They walked the last mile, their thoughtful silence broken only by Joe’s sporadic whistling. There was a lot to think about and Claire had sunk so deeply into contemplation that she barely noticed at first when they at last rounded a bend and came in sight of what was undoubtedly their destination. A small settlement of five or six crude single-storey houses spread lazily over the hillside, divided from each other and from rudimentary paddocks by tumbledown fences and a low creek. Two or three horses grazed at the scrubby grass but other than that the place appeared deserted and strangely haphazard, as if everything in it had been tipped onto the landscape at random and then quietly left alone.
Joe picked up his pace a little, and moving ahead of her, stuck his hands in his pockets and walked briskly across to the nearest house. Without knocking, he pushed the heavy door open and looked inside. Claire followed him uncertainly, but he turned back to her almost immediately and gestured for her to come in with him. The door led into a room that filled most of the floor-space of the building. A dirty net curtain at the single, small window failed to prevent the harsh sunlight scything through the dust before it washed uncertainly onto the opposite wall. Otherwise, after the unrelenting glare outside, the room appeared to be in semi-darkness. A vast, although unlit, fireplace and chimney loomed over one end. The place was full of basic household possessions – sacks, cooking items, food, rags, books, even a couple of beds, were stored all along the walls leaving the centre of the room to be dominated by a heavy, dark oak table and an assortment of chairs. The arrangement reminded Claire of the way people push everything to the edges of a room in order to clear space for a party. But in this case, there was no party, just a lone figure, seated at the table, wearing a hat and playing patience. He looked up from his game and smiled a greeting. Claire recognised him from the night before. It was Steve Hart.
“Steve,” said Joe. “This is Claire”.
Claire stepped forward so that instead of standing behind Joe she was exactly at his side. She found herself expecting him to take her hand or put an arm round her in the way that other men often did when introducing their lovers to their friends. But he did nothing of the sort, just continued to stand with his hands in his pockets. Claire wondered if public displays of affection or association were generally considered inappropriate or whether Joe wanted to keep the relationship between them more ambiguous in front of his friends.
Steve stood up and walked over to them, politely removing his hat and proffering a hand. “I remember – we met at the hotel last night.”
Claire nodded. His hand was cool, smaller than Joe’s but plumper and for one so young, oddly rough and calloused. His handshake was firm, vigorous and a few seconds too long for etiquette. At last, he disengaged and took a step backwards, but his bright eyes watched her closely. Claire understood this. She knew that if she left the room at that moment he would instantly deliver his verdict on her to Joe. What that verdict would be, and how Joe would respond, she had no idea.
“Jeez,” said Steve with a friendly laugh. “That was some fright you gave us, turning up like that.”
“I need to attend to a few things,” continued Joe. “I wonder if Claire might stay here with you for a little while?”
Steve nodded his assent cheerfully and turned to go back to where he’d been sitting. Claire shot Joe a frown of puzzlement. Although he had talked about changing his clothes, he had certainly not mentioned anything about abandoning her for the afternoon to ‘attend to things’, and the way he arranged this in front of her without her involvement made her feel like a parcel being left for safe-keeping. Before she could speak, however, Joe ruffled her hair again and leaned down to kiss her on the cheek. She felt his hot breath on her ear and then words, so quiet as to be almost unformed.
“You mind yourself now,” she heard. Then he winked at her and left the house.
It all happened so quickly that Steve had barely time to take his seat and look round to invite her to join him. She sat down, a little nervously, on the edge of a chair and watched as he resumed his game. She could tell that he was aware of her looking at him, because although he appeared to be concentrating, his ears turned pink. He seemed to be waiting for something to happen. Fifteen minutes passed in silence. For lack of other activity, Claire bent down and removed her heavy boots with a sigh of relief. Getting up, she placed them neatly together by the fireplace, and to pass the time, examined the clock that sat atop the high mantelpiece. She sat down again. A few more minutes passed. Eventually she could bear it no longer.
“There’s a black seven at the end there,” she said helpfully.
“Thanks!” he grinned up at her. Her remark seemed to have had the effect of flicking a switch and giving him permission to talk.. “So you’re a friend of Joe’s then,” he added. “How did you come to meet him?”
That was a tricky question. Claire paused. “He helped me after I’d fallen off my horse,” she said.
Steve nodded enthusiastically at this as if agreeing that this was how it must have happened. She studied him closely. He seemed to be a couple of years younger than Joe, but Joe had a kind of ageless, knowing quality about him which made Steve, despite his close cropped beard, seem almost a boy by comparison. His hair was dark like Joe’s, but thicker and coarser and cut shorter to keep it under control. She wondered what they could talk about and ran through what she knew of him from the film. The only line that came to mind however, was his response to the huge reward on his head: ‘My cock alone’s worth more than that!’ and that was hardly a suitable opening gambit. She hid her amusement at the thought.
“And now you’re staying at the hotel?” he asked. She nodded.
“So you’ll have met Maggie?” he added. She shook her head.
“Ah, now I’d have thought Joe would have introduced you.” He laughed as he spoke, under the impression that he was making a clever, private joke.
“I know who Maggie is,” she said at length, a little more primly than she intended. Steve raised his eyebrows in a gesture of apparent sympathy and nodded slowly. He returned to his game and another ten minutes passed. He glanced up again as if weighing with himself what he was going to say next, but his next comment was merely a remark on the hot day.
For the next hour, their conversation continued in the same sporadic fashion – long silences, a little small talk, some light banter and then more silence. He told her a few stories about Joe, some obviously hastily edited as he recounted them. Steve’s ears stayed pink most of the time and it was only her own resentment at being there in the first place that prevented Claire from finding the whole situation funny. Eventually, after a particularly long gap in conversation, during which she noticed him watching her closely, he spoke again.
“You know Joe’s gone off to see his ma?” he asked, as if trying to offer her some reassurance. Her annoyance at being abandoned surfaced and wrote itself across her face into a scowl.
“No. He didn’t say what he was doing,” she replied coldly.
“She lives up on the hill,” he jerked his head over his shoulder. “He stays there sometimes when he’s nowhere else to go. He’ll have gone for a wash and to change his clothes.”
“Oh, I see. That’s alright then,” she replied sarcastically. Steve looked surprised. He seemed to think that Claire was upset because she didn’t know where Joe had gone, perhaps that she suspected he was seeing another woman. That her annoyance stemmed from being dumped in a smelly hut without a by-your-leave, the purpose irrelevant, didn’t seem to have occurred to him.
Undoubtedly it wouldn’t have occurred to Joe either. Had this happened to her in her own place and time, Claire was confident that most men would grasp that treating her like this was not acceptable. Here however, people played by a very different set of rules. Already she understood that if she tried to explain how she felt to Joe, no matter how calmly she did it, he would look mystified, then he would laugh and tease her then flirt with her until she gave up, and all the time he would be humouring her with not the faintest idea of what he had done wrong. Indeed, a major part of her attraction for him seemed to stem from a fascination with her attitude.
And what was his attraction for her then? Briefly she pictured Joe standing amongst other men she knew. He might have been brought up with a very different set of values, but there he was: more confident, handsome, daring, sexy, ruthless, funny, cocksure - ironically more alive - than any of them. To her disgust, the knot in her stomach when she thought of him seemed to confirm that a spot of congenital chauvinism was a small price to pay. She would make it clear that she expected some kind of apology from him when – if – he came back, but she wouldn’t hold her breath to receive it.
She returned from her reverie to find that Steve had abandoned his game entirely and was watching her.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked. “You look very hot.” His eyes were fixed on the straining buttons of her bodice as he spoke, and she blushed slightly as she nodded.
He stood up and walked towards the fireplace. His build was slightly bigger than Joe’s but he had the same muscular hardness to his body that she so admired in his friend, and she watched his form with appreciation. He returned with a jug of water, some of which he poured into an earthenware cup. She took it gratefully, realising how thirsty the walk had left her, and swallowed it down in one. He sat down once more, turning the chair so it faced hers, sideways on to the table. He leaned forward in it and watched her wipe the drips from her chin and deposit the cup on the table. When he spoke again, it seemed to be with some effort.
“You mustn’t mind Joe,” he said. “He doesn’t say much sometimes, but he’d never let you down. He’ll be back soon.”
Claire felt he was misunderstanding her relationship with Joe, such as it was, and felt compelled to explain something to Steve.
“I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m just visiting. Joe and I are friends, but it’s nothing to me, what he does when I’m not around.”
Steve moved his seat a little closer. Now their knees were practically touching.
“Is that right?” he asked. “And is it anything to him? What you do when he’s not around?”
Claire looked up into his shining eyes, framed with dark lashes that blinked slowly as he returned her gaze. He passed his tongue slowly and nervously over his lips, an appealing mixture of flirtatiousness and awkwardness. Another few years and he would be an extremely attractive man. With a sudden pound of her heart, she remembered that Steve wouldn’t be getting much older than he was now. Although she mostly managed to push it out of her mind when she was with Joe, this new reminder was unbearably poignant. He looked absurdly young and pretty sitting there like that, waiting to be told what to do next. She couldn’t resist, and at that instant there seemed no good reason to try. She laid one hand on his leg and smiled a little wickedly at him.
“No,” she said pointedly. “I’m not sure it is.” Then she leaned forward and pressed her lips gently onto his.
She never got the chance to see the full effect this had on him. Behind her, the door banged. She didn’t need to look round. She knew. Joe had come back.
The room had been quiet before, but now the silence that descended encompassed them all like a fog. Steve, who was facing the door, saw him first, but Claire hadn’t needed his startled jump to tell her. Her heart in her mouth, she turned slowly in her seat to see him leaning against the wall, his casual pose at odds with his fixed stare.
In the midst of her embarrassment, she registered the stunning transformation in his appearance. He wore a dark tweedy jacket, open to reveal a soft shirt of a beautiful grey-green earthy hue. The colour and softness of it gave it a strangely organic appearance, as if it were truly part of him. A muted paisley tie was knotted casually around his neck, the end dangling over the handle of the pistol, which as usual was stuck in the front of his fawn trousers. He’d trimmed his beard so it now formed no more than an emphasis to his perfect, long jaw. A trail of goatee led up to his thin, set lips. His hair, which was still damp, had been combed formally to one side, but even now the curls fought against order and were beginning to straggle over his forehead. He walked across to the table and laid his gun on it. Claire caught a faint whiff of soap and cologne.
“Looking after her, are ye Steve?” he asked in his soft, carefully neutral voice.
The edge in his tone was clear. Steve skidded his chair back across the hard floor and stood up. His face was scarlet and he raised his hands, palms spread, in a gesture of apology, of surrender.
“No harm Joe, we were just…” he trailed off and reached for his hat. “That is, I was just going.”
“Aye,” said Joe. “You were.”
Steve’s departure was the only detectable movement in the room. When he reached the door and was behind Joe’s line of sight, he raised one hand in a farewell to Claire, and pulled a face to convey his guilt and sympathy. Claire smiled back weakly. The bang of the door seemed to echo round the room, the vibrations jangling in her ears. Joe said nothing and he still didn’t move. Claire avoided his eyes and waited. He allowed a full minute to pass before he spoke.
“I thought I ought to hurry back to get you,” he said, still in the flat, even tone he’d used to Steve. “Maybe I should have taken me time a bit?”
Claire closed her eyes and passed a hand over her forehead, the better to absorb the shame. She made herself stand up and face him.
“I’m sorry Joe,” she said, her apology faint because even as she spoke she found herself wondering exactly why she was answerable to him. Maybe she’d made a mortifying error of judgement, but she wasn’t the only one, and besides, the jury was still out on whether Joe or Steve even bloody existed. Wasn’t everything fair game in a dream?
“It was just…it was nothing.”
He watched her, waiting for her to continue, and without meaning to she found herself filling the silence. “I…I was angry with you for just leaving me here and so I…”
“Kissed my mate to pass the time,” he supplied.
“No. I mean, that was all – what you saw.”
Claire pressed on to explain and excuse his friend.
“You mustn’t blame Steve. I was just messing about. It was all my fault.”
“Now that I can imagine,” he said dryly.
The cloudy silence descended again and they stood there facing each other. Joe rested his fingers lightly on the table and chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully. In her earlier musings, Claire had recognised that she was fascinated by the underlying hint of danger, recklessness even, that Joe had about him. She wasn’t entirely sure what part of the story she had walked in at, but here was a man of strong passions in a desperate situation. He’d shot and threatened people and presumably, judging by the gang’s activities last night, robbed the odd bank too. It wasn’t that she was afraid of him exactly; she felt certain he would not harm her at all, but nevertheless when he went all silent on her like this, it over-awed her a little. So she smiled timidly and tried to change the subject.
“You look nice, by the way.”
In answer he intensified his chilly stare. His dark eyes, normally so warm as to appear almost liquid, were hard and cold. Even his cool indifference of the night before was nothing compared to this.
Claire felt irritation flare within her, extinguishing her timidity and embarrassment.
“Oh, for God’s sake Joe, I pecked someone on the lips for a second. You just dumped me here without even telling me what you were doing! You might never have come back for all I knew! I’ve said I’m sorry; I know it was out of order. But can we keep a sense of proportion? I wasn’t aware we had some heavy exclusive deal going on here.”
Not that he thought that either of course, going by what she’d seen out the window earlier. Who was he to sit in judgement about kissing people?
“At least I didn’t get out of your bed and go and ram my tongue down the throat of the next nearest person. Which is what you did,” she added in case he missed the point.
Joe glared at her.
“I told ye before,” he said coldly, “Maggie is an old friend, and I’ll kiss her if I choose. I didn’t realise you and Hart were on such good terms already.”
“We’re not. We just did something silly while you weren’t around. You on the other hand, you knew I could see you. You knew and you didn’t care what I thought, even though you’d just been with me.”
“And why would I think you’d be spyin’ on me out of the window?” he replied still in an irritatingly level tone. “So what’s it to be Claire? Make up yer mind. You kissed Steve because I left you here and you were cross with me, or because I kissed someone else and you were jealous?”
Claire felt her eyes blaze and her cheeks redden as she looked at him leaning against the table, calmly watching her become lost for words. It was an interesting question he was posing here. She’d thought she was annoyed at being left like she had been but even to her own ears she could hear that the kissing business sounded like it had bothered her a lot more. Not that she was going to admit to that of course.
“Come off it!” she said finally. “I don’t believe you really care for a minute who I kiss. I’ve only met you twice! You’re just pissed off because girls are like some kind of possession to you. You’d be like this if Steve took your horse!”
Joe gave a little laugh.
“Ye’ve got me all wrong there Claire. Takin’ me horse now, that’d be far worse, make no mistake.”
“I’ve a good mind to slap you,” she said, properly angry now. He wasn’t going to joke his way out of this one. Well, if it was a joke. She wasn’t entirely certain.
He stepped closer and stared down at her. He wasn’t laughing any more but the coldness of a few moments ago had faded from his eyes.
“That’s as maybe,” he said evenly. But you aren’t going to, are ye?”
“Don’t be so sure!” she said with spirit.
“Ah, but I am sure Claire. For all that you just say what you mean and do what ye want, ye still play all them games women do. If you really meant to slap me, you’d just do it and worry about it later. Thank Christ ye haven’t got a pistol.”
He reached for her hand and pulled her to him.
“Right now though, I’m going to show ye what it is that I’ve a good mind to do.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when he bent and kissed her hard. His lips covered hers, took her breath and any protest she had left. His hand crept behind her head to support her, and when she opened her eyes she could see his lashes and their tiny movements that mirrored the rhythms of his jaw. It was a superb kiss, skilful and passionate, erotic even, as he reclaimed her from their argument, and she presumed, from any lingering thoughts of Steve. The suddenness with which she felt and smelled him so close sent dull heat seeping through her. Her palms, which had risen in a half-hearted gesture of rejection now lay flat against his shirt, the soft fabric conducting the warmth and feel of him into her fingertips as his chest rose and fell. So what he didn’t behave exactly as she thought he ought? So what if all his kisses were not for her alone? This one was; if she’d wished for his full attention on occasion, then she had it now, and she wanted only to kiss him back and keep him kissing her for as long as possible.
Finally, Joe broke free and regarded her mockingly. Idly he brushed away a wisp of hair from her face.
“I tell ye for nothin’, that eejit could never have kissed ye like that,”
“I wouldn’t want him to,” replied Claire breathlessly, holding his gaze and conscious that something more than words and kisses were passing between them. What, she wasn’t quite sure. Maybe just a tacit agreement that for some reason they had yet to work out, neither of them wanted to think of the other kissing someone else.
“Please don’t give him a hard time about it Joe. It was just me being stupid.”
Joe gave a low chuckle.
“Give him a hard time? Come on will ye? I feel sorry for the poor fella. He wouldn’t stand a chance. You’d eat him for breakfast.”
She pushed at him playfully; glad the argument was over but conscious that once again he had charmed away her indignation without a thought of any self-examination. It was very confusing; her mind whirled with the awareness that the very things about him that exasperated her were part of the same things that drew her to him.
Perhaps Joe caught something of her confusion because after a moment he said,
“I’m sorry I left you here like that. And for the other thing too. Now you come to mention it, that wasn’t very gallant of me was it?”
“No. It wasn’t.”
“Ah well, I don’t mean no harm, but if it’s fancy manners you’re after, I’m thinkin’ you’re in the wrong place.”
The sting of his kiss still on her lips, Claire looked him up and down.
“Oh believe me,” she said sincerely, “I’m pretty sure I’m not in the wrong place.” She stepped back and sat on the table.
“Of course, if you didn’t look so hot standing there, I might find it harder to forgive you.”
“Hot?” Joe looked puzzled.
Claire eyed him mischievously.
“You know when you look at someone and they look so good it makes you hot from wanting them?”
Joe smiled slowly.
“Aye, yes. I know that one.”
“Well, that’s hot.”
“Is it now?”
He turned away to the door. It fastened on the inside with a large, flat wooden latch, and Claire watched as his strong fingers grasped it and with a single movement, thrust it home. She wondered in passing how it opened from the outside.
“So since you’re lookin’ so ‘hot’ yerself, I think you might have to let me make up to you for my bad ways again.”
He advanced on her. Claire swallowed. She wondered if he realised how completely at his mercy she was. The merest hint that he was proposing to make love to her once more had instantly filled her with wet lust.
The fingers that had been so firm with the latch now began to work nimbly at the buttons of her blouse. He slid it off her and ran his hands over the curves of her shoulders.
“Did I tell ye yet, you have beautiful skin?” His hands moved down her bare arms and his thumbs reached inwards, centring themselves over her nipples under the thin camisole. She felt the faintest tickle of his breath on her neck.
“And,” he added, smirking half to her and half to himself, “The most fabulous tits.”
The casual crudeness of his comment – would that be something he’d report back to his friends round the camp fire that evening? - combined with the steep contour at the front of his tweed trousers made her draw a sharp breath and start to move off the table towards him. He wagged a finger at her.
“Oh no ye don’t. I think it’s about time it was my turn to say what we do. Don’t you? You just sit still now.”
He reached down and began to run one hand under the long skirt. When he reached her knees, he wriggled a little to coax them apart a few inches, then continued his journey, led by a single finger. A little further and he stopped abruptly and then laughed. There was something more than amusement in his voice as he spoke.
“Jesus, Claire! You’ve been walking round all this time with no drawers on! How am I to be expected mend me bad ways when ye put ideas like that in me mind?”
It didn’t seem the moment to remind him that his wanting repeatedly to have sex with her was not what she objected to in his behaviour. Nor, as far as she knew, did the police trouble themselves about his amorous activities. She slid her hand round his waist and kissed him.
“There’s no need to mend all of your bad ways.”
The finger moved on, more slowly now, pausing slightly as it crossed the top of her stocking and made first contact with flesh. The yearning for him to continue was unbearable, all the more because she realised he knew what he was doing to her. The touch, when it finally came, was both a relief and a surge to a new level of excitement. The breath left her body, loudly and completely and she sucked at the air around her for an urgent fresh supply.
“Jesus. You are wet,” he said quietly. One solitary finger rubbed a little dancing circle on her. Claire bit her lip and closed her eyes. The finger withdrew, its absence leaving behind a deep emptiness. She opened her eyes and saw that he was still standing before her. Watching her face carefully, he very deliberately raised the finger to his own mouth and pressed it to his lips. Then he smiled.
“Lie down Claire.”
This was so unlike her other experiences with Joe that she was beyond speech or even much coherent thought. Lying flat, with her knees bent and her feet flat on the table, she was unable to see much of Joe at all. She felt him lift her skirts, rucking them around her waist, leaving her exposed. Behind her, the unfinished game of patience scattered to the floor.
She began to feel a little panicked at her exposure and own restricted view. She reached blindly towards him and instantly he moved round to put his face close by hers. She could see the flat ends of the freshly trimmed beard and the tiny freckles on his cheekbone.
“There’s just us here; this is just between us,” he told her, “Ye know I won’t harm ye lass.”
He returned to the end of the table and Claire felt his mouth on her, all warm breath and busy tongue. Her body arched involuntarily towards this new, intense source of pleasure. She felt his ears moving on the softest parts of her thighs, curls tickling, and the little nerve-endings there added themselves to the chorus of sensations she was experiencing. His hand steadied both of them, flat and firm on her leg.
Every fibre of her body was turned towards him like a thrilled audience. After a few minutes, he stopped and lifted his head to look at her. His face was pink, traces of her clung wetly to his skin. The burning, tingling sensitivity he had left behind was almost unbearable. He was breathing heavily too, his appearance dishevelled and reckless. He took a small step to balance himself.
“I want you,” she said, desire making her voice sound petulant.
He nodded and pulled her up so she sat on the edge of the table. Still musty from her, he kissed her, then gently helped her down and turned her away from him. She leaned over the table, feeling the rough grain of the wooden surface under her fingertips. Behind her she could hear the rustle of Joe unbuttoning his clothes, then she felt him lifting up her skirts once more. Claire forced from her mind a sneaking little question as to whether he’d been in this dress before, so to speak, and concentrated on his hands, now steadying themselves on her naked backside. It wasn’t difficult.
“You have no idea,” he said in a strange, voice. Then, before she could wonder exactly what he meant, he pushed into her. She was more than ready for him but the position let him go so deep that she gasped in shock. Among the books and bedding and sacks, she glimpsed the shadow of the two of them cast on the wall. He was straining up, his head thrown back with the effort of managing his frantic, uncontrolled progress. The silhouette was such an arresting sight that she watched fascinated, allowing it to stoke the fire within her even further. As it started to burn, she gripped the edge of the table and let him take her away, hearing her own voice cry out, pulling Joe along with her to the end. He lay against her for a moment and then he moved away, thoughtfully lowering her skirt as he did so. Awkwardly, Claire pushed herself up and turned to him, reaching out to hold him, and wondering who was holding whom up as they staggered slightly against the weight of each other.
“You know, Claire,” he said, wiping wet hair from her forehead. “Screaming out like that, ye’ll have the coppers along to see who’s being murdered. And then where would I be?” He winked at her. “It’d be worth it though I reckon, don’t you?”