Copyright © 2012 Moira Rogers
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
It was a crying shame Grace had rediscovered affection just in time for it to be the death of her.
Her mare whinnied nervously, and Grace hurried to stroke a soothing hand down the horse’s neck. No wonder the poor thing was confused. For the third morning running, she’d crept into the stables before dawn and trudged in silence through the laborious task of preparing saddle, tack and bags, only to lose her resolve somewhere between mounting and sneaking away.
If she had a lick of self-preservation, she’d have fled Crystal Springs as soon as word came. The town was dying, and one bloodhound wasn’t going to change that. Not when the accursed Guild had taken their time dispatching someone to deal with the vampires whittling the population into nothingness. A smart woman would have taken everything that wasn’t nailed down and fled—weeks ago.
And here she was, stroking Phoebe’s mane as sunlight crept up the far wall of the stable.
She couldn’t leave the people. Not the old men fighting because the young ones were already gone, not the children who were wide-eyed and scared in ways that twisted in her gut, and not Diana. Not the first friend she’d had in years, the woman who’d accepted her…even though she’d seen through all of Grace’s pretty, careful lies.
No, Grace wasn’t going to leave Crystal Springs, and it was time to admit it to herself. Smoothing her hand down Phoebe’s back, she reached for the heavy packs, but tensed when hay crackled behind her.
“Your mount won’t be happy with that much weight.”
A stranger’s voice. Low, a little rough. The bloodhound, arriving on schedule, then—or a ghoul sent out by his vampire master to pick off anyone who trusted the dawn.
She turned and knew at once that the man standing before her was no ghoul. Tall and craggy, he looked like a man accustomed to hard living. He wore scuffed leathers and a battered hat pulled down low enough to show only an equally battered nose. His square jaw was covered in a day’s worth of beard, and it made his mirthless smile even more imposing.
A bloodhound, in all his arrogant glory, and she lowered her gaze to his boots before she could enrage him with an inadvertent challenge…or show him more than he needed to see. “I don’t have very much experience with horses,” she lied, practice making the words flow as smoothly as the truth that followed. “This is very awkward.”
“By all means, let me help.” He stepped closer and took one bag from her hand. It clinked and rattled as he shook it. “Skipping town with the good silver, sweetheart?”
Furious heat flooded her cheeks, and she could only hope he’d take it as embarrassment. Staring at his scratched boot, she fought for the calm to answer. “I’m scared.” That was the truth, at least. Only a fool wouldn’t be scared in this town. “I almost let it get the best of me. Are you going to tell everyone?”
He dropped the bag between his scuffed boots, and she looked up. “Funny thing to be concerned about, miss, but don’t worry. I’m not the law.” He thumped his hat, and the brim rose high enough for the faint light to illuminate his features.
He wasn’t a pretty man, maybe not even a handsome one. Not a man at all, if one listened to the whispers and legends, because a bloodhound was a monster under the skin—and this one showed it. A feral edge, a casual way of moving that her instincts screamed had to be a lie.
There was nothing relaxed in him, and it made her want to bolt for safety. A pity he was standing in front of the only door. “You’re from the Bloodhound Guild?”
“Mmm. And you are?”
“Grace Linwood.” She met his gaze and instantly regretted it. He looked dangerous, like a beast lurked behind those sharp brown eyes. “I am—was—Crystal Springs’s teacher.”
He laughed and shook his head. “Try again, lady. What kind of sweet little schoolmarm tries to sneak out of town?”
Her spine stiffened, and anger overrode fear. “There are no sweet people left in Crystal Springs. Maybe if your Guild had sent someone three months ago, you might have saved a few of them.”
Was it her imagination, or did guilt flash across his features? “People legitimately entitled to expensive things don’t abscond with it at first light. They pack their wagons nice and civil-like, and they say their goodbyes.” His jaw tightened, and he took a step closer. “Only two kinds of people skulk off before dawn—thieves and liars.”
“Greed and avarice?” She held her ground but she couldn’t stop her flinch. Not with him towering over her, a man who could close one unforgiving hand around her throat and squeeze the life out of her. “You’re forgetting fear and shame, and that’s what you’ll find in this town. A lot of helpless, terrified people, and a few of us ashamed of how often we desperately want to run away.”
He stared down at her and finally shrugged. “I won’t stop you. Get on up, and I’ll even say I never saw you.”
That shame burned in her gut as she looked away from him. “I can’t. I was preparing to unsaddle my horse.”
Why? As if a decent person would need a reason to stay and do the right thing. Maybe those animal eyes saw through her, to the twisted heart of her, where she was selfish and broken. A thief and a liar, just like he’d said.
Just in case he could read lies in her voice, she offered the truth. “Because being alive isn’t much of a blessing if you can’t live with yourself.”
He backed away and removed his hat. “Who’s in charge here in town?”
Maybe the Guild hadn’t briefed him—or maybe they hadn’t cared. “No one’s in charge. Everyone with the slightest bit of authority is dead or gone.”
He muttered something under his breath, sighed and smacked his hat against his thigh. “My name is Archer, ma’am. And I guess, as of now, I’m in charge.”
Levity was inappropriate, but she couldn’t help the smile that tugged up the corners of her lips. “You have my sympathy.”
He returned her smile, slow and easy. “Something tells me I’ll need it.”
Lust hit her so fast her heart plummeted toward her stomach before she could draw another breath, a dizzying plunge like the one time she’d been in an elevator in New York. He was wicked when he smiled, like he’d done things to women that would send the sweet little schoolteacher she was supposed to be into a fainting spell.
Archer dipped his head and arched an eyebrow. “Grace, you said? That’s your name?”
Oh, damn it all. She was staring at him like a witless fool—or a virgin trapped in the first flush of attraction. She tore her gaze from his face and fixed it on his boots again. Sweet and demure. Submissive. She’d been faking it for a year now. “Yes, sir.”
“May I use it, or should I call you Miss Linwood?”
“Whichever you prefer.” She offered him a tentative smile. “We’ve had more pressing issues than polite manners of address. I think you’ll find Crystal Springs is more practical these days than proper.”
“Good. Manners can’t save your life.” He dropped his hat back on his head. “I imagine I’ll see you around, should you decide to stay.”
She wet her lips as all humor faded. “If you’ll wait for me to unsaddle my horse, I can take you to the saloon. People usually gather there for a few mornings after we lose someone.”
“I see. And that happens a lot.” It wasn’t a question.
Not as often as it once had, which only meant the vampires knew the town’s supply of fresh humans was wearing thin. Sometimes they’d go a week between attacks now, and Grace had to turn her attention to her saddle to keep the hound from seeing the stark terror that shivered through her. The fear that had kept her from sleeping, afraid she’d dream of the horrors vampires and ghouls could inflict on a woman over seven long days, and the knowledge that her imagination probably fell short of the truth.
He hadn’t asked a question, but answering it gave her something easy to say. “Yes.”
“I can do that for you,” he said quietly. “Take care of your horse.”
He’d already seen the worst of it. Letting him tend to her horse would give her time to collect herself—and to warn Diana that the bloodhound had arrived. “Thank you, Mr.—”
“No, just Archer.”
She peeked up at him, and her stomach flipped at the careful way he watched her, with polite deference, though he’d surely seen enough of her to know she deserved no such courtesy. “Thank you, Archer.”
He’d already turned toward the horse, stroking one hand down the animal’s mane. “You’re welcome.”
Phoebe quieted under his hand, so apparently the beastly magic that lurked within Archer didn’t alarm her horse as much as it unsettled her. “The saloon is just down the street. Unless you’d like me to wait for you?”
His hand continued down the animal’s side. “I’ll find it.”
She fled. No use lying to herself about the quick footsteps that carried her out of the stables and into the deserted street. Crystal Springs’s streets were often empty come morning, at least until the sun stood well above the hills. Those who’d survived three months of their peculiar standoff knew better than to trust the dawn’s light. Vampires might hide from the sun, but their enslaved ghouls crept out with the dawn to pick off unwary stragglers.
The town held plenty to fear, but it was the bloodhound driving her panic as she darted across the dusty main road. She passed the boarded-up building that had once held the First Bank of Crystal Springs and paused for a moment in front of the equally empty jail.
Archer wasn’t the law, and Grace wasn’t the first person to reinvent herself in a border town. People this close to the Deadlands tended to overlook a troubled past if a person worked hard enough. She’d been a good teacher with impeccable manners, and no one had dug too deeply into a past that would unravel like a ripped sweater.
That couldn’t change now that he was here. She wouldn’t let it. Because if she couldn’t bring herself to run, the only choice was salvaging the life she’d begun to build, starting with an apology to the woman she’d almost abandoned.
The place was wrong, start to finish.
Archer stood and surveyed the street. A handful of people had begun to venture out into the morning, enough that he’d taken the liberty of hiding the teacher’s forgotten saddlebags in a dusty, neglected corner of the livery stable.
The place was wrong, all right, starting with her. Polite, well-mannered ladies didn’t steal tea sets and candlesticks. He’d considered whether they might be personal or family possessions, but only in passing. Surely she’d have countered his assumptions if they’d been incorrect.
Besides, anyone with sufficient assets would have been feeble-minded not to sell or trade them in exchange for passage out of town long before now. The woman hadn’t seemed feeble in the slightest. More like…
Guilty. An emotion he recognized all too readily.
“Excuse me, sir.” A grizzled old man took a limping step forward, his hat gripped in his hand. “You’d be the bloodhound we’ve been expecting?”
Archer found himself needing to explain. “I am. I came as soon as the Guild notified us of your situation.”
The man’s tired eyes showed no surprise, only resignation and acceptance. “I figure the Guild has to make tactical decisions, same as anyone fighting a war, and our little town might not be worth much now that those with money have found their way back East.”
Archer was suddenly fiercely glad that at least some of that money was buried under dirty hay in a saddlebag. “I’m here, and I’m not leaving until the problem’s solved.” He held out his hand. “They call me Archer.”
“I’m Cecil.” Old as he was, the man had a firm grip. “I suppose there’s not much of a town government left. Just me and the ladies—the late doctor’s daughter and the teacher.”
The teacher. “I met Miss Linwood already this morning.”
“She and Diana have worked hard to take care of those who can’t fend for themselves, but there’s only so much any of us can do.” Cecil offered a self-deprecating smile. “I’m not the solider I used to be.”
No matter, since it was Archer’s job now. “You’ll do what you must. We all will.” He afforded the street one last look. “How are you situated for weapons?”
“We’ve got more guns than we have hands to hold them, but not as many bullets as I’d like, and no one skilled in making more.” Cecil scrubbed at his head. “Damn near the only thing we have enough of is firewood to power the boilers. It’s the one thing I can set the young men to doing to keep them out of trouble, most days.”
At least he wouldn’t have to do that. “I brought ammunition for the newer rifles, and we can all work together to make more for the older ones.”
Cecil nodded. “Well, I’ll be grateful enough to have you here to keep the young bucks in line. They’re not a bad lot, but when the vampires took all the able-bodied men, those boys had to grow up fast and hard.”
There wasn’t much of a place for boys on the frontier, anyway, not this close to the creeping border between safety and the land of the dead. “Could I trouble you to show me to the saloon, Cecil?”
“Of course.” He tilted his head toward the far end of the street. “Not so far. The cook’s already laying out breakfast.”
Archer could have found it on his own, but he figured having a familiar face with him might make Grace Linwood relax a little. Let down her guard. “You mentioned the doctor’s daughter?” he asked as the old man fell into halting step beside him. “Diana?”
“Uh-huh.” A sound as noncommittal as his next words were evasive. “You’ll need a place to stay. There are a few unoccupied rooms in the saloon, since some of the ladies who used to work there have taken advantage of newly available properties.”
Maybe he mistrusted Archer’s motivations for asking. Little did the old man know that Archer was already distracted by the odd mix of defiance and vulnerability he’d glimpsed in Grace’s eyes. “Is there some reason you’re trying to distract me?”
Cecil’s brows drew together. “I reckon so. You want to let me get away with it a little longer? As a favor to a man who’d be better off sitting down sooner rather than later.”
Archer sighed. “Suit yourself, old timer.”
Cecil just grinned at him, an honest smile that wrinkled his worn face. “So tell me if you want to take a room in the saloon, or if you’d prefer a little more luxury.”
“Anything’s fine.” At one point, he’d have been happy to bunk down in the stables, but living at the bloodhound compound in Iron Creek had made him soft. “Anything with a bed, I mean.”
“The saloon, then.” He cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind sharing it with myself, the cook, a couple of orphans and Miss Linwood.”
The proximity could wind up being nothing short of torture, considering the sort of shape he’d detected beneath Grace’s sensible, modest clothing. “I’ll manage, Cecil.”
“Good, good.” He started to turn but hesitated. “Well, looks like the ladies will be joining us after all.”
An odd pressure tickled at the nape of Archer’s neck, and the hair on his arms stood on end. Another brunette stood with Grace outside the saloon, one dressed in men’s trousers and glaring at him.
It took him a moment and a glowering frown in return to realize what the strange feeling meant, and when it hit him, he growled at Cecil. “She’s a hound.”
Cecil slammed his hat onto his head with a grunt. “So much for distraction. Yes, the doctor’s girl is more of an honorary daughter than one by blood. He took her in and nursed her back to health after—”
The woman spoke, raising her voice to cover the distance. “I don’t need you to explain me to the gentleman, Cec. I ain’t a boil that won’t heal.”
“Be kind to me, pretty Diana. And to him. He’s had a shock, now, hasn’t he?”
“Don’t know.” She stepped off the plank porch in front of the saloon and crossed the space between them. “A moon-crazed bloodhound killed my husband, almost killed me, and now here I am. Is that shock enough for you?”
Archer spit in the dirt. “I’ve seen stranger things.” It wasn’t even a lie. Just look at Nate back in Iron Creek, half vampire and half hound. “Lots stranger, truth be told.”
Grace stepped up next to Diana. The confrontation had put a little steel in her spine, enough for her to glare at him. “She’s not a thing. And she’s kept most of us alive.”
“We all know that’s the truth, Grace,” Cecil said quickly, then held out an arm. “Diana, love, help me inside before Cook comes after me with her best skillet.”
“I meant no offense.” Archer swept off his hat. “Ma’am.”
“None taken.” Just like that, the hound dismissed him, favoring Cecil with her arm as they turned toward the saloon.
Grace clutched at her skirts, the tension back in her face. “I’m sorry,” she said stiffly. “No one was sure how you would react. Doc always seemed very determined to hide her from the Guild.”
As well he should have been. “The Guild would snatch her up and drag her back to New York in a heartbeat.”
Something fierce filled her eyes, a fire that gave lie to her modest exterior. “Will you be required to tell them?”
“Probably, not that it means I’m going to.” No, he’d tell Wilder, and Wilder would handle it.
“Thank you.” She seemed to realize she was gripping her dress hard enough to turn her knuckles white, and she released it quickly before smoothing out the wrinkles. “Shall we retire to the saloon?”
The town had one hell of a vampire problem—and their very own bloodhound. It didn’t matter that she was a woman. If she’d been properly trained… “How come your friend hasn’t cleaned out the vampires?”
“There are too many. Too scattered, and sometimes too far away. The one time she left to go hunting—” Grace’s throat worked as she swallowed hard. “More of us stay alive when she’s here to fight them.”
“If she couldn’t do it alone, chances are good I’ll need to wire back to Iron Creek for help myself.”
She didn’t like the idea. Archer crossed his arms over his chest. “Yes, more bloodhounds.”
“And they’ll come?” Tension twisted into doubt, and that hint of vulnerability returned. “Forgive me for being uncertain, Archer, but most of us have come to believe we weren’t worth saving.”
“If we’d known—” No, too much. He couldn’t let on that perhaps the Guild had dragged its feet so long because of factors that had more to do with Archer than with Crystal Springs. “I wish we’d come sooner, Grace, and that’s the God’s honest truth.”
“I wish you had as well.” She stepped wide of him, moving like a skittish creature wary of a predator. “If you follow me, Cook will find you something to break your fast. And you’ll need lodgings. Plenty of fine, comfortable homes have been abandoned by their owners.”
“I don’t need fine. The comfortable part will suffice.”
She snuck a peek at him, too fast for him to catch more than a glimpse of big blue eyes before she turned away, her steps echoing on the wooden walkway. “What will you need from us before you go about your business?”
He needed information, not the big eyes she kept giving him. “I’ll need to sit down with someone who can tell me exactly what’s happened over the last few months. Diana, probably.”
“Diana and Cecil know the particulars of the situation.” Two children pressed up against a window in the building adjacent to the saloon, staring at them with wide eyes as their noses left smudges on the glass. Grace lowered her voice. “But most anyone can tell you how it started, and how many we’ve lost. It’s not something any of us are likely to forget.”
He imagined not. “I might call on you for help. If there’s one person left people will listen to, it’s the schoolteacher. Some of the things I might suggest to deal with the situation here are liable to meet with…resistance.”
“They’ll listen.” It was a quiet, confident promise. The words that followed held a tart edge of humor. “Once I work past my own inevitable resistance.”
Oddly, Archer found himself certain she didn’t doubt his capabilities. “What’s the problem, Grace?”
Her chin lifted the tiniest bit. “It’s hard to know how to behave with a stranger who witnessed my most shameful moment.”
“I told you I’d forget it. Not much else I can do.”
“It’s still…” Her voice faded to a husky whisper as color tinged her cheeks. “I feel exposed, at my worst. I simply want you to know that I’m stronger than I look. I’ll do what needs doing, whether it shocks me or frightens me. I’ll do it.”
Damn him for a fool…but he believed her. “All right.”
The saloon entrance looked like it had once consisted of swinging half-doors, but they had been built up and sturdily reinforced, heavy enough to require a good tug to drag one open. “We try to gather here when there’s trouble,” Grace explained as she stepped inside. “Those willing to listen, in any case.”
“And those who won’t listen?”
“There aren’t as many as there once were.”
Meaning they’d been taken, or the once-stubborn had seen the light after a few raids. “Cecil and Diana. I want to talk to them after breakfast, and Diana and I may be going out later this morning.”
It was all he knew how to do—identify the problem at hand, learn as much as he could, and formulate a plan for dealing with it. The same way he’d dealt with things in his former life, and it worked just fine now too.
An obstacle was an obstacle, whether it was the walking dead or a bank vault.