One ear trained to the quiet sounds of her moving about above him as he sat in his office, Forrest felt a quickening in his stomach when he heard a soft padding begin down the stairs, certain from the signature of the sound on the steps that it had to be Alice. She crept down quietly, neither Maggie nor Howard awake yet, attempting to allow them to sleep for as long as they might. She wanted to lunge Smoke a bit before she and Forrest went on their ride. Thus, she was awake early, the sun just beginning to steadily saunter up and peek across the horizon. Forrest quietly rolled his chair a bit closer to the open door of his office, listening intently for the sounds of her movement. She reached the floor, field boots clenched in her right hand, her rifle and leather supply bag slung across her chest. She placed the rifle and the bag down on the nearest empty table, wincing when they made a slight noise, and sat on a chair, leaving her boots on the floor beside her. She hooked her boot hooks into the fabric loops sewn inside her first boot, and pulled it up to her knee, first one, and then the other. She was leaning over to tie the laces at her boots’ ankles when she heard the familiar creaking of Forrest’s shifting weight on the floor boards. He had decided another cup of coffee was warranted, and with that excuse in mind, was lumbering around behind the counter, headed for the coffee pot when she snuck a look up at him. His back was to her, so she turned her attention back to tightening the laces the way she wanted them.
“Mornin’,” she called softly.
Forrest grumbled good-naturedly in reply. He turned around to look at her, doubled over in the chair in her cream colored riding pants, half their light brown knee patches covered by her shining black boots. She had a black cardigan buttoned over a light blue pin stripe round collared shirt, and Forrest noticed, alarmed that he was paying mind to such a minute detail, that the only button of the sweater that she had buttoned was buttoned into the wrong buttonhole. As she usually did, she had pulled the two sections of her hair by her temples back behind her head and pinned them there, leaving the rest of her hair down, the previous day’s pin curls now relaxed and wavy.
Instinctively, without much consideration for what he was about to do, Forrest placed his coffee down on the counter and crossed over to her in five big strides. Alice, still leaning down, had tied her laces and was brushing at what looked like a scuff on her boot when she heard the sound of his movement across the floor, and her heart beat with furious excitement when his boots came into view. He was so close. Had she looked up from her bent position in just that moment, her line of vision would be in quite an inappropriate place, so she simply paused, bright red fingernails brushing imaginary dirt from the toes of her boots. Then she felt his touch. His hand tipped sideways, Forrest placed the first finger of his right hand down under her chin, gently but firmly pulling up with the rest of his hand behind it to raise her face, and her eyes, to him.
He resisted the urge to suck in a breath. He almost wished she wouldn’t look at him like that. Forrest prided himself on his ability to maintain control of any given situation, and Alice left him feeling defenseless. He had been the object of many an admiring gaze, but she looked at him with the kind of adoration he assumed he couldn’t possibly deserve. Like he was kind of folk hero, and not simply a successful criminal with a healthy reputation. Like her guardian, her deliverer, her paladin. And all of these things he was, communicated so plainly by the worshipful look on her face. Forrest had forgotten what he was going to say. He was not even certain at that moment that he had planned anything to say to begin with. She smiled slightly, mouth twitching with nerves, and though she could not seem to control her blinking, her eyes never left his for a moment. He stared down at her, mouth stern and hard, mind racing. His deep, earthy green eyes bored into hers, and Alice worried for a moment that there might be something wrong, or that he had changed his mind. Then he lifted his hand and with rough, scarred knuckles slowly and tenderly stroked her cheek. She fluttered her eyes closed for a moment, and a familiar feeling began below Forrest’s belt, with Alice so close to the vital places associated therewith, a feeling that Forrest did not wish to nurture, precisely because of her proximity. He’d embarrassed himself enough with involuntary, inconvenient physical manifestations of his desire for her. He hadn’t reacted like this to thoughts of, or the presence of, the opposite sex since he was much, much younger, but to his disconcertion, it was rare for Forrest to think of Alice for a prolonged period of time without there being present some spontaneous, involuntary fantasy related to the imagined sounds, sensation, and imagery associated with her panting, and moaning, and writhing with pleasure beneath him. His deep, unnerving, and overwhelming affection for her was interwoven with his desire to claim her as his own each night as he lay down, to couple with her with so intense and devoted a passion that the hours they spent apart during the day melted away.
He needed to pull himself from her at this particular moment. There were notes he needed to leave for Jack and Howard, information they might need in his absence, as he did not expect to return with Alice until midday. And there were bits of business to put in order. Soon enough they would be high in the hills, and he would have the opportunity to actualize all he yearned for, or watch his hopes crumble. But either way, he would know. He had wasted time in waiting this long, and today he would remedy that. With a final caress of his knuckles on her jawline below her ear to her chin he held her gaze for a moment and grumbled
“….gon’ finish my work n’ we can go.”
Alice nodded emphatically, remaining quiet. When he had stalked off back to his office, stopping briefly to retrieve his coffee, Alice took a deep breath, placing her left hand over her heart and her right over that to steady herself. She sucked in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, smiling to herself as she jumped up, grabbing her bag and her rifle. She hurried out the front door and through the screened one, filled with a sudden burst of energy as she rushed down the porch steps and across the yard to the barn.
When Forrest headed out to tack up the old chestnut who occupied the stall next to Smoke’s, Alice was in the paddock beside the barn, lunging Smoke, tacked up except for his bridle, which Alice had draped over the fence. At the end of the lunge line attached to his halter, the young gelding cantered along, quick but collected, his head and neck relaxed. Alice turned slowly in place at the center of the circle he made, following him with the lunge line and her eyes, the lunge whip in her hand dragging on the ground behind him where Smoke could see it. Before disappearing into the barn, Forrest indulged himself with a prolonged inspection of Alice’s behind in her riding pants, managing to look away before she turned her head with Smoke’s movement and caught him looking.
When Forrest lead his horse outside into the yard, Alice was already mounted up, having traded Smoke’s halter for his bridle and her lunge line for the reins in her gloved hands. Her rifle and her bag were sideways across her chest, and she was staring off into the hills, taking in the scene around her. Forrest noted with contentment the look of tranquility about her when a breeze blew across the yard and she closed her eyes, tipping her face skyward. He watched her chest heave as she took a deep breath, pulling the fresh air as deep into her lungs as their capacity would allow. Her posture was impeccable, sitting tall and serene on Smoke’s back. She sat like the proud, satisfied queen of a kingdom at peace, a confident ease to her noble seat atop her mount. Forrest was surprised by how calm she seemed, with stakes growing higher each day now that the Bondurants were the final and most sought after target for Rakes to attempt to eliminate. There was little of the veiled melancholy Alice had displayed when she’d first arrived in the early fall. After he’d swung up into his western saddle and righted himself, situating his reins in his hand, he looked over and noticed her smiling at him. Wordlessly, he squeezed the horse gently with is legs and started off in the direction of their first destination, Alice and Smoke following suit.
Alice kept on Forrest’s left side, hoping to gauge, now that she had the opportunity to observe Smoke alongside another horse, how he reacted regarding his limits in vision when being ridden with another horse and rider. Thus far, he seemed perfectly at ease as they picked their way along a small path through the trees that Alice had never taken before. She had seen Jack and Howard come from this way often enough, and head back off in this direction, but until her foray to the top of the hill the day before, she herself had done little exploring of the property.
Given that Forrest, true to himself, was not speaking, Alice decided not to spoil the pleasant silence of the morning, and chose instead to enjoy and absorb the scenery around her without a word. With Forrest, she did not feel compelled to speak, or to fill the space with empty chatter, an unpleasant pressure she often felt around those with whom she was not at ease. With Forrest, Alice had learned in practicum something her father had always attempted to teach her in theory…the importance of being quiet and reticent, and Alice scolded herself for occasionally having felt impatient with Forrest on those occasions when, despite her affection for him, she had allowed him to frustrate her when she should have simply been paying more careful attention.
The path through the trees was gradually opening up, the trees fewer and farther between, and before long, Alice realized, they were on a patch of grass that was opening up into a larger meadow. A large barn, flanked by a pen occupied by a few cattle, sat a few hundred yards from a sprawling farmhouse with a front porch that ran the length of the dwelling, and as they drew closer, Alice could see another barn behind it.
“Well,” Forrest said. “This is the farm.” He turned to look at Alice’s face, attempting to gauge her reaction.
She was looking about, taking in everything at once as they drew nearer. Then Forrest stopped his horse in place so they could face the house and the barns from an angle where all three buildings were visible, and Alice, pleased, noted that Smoke had instinctually stopped as well. She sighed, and looked over at Forrest.
“What a peaceful place….” Alice continued, not concerned that Forrest would think her odd, despite what she was about to say.
“I…when I was little, we rarely spent more than a few years in one place, or a few months at a time with my mother, in the winter, when there was no logging…and I always used to conjure in my mind places I’d want home to look like if I ever had one that I never had to leave.”
Forrest was watching her face with his brow furrowed, big pouty lips parted slightly.
Her voice was soft and low when she continued.
“So many times, I pictured somewhere…like this. Not the very same….but a place…like this one.” She looked down at her hands, resting on Smoke’s withers, aware that Forrest had not ceased in looking at her. She looked up at him once again, giving a soft smile. “Thank you for taking me here, Forrest.”
He tried to not appear touched by what she said, though all of it had caused his level of optimism to rise considerably, and he was anxious to move on.
“C’mon,” he said. “Got more for you to see.”