“Nathan, I really must insist that you calm yourself!” Charlotte scolded gently as the healer yet again fussed at Vin to let him up off the bed.
“Honest, I could do them stitches,” Nathan protested.
They were in Nathan’s clinic; Charlotte preparing to restitch Chris’s bullet wound. Due to the cramped quarters, Buck, Josiah, and JD had left, leaving Vin and Ezra to assist Charlotte. Chris had blacked out at some point on the journey up to the clinic, which left Nathan the only conscious patient. The healer had been agitated since they’d brought Chris in, and Vin had done his best to calm their unwilling patient; but to no avail.
“Maybe we should brew one of yer fine healin’ teas there, Nathan. Sure it would make ya feel a whole lot better.” There was a bit of an evil gleam in Vin’s eyes.
Ezra chuckled and even Charlotte’s lips twitched at the rather vengeful tone underlying the sharpshooter’s words.
“Don’t need none! And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with my teas!” Nathan said firmly. “Y’all just don’t know what’s good for you.” He tried to get out of the bed again, only to have Vin push him back down one more time.
“Really, ma’am, wouldn’t be no trouble t’ take care of stitchin’ Chris up,” he entreated, obviously not willing to trust Chris in anyone’s hands but his.
“Mr. Jackson, I assure you that I have stitched a wound before. Why, I used to stitch Ezra up all the time when he was a child, and really, the scars aren’t all that bad.” She turned to Ezra. “Are they, dear?”
It was all Ezra could do not to laugh out loud; the panicked look on Nathan’s face was priceless. He’d forgotten how good Charlotte’s innocent, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, act was. “No, the scars are not bad at all, cousin,” he replied smoothly. “Why, I hardly notice them anymore.” He shrugged a shoulder negligently.
“There, you see?” she said airily, Then, an impish smile settled on her lips, and Nathan realized he’d been had when Ezra finally gave in to laughter.
Vin chuckled, shaking his head. “Had ya goin’ there!”
“Oh, yeah, y’all are real funny!” he grumped.
“Nathan, if it will reassure you at all, I used to assist Mathew in his surgery for many years, and I worked in a field hospital during the war.” She paused before adding, “The Revolutionary War, that is.”
Nathan looked abashed. “Sorry, ma’am, didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Nonsense,” she replied briskly. “No offense taken. You had no idea, and your concern does you credit. You’re a fine healer, Nathan.”
Dropping his eyes, looking bashful, he muttered, ‘Thank you, Mz Black.”
“You’re quite welcome, Nathan, but it is only the truth.” Turning her attention back to Chris’s unconscious form, she said, “Shall we begin?”
Chris fought back the heavy blanket of unconsciousness that smothered him, that kept him trapped in the dark. Pain was the first thing to register in his awareness, then the scent of lavender and the cool caress of soft bedding against his skin. Shards of memory cascaded around him: a letter, a photo, guilt, rage, despair. Where was he? Somewhere, in memories lost, he knew something had happened, but what, he couldn’t recall.
“Calm yourself, Chris,” a voice said softly. A southern accented voice. One he recognized.
“Ezra?” he croaked, not sure if any sound had actually passed his painfully parched throat. He peered towards the sound of the voice, the dim light of the oil lamp on the table next to him making him squint.
“Yes.” Anticipating his question, Ezra said, “You are at Charlotte’s ranch.” Ezra’s arm supported him as he held a glass to his mouth. Chris greedily sipped the water that lapped at his lips. Then he was laid back down against soft pillows.
“What?” Yet again he seemed unable to verbalize more than one word. But Ezra once more seemed to divine his meaning.
“What happened?” He chuckled, the sound holding a darkness that was at odds with his conversational tone. “A bottle too many of Red Eye and an impact between your fist and Mr. Jackson’s face.”
He tried to push himself up, but his body refused to cooperate. God, what had he done?
Ezra continued, “In the process, you managed to tear your stitches, which required Charlotte to piece you back together, Nathan not being physically able to do so, having his own injury to be dealt with.”
Chris grimaced; despite Ezra’s matter-of-fact tone, he knew the gambler was pissed. “What else?”
“Isn’t that enough?” Ezra tsked reprovingly,
“Ezra!” Chris rapped out, though the threat lost some of its power when his voice cracked.
“Very well. What else? It was decided that it would be best for everyone concerned were you to recuperate here. You became fevered, and Charlotte and I have nursed you these last two days.”
Charlotte. Her voice drifted across his addled memory…Not a killer…
“Charlotte,” Chris whispered. “Ez, did I do anything?” Fear gripped his gut, melding with the pain. “Did I hurt her?”
This time, Ezra’s laughter was decidedly unpleasant. “Mr. Larabee, had you harmed my cousin in any way whatsoever, believe me, you would not be waking up quite so soon.”
Chris didn’t doubt that. Despite the façade Ezra had perfected of indolent gambler, the man had a hard edge; an edge that had been honed to razor sharpness over the last year. “Nathan okay?”
“Charlotte stitched his head wound and he is now under the watchful eye of Josiah, saint that he is. If there was ever any doubt, Mr. Jackson makes for a terrible patient.”
“Guess I owe Josiah one,” Chris said with a dejected sigh.
Again the dark laugh. “Oh, believe me, Chris, your ledger is replete with red ink when it comes to a great many of our little group after these latest events.”
“That include you, Ezra?” He looked at the gambler intently, trying to read his unreadable expression.
Ezra just leaned back in his chair, rubbing his thumb and middle finger together. Then he said, “In truth, I find the current situation quite advantageous.” He flashed a half smile, before settling a piercing look on Chris. “Something happened in this house to Charlotte, and her current despondent state concerns me greatly.”
Chris realized with some surprise that it had been weeks since he’d seen Charlotte. When had it been? Just after her fiancé had taken off – had to be. He’d been such a lousy friend to her, and to Ezra, that he hadn’t noticed how much time had passed, or even that there was anything wrong.
“What do you need from me?”
“My hope is that during your sojourn here that you will be able to convince Charlotte to confide in you.” He held up a hand to forestall the man’s incipient protest. “I am not asking you to betray her confidence. I do not need to know what happened, only to know she has a friend who does. You do remember how to be a friend, don’t you, Mr. Larabee?” the last said in a voice nearly cold enough to freeze water.
He winced a little at that, not that he didn’t deserve it. He had so many bridges to mend with his friends after what had happened over the last few weeks. Despite all that, they had stood by him; were still standing by him. “Rest easy, Ezra. I’ll do whatever it takes to make this right—for all of you. I’ll look out for Charlotte while I’m here, and after that, if need be. You have my word.” He held out his hand.
Ezra took the proffered hand, shaking it. “Then you and I have an accord.”
“It seems to be healing nicely,” Charlotte said as she finished placing the clean dressing on Chris’s wound. “And perhaps if you can manage to avoid any bar fights in the near future, it might even heal completely this time.” Her voice was equal measures of gentle reproof and amusement.
It was the second day after Chris had regained consciousness at Charlotte’s ranch, and he was feeling much more clearheaded than he had yesterday. The windows of his room had been opened wide; still early enough in the morning that the warm July breeze flooding the room was pleasant. He felt more alive than he could recall feeling for a very long time.
“I’ll do my best, ma’am,” he replied with a crooked grin.
“Mmm-hmm,” was her only response as she pulled the coverlet back up over his bare chest. Straightening, she looked him over, seeming to come to some sort of decision. “If you’re feeling up to it, perhaps you’d like to sit in the garden later? The fresh air and sunlight would do you good.”
“Sounds like a mighty fine idea,” he agreed. More than fine, actually. He hated being cooped up in a sickroom; though this one was a quite a step up from Nathan’s clinic. He looked around the guestroom at the Oriental furnishings and art that decorated it. He'd never seen anything like it before, yet somehow, the room seemed to reflect its owner more than any of the other rooms he’d seen on previous visits. It reminded him sharply that Charlotte was Immortal; exotic, unique, and totally outside his experience, just like this room.
Then she smiled at him, and he realized that while she might be all those things, she was also a woman, a very human woman who had burdens of her own. “I’m sorry, Charlotte, for what happened at the saloon. I don’t recall much, but I know I wasn’t a gentleman.” He wasn’t sure he’d ever know what exactly it was he’d done and said that day, but it didn’t mean he felt any less remorse for his actions.
She shook her head. “No apologies are necessary, Chris. We all have demons to which we are prey,” she said gently.
As she turned to leave, he asked quietly, “What are your demons, Charlotte?”
She stiffened almost imperceptibly before facing him once more. “You may tell Ezra that I am perfectly well, and that there is nothing for him to worry about,” she declared with no small measure of heat.
He decided it was pointless to deny that Ezra was the reason behind his question, so he charged straight in. “You sure about that?”
“Quite.” Crossing her arms across her chest, she pulled herself up to her full height, narrowing her eyes.
She reminded Chris of a schoolmarm he’d had back in Missouri when he was a boy. Though she hadn’t been half as pretty as Charlotte, he thought absently.
“Ezra is a fine young man, but he is prone to being overprotective and tends to forget who is the child and who is the parent.”
“He ain’t no child, Charlotte,” he rebuked gently. Her eyes flashed and he thought he might have pushed too hard. Then her shoulders slumped.
“No, he is not.” Sighing, she dropped into the chair next to his bed. “But to me, there will always be a part of him that is the little boy I helped raise; I can not help that. Nor can I burden him with my troubles.” She looked down at her hands in her lap. “He has enough to deal with in his own life, which is as it should be.”
“Don’t rightly think he sees it that way,” Chris pointed out. “Hell, Charlotte, you’re the one who raised him to give a damn about others. Can’t blame him for doing what’s needful to look out for you.”
“Like setting you to spy on me?” she asked with a wry smile.
“Man’s just using his ‘God given gifts’,” he pointed out with a chuckle. Then he became serious. “Ezra was going to contact Maude, get her to come here, figuring she might be the one person that you’d let in.”
Looking up at him sharply, she shook her head. “I didn’t realize Ezra was that concerned,” she admitted. “He’s a good boy.” Her words were said so softly that Chris could barely make them out and there was a faraway look in her eyes.
“He was right, wasn’t he? About Maude?” He wasn’t able to keep out the note of disapproval in his voice.
She tilted her head, searching his face. “And you don’t understand that, do you?” she asked, not denying his assertion.
He leaned back against the pillows tiredly, shaking his head. “No, don’t s’pose I do. After everything, I don’t understand why you still have a place for that woman in your life.”
Charlotte’s eyes looked very old, as if she were remembering some distant pain. When she began to speak, it was in a tightly controlled voice, “I came upon Maude in an alley in New Orleans in 1815. She had been brutalized, stabbed repeatedly. Her assailant was making ready to cut her throat when I killed him.” Her expression dared Chris to judge her for that, but he just nodded for her to go on.
Charlotte’s eyes locked with his as she continued, “She died in my arms, there in that alley; the warmth of her blood saturating my dress, turning cold as it seeped through to coat my flesh. For so long afterwards, the terror of those moments, the means of her death, haunted her. We traveled a long hard road together, bringing her back from that place where she was violated and murdered. It is impossible to share that pain, that horror, with another woman and not have a bond!” she said fiercely. “We were together for almost twenty years, Chris, closer than any sisters. Maude is not an evil woman; only a woman who has demons of her own.”
A heavy silence fell, and Chris shivered a little despite the warmth of the summer morning. All too clearly he could visualize Charlotte holding a bleeding, dying Maude, in that New Orleans alley. He’d never given much thought to how the Immortals he knew had met their first deaths, and Charlotte’s story now made him wonder just how she had died. What he wasn’t sure about was if he had the guts to ask her—or to deal with the answer.
The moment was broken by the sound of running feet, swiftly followed by the appearance of a little girl. “Mama, mama!” Penny, Charlotte’s eleven-year-old daughter, said excitedly, coming to stand next to where her mother sat.
Charlotte put a hand on top of her curly red hair. “Now, Penny, do we burst into other people’s rooms without knocking first?” Her voice was gentle but firm.
“Sorry, mama.” The girl looked guiltily over at Chris. “Sorry, Mr. Larabee.”
Chris chuckled. “That’s okay, Penny. I’m not always real good at remembering my manners either.”
She gave him a brilliant smile and Chris wondered what it might have been like to have had a daughter. The idea had always kinda scared him, but looking at Penny, he realized it might have been nice to have had a daughter to smile at him like that; a little girl that Adam could have been a big brother to. She would have looked just like Sarah, with long brown curls. Close on the heels of those thoughts came the realization that thinking such things didn’t make him feel like he was going to break inside, and he marveled at that.
He realized Charlotte was looking at him with some concern. He smiled at her, a smile she returned before turning her attention back to Penny. “Now what has you running through the house like a hellion?” she asked with a grin.
“Cousin Ezra has taught me to play Für Elise! Please, can you come listen?”
“Of course I can, dearest,” she replied, kissing Penney’s forehead. “Mr. Larabee needs to rest now, so we shall leave him in peace.”
“Wouldn’t mind hearing Penny play,” Chris told her.
Raising one expressive brow, she gave him a look. “I am not sure that would be wise, Chris.”
“I promise I’ll take it easy.” He gave her a lopsided grin. “Cross my heart.”
Penny clapped her hands together and squealed at the thought of having an audience and Charlotte giggled. Chris thought it was one of the nicest sounds he’d heard in a long time.
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