Read Challenge Online

Authors: Montgomery Mahaffey

Tags: #romance, #erotica, #passion, #dark fantasy, #fairy tale, #fable

Challenge (5 page)


You could do with a
wash,” he said, dropping into the pool. “So are you getting in, or
are you just going to watch?”

She smiled, then kicked off her boots and
unbuckled her holster. Her oversized blouse fell just below her
hips when her breeches dropped to the ground. The Wanderer admired
the long muscles gripping her thighs, the meat of her calves
tapering to shapely ankles. The girl hesitated, but he floated on
his back and kept watching. She cocked one brow at him before
taking hold of her shirt.

His breath caught in his throat when she
pulled her blouse over her head. Before the garment fluttered to
the ground, the Wanderer ducked underwater, propelling himself
against the icy current flowing into the pool. His heart pounded
from the image etched in his mind. He usually preferred lush
womanly curves, but he couldn’t deny the girl was lovely. Her body
was a marriage of muscle and flesh that created a harmony of
softness and strength. Her modest breasts stood high. Ropy sinews
carved her waist and held her belly flat, then swelled into the
subtle round hips that guarded her pubis.

The Wanderer didn’t come up for air until
his arousal tapered off. He was embarrassed when the girl smirked
at him, but he didn’t look away. Her skin was golden in the beams
of light filtering through the trees, that star-shaped pendant she
always wore resting between her breasts.

Then she stepped to the pool. The sun hit
the facets of the crystal and he was suddenly dizzy, blinded by a
swirl of color. His pulse roared in his ears and sharpness burst
inside his chest, the unexpected pain sinking him. The Wanderer
choked and kicked hard to push his head above water, lunging for
the shelf. His knees scraped against the grains at the bottom and
he leaned over the ledge, wracked with coughing until he expelled
the water he swallowed.

But the girl was more agitated than he was.
Collapsed against the tree, her face was white and her eyes had
gone black. Her features contorted and she heaved through her nose,
biting her lower lip. One hand gnarled and trembled between her
breasts, holding the pendant tight. She pulled the necklace over
her head, her fingers unfolding slowly and dropping the crystal
into the heap of clothes.

The Wanderer had the sense he’d been
released somehow. His breath came easier and he got out of the
pool, lying prone on the ledge with his head resting on his arms.
His heartbeat slowed gradually and the quivering in his limbs
settled down. The girl also needed a few minutes to steady herself;
so she sat at the edge of the pool with her legs dangling in the
water. Then she dropped in to her shoulders, her hair waving on the
surface.

When she stood up, the water rose to the
crest of her hips. She strolled around the shelf, ignoring the
Wanderer as she passed until she found a place where the water
seemed pleasing to her. Using handfuls of the fine grains, she
scrubbed herself, getting as much of the grime from her skin as she
could. Suddenly, she stopped and glanced at the Wanderer. The
corners of her mouth turned down when she saw him still watching
her.

He flushed. Remembering why he came to the
pool, he reached for his clothes and soap. Following her example,
he scrubbed himself with the mineral grains before opening the
bottle. Both the soap and oil had been parting gifts from a clan of
nomads he’d traveled with a couple of years ago and he used these
sparingly. A small coin of liquid was enough to make a generous
lather from his head to his hips. The scent of myrrh made him sigh
and he allowed the soap to linger on his flesh as he soaked his
clothes, rubbed them against the rocks, and washed them with excess
suds.

He glanced at the girl and considered
offering his soap, but she had summoned her steed, reaching inside
the saddlebag to retrieve a speckled cake and the wooden comb she
used on the horse’s mane. She rubbed the crude soap between her
hands until the suds were thick, and spread the lather everywhere,
her hands spiraling over her rump, belly, and breasts. Without
thinking, the Wanderer stared until he noticed the tense line of
her shoulders. Then he looked away before she caught him watching
her again.

Returning to his task, he rinsed the
garments and laid them along the ledge. The dark cloud floating
downstream made him grimace. Sitting on a wide flat stone beside
his clothes, he worked up the lather in his hair, using the suds to
massage his legs and feet until his skin tingled. Then he breathed
in and fell headfirst into the pool. He loved that moment best. The
earth and sweat lifted, making him lighter before he came up for
air, the remains of his lather swirling at the mouth before flowing
downstream.

The girl was still turned away. Her hands
works through her hair thickened with soap. While she was occupied,
the Wanderer admired the lines of her back. Her sides tapered
before swelling into her rump. Before his gaze rested on her too
long, the Wanderer dove underwater, swimming to the other side of
the pool before taking a breath. Then he floated on his back,
kicking his legs to return while pushing his fingers through the
thicker snarls in his hair. He opened the other bottle and
sprinkled several drops in his hands, working the oil into his
scalp. After several minutes, his fingers ran smooth through the
heavy curls.

Once he was done, the Wanderer saw the girl
struggling with the comb. He looked at the bottle and then at her,
reluctant to share his oil. But her skin was luminous and rivulets
of water trickled down her spine. Then he heard the muffled ripping
of hair and winced.


I have something that can
help you with that.”

The Wanderer spoke without thinking. The
girl didn’t even react, keeping her back to him. But his body was
treacherous, his hand reaching for the bottle and his legs striding
to where she stood. The girl started when he pressed the cool glass
in the crux of her arm and shoulder. Then she turned her head,
glancing at the bottle before peering at the Wanderer with a glint
of cold amusement in her eyes. In that moment, he despised
himself.


Go on and try some,” he
said. “You only need a bit.”

Her wide mouth curved upwards and a hint of
mischief came into her eyes. She shifted her gaze slowly between
the bottle and the Wanderer. Then the girl pulled the comb from her
hair and held it out.

The Wanderer stared at the instrument. The
wide handle was grasped between her fingers, the blunt teeth
pointing to the sky. His blood quickened in his veins and his heart
pounded. He knew the girl was tormenting him on a whim, taunting
him with the temptation of possibility. But he still accepted the
comb. The girl turned and swept her hair down her back.

He stepped close. A soft heat wafted from
her, teasing along his skin and shooting through his hand when he
reached for the small of her back. She tensed when the Wanderer
touched her, but he still brought his other arm across her
shoulders to guide her down to the water. He leaned her back and
ran his fingers through the floating strands, relaxing as many
gnarls as he could. Her body offered no resistance when he pulled
her up, bringing her to the ledge to sit before him, his legs
embracing hers.

He spread a dollop between his palms before
fanning his hands through her scalp. With slow twirling motions, he
worked the oil down the length of her hair. The girl shivered
whenever his fingers brushed her skin, but she didn’t pull away.
The Wanderer made several passes with his hands before switching to
the comb.

Then he gathered the lower length of hair
with one hand and tugged gently through the tangles with the other,
the strands giving way a little at a time. He combed through with
several clean strokes, and moved his gripping hand to the nape of
her neck. The girl shivered again and he smiled. The Wanderer was
careful as he worked through the knots in the second length,
patient until the wooden teeth of the comb made tracks, bringing
out the gold in her tresses.

As he worked, the tips of his fingers often
touched skin and the thrill shot to the depths of his belly, where
his core descended to his pelvis. But he forced himself to focus on
his task. He pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth and
breathed to temper his ardor. During his travels, a sage had taught
him this cooling breath – especially valuable in those moments when
serenity was threatened from desire. The balance was a fragile
tension; a sliver of clarity that scarcely held him above the
ecstatic abyss while the Wanderer coaxed the knots from her
hair.

Her body gave way with each tug of the comb.
The girl leaned into him, her hands dangling to his thighs. The
longer he worked, the more pliant she became, eyelids fluttering
and whimpers escaping from her mouth. Her surrender was provocative
and impossible to resist. The Wanderer succumbed. The girl now
seemed like a lover and he grew tender, working through her scalp
with mild persistence until the tangles became silken threads.

Then he was done. He put the comb down and
finished with his hands, weaving his fingers through her hair, then
brushing down to the ends. Her tresses glimmered, cascading across
her shoulders and over her breasts. Her long sigh moan trilled
through the Wanderer, and he couldn’t stop himself from combing his
fingers through her hair again.

Her head swayed and dropped back to his
shoulder, her face turned towards him. Her breath warmed his cheek
and her mouth was close to his the moment she opened her eyes. Her
gaze smoldered when she looked at him, and the Wanderer had no
doubt she wanted him as much as he wanted her. Then she iced over.
The girl swept away with one smooth motion, taking a few steps from
him before running her hands through her hair. She seemed pleased.
She whipped the entire length behind her, a few golden strands
striking the Wanderer in the face. But she didn’t appear to notice.
She glanced at him with a curt nod, her hand out to take back the
comb.

The cool dismissal in her eyes made him
seethe. The Wanderer flipped the comb at her and dove for the black
depths of the pool. Fury propelled his arms as he went against the
current, his legs kicking brutally and his heart roaring inside his
chest. He was exhausted, but couldn’t stop until he was empty of
wrath and lust. By that time, the girl had gone.

Chapter Three

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He saw their horses before he saw the
Lawmen. The Wanderer spent the morning foraging along the eastern
hill approaching the hot springs. The woods were generous with his
favorite mushrooms, and his sack was overflowing by afternoon.
Eager to start the fire and make his hash, he came back to camp
early. But the sight of two horses with their braided manes and
cropped tails made the blood drain from his face.

The Lawmen looked like phantoms. Dressed in
black coats flaring to their knees, they prowled around the camp.
The Wanderer watched the shorter one come to the girl’s tent with
pistol in hand, while the taller one crouched at the fire pit. The
iron weave was cast aside and he sifted through the ashes with one
hand, the other holding his baton with a firm grip.

But they were afraid. The Wanderer could
smell their fear, the sharp pungency assailing his nostrils. He
also knew from the weapons trembling in their hands, their tight
lips and pale faces. Then he stepped on a twig and the loud crack
shattered the stillness, catapulting the Lawmen into aggressive
defense. The taller one stood, the baton high over his head while
the shorter dropped to the ground and aimed his pistol for the
Wanderer.

His sack slipped from his fingers, spilling
mushrooms, berries, and herbs at his feet. The Wanderer was
transfixed on the man lying belly to the ground, a gun shaking in
his hand. He couldn’t stop staring at his face, thinking it strange
that any Lawman should resemble an aging cherub. He even forgot the
other one until he stepped into his line of vision. The taller
Lawman peered at him with watery green eyes, relaxing once he
realized the Wanderer couldn’t move.

“I assume this is your camp,” he said, after
his partner stood up and joined him.

The Wanderer nodded.


Where do you come from?”
the shorter one asked.

“I’m from here,” he replied, pointing to his
tent. “I have my papers in there.”

He retrieved his documents and the Lawmen
flipped through the pages, perusing the stamps of all the countries
he’d been in the past five years. The taller Lawman even whistled
when he turned back to the first page and read the name of his
family and village.

“You’ve certainly traveled far from home,”
he said. “How long have you been back?”

“About three months.”

The Wanderer cursed his absence of mind when
both Lawmen looked up.


What are you doing in
these woods?” the shorter one asked.


Am I breaking the
law?”


No. But why are you
living like this now that you’re home? Don’t you have
people?”

The Wanderer flinched as if he’d been
slapped. His throat closed up and he crossed his arms, leaving the
Lawmen waiting for an answer. When none came, they frowned.

“You were asked a question,” the taller
persisted. “What are you doing in these woods?”

The Wanderer knew he was foolish to remain
silent. They might arrest him if he didn’t cooperate, but he
couldn’t respond. He glanced at the shorter Lawman. He seemed more
bewildered than offended, his round eyes flicking to the page his
partner held open. Then his brow furrowed and he bent his head,
looking closely before staring into the Wanderer’s face. He thought
it must be his imagination when he saw recognition in the Lawman’s
eyes.

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