Oakley had certainly taken the safety of Greenwater’s gates for granted, she was all too aware of that now. Standing there out in the open on the wrong side of the chain link, unarmed except for the hunting knife strapped to one thigh, she wasn’t sure what her slight friendship status meant with most of the men that were staring at her right then. She was “pretty sure” they wouldn’t hurt her, but “pretty sure” wasn’t much comfort.
She caught Tap’s eye, and he swallowed uneasily before looking away. The new guy, Sharp, turned and went back to whatever he’d been doing before Hunter dragged him along for the meet-and-greet. Hunter wasn’t looking at her, either. Hands on his hips, he was staring at the ground as though it was pissing him off.
After what felt like about six years of silence, Tap shouted for everyone to get back to work setting up camp. That’s when Hunter’s head finally camp up, caught her gaze, and with a jerk of his chin towards his shoulder he bid her to follow him.
It was a relief similar to suffocating and finally getting air. She nearly ran to him, but instead forced her head high, shoulders back, and took what she hoped appeared to be long, confident strides to fall in place behind him.
But before she got there a man with a heavy scar down one hemisphere of his face, bisecting his eyebrow and cheek, stepped right in front of her. He had the stink of at least three months on him, beard scruffy, long hair pulled back in a ponytail. Eyes dark as jet ran up her body as he blocked her path, a small twig in the corner of his mouth. He took it out, smiling as his eyes came to her face, then running them back down over her form.
Years ago, before Greenwater, she had learned well what this look meant. It was the same look women used to get when shopping for clothes: dying to try something on. See how it fit. When men looked at women this way it was no different.
Oakley may not have been strong enough to lick this guy in a fair fight, but she had intentions of fighting fair and she also learning that some men could lose that look in a fight. Others just enjoyed it.
Either way, she’d never just lain there and taken abuse. She always fought.
“Hawk,” Hunter’s voice snapped behind this man. He didn’t move, just clamped his teeth back around the stick and wandered away like they’d accidentally crossed paths.
Oakley realized then her pulse had spiked and she was now free to breathe. She cast her eyes around to see that no one had actually followed Tap’s word and started working. They were all still staring … at her. Some looked surprised. Some looked angry. Some looked amused. And some looked like Hawk. The last two groups worried her the most.
“Oakley,” Hunter called, hand out. Now she did speed up to get closer, his hand settling on her shoulder as she fell intro stride next to him.
“What the hell happened?” she asked, keeping her voice low.
Hunter shook his head. “I have no damn idea. She mentioned this Matilda, like you said, and asked if I would agree to father the baby. Assured me it would not affect her decision to let the men stay. So I said no.”
“And that’s it?”
“Yeah. I don’t know what the hell else happened.”
“There had to have been something else.” She put her hand to his elbow, making him stop and face her. “What exactly did you say?”
He sighed, running a hand through his hair roughly. “I said I wasn’t comfortable with it.”
“Okay. And then?”
“She asked me why.”
Oakley’s stomach sunk. “And?”
“She asked if it was because of you. I didn’t lie, I said yes and no.”
Oakley frowned. “Yes and no?”
“I said that girl should pick someone who cares about her for this. Especially if she wants a baby. It shouldn’t be just anyone with a zipper. It should be someone who feels about her the .. the way I feel about you.”
Oakley didn’t take the time to fully appreciate the moment. She just muttered, “Shit.”
“Shit? That’s what you have to say to that?”
“Memee doesn’t trust anyone who likes men, Hunter.”
He shook his head. “That’s insanity.”
“That’s Memee,” she corrected. “Just see it from her side. You lead this group of people. We’re close, you just confirmed how close to her. She might think you intend to take over. She doesn’t want me working for you on the inside.”
The anger lit his eyes again. She didn’t find it as exciting as she usually did. “She’s right to worry then, isn’t she? Because this is ridiculous. Who does that bitch think she is?”
Something in his tone made her skin feel cold. “She’s just protecting all those people who count on her. It may seem crazy but that’s her motive.”
“She’s breeding crazy people, the only things she doesn’t have in that compound are studs to make her fillies pregnant.”
“You’re staying in my cabin until I have a chance to talk to my guys. You understand?”
She nodded, scrambling to follow as he started walking again. “Hunter, please don’t do anything crazy,” she was pleading.
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you’re not hurt, babe,” he was assuring her as he shoved the door to one of the wooden-walled cabins open. There was an iron stove in the corner, counter with a cut-out for a basin, and a cot. Everything else in the room was some kind of weapon.
He shut them in together. “Just don’t leave her without me, okay? Or Tap. I don’t think Tap would try anything.”
“Tap? Try anything? Like, try what?” She knew he was mostly thinking out loud but she still required more than he was giving her.
Hunter raised his eyebrows at her. “Babe, we’ve been out in the woods all summer. Thirty-five or more bloodthirsty criminals and ne’er do wells. You look good, smell good, and I don’t need to tell you that you feel just as good as all that. So stay here.”
Oakley was shocked. Memee had always trusted these men to be … well, not gentlemen, but certainly not as dangerous as he was implying.
“I think I can convince them to keep you with us, claim you as mine, whatever, just to keep you safe. But I can’t keep secrets from you now, babe. The men are not happy about having to squat out here like we’re camping, knowing how nice you ladies had it all set up on the other side of those gates. And not to mention the ladies themselves.”
She felt her hand clutch his shirt, her desperation just as surprising. “Don’t, Hunter. Don’t do anything to Greenwater, please. Most of those women are my friends.”
“And these are my friends out here, sweetheart. They’d love soft beds, warm meals and soft bodies just as much as I do.”
Oakley felt sick. “Please, I’m begging you.”
“This isn’t something I want to do, babe. But it’s also still a democracy. I … I have to go and check with the men to see about keeping you with me.” He cupped her face with both hands, pushing her hair back and letting his thumbs trail over her cheekbones. Usually she loved that, but now it felt like he was trying to talk her into something she really wasn’t on board with. And she supposed that’s what this was. “You come first for me, babe. I swear it. But if they want to take Greenwater, sorry to say, right now I’m a vote on their side, too.”
Tears sprang to her eyes, and he noticed them, wiping the first one to fall away with his thumb. “No tears for the likes of Memee, sweetheart. And I’ll do what I can to make sure no one’s hurt.”
“You just told me I’m in danger of being raped here,” she whimpered, hating sounding this weak and scared. “There’s no way you can protect the women inside from the same.”
His mouth pressed tight, he said six words that brought her close to hating him right then. “Worry about you first. That’s survival.”
“This isn’t for survival. This is ugly, bullshit aggression.”
“I mean it, Hunter. I don’t want them attacking Greenwater.”
Hunter kissed her forehead when he realized she wasn’t being convinced. “Stay here, be safe. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” And with that he left the cabin, shutting the door behind him.
Oakley looked around at the accoutrements on offer. He had more blades here than she would have expected, and of course his bows and an assortment of arrows. The good thing about a bow and arrow was the arrow could be retrieved and used again. Guns were effective but finding ammunition these days was pretty rough.
She picked up a shiny new machete that he had pegged to the wall. It was a bit lighter than hers, but nicely made. It felt pretty good in her hand. Hunter’s warning had her wanting to be prepared to defend herself if she had to.
Then she sat cross-legged on his cot, machete in front of her, waiting to find out what her fate would be, along with her friends in Greenwater Gates.
POLL NOW CLOSED, NEW CHAPTER SOON