He’d lain awake last night, listening to her quiet breathing as she slept in the bunk above him. What he wouldn’t give to protect and care for her. It would bring him nothing but pleasure to ensure her happiness. But was he capable of it?
He had no idea how to be a good man for a woman. His relationships consisted of death, abandonment and servitude. He and his brother were close, but Liam was family, and that made it easier. How would he show a familiar stranger that he could be her friend, her protector? He swallowed, barely able to soak up the beauty of their surroundings so caught up was he in the emotions rushing inside him.
He liked Emma, and somehow he would show her that he could be trusted. That he could be her friend. And, hopefully, more than that. Someday.
They left the woods behind and came upon a road made of some sort of smooth, black material. “What’s this?” he asked.
“Asphalt. It’s used to pave streets.” Emma squinted up at him. “There’s gonna be a lot of weird and different things to see as we travel. We have to watch out for cars, all right?”
“What are those? Some sort of villainous creature?” He curled his hands into fists, wishing he had a sword.
She shook her head. “It’s a…um…like a wagon, I guess. It carries people from place to place, but it uses an engine to move, not a horse.”
He tried to paint a picture in his head, and he supposed it had seats and wheels. “And we must watch out for these cars because…?”
“They can go fast. A lot faster than a horse, and if they hit us, we could die.” She tugged on the ends of her plaid shirt then adjusted the bag slung over her shoulder.
Concerned, he reached out and pulled her away from the road. “Perhaps we ought to find a safer way to this person?”
A soft light came into her eyes. “It’ll be all right. It’s not common to get run over.” She nodded at the distance ahead of them. “You see the grass and pebbles between the street and forest? There’s plenty of room, and it’s morning, so the drivers will see us fine.” She smiled at him then slowly threaded her fingers through his.
He caught his breath at the contact.
Without argument, he followed.
“It’s about nine miles to the city. We’ll be walking for a while.”
He didn’t care. As long as he was with her, he couldn’t care less how long anything took.
They’d only gone a few feet, when an odd noise sounded behind them. He glanced over his shoulder and froze, pulling her up short. His eyes widened as what he assumed was a car came whizzing toward them. He had no words for the object that zipped over the road, its body painted a bright red.
“Step back a little.” She tugged on his hand, putting action to her command.
He obeyed without taking his eyes from the contraption. “Is that some sort of magic?”
“No,” she replied. “It runs on gasoline.”
The car drew abreast of them, rushing past and forcing wind to push their clothing and hair.
“Bloody hell,” he uttered, shocked by the amount of force in its disturbance. “This is an odd land.”
She made a noise of sympathy. “Wait until you see the city. You won’t believe your eyes.”
He tore his focus from the car and looked down at her. Could there be anything else more mind boggling than the beast that had just shot by them? “I’m not sure I’m prepared for the rest of it.”
With an encouraging smile and a squeeze of his fingers, she promised, “I’m not going anywhere, and I’ll keep you safe from all the…weird stuff you’re gonna run into.”
The sweetness of her vow made his heart skip a beat. What an angel. He wished he could kiss her. “Thank you, Emma.”
Her cheeks reddened, as if she was embarrassed by her words, but she only turned and continued down the road, still keeping her fingers through his.
As they walked, she asked him questions about being a sailor, and he told her story after story. He wanted to reveal everything to her, his burdens, his wants, his fears. But he suppressed the urge, not wanting to scare her away by being too personal too soon. Eventually, she let go of his hand, and the loss of her touch made his gut clench. But of course, he’d probably held on for far too long.
“So, this captain of yours…he won’t ever let you go?”
Killian shrugged. “I doubt it. My brother keeps talking about paying the debt then buying a commission in the Navy. Which I suppose is fine.” He let out a breath. “It’s got to be better than being a deckhand.”
“The Navy fights battles.” She looked up at him, her brow furrowed with worry.
Should he tell her that if she gave him any indication she wanted him to stay with her, he’d change his plans in an instant? He focused on the land ahead, wondering if he might lose her today. This woman they were trying to find might have a way to send him home. Could he leave Emma?
Fear burned in his gut. He’d just found her. He couldn’t let her go. Not yet.
“You don’t want to fight in a war, do you?”
Her question jarred him back to the topic. “No,” he cleared his throat. “No, I don’t.”
“Then why join the Navy?”
“Because it’s what Liam wants, and I have to admit that I wouldn’t mind protecting innocent people.” Especially you.
Silence reigned, and he glanced down to see her profile tight with worry. For him? Or did she believe he longed to test himself in battle? Before he could disabuse her of the notion, she said, “I suppose the Navy does offer adventure and you wouldn’t be treated disrespectfully.”
Another car barreled past, but he didn’t stop to watch it this time. “One would hope not.”
“We have a Navy also, and I’ve never heard anything bad about it. So…maybe…”
When she trailed off, he looked at her profile and detected a reticence in her expression. Why? Had something occurred to her and now she was afraid to mention it? Should he question her? Uncertainty rose inside him, and he discarded his inner ramblings.
More vehicles blew by, their rumble resonating inside him and shaking the ground. “Those contraptions really are quite unsafe.” His steps crunched on gravel as they continued their trek. He smiled. “But I wouldn’t mind captaining one.”
She chuckled. “Me, either. Sure would make getting from place to place easier.” She exhaled. “But they cost money. A lot actually. I can’t see myself ever having…”
She didn’t finish, but he didn’t have to look at her to know her countenance was filled with grief over all the loss, setbacks and heartache she’d encountered. He heard it in her tone, felt it in her body and knew it, because he felt the same. He wanted to reach out and pull her into his side. The need grew too strong, and he couldn’t stop himself from slipping an arm around her waist and snuggling her up next to him as they walked.
When she didn’t resist, his heart flew to the Heavens. Even if this woman had a way to get him back to his world, he wouldn’t have to go if he didn’t want to. While he wanted to get to Liam, he wouldn’t leave Emma. Maybe Emma’s former foster mother had a way to keep the portal open, and he could bring Liam here instead.
He couldn’t make Emma leave this land as there was no place for her in the Navy, and he wasn’t going to ask her to adjust her life. He would much rather learn to live in her world anyway. He wanted to experience everything that was her.
More cars appeared as some kind of colored flames swung from some form of rope. They were getting closer. Good.
Determination grew inside him, and he lengthened his stride, taking her with him. His plan might alarm her, but he wouldn’t deviate. He would not lose her.