills atop the bed. “Get out.” Justice didn't give the whore a second look as he finished with his morning ritual, intending to find a barber for a shave once he left the boarding house. He wanted to make a good impression on the people of the town, and on Justine once he got her back.
Sheriff Bo Beaverman sat across from the monied, well-dressed newcomer into his town, rocking gently in his wood desk chair. He chewed on the end of a cigar, eyeing the stranger. He'd been shocked to hear the man claim to be the husband of the allegedly Justine Havell. He knew Justine and her friend well, and wasn't about to rat on the woman. “So, lemme get this straight, Mr. Havell,” he drawled, the cigar never leaving his mouth. “Yer tellin' me yer wife left you and ran off ta start anew somewheres else?”
The muscles in Justice's jaw flexed as he tried to keep his temper under control. He could tell by the very body language of this lawman that he wasn't being taken entirely seriously. “What I'm telling you is, my wife was taken from our home last winter, and has not been seen since. I've been given word by a … reliable source, that she is being holed up in this town with a young boy.”
Bo studied the man, stroking his mustache. “That so?”
“Yes, that's so.” Justice could feel his anger building, but knew he had to hold his temper and be diplomatic; after all, he would never be where he was, had he not learned such skills as a young man. “Listen, Sheriff Beaverman, I miss my wife greatly, and feel she may be in danger living with this… boy.” He couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice, imagining the teen who'd been described to him by Milton , fancying his wife's bed. He leaned forward, for a moment losing his composure. “You find my wife, Sheriff, or there will be hell to pay.”
Bo met his gaze unflinchingly. “I reckon yer threat'nin' me, mister. Not a wise move.” He leaned forward in his own chair. “You may be some big man in Missourah, but here in my territory, yer nothin'. “ He made sure he had Havell's full gaze. “ You got me?”
Justice leaned back in his chair, despite himself, feeling the full force of Sheriff Beaverman's meaning. To save face, he simply nodded, then grabbed his hat and pushed up from the chair. “Sheriff,” he said, manners kicking in, then stormed out of the Sheriff's station.
Gary and three of his friends sat in scattered rocking chairs, sitting outside Olson's Tannery, where one of them worked. They passed around a bottle of whiskey, which was nearly gone. Gary spotted a well-dressed fella heading their way. A feeling of unease settled in the pit of his stomach, when he realized Milton walked along side him.
“'Mornin', fellas,” Milton said, standing proudly just behind Justice Havell. Nobody was gonna run him outta town today, no siree. He hooked his thumbs just inside his suspenders, tugging them away from his chest.
“'Mornin' yerself, Milton,” one of Gary 's friends said, tossing the empty whiskey bottle at Milton 's feet.
The dirty man looked down at where it had landed against the toe of his scuffed boot. He gingerly kicked it aside. He took a moment to gather his courage once more, then looked at the group of young bucks, knowing full well that each and every one of them could work him over real good. “Where's the whore?” he asked, making a show of spitting some tobacco juices on the ground, wincing as it landed on the toe of the same boot the bottle had landed at.
The young men laughed, Gary taking over this conversation. “Which one that be? Yer mother or yer grandmother?”
The boys began to laugh harder, making Milton 's blood boil. “I'm talkin' ‘bout the one shacked up with that Yank, who ain't even seen the bidness side of a razor.”
Gary 's eyes narrowed, his gut telling him exactly who Milton was talking about. His protective side flew into high gear. “What you want, old man?”
Milton 's temper grew all the more. “Yer hide, ya don't show no respect, young pup.” He took an involuntary step back as the group of young men took their feet, boots thudding hollowly on the wooden sidewalk.
“What you say, old man?” one of them asked.
Julie rode hard, her heart and mind made up. She knew that Justine and Marcy followed suit in the buckboard, but she didn't care. She needed to do this, needed to prove a point to that son-of-a-bitch, Justice Havell.
The streets of the town were quiet, only a few passersby as she raged into town, her horse whinnying in protest, and nearly bucking her off as she pulled on the reigns far harder than her horse was used to. Horse under control, she jumped off, boots landing in the dirt with purpose and finality.
“Justice Havell!” she called at the top of her voice, turning in a circle in the street, waiting for the bastard to heed her call. All remained silent, only feeding fuel to her desire to end this. “Are you a yella bellied coward?” She noticed faces beginning to show in the windows of the buildings lining Main Street .
Justice Havell sat at the finest restaurant in town – not much to his liking, but all there was – and heard the call. He wiped his mouth with the fine linen napkin and pushed back from the table, which he shared with no one.
Walking to the window of the establishment, where others had already gathered, he looked out into the dusty street. He was surprised to see a snip of a boy standing in the center of the dusty street. Or, was that a woman? It was hard to tell, as she shaggy blonde hair was covered by a cowboy hat, the hips narrow and breasts small. Breasts. Justice's cool eyes studied those for a long moment, fully realizing that was exactly what he was seeing.
Julie was about to turn away, disgusted by the cowardice of Justine's husband, when she saw a well-dressed man step out of the local eatery. She recognized him from the house in Missouri . That night seemed a million lifetimes away, but even so, she was able to recognize the coldness in his eyes. Her guts clenched as nerves kicked in, but she pushed it all down, determination to keep her family in tact taking over. Palms sweating and itching to reach for her side irons, which hung heavily at her hips, she turned to him. “Guess ya got a spine after all, eh?”
Justice said nothing, instead stepping out into the dusty streets, making a show of pushing the right side of his fine, wool coat aside to bring his own gun into view. “I don't know what sort of mission you're on, lady, but I strongly recommend you return to your knitting. This is a man's business today.”
Burned by Havell's words, Julie strode towards Justice Havell, determined to be every ounce the “man” Justine and Annabelle needed her to be. “That so?” she asked, fingers stroking the pearl handles of her six shooters.”
“That's so,” Justice said, his voice even and calm. He had no fear for this… woman … who dared enter his world. “I've got business with my wife. ” For reasons, which he couldn't explain, he felt defensive around this woman, who dare walk right up to him. He looked into determined green eyes, for a moment admiring that determination before remembering she was the enemy. “I know not what purpose you serve in my wife's current life here in backwater, but I assure you, it will end soon.”
“Yeah? Maybe you should ask her, Mister,” Julie said, looking up into the face of the man she'd hated so dearly since the night she'd seen him with the slave woman, Sissy. “After all, I know Justine means ‘bout as much to you as a nigger woman in your arms.” The backhand came so fast, Julie wasn't able to move from its sting. Though it hurt like hell, and her eyeball felt like it had exploded, she refused to show weakness in front of this man, whom she knew weakness was the kiss of death. “That all ya got?” she managed.
Justice was enraged as he watched the woman take all that he had to give her, and her beg for more. “You and me,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “Ten paces.”
Even as Julie's guts fell to her boots, she nodded, knowing there was no other way.
Justine was nearly screaming at the horses, giving all she had to make them go faster. The buckboard rattled over rough terrain and rocks, Main Street just ahead. Miles before, Julie had disappeared from her view. Marcy sat beside her, trying desperately to hold Annabelle safely as Justine drove like a mad woman towards town.
Gary trotted over to Julie, fear gripping his gut like a vise. “Let me do this for ya, Miss Julie,” he begged, nearly in tears.
Julie shook her head, even as her hands shook just as much. “I can't, Gary ,” she whispered. “This has gotta be between me and that monster.”
“I can be yer second!” he begged, desperately trying to get his friend to reconsider. “Miss Justine and baby Annabelle can't live without ya! Ya'all can live without me!”
Julie stopped the young man with a hand to his own, a brave smile spreading across her tanned face. She shook her head, squeezing Gary 's hand. “I can't do that, Gary . I love ya for it, but no. It's gotta be me, or no one at all.” She looked up into his eyes, seeing the tears that had begun to well. “Understand?”
Gary nodded, even as his heart fell. “'K. What do ya want me ta tell Miss Justine?”
Julie smiled, pulling her loyal friend into a hug. “Just that I love ‘er.”
Gary nodded, head hung low as Julie pulled back from the hug. Without another word, he walked out of the street, joining the growing group of townies on the boardwalks. The town was split in two: those who knew Justine and Julie, and who were praying for a good outcome, and those who didn't care, and were looking for a good show.
“Ten paces!” Justice yelled, his citified shoes becoming covered in dust as he walked backwards, counting to nine in his head. He wasn't about to let some woman beat him.
Julie did the same, never taking her eyes off the swarmy man twenty paces from her. Her fingers were itching to reach for her gun, wanting nothing more than to see his chest filled with lead. “Ten paces!” she called back, stopping when she'd reached her ten.
A sudden clattering of horses hooves and women's screams rent the air, garnering the attention of both Justice and Julie. Julie was mortified to see Justine and Marcy take the corner at frightening speeds, the buckboard swaggering back and forth, threatening to dump the cargo of women and child.
Justice, for his part, was immensely pleased to see his wife for the first time in many months. His heart was torn between relief of not being proven wrong, and utmost fury for being played a fool. He was shocked to see the infant, which his heart told him was his. “That bitch lied,” he muttered to himself, anger flowing through him like lightning. All he wanted in that moment was to finish off the pest down the street, then deal with Justine. He'd take his blood back with him and start over.
“Don't do this!” Justine cried, nearly falling to her knees as she climbed down from the buckboard, her skirts tangling in the step. If it hadn't been for Gary 's near super-human speed, she would have done just that. “Julie! Don't do this!”
Julie turned to look at Justine, her heart crying out to Justine, who she wanted nothing more than to be with in that moment.
Justice saw this as the perfect moment to make a statement. Time seemed to slow as he reached for his gun, his fingers coming into contact with the cool steel, relief flooding his body as the firearm released from the fine leather holster.
Gary 's head turned, something telling him to look at the man down the street, noting the gun being pulled from its cage. He wasn't even sure if his voice carried as he yelled Julie's name, unable to hear the words in his own ears, which were ringing with fear and warning.
Julie barely heard the warning, her head turning in time to see the six shooter pointed right at her. A scream ripped through the air, just as the bullet ripped through her side, a raging sting following. She didn't even have time to react before her own gun was pulled and firing.
Justice's eyes bulged as a slug tore through his chest, blood spurting into the dirt as he lost his balance, the world seeming to tip right out from under him. He grunted as the ground rose up to meet him, the sky suddenly directly overhead. He marveled for a moment as a hawk swooped overhead before all went dark.
The world and time righting itself, Justine ran to Julie, falling to her knees at her side. “Don't you leave me,” she hissed, tearing open Julie's shirt to find the wound, which had sent a flower of red spreading across its surface. “You hear me?” she begged, hands cupping Julie's pale face. “Don't you leave me!”
The words echoed in Julie's head as she let out a long breath, darkness filling her head.
Bright light. Very bright light. Julie blinked several times, unable to get that bright light out of sight. She tried to move her head, but it was impossible to avoid the bright light. She groaned, though it came out more like a grunt.
“Hold still, now,” a man's voice said, non-too-kind. “Yer gonna make this far more difficult than need be.”
Darkness came again.
The sunlight was pouring in unfettered from the uncovered window, shining a spotlight on Julie's still form lying in the middle of the bed. She was breathing evenly, her chest rising and falling underneath the blanket. It took a moment, but Julie began to stir as the sunlight penetrated the thin membrane of her eyelids, pulling her out of the peaceful darkness with painful consciousness.
With a quiet groan, Julie's eyes blinked open, squinting at the brightness of the small, simple room she was in. She looked over at the window, able to see blue sky beyond. The walls were very white, the bed she lay in soft, and the air smelling of lavender.
Confused, Julie began to continue her perusal around the room when she realized she wasn't alone. Looking on the side of the bed opposite the window, she saw a beautiful young woman sitting in a chair, knitting. Her black hair was pulled up in propriety, her face calm and peaceful. After a moment, she heard the sound of a baby's cry, and watched as the woman moved over to a bassinet, which she hadn't seen before, and pulled an infant from its confines, sitting once again and gently easing the baby to her breast.
Julie watched, mesmerized for a long moment. Feelings of love and relief began to fill her as she watched, and suddenly she knew what she was seeing: her family. “She's grown,” she whispered, her throat feeling like the business side of a razor.
Justine's eyes left her daughter, and turned to Julie, who hadn't spoken a single word in more than three days. Overjoyed, she nearly dropped Annabelle, who had latched on with all her might. “My god!” she sobbed, holding the infant to her breast as she moved to the bed.
Julie smiled, though it was weak. “I think ya nearly dropped ‘er.”
Justine's only response was a relieved sob and a nod. She brushed strands of blonde hair away from Julie's face before caressing the soft skin of her cheek. “Hello, my love,” she whispered, a tear falling, only to land on Julie's forehead.
“Hello.” She concentrated on watching the baby nurse, feeling a sense of joy mixed with jealousy, as she wanted so much to hold the child. “How did it go?”
“He's gone,” Justine whispered, leaning down to place a kiss where her tear had landed. “All gone.”
“I'm sorry,” Julie whispered, tears stinging the backs of her eyelids.
Justine stood, looking down at Julie with so much love, it made Julie's heart ache. “Don't you dare be sorry. We're free, love. Free.”
Julie met Justine's gaze. “Ya mean it?”
Justine nodded, a smile mixing with her tears. “With all my heart.”
“I love you, Miss Justine.”
“And I love you, Miss Julie.” Justine placed a kiss on Annabelle's head. “So does she.”
They both smiled, Julie reaching out, her hand filled with one of Justine's.