Chapter Two (Part One)
Milo’s mind awoke before he had the strength to open his eyes. Images flashed through his mind. The violent storm. The icy water numbing his feet. A stranger on horseback. Was he dying? Is this what death felt like? Warm, soft, and serene, with the steady drumming of water tapping wood and glass? No, he couldn’t die.
If he died, so would the child inside him.
The thought brought his fingers to twitch. Slowly, sensation returned to his body, along with the pain. A dull throb in his head, a deep soreness in his legs, a bladder so full that his kidneys ached. Alive. Yes, he was alive!
He forced his eyelids open, each feeling as though it weighed ten pounds. Beneath him, the bed felt soft and warm, a welcome luxury after trekking through miles of freezing woods. Blinking slowly, he waited for the vague shapes around him to come into focus. Rows of unfinished wood beams stretched across the ceiling overhead, while a weak, crackling fire burned inside the hearth.
The strong but pleasant smell of charred wood hung in the air. The blankets held a scent, too. Like soap, sandalwood, and musk. Insulating him, protecting him. He felt safe here. He hadn’t a clue where “here” was, but anywhere was better than the place from which he’d fled.
As soon as the memory crossed his mind, he ducked from it. He didn’t want to think about that place. He wasn’t ready. Maybe somehow, he would never have to think about the past again.
His hand curved over the gentle swell of his belly. No. There was no forgetting.
With trembling arms, he lifted himself into a sitting position. As the covers slid down his chest, he noticed the loose tunic he now wore. Someone had dressed him.
“Hello?” he rasped, peering around the open floorplan.
No answer but the constant patter of rain. How long had he been asleep? It was impossible to tell the hour with the darkness of the storm. He saw no clock. In fact, he saw nothing resembling technology.
In one corner of the room, a tall dresser sat against the wall, along with two weathered armchairs and a rug that looked to have been pushed haphazardly aside. A small kitchen area with a table and four wooden chairs filled the rest of the space. No photographs, no décor—save for the drawn window curtains and a strange archaic weapon displayed above the mantle.
Milo clutched the baggy flannel at his chest and pulled outward, peering down into the stretched neck hole. His rescuer must be male—a much bigger one than him. A twinge of fear crept up his spine. But if this man had wanted Milo dead, he wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of caring for him.
Gingerly, he lifted the covers. Each step hurt right down to the bone, but at least the floorboards were smooth beneath his bare feet. He paused, resting a hand on the fireplace mantle, trying to gather his bearings. He had to pee badly and moving made it worse. He couldn’t hold it any longer. Through the darkness of the cabin, he shuffled toward the first door he found and stepped out onto a small, covered porch.
The gentle morning light felt harsh on his eyes. Grasping the wooden rail with one hand, he unbuttoned the gap in his over-sized pants and relieved himself, careful to aim through the bars and onto wet ground. A hard sigh escaped his lips. When he finished, he gazed out at the endless expanse of forest, listening for signs of life. Deep woods surrounded him on all sides. Soft rain batted against the branches and dripped from the angled porch roof. The air felt damp, chilly, peaceful.
Just three days ago, everything had been different.
A memory assaulted him. The sickening lurch of the train as it picked up speed. The explosive clouds of smoke and fire as it barreled into the perimeter, annihilating those in the first several cars. A fellow blyther shouting raw throated at him, unlocking his harness and instructing him to run. Milo did as he was told, joining the thousands of others racing toward the gaping perimeter hole on foot, desperate for freedom. But for a blyther, freedom was impossible.
Milo shut his eyes and inhaled slowly. He tried clearing his mind. Tried to drown out the ringing in his ears from the gun blasts and blood curdling screams. One by one, the blythers fell. Some were shot. Others exploded when they reached the invisible barrier. In the darkness behind his eyelids, he saw the terrified, angelic face of the female whose hand he’d grabbed while running. When he’d glanced back to check on her, only her arm remained.
A wave of nausea rolled over him, forcing him to open his eyes and clutch at the base of his throat. He should return to bed. Put the terror and memories to rest for as long as he could. But his now empty bladder redirected his focus to hunger and thirst. His mouth felt dry as a bone. A gnawing emptiness gripped the pit of his stomach. Nourishment first, then bed.
When he entered the kitchen, his eyes fell on the porcelain pitcher atop the counter. To his delight, it was half-full. He didn’t bother searching for a glass. He lifted it to his lips and gulped from the side. The chilly water numbed his tongue, quenching his thirst as it dripped from the corners of his mouth.
Not long after, the baby stirred. He exhaled in relief; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt movement. “You’re still with me.” He placed a hand on his stomach. “I was worried about you, tiny. That cold water woke you up, didn’t it?”
Dragging a sleeve across his mouth, he glanced around. Strange—this kitchen didn’t even have a refrigerator. How did the homeowner keep their food cold and fresh? No faucets, no microtoaster, no espresso machine, nor any other modern convenience. He looked up. No lights overhead, and not a single air vent. What sort of place was this?
It didn’t matter. The farther away, the better.
He began rummaging through the cabinets, where he discovered a box of crackers, bags of jerky, cans of beans, a jar of peanut butter, and half a loaf of bread wrapped in a cloth. The meager selection might as well have been a king’s feast. He didn’t hesitate to unfold the loaf and tear off a piece. His mouth watered as he un-screwed the lid of the peanut butter jar with trembling hands and scooped a generous portion onto the bread.
“Forgive me,” he said to the empty space around him, before stuffing it into his mouth. Soft, creamy goodness filled his mouth, overwhelming his taste buds and sticking to his palate as he chewed. Oh, it tasted so good. The best peanut butter he’d ever had.
He felt guilty for eating the rest of the loaf, but if his rescuer had been kind enough to give him dry clothes and put him in bed, then perhaps he wouldn’t mind Milo eating his food. Maybe, if he knew Milo’s situation, he would understand—
An alarming thought struck him. He reached up to clutch the side of his neck, remembering his code. Had he been reported? Were the enforcers already on their way to return him to Dominus? To him?
Milo’s heart began to race, and his gaze whipped to the front door. If he fled now—went back out into the cold—he would surely die. Exhaustion overcame him. He stumbled back into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin. As he nodded off, he prayed to whomever might be listening that things would be all right.
Eldon pulled the soaked saddle from the cluster of wet ferns. With a grunt, hoisted it onto Deputy’s back. Thankfully once it dried, a little oil would make it like new. His hands worked quickly to secure the cinches, while his mind vexed with thoughts of the stranger in his bed.
It had been a couple hours since he’d left to escort Mrs. Tate back to the village. The storm had worsened into the evening, so she’d spent night up in his loft. Eldon had maintained the fire and kept watch from the kitchen table, only dozing off a time or two. Every time he woke, he’d half-expected the incident to have been a dream. That he’d be alone in his cabin. But the bed remained beside the fireplace, the handsome stranger motionless beneath the sheets.
Yesterday had forced him into the past. He could not escape it. Couldn’t help thinking of what Dominus had stolen from him seven years ago—had ripped from him so hard that it left a cold, gaping hole that nothing could ever fill. What a cruel trick of nature. Why did this have to happen to him?
At dawn, Mrs. Tate had checked on the stranger, and before they left, had promised to return with her stethoscope once the weather improved. Calling out Dr. Harlowe was not an option. He would see the silver barcode on the man’s neck, and Eldon didn’t know how he’d react. Gossip in the village spread like wildfire, and he trusted Mrs. Tate not to say a word.
Saddle secure, Eldon mounted Deputy and clicked his tongue. The scents of mud, wet horsehair and evergreen mingled in the air as they rode onward. He treasured the silence of the woods. The comfort of the saddle beneath him. This was the kind of peace he lived for, and when winter came, he’d take solace in the short days blending together—each one no different than the last.
But today was different. Because of him.
In the gathering light behind a heavy grey sky, Eldon secured Deputy to the hitching post outside the cabin. He hurried up the steps and opened the broken door. The man had shifted position. Eldon had noticed it before he reached the bed. The stranger now lay on his side, relaxed as a pup, his sleep undisturbed. The quilts were pushed to his bare feet.
It hurt to look at him, the w’ay it hurt to look directly at snow on a bright, wintry day.
Eldon’s gaze darted around the room. The fire was out, save for the glowing embers within the ashy wood. Nothing looked suspicious from the get go. He bent forward for a closer look and noticed a dried smudge on the man’s bottom lip. Peanut butter.
Eldon straightened so fast his head spun. He went to the kitchen, where he discovered an empty water pitcher and raided pantry. It made him feel strange, imagining someone traipsing through his house in his absence. Eating his food. Invading his privacy. Judging him. He didn’t know which felt worse, the embarrassment of a pathetic food supply, or the guilt for not offering the man more.
He banished the pointless thoughts. This stranger didn’t care about him, nor would he have any interest in Eldon’s boring, reclusive life. The man had probably gotten up, stumbled about in confusion, and eaten whatever he could find before falling back into bed. Well good, at least he ate something.
Eldon returned to the bedside, where he lingered for a ridiculous amount of time. He should leave the man alone, but still he watched, caught up in some horrified fascination. The fair, flawless skin, the silky blond eyebrows and sleek, prominent jawline. So beautiful, both masculine and feminine at the same time. The longer Eldon stood, the deeper he found himself buried in the mystery.
A shiver ran through him. He’d been alone a long time. Too long. But he had chosen this solitary life for good reason. He hadn’t wanted to feel lust, or affection or, dare he think it, love, ever again. Now, this captivating person lay in his bed, with lips as tempting as forbidden fruit, reminding Eldon of his humanity. Never had the line between fear and attraction been so blurred.
“Damn you, Dominus,” he whispered into the empty air. “Who is he to you? What are you planning to do with him? No one is supposed to be this breathtaking—”
A log inside the hearth crumbled. The man moaned softly in his sleep, his knees coming up and his arm sliding down to make a protective cradle for his belly. Retreating a step, Eldon clenched his jaw.
The stranger was five months along according to Mrs. Tate. It was the time when most babies started to show. She’d gone on to explain that at this stage, the bones were developed, and the mother could feel its movements. She had said this all while smiling in awe, as if Eldon should have felt the same. But he didn’t. He only felt confused and uncomfortable. A mother was a woman.
“Eldon, I have something to tell you.” Calliope lay in the grass beside him, clutching his hand tightly as they gazed up at the night sky. She rolled onto her side to look at him, her soft blue eyes glistening as brilliantly as the stars. “I went to the doctor today, and he confirmed what I’d been suspecting these past couple weeks. You’re going to be a daddy!”
Eldon quickly banished the haunting memory. Every time he thought of her, he bled inside.
He left the bedside and climbed the ladder to the loft, where he kicked off his muddy boots and collapsed onto the spare mattress. He was so tired. But how could he sleep? How, when such a mysterious presence lay just below him, filling his bed with warmth, saturating his clothes with his scent?
His mind vexed at a sudden thought. What would happen when the man woke again? The thought of having to speak to him made Eldon’s stomach churn with dread. People in the village saw him as strong, fearless. He had fooled them all. Inside, he was like an ancient statue laden with cracks.
One more hard blow and he would collapse to pieces.