Faith silently fumed, the anger that had been bubbling up inside her over the course of the ride home nearing the boiling point. She felt an almost uncontrollable urge to strike out at someone, but swallowed it down, focusing all her thoughts on getting home to her father. He would fix this. He had always been there for her-guiding her, protecting her-and once he knew what kind of man his son-in-law was, he would take care of everything. She smiled as she imagined the scene, and laughed out loud when she sensed her husband's eyes on her.
"Something amusing, my dear?"
Faith continued to look straight ahead at the approaching lights of Dusty Hollow.
"I just can't wait to see what Daddy does to you when I tell him how a lying, whoring bastard weaseled his way into our family under false pretenses."
The self-satisfied smirk melted off of Faith's face as Warren erupted in laughter. She hated the sound of his voice, but the mocking cruelty of his words could never match that of his laughter.
"Cackle all you like, Warren. As soon as I tell him what I heard tonight you'll be lucky if you're only turned out into the street."
"What makes you think he doesn't know already?" Mears snapped. "Who do you think suggested it in the first place? You didn't honestly think I wooed you out of love, did you? Daddy dear made it worth my while to enter this marriage, Faithy-and he knew exactly what he was getting."
"You're lying," Faith accused, the mere thought of her father knowingly passing her off to such a scoundrel inconceivable.
Warren jerked the carriage to a halt in front of the Dusty Hollow Inn and turned to face his wife. "Ask him yourself," he sneered, tossing the reins onto her lap and climbing down to the street. "I have business to attend to. I trust you can find your way home."
Faith glared at her husband's back as he walked into the Inn without a look back. She gripped the reins tightly, her knuckles turning white while her fingernails dug painfully into her palms. She allowed herself one brief glance over her shoulder at Maclay's Saloon, and set her dark eyes toward the Mayor's mansion.
"They're in an awful big hurry," Willow remarked, jutting her chin in the direction of the dust cloud rapidly disappearing ahead of them as the woods gave way to prairie.
"Donnie always drives fast when he's upset," Tara replied quietly.
Willow watched Tara's expression out of the corner of her eye. Softly illuminated by the sliver of moonlight, the blonde appeared thoughtful and a little sad, but not worried. The redhead toyed with the reins a moment before clearing her throat.
"Was it the Sheriff? I mean, I know I missed something back there, and I just thought-not that it's any of my business, and feel free to tell me to shut my trap-I'm not usually this nosy, I was just curious, though curiosity killed the cat, maybe it's best if you don't tell me...not that I'm a cat-"
Tara chuckled, soft and low, and Willow felt a blush creep up her neck in pursuit of the goose bumps that broke out at the melodic sound.
"Sorry...I babble. I know it's irritating," she apologized, frowning as she remembered Donnie's admonition earlier that day.
"I find it rather endearing actually," Tara admitted, grinning at Willow, who smiled brightly in return. "It wasn't Warren so much as his wife. She-Faith-and Donnie...well, we all thought they'd get married one day, but then Warren showed up." The blonde's eyes darkened and she looked away.
"What'd he do?" Willow prompted gently.
"He lied and said Donnie had done something-he got some of the less scrupulous people in town to corroborate it. Faith believed it, and Donnie was too proud to go running after her. He tried to set her straight when she first took up with Warren, but she wouldn't listen. I guess she's been with him long enough now that when Larry shot his mouth off back there she realized it was true. Luckily Hank stepped in before a fight could start, though I'm not sure how wise a decision it was for his long-term well being."
"They're good people," Willow assessed, to which Tara nodded her agreement.
"They haven't been here long, but everyone likes them. Most families here got as far as Dusty Hollow on the way West and stopped, but they actually came here on purpose." The blonde shook her head as if it was the most preposterous thing she'd ever heard.
"How did your family arrive?" Willow asked, immediately regretting the question when she saw the pained expression on Tara's face. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't pry. You don't need to tell me anyth-"
"It's alright, Will," she answered softly. "My parents headed West during the Gold Rush. Donnie was only two and the time, and my mother-," Tara broke off with a heavy sigh before continuing. "They thought they could make it to California in time, but there were so many delays...bad weather, the wagons needed constant repairs...they only made it as far as a little clearing in what would become Dusty Hollow before my mom went into labor."
"Mmhm. The trip had taken its toll on her, and with no doctor and only an apprentice midwife...well, there wasn't anything they could do."
Willow reached over and took one of Tara's gloved hands in her own. The blonde smiled and squeezed their clasped hands.
"It's okay...really. It was a long time ago. Dad took it hard of course, wouldn't talk about her for a long time, but when we were older he'd tell us stories, make us feel like we knew her. Sometimes I wondered why he never remarried, but I think he just loved her too much to move on, almost as if he thought any new love would necessarily diminish the memory of the old. I think he was content with his life, though. Only once or twice did I catch him looking at her picture, looking almost...haunted. He went off to the War with her photograph pinned to the inside of his coat, and it was still there when he died. I like to think they're together now," she added quietly, looking up into the night sky as they passed over the stream.
Willow opened her mouth to speak, but found that she had no words. Tara squeezed the redhead's hand again, and Willow was struck by the fact that this woman who had experienced such loss felt the need to comfort her.
"What about your family, Will?" the blonde asked brightly, clearly attempting to lighten the conversation. "Is there a girl waiting for you at the end of the trail?"
The redhead dropped her eyes and shook her head. "Don't really have no family, and I uh...never had a girl."
"You lost your parents too?"
Willow nodded. "When I was four. They used to travel a lot, giving speeches at Abolitionist rallies. They were on a stump tour in Missouri...them and another feller were shot by pro-slavery advocates."
"I'm so sorry...that must have been terrible. Did you go live with relatives?"
"Didn't have any-my folks had only come over from Europe a few years before I was born. Whenever they were away I stayed with some friends of theirs, and I woulda kept on stayin' there if I could've."
"I don't understand...why couldn't you?"
Willow clenched her jaw as the familiar anger washed over her. "Cause they were Algonquin, and according to the State of New York, ‘no Injuns is fit to raise white children.' I got sent to the orphanage and stayed there til I was old enough to run away," Wilow dropped one rein and roughly swiped away the tears that trickled down her cheeks. Internally chastising herself for her display of weakness, she closed her eyes and took several deep breaths.
Willow looked up and blinked in confusion. She hadn't noticed the blonde taking the reins and pulling the wagon to a stop, or scooting closer on the bench until she was so near Willow could feel the warmth radiating against her left side. She stared into Tara's soulful eyes and felt her distress quickly giving way to deeper feelings.
"I'm not-" Willow protested, but a shudder that had nothing to do with the chill breeze burst like a wave over her slight frame, and before she knew what was happening, Tara had leaned away and returned to wrap a heavy cotton blanket around the redhead's back. The blonde held the folds of the material in place against Willow's breastbone, her stilled fingertips reading the pounding beat of the redhead's heart through the numerous layers.
"Do you always take care of everyone?" Willow asked with a warm smile.
"Habit, I guess," Tara grinned. "Donnie and his friends need a lot of looking after, and they're all sort of like my brothers."
"Brothers, huh? Not beaus?"
"No," Tara laughed heartily, rolling her eyes at the incredulous look on the redhead's face. "I think they see me as m-more of a s-surrogate sister."
"That's not how I think of you, Tara." Willow replied seriously, the words tasting thick in her throat. She knew she shouldn't have made the declaration, but felt entirely unable to resist the emotions welling up inside her.
They sat half turned toward each other, knees brushing, Tara's palms still resting flat against the blanket over Willow's chest. A gentle breeze blew over the wheat fields, which waved in time with the chop of water from the brook. The chorus of crickets rose over the wind, the sound almost deafening to her ears as Willow raised trembling hands to Tara's and guided them to her lips, softly kissing each gloved knuckle in turn before turning them gently and pressing her mouth against one, then the other palm.
"Will!" the blonde exclaimed, her voice husky and breaking. The green eyes that opened to meet hers were wildly intense, while labored breathing caused the blanket to slip unnoticed from the redhead's shoulders. The two gravitated toward each other, Tara looping her arms around Willow's neck, her fingers burrowing in fine red locks. Willow eased her hands under Tara's shawl and touched her silk covered waist, squeezing gently before wrapping her arms around the girl's back and pulling her close.
Willow's brain was rapidly losing all sense of reality, sending her the most conflicting and delightful messages. She felt as though she was alternately flying and drowning, both numb and overwhelmingly alive with joy. She turned her head just enough to place a whisper soft kiss at Tara's temple...her cheekbone...the hollow beneath. At the moment when she thought her heart would surely explode, she felt Tara turn her face a fraction, and their lips met.
It was a chaste kiss, lasting barely the length of a heartbeat, but its import resonated through both girls like the echo of a canon blast. For Willow it was the confirmation of her heart's desire-promises and better judgment be damned. For Tara it was the negation of a lifetime of deeply held belief, but she found that she did not care. Man or no, Will was the one who her body and soul cried out for-any lingering doubt swept away by one simple kiss.
"Will-oh, Will!" she shivered, and was enveloped her in a strong embrace, soothing hands softly caressing her back. She lay her head on the redhead's shoulder and sighed, wishing she could stay right there forever.
A piercing shriek echoed over the fields, jolting the lovers, who loosened their hold to peer down the trail toward the town. A moment later the cry was followed by a woman's voice wailing ‘Donnie!' Willow grabbed the reins and with a nod passed them to Tara, who snapped them sharply and drove down the path at breakneck speed. Willow gripped the seat rail with one hand, holding on for dear life, which her other hand rested loosely at the small of Tara's back, gently circling to calm the girl.
The clap of the horse's hooves sounded louder as they reached the hard packed earth of the main street, but Tara did not slow until she neared the saloon. Willow hopped off the cart before it came to a stop and sprinted ahead, while Tara sat white as a sheet and motionless, staring at the sight of Faith kneeling in the street, crying hysterically and leaning over the bruised, bloody form of Donnie Maclay.