At first, Molly wasn’t sure if the noise was phantom or real—a faint rhythmic beat at the very edge of her hearing, the thup-thup-thup as soft as a moth drumming against glass. With a groan, she rolled to her side, every muscle in her body protesting the movement. She couldn’t entirely straighten her back, not even when she was lying flat, and her bruised shoulder throbbed where it was pressed to the mattress. Hell, even her eyeballs hurt.
Some of it was her doing. Last week, she’d stumbled on a ghost town given over to Reapers. Somebody had already hit the bank and mercantile store but there was still salvage to be found if you knew where to look. Wads of cash stuffed in mice-chewed mattresses. Jewelry tucked between moldy handkerchiefs in bureau drawers. She’d collected enough loot to make her saddlebags bulge before a pair of hungry Reapers scented her and she’d had to clear out.
The recent cold snap made the flesh-eaters sluggish which is why she’d gone in. Tanner was the fastest mare she’d ever owned and she’d outrun the monsters easily. Molly was still flying high from the chase when she walked into the Gravesend saloon hours later. Lu was there, an old friend, and they’d shared a few drinks. From there, her memory went foggy at the edges.
The hangover, that was on her. The rest of her aches and pains she blamed on Crenshaw and his men. Crenshaw’s boot in her ribs was what had woken her up that morning. She remembered his grinning face, lit a ghastly yellow by the rising sun. She remembered reaching for her gun and finding it missing. Being slung over the packhorse like a dead man. Twenty miles with her head hanging until it felt like a tick about to burst, hands and feet numb and burning at intervals, ribs crushed and the half-healed bullet wound in her shoulder stabbing with every jolting step.
When they got here—wherever the hell here was—Crenshaw had tossed her onto the bed and sawed through the ropes binding her ankles and wrists. He’d laughed when she cried out from the pain of blood rushing into her fingers and toes. He hadn’t raped her, though, and she didn’t know why. She’d expected that, feared it, braced herself as well as she might for the moment when one of them would come back in to rut on her.
Maybe it was the fact that she smelled like sweat and gin. Maybe they were just toying with her. She wouldn’t put that past Crenshaw. He played by the books, sticking to the very letter of his contracts, but that didn’t stop him from being a sadist at heart. He was the kind who liked his victims to be fully aware of the pain he was inflicting. He might only be waiting for her to recover her senses before he truly set to work hurting her.
Tomorrow was going to be a bitch of a day.
At present, she was chained to the bed by a length of iron fixed to the potbellied stove in the corner of the room, a collar wrapped around her neck. She could use the chamber pot without them having to mess with ropes and she could look out the window they’d left open just to taunt her. She wasn’t going anywhere, but there was the great big world right there to feel and taste and see. It was worse than a dungeon and she’d bet everything she owned that Crenshaw knew it.
There was nothing to see now, except an old maple, dark crowned against the night sky. When the wind blew, the branches swayed and the leaves flashed silver and black. The air on her cheek was summer soft and green-scented. A fine sight sweeter than the smell of the sheets she was lying on.
Thup-thup-thup. The sound came deeper now, closer, growing steadily louder until it finally resolved into something she could identify—an airship, still a ways off, coming from the direction of the mountains. A small one by the sound of it. The thief in her said cloud cutter. One of the newer models, a rich man’s toy. No room for cargo on a ship that size. Sleek and fast and practically useless for anything but rubbing people’s noses in the fact that you had money and they didn’t. It was exactly the kind of shiny temptation she’d always found impossible to resist. The kind that had landed her in this predicament in the first place.
She pondered the puzzle of it for a time, but eventually let it go. Whatever the ship was doing out here didn’t concern her. The law would come for her on horseback, not in an airship. She hadn’t done anything bad enough to merit that sort of attention. And the ship certainly didn’t belong to Crenshaw or any of his men. None of the mongrels in the room adjacent could afford a ship so fine. Most of them were lucky they had a horse.
It didn’t matter anyway. None of it mattered anymore.
Eventually, the sound from the ship faded beneath the snores of Crenshaw’s men. The breeze picked up, stirring the leaves, and making the patterned shadows on the wall sway. She found a spot on the lumpy mattress that was nearly comfortable.
She’d finally started to drift off when the sound of a boot heel hitting a loose plank on the front porch startled her awake. Blinking open bleary eyes, she had the disorienting impression that some time had passed though she could see through the window that it was still fully dark.
A shadow crossed the window outside and she stuffed her hand to her mouth to keep from crying out. It was likely only one of Crenshaw’s men returning from a piss. She had no desire to call his attention. Or anyone’s.
Tossing the pillow aside, she pushed herself to sitting, instinctively shrinking back against the headboard. The front door squealed open and there was a brief exchange of male voices. No alarm was raised. She was still frowning, trying to figure out what was going on, when the key turned in the lock. The door swung wide and a man stepped inside. A big hulking shadow in the dark.
Not Crenshaw. Too tall to be Crenshaw.
Her fingers curled into the blankets but she forced herself to remain steady as he walked toward the bed. Light from the window briefly outlined his legs and torso. Tall, lean, definitely male.
She lifted her chin, giving him her best glare on the chance he could see it in the dim light. The mattress sagged as he made himself at home and sat down beside her. Before she’d fully worked out how she might wrap her chain around his neck, he turned to face her and she saw who it was.
That lazy grin. Sharp eyes. Whiskey on his breath.
“I would tell you it’s good to see you again, Molly love, but that would be too great a lie even for me.”
Cassius Flynn. Smuggler. Scoundrel. The only man she’d ever loved. She’d stolen his ship nearly a year ago and still he’d come to save her.
Given the choice, she just might have picked the noose.