She awoke to the sound of a door creaking closed. Or open. It was dark. She wasn’t sure, so she just lay in bed, waiting.
“It’s just me,” said a gentle and tired masculine voice from somewhere off in the darkness. She wondered, worrying, if her fear were so obviously palpable and pulled the blanket up closer around her chin. It wasn’t the nicest bed cover—it’s edges were worn and ruffled and she remembered when they’d checked into the creaky hotel room last night seeing some yellowing of the once-bright white cotton and old stains which, she could only hope, were the long-ago remains of red wine spills—but it was good enough to keep the cold out, and that was good enough for her. For now.
She said nothing, but adjusted her position on the lumpy mattress and flipped onto her side, her face toward the door to the room, toward him. She listened with mild, sleepy curiosity as her companion rustled about—probably getting undressed and into his bed clothes, she thought—but couldn’t see anything as a result of the new moon. The night was black as pitch. No matter, she thought. He wouldn’t have cared if she were looking even if it were broad daylight.
It was a two bed room in a hotel that had, several years ago, been converted from an old orphanage building built in the 1920s. It was a sturdy and stout looking structure, built of dull, red brick and with one small window rationed for each of the rooms. The renovators had done a noble job of making the small bedrooms, intended for eight children each, stacked two to a corner on bunk beds, fit a set of double-sized swirly brass frames along with a set of handsome oak wardrobes and a mirrored dressing table. Though the brass had lost some of its sheen over the years due to some neglect in polishing it and the curtains had seen better days, the accommodations were adequate. Nothing extravagant or flashy—subpar, even—but practical.
Her bed was farthest from the door, nested in the corner against the outside wall. She heard a carriage clattered outside and listened for it to stop. It didn’t and eventually faded into the distance. She let out her breath, not realized until then that she’d been holding it.
Her companion shuffled around a little more. She heard the thud of his boots as they dropped onto the floor at the foot of his bed, which was set only a few feet away between her and the door. She relaxed her breathing and closed her eyes, trying to envision his movements in the darkness. She’d long ago given up trying to entice him to lay with her—wherever it was they stayed—and had reluctantly conceded to allowing him his own space. Regardless, he wasn’t a shy fellow and seemed to not mind undressing in front of a woman he wasn’t sleeping with. She’d surprised herself the first night they were together when she realized that she did mind. He learned quickly and was now in the habit of leaving her in the room to tend to her nighttime feminine pampering habits while he patronized the nearest saloon and enjoyed a few drinks, maybe even a few games of poker if there were willing parties around to scuffle out of a few dollars.
“Win anything?” she whispered. She couldn’t smell whiskey tonight. He didn’t drink when he played.
“A little. Nothing worth bragging about.” She heard the brass frame of his bed whine as he eased his full weight onto it. There were more squeaks and grunts as he fiddled with his blankets and pillows. He finally settled into an agreeable position with a noisy exhale. “I think they know,” he said after a long pause.
She bolted onto an elbow, sending her pillow tumbling to the dusty floor. “How?”
A weary sigh. “I don’t know.”
She pressed her lips together, thinking, and then reached down to pick up the pillow. She gave it a meager shake, a weak and heartless fluffing, to urge any dirt off of it. “But,” she whispered, done with her fluffing, “we’ve barely just gotten here.”
“I know,” he said heavily.
A pang shot through her chest. She could feel his regret seeping out with every word, though it wasn’t completely unexpected. That had started after they’d left Stockton. She remembered the way she’d seen him, out of the corner of her eye, furtively glancing at her as they’d sat quietly together as the northbound train rumbled along the track. She hadn’t mentioned anything then, only pretended to be reading an abandoned day-old newspaper she’d found on a bench at the station, but she had cried later that night while he was out in search of some drink. It was the first night she’d pretended to be sleeping when he’d returned, the first night she hadn’t asked him to lay with her. At least, with that, he had seemed relieved. It was the least she could do.
She threw the pillow back into place beneath her head and collapsed down upon it. “You’re sure?”
Silence. He cleared his throat. She imagined him lying on his back, staring at the ceiling, drumming his fingers against his stomach, and pursing his lips in concentration the way she had seen him do so many times before. It made her smile.
“Pretty sure.” After a moment she heard the muted thuds of him fluffing his own pillow, no doubt having the same ill luck with the old, flattened pillows as she had. “I think we need to get out of here tomorrow,” he said.
Her smiled vanished. Her eyes began to burn. She clenched them shut and bit her lip. Don’t cry, she begged of herself. Not with him here. She mustered up as normal of a voice as she could. “Alright,” she whispered.
“Alright,” he said with finality. She heard him flip over and yawn, noticing he was facing away from her. No, she thought, consoling herself, absently wiping the beginnings of a tear from her eye. Not away from me. Toward the door.
She reached for the empty space behind her in the double-sized bed, slipping her hand under the pillow there, and felt the cool metal barrel of the pistol she’d hidden away. She’d purchased the small gun in Stockton from a gentleman who assured her that the grip was solid walnut and the inset decorations were solid gold. She hadn’t cared about either feature; she liked it because it was a small caliber and easy to hide. Price hadn’t been a point of contention, but she’d haggled with the dealer anyway, pretending to be impressed by the inlays and feigning ignorance for show. She even let the man show her how to hold it. She was, after all, only supposed to be a naïve girl from Los Angeles, passing through town on the way to college in Sacramento. The dealer appeared to have bought the story. Or, she thought, he didn’t really care and only wanted to make a sale.
She pulled the pistol out from hiding and brought it to rest under her own pillow, just above her head. She gripped it lightly, letting the weight of the firearm rest in her palm and atop her fingers.
Cherie ground her teeth, her anger rising.
Amrid wasn’t afraid enough to have his pistol loaded and ready, she thought, but he wasn’t the one they were after, anyway. She would be damned if someone didn’t get shot coming in that door in the middle of the night, coming in to drag her, kicking and screaming, for a gold coin reward, back to her father’s house to marry that awful man.