The cold air stirred around Arlie and the wounded man, bringing the flutter of juncos in the trees. Arlie spoke without thinking—too much time alone in this spot, talking to the birds and the sky and the trees. “At least you’re wearing more clothes than before.”
He laughed outright and then winced with it, managing to sit nonetheless. His eyes showed the struggle of staying upright, faint lines at their corners and drawn between his brows.
“Who are you?” she asked, ready to steady him if he needed—but he didn’t. “An answer that means I’m not crazy would be nice.”
He flexed a hand and arm, frowning. His silence gave her the opportunity to remember that she didn’t know him, no matter what he evoked in her. She couldn’t explain him or what she’d seen here. And she was alone with him in a remote spot on her remote property.
He rolled his head, stretching his neck while he kneaded the base of it with strong fingers. “You’re in no danger from me.”
In for a penny. She moved behind him, on her knees in the dried grasses, her gloves the only barrier between her fingers and the smooth skin of his shoulders, the only impediment to the sensation of digging into the tight muscle at his shoulder.
He startled faintly with surprise, and she didn’t blame him. She hadn’t been invited. But soon enough he bowed his head and let her work the knot she so easily found. It felt like rock, and she winced. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to hurt you.”
“You’re not. You can’t.”
That last sounded like a man trying to be a more than manly—except he hadn’t so much as stiffened with pain. She knuckled the spasm a little more deeply; he only leaned into her touch until it finally gave way.
Arlie gave him a final pat and sat back. He kept his gaze forward, almost as if it was meant to be courtesy. “I had not intended to intrude. Your song—”
“Yes, let’s talk about that,” she said. “I’ve been doing it since forever. No one ever emerged from elsewhere into my arroyo before.”
He rested his palms on his thighs, showing her nothing but the wild tail gathered at the back of his head and studs in his ear. That and another tattoo nearly hidden behind his ear. “Things change.”
“No kidding,” Arlie said. “You care to explain?”
He turned to look at her, then, revealing golden-brown eyes and an expression of some frustration. “It’s complicated.”
“Of course it is.” Her hands hummed with a warmth that seemed to have transferred from his skin right through the gloves. She huffed impatience she wouldn’t have dared only fifteen minutes earlier. “But this is my land. My little world. Explanation is the price of admission.”
He smiled. A small thing barely showing at a generous mouth and at the corners of those eyes.
“What?” she asked crossly, more frustrated than amused. Not just at him. At herself.
He said, “You forgot to be afraid.”
She sent him skepticism. “And that’s a good thing?” Because there was no point arguing it. She was more interested in knowing him than she was in running home to call the sheriff’s office.
And not only because she didn’t truly know what she could say to the sheriff’s office in the first place.
His smile twitched wider, just for an instant. It was enough of a yes to be easily read.
Arlie wanted to demand more answers. She wanted to pin him down. She wanted to put her hands on him again.
She couldn’t tell what he might want, behind that faintest of smiles. Except that he suddenly jerked—a little wince, a sharp little breath. Poked. He almost immediately planted a foot on the ground, pushing off as though he hadn’t been so unsteady only moments before.
“Wait,” Arlie said. “What—?”
Now his face held nothing but regret. He said, “You aren’t the only one who sings.”
Then he turned back the way he’d come, walking into the dusty clay-sand slope without leaving so much as a trickle of dirt and rock behind him.
She saw him again in late April, just when she’d begun to think she wouldn’t. Spring equinox. This time she carried her flute, finding just enough warmth left in the day to bare her fingers and use it.
This time, when she saw him, she stood up—out in the open, hesitating on the steps that would plunge her down the slope to greet him.
But as before, he came in the middle of conflict, this time with two others—a man and a woman who startled only briefly at their sudden change of location before leaping back into the fray.
The man wore a loose shirt and flowing tabard that reached mid-thigh over his pants; the other two fighters wore flowing calf-length trousers. The woman had a tightly strapped bodice and the man only a fastened vest, and they fought with hands wrapped but bereft of weapons—a whirling dance in which movement flowed as freely as the flutter of sleeve and pants.
Arlie’s fighter bore hardly a mark, while the other two had been scuffed and bloodied. He went so far as to toss a fierce grin in her direction between blows
The woman fighter jerked her head up, understanding immediately that they weren’t alone and just as quickly locating Arlie in the trees; she snarled something to her partner and flung herself up the slope toward Arlie, cruel triumph twisting her features.
Arlie scrabbled back, slipping on the scree of the slope, a startled cry in her throat.
Her fighter cursed a short, sharp and unfamiliar word, slamming the other man with a series of short, pounding blows and then bounding upward without checking to see if the other had actually fallen.
He snagged the woman’s ankle, yanking her leg with a fierce determination and then grabbing her waistband to set her tumbling back. He spared Arlie a piercing glance through the branches; she met his gaze with an impact that gave her a visceral shock—seeing the intensity of him, the concern behind it.
Understanding the unyielding protection he’d offered.
She gave him an instinctive, instant reassurance, looking down to his opponents with a jut of her chin that meant watch your back!
Indeed, the woman had crawled back up to snatch at him. He twisted back on himself and dove at her—but not before he’d offered Arlie the quickest of smiles, and a few barely heard words. Important words.
“Jaice,” he said. “Jaice Theyasa.”
And then he dove for the other two, and the fight bowled them all over and back into the hillside.
Jaice. Jaice Theyasa.
Silence descended over the hillside—except from within Arlie, where her own heart beat a frantic rhythm in the aftershocks of fear.
She’d come for him, and she’d gotten him.
And she’d gotten a whole lot more.
For one, that Jaice Theyasa’s enemies wouldn’t hesitate to include her in their fight. And almost more importantly…
That he wouldn’t hesitate to protect her from such threats.