Claire told nobody about her encounter with an outlaw. For one thing no matter how she tried to phrase it in her head, it sounded completely mad, and even if she ignored that and ploughed on, it was perhaps a little personal to recount. Telling your friends about a bit of a dirty dream might be acceptable all round as passing amusement, trying to persuade them that it had been so real that she’d apparently left an item of underwear there and acquired a small, flat, grubby pillow in exchange was probably not wise.
Hey! I met this guy…You’ll never guess who I met! Listen, I had this amazing lucid dream about this bloke…
A week or so passed, her concussion was deemed to have healed and she returned to work, but the memory of Joe proved more stubborn. Short of throwing herself from a horse again, she attempted to replicate the conditions that had led to the dream and she retired to bed each night in a spirit of optimism. Her efforts however proved entirely futile and so, inevitably, they tailed off after a while. She comforted herself that after all, another dream, no matter how spectacular, would be ultimately just as unsatisfactory and ephemeral as the last; she had not, in any conventional sense, met someone she could hope to see again or form a relationship with. Even so, sometimes at the most inconvenient moments, she would see him in her mind’s eye, as clearly as if he had been a real person, his face slowly crinkling to a teasing smile, pleasure shining from his eyes, his skin taut and smooth in the darkness. And then she would remember the way he’d held her as he’d stood looking out across the night sky, and how helpless she’d felt in the face of the fate that she knew, and he no doubt suspected, awaited him.
It was several months later when Claire felt she’d finally got the memory into some kind of reasonable perspective that she left the city again on a short business trip. The errand was dull and she departed without enthusiasm, turning up the radio for the drive ahead and keeping her thoughts firmly on her plans for the weekend when she returned. By the end of the day however, the little positive energy she had mustered had evaporated entirely, and she checked into an old-fashioned hotel with the sole aim of sleeping away the hours until she could go home.
The room into which she was shown was, well, ghastly, she decided. Nothing dates quite as badly as nostalgic fashions, and the dados and swags, cheap mahogany furniture and carefully co-ordinated floral wallpapers spoke loudly to her of the 1980s rather than the late nineteenth century they were presumably intended to evoke. Not, Claire thought to herself with a smile, that her experience of the period was typical. After all, she doubted many people would welcome a hotel room done out to look like a makeshift tent in the outback. She shut the porcelain dish of pot pourri into a handy drawer, slung her suitcase on the bed and checked the time on her phone. Nine pm. A little early for bed perhaps but there wasn’t much else to do.
She stepped across to the window and idly lifted the heavy cream lace curtain with one finger. It afforded a view of her car, parked in a part of an enclosed courtyard reserved for guests. A few metal beer barrels stood untidy guard by the back door of the bar. In an attempt to relieve the utilitarian grimness of the area, someone had sawn their wooden predecessors in half, filled them with soil and planted a few half-hearted flowers, but the effect just made the view all the more depressing. A single bright light, apparently chosen for security rather than aesthetics, shone on the industrial rubbish bins, obliterating whatever period charm might once have existed around the old buildings. Claire sighed, allowing the curtain to fall back in place and turned away. Maybe a shower would help.
Her spirits lifted a little under the drubbing from the force of the water and the cheerful noise from the TV. She found herself her pyjama bottoms and a tank top, took the extra pillows from the closet to make a large pile to lean on, then settled down to watch television.
When she woke up several hours later, it was into quiet darkness, and at first she struggled to remember where she was. She swung her legs to the floor and groped fruitlessly on the bedside table for the bottle of water she had left there. Unable to find either that or the switch for the wall lights, she fumbled her way across the unfamiliar room to the window, seeking fresh air and illumination from the lights in the yard. Awkwardly, she turned the sash catch and pushed up the bottom window. The rush of fresh air woke her a little more, so she pushed back the curtain and looked at the yard outside. The exterior light was no longer on, and in the darkness she strained to make out more than a faint glimpse in the upper pane of her own ghostly self, leaning sleepily against the frame. The walls, which earlier she had noticed had been freshly whitewashed, gave no hint of brightness in the dark. Her bleary eyes were unable even to make out the outline of her car.
Just at that moment, some way below her room, a heavy door slammed and a man’s voice cursed. The unexpected sound roused her from her reverie and she was about to return to bed when she heard a clattering noise from the yard below. Kneeling down to ensure she was hidden from sight, she looked through the slit of open window and was surprised to see several figures on horseback, pulling up by the bar door. Claire rubbed her eyes with the heel of her palms, and as if to confirm what she was seeing, one of the horses whinnied and threw its head back, jangling the bridle and jerking the arm of the person holding it. The animals, viewed from the front, appeared huge and distorted, and it took a little while for her to realise that this was because they were laden with large saddle-bags which the riders were now busy emptying. The bar door opened inwards, throwing a wedge of dirty brown light across the scene. The men – she was sure now there were four men there – began to move whatever it was they had brought into the hotel. The bags must have been heavy because the men grunted and strained as they worked.
Although such strange nocturnal activity suggested something illicit, oddly enough they made very little attempt to be quiet. At one point they even laughed aloud, and the noise wavered through the night air. An owl hooted from the trees beyond, the men disappeared inside the bar, slamming the door behind them and the horses shifted restlessly on the cobbles. No other guests seemed to have been disturbed. No lights went on, and everything else stayed eerily silent.
Down below inside, Claire could hear other sounds, which she guessed were made by the men dragging whatever it was along one of the ground floor passages. Something about the type of noise it was bothered her somehow, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Wide-awake now, her curiosity began to get the better of her and she considered going down to see what was happening. After all, she told herself, they didn’t seem to be trying to hide themselves, and there were many plausible reasons why a hotel guest might visit the public areas at night. She picked up her key and quietly opened the bedroom door. The creak it made gave her pause for thought. Was it really worth wandering around at three a.m. if she’d just witnessed the delivery of a few bottles of black market industrial cleaner? And if it were something more sinister, she certainly wouldn’t care to get involved. The thought of standing there in her pyjamas, face to face with some local hard man, was not encouraging. On the other hand, she reflected, there was no way she would be able to get back to sleep now, and at the very least she might find herself a drink of water in the bar. So with this thought, she stepped resolutely through the door and closed it behind her.
A floorboard creaked under her tread. Her heart beat wildly, and she wondered why. It was unlikely that the sound would carry downstairs, and even if it had, she wasn’t doing anything wrong. It’s not like they could believe they had the place to themselves. Then the reason hit her like a thunderclap. When she had come up to her room several hours previously, the floors everywhere had been covered in thick, heavy-duty hotel carpeting. Now the boards were exposed, stained dark and with a narrow runner down the centre. The smell had been different as well – a commercial, neutral floral had been replaced by a more natural although less pleasant aroma of stale cooking. Where framed prints and guest information notices had littered the walls, there was now just bare, painted plaster.
Her heart thudded again, the adrenaline bringing a burst of welcome clarity to her thoughts. Just suppose her wildest dream had come true – literally - and the gorgeous, charming outlaw who had rescued her and then seduced her – or had possibly been seduced by her, Claire skimmed over this mere detail – was somehow part of it? She hastily re-considered her options. The most sensible one of course was to return to her room, get back into bed and attempt to go back to sleep. Alternatively, she could wander around a strange building in the middle of the night with little more than a fond hope of what – or who - she might find. Well, to be honest, there was no contest. She wrapped her cardigan tightly around her, unconsciously smoothed her hair, and kept walking.
At the far end of the corridor she started down the steep, narrow staircase. Because she had bare feet, her tread was almost silent and she moved a little faster until she reached the bottom and felt hard flagstones under her soles. It was clear now that it was the friction between the uncovered solid floor and the bags that had caused the noise she had found so strange when she was still in her room. There was no sign of anybody in the sparsely furnished bar, although an oil lamp burned waveringly near the door to the yard. From a passageway beyond the far side of the room there were low, urgent voices and then, even more unwelcomingly, heavy footsteps heralding the approach of somebody down the passage towards her. Doubt swept across her for the first time. How could she have made such a ridiculous assumption? Desire and excitement had led her to a fanciful conclusion that could so easily be wrong. The idea that she could claim to be just taking an innocent stroll in the middle of the night now seemed to her to be silly. The men’s casual noisiness was not necessarily a sign that they would actively welcome company. Her heart rate speeded up, and she looked around hopelessly for somewhere to conceal herself. The ornate, comfortable armchairs that she had noticed earlier, and which might have afforded her cover, had disappeared. Besides, she’d left it too late to hide.
Before she could retreat even one step towards the stairs, the doorway to the passage was filled with the imposing figure of a heavily bearded man. His face was obscured by the darkness behind him, but she was conscious that she stood in the faint tip of the light from the oil lamp and that he must have as nearly a perfect view of her as if she’d been spot lit on a stage.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked roughly. The figure and the voice were not the one she had half-expected, yet the Irish accent caused her suppressed hopes to rise a little again. At least he appeared to be unarmed, or if he carried a gun, he showed no sign of lifting it to her. He just stood there, calm but somehow daunting, waiting for her to answer. She couldn’t speak. After a few moments of silence, he took a step or two towards her, but his face remained in darkness. He spoke again, his voice less angry this time; perhaps he had recovered from the shock of her unexpected presence, or perhaps he’d realised that she cut a particularly unthreatening figure.
“Who are ye? This place is supposed to be empty tonight.”
“I…I was asleep upstairs,” she stuttered eventually, conscious that this was a barely adequate explanation.
“Yes, but who are ye?” the man repeated, patiently, but in a way that made it clear he was used to having his questions answered.
Behind him, his companions must have become aware that something unexpected had happened, because there was the sudden sound of several sets of boots clanging on the flagstones behind him. This was the moment she was pinning her hopes on, and her chest rose and fell in terrified anticipation. She was increasingly certain that the man before her was Ned, but she couldn’t be sure, and because had no way of knowing who else was with him and she seemed to have incurred his wrath, potentially she was in a very difficult situation. Whoever it was seemed to be taking an age to arrive at the doorway, even though it could be a distance of no more than twenty or thirty metres.
“What’s the problem Ned?” asked another voice. Then, blessed relief, the voice she had been hoping for.
“Christ Almighty. Claire.”
“Joe!” she cried in delight.
Joe had pushed past Ned and crossed the bar to where she was standing and stopped in front of her, a puzzled frown crossing his handsome face. Her initial impression was that he didn’t seem quite as delighted to see her as she had imagined he might, and certainly nowhere near as pleased as she was to see him, and as her gleeful welcome died on the night air, she hastily re-arranged her expression into something less obviously ecstatic.
“Dressed for the occasion once again I see,” he said in a low voice that only she could hear. On the face of it, it was a playful remark, the way Claire had remembered him, and the familiarity thrilled her, but his face remained inscrutable and so she just nodded in response.
Now she examined him covertly. Even in the poor light she could see a difference in him. His jaw was heavy with a poorly trimmed beard and his dark eyes were dull and sunken without the merriment she remembered. His pasty skin sulked in the gloom. On the right hand side of his heavy coat she noticed a mark that looked horribly like a bullet hole, framed in smoky blackness. It might have been like that for a long time she supposed, but even so it added to the general unkemptness and neglect of his appearance. He was taller than she’d thought, perhaps it was that he was thinner, but then she reminded herself, he’d spent most of their previous meeting lying down.
“It’s alright fellas,” he said, half turning his head, a movement which freed two little curls that had been imprisoned by his collar, “Claire’s by way of being what ye might call a bit of a sympathiser.” He turned back to her. “Ye’ve a room here then, is that right?” Claire nodded, only partially reassured by his endorsement of her presence.
He crossed back to Ned and jerked his head towards the bar. The two men stepped aside and began to confer, their heads bent together. Joe’s hands moved expressively, but it was impossible to hear their words, and Claire who began to wonder if she’d be sharing her quarters with the entire gang, couldn’t help noticing that Ned was not entirely in agreement with whatever proposal was being made. Eventually however, he threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender and nodded to the others.
“Joe’s going to lock up behind us,” he told them gruffly. “We’ll take the horse and he’ll catch up with us tomorrow.”
Claire was embarrassed. While she was not especially keen to play host to four tired, dirty outlaws, she had been prepared to resign herself to being co-operative and helpful. However, to have Joe stand there discussing with his mate - not with her, that seemed to go without saying, but with his mate - his proposal to spend the night with her was far worse. In fact, embarrassment did not begin to cover it. She was furious. Was this the accepted way for him to behave if he bumped into a woman he knew while out and about on outlaw business? Certainly now the matter was settled, none of them seemed to consider anything amiss. Joe merely busied himself moving a barrel, which they’d used to prop open the door to the passageway. He glanced around at her once or twice, a thoughtful expression on his face, and then moved back across the room to stand by her.
“What the hell did you just say to him?” asked Claire in an irate undertone.
“Nothin’,” said Joe steadily with only a faint note of surprise in his voice. “I’ll tell ye in a moment,” he added.
With some fuss of collecting belongings, not to mention heavy-handed wit at her expense, the three men left. Joe, who had ignored their banter as roundly as he was ignoring Claire’s barely suppressed wrath, closed the door behind them and shot the bolts. For a man who’d just sorted himself out to spend the night with her, he didn’t seem particularly thrilled to be in her company – indeed, by comparison his companions had been charm itself, shaking her hand, smiling broadly and in the case of Steve Hart, even winking flirtatiously. If he was that reluctant to even talk to her, she thought resentfully, why hadn’t he left with them? She certainly wasn’t forcing anyone. Some joyful reunion this was turning out to be. He crossed the bar slowly and planted himself directly in front of her. It was so quiet that she heard the faint hiss his hands made against the fabric as he slid them into his pockets. He regarded her solemnly.
“What are you doing here Claire?” he asked, a slight tone of accusation in his quiet voice.
Claire felt the annoyance within her ratcheting up another notch. She may have made the decision to come down and investigate, but she hadn’t consciously chosen to invade his privacy by appearing in his world, or whatever it was she did. There was no call for him to come on like she’d been caught stalking him! How dare he be so rude, all the while taking her for granted? Was this what she’d been so keen on finding again all these months?
She met his intense stare with as much boldness as she could muster. As she looked into his eyes once again she felt against her will a gentle blush warming her cheeks. The feeling was, she knew, nothing to do with either his question or her conscious thoughts and she despised her body for its weakness.
“I don’t bloody know!” she said, driven on by the need to ignore the tingling sensation in her fingertips. “I was asleep upstairs and you woke me up! What do you want me to say? Who do you think you are, just assuming you can stop the night in my room and then interrogating me? It’s not even like you’re real,” she added, feeling slightly ridiculous in the face of the flesh and blood evidence before her, “You’re….you’re just a dream I’m having! Probably something I ate!”
The corner of Joe’s mouth turned up in a little smirk for a moment and then settled back into severe straightness.
“So, lemme understand this. You’re sayin’ I’m yer dream come true?”
Claire’s mouth opened and then closed again. There was no way she was giving the bastard the satisfaction of thinking she was that thrilled to see him. Not yet anyway.
“Or maybe I’m yours,” she retorted, stepping back and unconsciously putting her hands on her hips, a movement that brought forth another quickly hidden smirk. “Had you considered that?”
“But I’ve not been asleep,” he pointed out, “Nor fallen off me horse neither, come to that, ” he continued with the air of an afterthought. She looked at him suspiciously. In the gloomy light of the bar it was not easy to see if his eyes betrayed a smile.
Despite his strange mood, he didn’t seem particularly fazed by having this odd conversation with her. He’d apparently not found anything peculiar in her explanation about unexpectedly being asleep upstairs in a building he thought was empty, and although he had mocked her for the dream comment, he’d shown some basic acceptance of the idea as a plausible one. For the first time it occurred to Claire that if he did indeed exist in any kind of reality, then he must have found their last encounter to be as inexplicable as she had. Surely he’d wondered where she’d disappeared to, mulled over some of the things she’d said – and done.
The things she’d said and done. Ah yes. That. He stood before her now, solid, real and close enough that she could hear him breathing and yet last time they’d met she’d acted with complete abandon born of utter confidence that he was just a dream. Not only would she never see him again, she had believed, but there wasn’t even a him in the usual sense to see. Uninvited, little visions and snatches of the conversation they’d had floated into her conscious mind until it took every effort she could muster not to sink to the floor in a ball of embarrassment. She was not sorry she’d slept with him – quite the opposite – but she’d certainly been a lot more hasty and a little more, well…frank, than usual. Involuntarily, her hand rose to cover her mouth, fingers massaging her lips awkwardly. Joe looked at the ground, whether in impatience or to spare her blushes she couldn’t be sure.
“What did you say to your friend just then?” she forced herself to ask, hoping that speaking aloud would strip all memories of his own fingers and mouth from the front of her mind. “Did you tell him you were going to sleep in my room?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“You’ve got a fucking cheek!”
Joe looked at her again, sizing up something he wanted to say.
“Well Claire, you know, if I do have a…” he hesitated, “Fucking cheek, all due respect to ye, I don’t care. I’ve not seen a bed in weeks. I don’t remember ye being so unwillin’ when it was about me offering you a bed for the night. They’ve not opened up guest rooms here in a few years and we thought the upstairs was all locked up. Yer lucky I persuaded Ned that it wasn’t a good idea for the lot of us to stay up there. I’m sorry if ye think I’ve compromised your honour,” he gave the word a mocking lilt “And if ye think I should sleep on the floor then I’ll do that right enough, but I’m not sorry I told Ned I wasn’t going with him. Are ye not prepared to give me even that much?”
Claire took another step back, shocked at the passion that this little speech revealed and the way in which his quiet, stern exterior had hidden all these troubled thoughts that so contrasted with her own preoccupations. If he was recollecting their night together, his main conclusion was apparently that she was an open, accommodating person who might, in the circumstances, be prepared to extend the hand of friendship and share her nice, warm bed. He might be the sexiest dream she’d ever had, and she might want him to be nice to her and make her laugh, but as far as he was concerned, there was nothing imaginary about the situation he found himself in; he had other things on his mind, and she needed to respect that.
“No, no, not at all. I quite understand,” she said hastily, smoothing over her annoyance at being taken for granted but feeling as she did so that she sounded like her mother often did on the phone, making trivial social arrangements.
Joe yawned. Claire watched his jaw lower elegantly and the skin stretch over his cheekbones as his mouth opened and his lids closed heavily, drawing smoky black crescents of lashes where his eyes had been. Despite her residual annoyance, these instinctive movements of tiredness made her want to reach out and touch him comfortingly. She yearned to smooth the lank, black, curling hair away from his face, she wanted to run her fingers into the hair under his chin, to lay her head against his dirty coat and wrap her arms round him and tell him it would be alright. She remembered how her face had felt fitted against his neck, and the effort it cost her to stand away from him now was like a physical pain. She was right to resist thought. He chose this moment to step back from her, and she felt inexplicably, deliberately, rejected.
“Well, in that case,” he said quietly, “We’ll have to make the best of it. I could do with getting’ some shut-eye. If that’s alright with you, that is.”
“Uh, sure,” she said, gesturing vaguely at the stairs and cross with herself for being unable to shake off the feeling that she was somehow being used.
Joe picked up the oil lamp from the bar and turned up the wick a fraction before starting up the stairs ahead of her. When he reached the top, he stood to one side, without speaking, in order to allow her to pass by and lead the way. At the door, he held the lamp aloft to illuminate the lock for her. She stole a glance at his face with its hollow contours looming out of the darkness next to her. They were about to enter her bedroom together and yet the harsh contrast the lamp light added to his stern expression as it fixed itself on the door made her feel they were further apart than ever.
They walked in and Joe set the light down on what she could now see was a bare dressing table. The bed in the middle of the room was high and forlornly rumpled. By its side stood a single nightstand; against one wall was an old wardrobe. A hard wooden chair waited by the window. There was a stark and noticeable lack of anything decorative or unnecessary. Although there was one of everything, the room had an air of containing a random collection of stored furniture, and Claire wondered how she hadn’t noticed all this when she’d first woken up.
Joe made his way over to the bed and walked around it to the far side.
“Do you mind?” he asked, almost formally. Apparently he was still wondering if she expected him to sleep on the floor.
“Err no, go ahead.”
He threw his jacket over the end of the bed then sat down at the side of it and reached down to place his gun on the floor and to remove his boots. His shirt, carelessly tucked in, rose a little, revealing his all-encompassing underwear beneath, but even the sight of that failed to rouse Claire from her disappointment. He continued to undress, until he was naked before her. In the absence of an intimate connection between them, she found his peeled nudity ordinary and asexual. Just a body. It was incredible that she felt such dispassion but it was hard to imagine anything further from the time they had spent together before. He turned to slide under the covers and arrange the pillows, then lay back and looked round in surprise at her still standing in the middle of the room. He patted the mattress next to him encouragingly.
“Are you not joining me?” he asked with a sly smile. It wasn’t easy to see across the room, but he might even have winked at her.
Claire started. Of course she’d assumed from their conversation that they’d sleep in the same bed – she wasn’t going to ask him to sleep on the floor, and she certainly wasn’t prepared to – but this was the first bit of interest he’d shown in her since she’d seen him. Now he could be all friendly! Having so presumptuously and publicly helped himself to her bed, he obviously took it for granted that other comforts would be on offer too. If she was honest with herself, after last time she couldn’t entirely blame him for presuming that, but he seemed to be operating on the assumption that a bare minimum of charm was required to win her compliance. Not only that but he’d done nothing to stop his mates sharing this belief in her bounty! Her resentment festered.
“You were saying how tired you are. I wouldn’t want to disturb you,” she replied coldly.
“Ah sure you won’t be disturbing me,” he said in a gentle voice. He patted the bed again as if summoning a favourite pet. “Come on Claire. We can warm each other up.”
With more reluctance than the Claire of that very morning would have imagined possible, she crossed the room and sat down sideways on the edge of the bed, one foot on the floor and deliberately out of his reach. There was an insistent little voice in her head reminding her of what he’d said downstairs and how much she had wanted to comfort him, but she stubbornly stifled it with her own grievances.
Joe turned on his side to face her and reached out for her hand. At this first touch, her faithless body betrayed her as a jolt of excitement ran through her. Her mind drifted to the thin layer of bedclothes, which was all that separated her from his body. It was an unexpected train of thought after his matter-of-fact stripping. His eyes, almost concerned now, searched her face and his thumb rubbed the back of her hand.
“Come on now, will ye come to bed? If I’ve done somethin’ out of turn, ye can tell me about in here can’t you? What’s troubling you?”
Claire, so very nearly won over and annoyed with herself for that, snatched her hand away and glared at him suspiciously. What’s troubling me? she wanted to ask him angrily. Apart from the fact that you’re not pleased to see me, but hey, since I’m around you might as well make the most of a bed with a woman in it? If this is all in my imagination, then I want to imagine you as nicer than this, and not like some bloke who tells his mates he’s on to a good thing. I can get that when I’m awake, thank you very much. I’m glad I can offer you somewhere to sleep, seeing as how you’re fixed, but you’re going to have to try a bit harder than that if you want a shag thrown in too!
She could have said all this – it was certainly heartfelt - but she knew that the words spoken aloud would sound ridiculous and selfish to him, so instead she shrugged childishly and pressed her lips together to stop the spoilt, confused phrases tumbling out. Hot, frustrated spikes of stupid tears threatened to spill into her eyes and so she turned her face away and looked at the wall. She could feel his eyes on her and wondered what he was thinking and how this conversation might end.
“I don’t expect anything from you Claire. I don’t know what you expect of me neither. You were the one that was gone when I woke up, remember?”
He reached up and pressed his finger against her lips like he had done the first time they’d met. “No, listen to me lass, I’ve barely slept the last two days. After that it’s hard to think straight, so maybe I’m doing something wrong here that I don’t know, but you just appeared in front of me like a ghost in the middle of the night.” He stopped, watching her carefully, gauging her reaction.
“I don’t know what you want from me,” he repeated.
Something in what he’d said apparently amused him though, because he laughed suddenly, making her look at him. He grinned at her. “Well, as a matter of fact,” he said, letting her see his eyes roam over her, “I can make a fine guess at that, but it wouldn’t be very gentlemanly of me to say so, now would it?”
Claire, caught between being entertained and further insulted, very nearly laughed too, but she hugged the remnants of her anger to her like an old blanket and did her best to ignore both his remark and the traitorous responses of her body. She knew that he was doing his best now to coax her out of her mood as well as into the bed, that he was being honest and not unkind and that she was sulking, and this knowledge made her defensive, so she sat in silence. She returned to staring over his head at the wall. Joe was silent too. Last time it had all been so simple. They had met, they had wanted each other with a kind of powerful hunger and together they had barely hesitated before feeding on that desire. How had it got so complicated? After a minute or so, Joe released her hand and she looked down at him, waiting for him to speak again. A deep rumble came from his throat. He was fast asleep.