Rynn followed Sheriff Trent into the lobby of a swank hotel in downtown Taft. It was located in the high-rent district, not far from the passenger train station. A farm boy like him had no business in a place with fine woven rugs over tightly tiled floors. Heck, there were even gaslights lining the sweeping staircase to the right, and an elevator was displayed prominently across the lobby from the double front doors. The sheriff led him right up to the elevator door and pushed the button. Rynn stared at the etched metal doors and the shiny copper decorations around the edges, slightly alarmed by the muted sound of machinery clanking behind them.
Rynn blinked at the older man, then looked down to find his blunt nails digging through the thick wool of his clean, borrowed trousers into the meat of his thigh. "Oh. Sorry." Balling that hand into a fist, he tucked both hands behind his back. At least the sheriff had let him ditch the jacket and tie. Now he just had to concentrate on not getting the white shirt dirty.
"Don't be nervous."
Rynn flinched at a dinging sound and couldn't help but gape a little as the metal doors slid open to reveal a shiny little blue-carpeted compartment. A boy dressed in a uniform of a blue to match the carpet stood off to one side, holding open the doors. Warily, Rynn followed the sheriff into the box.
"What floor, sir?" asked the boy as they turned to face the door.
"Six," Trent answered.
The boy nodded and pulled a lever. Silently, the metal doors shut them in. Rynn clutched at a handrail set into the back wall when the floor beneath his feet jounced.
He blinked at the sheriff's smile.
"It'll be all right, boy."
Rynn nodded. Trying not to realize that they were rising in the air, he focused on something else. "What if he doesn't like me?"
Sheriff Trent shrugged, the leather of his brown duster creaking loudly in the cramped space. "Don't think it matters. He's a man of the law. Hell, being sursei, he is the law. He's agreed to take you at least as far as Vinton. It's a lumber town. Young man your size should be able to find a job there easy enough. I'm sending references, and he's agreed to vouch for your innocence."
Again the sheriff smiled, reaching up to pat his shoulder. "You're a good kid, Rynn. I know it, and the sursei proved it. It's time to get on with your life away from the Dotalls. Just do me a favor and think before you do something like this in the future, huh?"
Rynn swallowed over a sudden lump in his throat, then jumped again at the sound of another ding. "Sixth floor," announced the kid in the uniform as the compartment settled to a halt. He pulled another lever, and the doors slid back open.
Rynn was glad to step out of the elevator and follow the sheriff down the hall.
The elevator doors had barely closed when a feminine shriek sounded ahead of them. Both he and Sheriff Trent froze, staring at each other. Then they heard the thunk of a heavy piece of furniture and the clatter of what sounded like chairs. As one, they turned and sprinted toward the sounds, urged on by another shout--male this time--and another female cry.
The sheriff reached the appropriate door first, his pistol out of its holster, pointed up at the ceiling. He pulled Rynn behind him, staying at the side of the doorway as he reached in to knock. "Sursei, it's the sheriff. Is everything all right in there?"
All sound within stopped.
"Just a moment," the female voice called. A mutter of voices preceded the clatter of the door's lock just before it was yanked wide open. On the other side stood the blonde woman from the courtroom. At least, Rynn was pretty sure it was she. The face was the same, even if it was now partly covered by the fallen half of what might have once been a neatly pinned hairdo. Holding the doorknob, she propped the other hand on the hip of her lemon yellow skirt. The ruffles at the neck and wrists of her white blouse looked mussed; the trailing ends of a black ribbon that probably should have circled her neck dangled over her breasts.
"Hello, sheriff," she greeted, two bright dots of color pinkening her cheeks.
"Miss Kogin." Rynn couldn't see his face, but the older man nodded. He didn't put away his gun. "Is everything all right?"
She eyed the weapon, or tried. With an irritated huff, she blew at the curls that tried to blind her left eye. "Oh, we're fine." She glared over her shoulder. "Shas is just cheating again."
"That would be impossible," came a calm reply behind her.
Rolling her eyes, she stepped back. "Please, come in. Maybe you can talk some sense into them."
The sheriff hesitated, but then he took a few cautious steps into the room. Rynn stayed right behind him.
Behind the woman, two men faced each other over a space that had clearly recently contained the card table that now lay on its side, out of their way. The tense positions in which they stood told Rynn that a fight was about to break out. To his surprise, one of the combatants was the sursein judge.
The delicate, almost feminine man who had tried Rynn's case just a few hours previous certainly looked more masculine now, if no less gorgeous. His violet robes were replaced with snug, worn jeans tucked into well-made, black suede, knee-high boots. The toned muscles of his shoulders and arms were on display thanks to his sleeveless black top, and as it was formfitting, it also showed what looked to be a honed chest. The white-gold hair that had been braided down his back before was now loose, flowing in gentle waves over his shoulders. Two long locks from his temples were drawn back and banded with a tie at the nape of his neck, the only effort made to tame the slippery fall of hair. His face remained in profile since he wouldn't take his eyes off the other man, but that just showed off a flawless, sharply etched profile. Expressionless, he looked perfectly capable of snatching the gun from where it was tucked into the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back and firing before the man staring at him could do the same.
The man across from him scowled. Although good-looking, he could not compare to the judge's delicate beauty. A trim, dark beard lined his square jaw, with a matching mustache shadowing a wide, thin-lipped mouth. Deep-set blue eyes were shadowed by thick black eyebrows. He was a little taller and a little wider than the judge, but he had a slim quality that the bulk of his dark blue jacket couldn't hide. More coyote than bear. A grin hovered at the edges of his mouth. His fingers hovered over the pistol seated in a holster strapped to his thigh, at least three gold rings glinting in the ample light provided by kerosene lamps.
"Gentlemen?" the sheriff asked, stopping just close enough to the men that he could keep them both in his sights. His gun he kept out but pointed toward the faded blue carpet beneath his boots. The tone in his voice was the one Rynn had heard a number of times in the jailhouse. The one he used to command instant respect.
The sursei raised an eyebrow, but otherwise didn't budge. "Good evening, sheriff." That voice. Smooth as fresh-strained cream.
Rynn edged into the room behind the sheriff, gaze darting around to see if he could spot a possible weapon in case Sheriff Trent needed help. That's when he spotted a third man, sitting on an easy chair in the corner, feet propped on a matching footstool, watching with a small smile. It was the judge's bodyguard from earlier, his bulk nearly overfilling the chair. He had his big hands laced behind his bald head, and his dark eyes twinkled as he seemed to enjoy the show.
Now Rynn was quite confused.
"Oh, for goodness' sake." The pretty young woman muttered angrily to herself as she stepped right up between the sursei and his opponent. "Would you stop?"
At her presence, the judge and the other man relaxed a bit, although their eyes remained locked.
She rolled her eyes, reaching up to shove back the hair that hung in her face. "Please, Shas, we have guests." When neither moved, she glanced beyond the judge at the seated bodyguard. "Harmon!"
Chuckling, the bodyguard unfolded himself from the chair and strolled toward the center of the room. Rynn and the bodyguard were about the same size, although the bodyguard was probably a little broader than he was. Certainly he was older and held himself like the older guardsmen Rynn had known during training, wearing his experience like a badge. He, too, stepped between the two combatants, facing the man in the blue jacket. "Colton, why don't you and me go in the other room for a minute?" Not waiting for an answer, he set one beefy hand on the man's right arm, effectively ruining his chances at any kind of a good shot.
The man's eyes narrowed, and then he shook his head and backed down. "You're a cheat, Shas."
The judge tossed his head with a laugh. Instantly, the tension in the room dissipated. "Again, I assure you, that is quite impossible."
The bodyguard led the other man toward an open doorway at the far end of the room, and finally the judge turned to face Rynn and the sheriff.
Purple eyes. That one detail jumped out at Rynn as the judge stepped toward them. It wasn't the eerie total color with no whites or pupils that he'd seen earlier in court. The judge's eyes were now quite normal-looking except for the vivid amethyst that Rynn had never seen on anyone else. They were like perfectly round gemstones set in red-veined white marble. The strange color, though, seemed to go with the judge's light complexion. Did all sursei have purple eyes, or was this one special?
Pistol holstered, Sheriff Trent snatched off his hat and exchanged greetings and a handshake with the judge. Trent had met with him earlier about Rynn, but he was clearly not very comfortable in the judge's presence. Then the judge turned to extend his hand to Rynn. A thick gold ring glittered on his middle finger, matching two thinner bands on his thumb and little finger. A full head shorter than Rynn, he had to tilt his head up to get a good look at Rynn's face. "We've not been formally introduced. I'm Shasertai Kogin."
"Yes, you are." The judge folded his free hand over their entwined hands. "Forgive me. I know, technically speaking, I've seen you, but my experiences while in Surseine's trance are nothing compared to when out of it. I see many things clearly, but others"--he shook his head as his gaze raked down, then back up, Rynn's chest--"I miss entirely."
Rynn almost felt that gaze, and it made him want to scratch again. "It's an honor to meet you, sursei."
The judge returned to studying his face and didn't let go of his hand. Then a small smile curled up the corners of his full-lipped mouth. "Truth preserve me, you are a fine-looking man, aren't you?"
Appearing beside him, the woman slapped the judge's arm. "Shas!"
Rynn's eyes went wide when the judge raised the hand not linked with Rynn's to draw his fingers down the beard on the taller man's jaw. "Such rugged, handsome features."
Surprisingly strong fingers gripped the tip of Rynn's chin, nudging his face sideways to reveal his profile. "Sheriff, is there a secret about the farms out here that I should know about?"
The woman grabbed Shasertai's wrist and tugged his hand away. "Stop that."
He gave her a wide-eyed look, full of false innocence. "You don't think so?" He faced Rynn again and winked. "She thinks you're good-looking too."
She threw her hands in the air, rustling her skirts. "Honestly."
The judge chuckled a little. He took one more perusal of Rynn's face and then heaved a sigh. He released Rynn's hand slowly, letting his fingers trail first over Rynn's palm, then under his fingers, sending thrilling little tendrils of sensation up Rynn's arm. "But I do recall some mention of a woman in today's trial. A fiancée." He cocked his head to the side, some of that silky white-gold hair spilling over his chest. "I realize you prefer sex with women, but have you tried sex with a man?"
"Shasertai!" the woman all but screeched.
For his part, Rynn could only gape. What was the man talking about? What was going on?
The bodyguard had returned to right the card table. The bearded gunman stood watching the judge size up Rynn, his expression unreadable.
The sheriff reached over to grip Rynn's arm. "Excuse me, sursei. When we spoke earlier, I didn't mean for you to think I was offering Rynn's ... uh, services."
The judge's eyes closed partway, his half smile making things low in Rynn's belly flip. A man just shouldn't be that pretty. It was confusing. "I'm well aware of that, sheriff. I know exactly why you asked for my help. Help I'm still willing to give, regardless of Mr. Lort's sexual preferences." Still smiling, he turned away, speaking over his bare shoulder. "But you can't blame me for trying."
The woman inserted herself into Rynn's view of Shasertai's retreating back, blocking the sight of slim, gently swaying hips. "I'm so sorry," she said, taking Rynn's hand in one of hers and the sheriff's in the other. "My brother has a warped sense of humor." Sometime during Shasertai's introduction, she'd taken the pins out of her fallen hairdo and banded the long white-gold locks into a simple ponytail down her back. With her face exposed and the color of her hair, Rynn could easily see the resemblance between her and the sursei. She had the same delicate bone structure and pale features, but her eyes were a rich royal blue. Just as pretty, but the judge was more blatantly so. Why was that? To Rynn, she smiled as she tugged him and Trent farther into the room. "My name is Yolan Kogin. I'm my brother's clerk and personal assistant."
"Keeper." Shasertai's murmur carried across the room even though his back was to them, his attention on pouring amber liquid from a crystal decanter into a delicate matching glass.
She ignored him. "May we offer either of you a drink?"
Shasertai turned, propping his bottom against the edge of the drink cabinet. "I'm told it's the finest brandy in town." His gaze flicked over to the men now kneeling beside the table to gather scattered cards. The bearded one glanced up and caught him watching, which only made the judge smile.
"No, thank you," said the sheriff, shifting so his overcoat creaked. "I'm still on duty. I just came to introduce Rynn and make sure everything was settled."
One bare arm crossed over his middle, the other elbow propped on it, Shasertai brought his glass to his lips, a wicked look raking over Rynn again. "I'm sure we'll be just fine."
"Shas, please." Yolan sighed. Again she spoke to Rynn, patting his arm. "We understand you might be in some danger due to this afternoon's ruling?"
Rynn realized now that he was having a tough time keeping his eyes off the judge. Knowing that was rude, he made himself face Yolan. "Well, I don't know about that, ma'am..."
"As I told you this afternoon, Paulson Dotall owns a large chunk of this town and the surrounding area." The sheriff kept his attention on Yolan. "There are many powerful men in these parts whose livelihoods depend on him. If he blacklists Rynn, he'll have no chance of finding a job anywhere in the county."
Rynn frowned. Things were moving so fast. This morning, he'd been pretty sure he might be hanged before the week was up. Now he was free, but it looked like he was banished from the only home he'd ever known. Wasn't losing Lynnette enough?
Yolan nodded. "That's an understandable concern, sheriff. Quite understandable. We're glad to offer to escort Mr. Lort to a more amenable area."
"I don't want you to get the wrong idea." Sheriff Trent fiddled with the brim of his hat. "They're not all bad men, ma'am. But you know what money does to people."
"Yes. Indeed." She smiled at Rynn. "Well, we've agreed to escort you at least as far as Vinton. You'll stay with us here tonight; then we'll leave in the morning by train. Most of the staff are with the coach right now, just the four of us here in the hotel." She waved a hand to indicate the bodyguard. "That's Harmon, Shasertai's bodyguard. You'll bunk with him. And this"--she indicated the other man--"is Marshal Colton Garrah. He and his four deputies travel with us."
Shasertai chuckled. "My dear companion."
Colton stood, glaring at him.
Shasertai fluttered his eyelids in a ridiculously feminine manner.
Colton shook his head and then turned to nod at the sheriff, suggesting they had met. Rynn also nodded in response to the man's silent greeting.
Yolan made a curt hand gesture toward her brother, who simply rolled his eyes and turned to splash brandy into a second rounded glass.
"Yes, well." Yolan smiled at Rynn as Colton bent to help Harmon right the table. "I think that's it, then."
Rynn's head was spinning, his eyes on the man in the dark jacket with the gun at his hip. Companion. Did that mean what he thought it meant? Together with the judge's appraisal of him, it suggested that they were together. As a couple. He knew it was true there were men who preferred sexual relationships with other men, but he'd never met any.
"Sheriff, I'm sure you have other things to do. If you'll give me your letter of reference for Mr. Lort, I think you can go." Yolan held out her hand.
Sheriff Trent looked up at Rynn, searching. "Well, I...?"
"Or did you have luggage, Mr. Lort? We can retrieve that in the morning, or you can have it sent to the train station. Not to worry about expenses. We're well supplied to handle one more for such a short trip. Although, if you'd like to supply a stipend for Mr. Lort, sheriff, I can deposit it into the bank before we leave, then withdraw it when we reach Vinton."
Trent glanced at her, at the judge, then back at Rynn. "I just want to make sure Rynn's all right with this."
She stared at the sheriff for a moment, and then her eyes went cold. "Oh. I see."
The judge's warm chuckle was at odds with her chilly tone. A drink in each hand, he stepped up behind her, proving that he was a bare inch taller than she. He regarded both men over her shoulder. "Sheriff, I assure you that your young friend will be quite safe with us." That unsettling violet gaze settled on Rynn. "No one will force him into anything against his will. You have my word."
"I appreciate that, sursei." The sheriff's voice was soft, almost apologetic. "And of course I trust the word of a sursein judge. But it's Rynn's decision."
Rynn tore his gaze from compelling purple eyes to look at the sheriff. The man had been nothing but good to him in the past month or so, despite all that had happened. "I ... don't know what to do." His heart said to go, to leave all the ugliness behind, but at the same time, this town was the only home he'd ever known.
Sheriff Trent reached out to squeeze his shoulder. "I know. It's hard. But I think you should go. You'll have a better chance at a good life outside of this town, away from all the memories."
"You think so?"
"I do. Ain't nothing keeping you here with Lynny gone."
Rynn shut his eyes over tears that threatened. He'd gotten good at not crying, though, somewhere over the last week. Lynny would have told him not to. Lynny would have wanted him to get out of the county she considered hideous and backward. She would have jumped at the chance he was being given and not had a second thought. He nodded and opened his eyes. "Okay. Thank you, sheriff."
Trent patted his arm and gave him a curt nod. "You're welcome, son." He reached into his jacket and pulled out an envelope, which he handed to Yolan. "Here's that letter for Rynn."
"Excellent." Her smile was back as she drew him aside. "Is there anything else...?"
Rynn missed what else she might have been saying to the sheriff. Without her there, the space between him and the judge came alive with ... something. He had an insane urge to step closer so he could brush against the man.
The judge smiled, then winked and offered Rynn the second glass he held. "Have a drink."
Rynn took the glass and mirrored how the judge sipped. He had to close his eyes to enjoy the pleasant burn of perhaps the finest spirits he'd ever tasted.
He felt a little like a colt breaking free from the paddock with the gate closing unheard behind him.