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Hell's Eight was doing Tia proud. Caden Miller looked around at the normally peaceful garden Tia had started and Tucker's wife, Sally Mae, now helped maintain, at all the people crammed into its well-tended confines to celebrate Tia and Ed's wedding, and couldn't help a smile. Ten years ago he wouldn't have given a snowball's chance in hell that Caine could pull off his dream. But like the others, where Caine had led, Caden had followed. And Caine's drive to succeed was evident in the sturdy outbuildings, the assortment of equally sound houses and the contentment reflected in the faces of those in attendance. The men of Hell's Eight weren't just content; they were flourishing. They were settling down, marrying, having children, sinking their roots deep into the east Texas soil. Of the original eight, only he, Ace and Luke remained footloose and fancy-free. Something that should have pleased him but instead had him feeling a pang of..envy? Shit. Since when did he feel envy for something he didn't even want? He wasn't a settling man. He'd always been as restless as his father before him. As all the Hell's Eight used to be.
Glancing around the garden, at the tables laden with food, at the couples standing side by side, the contented smiles where he was used to seeing hardness and purpose, Caden again felt that strange tightness in his gut. Hell's Eight was changing. The reckless rage that had driven them for so many years had smoothed into something just as durable but
calmer. Caden rolled his shoulders. He didn't like calm, but it seemed to be settling all right with Hell's Eight's most notorious members. Shadow, Tracker and Tucker, three of the most feared men in the territory, known for reckless deeds that were as dark as their looks, were hovering over their wives, every bit the doting husbands. Caine and Sam, wild men known for getting the job done no matter what, were looking as confident as rich bankersthat is, if one discounted the subtle tension in their muscles and the alertness in their gaze that spoke of men accustomed to surviving by their wits. Not to mention the guns strapped to their thighs and the knives tucked into their belts. Shit, they were all going soft, and if he stayed here, so would he.
Caden sighed and took a drink of the fancy champagne Desi had ordered all the way from Chicago for Tia and Ed's wedding. It tasted like cat piss to him, but what did he know of the finer things? He was the son of an Irish nomad, a dreamer. A man who'd sworn his pot of gold was just over the next horizon, around the next bend. Caden had a brief mental flash of his father's face. Rigid with determination as he'd told Caden to hide when the Mexican army had raged into their town. He'd been seven going on eight, anticipating the gun his father had promised him for his birthday two days hence. He hadn't wanted to hide. He'd wanted to fight, but his father hadn't given him any choice. He'd shoved him into the hidey-hole under the kitchen floor, and on a gruff "Remember who you are, son," he'd replaced the planks above him and left him in the dark. Those were the last words his father had ever spoken to him. His mother he hadn't found until
after. She'd been at the mercantile when the army came.
Caden took another swallow of the champagne, wishing it were something stronger. There were times when a man just needed something to drown out the noise of the past, but champagne wasn't whiskey, and the memories kept coming. He'd lain beneath the floorboards for what seemed hours, listening to the shouts and screams, wincing at the gunshots, straining to hear his father's voice, feeling helpless and scared until he couldn't stand it anymore.
By the time he'd climbed out of the hole, the battle was over. He'd never forget the smell that struck him as he'd stoodgunpowder, smoke and
bloodnor the carnage that spread out beyond his front door. Bodies of friends and neighbors littered the road like trash left by the wind, changing the street from familiar to macabre. He'd found his father's body lying in the doorway of the still-burning mercantile, his head caved in on the right side, blood pooled around his shoulders. His father's legs had been on fire as Caden had dragged his body into the street. The stench of burning flesh fused indelibly into his memory that day as he'd beaten out the fire consuming his father's body with his bare hands. He hadn't felt the pain, hadn't felt anything. And when he'd looked up and seen Sam, his expression had reflected the blankness that Caden felt. And then he'd learned what Sam already knew. Everything that had made up their lives was gone. The town. Their parents. Their childhood.
The only survivors of the massacre were the eight friends. By agreement, none had buried their own parents. They'd thought it would help. It hadn't. And, also by agreement, they'd vowed revenge. Extracting justice one by one as they grew up, earning the label of Hell's Eight along the way. Caden didn't know what would have become of them if Tia hadn't caught them that day, starving, stealing that pie, and taken them under her wing. They sure as shit wouldn't have become Texas Rangers. Tia was one in a million. Strength and softness mixed in one. If he ever met another woman like her, he'd marry her in a minute.
Fingers slid over his forearm. He didn't need to look down to know who it was who touched him with such compassion and gentleness. Maddie. Poor abused Mad-die. Born to a whore. Raised in a whorehouse. Used by men all her life until Tracker had brought her home after one of his failed searches for Ari. Maddie was as fleeting as sunshine, here one minute, gone the next, retreating into fantasy as fast as she snapped out of it. Her fingers tightened slightly on his arm. He smiled down at her automatically. Despite the harshness of her past, there was something about Maddie that remained untouched, that drew a man to smile. That enticing illusion of innocence probably had made her a damn good whore.
Caden regretted the thought as soon as Maddie smiled back at him with complete trust, her dark green eyes picking up the deeper green of leaves of the pear tree, her wavy red hair dragging the sunlight with it as tendrils escaped her bun and blew across her cheeks. Freckles sprinkled like pale kisses across the bridge of her nose. And her smile
that sweet, gentle smile that captured the hope of the world added to his guilt. So trusting when she had no reason to trust anyone, least of all him. Fey, his da would have called Maddie. One of the special ones that bridged the space between this world and the magical one.
"Tia looks like a queen, doesn't she?" Maddie said in a soft voice that eased a man's tension. For all her differences, Caden had always found Maddie a very restful soul.
"Yeah, she does." He was happy for Tia and Ed. It'd taken Ed seven years to convince Tia he wasn't going anywhere. And Tia, well, she deserved the best of everything. Not just because she'd taken eight ragtag boys and raised them into men, but because of who she was. She stood next to her husband, petite and elegantly plump in her golden silk gown, her graying black hair pulled back into a sedate bun, her white, gold and black lace mantilla draped artfully around her face. He felt that familiar twinge of unease that came with the thought of settling.
Voices rose and fell around him, taking on an unreal quality, and the moment froze with sudden clarity. They were all settling down. Caine had his Desi. Tucker had Sally Mae. Sam with his Bella. Tracker had Ari, and Shadow had his Fei. The wild boys of the plains were becoming the builders of the future. Hell's Eight had been Caden's focus for as long as he could remember, but looking around the ranch he'd helped build, Caden had that ever-increasing sense of "wrong." His feet itched and his nerve endings crawled impatiently beneath his skin. He'd been a part of Hell's Eight for twenty-two years, but he didn't feel as if he belonged here anymore.
"Are you worried Tia won't love you anymore now that she has Ed?" Maddie teased, her fingers sliding between his and squeezing. It was a totally inappropriate gesture. Yet it completely soothed his unease. Caden tugged at his hand. Maddie didn't let go.
Shit. The woman made it easy to take advantage of her. Her sweet nature and the fact that more often than not she was in her make-believe world where nothing bad could touch her made her an easy target. Everyone wished she was stronger, but disappearing into her own mind was Maddie's defense against what'd happened to her in her life. Caden thought they should just let her be. It was a hard world, harder if you were brought up in a whorehouse. Harder still if you had the sweet personality of a child. Too many men had taken advantage of the optimistic woman in Maddie. He didn't want to be one of them. This time he tugged his hand free. "I'm not worried, Maddie mine."
The endearment just slipped out. She blinked up at him. "If I'm yours, why do you need to lie to me?"
How was he supposed to answer that? Across the garden, he smiled at Tia and Ed before lifting his glass in a silent toast. Tia smiled back, but Caden could tell from the tension at the edge of her mouth that she knew he was leaving. He hated to ruin her day, but he was who he was. A Miller didn't let grass grow under his feet. He pursued rather than settled. He took another sip of the champagne, wishing even more that it was whiskey.
"Habit, I guess."
"You don't lie to anyone else."
Everyone else could handle the truth. Maddie continued to stare up at him, her fingertips resting on his forearm, as if the pressure took his measure. The way she stared at him so steadily made him uneasy, as if she really was fey and really did see more than others.
"I'm leaving, Maddie."
She blinked slowly. He had the oddest impression she'd just gasped.
"When will you be back?"
He traced his finger over the curl spilling down her temple. It was always too easy to touch Maddie. "I don't know."
"Where will you go?"
"So many questions."
"You don't want to answer?"
Maddie could be surprisingly blunt.
With a sigh he admitted, "No."
Cocking her head to the side, her gaze never leaving his, she took another step in until the blue gingham skirts of her brand-new dress brushed his boots. She frowned as her fingers trailed down to his wrist. "You're upset."
From across the garden, he saw Tia note the familiarity with a frown of her own. Caden shrugged. They could lecture Maddie all they wanted about proper behavior, but it wouldn't make a difference. She listened, she truly did, but in the end Maddie was Maddie. Open sunshine and optimism covering a lifetime of hurt. Her conduct was as volatile as her grasp on reality. While he'd never seen Maddie actually proposition a man, she often gave the impression she was propositional. And that was a shame, because she had a heart of gold and deserved to be treasured.
Faint strains of music blended with the hum of conversation. Four of Sam's vaqueros strummed their guitars. The hum of conversation rose as everyone wandered to the grassy center where ribbons and bunches of cut flowers fluttered in the breeze, defining the dance area. Tia had declared May to be the perfect month for a wedding, and Caden had to agree. The day was beautiful, the weather perfect, and the bride and groom happy. There wasn't a fly in the ointment. As Caden watched, Ed took Tia's hand and brought it to his lips with a courtly bow Caden would have sworn the former cowhand could never have pulled off. When Tia smiled at her husband, her expression full of love, the last of Caden's uncertainty slipped away. He could leave cleanly now. Tia was happy and safe. The last of his debts were paid. The sense of excitement he'd expected failed to come.
"Don't be sad," Maddie said, her fingertips smoothing over the inside of his wrist.
"Millers don't get sad."
"I can feel"
"I think there's some cake left, Maddie," Caine interrupted, coming up beside them, a whiskey glass in each hand and a gentle tone to his normally hard drawl. Everyone at Hell's Eight used a gentle note with Maddie. A body couldn't help it. She had that way of wild things about her that made you think one wrong move and she'd either dart to the right or leave looking for a hiding spot. Plain and simple, harsh words shattered Maddie's fragile hold on reality. "You might want to think about getting some before Tucker's sweet tooth takes hold."
Maddie let go of his arm and turned toward the cake table. Sure enough, Tucker was moving toward it.
"He's like a horde of locusts devouring all in their path," she muttered.
The comparison made Caden smile. Tucker was a deliberate man, deadly when he chose to be, but he did like his sweets.
As if hearing his thoughts, Caine offered, "He does like his cake."
So did Maddie. Brought up as she had been, she'd never had a sweet before fourteen and only that one which she'd stolen. Since she'd come to Hell's Eight, she'd been making up for lost time. Not content with just sampling what Tia baked, she was learning to create her own confections. When he'd asked her why, she'd said in a moment of total clarity that if she knew how to make what she needed, she'd never be needing again. He didn't like to think of her being without. He'd asked Tia to up the monthly order of baking supplies. No one had complained after Maddie proved she could turn anything she baked to bliss. She never ate what she baked, though. That he couldn't figure out. And she wouldn't say why. Which just deepened the puzzle of what made the apparently simple Maddie so complex.