Emily had been to the creek more often lately, and Isaack had followed her every time. He had no idea if she knew he was there or not, but he also knew she wasn’t daft. He told himself it was because her mother had asked him to watch out for her. It was for her protection from the men, the ones with the wrong intentions, like Abe, or Breck. But the truth was too hard to admit to himself.
Since the boy had died, Emily had come to the creek a lot. She hadn’t come much in the last week, because it had been raining so much, but now that the rain had stopped, she’d come back. She seemed to get a lot of peace from these visits. Her steps back home were lighter, as if she left a weight in the creek water.
And he’d followed her. Isaack couldn’t seem to leave her alone. She was a vision—one that ingrained itself on his mind’s eye, even in his dreams. Her golden hair, tied back in an austere braid in the mornings, but had fallen around her face as she worked through the day, her enormous coffee-colored eyes that sang him to sleep and visited his dreams—all conspired to completely undo him. He hadn’t thought of intimate relations or romantic entanglements since his beloved wife had died, but now, he was a hot ball of lust, would up so tightly, he was liable to come unraveled at any given moment.
And if that’s how he felt, he was afraid to think of how the others were handling her proximity. That thought kept him by her side more than anything.
From the trees he watched as she knelt by the edge of the water, the banks having overflowed slightly. The rocks that had previously been visible were submerged, but the water running over them rippled, giving clues to hidden obstacles under the water.
Isaack was hidden behind the branches, not willing to let her know he watched. He realized that wasn’t right. He should just show himself, because his intentions were muddled by the secrecy. But he couldn’t bring himself to speak.
So he watched, like a man with sex on his brain, only for Isaack that wasn’t it entirely. Surely, there was a big part of him that wanted to see what her lush body looked like naked, to feel her lips against his, to know if the skin she kept hidden was soft. But he longed to protect her as well. To provide for her the luxury she deserved instead of this harsh life in the wilderness. To make her his.
When she looked around furtively, he knew what was next and he closed his eyes while every other sense went on high alert. Some misplaced sense of propriety called him to do this, even though a gentleman wouldn’t follow her out here every day. He listened to the rustle of clothes as she removed her dress and petticoat. Then the slosh of water as she sank into the current with an exhale of breath before he opened his eyes again.
She was in up to her waist, which was deeper than she’d gone before, her chemise clinging to her body. He watched as she seemed to fight the current, leaning into it to keep from being whisked downstream. She let out loud breaths as she fought the water.
His skin prickled with unease, as the hair on his scalp stood on end. Something wasn’t right.
He felt the rumble in the earth at the same time Emily began to struggle against the current. Her eyes widened when they both heard it, and her arms began to pump along with her legs. The roar in the distance was getting closer, and she needed to be out of the water.
Breaking his cover, Isaack ran to her.
She saw him and reached toward his outstretched arms, eyes wide, just as he saw the wall of water out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t dare get a good look at it, knowing exactly what was happening. Flash floods were fearsome and this one was no different.
He clutched her hand in his and yanked her slender wrist. She cried out in pain, but he held tight, unwilling to let go of her. He dragged her out until he could reach her with both hands, and he pulled with all his weight to get her out of the water’s reach.
Emily landed on top of him with a huff and he wrapped one arm around her slender waist as he pulled them both back with his other arm. The breath was knocked from him by her sudden weight atop him, as well as the chill of her wet chemise wrapping around his legs. Then again, the knowledge that she was in such a position with him was making him light-headed, since all the blood was flowing from his head to an ungentlemanly place, further south.
His lusty haze was broken by the wall of water and rubble—fallen trees, branches, dirt—flowing down what used to be a stream but was now a small river. A path of destruction Emily had just narrowly missed. And if she hadn’t, she’d be gone.
Just like Marie and Beth.
A shudder racked his body, as Isaack stared at the sky, blinking hard, unable to speak about what had almost just happened. Christ.
Clenching his eyes closed, he didn’t realize he was squeezing her hips until she struggled to sit up.
“Isaack,” she whispered against his neck.
He forced his grip loose and she rolled off him, breathing heavily. His eyes still clenched shut, Isaack forced back the images of what could have happened as he focused on the sounds next to him. She was dressing herself.
She was alive and dressing herself.
“Are you hurt?” He forced himself to ask her, praying to all that was holy for the right answer.
“No. I’m not hurt.” Her voice was soft and meek, unlike Emily’s normal voice, and his eyes opened as he turned his head toward her. Her deep brown eyes pierced him, her blonde hair like a halo shining in the sunlight. “Why were you there? Watching?”
“I wasn’t,” his tongue was thick in his mouth with the deception. She knew it.
“Yes, you were. You’re always there,” she smiled down at him, and her hand caressed a lock of hair from his forehead. Her touch scorched his skin and he flinched. Her eyes turned wary. “Why?”
Because she made him feel for the first time in seven years. She stripped away the grime of his life and left it feeling clean. She brought color into his world. If she were gone, he would have nothing again. “I don’t know.”
“Thank you. For being there.” She smiled at him and rose from the ground. “Walk me back to the house?”
He stood next to her, and they walked back together. He didn’t skulk along behind like he normally did. Isaack walked next to her, trying not to feel the sensations that engulfed him.
In the short time he’d been here, she had shown him more love than any other woman in his life. Even Marie, and that felt heretical to think. But Marie had been an innocent when they met, giving him everything he’d asked for willingly. Emily gave it all without him asking. She took him in and cared for him. She took care of the farm, cooked, washed, she was a woman unlike any he’d ever met. All the women in Boston were genteel and soft, or else they were the street women who were harder than granite. Emily was both.
When they approached the house he stopped next to her as she slowed her walk and stiffened her gait. Isaack hung back, wary, yet ready. The banker man was there, sitting on the rocker on the porch looking like he hadn’t a care in the world. The girls were missing, and Rachel was standing over him, hands on her hips, looking very unhappy.
He was using his thumb to tamp down tobacco in his pipe and as he put it in the corner of his mouth, he lit a match on the sole of his boot. Rachel only raised her eyebrows as Emily stalked up the steps, Isaack hanging back in the yard.
“Mama, what’s going on?” Emily’s voice was tense, yet still quiet enough not to be disrespectful, and Isaack saw her restraint in the way her shoulders were squared, her breath coming in deep, even gulps.
“Mr. Stein was just saying that in order for us to keep the farm, we’ll have to double our payment next quarter.” Mrs. Evans’ strong jaw jutted forward with the words and everyone in the yard heard the disdain in her voice.
A few of the other men came from the barn as her voice raised over the din of activities. Isaack couldn’t stop his feet as they stepped forward. “I’ll stay and help you with the harvest, Mrs. Evans.” He purposefully kept his gaze on the banker, who’d lit his pipe in the corner of his mouth and took careful puffs of the acrid smoke.
“I will too. I’d be happy to,” Potter stated amicably. Isaack tossed him a grateful look. He would actually know what to do. Isaack wasn’t a farmer, but Potter was. He’d had a corn farm in upstate New York before the war. “I can’t travel far with the seasons changing anyway. It would be best for me to start out late winter anyway.”
“I can stay too, Mrs. Evans,” Breck piped up. Of course. Never one to be left out of anything that might include some action.
“And I’m sure Joe will return soon. Don’t worry, Mr. Stein. You’ll get your precious payment.” Her face was just short of a sneer, and even Isaack felt the chill travel down his spine. “You can see yourself off my property.”
With that parting shot, she spun on her heels and went inside. One last look from under Emily’s eyelashes, and she followed her mother with a swirling of skirts. Isaack wanted to make sure she was okay from her ordeal at the creek, but knew this wasn’t the best of times. He and a few others stayed stock-still until the banker finally stood with a mumble under his breath and put his pipe in his pocket. On his way down, Abe stuck a leg out and he went sprawling. Abe was a horse’s ass, but in this case, it was an ass pointed in the right direction, and the men all laughed at the banker as he turned red and began his blustering way to town.
That night, after everyone had gone to bed, Isaack was still awake, wandering the yard, making a mental list of chores for tomorrow. He didn’t sleep much. Hadn’t for as long as he could remember, at least seven years or so. Between calculating how much wood needed to be split, he was gazing up at the stars. They were so peaceful, twinkling in the night sky.
Fireflies lit up the evening, as if they were just as glad the rain had stopped. The wilderness here had a specific beauty to it, and even though he’d been sleeping in a smelly barn for the last month or so, he preferred it to the luxury he’d been accustomed to in New York. Even more, he preferred sleeping under the stars, and didn’t know how he’d ever go back home. It wasn’t his home anymore. Right now, on this farm, with the fireflies buzzing around, flashing their mating signal, he was more at home than he’d felt in years.
A creak jerked his attention to the porch, and he saw Emily there, wrapped in her blue shawl, the one that looked so beautiful against her skin. Silently, she pulled the edges closer as she watched him.
He felt the heat rise to his cheeks, for getting caught staring at her, but he couldn’t tear his gaze away. She was the most magical creature he’d ever seen, and now they were out in the open, alone, at night.
Wordless, he walked up the porch steps, careful to keep to the edges so they didn’t squeak, his eyes on hers. She tracked his progress as he stalked closer. It had been so long since a woman made him this edgy, this tense. He felt a buzz around Emily, a heat he didn’t know.
It was a burning energy that radiated out and pulsed within. A fiery, pulsing buzz. One he couldn’t extinguish.
He focused his gaze on Emily as he closed the gap between them. When they were toe-to-toe, he didn’t know what to do next. So he continued his stare. He couldn’t look away if he wanted to, the pull to her was too fierce.
“Are you okay? After this afternoon?” He whispered, lost in her seeking eyes. She nodded, mute. His finger reached out to touch her hair, loose around her shoulders. His finger made the courageous journey, twining around the tendril of corn silk. Isaack watched it, in awe. He had wanted to touch it for weeks now, but didn’t know how to get up the nerve.
It was the fireflies’ fault for putting romantic notions in his head.
Gathering courage from his finger, Isaack took a breath, the deepest he could manage, and lowered his face to hers.
Tentatively, he touched her lips with his, feeling their softness—infinite softness. She whispered a sigh at the contact, and Isaack’s finger tugged on the tendril of hair wrapped around it, grasping more. Emily’s delicate fingers traced up his shirt, tickling his chest, leaving a fiery trail behind. He couldn’t stop. Having come this far, he couldn’t go backwards, only forward.
His other hand rested on her hip, urging her into him as his mouth opened over hers. She trembled under his touch, every inch of her as she pressed her body against his. He’d been wrong. She was certainly softer than she looked.
Her innocent kiss turned to more, as she opened under his mouth, unfurling like a flower blooming in the dawn’s light. The fiery need inside him exploded and he tugged her body closer, flush against his. Isaack felt her soft curves next to him, and he longed for more. He willed his hands to be still, and not explore the curves and soft skin he knew he’d find under her garments, even though every fiber of his being craved it.
She tasted of sunshine and innocence, and he couldn’t get enough of her. But, tonight, it was not to be.
With a whimper, Emily pushed him back, and he allowed it, his hooded eyes watching her shrink back against the wall of the house. But she didn’t run. Her eyes looked at him, full of questions, but she didn’t speak, only brought the back of her hand to her mouth and stared with wide eyes. Her fingers trembled in the moonlight.
“I’m not sorry for that, but I probably shouldn’t have.” His voice was a gruff whisper, as he took a step backward.
“No…” Emily looked like she would say more, but Isaack didn’t know what she meant by that one word, and he didn’t press her. He had no idea if she had a man off in the war or not. He’d heard she’d been married, but there were so many widows now.
He ran his hand through his hair as he stepped down from the porch and when he turned back, she was gone.
Guilt settled in his gut, for putting that look on her face. But he’d never felt more alive.