With gratitude, as always, to my beta, Margaret P.
Emily hid the borrowed halter and brushes behind her back, but she stumbled ducking through the boards and Tramp saw her coming. He trotted to the far side of the corral before he buckled at the knees and stretched his neck out to roll in the dust. In a good mood, she would have laughed at the extra work ahead of her. Today, when the horse dropped, she saw Johnny hit the ground after racing across the street, Colt blazing.
Tramp heaved himself to his feet with a satisfied snort and shuddered away most of the dust. Emily caught him and set to work. It’s just any old day. Johnny and Scott are having a beer with the sheriff, and I’m cleaning Tramp up like I always do. But flicking the dirt away with a worn dandy brush didn’t clear her mind at all.
He killed a man with one shot before I even knew what was happening.
Tramp stamped a foot as she tugged a burr from his fetlock feathers. “Easy, son. Sorry.” She took a breath to steady herself, but try as she might to concentrate on her horse, her thoughts went back to Johnny.
He was a hero. So was Scott, but Scott didn’t run toward the bullets. They’d all been under fire, but only Johnny tore out onto the street, completely open, risking his life…I thought I knew him. I thought I knew everything about him, and loved everything about him.
She never expected to feel anything different, never expected to feel…this, whatever it was.
Polishing Tramp with a damp rag made him glow. The old gelding was happy at Lancer, his coat dappling out in a sign of good condition he’d never shown before. Emily, too, was doing well at Lancer. Or had been…
Loosely snubbing Tramp to keep him from rolling again, she slid out of the corral to look down the street. Scott and Johnny were making their way down the boardwalk, side by side, deep in conversation.
He looks like nothing happened.
Horse dust covered her clothes and Johnny still wore dirt from the street, but she didn’t care. As soon as he got close enough she grabbed him into a fierce hug.
He hugged her back, hard. “Hey, hey. Everything’s good.” His musical voice should have been reassuring, but wasn’t. Why not? The answer wafted away as she tried to bring it into focus.
They broke apart, but when Johnny turned her around to face Scott, he left his hands on her shoulders.
“Scott’s gonna head back to the ranch now.” He gave her a familiar squeeze before he let go. “It’ll give him a chance to catch his breath. I figured me and you could ride in a little later.”
Scott’s mouth was tight as he said his good-byes. He climbed up into the buckboard and snapped the lines, nodding curtly as Emily waved. The wagon rumbled off until obscured by its own dust cloud, leaving her more unsettled than before.
Johnny rubbed the back of his neck. “He’s afraid Katie won’t come back now.”
“Did he tell you that?”
“Not in those words, not exactly.” He rolled his shoulders and Emily wondered if he was hiding something from her. He hadn’t looked her in the eye.
She laid a hand on his cheek, pulled it down again when she saw the dirt under her fingernails. “Are you okay?”
“Right as rain.” He answered a shade too quickly, quirking his mouth into a smile before squinting up and down the street.
She couldn’t put a name to what had changed, but she wanted to wrap her arms around him until everything felt normal again. Since she couldn’t exactly do that in the middle of town, she hugged his arm instead. “You know what I’d like to do?”
“Nope. What would you like to do?”
“I’d like us to take a room at the hotel. Right now. I’d like to lay down with you, and hold you, and have you hold me.”
Johnny blinked and smiled at her. Then he shook his head. “Emily.” He said her name the way she liked best, without the middle syllable, so it came out “Em’ly”. “Emily, that’s just a really good idea.”
The room was a little close, and dark. Emily opened the window a crack, hoping for a breeze, while Johnny plopped down on the bed to take off his boots. The ropes under the mattress squeaked and he jumped back up, smirking. He pulled his shirt off and freed his belt from its loops. He left his calzoneras on. Emily undid her shirt and shrugged out of it before she shimmied out of her trousers. With a grin, Johnny reached out and pulled her down, still in her underclothes, next to him on the thin bedspread.
“You doin’ okay?” He murmured in her ear and his breath caressed her neck. She melted into his arms. Nothing else existed but Johnny’s lips on hers. She never wanted to open her eyes again.
But she did, when Johnny pushed her hair off her neck and tickled her ear with his tongue. She usually found it delightful. Today she turned her head away. “Sorry. Not yet.”
He rolled onto his back with a groan. “I thought you said you were okay.”
“You didn’t really give me a chance to answer.”
Johnny sighed. Emily snuggled beside him, head on his bare shoulder, arm across his chest. He closed her into a hug and squeezed her tight. “So. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know.” He smelled different, somehow. Sharper. Meaner. How could she tell him something had changed during the gun battle? How could she say it when she didn’t even know what it was?
“Why are we lyin’ here?” His finger traced a gentle circle on her shoulder. She wished he’d stop.
“I need to be with you. I want to talk.”
“Uh-oh. Words no man wants to hear.”
She heard the smile in his voice but it didn’t cheer her up. She spread her fingers to feel his heart beating under her hand. “I’m glad you’re alive.”
“So am I.” His chest rose and fell with each breath. She watched her hand raise and lower with it.
A breeze touched her shoulder; street noises drifted in through the crack of the open window. Emily tried to relax as Johnny’s breathing slowed. His lips parted, and soon he snored a little.
“Hmm?” He blinked himself awake.
Emily stretched up to kiss his cheek, wishing it felt natural. “We haven’t talked yet.”
He turned to her with a sleepy smile. “I was hoping for something a little more…physical…when you invited me up here, Mrs. Lancer.”
It felt wrong when he called her that. Right now, everything felt wrong. “I’m not saying no. But I still need to talk.”
Her expression must have given her away. Johnny pursed his lips in a little “ooh” sound. “It’s the gunfight, then.”
Emily nodded and moved her arm, leaving his chest hair damp where their skin had touched. She rubbed away the sweat. “Something’s wrong, and I don’t know what.”
“What do you mean, ‘wrong’?”
“That’s the trouble. I don’t know.”
“Well, now, you aren’t making any sense. How can we talk if we don’t know what we’re talking about?” His voice was soft and kind, like always when he comforted her. Today she felt patronized. She closed her eyes and shook her head, hoping to shake loose whatever was stuck up there.
Johnny rubbed his chest. “You never saw men shooting before, did you?”
It was more than just ‘men shooting’. He’d killed people. How could he sound so unconcerned?
She took a deep breath. “It all happened so fast. It was…Is it always like that?”
Sometimes Johnny’s economy of expression infuriated her.
“How do you know what to do?”
“Well, it’s simple. Get them before they get you.”
“No, I mean it. You and Scott knew right away what was happening. To me it was just a lot of noise and panic. I didn’t have any idea what was going on. So…how did you know what to do?”
He looked up at the ceiling, then let his head fall back on the pillow. “Years of experience. You spend a few bullets getting the other guys to show their positions, and then you do your best to stop ‘em.”
“You make it sound easy.” A crick in her neck sent a twinge up the back of her head. Emily pulled the pillow closer and settled into it. “It looked to me like you took some real chances. When you ran across the street…”
“I knew what I was doing. Look, most men can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Set the target moving…”
“The target? You were the target!”
“Yeah.” He breathed in, let it out. “I guess.”
“I hated it.” Her voice hitched.
“Yeah. I’m sorry. A gunfight is nothing for a woman to see.”
That didn’t help at all. Darn him, why couldn’t he give her what she needed?
Whatever that was.
She tried again. “Why did you have to do it?”
His tucked his chin to look at her, frowning. “You ask the darnedest questions. What do you mean, why? Why’d I do what?”
“Just why? Why you? Why couldn’t you just have stayed safe? Why did you have to be the one to run out there, make yourself a moving target?” Her heart turned over as she remembered the bullets peppering the street around him.
“Because if I hadn’t, they would have killed that tax man and maybe a few other people.”
“But what if they’d killed you?”
He pulled her to him and kissed her again. She could tell by the strength of his grasp he thought he’d found the key to what was upsetting her. She closed her eyes and willed herself not to turn away. Was that it? Am I just scared that Johnny could have died?
No, it was something else. Something she struggled to put into words. Something she didn’t want to know.
“They didn’t kill me. I’m still here, with you, and I always will be.” The soft murmur of his voice held confidence that his words would reassure her.
But they didn’t. Something had changed for her, something unexpected. She lay in his arms and he felt like a stranger.
“I don’t know you.” Oh, God, did she really say that? She didn’t even know she’d been thinking it, but as soon as the words came out she knew it was true.
Johnny froze for a split second before he loosened his grip on her. “It’s me here with you now, Emily. It was me out there, too.” He rubbed a hand across his face. “I thought we were way past this.”
She moved away from him, relieved he didn’t reach out to bring her back. “I thought so, too. But seeing it was so….” Something teetered on the edge of being said, not quite ready to come out.
“What did you expect? I was getting shot at. YOU were getting shot at.” His voice pitched higher. “I wasn’t gonna lay down and let the worst happen.”
“It came so easily to you.” More than that. Her heart jolted—and there it was. She realized what she had seen in his face.
“It’s what I did for a long time. It comes back real fast when I need it.”
Emily rolled onto her back, hid her face in her hands. Oh, God, now that I know it, how can I say it?
She uncovered her face but couldn’t look at him. “You enjoyed it.”
“What?” He bit off the word.
“When you shouted at me I got a good look at your face.”
“So what? What did you see? ‘Cause I gotta tell you, getting shot at don’t usually rank up there with things I enjoy.” Johnny swung his legs over the side of the bed with a huff. He sat with his back to her, his broad shoulders a wall between them.
When Emily reached out to touch him he twisted and lifted his elbow to stop her. “Don’t.”
The sharpness in his voice made her angry. Her anger opened the floodgates. “You looked…confident. You were absolutely convinced you could handle whatever would happen, even shooting people to death. You slid me that derringer and there was a fire in your eyes I’d never seen before.”
He dropped his head into his hands. “You took the gun, Emily. You said you were okay.”
“What else could I say?”
She had grabbed the gun from him and Johnny zigzagged across the open street, shooting and rolling, and just before he came to rest, safe behind the wagon, he grinned. It was a wild, ruthless grin; it shocked her.
“I could see you grinning. You were having fun.”
“That wasn’t fun.” Johnny spat out the words like they tasted bad. He jumped to his feet and turned to glare at her. “You think I like being shot at? You think I like killing?”
Did she? That was what she’d just accused him of but when he put it so bluntly it shocked her. Like a punch to the stomach, it nearly made her sick.
I know better. I absolutely do. Johnny killed if he had to, but he didn’t enjoy it.
“No, that’s not it. I never meant you liked to kill.” Emily swallowed the bile in her throat and tried to meet his eyes. “I just don’t understand how you could smile.”
He stared at her for an instant before turning away. He took a step toward the door but stopped, spun on his heel, and stalked around the tiny room like a caged tiger. He drew in a breath as if to say something, then made a fist and paced some more.
The walls closed in on her. Nothing except Johnny moved at all. Emily curled up on the bed, eyes squeezed shut. I shouldn’t have said anything.
When she opened her eyes, he stood at the window with his back to her. HeHe spoke without looking at her. “I knew a kid once, called it fun.” He drew the curtain aside with his trigger finger but let it fall without looking outside. “Boy, I like to’ve shook his teeth right outa his head.” The curtain rustled when he turned back to her. “But when I thought about it later, I decided he was right, in a way.”
Surprised, she looked up. He moved to stand beside the bed, his head cocked to the side. He held his arms out in familiar invitation. Part of her longed to nestle in his arms, but she knew better. She needed to be free of his spell to clear up her own thoughts.
Johnny heaved a sigh when she hesitated. He crouched beside the bed, closer to her. “You gonna at least listen to me?”
He scoffed at her formal tone, but when he spoke his voice was wistful. “Nothing gets your blood singing like a good fight. There’s just something about it makes a man feel all fired up. Sometimes a bar brawl just clears your mind, you know?”
He walked his hands across the quilt until he could grasp hers. “Emily, you were right. There’s a part of me that did enjoy it. I…I miss those days, sometimes.”
“Do you miss the killing?” She hated herself for having to ask.
“Killing was part of it. It wasn’t the fun part.”
She’d already known that. Why hadn’t she trusted him? “I’m sorry. I…”
He waved off her apology. “You know, Scott and I went looking for Murdoch once, in this two-bit town nobody ever heard of. And as soon as they heard the name ‘Lancer’ they started lyin’ and sayin’ the hotel was full and they wouldn’t serve us drinks…and I got mad. They made me feel like a kid again, that kid who didn’t count for much.”
He ran both hands through his hair, but he grabbed her hands again when he was done. “And I got mad and started sassin’ back until Scott, he pulled me up and set me straight.”
Johnny hissed a little laugh between his teeth. “Now, if I’d gone in there and said I was Johnny Madrid, they’d have been too scared to lie.” He smiled a little, shook his head, and added, “At least, I think so.”
Emily tried to smile back, and gave thanks she had married a man who could talk to her about the thoughts in his head.
“They’d have been too scared not to give me a drink. That’s how that life worked.” His brow furrowed. “Now I’m still learnin’ how Johnny Lancer’s life works. It’s real different, let me tell you.”
Emily squeezed his hands, reminding him she was there. “I thought Johnny Lancer is who you are now, and who you want to be.”
“Oh, it is, it is.” He scrambled up on the bed, pushing and leaning on her until they sat side by side on the edge, feet dangling. She found herself under his arm, and he felt like Johnny again.
“But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss that other life sometimes. It was dark and mean, but I was good at it.” He stared at the gray wall of the tiny hotel room until he suddenly took a big breath in.
“Then I look at you and realize everything I would have missed if I stayed in that life. So, you were right. I enjoyed it because part of it is fun. Getting fired up is fun. Knowing what to do? That’s fun.”
He pushed her to lie back on the bed, smiling as he looked down at her. “But this life? This is better.”
His kiss was soft, and warm, and it took her breath away. When he breathed into her ear she shivered with delight.
He reared his head back and rolled his eyes. “Jesus, Emily, what now?”
“There’s something I wanted to tell you.”
“Now? It can’t wait?” His husky voice was teasing as he nibbled her ear lobe.
“Remember when you gave me the derringer, when you slid it to me?”
He pulled away from her a bit, but she felt his smile. “You should have seen yourself grab that little pea shooter! Like you were going to take on an army.”
“Well, you gave it to me. You must have figured I could help somehow.”
He took her hand in his and brought it to his mouth for a kiss. “Every gun on my side helps. That toad of a tax man didn’t have a backbone at all, but I knew you did.”
“Thank you. But what I wanted to tell you is that it was warm. I picked the gun up and it felt warm.”
He started a lazy trail up of kisses up her arm as he spoke “Shouldn’t…have…been. It hadn’t…been…fired.”
Emily wriggled as he reached her neck. “I know. But it was warm. It took me a moment to figure out why.”
The kisses stopped. “Okay. Why?”
“It had been in your hiding pocket. It was your body that made it warm. And I thought…I thought I was holding your life in my hands.”
Johnny smiled. “And I think…you always hold my life in your hands, pretty lady.”
He slid his arm under her neck as he stretched out beside her. “And with Scott watching my back, and you, too…” Johnny chuckled. “How could I help but enjoy myself?”
This time, when his tongue tickled her ear, she laughed too. “Enjoy this,” she said, and reached out for him.