Tara barely breathed as the redhead rushed over to Donnie and lay an ear on his chest. Her hand flew to her mouth when she saw green eyes close, but a moment later they opened to find hers, and she could see the relief in them. Her limbs trembled as she climbed down from the wagon and jerkily walked over to the small group huddled in the street. Willow held her gaze and gave a comforting nod.
"He's gonna be fine," Will insisted before Tara could ask. "His nose may be broke, that's why there's so much blood."
Tara knelt in the dirt next to Will and carefully lifted Donnie's hand to her lap, letting out an enormous sigh when she felt his fingers squeeze hers. Close up she could see the rise and fall of chest, but her stomach tightened at the sight of her brother's damaged face. Blood still ran in bright red rivulets from his mangled nose and split lip; one eye was rapidly swelling shut, while the mottled purple patches appeared to be spreading, turning his face into one giant bruise.
"Donnie?" Tara breathed.
"M'okay," he slurred, fighting to sit up over Will's protestations. "Bed," he whimpered, wobbling to his feet supported by the redhead on one side and Tara on the other. Faith remained on the ground, her wide eyes staring blankly at the dirt, her hands clutching Donnie's discarded hat in a vice-like grip.
"Oh dear, can I be of some assistance?"
Turning toward the approaching footsteps, Will and Tara directed twin expressions of wary distrust at the preacher. The redhead deferred to the blonde, who nodded curtly after a brief pause and allowed Ethan to take her place holding up Donnie. Tara leaned down and gently cupped Faith's elbow, coaxing the stunned woman to her feet and leading the entire group into the saloon.
"Tara, do you have any ice?" Will inquired. The blonde nodded. "Chop up a bowlful...and grab several cloths, too," she directed from the staircase. Faith's eyes nervously followed Donnie as he was aided up the stairs, but she remained glued to the floor just inside the door.
"Faith?" Tara called gently, snapping the brunette out of her stupor. "Would you run out back and get some water? There's a bucket by the pump."
Faith nodded and scurried off to follow the directive. Tara hefted a large block of ice from the wooden chest behind the bar and dropped it into the washbasin. By the time Faith returned with the water, she had chopped off several large chunks and used the wooden club kept under the bar for protection to smash the ice into small chips, which she gathered into a crock. Throwing several clean rags over her shoulder, she grabbed the bowl and hurried up the stairs to Donnie's room with Faith close on her heels.
Will was still struggling to pull off Donnie's second boot when they arrived moments later, while Ethan stood off to the side watching the flurry of activity with interest. Setting the crock of ice on the dresser and taking the water from Faith, Tara dipped one of the rags into the bucket and sat on the edge of the bed to begin gently cleaning the caked on blood and dirt from her brother's face. Willow freed Donnie's foot with a final yank, sending her staggering back several feet into the preacher, who reached out to brace the redhead. Will jerked away from the man's hands on her back and moved to stand near Tara. The preacher raised an eyebrow and tilted his head a fraction before discretely clearing his throat.
"Can I help?"
Tara glanced over at him quickly and continued dabbing at Donnie's split lip. "I appreciate your assistance, Mr. Rayne, but we needn't detain you any longer."
"Very well, then. I have a sermon to prepare. Can I expect you in church tomorrow...Mister Smith?"
Willow furrowed her brow and shook her head tightly. The preacher tutted softly.
"I must say I don't altogether trust a man who doesn't attend services."
Will fixed him with a stare. "I don't trust a good many who do."
Ethan nodded, a smug grin on his face, then bid his goodnights and exited the room. Will crept over to the door to ensure the man had left the saloon before spinning to face Faith.
"I....I was on my way to see him....and then he was...," the brunette choked out, her voice cracking.
"It was Warren," Donnie mumbled, brushing Tara's hand away. "Had his goons hold me for him....guess it was personal."
"Because of me," Faith blanched at the confirmation of what her husband's ‘business' had been.
"I'm gonna kill that son of a bitch," Willow growled, taking two steps toward the door.
"Will!" Tara's angry shout froze the redhead in place. "He's already hurt someone I care about tonight-," her voice broke and she turned away, choking back a sob.
Willow bowed her head in contrition at the effect of her aggressive display on the blonde and slumped down into a chair by the window. Tara took a calming breath and rinsed out the blood-soaked rag gripped in her hand.
"I swear I didn't know, Donnie," Faith pleaded, and the soft expression directed back at her through eyes swollen half closed told her he understood exactly what she was referring to, and he forgave her.
"S'okay Fay. Hell, I half believed the things they was sayin' about me too."
"It's not okay," Faith replied, the sadness in her voice turning icy. "My father....he tried to deny it, but I could tell....he knew, he let me believe those things....about you and Harmony. I think Warren knows something, or has something on him....whatever it is, they've been playing me like a pawn."
"What does it have to do with Donnie and Tara?" Willow questioned. "I mean, other than Warren being angry that he got called out in a lie?"
Tara looked up in surprise at the mention of her name, but the redhead avoided her gaze. She frowned, but remained silent as she scooped handfuls of ice chips into the remaining rags and twisted them into bundles.
"I....I'm not sure," Faith answered.
"Can you find out without them knowing?"
"No!" Donnie exclaimed, struggling to sit up. Tara and Willow leapt at him at once, their hands covering each other's on his chest as they pushed him back down as gently as possible. "I won't have her in danger for me!"
"Okay....easy there....it was just a suggestion," Will soothed sheepishly.
"Well forget it."
"I think it's my decision," Faith interjected, her suddenly commanding tone surprising the others, who gaped back at the brunette.
"I need to do this Donnie....not just for you."
"But it's dangerous! I forb-"
"Donald Maclay, Junior, don't you dare tell me what I can and can't do!"
"Tara?" the young man whimpered.
"Uh uh," she shook her head, grinning widely. "I'm with Faith on this one," she remarked, winking at the brunette.
"Sorry, buddy. I'm not about to argue with two women who've made up their minds. Considerin' the state you're in, I think they could do a lot more damage to me than you can."
"Then it's settled," Faith determined, laughing softly to herself as she moved toward the door. "Never would have thought of myself as a spy."
"Find out whatever you can," Willow charged, "but if they seem suspicious, back off."
"Please be careful, Faith," Tara entreated, crossing the floor to hug the woman.
"Take care of him," she directed with a nod, pausing in the doorway to meet Donnie's eyes. "I'll see you soon."
Tara resumed her nursing following Faith's departure, carefully laying the makeshift icepacks on either side of Donnie's nose and retrieving a small box of bandaging from the dresser. Willow stood off to the side, out of the blonde's way but close enough to lend a hand at a second's notice. Green eyes focused on the movements of Tara's hands as they cleaned, bandaged, and soothed, moving surely but gently over her patient. The redhead's gaze drifted up the blonde's bare arms to linger on her graceful neck. Willow's lips parted a fraction and a flush crept up her own neck as thought of kissing Tara came back to her in a torrent.
"If you're done playing nursemaid, Tara, I need to speak to Will in private."
The redhead's eyes flew wide open, realizing she'd been caught ogling. Tara heaved a sigh and stood up primly.
"Fine, I'll leave you two to your men's talk....but keep that ice on your nose!" Once her back was to her brother she rolled her eyes and grinned at Will, who smiled nervously and nodded as she left the room, closing the door behind her.
"We got a problem, Will."
"I'm sorry, Donnie! I didn't mean to kiss her! There was just the moon and the stars and we were talkin' and then-"
"You kissed her?!" Donnie hissed.
"Uh huh," the redhead squeaked.
"Well I'll be damned."
"Isn't that what you wanted to talk to me about?"
"Hell no....I was gonna tell you that Warren wants a game tomorrow night, and if my gut's not lyin', it's gonna be the final one, if you catch my meaning."
"He's gonna try to take the bar?"
"The bar, the property....everything," Donnie emphasized.
Willow stared out the window, her mind racing. After several minutes a grin spread over her face.
"Can you get me invited to the table?"
"These are serious people, Will. Are you sure you wanna do that? It don't matter how good or lucky you are....Warren cheats."
"Well then we'll just have to cheat better."
An hour later Willow snuffed out the candle and tiptoed out of Donnie's room, pulling the door closed until the latch clicked. The pair had devised a strategy to beat Warren at his own game, as well as deciding on a contingency plan if it didn't work. Afterwards Donnie had playfully ribbed Will about taking liberties with his sister, turning the heretofore confident redhead into a stammering, conscience-stricken mess. The young man had seemed genuinely pleased at the news, although surprised, and had ceased his teasing the moment he ascertained the redhead's discomfit.
Willow stood outside the door, looking down the short hallway to where a light shone through an open archway. Tara, she thought, her stomach flipping. What am I gonna do? The moment Donnie had mockingly glared at her and said ‘so I take it you two are engaged now?' a weight had descended on the redhead's small frame. Tara thought she was a man....never would have kissed her otherwise....Willow had knowingly deceived her and taken advantage of the situation.
I just gotta control myself, she decided. She may be disappointed, but it's for the best. All goes well, Donnie wins big tomorrow and can pack up and leave in style....go back East where Tara can settle down with some nice real man and I....can get back on the road....alone.
The redhead jumped and turned to see Tara walking up the stairs holding a glass lantern, the candle within casting a muted glow on the blonde's features. Willow inhaled sharply and held her breath as the beautiful apparition approached her, long blonde hair cascading freely over porcelein shoulders. How the hell am I gonna control myself? her inner voice whined pitifully.
"I wasn't sure you were still here," the barmaid blushed.
"Uhh....yeah....I was just leaving. Were you outside?" she added in a worried tone.
"Had to stable the horse," Tara explained.
Willow frowned at the thought of the blonde outside alone at night. "I'da done it for you."
The blonde bit her lip and ducked her head. "No need....but thank you. How's Donnie?"
"Sleeping....which is what you should be doing too," Willow lectured.
Tara arched an eyebrow in challenge.
"As should I," the redhead hastily added. "Tara, I....I had a really nice time tonight. You know, before all....this," she gestured toward Donnie's door.
"Me too," the blonde whispered, inching closer. "I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been here."
"You'd have done just fine," Willow stressed, locking blue eyes with her own.
"Maybe so, but still....having you here is....you make it better."
Willow swallowed hard as she took in the blonde's words, knowing she wasn't just referring to helping Donnie. Say goodnight and leave! her brain screamed, but her feet refused to comply.
"I'm sorry about earlier, Tara....wanting to rush off after Warren. I didn't mean to upset you."
"I'm scared, Will," she admitted softly. "For Donnie, for Faith....for you."
A single tear seeped out of a blue eye, and Willow was there, brushing it away with one gentle thumb and lacing her fingers through the blonde's silky tresses. Tara let the lantern hang loosely by her side, her free hand curling around and clutching the redhead's back. Willow held her as she shook, soothing her with soft hands and softer words. The lantern slipped from Tara's fingers and landed upright with a thud on the floor. The redhead jerked her head at the sound, and saw the flame flickering low in its glass encasement, the weak light leaving much of the hallway in darkness. Tara cupped Willow's cheek and deliberately turned her face back, leaning in to bring their lips together. The redhead whimpered into the kiss, her resolve faltering under the soft assault of Tara's mouth on hers. With every ounce of self-restraint she could muster she withdrew, breathing heavily and pressing a finger to questioning lips.
"It's too late," she began, shaking her head as Tara's bewildered look turned to self-reproach. "For me to be here! I....I wouldn't want to sully your reputation." The redhead grinned as Tara bashfully dropped her gaze. "But....may I call on you in the morning?"
The blonde nodded and smiled back, the simple gesture sending Willow's heart fluttering wildly.
"I don't think there will be any more trouble tonight, but be sure to lock up after me?"
Tara retrieved the lantern and walked the redhead to the front door, where both paused awkwardly before drawing together in a brief hug. Once outside, Willow closed her eyes and sucked in a great gulp of air.
I think I need a bath....a very cold bath.