"I-I was worried Benjamin would send you away." I can't bear that Quill is cross with me.
"He didn't. He thanked me for saving you." Quill slips one arm from his suspenders, then the other, leaving them to hang from his waist. "I'm tired, Evie. Get back to where you belong."
"You won't walk me there?" I squeak. I haven't thought my plan through this far.
"I don't think that would be wise." He unbuttons the cuff of one sleeve and rolls it back. "Elder Benjamin has made it plain that I'm to stay clear, where you're concerned."
A serpent of doubt coils in my stomach. I hate feeling foolish, and it's a thousand times worse in front of this man, who I've come, inexplicably, to care about. "I didn't tell him anything. I didn't ask him to keep you away."
"I know." Quill's voice is soft, dismayed. "That might be the problem to begin with. I shouldn't have let this go on. I should have kept my distance in the first - "
I don't let him finish. I run at him–clutch the front of his shirt and bury my face against his chest as I had at Iris's graveside. It's his decision now, whether to discourage me or not.
In that fragile moment, I am more afraid that will push me away than I was ever afraid of the dead man.
Quill's arms close around me, crushing me to him so tightly I can barely breathe. I tip my head up, needing to see his face, to know my answer definitely by looking into his eyes. He bends down, so swift that I don't know what's happening until his lips are on mine, his fingers digging into my back.
I've been kissed only once before, when my poor cousin's husband trapped me in the hall. The violence of that moment disqualifies it, I think. At any rate, it was nothing like what Quill is doing to me now. The heat and softness of his mouth contrast so strangely with the cold, hard man I first thought him to be. His stubble is rough against my skin, and tremors of tingling weakness jolt through me. I hold onto him out of fear that I might fall physically, that I might expire, metaphorically.
I gasp for breath, and his lips force mine wider, his tongue slipping past my teeth. I don't need breath. I don't need anything but this new and frightening intimacy.
My knees can hold me no longer, and he catches me, raising his head. A storm of emotions rolls across his face, regret and horror, but in smaller measure than the dark hunger in his eyes. Before either of us is swept away again, he releases me, stepping back with his hands on my upper arms to keep me steady, or to hold himself away, I can't tell.
"It's best I should get you back, before anyone comes looking for you." He turns toward the door and pulls his suspenders back up, glancing over his shoulder at me as though we'd committed a crime. "Come on. I'll walk with you. But if we see anybody, if I get caught–"
"You can say I was trying to escape," I suggest. And wasn't that what I was doing when I came to Quill's room? "I won't deny it."
At the bottom of the stairs, I stop him with a hand on his shoulder. "Don't stay away from me. Please. You saved me today."
Quill half-turns and catches my hand. My breath stills painfully as he rubs his thumb across my palm. He doesn't make me any promises.
As we walk through the night, I notice Quill's attention to our surroundings. Perhaps he's looking for more dead men, but I think it more likely he's looking for my Shaker brothers, or Benjamin. His distraction bolsters my courage to tell him the fear that's plagued me since Benjamin dragged me from the dwelling house.
"That was Ross. The dead man? It was him."
Quill nods, though I barely see the motion in the darkness. "It was."
"I think he came for me." My chest tightens, and I don't know if I'll laugh or cry. "I think he came for revenge. He knows I wished...that I wished..."
I hope Quill will take me in his arms to comfort me, while knowing such a desire to be utterly foolish. But he does take my hand, trapping it as it swings between us and letting it go just as quickly.
He moves his ever-present gun to his opposite shoulder. "It's not revenge. The other strangers, the ones who came to bite the cows... they're mindless. They're incapable of wanting revenge. All they're looking to do is feed."
I shudder. "If he had caught me, he would have..."
"Don't think about that now," Quill orders, and we walk the rest of the way in silence.
At the edge of the herb garden, he pulls me behind the shed. "If I could keep you by my side constantly, I would. I won't rest easy knowing you're in there. Benjamin is going to order everyone to bar their doors tonight. You should be safe enough. Don't come outside for any reason, Evie. Not even to see me. You must promise me."
I nod, my heart beating as though it's buried alive in my chest, pounding on its own coffin to be let free. "When will I see you again?"
"When it's safe. When there's a distraction. I'll look for you then." He reaches up to cup my jaw in his big, rough hand. "We have to be very careful, Evie."
The touch of his lips against mine is so brief I ache. He turns, and the darkness swallows him. If I were any other girl, in any other place, my heart would be soaring with joy. But I'm only myself, and my heart is full of dread as I race for the dwelling house.
As I get ready for bed, I watch the other girls. They chatter and smile and brush their hair, as though they're entirely oblivious to the strange things happening all around us. It's maddening, but somehow logical; they can't change the horror of our situation, so why should they dwell upon it? Still, I find myself wanting to scream, to wake the entire commune. "The dead are walking about, wanting to eat us!"
Benjamin would send me to an asylum, for certain.
Sooner or later, something must come along to break them out of their convenient denial. That's the way I calm myself to sleep.
When I wake, it's to hushed rumors. Iris's grave has been found open.
Her body is gone.
YOU ARE READING
After her father’s death and her mother’s hasty remarriage, Evelyn Whitney is handed over to the Shaker commune of Bannock, New York, into a life she has little chance of escaping. When the dead become monsters and community loyalties fracture, Evel...