Cole never know Jesse had allowed her to remain so innocent. Maybe it was the alcohol, but he'd never seen Zee so off kilter. If anything, from the way she carried herself, he would've thought for sure that she had some kind of experience. Not as much as he had, but some, nonetheless.
He'd been wrong, but for once he wasn't sorry.
It was just like him, to be thinking with his dick while Jim was laid up, probably dying.
It'd kill the kid to know. He'd never understand, just think it was further proof that his brother didn't give a damn if he lived—or died.
In the same way the little girls chased after Bob, trying to hold his attention on them after years of living without it, Jim followed Cole everywhere for a long while.
More often than not he'd find his young shadow right at his side, asking an unending number of questions until his big brother smacked him into silence. He'd wanted to know everything. About killing, war strategy, girls, kissing, sex, drinking.
It took Jimmy a few weeks before he was able to accurately gauge Cole's fast-fluctuating moods even half as well as Bob could, but eventually he'd picked up on when it was safe to be insatiably curious. At those times his eyes would light up and he'd take off on longwinded tangents; and on the rare occasion when he actually shut up long enough for an answer to be given to him, Jim's brain soaked up every word like a sponge.
He wasn't like Bob, that much Cole figured out pretty quick. He and Bob were used to each other's company. Bob was the dog, Cole was the dog kicker. They got along fine when they needed to, and didn't when they didn't. But Jimmy was different. Cole roughed up Jim a little and the kid just didn't understand why. He didn't realize that was how the Younger brothers acted toward each other. They weren't like Jesse and Frank. Cole beat on Bob, when Bob got angry enough he beat on Cole. When he thought Jim had it coming, Cole beat on him too.
The boy sure did have those hurt puppy-dog eyes down flat, though. Made him feel guilty as hell about hurting the kid too bad.
No wonder Bob resolved to leave Jim alone.
On a similar line of thought, it was also just like Cole to not even be focused on the girl he was with. Zee was a beautiful woman. Sadie, Mary, Jane, and half a dozen others he couldn't remember the names of had all been beautiful women—some of them paid, some of them not. But somehow they'd never been enough. Physically they satisfied him, temporarily cooled the fire constantly tormenting him—but it always came back. Eventually he'd settled on the idea that the reason none of them were enough was because he didn't want a dozen women.
He wanted one.
He never questioned the reasoning. He wasn't the sort of man, like Frank, who enjoyed delving to a deeper level of understanding when it came to complicated things. He just knew. Cole also just knew the idea was ludicrous, because it went completely against his character and sometimes it scared the living hell out of him. But it still never went away. Not since he was a boy of seventeen losing his virginity to the first decent-looking woman willing to take it. It had been an awkward and short experience, especially since he hadn't been able to completely push back the slight twinge of guilt he'd felt.
She'd sworn she would wait for him. Promised that when he got back from war she would come back from school or, if the war took too long, she'd wait in her parents' house until he returned. In the weeks leading up to the day he'd left Liberty, they'd often lain out on a blanket in one of her father's fields, content with each other for the first time in their lives, just staring up at the stars. They'd planned it all. Mapped out the whole rest of their lives in a handful of peaceful evenings.
He'd come back and restore order in the Younger house, run his farm better than any man could expect to, and impress her father. When he had permission he'd ask her to marry him, be Mrs. Cole Younger and stay at his side for the rest of his days.
They'd argued playfully over a few things. He'd teased that he wanted babies, lots of them. She'd disagreed on the principle that she'd have to give birth to them all, and insisted that there be a limit if at all possible.
He'd wanted to build a house for the two of them to live in, out of sight of the house where his brothers and sisters would continue to live. She'd hated the idea, insisting that after spending her whole life as the middle child in a family of seven, she just wouldn't be able to stand sharing a house with only one person. Besides, she liked his brothers and told him that his little sisters needed a mother figure.
He'd prodded her further, telling her a new home would hardly be lonely after the first three or four children came. She'd laughed out loud, nearly busting a rib as she rolled away from him. He'd turned onto his side and grabbed her by the shirt she'd been wearing, one that he'd had good reason to believe belonged to one of her older brothers, and had flipped her back over, seeing how red her face had turned in the moonlight just before he'd kissed her for the first time.
She took his rough jaw in her hands, running her thumbs softly over his cheek bones, seeming to be admiring the strength they brought to his facial structure. "They'll need you, Cole. Your brothers and baby sisters. Jimmy's going to have to run the farm practically on his own. The girls will have to live with Jesse and Frank's mama until they're old enough to help. Besides, these plans of ours, they're nothing. Just silly dreams. We've hardly been able to stand each other our whole lives. My brothers want to kill you and yours a lot of the time..."
He returned the gentle touch, cupping her soft face in one work-calloused palm. "No, no, Belle, I meant it, every word. I know I ain't very smart, not like Frank and Jesse James. People round this town call me a bastard behind my back, but I'm stronger than any of them, and I love you," he insisted, whispering so as to not break the mood that had developed between them. "That's got to count for something, don't it?"
Pain flashed across her eyes, just before she managed to turn them away from his gaze. She cleared her throat deliberately. "Cole, you know I care about you. Always have, since we were in diapers together. But I can't get attached to you like that, not now. I got enough people I love going away to war. I don't want my heart getting broke more times than need be."
He thought about that for a moment, then reached out again to tilt her chin up, so she had no choice but to look at him. He hoped that she could see that his very soul was bared to her at that moment. The next words he whispered in her ear as he leaned close, he would've denied in a second to anyone who'd asked. But he'd never meant anything more adamantly in his life. At least, he'd thought so, at the time...
"Say you love me, Belle. Say, 'I swear before God that I love Cole Younger with all my heart, and when he comes back from war, I'm gonna marry him.' You say that and then there won't be no way that anything bad'll happen to me. Not in this war, not ever. I will come back to you when this thing is over. Even if no one else does, I will."
She'd said it, perhaps only to give him hope, something to fight for after he went away. He hadn't assumed he would ever know for sure, but he'd kissed her again anyway, and they'd made undying promises to each other for another good half hour. Then her big brother Wes had come calling for her, and she'd been forced to leave Cole hiding in the tall grass, so she could pretend like she'd been out alone watching a meteor shower and day dreaming.
He'd done that for her too. Back then, Wes Mason had been the toughest son-of-a-bitch in the county, and although Cole was some four years younger than the tree of a man, and quite a bit shorter, there hadn't been a moment in his life when he'd feared him. He could see the fight between them down the road in his future, but for the time being his girl's loving touches, her murmurs of placating words, and the feel of her lips brushing his so softly all worked together to calm his burning temper in a way nothing ever had, before or since, and he'd let her go without standing up and making a scene with her brother.
At the time it had probably been for the best. There would've been a lot of assuming going on if Wes had seen the notorious Cole Younger lying out in a field with his fifteen year old sister. Even if Belle hadn't known then, most of the men in town were savvy to Cole's dealings with bar maids, and worst of all, Jenny Tine.
Even at sixteen he'd already made his share of mistakes, and more than one or two enemies. There weren't many fathers around Liberty willing to trust the oldest Younger boy around their daughters. Ironically, though, most mothers absolutely adored Bob and Jim, and no one really minded either of them. Just him. He was the bad apple in a bunch of otherwise good boys that just happened to have the misfortune of being his blood.
His mind snapped back to the present. He raised his head slightly, looking at the blonde beauty who'd so suddenly become confident in her handling of his body. While he'd been drifting she'd taken it upon herself to undo all the buttons on his shirt, and she was running a soothing hand down his chest, letting it come to rest on his belly.
"That's good, Zee. Real good," he encouraged lightly, shifting his weight on the bed.
"Where'd you get all these scars?" she asked, tracing over an especially horrible looking one that ran around his side, marring the healthy look of the tough muscle he'd built through the years.
He swallowed thickly, letting his head fall back to rest on a pillow. "Mm, I got that one in a brawl down in Georgia. Was drunk, wondered off alone. Got into it with the best damn knife fighter I've ever seen in my life. He cut me up pretty bad."
"What happened? How did you get away?"
He shook his head. "He was a dead man the minute he started in on me."
Zee leaned down to blow softly across his heated skin. "Why? Because he mistakenly messed with Cole Younger?"
Cole raised one eyebrow, still staring at the ceiling. "Well, there was that—and the fact that only a dead man brings a knife to a gun fight. Shot the bastard between the eyes just before he could gut me. If I'd been sober he wouldn't of had a chance."
Her warm lips on his stomach once again brought him crashing back into the moment. He groaned, forcing himself to sit up, taking some of his weight on his elbows. She looked up at him, probably waiting for some sort of sign of what she should do next to please him.
Even drunk he knew better. The only way he was getting anything that night was if he kissed her, long and hard. He had to draw her in slowly, or else she'd never go for it. Why hadn't she left? She was a good Christian girl. Was it to spite Jesse? Because she felt sorry for him? Was it possible that she was genuinely attracted to him? He'd found over the past months that there was nothing that got a woman hotter than being with a famous outlaw. Still, he wasn't sure if he could quite buy that on its own. Maybe he was missing something.
Then again, when he pulled her up beside him and melded his lips to hers, he didn't honestly care. She was warm, feminine, and she tasted like whiskey. Before he knew it they were rid of the rest of their clothes and under the covers. His tanned skin was a sharp contrast to her pale complexion.
As always the twinge of guilt met him, twisting his insides, reminding him of promises he'd made to wait.
Belle should've been the only one. Why else had he survived the war?