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The house still smelled of death. It was a horrible, cloying scent that filled the halls, permeating the wood and the curtains, and clogging the air. The house felt heavy with it. When Dante had first entered it, he’d had to turn on his heel and run right back out to vomit violently in the dirt. And even now, weeks later, the smell got to him.
It wasn’t as if he was a stranger to death and its aftermath. He’d seen it before. He’d killed men himself. But this death that filled his new home, clawing at the back of his throat and tainting his every breath, was different, because one of the rotting corpses found in this home had been his younger brother, Brighton. No matter what else Dante had done in his life, no matter how stupid or irrational or selfish he’d been, he’d loved his brother with all his heart.
Another of the dead found in the house had been Brighton’s wife, and two more had been their sons. Dante was ashamed now to admit how little regard he’d had for the woman and the boys. In truth, he’d always thought Shay an arrogant bitch, and although there was nothing inherently wrong with the boys, they’d constantly reminded Dante of his own failings in his marital bed. Yes, it may have been a sin that he grieved so little for them now, but he made up for it by grieving for his brother, each and every day.
Still, life in Oestend did not stop for anything as trivial as grief. The sun continued to rise. The wind continued to blow. Cows and horses gave birth to young. The cattle needed tending and fences needed mending. There was nothing he could do but rise every day and do his best to carry on.
"I hope they get here tonight," Frances said that morning, looking west at the sky. "Travelling tomorrow will be awful."
Dante didn’t have to ask who he meant. He’d sent Simon to town several days earlier for supplies and to recruit new men. Their first group of hands hadn’t lasted long, mostly because the stench of decaying bodies wasn’t confined to the house. Several maids had died in the barracks on that fateful night as well. The building smelled as bad as the house. Possibly worse. And until Simon returned with the new men, it was just Dante and Frances, and one other young hand named Ralf who was as skittish as a colt, trying to get everything done.
Dante followed Frances’ gaze. The sky to the west was pale and white, hanging low and heavy like the belly of a pregnant mare. Dante shivered just looking at it. "Too early for snow. Shouldn’t be seeing it for another month or more."
"It’s coming, early or not."
"You’re right about that." Dante eyed the skyline, assessing the cold, clear brittleness of the horizon. He noted the way his breath was already coalescing in the air. Everything was deathly silent and perfectly still, except the tops of the trees, swaying in a breeze he couldn’t feel. He shook his head. "Gonna be a damn cold night. If they don’t make it back, you and that kid ought just as well come to the house." After all, there was no point in burning fuel to heat both the barracks and the big house when there were only three of them there on the ranch. "Easier for me to keep you warm."
Frances bent back to his work without a word, but Dante noticed the way the tips of his ears turned bright pink. It confused him, until he replayed his words in his head. Easier for me to keep you warm. He hadn’t meant it that way, and he suspected Frances knew that, but he also suspected Frances would have jumped at the invitation if he had meant it that way. They’d certainly never discussed their sexual habits, but Dante was pretty sure he knew which side of the fence Frances stood on.
Of course, that made Dante think about what it would be like if he did take the boy to his bed. He thought about the two of them skin to skin under the covers while the snow fell outside.
Dante wasn’t about to let anything like that happen. He slammed a mental door on the thought and turned away, praying to whoever might hear that Simon would make it back before the snow came.
As it turned out, his prayer was answered. That evening, just as the snow was beginning to fall, just past when the supper bell might have rung, if they’d had one, Simon appeared, with a string of men and a full wagon behind him. And one other thing Dante wasn’t expecting—a woman. She was tall for a girl, and slender, with deep brown hair that fell in her face, and huge, dark eyes that were guarded and wary.
Dante grabbed Simon’s arm and pulled him aside. "What the hell you thinking bringing a woman here?"
Simon was only a couple of years younger than Dante, and just as big, and he clearly didn’t appreciate being manhandled like a mere boy. He pulled his arm free from Dante’s grip. "She asked to go to the BarChi, but when we got there, Aren said I should bring her here."
Dante clenched his jaw, biting back on the anger that always welled up in him at the mention of Aren. "Not enough he drives me off the BarChi? He thinks he can call the shots on my ranch now, too?"
Simon’s patience was clearly wearing thin, and no wonder after so many days on the road. "Look," he said through clenched teeth, "I got no idea what went down between you and Aren and Deacon. All I know is, she’s got nowhere else to go. She asked specifically for the BarChi, but with Olsa there, and Tama and Alissa, they don’t have work for her. Aren thought we could use the help here."
Fuck, but Dante hated it when Aren was right. Dante knew how to run a ranch, but there were so many things the women at home had taken care of. He hadn’t quite realised at the time just how much work they’d done. He’d already vowed more than once that he’d get down on his knees and thank Tama to the heavens next time he saw her.
Simon seemed to relax once he realised Dante was done being angry. He pulled his hood up onto his head and brushed at the fat, soft flakes of snow that dusted his shoulders. "She says she’ll cook and launder." He shrugged, motioning towards the big house. "Not like you don’t have room."
Yes, she’d have to be given a room in the house rather than the barracks. Dante wasn’t sure if he liked that idea or not. He turned towards her and pitched his voice loud enough for her to hear over the hubbub of the new men.
"Go inside. I’ll deal with you later."
She didn’t thank him. She didn’t say anything at all. She just picked up the blanket roll at her feet and went past him to the house.
Fuck, but women made life difficult.
Frances came out of the barracks to greet Simon, obviously pleased that the older man was back. Dante watched them together—the familiar way they gripped each other’s hands, and the happy smiles they shared. He’d wondered many times if they were lovers. Most of the time he thought not, but there were occasions when he saw something in Frances’ eyes that made him want to change his mind. He almost hoped they were. It would be just one more reason to not let himself give in to the dangerous temptation Frances offered.
Dante turned away from the two men to survey the five recruits Simon had brought back with him. As usual, the new hands were mostly young and green as the spring grass. Most of them were hugging themselves against the oncoming storm, looking with wide eyes around the ranch and watching the moody sky to the west.
"Do they know what happened?" Dante asked Simon. It was better that they be warned ahead of time about the deaths, in case any of them were superstitious.
"They know," Simon said. "And I warned them about the smell."