A Joyful World
The world was so silent when she finally became aware of her surroundings that for a second Joy thought she'd died the night before. She was toasty warm. She breathed in. Woodsy pine and oak mixed with a musky aftershave. Her heart sped up. She jerked upright and cried out in pain. A large warm arm wrapped around her chest gently pulling her backwards.
His raspy voice dropped straight to her stomach. Oh God. She'd been... She couldn't finish that thought. Under the cloak, her cloak, she ran the fingers of her left hand over her lap. She was clothed. But why couldn't she use her right arm? She blinked hearing hearts beating. One was a frantic rhythm. That must be hers.
She tilted her head to the left trying to look behind her. The slight tilt to her right shoulder caused more pain to shoot through her. His hand settled around her left shoulder straightening her.
"God. I'm sorry, Joy. I'm so sorry." He laid his head against the back of hers.
"We weren't quick enough."
"Are we dead?"
He coughed. "Why would you think... Oh! A bullet caught you."
Ah. So that was the pain. And why she couldn't use her right arm.
"Where are we?"
He gently tugged her back. She relaxed back against him. He hadn't done exactly as he'd promised, she had been hurt, but she was still alive. Thanks to him. They sat in companionable silence until her stomach grumbled. Heat flushed her cheeks.
"I'll see if I can find something."
Joy looked towards the opening of the cave system they were in. White covered the entrance.
"Do you think it's safe?"
He shrugged. She slid forward trying very hard not to shift her shoulder. He slipped out from behind her then tucked the wool cloak around her keeping her in the warm cocoon. Warmth filled her at the gesture. No one had ever treated with such kindness. She was the ugly one, the one no one wanted to be with. She'd grown accustomed to it, but now... She glanced over her shoulder and blushed. He crouched in nothing but his short pants. She whipped her head back around and whimpered.
"Got it." she gritted her teeth praying for the pain to disappear. And never return.
"I'll try to find us something."
"What time is it?"
"Should be close to dawn by my guess, but I could be wrong. I did nod off for a little."
"Someone should be looking for us."
"Don't you have any family?"
"Only a brother and he wasn't expecting me for another fortnight."
"Did your family know you were out last night?"
She felt the blush rush up her face again. "No. I snuck out."
His sigh was heavy in the enclosed air. "Then no one is looking for us."
He turned towards the white entrance and kicked out. Snow tumbled out then another batch fell over the entrance. He grumbled as he pushed the new snow away. Finally, faint dawn light glowed from the curved entry.
"I told you this would be the safest place for them to go."
Joy gasped. The female voice was young and unfamiliar, but so welcome at that point she didn't care if she was one of the shooters. He turned back to her with a finger over his lips. She frowned. She didn't even know his name. She opened her mouth to ask, but he turned back to the outside world. Another voice joined the first one.
"Do you think they found the cave, then?"
"If they are who-"
"Look! Firelight. Haloo! Anyone there?"
He signaled for her to stay before grabbing something from the ground next to the fire. Light played off the petnia copper dagger he'd tried to give to her the night before. He climbed out of the cave and blocked the entrance. Part of her wanted to follow him and find out who their visitors were, but the fearful part of her wanted to dig deeper into the roots and disappear.
"Oh, yes it is. Good morning to you." The younger voice approached. Her cheery warmth proceeded her spreading into the cave. Joy couldn't help but slump in relief.
"Are you injured?"
"No. Why would you-"
"We were on a visit with our older sister and heard shooting last night. We thought poachers had come onto our property."
"I apologize for trespassing."
"Are you sure you're not hurt?" The second woman spoke.
Joy could imagine her eyes narrowed is suspicion. She couldn't let anyone think he was a criminal. Not after saving her life last night. And she couldn't think these two women could be the shooters from last night. Careful to keep from moving her shoulder too much, she crawled and hopped to the entrance. Sweat trailed down her forehead and her back as she finally poked her head out of the cave. The cold wintery air hit her like a blacksmith's hammer. Her legs went out from under her and she fell to her bottom in the snow. So much for being dry and warm. She shivered as he turned.
Her breath caught as their eyes met. His were a gorgeous chocolate brown. And creased in worry. Was that fear she saw around his clenched mouth? Keeping the dagger visible he knelt beside her.
"I told you to stay."
"I don't want you in trouble."
He sighed and shook his head.
"Hello." The young woman peeked around his shoulder at her.
Joy nodded. The two women were young, perhaps about her own age if not a year or two younger. Their simple day dresses gave them an image of country women, but Joy recognized excellent quality. He lifted her to her feet letting her lean against him until she had her balance. For the first time she realized she was standing in her underclothes. The blush burned her already frozen cheeks.
"Oh dear." The youngest approached her eyes glossy.
"She'll live. If she doesn't freeze first. I told you to stay inside."
"I told you. I didn't want you in trouble."
"I've been there before."
Joy sighed. He really was the most handsome man she'd ever seen. The morning light only made him more so. He handed her the copper dagger before slipping inside the cave. He was probably retrieving their things. She stood awkwardly facing the two women. They blushed.
"Forgive us. I'm Snow," the youngest spoke then waved to her sister, "and this is Grace."
"Joy." They giggled. "What?"
"Joy? Snow. Grace and now Joy?" They laughed. Joy shifted feeling the uncomfortable anxiety she always felt with others. He slithered out of the cave and settled her cloak around her shoulders. He was once again in his own jacket and breeches.
"Here." He reached forward to retrieve the dagger she'd forgotten she held. Snow and Grace's gaze followed his action and they gasped. They exchanged looks at each other then turned back to her. She let it go although reluctantly. He frowned down at her.
"Your family? Will they be looking for you?"
Joy shook her head.
"Do you have family?" Grace asked her eyes soft.
"Do you have a carriage near?"
"Oh no. Our sister lives half a mile from here."
"Does she have a carriage?"
"Of course." Snow frowned at him.
He ignored them looking down at her. For the first time Joy felt as if she was the entire world for someone. A man. A stranger. A strange man she didn't even know his name.
"We'll return with them and then I'll escort you home."
"Don't worry. You're safe with me."
Joy bit her lip. She truly wasn't afraid to be with him. He'd kept her safe through someone shooting at her and the harsh snow storm. She wasn't worry about anything he might do. She was worried about what her parents would make him do. She could just say she went visiting the sick and had to find somewhere safe for the night, but if he showed up with her... She shook her head.
"That's not so wise."
He leaned forward laying his cheek against hers and whispered in her ear. "Is it because we've been out all night together?"
"Not that way!"
Snow and Grace's eyes widened at her shouted words. His cheek twitched. She pulled away to see if he was smiling. His mouth wasn't, but his eyes sparkled with mischief.
"I wouldn't be above saying so."
Joy's eyes widened. Was he actually? No, no man had ever found her attractive. He reached up and featherlight swiped a stray curl from her face and tucked it behind her ear.
"I mean it, Joy."
"You don't even know me." She sputtered. The bullet wound and blood loss must be playing with her mind.
"I know enough. That's more than most couples get."
"Oh, say yes. Please say yes." Snow clapped her hands together bouncing in the snow.
Joy shook her head. She really didn't know what to say.
"Did you find them?" An older woman's voice whipped through the snowy morning. Snow and Grace sighed and rolled their eyes.
"Yes, over here!" Snow called through cupped hands before turning back to them. "Please."
"We don't know each other." Joy spoke to Snow, but couldn't take her eyes from him. "I don't even know you' name."
"Cade. Caderyn Slade." He bowed to her the copper blade over his chest. Her breath caught at the vicious weapon. Cade suited him. It was hard and yet gentle, just like the man before her.
"Oh there you are. Why did you come this far... Oh!"
Joy pulled her gaze away from Cade. The older woman stared at her as if she'd seen a ghost.
Joy looked around her anxiety growing. She didn't remember the woman before her. Surely if she'd done something to her she would remember her. The woman approached with hesitant steps her hands shaking terribly.
"Um. Joy, ma'am."
Joy frowned taking a step back. She bumped into Cade. He wrapped his arms around her the copper dagger in front of her a clear warning. The woman froze her eyes hooked on the blade.
"Joyce Faith MacIntosh, ma'am. Do you know my parents?"
The woman's eyes went large as her face paled. Tears pooled in the faded gray.
"Oh blessed be. You've returned."
"Huh?" Joy glanced up at Cade who shook his head. The woman looked up finally and after a few seconds nodded as if she was pleased.
Cade turned her to face him slowly. He was making sure she didn't move her shoulder. Pleasure filled her at the gesture. Would it be so bad to be with a man she could trust? But could he ever love her? That was the biggest question of her life. She didn't think she could be happy in a marriage without love. For that matter, could she love him? Looking up into his eyes her heart shouted yes!
"I don't know."
"I'll pursue you to the end of the world, if I have to."
Joy swallowed. Would it fade? Would he be able to desire her when he saw the real her. She looked down and realized he'd already seen her. She stood before him in her underclothes, hiding nothing. And yet he still stood before her asking for her. She looked up and smiled.
"Yes. Yes I will."
His cheek twitched. Then before her eyes his smile blossomed across his lips. She gasped. It was a gorgeous smile. One every woman would kill to be the cause.
Copyright 2013 Mae Pen
Find me at:
Facebook: Mae Pen