Chapter 1: The Road Back

The hired mercenaries had proven to be extremely loyal to Charlie. The first few days of the march back to Willoughby, they simply followed her commands as hired soldiers would. Slowly though, it became quite clear that they were actually forming a connection to her. Monroe and Connor, they tolerated. But Charlie, they gravitated toward. Monroe was glad to see this attraction to Charlie seemed purely protective, as if she had five new uncles that did exactly what she told them. If any of them had dared to look at her with anything bordering lust in their eyes, they would have gotten to Willoughby with four hired men.

Miles would expect Bass to look out for his niece, but that wasn't all there was to it. He had begun to feel a camaraderie with her, how could he not? They'd been in at least a dozen fire fights together by now. He trusted her like he hadn't trusted anyone since he and Miles fought side by side. But it was that day in New Vegas, that day when he'd found Charlie and Connor together. The feelings that exploded out of him that day went far beyond protecting a friend's niece, protecting a partner. He felt like he could tear his own son to pieces…he felt…jealousy. That's the only explanation there could possibly be. And he hated himself for it.

"Monroe!" barked Harris, arguementably the roughest of Charlie's new men. "Charlie needs you." This effectively broke Monroe out of his reverie. He jumped to his feet and hurried toward the camp.

"What's wrong?" demanded Monroe.

Harris shrugged and kept walking up the hill. "Just asked for you."

Monroe slowed his pace as he realized there was obviously no immediate crisis. As he entered the camp, he noticed nothing had really changed since he had gone down to the stream under the guise of cleaning himself up. They had ridden hard for several days now, and it was showing on all of them. It had been Charlie's suggestion to rest for a few hours, but no one had complained. The men had all sprawled out to rest or eat what little food they carried with them. Connor had wandered off to try to kill something for a more substantial meal. Charlie had curled up on her pack and dozed off almost immediately. Now however, she was sitting cross-legged under a tree and staring at a map.

Monroe dropped down next to her, close enough to see the map, yet leaving enough space so he wouldn't accidentally touch her. He wasn't sure why he left that space, but felt like it was vital to his mental stability. God knows he spent enough time thinking about her lately…he shook his head to stop that line of thought. Damn, what was wrong with him lately?

Charlie had been studying the pages in front of her with concentration on her face. As he joined her though, she looked up with one of her earth shattering smiles. "Feel better?" she asked.

"Cleaner," he grunted. "What are we looking at?"

"A map," she grinned.

"Thanks, smart ass. I would guess we were just about here." He said pointing down at a dot on the page. "That abandoned town up there used to be Brownfield, I think."

"That's what I thought, too. How many days do you think we have left until we reach Willoughby?"

"At this pace? Maybe a day and a half." He stole a glance at her while she peered down again. The way the late afternoon light shone through her hair…he sighed. He really was losing it.

"I think we should be together," she mumbled. He stiffened.

"What?" he breathed. Had she really just said that? Yes, he had these feelings for her, feelings that he would never act on, of course. But she hated him. She fought with him, yes, but deep down she hated him for what he had done to her family. Didn't she?

Her crystal blue eyes looked up to meet his. "Well, I was thinking someone should go ahead to scout the area and look for Mom and Miles, see if anything has changed before we all go charging in. I don't want to send in any of Duncan's men unannounced, and no offense, but I don't trust Connor to watch my back. I think it has to be you and me." She seemed so strong, yet at the same time, so uncertain as she waited for his response. She wanted to live up to the expectations of these men she was now 'leading', but clearly felt inferior to Monroe's military expertise. Honestly though, she hadn't made a decision yet that was any different from what Monroe himself would have done.

He let out a breath as he realized what she'd meant, and took in the need for approval. "I think you're right. We'll leave now, and have the men follow at a slower pace."

Charlie beamed up at him again, so pleased he agreed with her. With those eyes piercing his, and that smile lighting up her face, it was hard to remind himself how she really felt about him.