“Let me be perfectly clear. I was never a soiled dove, a lady of the night. I was a dance hall girl, an entertainer—there’s a distinction. I didn’t work on the line but drew the line when it came to favoring men. I came to the town of Buckskin Joe in 1861 to use my God-given talents of song and dance, not to be mistaken for some rouge-cheeked painted cat. That error in perception still galls me.
Sure, I hung around saloons—something a respectable, East-Coast woman might not do—but I was a ‘good girl’ by Western standards and was treated as such by patrons.
Those who didn’t know me might confuse my flirtatious nature and flashy shoes with offering something else, but I can assure you, a dance with me required hands where I could see them. On a good night at Bill Buck’s dance hall, I’d twirl the floor with 50 gents, pulling in as much as a dollar a turn. But they were customers, nothing more. And thanks to them, I made a damn good living. Better than some of the sporting women down the street.
I was never one of those scarlet women who would bosom-up to the first cowboy who came to town. That’s not to say I didn’t have a few special beaus in my life, but only one man holds my heart.
I had a soft spot for miners. They were industrious, dedicated, and patient. Maybe that’s because they spent long hours working in the dark. But rest assured, they knew how to have a good time. A couple placer nuggets or a find in the Phillips lode would mean drinks all around.
I do have a story to tell about life and death and doing what’s right, but I’m not quite ready to commit it to paper. It seems that my friends and neighbors have woven a tale that’s far more intriguing and I’m inclined to let it be. See, I was just living my life when two sheepherders from the San Luis Valley brought smallpox into town. I did what any good-hearted woman would do. I had to do it, because most everyone else left.
So, I’m going to think some more about rectifying my story. Right now, I’d rather contemplate the mountain outside my window. The evening air is filled with sagebrush and pine, and the aspens are setting up a rustle that starts at their core and travels up their branches into a splendid frenzy. Really, what more could a woman want?”
Jared Sutherland had never heard the legend of Silver Heels, nor did he—or most people for that matter—know of the diary that lay hidden in a small metal box in a quiet corner of Colorado. All Jared knew was that he was 18 years old and this was his last hurrah before starting college. Armed with a backpack and camping gear, he had flown cross-country to meet his friends at a trailhead near Scott Gulch.
Seven years had lapsed since his family moved from New England to D.C., following what could only be described as his mother’s weird encounter with a presence from the past—a Revolutionary War agitator, who had previously posed as a Tory. Despite the dramatic upheaval in her life, she had parlayed her unique abilities into a job with the FBI. At the same time, his father, an unassuming science teacher at the local high school, had gained prominence through an academic paper he co-authored. As a result, he found himself invited to join a prestigious think tank near the nation’s capital. With the family’s relocation, Jared and his younger sister, Abby, went through the painful process of evolving from new kids to cool kids.
Abby, now 16 years-old, had no trouble being accepted. She was funny, outgoing and precocious. It didn’t hurt, either, that she was downright adorable. She had long, straight, strawberry-blond hair that made other girls jealous and made boys her age, want to run their fingers through it.
As for himself, Jared underestimated his appeal—partly because he was inherently shy and partly because he was selective. Sure, there was that summer fling at the shore, some stolen nights away from camp, and those angst-ridden weeks before and after the prom, but mostly he had girlfriends who were just friends and gorgeous female classmates he was too afraid to approach.
But Jared was wrong to be so modest. He was a fit, handsome young man with a shock of dark hair that fell across his brow, giving him a rock star attitude, whether he wanted it or not. He bore a striking similarity to his father in personality—artsy, cerebral and elusive, with a dry sense of humor that could be easily missed if someone were inattentive. Jared was not an easy guy to get to know without investing some time, but according to a few young ladies, who tried, he was worth the effort.
Ever since Jared was 9, he knew that he was like his mother— ‘gifted’ as they say—with talents some call ‘precognitive’ and others call ‘extrasensory.’ He had an uncanny way of anticipating events, slipping into history, and relating to his environment with a heightened awareness that others lacked. This was not something he particularly enjoyed or employed. In fact, these skills proved more of a burden than a blessing for most of his young life.
Once, when his class took a field trip to the zoo, he was overwhelmed by the experience, having become immersed in it. He found himself crouching in the tall grass of the Savannah, warned by the sibilant voice of the dry reeds, as a young lion prowled nearby on paws the size of platters. From his vantage point, he could see giraffe and zebra moving among the flat-topped acacia trees. He could hear the plaintive trumpet of elephants caught in ropes and the loud, ominous purr of a cheetah, draped in camouflage across an overhead branch. His nose was filled with the smell of dung and musk. Cowering in place, he was gripped by fear as a Cape buffalo snorted and kicked up dust just inches from his face. None of his classmates seemed to notice these things or the fact that he had separated himself from the group.
When he was 11, Jared saw a love note and flowers on the grave of Sarah Hawthorne Covington at the same time his mother stepped into this Colonial woman’s shoes; but according to his father, there was no note and, certainly, no flowers—just a cemetery as stark and deserted as one would expect on a late winter’s day.
Thinking it best not to muck around in the past, Jared purposely set his ability aside, repressing it and letting it lay dormant, suspecting he could summon it someday if needed. Occasionally, this skill would surface on its own accord and imbue him with insight he didn’t like. He regarded this added intelligence as an unfair advantage, an edge he felt he didn’t deserve—and he did his best to ignore it. Jared just wanted to be a ‘regular guy,’ and he worked hard at fitting in.
Hundreds of trail boots—maybe thousands—had traipsed across the remains of old Hoosier Pass before continuing along Scott Creek up to the mountain that loomed ahead, so the idea of Jared doing what others had done—scouring the ground and scanning the stream for a glint of gold—was not unusual. Within the hour, Eric and Andy had arrived as planned—flying in from California and Michigan, respectively, and driving together to the site. After a few slaps on the back and “Hey, dudes,” the trio eagerly began their trek.
They had barely started toward the 13,000-foot summit, when Jared noticed a shimmer in the shallow water that ran along the trail. Bending over, he extracted a small square buckle—silver, it seemed—not big enough for a belt, but maybe for a shoe. It was surprisingly shiny, and it sparkled handsomely, when held up to the light. That’s when he heard the plinking sound of a piano in the recesses of his brain and the banter of barroom conversation.
“Hey, Sutherland, get moving,” his buddies called, prompting Jared to pocket his find.
Not far away, in Breckenridge, Alexa St. Clair was with her family on a pre-college road trip. She hadn’t really wanted to go, let alone spend time with her kid brother, Will, but it was hard to resist the lure of wide-open spaces, dazzling mountains, and the promise of a horseback ride through the aspens. That evening, with sore bottoms and aching muscles, they had all eased into the warm pool at their RV campground, so when Alexa finally emerged, she was relaxed and happy.
While her parents made dinner, she and Will walked out to the tailings along the river bank. They moved slowly, hunched over, eyes to the ground, scanning the smooth stones and lumpy slag, in hopes of finding a meteorite. No luck uncovering sky rock, but Alexa found something else that was old and interesting—the rusty cup from a miner’s lunch box.
As she held the cup in her hand, she wondered who might have owned it and how it came to rest on this riverbed. But hearing her mother call to say food was ready, she wedged the little cup into her backpack and joined her family.
In a matter of weeks, both she and Jared started their freshman year at the same university.
College orientation was exciting and offered an opportunity for reinvention. Like the thousands of students who descended on Boston at this time of year, Jared and Alexa were consumed with academic and social activities. There were books to buy, devices to purchase, software to upgrade, parties to attend…items needed for dorms and labs…access cards and permits to acquire…and, of course, a class schedule to finalize that would allow for the most sleep possible.
Standing in line for his student ID, Jared quickly learned that unlike in high school, college kids talked to each other. They were interesting, diverse, helpful, and not afraid to be themselves. Most importantly, they were accepting. He discovered that he was surprisingly popular among his new-found friends and that gave him confidence.
Alexa lucked into some well-matched dorm mates and, shortly after settling into their rooms, a group of them headed to Harvard Square. While living in rural Pennsylvania, she had heard tales of this funky, intellectual intersection and she soon marveled at the fact that she was standing there in person. Those well-heeled preppy boys were not hard to look at and the street performers were remarkably good. She also learned that it was never too late in the day for a cup of coffee.
When Jared and Alexa finally met, it was well after the semester began. As it turns out, they were in the same English class and, one day, when Jared looked around the tiered lecture hall, he couldn’t help but notice the jet- haired girl in the burgundy sweater sitting a few rows below him. When she turned to talk to a friend, he caught a glimpse of her translucent complexion and instantly knew what the word ‘porcelain’ meant.
He’d probably claim it were an accident, but when he saw her later that day sitting on the edge of a concrete street planter, he walked unusually close and his foot caught the strap of her backpack. Out tumbled an apple, white ear buds, a couple of pens, a bottle of water, a book, and a small rusty object that took flight as it rolled down the sidewalk. “I’m so sorry,” Jared said, hurrying to stop the object with his foot. “Here you go,” he said, bending over and handing it to her. He thought he would drown in the depth of her dark eyes.
“No problem, thank you,” she said, taking it from him.
“Shouldn’t have left my backpack so far out in the street. Kind of forgot this was in there.”
“What is that anyway?” Jared asked, tilting his head, and peering out from under the hair that fell over his right eye.
“Oh, something I found out West—near a river,” she said as she looked at him, sizing him up.
“Where out West?”
“Colorado. Breckenridge, to be exact.”
“That’s funny. I was just out near Alma and Fairplay.”
“Small world, I guess,” she said, glancing back at the smartphone in her hand.
Of course, Jared should have taken this move as a cue to end the conversation, but something prompted him to continue. He reached into the planter and picked a marigold, presenting it to her with a flourish. “For you, m’lady,” he postured. She couldn’t help but smile as she glanced up again.
“Want to talk some more where it’s quiet?” he asked, nodding at the steady stream of cars moving along Comm Ave.
“Sure. But I just want you to know up front that I’m not looking to get involved in anything. No time for a relationship right now,” she said, making her intentions perfectly clear. He liked her honesty.
“No problem, me neither,” Jared confirmed. “Just trying to meet a few people.”
They swapped phones and typed their respective information into Contacts before handing back the devices.
“I’ll text you later,” Jared said, as he headed to his next class. “I’m Jared Sutherland, by the way,” he called over his shoulder.
“Alexa St. Clair,” she called back, watching him disappear into the sidewalk crowd.
Several days went by—Jared didn’t want to appear too eager— but on Saturday he sent Alexa a message. “Want to meet up for coffee?”
“Sure, when?” she texted back.
“About an hour?” They decided on a hangout mid-campus as she lived on the west side and he, on the east.
Jared spotted her easily—her hair shone like a crow’s wing in the morning light—and he quickly ushered her in toward a table. Jared had never been much of a coffee drinker, but after working as a summer intern at a newspaper company, he learned that caffeine was a way of life. He and Alexa placed their orders, welcoming the cozy setting and aroma that enveloped them.
“So, you never told me what that rusty thing was,” Jared reminded her as they waited to be served.
“It’s the top of an old miner’s lunch box that doubled as a cup,” Alexa said, reaching into her backpack and setting the tin cylinder on the table.
“That’s cool,” Jared commented. “A flash from the past.”
“Yeah, it was really interesting out there. Lots of history,” Alexa acknowledged, trying to read his face.
“I found something, too,” Jared said, pushing his hand into his pocket. He pulled out the buckle and held it up.
Alexa leaned in. “I can’t see it from here,” she said, squinting at the delicate object. He pressed it into her palm and immediately felt a jolt.
“Pretty,” she said. “Where do you think it came from?”
“Maybe a clothing store or one of those old theaters? Looks fancy, like it was part of a costume."
She dropped the small buckle into the cup and that’s when it happened.
Jared found himself leaning on the polished bar of an 1860s saloon waiting for the show to begin. He was 10 years older, about 28, and possessed what some would call ‘smoldering good looks.’
“Hey, Red, don’t hog all the space. We can’t see back here,” one of his buddies ribbed.
Red turned around and raised his glass in recognition. He was wearing a faded blue plaid shirt and San Francisco denim pants that hung low on his hips. His boots were dusty, his belt wide, and his face showed a couple days’ growth. His fingers were long and his hands, strong, accented by veins that ran up his forearms to where his shirt cuffs rolled back. His hair resembled the charcoal left by campfires. Despite hours of time spent underground, his skin was tight and tanned, giving him a healthy, rugged appearance.
“Hold your horses,” Red replied, stepping back to join his friends. They called him ‘Red’ not for red hair—but for the red Lisk lunch pail he carried to work at the Phillips mine. Some, however, could swear the nickname came from the way he blushed around women. “So, who do you think she is?” he asked, looking at the lady at the side of the stage. He sat down with the men at the table, his dark eyes hinting at mischief.
“No idea,” one of them said. “All I know is that she came in on the stage from Denver decked out in a long black dress and veil.”
Another man whistled. “I like the way she walks,” he added, swallowing his beer as he watched her pace along the sidelines.
“We could sure use a looker around here,” a third fellow commented.
Just then, two shots rang out and ricocheted off the ceiling. Bill Buck stepped up on a chair as the area around him cleared.
Bill was a squat, burly sort of man, proprietor of the dance hall and accompanying saloon. He had a full peppered beard, an unruly moustache that wreaked havoc under a small upturned nose, and a gravelly voice that made him sound tougher than he really was. His piercing blue eyes could spot BS a mile away, and he’d have none of it. He adjusted his string tie—a bolo threaded through a ring of silver—and cleared his throat.
“Gentlemen, friends, neighbors. Now is the moment you’ve been waiting for. The fair lady who came to our humble town to delight us with song and dance is about to be revealed.” He turned toward the stage.
A dance hall girl about Red’s age stepped out into the center. She was wearing a long burgundy gown slit up the side, her dark hair swept up by a sterling barrette. On her feet were silvery satin pumps with low heels—and at the arches, small square buckles that sparkled in the glow of the kerosene lamps. A hush fell over the room as the men audibly gasped. There stood a petite woman of perfect proportion with a face that rivaled a classic painting.
“Hey, Silver Heels,” one of the men shouted out, christening her with a name that would last forever. Despite her calm demeanor, her heart was pounding.
“Lydia? Are you, all right?” her friend, Sadie, whispered from the sidelines.
Silver Heels nodded yes, took a deep breath, and moved forward. “Welcome, gentlemen, to the best dance hall in the West,” she purred, offering a smile that could melt ice. Hoots and hollers rose around the room.
Red stood up, fixed on the vision that greeted him. He thought she may have noticed him, because her gaze seemed to stop where he was anchored. That’s when the smile that played around her lips moved up into her dark eyes.
“Don’t let me interrupt you, fellas,” she teased, knowing full well that she had revved their testosterone into high gear. “Let’s do a little song first, and then we’ll dance,” she promised, moving to expose the ruffles halfway up her thigh. Cat calls and cheers followed. She cued the piano player—Lou—and began to sing.
Her performance was disrupted by a modern voice and the din of a busy café. “Here you go guys. One French Roast and one Chai Latte.” Jared and Alexa snapped to attention.
“Sorry, Lexa, I seemed to have zoned out. Something really weird just happened,” Jared started to explain, holding his temples. He didn’t want to reveal his ability to ‘travel’ so early in their acquaintance and he wasn’t sure this sensation was the same thing. “I just got an incredibly vivid image of being in a bar in an old Western town. What were you saying?” Jared asked, trying to regain his composure.
“That’s crazy. Me, too. It seems like I just zoomed back in time, but forward in age. Does that make any sense?” Alexa replied, not expecting an answer. “I feel kind of out of it,” she said, shaking her head and exhaling, hand on chest, as if to dispel the sensation.
“Hopefully your tea will help,” Jared said, nodding toward the tall mug. At least he wasn’t the only one experiencing this odd occurrence.
Alexa blew the foam around the top of her drink to expose the spicy liquid. “Ahh, much better,” she said after taking a sip. The warmth felt good on this cool autumn day. “I wonder what that was.”
Jared noticed that she ran her tongue across her upper lip to remove the tell-tale signs of froth and thought how nice it would be to do that for her. “I have no idea, but my head is spinning,” he admitted, reaching for a small chrome pitcher of milk.
“Maybe we walked through a cloud of weed or something,” she joked as she sipped her tea. That broke the ice. Slowly their stilted conversation evolved into a relaxed exchange. They talked about summer jobs, family, school, music and movies, ending with a “See you in English.”
Jared did see Alexa at the end of English class the following week, but she was engrossed talking with the professor. She looked visibly distraught, using both hands for emphasis. Jared waited in hopes of intercepting her. “Hey, Lexa, are you OK? Looks like you were in a pretty deep discussion.”
“I’m bummed, that’s all. I got a B on my first paper, because of some stupid phrases in it. Thing is, I don’t even use those words.” She held up the paper for him to see.
Jared glanced at the page and noticed comments in the margins. “Too colloquial.” “Slang.” “Regional.”
Jared looked more closely. The first sentence referred to a wine imbibing character being “as full as a tick.” When the character survived a duel, she wrote that he was “still above snakes.” And at the conclusion, upon the dude’s death, Alexa had him heading off to the “bone orchard”.
“Sounds like a great film title,” Jared said, pointing to the last line, trying to make her feel better.
“Yeah, it does,” she admitted, giving him a weak smile as she slipped the paper into her backpack. “But I have no idea where those words came from. I don’t really talk like that. Guess I’ll have to edit more closely next time.” They waved good-bye and went their separate ways.
A few days later, Jared turned to his roommate and complained, “This coffee is strong enough to float a colt.”
“That’s a good one,” Doug laughed. “You a cowboy?”
Jared shrugged. “I don’t think so.” Those words were unfamiliar.
Armed with his backpack, Jared headed toward Bay State Road for a scenic walk to the main campus. Sunlit brownstones stood in a pristine row just as they had done for a hundred years. Hydrangea bushes, morphing from summer white to late season pink, were crammed into small gardens pressed behind wrought iron railings. A trim woman in fluorescent green yoga pants ran by with her dog in tow. In the shadows, he could see another woman, too—a figure dressed in a high-necked, cream-colored Victorian gown, standing on the stoop, sipping tea.
“Hey, Jared, wait up!” he heard as Alexa slammed into him from behind.
“What are you doing way over here?” he asked, slowing so she could fall in step.
“Errand in Kenmore Square,” she said, holding up the tablet she had purchased.
“Looks like a good size,” he commented as they walked together. “I’m going to the library to force myself to study. What are you up to?”
“I’m headed that way, too. Need to listen to some stuff for Music Comp.”
“Want to catch a bite afterward?” Jared asked. “Around noon. My treat. Meet at the entrance?”
“Now that’s an offer I can’t refuse,” Alexa answered, giving him a thumbs-up and taking off in a sprint down the street.
When Jared got to the library, Alexa was nowhere to be seen, but they later met up as planned and went to a convenient cafeteria. The place reminded Jared of going to the lake with his parents, where food was prepared in great quantities and laid out in a central dining hall under a high, beamed ceiling. He made a beeline for the salad bar and loaded his plate with greenery and protein. He balanced that off with a large chocolate-chip cookie and a bottle of lemonade. Alexa chose a tuna sandwich, fruit, and iced tea. They found an out-of-the-way table and picked up their conversation.
“You know those weird phrases in your paper?” Jared mentioned.
“Don’t remind me,” Alexa groaned.
“Well, I said something this morning that was pretty bizarre, too.”
“What did you say?” Alexa asked, mouth full, looking up from her sandwich.
“I said ‘this coffee is strong enough to float a colt.’”
Alexa burst out laughing. “Sounds like you just came in off the prairie.”
Jared chuckled and shook his head. “Crazy thing is—I don’t talk like that either.”
“Wonder if it’s because we were both out west,” Alexa suggested. “Maybe we subliminally picked up some slang.”
“Old-fashioned slang, I’d say.” Jared paused to chew. “And speaking of old,” he continued, “do you still have that old cup with you?”
Alexa reached into her backpack and extracted the low rusty cylinder. “Here you go,” she said, setting it into Jared’s hand. He immediately smelled a whiff of gun smoke.
“Do you smell that?” he asked Alexa.
“You mean those French fries?” she asked.
“No, something smokier.”
“Not really,” she said, sniffing. “Now let me see your treasure again, if you still have it.”
“It’s right here. I’m keeping it as a lucky charm.”
Jared reached into his pocket and retrieved the little square buckle, plopping it into her palm. Alexa examined it and felt her pulse quicken. “Whew, is it warm in here or is it me?”
Jared reached over to feel her forehead. He liked the touch of her skin. “Must be you. Do you have a fever?”
“I don’t think so,” Alexa said, patting her own cheeks. She had enjoyed the gentleness coolness of his hand on her brow.
“You do look a little flushed,” Jared said, as he speared a piece of grilled chicken and dipped it into salad dressing. “Drink some fluid,” he suggested, pointing to her iced tea.
Sarah put the buckle into the miner’s cup and picked up her drink. Without missing a beat, she and Jared were in the town of Buckskin Joe, Colorado, 1861, in its Gold Rush heyday.
“Lydia, you’ve been out on the floor all night. Take a breather.” She looked up into the weathered face and clear eyes of Bill Buck, her boss and dance hall owner. “You’ve already brought in a payload of money. Want another tea?”
Lydia shook her head. “No thanks. I’ve had a gallon already.”
Bill Buck knew that his patrons liked buying drinks for the new dance hall girl, but he purposely substituted tea for liquor when he served her. That kept her steady on her feet and made him a tidy profit.
“I’m stepping out for some air,” Lydia said, dabbing the perspiration from her décolletage and tucking a lace hanky into the space between her breasts.
“Oh, what lovely mounds,” Bill Buck sighed to himself as his eyes followed her hand—but he simply nodded to acknowledge.
The evening brought with it a coolness that replaced the dry heat of the day. Lydia leaned against the dance hall wall and let the air wash over her. “Evening, ma’am,” several men said, tipping their hats as they walked by her. “Nice night out,” a few others mumbled as they stole a look at her pretty face.
Red stood at the other side of the building behind a split rail fence where patrons tied their horses. He was gazing up at the sky, his lean form silhouetted in the yellow window light. He had the heel of one boot hooked on the crossbar, hands in his pockets. He wore a flat felt cap as most miners did—gray or tan, hard to tell— and a loose-fitting striped shirt over Henley-necked underwear that peeked out where the collar opened. Cloth suspenders held up his flap-front canvas pants, crudely reinforced with burlap patches at the knees. Lydia couldn’t help but admire his broad shoulders, slim hips, and long legs. His dark hair, despite his otherwise dusty look, was appealingly clean. Mostly, she liked the way he seemed comfortable in his own skin.
“Guess you don’t get to see much of that,” she said, nodding toward the moon as she approached the attractive man.
He turned his head quickly as if interrupted from deep thoughts, retracted his heel to stand and touched the brim of his hat. “No, ma’am. Get to see a lot of rock, though,” he said, smiling.
“Be still my heart,” Lydia thought as she reacted to his wide grin. “That man is a thoroughbred.” She moved closer and noticed that her head barely reached his shoulders.
“Red Suter,” he said, extending his hand to introduce himself. “Jim, actually, but they call me ‘Red’.”
“Lydia Calhoon,” she said, offering her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“I liked your song,” the man said, scuffing the toe of his boot in the dirt. Conversation was not his strong suit.
“Glad you enjoyed it,” she smiled. “One of my favorites, too.”
“Where did you learn to sing like that?” Red asked, trying to extend the conversation.
“From my mother,” Lydia said. He noticed a bit of sadness flit across her face. “She used to sing all the time, when we lived in Missouri.”
“Where in Missouri?” was all he could think to say.
“Outside Independence. We had a dairy farm there,” Lydia answered, recalling the many hours she had spent milking.
“Are you all booked up for dancin’ tonight?” Red asked, mustering the courage he didn’t think he had.
“Not quite,” she said, adjusting the ribbon and cameo at her throat. “I’ll save the last dance for you.” Lydia winked as she turned to leave. A slight breeze followed her. Red had never smelled anything so good.
As the night wore on, Red waited patiently, watching man after man steer Silver Heels around the room. Her lilting laughter rose above the smoky haze and dispersed into the heavy air, teasing each patron with an alternative to the scrappy life they knew. Her dazzling shoes left a trail of stardust, so it seemed, on the wooden floor, evaporating when each number ended. Finally, the piano player announced the last tune. She motioned Red forward. He slipped his arms around her tiny waist and pulled her toward him. He was sure she let out a little gasp.
Red could feel the warmth of her body as they moved to the music. A tendril of her hair brushed against his face. She followed easily, appreciating the strength in his arms and sureness of step as he guided her across the floor. This was one dance neither of them wanted to end.
“Mind if I borrow this chair?” a young voice interrupted, jarring Jared and Alexa out of their reverie.
“Sure, take it,” Jared offered, pushing the chair toward the fellow student.
“We’re not using it,” Alexa added, wanting to seem attentive. She and Jared looked at each other in a peculiar way.
“It happened again, didn’t it?” Jared tentatively asked. “That zoning out?”
“Yup. I wonder what’s going on. I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” she said. “The person I saw looked a lot like you, but older.”
“That’s funny. The person I saw could have been you 160 years ago, but 10 years later.” Neither admitted the attraction.
“This would be creepy if it weren’t so cool,” Alexa said, her eyes dancing at the delight of adventure.
“I know. It’s weird but fun. Wonder how it happens.”
“And why,” Alexa added, arching her eyebrows.
“We’ll have to pay more attention next time,” Jared said, hoping there would be a next time. They continued to make small talk, simply enjoying each other’s company.
“Well, I’ve gotta go,” Alexa announced once her sandwich had been reduced to crumbs. She stood up and put on her backpack.
“Want a piece for the road?” Jared asked, breaking his cookie in two.
“Thanks. You’re sweet,” Alexa said. Jared didn’t need to hear anything else. That comment had made his day.
Later that week, somewhere near midnight, Jared sat hunched over his desk trying to focus on homework. As his fingers subconsciously ran around the edges of the buckle in his pocket, he thought about the alluring woman in the dance hall and wanted to see her again. He wasn’t sure what it all meant, but he knew it had something to do with Alexa.
“Hey, Lexa, you there?” he texted, hoping she had not gone to sleep.
“Yeah, unfortunately. Still working on a paper. Why u up?”
“Studying for an exam. Besides, can’t sleep.”
“Keep thinking about the Wild West,” he wrote and added a horse emoji.
“Me, too. Wanna go back?”
“You bet. After class tomorrow?”
“I’m done at 3,” she wrote.
“I’m done at 2. I’ll wait for you in front of the chapel.” They signed off with some zzzzzz’s and eventually called it a night.
Friday was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm and filled with autumn color. They found a place by the river where they could watch the rowing team’s practice. Jared and Alexa sat in silence, hypnotized by the oars that rhythmically sliced the water, propelling the slim craft forward and rippling the reflection of orange trees that floated in it.
“Clearly, we’ve got something going on here,” Jared finally said. Not wanting to imply a relationship, he clarified: “I mean, between the buckle and the cup. It seems that alone, neither one is very special, but together—Boom!”
“Yeah, I tried holding the cup in my hand and thinking back to that fellow I saw—but nothing happened,” Alexa admitted.
“For me either. I tried conjuring up the woman I met there, but no luck.”
“So, do you want to try this again?” Alexa asked.
“Got nothin’ to lose.”
“As long as we can come back,” she half-joked.
Jared thought for a moment. He hadn’t really considered that. “Maybe we should set our phone alarms just in case. Say, in a couple hours?” he suggested as he reached for his device. Alexa did the same.
“Ready?” Jared asked, pulling the buckle from his pocket.
“Ready,” Alexa confirmed, setting the cup on her thigh.
Jared gently placed the buckle into the cup and they both reeled back. This time, their transition was immediate.
It was a mid-summer’s night in Buckskin Joe —seasons here seemed to run three months earlier than in present time—and Red was coming off his late shift at the mine when he heard a commotion up ahead.
“Leave me alone,” Lydia shouted, pushing the unshaven cattle drover back, trying to twist away from his grip. “All I do is dance,” she said, giving the grizzly man an icy stare.
“Well, I had something else in mind, pretty lady,” the man slobbered, pawing at her with the hand that didn’t hold a whiskey bottle. His pants were baggy and stained; his shirt, ripe with sweat. Lydia tried to call Bill Buck for help, but he couldn’t hear her.
“Get away from me,” Lydia yelled. “You’re not my type.” She kicked his shin, but her foot hardly made a dent through his thick leather boots.
“I’ve got something in my pocket that says otherwise,” the man insisted, lewdly adjusting himself.
“I don’t want what’s in your pocket,” Lydia snarled, struggling to wrench her arm away. She felt the barrel of a Colt press against her side.
“You’re coming with me,” the man insisted as he pushed Lydia ahead of him out into the street.
“Where are you taking me?” Lydia demanded, thrashing, hoping a passerby would come to her rescue.
“Someplace quiet and romantic.” He laughed at his own sarcasm.
Fear was racing through Lydia’s mind as she stumbled across the dirt road. She thought of the blade hidden in her garter but knew she couldn’t reach it. Besides, this man was twice her size and probably five times as strong.
As she dragged her feet in the dust, her shoes left two thin lines—a trail that could have been mistaken for the hoofprints of deer. “Keep moving, or I’ll do you right here,” he growled. Lydia tried to stall. She could see the mine on Buckskin Creek looming ahead and noticed the circle of the arrastra in the moonlight. She knew that was the place where they crushed ore but had never really paid attention to it.
“In there!” the man commanded, forcing her into the ring of stones. “On the ground,” he ordered. She knelt on the hardpacked soil near the flat grinding surface at the center. Looking up, she could see a large stone suspended from a pole that reached across the diameter. This stone was typically lowered, and the bar rotated by a horse or mule hitched to the beam. The results were extremely effective in pulverizing the ore-laden rock. It would be equally effective in crushing her bones.
“Please don’t hurt me,” she begged, scared of what was to come. “There are plenty of girls who do this sort of thing.”
“But they’re not you,” the man retorted. “You’re pretty.” She could smell his foul breath and hear the buckle of his belt unhook.
Lydia cowered under the pole that was positioned above her head. She tried to bargain. “Leave me alone now and I’ll be extra nice to you at the dance hall.” The man stepped in front of the pole and swayed over her. Suddenly, there was a thwack as the massive beam moved and slammed into the back of his head. The man fell forward, and Lydia rolled away.
“Not so fast,” Lydia heard a familiar voice say as a fist connected with the man’s face. More punches followed.
As the man laid there groaning, a lean figure in a faded blue shirt and suspenders stepped out of the shadows. “Red!” Lydia cried, standing up and brushing herself off.
“You OK, ma’am?” Red asked, sweeping a shock of hair out of his eyes as he picked up his cap. She thought her hero was dashing and nodded yes as he helped her up. “I’ll walk you back,” Red offered.
“How did you find me? Why are you even here? Don’t you need a mule to run one of these things?” Her questions spilled out.
“Heard the scuffle. Night shift at the mine. And no, you can move it by hand,” Red said, not wasting words.
Lydia leaned on his arm, trying to steady herself. “Thank you so much,” she said, straightening her ruffled skirt and centering the cameo at her throat. She studied his profile and admired his jaw, clean and strong, not obscured by a beard like the ones so many miners wore. He looked straight ahead as they walked, resisting the urge to put his arm around her shoulder.
When they got back to the dance hall, Lydia motioned him closer. He thought she was going to whisper something, but instead, she planted a kiss on his cheek. Soft as velvet. Lucky for Red, no one was around to see him blush. He tipped his cap and watched Lydia disappear through the batwing doors.
Suddenly, the chapel bells chimed, and Jared and Alexa bolted back to reality. Jared was afraid he was still flushed.
“I wonder if we’re having the same experience,” he said, looking at Alexa who seemed visibly shaken.
“I was attacked,” Alexa continued, shutting off the alarm on her phone, face solemn.
“I rescued someone who was attacked,” Jared said, disabling his alarm as well.
“My rescuer was ruggedly handsome,” Alexa noted, angling her head to look at Jared in the late day light.
“Guess that leaves me out!” he joked, then added, “The woman I rescued was quite beautiful.”
Alexa looked down, not comfortable with the compliment. She put away the tin cup and Jared pocketed the buckle.
“Crazy stuff,” he said as they stared across the water watching the Cambridge skyline change in the fading light. “Like virtual reality without the head gear.”
Alexa smiled although she was still rattled. “It’s been an interesting afternoon, but I should get back.”
“Me, too,” Jared said. “A bunch of us are going clubbing tonight.” He stood up and stretched his lean form.
“Don’t run off with any dance hall girls,” Alexa teased, resisting the urge to hug him. Jared grinned. Now he knew for certain they were having the same dream—or whatever it was.
That night slightly after 1 a.m., Alexa’s phone vibrated. She could hear it hitting the hard surface of her bedside table. “Hello,” she said when she saw Jared’s number. She had just fallen asleep. Groggy, she mumbled, “A little late, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t know who to call. I’m in pretty tough shape,” a raspy voice at the other end said.
“Jared? Is this really you or does someone have your phone?”
“It’s me, I promise.”
“Give me a clue,” Alexa insisted. She had grown suspicious after reading an article about phone scams.
“The buckle and the cup,” Jared said, figuring they were the only two who knew about the random objects.
“OK. What happened? Too much to drink?” Alexa sassed.
“No. I got beat up—but I’m not sure why.”
“Where are you?”
“They left me at the T station in Kenmore Square.”
“Two guys. I didn’t see them. Sorry, I can’t really think straight.”
“Stay there. I’m coming to you.”
Alexa grabbed her pocketbook and caught a late-night trolley from the west side of campus. When she got out, she saw Jared sitting on a bench, legs spread, elbows on his thighs, head lowered into his hands. There were droplets of blood on the cement below.
He looked up at her, attempting to focus. She could see bruises swelling up around his head and jaw. His nose was puffy and bloodied. His bottom lip, split.
“Oh, my God!” she said, rushing over to him. “What on earth happened?”
“I have no idea. I was with my buddies and stepped away to use the men’s room. Then two guys jumped me and started beating me up. I told them I thought they had the wrong person, but they kept saying, ‘You’re that kid. Stop poking around.’”
“Poking around what?” Alexa asked. Jared shook his head. “Don’t know. I pretty much keep to myself.”
“Can you stand?” Alexa asked, putting her arm around Jared’s torso to support his weight. He grimaced as they made their way to the outbound platform. Once on the T, he slumped against her shoulder.
“Are you sure you didn’t tangle with anyone? Bump someone carrying a beer?” she asked.
“Nope. The club wasn’t even crowded, and I’ve had my nose to the grindstone all week,” Jared said as he touched his misshapen face. He added in an attempt at humor: “Or what’s left of it.”
“Maybe you should see a doctor,” Alexa suggested, as they got off the trolley and hobbled to her dorm lobby.
“I just want to sit for a while. Could really use some water, though.” Alexa went to a vending machine and returned with a cold bottle. Jared laid it across his forehead before twisting off the cap and gulping down the contents. “Ahh, that’s better,” he exhaled, his voice nearly restored.
“Did your friends just leave you there?” Alexa asked, appalled at the idea.
“No, no. It was cool. They had just hooked up, so I told them to go ahead. Said I would hang out a while longer.” Jared shivered.
“I’ll go up and get a blanket. Be right back,” she said. Jared nodded in appreciation, trying not to groan as he shifted his position. When Alexa returned with the fleece throw, Jared was lolled back, half asleep.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to sleep after a head injury,” Alexa said, putting the blanket around his shoulders and shaking him awake. “Let’s just sit and talk. Then we can decide if you should go to the infirmary.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere,” Jared said, showing the signs of exhaustion. “So, sure, let’s talk.”
Alexa attempted to make conversation, trying to keep him awake. “So, what was it like interning this summer?” she asked, hoping to get Jared’s mind off the assault.
“Did a bunch of research for a reporter. And a lot of grunt work,” Jared said. He attempted to smile, but he was quickly reminded of his split lip. His hand went to his mouth.
“So not much glory, eh?”
“Well, I did get credit in the paper.”
“That’s cool. You want to be a journalist, right?” she asked.
“Hope so. I love the investigative stuff, and I have a great assignment for class,” he volunteered. His color was returning, and he was sitting upright. “We have to find a news story—ideally one that’s ongoing—and tell it from a different angle. Need to identify details that could be turned into leads. Extra credit if we do the legwork.”
Alexa listened as she searched “Head Injuries” on her smartphone. “So, what did you pick?” she asked, looking up from the device.
“The Gardner Museum heist,” Jared answered. “It’s what I researched last summer. Took place in 1990. Thirteen pieces of art worth $500 million were stolen and never recovered.”
“I heard about that,” Alexa said.
“The robbers were disguised as cops and they lured the guard away from the alarm station,” Jared explained, wincing as he moved. He seemed eager to talk now and was energized by it, so Alexa didn’t interrupt. “The story surfaces every year around St. Patty’s Day to commemorate the anniversary. I’ve always been fascinated by it. Read just about everything Kurkjian has written for the Globe, but I want to know more.”
“Who’s that and like what?” Alexa prompted, wanting to make sure he was coherent.
“He’s an authority on the heist. Been covering it from the start.”
“But there’s still more to learn?” Alexa asked.
“A lot. Like, why did the regular guard call in sick? What happened to the red hatchback the burglars supposedly drove? Who is the man in the AP video that turned up 25 years later? And of course, where are the paintings and that rare Chinese vase?”
“Really does sound like an unsolved mystery,” she remarked, happy to see Jared more alert.
“It is. And I want to solve it. Not to catch the crooks but to find the artwork. Supposedly, the FBI knows who took it—mob connections they say—and in 2016, for a third time, they raided the same house in Connecticut, but nothing turned up. The paintings are too hot to sell: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas…so there’s still a $5 million reward for the recovery.”
“Now that would pay for tuition!” Alexa joked. She let her hand rest on Jared’s forearm.
“If you go to the museum website, you’ll see they’re still asking for tips. I sent their Security Director an email to see if I could get a comment for my assignment, but I haven’t heard back yet. I did swing by the building the other day to look around, hoping for an inspiration. Even with a virtual exhibit, it’s sad to see the empty spaces on the walls.”
Alexa sat up straight. “Maybe that has something to do with the assault.”
“I doubt it. I didn’t talk to anyone,” he said as he wrapped himself tighter in the blanket, although her comment made him wonder if someone had been watching him. He had certainly been visible when researching the story before. Maybe someone recognized him. Maybe someone wanted to stop him. That had never really crossed his mind. Eventually, he closed his eyes and Alexa dozed off on his shoulder.
When she awoke, Jared was still asleep next to her. “Hey, sleepy head,” she said, gently jostling him.
“What? Who?” Jared started to say as he opened his eyes. He quickly realized the lights were too bright and the sounds, too loud. He held his head, squinted at her, and then looked at his surroundings, trying to process how he got there.
“Coffee?” Alexa suggested as she stood up, folding the blanket. “There’s some in the caf,” she said, motioning toward the dining hall. Jared wobbled to his feet and shuffled to the men’s room. She, to the ladies’ room. Still bleary-eyed, they walked into the cafeteria together, savoring the smell of toast and eggs that greeted them. They were ravenous.
“You look at lot better than you did last night,” Alexa said, glancing up from her tray.
“Only thing is, I feel like my head is in a vice,” he said, cupping his forehead.
“I’ll walk back to your dorm with you,” Alexa offered, inviting herself to join.
“If you want,” Jared said. He was too tired to protest.
“You wait here. I just want to freshen up first,” Alexa said as she cleared away their trays. Jared nodded as he watched Alexa pick up the blanket and exit into the corridor. He wondered how she could possibly look so good with so little sleep.
“Hey, dude. What happened to you?” he heard a familiar voice say. He looked up to see Eric, one of the friends, who had hiked with him that summer.
“Walked into a wall,” Jared mumbled, not sure he really wanted to talk about it.
“Some wall, I’d say. Did you break it?” Eric jabbed.
“No. Man. It was more like two guys came out of nowhere and tried to break me.”
“What did they want?”
“Close as I can figure, they want me to keep quiet. I just don’t know about what.”
“You got me there.”
“I’m beginning to think it has to do with the story I investigated this past summer…the museum heist.”
“I remember that one. But why now?”
“Not sure…though I am researching it again for an assignment.” They talked a bit more about classes and reminisced about the summer.
Just then Alexa appeared in a clean change of clothes. She smelled of soap, and her hair was wet. “I’m ready if you are,” she said and then she noticed Eric sitting there.
Jared made introductions after which Eric indicated he had to go. “Take good care of him,” Eric called as he left the duo standing in the cafeteria. Alexa and Jared cautiously stepped onto the sidewalk for a slow stroll across campus. Anyone who didn’t know them would assume they were a couple. This time Alexa waited in the lounge as Jared went up to his floor to shower. The hot water felt good on his sore muscles and the steam cleared his head, but after checking his bruises in the mirror, he knew that shaving was out of the question. His lip looked awful, but at least he still had his teeth.
When Jared returned, Alexa was surprised how well he had cleaned up. Given a few more years, he just might be as handsome as that man in the saloon. Without saying a word, she reached into her backpack and took out the rusty cup, setting it on the glass top of a low table in front of her. She and Jared programmed their phone alarms for two hours ahead, after which he ceremoniously produced the silver buckle. He placed the shiny rectangle into the miner’s cup and sat back.
In an instant, they were in Colorado on a late summer’s day, walking through an aspen grove out to a clearing that offered a dramatic view of the mountains and dry landscape. Their horses, tied to two young trees, nickered from a distance. “Watch the gravel,” Red said, taking Lydia’s arm as they maneuvered down a slope. They both had the day off and were bent on enjoying it. “See that arroyo over there?” he asked, pointing to a narrow gulley that cut through the rocks and into the hills. Lydia peered out from beneath her small-brimmed bonnet, untied at the chin to stay cool. She looked past the yucca spikes that poked into the sky where the day’s heat was already rising, creating the illusion of waves above the flat stone surfaces.
“It’s down there. Or shall I say, up there. That’s where I staked a claim when I was a kid. I registered it in my mother’s maiden name, so no one knows it belongs to me.”
“Is it worth anything?” Lydia asked, more interested in the man than the money.
“Not a plugged nickel as far as I can tell,” Red laughed. “Guess I got fooled by some pyrite when I was too young to know better.” He had an easy way about him that made her relax.
Red found a stick and began drawing a rough map in the dirt. “See, this is the spot—between two boulders. The entrance is hidden by a small shack,” he said, marking an X near an outcropping of rock. As he squatted on his haunches, Lydia rested her hands on his shoulders and looked out across the horizon. She could feel the warmth of his skin beneath the fabric of his shirt and it quickened her pulse.
“What a glorious sight!” she said, soaking in the view.
Getting to his feet, Red knew this was the moment he had anticipated. He turned to face her and became lost in her dark eyes. Leaning over, he brought his lips close to hers and saw those dark eyes close behind a veil of lashes. Ah, the sweetness of that first kiss. So tentative. So pure. Lydia felt the same way. The scenery that she had just admired paled in comparison to the small, safe world created by Red’s arms. She felt his strength surround her and inhaled his scent. Consumed by the experience, she didn’t notice the slight breeze kicking up at her back.
“Let’s go down,” Red said, willing himself to step away. His lips still tingled from where they had touched hers. He took Lydia’s hand and guided her sideways down the hill. Stones rolled in their path and dust was cast off by their boots as the couple made their way to the base of the arroyo. They followed the dry stream bed up into the rocks, where a long-ago river had left its mark. Now, only sagebrush and Mormon tea clung to the caked soil caught in the crevices.
Lydia noticed a green collared lizard scuttle across a rock. “Look,” she said, excitedly pointing to the unexpected visitor. Red delighted at the joy she took in even the simplest things. He already knew that she awakened in him a vitality he has previously lacked.
“We’re almost there,” he said, steering her to an incline that led to the mine entrance. “Hop up,” he said, extending his hand to help her over a small ledge. Soon they were on a landing beneath a tower of cliffs and above the arroyo, near a small cabin built into the side of the mountain.
By this time, the sky had grown dark, and they could see a bank of clouds rolling in. “Don’t worry about rain,” Red said, sensing her concern. “Those are a long way off.” He pulled a small crowbar from his pocket and pried away the piece of wood that had been nailed across the door.
“Aren’t you the prepared one,” Lydia teased as she heard the slat break free.
“I try to be,” Red said, flashing a smile at her. He went in first and looked around, blinking to adjust his eyes to the dim light. An old lantern, pickaxe, shovel, and rope were exactly where he had left them. A pair of work boots was tucked under a small cot, and a change of clothes hung on a hook. Just then, a gust of wind sent Lydia’s hat over the ledge into a downward spiral where it snagged on a branch. She let out an “Oh dear” and inched toward it. Red stepped out of the cabin in response and watched her retrace her steps. She heard him say, “Let it be. We’ll get it later.” One look at the sky had told him he had underestimated the cold front that was driving rain into the hills above them.
Lydia turned to go back, but without warning, there was a streak of lightning and a clap of thunder. A surge of water came rushing down the cliffs and caught her off-guard. Wind howled like a coyote caught in a trap, and torrents of rain began to fall. Within seconds, the gorge below was seething. “Quick! Inside!” was all Lydia could hear above the roar. She knew about flash floods, but had never been caught in one, let alone anticipated the speed and power that came with it. She tried to climb up, but her boots slipped on the wet rocks. She slid backward and lost ground. Water was quickly rising and pooling around her. Her long skirts, now wet and heavy, weighted her down. She felt herself being sucked into the roiling current, away from Red’s outstretched arms.
Panic set in. “I’m going to drown,” was all she could think as she tried to grab onto anything. Water churned around her, swallowing stones, uprooting plants and pulling debris into its path. “Red!” she screamed as a tide of silt washed over her, loosening her hold. Just as she felt herself about to go under, she was jerked above the flow by a length of rope that lassoed her torso and settled under her arms.
Holding on for dear life, she wedged herself between the rocks, propping her feet against the wall of the ravine. “Don’t move,” Red was calling. “Wait ‘til the rain passes.” Lydia clung desperately to the rope, twisting her right hand through it for a better grip. Rain continued to pummel her, and water tugged at her from below. Searing pain shot up her arm as if her tendons had been torn from the bone. Her muscles went weak and her hand released. She felt her body begin to slide, but the rope under her shoulders held her fast. Her heart was pounding, and she started to cry.
A few minutes later—though it seemed like hours—the roar subsided, and the pellets of rain turned into a steady downpour. She watched as a slow river of mud replaced the teeming rapids that had swirled in the arroyo below. When she finally looked up, she saw Red, drenched and lashed to one of the boulders, held by the rope that had previously hung in the shed. She was tethered to him. A softer rain was falling now as thunder rumbled into the distance. “I’m coming to get you,” he said, loosening his ties and edging down toward her, using the rope as a guide. His years as a ranch hand were proving useful.
Lydia was too shaken to move. The sudden drop in temperature had made her cold and the pain in her forearm was excruciating. Shivering, she clung to Red as he helped her over the ledge and up to the mine entrance. His hands were raw where the rope had cut into them, and his blood left a spreading pink stain on her sleeve.
“Come inside where it’s protected,” he said, guiding her through the narrow doorway of the cabin. She could hear him rummage around and then saw a spark ignite the wick of a lantern. Rain pattered steadily on the roof as she tried to get her bearings. He offered her a flask of whiskey and instructed her to drink. She took a gulp and felt the welcome heat of alcohol sting her throat.
“As I said, I try to be prepared,” he joked, bringing the lantern closer, attempting to create a sense of levity where none existed. He pointed her to the cot. She sat down and instinctively huddled to protect her injured arm. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she noticed a row of canned goods lined up on a crude shelf. There was a book wedged into a chink in the wall and a piece of flint on a small table. “Slip these on,” Red said, tossing a pair of woolen long johns toward her. She looked at him, doubtful. “They’re clean, just dusty,” he assured.
“I don’t think I can move my arm,” she said, grimacing as she tried to retract it from her wet sleeve. By this time, she was trembling.
“I’ll help you,” Red said as he carefully undid the back of her dress and gently rolled the drenched fabric over her shoulders and down to her elbows, easing her arms out. He couldn’t help but notice the lace-trimmed corset she wore and how her skin glistened where the rain had soaked through.
Lydia groaned in pain, but once her injured arm was free from the cloth, she felt better. Red braced her arm with a small board and tied it with a bandana. “That’ll hold you for a while. It’s probably only a strain,” he consoled. For an outwardly rugged man, Red possessed an endearing quality. “Now you need to get dry,” he said, picking up the long underwear again. “I know, not the prettiest thing you ever saw, but they’re warm.” Lydia stared at him as if he should know what she was thinking. “Oh, of course,” he said, remembering his manners. “I promise I won’t look.” As he turned his back on her, he could only imagine what was taking place behind him. “Too bad I’m such a damned nice guy,” he thought to himself, wanting nothing more than to take her then and there.
He could hear her skirts dropping to the floor, her corset being undone, and the rustle of petticoats being stripped away. He imagined boots being unlaced along the inside of her firm calves and stockings being unhooked from garters, rolled down to expose perfectly pale legs. He wondered if she wore the split drawers that women often did to accommodate bathroom needs or solid ones cinched at the waist. He toyed with the idea of whether they ended at her knees or hovered at her well-toned thighs. He could feel himself getting aroused and tried to think of other things. When he could hear nothing else, he called over his shoulder. “Are you all right?” That’s when he felt her slim arms slip around his chest from behind and her body press against his back. He smiled when he saw her right forearm emerge sporting the red paisley cloth he had tied to the splint. Not quite the image of seduction he had envisioned, but, oh so nice.
“We need to get those wet clothes off you, too,” Lydia said in her best flirtatious tone, quickly adding, “and I promise, I will look.”
Red turned around and saw Lydia discretely holding the long johns to obscure his view. Her dark hair tumbled down behind them and concealed her breasts, but he could see the curve of her hips where the cloth didn’t cover. “Well, if you insist, ma’am,” he nodded as he slowly looked her up and down. She could feel her breathing catch under his gaze.
With her right hand immobilized, she used her left hand to awkwardly unbutton his shirt. His chest was smooth except for a soft tuft of hair in the middle, and she wanted to rest her head there. The wet shirt stuck to him like a second skin, rippling over his muscles, clinging to his rib cage.
Just as he had done for her, she peeled him out of the confining cloth. He used the toe of one boot to pry off the heel of the other, not wanting to bend over and risk losing sight of her. Standing close, he stepped out his trousers and skivvies, tossing them aside. His belt buckle clinked against a chair. She attempted to dry him off with the long johns, and only then did he see the all of her. In turn, she greedily devoured him with her eyes before yielding her body.
In the glow of the lantern they explored what had previously been forbidden, finally retreating to the cot and sliding under the covers. They laughed as the bed creaked with each movement, but they soon became oblivious to the sound.
This was not at all what he had planned for their first encounter. Red had envisioned a long bath in a deep tub and a canopy bed with smooth satin sheets. Nor was this what she had imagined in her perfect fantasies—a white blanket laid out in a field of flowers and an endless afternoon in which to linger—but surroundings were unimportant now that they had found each other. Lydia didn’t recall exactly when the rain stopped or when she dozed off in his arms, but she remembered hearing Red say, when he thought she was fully asleep, “Thank God, I didn’t lose you,” at which point she knew their attraction was more than a passing fling.
The sound of electronic music jarred Jared and Alexa into present time, as they reached for their phones and reclaimed their artifacts. Neither of them said a word because they were both turned on and terribly embarrassed. “I think we need to stop for a while,” Alexa said, not looking Jared in the eye. He was, after all, only a casual acquaintance.
“I agree,” Jared managed to say. “Not that I don’t like what’s happening back there, but it’s going way too fast.” Although he was attracted to Alexa, the last thing he wanted at this freewheeling stage in his life was commitment. They both sat there for an awkward moment. “You don’t have to stay,” Jared said, eager to sort out his thoughts. “I’m fine. I’ll let you know if anything turns up about the assault.”
Alexa nodded, mumbled a good-bye, and hurried out the door. She was uncomfortable with this forced connection to Jared— she hadn’t planned on getting involved—and she wanted nothing more to do with that rusty cup. Once she got back to her dorm, she took the small cylinder out of her backpack and shoved it behind some books on a shelf above her desk, trying to forget the power it held. During the following days, she focused on schoolwork, avoided Jared on campus, and only occasionally let herself think about the dark-haired man from long ago who had rescued her twice.