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Westbound Awakening by Hildie McQueen (1)

1

Two weeks later, Widow's Peak, Virginia

Captain John McClain shook his head to dislodge the thoughts of that fate-filled night. The all too familiar throbbing pulsed down his leg, and he rubbed a palm over his thigh, fingers skimming over the bandaged area under the thick dungarees he wore. Although the wince that surfaced couldn't be helped, John disregarded it. From the corner where he sat, it was easy to keep a vigil on all the exits, and with his back protected, he continued to keep a watchful eye on his men. Every one of the eight tables in the room were surrounded by patrons while vibrantly dressed girls circled the space, beacons of promise much like the first rays of sunshine assuring a fresh start.

The expansive bar along the back of the room manned by a huge man named James held whiskey bottles of many types that sparkled, reflecting the lights. Several men leaned elbows on the highly sheened counter, drinks in hand.

One of his young soldiers caught his attention. The boy climbed up the brothel's stairs, his hand in one of the establishment's girls. The soldier must have sensed his gaze because hesitant eyes looked over toward him, a wide grin in place. John nodded, and it was the only encouragement the young man needed before he raced up the stairs pulling his prize behind him.

It was a lively night at Mae's Brothel, or perhaps a normal night for all John knew as he'd only been here twice during the evenings. He'd been here plenty of times over the years in the late morning after one of his men failed to show up for duty. It looked so different at night, the gas lamps providing a complementary atmosphere to the darkened interior.

Although windows were open, the meager breeze offered little respite to the heated interior. Pain and lack of visual focus brought him back to his own situation. He blinked in an attempt to will away dizziness caused by the combination of voices, piano music and cigar smoke. Even a deep drink of cold beer did not help.

Hindsight being twenty-twenty and all that, he should have listened to the camp's doctor and taken better care of himself in the beginning. The physician had insisted he take time off, allow his leg to heal fully and even ordered him to bed rest for a week. Headstrong, John did not take even one full day. Instead John dragged himself from bed and kept up with his men, riding long days in the heat, pushing away the pain and nausea. The way he saw it, since he'd been shot while off duty, it was his mistake so his men shouldn't have to pay for it by pulling extra shifts.

When a new jolt of ache trailed up his leg from calf to thigh, John considered that perhaps he should visit the doc again. Although he'd cleaned his wounds himself daily to avoid infection, it could be that he'd not be thorough enough. Something was definitely wrong.

In less than a month, he would no longer be a member of the Confederate cavalry; most of the unit was already disbanded, either going back to their prior lives or moving west to join the established cavalry units. In a few days time, he'd be headed west for a different reason. To find the damn man who'd shot him. This was definitely not the time for him, who was generally of good health, to be feverish, dizzy and lacking of energy.

The perfume of honeysuckle freshened the surrounding air, and he inhaled the calming scent.

"Why Captain McClain, it's nice of you to join us tonight. What do I owe the rare honor of your presence to?" The madam, Mae Hawkins' husky voice fell over him like a much-needed cool breeze. He looked up to meet her bright green eyes and lost his ability to speak.

A more beautiful woman did not exist, he would bet his life on it. The woman was like a goddess who deemed to walk amongst mere mortals. The blonde brothel owner cocked an eyebrow at his lack of response.

"Good evening Mae, you look well rested." He almost smiled at the slight frown, her perfectly shaped eyebrows connecting; she was probably used to more elaborate flattery from men. He continued unabated. "I am here to keep an eye on my men. Last time I allowed them to come without supervision, I had to fetch them the next day."

Shoulders back, she fanned her face and eyed him from beneath long lashes, her comely mouth pursed. With hair up in a complicated manner that allowed for some of the long blonde curls to escape and touch her shoulders, she was captivating. Enticing.

"Yes I remember." Mae lowered herself to the chair across from him and allowed her gaze to sweep over the room, always vigilant.

He followed her line of sight to two of his men engrossed with a curvy brunette who threw her head back in laughter, seeming to enjoy the game of pitting them against each other.

Not able to tear his gaze from Mae for long, he studied her, admiring the graceful curve of her neck, the soft jawline and the slight pout of pink lips.

She turned back and smiled, her eyes connecting with his. "They're good boys, most of them. Some nights they just drink too much and can't make it out the door, much less mount. I won't stand for them to leave in that condition. It's dangerous out there if they get lost. I'd rather their stern commander come for them than find out they've met with harm."

Stern? John didn't reply instead took another drink from his now warming beer and gave her a noncommittal shrug. Feigning disinterest, he studied her attire. Although the deep green dress was off her shoulders, very little of her cleavage was exposed. Unlike the other women in the brothel, he'd never seen her wear anything indecent. The few times he'd spotted her out in town, she always dressed within the bounds of modesty. Even so, she commanded attention, a beautiful woman without ties living without the restraints of society.

Her kohl-lined eyes slid toward the back hallway, and he wondered if she took customers. Perhaps as the Madam, she didn't have to work any longer, unless she chose too. Or then again, she could have private lovers. Hell, her beauty alone brought men to their knees so that she did not have to entice them with scant dressing. For some reason the thought of her bedding men made his stomach clench.

He shifted in his seat uncomfortable under her returned scrutiny.

Finally her cool eyes turned to him. "Enjoy your night John," her lips curved at his scowl. She always enjoyed his discomfort at her using his proper name. Mae waved at the beefy bartender. "James, serve Captain McClain another one on the house."

Each movement graceful, Mae rose and went toward the back of the room toward the hallway. Although seeming to glide across the floor, the sway of her hips beckoned every male's attention in the saloon to follow her movements.

When an older man with a cigar hanging precariously from his lips reached to touch her bottom, she slapped it away without turning to look, which brought the other men at his table to burst into laughter.

"Come on Mae, have some pity on my poor soul," the man cried after her. She gifted him with a smile, and he clutched at his chest in a comical response. Mae Hawkins commanded the brothel with a gentle ease that belied a firm hold.

Heated, John tugged at the collar of his shirt. The fever was not fading. If anything, he felt warmer now. No denying it any longer. He would go directly to see the doc at the camp upon his return.

A woman, Lucinda, if he remembered correctly, sat at the piano and began to sing a melancholy tune that fell over the room like a cooling breeze. The beauty of the woman's throaty voice amazed John, and he couldn't help but lean forward to listen. Even the drunks quieted at her song of sorry and loss. He could relate to the words as uninvited visions of the past years, alone with only his men for company, began to appear in his mind, one after another.

Without notice, the walls began to close in, and the room swayed. John lifted his drink and held the cool glass against the side of his face the relief was slight. At the small reprieve, John decided it was best to get some fresh air. If he continued to feel badly once outside, then he'd to head back to camp. His men would in all probability not notice his absence. With a deep breath, he got to his feet and his balance, though precarious, seemed to hold. Grateful to be somewhat steady on his legs, John walked across the room toward the hallway that lead to the kitchens at the back of the house, where his horse was tethered.

Once he exited the crowded room, the air was immediately cooler making it easier to breathe.

"Go back to the saloon Butch and leave me be," Mae's harsh whispered words made John stop, and he squinted into the darkness. The outline of two people filled the darkened hallway, Mae against the wall, a man's arms on both sides of shoulders palms flat on the surface.

The man, whom John recognized as Butch Mason, a local banker, leaned in as if to kiss Mae. He noted that her hands were pressed against Mason's chest, but with the dimness it was hard to tell if she welcomed the male or not. Just in case the attention was unwarranted, John cleared his throat.

Mason swung toward him, his reddened eyes meeting John's for a second before training them back to Mae. "I'll leave you be for now Mae, but I'll be back don't you worry." The man caressed her cheek before sauntering past John without a word.

Releasing a deep exhale, Mae remained against the wall without looking at him. Her hand shook slightly when she reached up, her fingers pushing the golden strands into place.

With mechanical moves, she pushed away from the wall and went to brush past John. "Excuse me."

He reached out and touched her arm. "Are you all right?"

Flat eyes met his, the proud visage reappearing. "I can take care of myself John," Mae replied, her head held high. When he reached for her again, she leaned away from his touch. "You worry about your men and let me worry about mine." The light floral fragrance tickled his nose as she swept past toward the saloon.

No need to go after her. She'd not speak to him about it and rightly so. This was her domain so he continued down the hallway.

The night beckoned, and John walked through the large kitchen to the back door. He pulled it open and stepped through with desperation. When the cool evening air hit his face, John closed his eyes at the relief from the sweltering interior.

Finding comfort in the solitude, he allowed his body to slump against the back porch column. He'd always preferred the freedom of the outdoors, preferring the quiet and stillness to being cloistered indoors. The silence of the moonlit night was broken only by the muddled sounds from inside the house. The moment gave him a welcome relief to the throbbing at his temples. Hands in his pockets, he walked off the back porch and looked up to the star-filled sky. The stars twinkled in a vivid display, and he turned in a full circle until finding the telltale sign of Orion's belt then followed it to outline his favorite constellation. It was several minutes before he tore his eyes from it, the night sky never failing to fascinate him.

When he turned to go back inside and took a couple of steps, the dizziness returned full force. John blinked repeatedly and shook his head in an attempt to get his balance. Just as he reached for the porch railing, his knees buckled from under him, and he slammed to the ground. His head smashed into the packed dirt with force, and he moaned. When his stomach lurched, John took deep breaths to keep from vomiting and rolled to his back. What the hell just happened?

The horse's whinnies became softer, and the breeze cooled even more as everything shifted sideways. He was in trouble, needing to get back into the house. With all the strength he could muster, John pushed to sit, but his arms gave out and fell back again.

Next, John attempted to whistle for his horse; with his parched mouth it impossible. Wetting his lips, he finally did. The beast turned toward him, but his tie prevented it from coming closer. "Damn it," John cursed, then called out through a clenched jaw. "Can anyone hear me?"

Please don't let Mae find me like this. He pushed up again using his arms and legs. Pain seared through his injured leg, and it was too much to bear, so he groaned and he fell back once.

The stars overhead began to blur, and he closed his eyes.

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