"I should be going with you."
Monroe's hand halted on the buckle of his saddle as he glanced up at Charlie. Arms crossed, leaning against the side of the barn door, she looked equal parts warrior woman and petulant child. He'd noticed it on their little journey back to Willoughby once they'd had to fight side by side a few times. He figured that eventually, the combination might just drive him crazy. What he hadn't expected was for it to drive him crazy in quite the manner it was. Her duality wasn't annoying; it was arousing. Curbing those thoughts, he silently turned back to the task at hand.
"Charlotte, what do you want me to say?" he asked, his eyes still focused on the saddle. "Miles asked your mother to come along."
"And you're okay with that?"
"Hell, no." She chuckled, and he looked up, icy blue meeting fiery blue. The air around them crackled every time their eyes locked, and he could almost taste the air. Heavy, like a summer lightning storm rolling in from a distance. "But there's nothing I can do. Your uncle holds all the cards. He's the only one who can find my son."
He was right, and he noticed the shift in her body language the second she realized it. The tension eased out of her shoulders as she gave up the argument he knew she'd prepared. For once, she wasn't going to fight him. What was wrong with him that he was slightly disappointed? "I would have gone, helped you if I could."
She couldn't be doubting her abilities. "I know that. Miles does, too."
Her eyes bored into him. It was frightening how quickly they had adapted to the other's moods and emotions; reading someone simply by looking in their eyes was difficult. It had taken Miles and him years to perfect it. With Charlie, it had taken weeks.
Some thought passed over her face, and for one second, he thought she was going to walk away. Instead, she crossed to him in three strides, standing close and looking directly at him, as had become their way. "Why did you come back?"
No way he could have let her die. No way. But there were some things to keep close to the vest. "Do you think Miles would help me if I let you die?"
"Is that the only reason?" He shot her the Monroe look; the one that had brought strong men to their knees. Charlie didn't even blink.
"No..." He broke into a grin, the cockiest one he could muster. "But it's the only one I'm going to tell you."
He could see her resisting, but a wide smile eventually lit up her face. "You know, I hope you find your son, Monroe. And I hope he's as much of a cocky bastard as you are."
"I'd be disappointed if he wasn't." The banter they shared was one of the best parts of their relationship. Was he seriously considering it a relationship now?
She shook her head and turned away, walking out of the barn. "Hey, Charlotte..."
She spun back, the sunlight catching her hair and creating a golden halo around her. For a second, she was glorious, an angel sent from heaven to save them all. A breath caught in his lungs. Then a cloud drifted over the sun, and the moment passed. It was just Charlie in front of him.
"Yes?" She lifted an eyebrow, waiting for him to speak.
Pull yourself together, man. You ran an entire country for years. The thoughts ran rampant, but when he spoke his voice was steady. "A thank you would be nice."
He'd expected nothing but a snort; she surprised him. "Thanks...again."
He wasn't even sure what response to give, so he simply nodded his head in her direction and refocused on his saddle.
"Monroe..." He lifted his eyes to her once more. "Would it be too much to ask you to bring my mother and uncle back, safe and sound?"
Not one more member of her family could die on his watch; he wouldn't allow it. "No matter what happens, I'll make sure Rachel and Miles get back to you, Charlotte."
"Good, but I specifically asked you to bring them back to me. As in all three of you."
His eyes widened. What the hell was he supposed to say to that? Clearing his throat, he glanced away before meeting her eyes once again. Could he really make the promise that was on the tip of his tongue? "We're coming back."
Her eyes dug into him, holding him captive as the weighty moment between them stretched out. When she exhaled deeply, the heaviness passed. She turned away as if to leave but then called out to him once more. "Oh, and Monroe..."
"My friends call me Charlie."
She wanted him to come back to Willoughby. Had included him along with Miles and her mom. So...were they friends now...and was friendship what was really winding through his mind? God, he needed to stop having these thoughts.
"Do you need help pronouncing it?"
Smart ass. Okay, she wanted to bust his balls a little, he'd play along. Piercing her with his eyes, he rolled the name off his tongue, his voice low and throaty, seductive. "Charlie..."
"Only you could make it sound pornographic." She rolled her eyes but swallowed thickly. Good, he'd gotten under her skin, too. It was only fair.
When she finally left, after they stared at each other for another minute or two, he turned back to the buckle he'd been adjusting before she'd shown up. Releasing a breath he didn't realize he was holding, he shook his head to clear it a bit.
What the hell was he doing waxing poetic over a woman? How unlike him to think and feel this way. Which wasn't really true, if he was completely honest. It was exactly like him...at least him before the Monroe Republic, before Shelly, before the Blackout, before his family. For reasons he couldn't begin to explain, Charlie was bringing things out of him he'd long ago buried.
She was too young for him. Miles was her uncle. Worse, Rachel was her mom. All these things made the ideas randomly drifting through his head so very wrong. But it got harder every day. The longer time passed with her, the argument he fought within sounded less like reasons and more like excuses.
He needed to concentrate on his son now. And then they had the Patriot bastards to deal with. This was not something he had the time to think about. But as he carried the saddle out to his horse and met her eyes once again, he couldn't help the little jolt he got. She wanted him to come back home. And for the first time since he'd become the deposed ex-leader of the Republic, he felt like the king of the world.