I want to apologize for taking so long to update this story. I started a new job and it sucked the creativity right out of me. Thank you for everyone who has continued to review and added my story to their 'story alert' and 'favorites', I hope this chapter does not disappoint.
As always any spelling and grammatical errors are my own. I know very little about Colorado in the 1880's and what I do know is from watching too many episodes of 'Dr. Quinn', so if anything is inaccurate I am sorry.
Early morning sun lit the room and filtered through Natasha's closed lids waking her from her first night of restful sleep in months. Eyes blinked open and immediately snapped shut; regretting the action. Pain exploded behind her eyes and with a groan she rolled away from the offending light.
It took her a moment longer to realize she was lying on a soft bed instead of hard earth as she had come to expect. A hand shot to her forehead while memories of her fall the night before came back in a rush of disjointed images.
Natasha threw herself to the floor with a distinct lack of grace. Eyes flew wide while black dots swam across her vision, when the dancing dots cleared she took in her surroundings for any sign of a threat. The room was small but homely, nothing like the grand decadence that Ivan normally preferred but as he would have found her unconscious and bleeding, if her memory served, a more upscale establishment may have asked too many questions.
A closer inspection of the room reveled sheer curtains hung on the single window, worn but well-loved furnishing scattered sparsely around the room, and a dressing screen in the corner had her doubting her earlier fears that Ivan had somehow found her.
A memory of steel-blue eyes flashed across her mind's eye. A stranger had found her. Could he have taken her to the next town?
Quickly she looked down and found that she was still dressed, though her boots were on the floor and upon further inspection, she noticed that her injured ankle was wrapped tight. Hands moved to the hidden pockets in her skirt; she found that her throwing knives were still safely tucked away to her relief. Beside the bed she spotted her satchel containing her few belongings and her reticule still strapped to her waist. The small change purse only contained a few measly coins to weigh it down but she had hoped once she put enough ground between Ivan and herself she might be able to buy a ticket back to the east. Perhaps she would settle in Boston, she was sure that she could find employment in a ladies shop or as a maid, and perhaps, in time make a life away from the sins of her past. That was not the life her training prepared her for, far from it in fact; but she was nothing if not adaptable and Ivan would never expect her to settle for such a mundane existence.
Testing her injured ankle, Natasha ventured out into the a small, but well-kept home. Making her way down the hall with light steps as not to disturb the floor boards; she detect subtle feminine touches placed throughout the home, such as dried flowers framed on the walls and hand sown lace covering the small end table waiting at the base of the stairs, but as far as she could tell there was no evidence of a real woman residing within the home. Curious…
Near the rear of the house Natasha found a well stalked kitchen and on the table was a plate laid out with what appeared to be dried meat and biscuits. Her stomach rolled and her mouth watered at the sight of the food. She had gone too long without a good meal but experience had taught her to be weary of such simple offerings.
"You can eat child, it's not poisoned."
Her heart nearly sprung from her chest as she whirled around, one hand reaching for her beloved knife, but stopped mid motion when she eyes fell upon the back-lit figure silhouetted in the doorway.
Her dazed glimpse from the night before had not done him justice; she noted when he stepped into the light, removing his black hat to show dirty blond hair that curled attractively around his ears and highlighted the soft yet masculine angle of his jaw.
"You startled me." She managed after a prolonged silence. She kept her voice low as distract from any lingering traces of a residual accent.
"My apologies, Ma'am. Allow me to introduce myself. Clinton Barton, at your service." He bowed his head in greeting but his eyes remained fixed on her, never wavering from her own mossy gaze.
Clinton Barton, the name was as foreign as everything else around these parts but the deep timber of his western drawl complimented his rugged good looks.
Natasha took a moment to study her savior now that she was fully conscious. His sun worn face bore lines from years of hard labor, but instead of detracting from his looks, Natasha found that the deep crease between his brow and the laugh lines accentuating his full lower lip only added to his attractiveness. He was nothing like the men Ivan would introduce her to, with their starched suits, manicured mustaches and greased back hair. Men that spent their days in luxury, surrounded by wealth, and knew nothing of the hardships of an honest days work in the sweltering sun.
She looked up from her appraisal to find a flicker of silvery blue running the lengths of her figure before snapping back to her face with an expectant look arching his brow.
He was waiting on her name.
A slew of names sat poised on her tongue ready to be unleashed upon him, but she hesitated. She had a name for every city she visited, every assignment Ivan had sent her on but as she opened her mouth the name that came forth was one that she had refused to taint with Ivan's lies and manipulations.
"Natasha, Natasha Rushman." The last name was fictional but there was only so much truth she could afford, what little she had offered ignited her nerves aflame in a most unpleasant fashion as it was.
There would be time to contemplate the implications of her actions later, now it was time to play the game. Painting on a coy smile, she stepped forward with purpose and extended her hand in greeting. She could use this, men were her specialty and this Clinton Barton was no exception.
To her surprise he stood his ground for a moment longer than she would have expected, almost as if he were sizing her up, but after a moment he took her hand in a firm but gentle grip. The fact that he shook her offered hand as opposed to kissing her knuckles, as she was accustom, was not nearly as disconcerting as the feel of electricity passing between their joined flesh.
"It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance Miss Rushman."
"Please call me Natasha." For reasons beyond her understanding the sound of her lies on his lips left her feeling unsettled.
"As you wish Ma'am and you can call me Clinton."
Clinton had risen with the sun after a night of restlessness. Sleep rarely came easily for him but the previous night had been especially trying. Each time he laid his head to rest his mind supplied endless visions of alabaster skin and hair the color of the setting sun.
The blasted rooster had ended his torment, dressing for the day he ignored the temptation to look in on his sleeping guest but he resisted the siren call and went about his morning as usual.
Tending the cattle and chickens had taken him longer that usual as thoughts of the girl continued to haunt his steps. He remembered the way her supple curves had felt in his arm when he carried her in with ease the night before. Although Clinton considered him self a strong and capable man he knew she should not have weighed so little. No matter the events that had befallen the poor girl she had obviously been surviving on minimal rations for quite sometime.
The last few years had brought many immigrants out west seeking a better life. Clinton wondered if she had somehow gotten separated from her family or been brought over as a mail order bride. All of which common enough stories around these parts but his gut told him there was more to her story than that of the average lost soul looking to make their way in these parts.
Whatever her story she needed to eat, with that in mind Clinton set out a plate of Mrs. Pepper's famous biscuits and some dried meat. It wasn't much but it would have to do until he could take her into town.
He had returned with fresh milk when he found her staring longingly at her breakfast. He'd spoke intending to reassuring her but the whip like snap of her head in his direction and the lighting fast draw for the pearl handled knives hidden in her skirts had his fingers twitching for his revolver. Thankfully her hand stilled before the need to defend him self became an issue.
He had wondered at the knives the night before but hadn't given it much thought when considering her injuries but the quick actions spoke of training. The kind of training that woman did not usually partake in around these part, or any other parts that he was familiar with for that matter.
Introducing himself, he watched the calculating way in which she admired his form. He could see that she approved of his looks if the subtle straining of her spine and lifting of her ample chest was any indication, and in his experience it was, but what struck him with no small amount of curiosity was her hesitancy at giving her name.
She was hiding something, and attempting to manipulate him to do so. How interesting.
"How are you feeling this morning?" He tried once she had folded her self into one of his rickety dinning chairs. Despite the fact he could tell she was starving she picked at her food daintily, watching him closely from beneath smoky lashes. A woman who would sacrifice her own health for the sake of keeping appearances was not a new concept to Clinton but somehow he doubted she was as refined as her manners would imply.
Despite his mistrust of his new guest, Clint had to admit; although he had believed her bewitching by candle light she was even more breathtaking in the full light of day. She seemed to burn before his eyes, her scarlet locks curled around her face like living flames dancing in the breeze. The vibrant color provided the perfect counter to the leaf green of her eyes. Clint's family raised him on stories of far off places and long forgotten legends; looking at the creature standing before him and he remembered the wicked beauty of the goddesses of old…and their deadly nature.
"Surprisingly better than I should. Am I to assume I have you to thank for tending to my injuries, Clinton?" There was a slight lilt in her pronunciation of his name hinting at her foreign roots.
"My apologies for taking liberties, Ma'am. When I found you I wasn't entirely sure you were alive, I am happy to have been mistaken. I wrapped your ankle and checked your head. If you don't mind me asking…how did you end up on the road?"
It was a miniscule change, one that he would have missed had his eyes not been drinking their fill of her. A slight jump in her pulse along the smooth skin of her neck, other wise she remained perfectly composed; even bashful.
"A pitiful story I am afraid. I was brought over from my home lands; Russia," she clarified at Clinton's questioning look, "as a bride for a gentleman that my family corresponded with. I traveled to Denver to meet my Groom only to find that he was a drunkard that had drunk himself to death weeks before my arrival."
Clinton watched as she stood and crossed with only a slight favoring to the small window over the wash basin. Too thin arms wrapped around her waist in a familiar gesture of comfort. "I had nowhere to go, no family, only a little money. I hired a carriage to Boston in hopes of making it as far as my measly funds would take me. A day or so ago the carriage was attacked by thieves, the driver and other passengers were…killed." There was a slight quiver to her voice at the word killed, but there was a nagging feeling pulling at his mind as he listened to her finish.
"I managed to crawl away behind some shrubbery. It was only by the grace of God that they did not find me. When at last they left I ran. I had no idea how far away from the nearest town I was and after running for a day, I was so very tiered. I must have stumbled on a rock and that is where you found me. How can I ever thank you?"
"There's no need for thanks, Ma'am. I am just glad I could be of service." And despite his misgivings about her story, Clinton was honestly glad he had found her. There was more to this beauty than what she was telling him but what ever it was he knew he would do anything in his power to help her if he could. That didn't mean he wasn't going to do some looking into her story though.
"If your feeling up to it, it's only a short wagon ride into Colorado Springs. There's a doctor there, he can take a look at your head and ankle. Then I'll take you by to see Mrs. Pepper, she run's an inn and I'm sure she will be willing to let you stay with her until we can find a way to get you home." The smile Natasha bestowed upon him was one that he would remember as long as you live, as it was entirely genuine.
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