Except I am.
”Go inside, Lily. Now. And close the door.”
”Oh,” Lily gasped as she spied the men.
“Go–” There wasn’t enough time. Not now. They were close enough to make out both girls on the porch, their pale dresses drawing two sets of eyes in the shade of the roof. “Nevermind,” Rees said. Her voice sounded desperate in her ears; she hoped it didn’t sound that way to Lily. “Hand me the rifle.”
“But…it’s not loaded.”
“We know that. But they don’t. Hand it over. Quick!” Lily ducked back in the door, and then returned; the smooth barrel of the rifle landed in Rees’s palm. “Don’t say anything,” she instructed. “Let me do the talking.”
And then everything seemed to happen at once.
Annabel sprang up on the roadside, thin as the long reeds of grass that slapped her legs, her short bow nocked and drawn, feather fletching gripped tight in her tanned fingers, stance wide. The whistling stopped; the tall man’s rifle left his shoulder and found his hands in one impossibly smooth motion. He leveled it on Annabel.
“No!” Rees shouted, bringing her own rifle up to her shoulder, aiming it at the redheaded man. Her breath caught and her hands were slippery on the gun.
“Don’t you dare!” Rees yelled. “She’s just a girl with a toy!”
“It’s not a toy!” Annabel’s indignant shout came floating back over her shoulder. To the men, she called, “Come a little closer and see if I don’t put one right through your stupid eyes!”
“You reckon arrows move faster than a Minnie ball?” the tall one asked, gun trained on the girl still.
“Leave her alone,” Rees said, voice gaining conviction even as her knees started to shake beneath her skirts. “You boys just turn around and go back up the road. We don’t have anything you want.”
Red Hair tipped his head back and regarded her a long, tense, silent moment. He was right at the far edge of the porch now; all he’d have to do was swing around the post and come up the stairs to get to them. He wasn’t as uncommonly tall as his friend with the rifle, but he had enough size to do to her – to all of them – what that Yankee had done a month ago…He was narrow and lean and moved like a cougar as he shifted his weight between his booted feet. Under pale brows, his eyes were blue, she could see. Very blue. And he looked…a little…like he wanted to smile. It was the utter relaxation of the man, the lack of concern he had for this tableau of pointed rifles in the afternoon sunlight, that scared Rees the most.
“Well,” he said. “What if what we wanted was to come down this nice little road?”
He was English. His accent was plain as day. Not educated high lord, but London commoner. A lot like a voice she’d heard long before.
Rees fought her sweaty palms for purchase on the rifle. “You’re a long way from home, sir.”
“Aye.” He smiled, an easy, friendly smile she didn’t trust for a second. “But there’s no need calling me ‘sir.’”
“Sir or not, this is our road. This is a private road. I’ll ask you kindly, one more time, to leave.”
“Ain’t nothing private anymore,” Tall said. His eyes didn’t leave Annabel.
“Our road is!” Annabel spat back. “Nobody – not Sherman or Lincoln or you can have this road. It’s our very own Harwood road.”
“Anna!” Rees hissed, incensed the girl had let their last name slip…and then incensed at herself for adding a first name to their information.
Red kept smiling. “Anna Harwood, then?” he asked, tipping his head toward Annabel. “And that would make you ladies…?”
“None of your damn business,” Rees said.
Red’s smile dropped away and he seemed to consider a moment. “No one’s been here the last three times we’ve checked.”
Cold washed down her back, raising chill bumps, making her shiver. They’d been here before? How many times? Had they…
“Old widow Cornish was a bit daft, but she fed us every so often,” he continued. “The place has been empty since she died.”
The words were a slap across the face. “She’s – she’s dead?”
“Almost four months now. Thing was sitting dead in her rocking chair. Heart gave out, I guess. Buried her myself, in a sunny patch back in the woods.”
“By the dogwood,” Rees said before she could help herself. Mama had loved that spot, its mossy ground and the murmur of the brook from up the hill.
“The very same,” Red said. While he’d talked, he’d edged to the bottom of the steps. Annabel was trying to watch him and the tall one both. “Widow Cornish had one daughter, if I remember right.” His very blue eyes were trained on Rees now. “A Miss Reesling Cornish.” He smiled. “Named for the grapes, misspelled by her mother.”
Oh dear Lord… Her heartbeat threatened to punch through the base of her throat. How? How did he know?
“She didn’t have three daughters, but Reesling went off to marry a Harwood lad.”
Rees swallowed hard. “Who are you?”
“I–” He turned. “Hell, Theo, drop the gun. You afraid of a little girl with a bow and arrow?”
“Annabel,” Rees cautioned.
Girl and man lowered their weapons at the same time, eyeing one another warily.
He faced her again. “We’re friends,” he said. “Of a sort. My trigger-happy comrade over here is Theo Merrick.” The rifleman nodded at the sound of his name, giving the three of them a flat, assessing glance.
“And you?” Rees pressed. She hadn’t dropped her rifle yet.
He propped a hand on the banister, and she guessed – in some far detached part of her mind – what he would say before the words left his lips. Suddenly this entire moment made complete, terrifying sense. No ordinary man, no stranger, could know what he knew. His blue eyes were on her face, calculating and friendly at once, as he said, “Liam Bennet.”