It was a long night for Claire, who, despite all she’d said, dared not risk climbing into bed with Joe after all in case she fell asleep and woke up the next day to find him vanished. But the longer she sat by the window on the only available chair, watching by turn the slow advance of the chill dawn and the sleeping form of Joe, the tireder she became and the more she longed both for the comfort of the bed and for contact with his warm, curled form. In the way of the exhausted, he was motionless in his sleep, but there were episodes of sudden restlessness when she guessed he was dreaming vividly. Once or twice he spoke out, but she couldn’t understand what he said. The hours, without a clock to mark their passing, moved so slowly that Claire began to feel that she’d had no existence ever beyond sitting in that chair. As the darkness lifted, so did her negative feelings about the night before. It was easy to be benevolent about him now as he lay there, peaceful and vulnerable in her presence. Two or three times she crossed the room and sat beside him on the bed; once she crouched on the other side of it and dared to do what she had wanted to do when first she saw him, pushing the hair from his forehead and stroking his face and opening herself to the warmth and desire she honestly felt. Had it been so much for him to ask her for a warm welcome?
The sun climbed high in the morning sky forcing its rays into the room, but even in the new unrelieved brightness, he didn’t stir. Claire did not want to disturb him, but nonetheless she was cold and a little stiff as well as weary so she crossed to the bed yet again and eyed him speculatively. He lay on his back, black curls like spilled paint on the white pillow. His chest rose and fell evenly, he was breathing deeply through his slightly open mouth. It didn’t seem that he’d be very easy to wake up even if she shook him. She peeled back the blankets and climbed in gingerly next to him. His warmth and smell filled the bed; the heat of his body indistinguishable by now from that of the bedclothes that nestled around him. She moved against him and slid one leg, only slightly hopefully, between his. Clearly no stranger to affectionately sharing his sleeping quarters, he immediately turned on his side and draped a heavy arm over her and continued his sleep. Claire moved a little closer.
“Mmm, you’re cold,” he murmured after a few moments, although he neither opened his eyes nor seemed aware that she had only just joined him. He rolled back to his previous position, pulling her with him so that her head rested in the crook of his shoulder. Claire slid her leg over his again, enjoying the pleasant sensation of his naked hipbone against her.
Joe slept on, although from the sudden gentle nudge of his cock on her arm, it was evident that not all of him was so deeply unconscious. She wriggled against him. “Mmm,” repeated Joe, running one finger carelessly over the bumps and valleys of her spine. She wondered if he knew who she was, if he remembered last night, or was just sleepily accepting of what her body – any body - was offering.
Hesitantly, because of the way they had left things the night before, Claire reached down to him, feeling the instinctive response as she used her thumb to explore the irregularities in the satiny skin. For a few moments nothing happened and she imagined his subconscious incorporating this unexpected stimulation into whatever he happened to be dreaming about; but then quite suddenly he spoke, raising his hips into her touch as he did so.
“Sure, this is exactly how I imagined it would be to wake up with you,” he said, sounding more awake than she had thought him to be.
It was a novel and arousing idea that he must have thought about her and she felt her insides fold in on themselves. If he’d done nothing else but say this to her face, she’d have been his for the taking. As it was, lying with him tangled and naked, her hand busy on him, it was almost too much.
“If I’d ever thought I’d be seeing you again, I’d have missed you,” he added, moving to tip her off him a little so they lay face to face. His eyes were still heavy–lidded with sleep, struggling to open one moment, sinking shut again the next. She relinquished her hold and he pressed himself up against her belly.
“Why’s that then?” she asked, egging him on shamelessly while he was still too groggy for circumspection. “We don’t really know each other, we only…”
Before she could finish, he wrapped his free arm around her and pulled her hips harder into his own. “Only?” he enquired with a sleepy smile. “I don’t reckon this is ‘only’ to you, is it? And stop fishin’ for compliments lass. That way they’ll find you easier.”
Claire stretched to kiss him. His mouth opened to accept her, moving against her lips, his tongue automatically seeking hers. His beard, unkempt and straggly, chafed at her face as his jaw moved, but he held her firmly to him as if he knew that she felt she might float away.
Suddenly he pulled away and rolled her onto her back, stretching up and away from her on straight, tensed arms, knees either side of her. He lowered himself so that his cock rested heavily on her belly then he drew back, leaving a faint tickling trail of cooling moistness behind on her skin.
“Christ,” he said. “Now I’m awake, I want you so much.”
“That’s not what you said last night,.
He smirked and dug one knee at hers to push between them.
“Am I not to have a moment’s peace”. He touched his lips to her nipple to show her he was teasing and she felt it stiffen to greet him. “Ah, but I’m sorry I fell asleep on you like that,” he added. “And if I remember right, you just about to forgive me an’ all. So tell me, are you going to torment me all morning or are you going to let me make it up to you?”
Claire pretended to consider the point seriously, hiding her thrill at being teased by him.
“Go on then, make it up to me,” she said finally, crossing her ankles behind his back and pulling him towards her. Even so, she was not expecting it when he entered her suddenly, tightly, almost painfully, and the surprise sent her arching off the bed.
“Did I hurt ye,” he asked, remaining still and eyeing her anxiously.
“Uh no, just…surprised me,” she said truthfully, feeling herself yield to him and the shock subside into something altogether different..
Joe risked a joke.
“Only what with wakin’ up and finding ye naked on top of me and holdin’ me cock I got the impression you were keen to get started.”
He smiled down at her, the twist of his mouth and the laughter in his eyes giving her almost as much pleasure as the slow, deep movements he was starting to make. So much pleasure in fact that she chose to neither take offence, nor joke back, nor laugh – any one of which reactions might have the effect of changing either the expression on his face or the lazy, luxurious thrusts.
“What must you think of me?” she said instead, stretching out into the bed, the better to observe the actions of his lean, spare frame above her. It was half a rhetorical question; half genuine curiosity and she wondered if he’d answer.
“I think,” he replied after a moment, varying neither his pace nor the precise, perfect angle he was moving at, “That I like you. I like the way you look.” He glanced down so she would be clear what he meant by this, “And the way ye fire up at me, and I like,” he paused, perhaps to hold himself, perhaps to choose his words, “I like the way that ye don’t care that I know how much you enjoy this.”
Even if her brain had not been slowed down by its need to process the delicious sensations of Joe’s body on hers, Claire would still have struggled to understand this. Surely there wasn’t a woman alive, or dreaming, or fantasising, or whatever they did here, who wouldn’t openly enjoy this?
“What?” she asked, apparently unable to find more than one word.
“Some women,” explained Joe, his voice was becoming more laboured even as he controlled his movements. “They act like they are doing ye a favour. They let you, but it’s like they mustn’t let ye see they’re feelin’ it too.” He stopped speaking for a moment, gathering himself, his body hot and taut above her. “I don’t think it would ever be like that with you. You want me to know you’re feelin’ it too.”
It was her ears that heard his words, but it was the deep, vibrant tingle within her that reacted, a sigh of pleasure that rose but never reached her lips. She wanted to say something back, raise his arousal too, disturb his control. She wrapped her legs around him and pulled him down so her mouth rested by his ear. He breathed deeply into the pillow next to her.
“You mean that knowing how much I love you fucking me really does it for you?”
The unexpected profanity clearly had the desired effect on him. She heard him catch his breath, a stifled moan, almost of pain, and then he pushed himself up again, his eyes fixed on where they moved together, no smile, no slow control. He raised his eyebrows as if surprised by the impetus of his own body.
“Aw Jesus, Claire,” he said, the muscles of his buttocks flexing faster and more urgently under her fingers, “ What are ye trying to do to me here?”
“This,” she replied, shifting into his rhythm and experiencing his losing battle with self-control as her victory. It was going to be over too soon, but she felt triumphant rather than disappointed. They moved faster, careless of the blanket sliding to the floor and the friction of the heat between them. He stopped abruptly, the spasm travelling through his muscles almost visibly, and then she felt it seize her too.
He lay on her for a few moments, drawing breath and energy from the contact, then rolled to one side and stared at the ceiling.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean for that to happen. It’s been…a while, and…”
“It’s fine,” interrupted Claire, running her fingers across his chest and feeling the tautness within her fading to a dull ache. “I liked it.”
“I wanted to spend longer with ye.”
“No really, it doesn’t matter.”
Joe turned to her with a laugh.
“Ah, well, it does me beauty. It matters a lot. I know that because ye told me so yerself, last time. I reckon I’m in terrible trouble right now.”
Claire felt an automatic blush rising to her cheeks at this confirmation that he remembered how she’d, well, practically ordered him to touch her before. Lying here with his limbs hot and solid against hers, a very real wetness beneath her, it seemed impossible that he could be a figment of her imagination. And yet there was more to it than that. Whatever the reason, she was beginning to see that Joe found enjoyment in the way she differed from other women he knew. If she didn’t exactly shock him, he was certainly not above encouraging her a little. Retiring wallflowers, she guessed, were his for the taking and he sought something a little more challenging to penetrate his detachment. For all his regrets about the speed of his love-making, he’d enjoyed egging her on.
“Well then Joe,” she said firmly. “In that case, what do you propose to do about it?”
She felt, rather than saw him smile as he pulled her on top of him, fingers snaking down her belly.
“This,” he murmured in her ear. “And then you can tell me if I can go to the top of the class, miss…”
“I can’t stay here, you know,” Joe said some time later. They had lain in sociable quietness for an hour or more, enveloped by the peace of the sunlit room and the midday heat warming the bare floorboards until they could smell the resin, but there was a sense that the moment was coming to an end. He turned on his side to face her, the sheet twisting around his waist like a toga.
“It’s a bad idea to hang about here much longer, and anyways, I need to have a bath and a shave and change my clothes.” Intellectually Claire agreed with this sentiment, but nevertheless, disappointment crossed her face. The expression was not lost on Joe.
“Come with me then?” he asked, trailing a finger around the line of her jaw.
Claire looked around the room. “Oh I can’t,” she said. “I don’t have any proper clothes, I can’t go out in my pyjamas”.
“Ah.” Joe frowned. She hoped he was not going to ask why she would be in a hotel without any luggage, but he merely smiled at her.
“Don’t you worry about that,” he said. “I know just the thing.” He rolled out of bed and began to dress. She remembered the way he had bent his head to undo his buttons before, and watched him re-fasten his shirt in the same way. He stuck his pistol into his trousers – a finishing touch that Claire still struggled to accept - and crossed to the door.
“Don’t you go anywhere without me now,” he joked as he turned to her and blew a kiss.
Claire stretched out luxuriously in the bed and waited. A couple of minutes passed and he didn’t come back. So she got up, dragging the bedclothes around herself, and went over to the window to examine the day.
Presently, she saw Joe appear in the yard below. He strolled to the bar door and knocked several times. After a few seconds it opened and a young girl, shabbily dressed and with her long brown hair piled untidily behind her head, stepped out to greet him. With obvious surprised pleasure, she flung her arms around his neck, and in return he placed one arm round her waist and pulled her up and into him for a passionate kiss. Claire was clear in her mind that she and Joe owed one another nothing, but watching this so soon after his kisses and embraces had been for her was a painful moment. She wondered if he had considered the possibility that she might be able to see him, and if so whether he cared. Meanwhile, he had stood the girl back down again and began speaking to her, presumably explaining his mission. His soft voice failed to carry any words to Claire, but she watched as the girl listened, first attentively, then with growing confusion and eventually what looked like anger. Before the situation could develop any further, however, Joe bent down, cupped his hand around her ear and whispered something to her. She broke into a laugh and took a step away, hands on hips, her anger feigned now.
“Get away with ye!” Claire heard her say, and then something else she couldn’t catch. Whatever he had said seemed to have done the trick, for the two resumed their conversation and then both stepped in the bar. As he went to close it from within, Joe reached his head round and glanced about suspiciously but didn’t raise his eyes to her room.
Ten long minutes then passed until she heard a soft knock on the door and Joe entered carrying a large bundle in both arms. He laid it on the bed and unwrapped it to reveal a plate of bread and cheese, something that looked like water in a glass bottle with a curious kind of marble for a stopper, and a pair of heavy brown boots. The wrappings themselves turned out to be a badly worn brown skirt and matching fitted blouse, together with some kind of underskirt arrangement. Claire looked at them with distaste. She wasn’t one to judge another woman, but she had the distinct impression that the girl downstairs had picked the ugliest things she could find. Perhaps that was unfair. Judging by her own outfit, it didn’t looked like she’d got much of a collection to choose from. At least they were clean.
“Breakfast,” said Joe. He glanced up at the high sun. “Maybe dinner too.”
They ate in a companionable silence then Claire moved from his line of sight in order to get dressed. If her sudden modesty struck him as odd, then he didn’t say anything, but sat patiently on the bed with his back to her, like a member of an audience waiting for a fashion show to begin. Claire, however, didn’t much feel like giving a catwalk twirl. The meanly cut three-quarter length sleeves gripped her arms like sausage skins, and the waist and bust were so tight that at first she struggled to breathe. She suspected that the hemline was too short as well. All those newspaper stories about modern women being bigger than their great–grandmothers were, it seemed, true. The stockings gave her a little trouble, but she eventually managed to sort them out, even though to her way of thinking, they sagged horribly round her knees and ankles. Patched bloomers lent by another woman who had probably been intimate with Joe were a step too far, however, so she left them off – she already felt as if she was wearing twice as many clothes as usual. She added the heavy brown boots, which fortunately seemed to be approximately the right size, although with the unpleasant sensation of the wrinkled imprints of the owner’s feet.
“You can turn round now,” she said, running her fingers through her hair in an unconscious feminine gesture.
Somebody had taught Joe very nice manners. His eyes opened wide and he cleared his throat, but then he nodded approval. “You look beautiful,” he said. “Perfect.” Then he looked at her face and it was too much; he burst out laughing.
“See!” said Claire. “I told you this would never work. I look stupid and I’m not coming out!”
“Aww, come on Claire. Sure you’ll come out. You look grand. Just not yer usual self. Don’t mind me, it’s just the surprise.” He ruffled her hair. “Was there not a hat then? No? Ah well, no worries.”
She eyed him suspiciously, but he didn’t laugh again, so she opened the wardrobe door and regarded herself in the narrow full-length mirror there. Oddly enough she could see what he meant by a ‘surprise’. She didn’t look awful at all. Just like a completely different person. The bad fit of the dress wasn’t apparent to a casual observer; and the brown, although not a colour she’d normally choose, set off her light hair and suited her very well. It was just that she looked so young and, well, demure. Without even realising it, she was folding her hands in front of herself and standing, feet together, toes pointing slightly outwards. Joe stepped up behind her. He curled one arm around her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder.
“Sure, we’ll make a nun of you yet,” he laughed, “Although that’d be a terrible pity of course,” he added, winking at her reflection in the mirror.
She laughed too at that, and twisted round to kiss him. As his arm tightened around her waist, the memory of the exchange she had just witnessed pricked at her, and hating herself, she asked,
“Who was that girl downstairs who lent you these clothes? Is she your girlfriend?”
Joe, seeing through her apparent casualness, tried to maintain a straight face.
“Oh, so ye saw Maggie? Is she my what? Maggie and I have been very good friends for a long time.”
“And what does your very good friend have to say about lending you her clothes for a naked woman you’ve just slept with in a room upstairs?”
He smiled more broadly and moved a wisp of hair from Claire’s face. “Ah, there’s no problem. Maggie and I understand each other”.
Claire looked at the handsome man before her and thought that Maggie no doubt understood him only too well, although not in the sense he’d meant it. She said nothing, but couldn’t help raising her eyebrows a little. “I’ve not seen her for a while,” he offered, although this seemed rather beside the point. “I’m not married, if that’s what yer thinkin’” he continued, a touch defensively.
“And things,” she gestured around her to encompass herself and the surrounding room, “Would it be different if you were?”
For an answer, he pulled her tightly against him and looked down at her, assuming a severe expression that failed to hide the laughter and teasing in his eyes.
“What a terrible thing to say about a good Irish Catholic boy!” he replied. “Me ma would be scandalised if she heard you suggestin’ I wouldn’t make some lucky girl a faithful husband!”
Claire felt confident that Joe’s mother would find many things about her son to be far more scandalous than that, but decided not to comment. Instead, she reached on to tiptoe and kissed him affectionately. He picked her up easily around the waist and made a half turn to deposit her on the other side of him, closer to the door.
“Come along,” he said, by way of closing the conversation. “We need to get going now”.
This time as they passed down the corridor, Joe led her by the hand. At the top of the stairs he stopped and kissed her again, then motioned for her to stay where she was while he descended. From the bottom he then gestured for her to follow him, his eyes darting around the bar to check the coast was clear. Whether this reflected his status as an outlaw or as a good friend of the barmaid, she wasn’t sure.
The bar was deserted, and they exited through the back door into the courtyard Claire had seen from the window. The road outside, which was nothing more than a dirt track tapering to the brow of a hill beyond, was empty; the hotel was obviously on the edge of the town. They turned right and set off. Joe had the brisk pace of someone used to walking, but didn’t seem in a particular hurry. After a minute or two – but when they were out of sight of the hotel, she noticed – he took her hand once more, and the journey assumed the bizarre aspect of two lovers out for a stroll.
“Is this safe?” she asked presently, hugely enjoying the adventure now, “I mean, you won’t get caught?”
“Ah no. Them lazy coppers only go looking for us when they can be bothered. They’ll be nowhere to be seen today. Besides, don’t you worry yerself. They’re never going to catch the Kelly Gang”.
Claire swallowed hard at his words and tightened her grip on his hand. He squeezed it back and looked down at her, sensing her discomfiture but not understanding it.
“But I’m touched that you ask,” he acknowledged.
The sun was directly overhead, and as they walked, Claire began to get increasingly hot in her unfamiliar and unsuitable clothes. The road was a bright, dusty grey now and the full force of glare reflected up into her face, making her squint and sapping her energy. The scrubby trees were too poor and set back too far from the road to offer any relief of shade. The shadow-Joe and shadow-Claire marched before them, black and harsh. By the time they had walked for half an hour, she felt exhausted. Joe’s hand was sweaty in hers, they seemed to have been glued into position, and although he had slowed a little to near her pace, she had to match his long stride to avoid trotting along beside him and the effort was making her legs ache. She thought longingly of her car, of air conditioning and refrigeration, of sunscreen and swimming pools and ice makers, and wondered what she would be doing if she was at home now. On balance she was having a better time here of course, but a few twenty-first century trappings wouldn’t go amiss, she decided.
At that moment, Joe slowed to a stop and turned to face her. He dropped her hand and cupped her face, drawing his thumbs across her flushed cheeks.
“You’re not going to faint on me, walking along in this sun, are ye?” he asked. His eyes, dark and almost without pupils in the brilliance, brimmed with concern. “It’s only another ten minutes,” he added, kissing her damp forehead. As they broke apart again he looked into the distance from where they’d come. Claire followed the direction of his gaze and saw, some half a mile distant, a great grey cloud. Joe stared at it.
“Is it a fire?” she asked.
“No,” he replied. “Horses. Someone’s coming.”
He took her hand, not so gently this time and set off up the road, pulling her behind him. There was still no sign of any possible destination, but after a few minutes, he turned abruptly off the road and she saw that there was the beginning of a ditch. Joe jumped in and then offered a hand to help her climb down.
“What are you doing?” she hissed, instinctively lowering her voice even though there was nobody around.
“I want to see them before they see me,” he muttered almost to himself.
He slid down the bank into a seated position, threw his head back against the side of the ditch and drew out his pistol. Now Claire could detect faint vibrations of the approaching horses. Her heart came into her mouth. She glanced at Joe whose face was covered in a fine sheen of sweat. Although he appeared outwardly calm, she could see his chest rising and falling. He licked his lips.
“Do you want me to look?” she asked, sounding braver than she felt.
He looked at her in surprise, almost as if he’d forgotten she was there.
“Jesus, no. I don’t want you getting involved. Just stay down.” And with that he turned and peered cautiously over the top of the ditch. He stayed like that for several minutes until the horses, pulling a creaking cart at a fine pace, thundered past. A great sigh left his body, and he sunk back down to sit next to her letting the pistol slide from his hand.
“They’re in a hurry then, thank Christ.” he said.
The tension had been so palpable, that Claire, who up to that point had retained an enjoyable sense that nothing around her was quite real, was seriously frightened. The idea that Joe lived with this kind of permanent stress; that he might even have to grapple with his own fears was not something that had properly occurred to her. He mostly seemed so calm, so much in control, that to see him like this was unsettling.
“Would you have shot them?” she asked in a small voice.
Joe turned to her and attempted to laugh it off.
“The hell I would. That was your job.”
“But you were worried?” she persisted.
“There’s times, and places and ways of doin’ things,” he explained, taking pity on her white face. “Nobody else about, no horse, middle of the day…I was being cautious, that’s all. And I can’t be having you mixed up in trouble now can I?”
“It would bother you if something happened to me?” she fished.
Joe looked surprised and settled back a bit against the side of the ditch in order to take a closer look at her.
“Sure it would,” he said. “Aren’t we good friends now? I always look out for me friends, don’t you?”
Before she could reply, he took her hand in both of his and leaned forward until his face was only inches from hers. “After all,” he continued, his eyes shining with humour, “The world would be a sadder place without those things you do when we’re in bed.”
Her mouth dropped open in outrage, but he laughed and held a hand out to pull her to her feet.
“Now don’t go pretending you’re all offended. I reckon I know ye better than that now. Let’s get going.”
He stuffed the gun away, picked up his hat from where it had fallen, banged it to remove the dust and jammed it back on his head.
“C’mon,” he added, “Before you beguile me some more and I take ye right here in this filthy auld ditch.”