Sarah rolled up the sleeves of her oldest shirtwaist, hitched up her serviceable black skirt and went to work.
They'd be better off burned, she thought as she dunked Lucius's stiff denim pants into the stream. The water turned a mud brown instantly. With a sound of disgust, she dunked them again. It would take some doing to make them even marginally acceptable, but she was determined.
Cleanliness was next to godliness.
That had been one of the proverbs cross-stitched on Mother Superior's office wall. Well, she was going to get Lucius as close to God as was humanly possible. Whether he liked it or not.
Leaving the pants to soak, she picked up his faded blue shirt by the tips of her fingers. Deplorable, she decided as she dampened and scrubbed and soaked. Absolutely deplorable. She doubted the clothes had seen clean water in a year. Which meant Lucius's skin had been just as much in need of washing. She'd soon fix that.
She began to smile as she worked. The expression on his face when she'd threatened to empty out the whiskey had been something to see. Poor Lucius. He might look tough and crusty, but underneath he was just a sweet, misguided man who needed a woman to show him the way.
Most men did. At least that was what Lucilla had always said. As she beat Lucius's weathered shirt against the rocks, Sarah wondered what her friend would think of Jake Redman. There was certainly nothing sweet about him, no matter how deep down a woman might dig. Though he could be kind. It baffled her that time and time again he had shown her that streak of good-heartedness. Always briefly, she added, her lips thinning. Always right before he did something inexcusable.
Like kissing the breath out of her. Kissing her until her blood was hot and her mind was empty and she wanted something she didn't even understand. He'd had no right to do it, and still less to walk away afterward, leaving her trembling and confused.
She should have slapped him. With that thought in mind, Sarah slapped the shirt on the water and gave a satisfied nod at the sound. She should have knocked the arrogance right out of him, and then it should have been she who walked away.
The next time... There would be no next time, she assured herself. If Jake Redman ever touched her again, she'd...she'd...melt like butter, she admitted. Oh, she hated him for making her wish he would touch her again.
When he looked at her, something happened, something frantic, something she'd never experienced before. Her heart beat just a little too fast, and dampness sprang out on the palms of her hands. A look was all that was necessary. His eyes were so dark, so penetrating. When he looked at her it was as if he could see everything she was, or could be, or wanted to be. It was absurd. He was a man who lived by the gun, who took what he wanted without regret or compunction. All her life she'd been taught that the line between right and wrong was clear and wide and wasn't to be crossed.
To kill was the greatest sin, the most unforgivable. Yet he had killed, and would surely kill again. Knowing it, she couldn't care for him. But care she did. And want she did. And need.
Her hands were wrist-deep in water when she brought herself back. She had no business even thinking this way. Thinking about him. If she had to think of a man, she'd do better to think of Samuel Carlson. He was well-mannered, polished. He would know the proper way to treat a lady. There would be no wild, groping kisses from a man like him. A woman would be safe, cherished, cared for.
But she wished Jake had offered to drive her home. This was nonsense. Sarah wrung out the shirt and rubbed her nose with the back of her damp hand. She'd had enough nonsense for the time being. She would wash thoughts of Jake away just as she washed the grime and grit and the good Lord knew what from Lucius's shirt.
She wanted her life to be tidy. Perhaps it wouldn't be as grand as she'd once imagined, but it would be tidy. Even here. Sitting back on her heels, she looked around. The sun was heading toward the buttes in the west. Slowly, like a big golden ball in a sky the color of Indian paintbrush. The rocks towered, their odd, somewhat mystical shapes rising up and up, some slender as needles, others rough and thick.
There was a light smell of juniper here, and the occasional rustle that didn't alarm her as it once would have. She watched an eagle soar, its wings spread wide. King of the sky. Below, the stream gurgled, making its lazy way over the rocks.
Why, it was beautiful. She lifted a hand to her throat, surprised to discover that it was aching. She hadn't seen it before, or hadn't wanted to. There was a wild, desolate, marvelous beauty here that man hadn't been able to touch. Or hadn't dared. If the land was lawless, perhaps it deserved to be.
For the first time since she had arrived, she felt a sense of kinship, of belonging. Of peace. She'd been right to stay, because this was home. Hers. At long last, hers.
When she rose to spread the shirt over a rock, she was smiling. Then she saw the shadow, and she looked up quickly.
There were five of them. Their black hair was loose past their bare shoulders. All but one sat on a horse. It was he who stepped toward her, silent in knee-length moccasins. There was a scar, white and puckered, that ran from his temple, catching the corner of his eye, then curving like a sickle down his cheek. She saw that, and the blade of the knife he carried. Then she began to scream.
Lucius heard the rider coming and strapped his gun-belt on over his long underwear. With soap still lathered all over his face, he stepped out of the shed. Jake pulled up his mount and took a long, lazy look. "Don't tell me it's spring already."
"Damn women." Lucius spit expertly.
"Ain't that the truth?" After easing off his horse, Jake tossed the reins over the rail. Lafitte immediately leaped up to rest his paws on his thigh. In the way dogs have, he grinned and his tongue lolled. "Going to a dance or something?"
"No, I ain't going any where." Lucius cast a vicious look toward the house. "She threatened me. Yes, sir, there's no two ways about it, it was a threat. Said less'n I took myself a bath and let her wash my clothes she'd pour out every last drop of whiskey in the bottle she brought."
With a grin of his own, Jake leaned against the rail and rolled a cigarette. "Maybe she's not as stupid as she looks."
"She looks okay," Lucius muttered. "Got a streak of stubborn in her, though." He wiped a soapy hand on the thigh of his long underwear. "What are you doing out here?" "Came out to talk to you."
"Like hell. I got eyes. She ain't in there," he said when Jake continued to stare at the house.
"I said I came to talk to you." Annoyed, Jake flicked a match and lit his cigarette. "Have you done any checking in the mine?"
"I've taken a look. She don't give a body much free time." He picked up a rock and tossed it so that the puppy would have something to chase. "Always wanting something built or fixed up. Cooks right good, though." He patted his belly. "Can't complain about that."
"I saw where Matt was working some, right enough. And the cave-in." He spit again. "Can't say I felt real good about digging my way past it. Now, maybe if you told me what it was I was supposed to be looking for."
"You'll know if you find it." He looked back at the house. She'd put curtains on the windows. "Does she ever go up there?"
"Goes up, not in. Sits by his grave sometimes. Breaks your heart."
"Sounds like you're going soft on her, old man."
He reached down to give Lafitte a scratch on the head. "Wouldn't talk if I was you." He only laughed when Jake looked at him. There weren't many men who would have dared. "Don't go icing up on me, boy. I've known you too long. Might interest you to know that Samuel Carlson paid a call."
Jake blew out smoke with a shrug. "I know." He waited, took another drag, then swore under his breath. "Did he stay long?"
"Long enough to make up to her. Kissing her hands, he was. Both of them."
"Is that so?" The fury burned low in his gut and spread rapidly. Eyes narrowed, he flicked the cigarette away, half finished, and watched it smolder. "Where is she?"
"Down to the stream, I imagine."
Lucius smothered a laugh and bent down to pick up Lafitte before the puppy could scramble after Jake. "I wouldn't, if I was you, young fella. There's going to be fireworks fit for Independence Day."
Jake wasn't sure what he was going to do, but he didn't think Sarah was going to like it. He hoped she didn't. She needed a short rein, he decided. And he was going to see to it himself. Letting Carlson paw all over her. Just the thought of it made small, jagged claws of jealousy slice through him.
When he heard her scream, both guns were out of their holsters and in his hands in a heartbeat. He took the last quarter of a mile at a run, her screams and the sound of running horses echoing in his head.
When he reached the stream he saw the dust the ponies had kicked up. Even at a distance he recognized Little Bear's profile. There was a different kind of fire in him now. It burned ice-cold as he bolstered his weapons. Lafitte came tearing down the path, snarling. "You're too late again," Jake told the dog as he sniffed the ground and whined. He turned as Lucius came running in nothing more than his gunbelt and long Johns.
"What happened?" Jake said nothing. Hunkering down, Lucius studied the marks left by the struggle. '"Paches." He saw his shirt, freshly washed and drying in the sun. "Damn it all to hell." Still swearing, he raced down the path toward Jake. "Let me get on my spare shirt and my boots. They don't have much of a lead."
"I'm going alone."
"There was four of them, maybe more."
"Five." Jake strode back into the clearing. "I ride alone."
"Listen, boy, even if it was Little Bear, that don't give you no guarantees. You weren't no more than kids last time, and you chose different ways."
"It was Little Bear, and I'm not looking for guarantees."
He swung into the saddle. "I'm going to get her back."
Lucius put a hand on the saddle horn. "See that you do."
"If I'm not back tomorrow sundown, go get Barker. I'll leave a trail even he can follow." He kicked his horse into a gallop and headed north.
She hadn't fainted, but she wasn't so sure that was a blessing. She'd been tossed roughly onto the back of a horse, and she was forced to grip its mane to keep from tumbling off. The Indian with the scar rode behind her, calling out to his companions occasionally and gesturing with a new government-issue Winchester. He'd dragged her by her hair to get her astride the horse, and he still seemed fascinated by it. When she felt him push his nose into it, she closed her eyes, shuddered and prayed.
They rode fast, their ponies apparently tireless and obviously surefooted, as they left the flats for the rocks and the hills. The sun was merciless here. She felt it beating down on her head as she struggled not to weep. She didn't want to die weeping. They would undoubtedly kill her. But what frightened her more than whatever death was in store for her was what they would do to her first.
She'd heard stories, horrible, barbaric stories, about what was done to captive white women. Once she'd thought them all foolishness, like the stories of bogeymen conjured up to frighten small children. Now she feared that the stories were pale reflections of reality. They climbed higher, to where the air cooled and the mountains burst to life with pine and fast-running streams. When the horses slowed, she slumped forward, her thighs screaming from the effort of the ride. They talked among themselves in words that meant nothing to her. Time had lost all meaning, as well. It had been hours. She was only sure of that because the sun was low and just beginning to turn the western sky red. Blood red.
They stopped, and for one wild moment she thought about kicking the horse and trying to ride free. Then she was being dragged to the ground. With the breath knocked from her, she tried to get her bearings. Three of the men were filling water skins at the stream. One seemed hardly more than a boy, but she doubted age mattered. They watered their mounts and paid no attention to her.
Pushing herself up on her elbows, she saw the scar-faced Indian arguing with one she now took to be the leader. He had a starkly beautiful face, lean and chiseled and cold. There was an eagle feather in his hair, and around his neck was a string of what looked like small bleached bones. He studied her dispassionately, then signaled to the other man.
She began to pray again, silently, desperately, as the scarfaced brave advanced on her. He dragged her to her feet and began to toy with her hair. The leader barked out an order that the brave just snarled at. He reached for her throat. Sarah held her breath as he ripped the cameo from her shirtwaist. Apparently satisfied for the moment, he pushed her toward the stream and let her drink.
She did, greedily. Perhaps death wasn't as close as she'd feared. Perhaps somehow, somehow, she could evade it. She wouldn't despair, she told herself as she soothed her burning skin with the icy water. Someone would come after her. Someone.
She nearly cried out his name when she was dragged to her feet again. Her captor had fastened her brooch to his buckskin vest. Like a trophy, she thought. Her mother's cameo wouldn't be a trophy for a savage. Furious, she reached for it, and was slapped to the ground. She felt the shirtwaist rip away from her shoulder as she was pulled up by it. Instinctively she began to fight, using teeth and nails. She heard a cry of pain, then rolling masculine laughter. As she kicked and squirmed, her hands were bound together with a leather strap. She was sobbing now, but with rage. Tossed astride the pony again, she felt her ankles bound tight under its belly.
There was the taste of blood in her mouth, and tears in her eyes. They continued to climb.
She dozed somehow. When the pain in her arms and legs grew unbearable, it seemed the best escape. The height was dizzying. They rode along the edge of a narrow canyon that seemed to drop forever. Into hell, she thought as her eyes drooped again. Straight into hell.
Wherever they were taking her, it was a different world, one of forests and rivers and sheer cliffs. It didn't matter. She would die or she would escape. There was nothing else.
Survival. That's all there is.
She hadn't understood what Jake had meant when he'd said that to her. Now she did. There were times when there was nothing but life or death. If she could escape, and had to kill to do so, then she would kill. If she could not escape, and they were planning what she feared they were, she would find a way to kill herself.
They climbed. Endlessly, it seemed to Sarah, they rode up a winding trail and into the twilight. Around her she could hear the call of night birds, high and musical, accented by the hollow hooting of an owl. The trees glowed gold and red, and as the wind rose it sounded through them. The air chilled, working through the torn shirtwaist. Only her pride remained as she shivered in silence.
Exhaustion had her dreaming. She was riding through the forest with Lucilla, chatting about the new bonnet they had seen that morning. They were laughing and talking about the men they would fall in love with and marry. They would be tall and strong and devastatingly handsome.
She dreamed of Jake-of a dream kiss, and a real one. She dreamed of him riding to her, sweeping her up on his big gray mount and taking her away. Holding her, warming her, keeping her safe.
Then the horses stopped.
Her heart was too weary even for prayer as her ankle bonds were cut. She was pulled unresisting from the horse, then sprawled on the ground when her legs buckled under her. There was no energy left in her for weeping, so she lay still, counting each breath. She must have slept, because when she came to again she heard the crackling of a fire and the quiet murmuring of men at a meal.
Biting back a moan, she tried to push herself up. Before she could, a hand was on her shoulder, rolling her onto her back.
Her captor leaned over her, his dark eyes gleaming in the firelight. He spoke, but the words meant nothing to her. She would fight him, she promised herself. Even knowing she would lose, she would fight. He touched her hair, running his fingers through it, lifting it and letting it fall. It must have pleased him, for he grinned at her before he took out his knife.
She thought, almost hoped, that he would slit her throat and be done with it. Instead, he began to cut her skirt away. She kicked, as viciously as she could, but he only parried the blows, then locked her legs with his own. Hearing her skirt rip, she struck out blindly with her bound hands. As he raised his own to strike her, there was a call from the campfire. Her kidnappers rose, bows and rifles at the ready.
She saw the rider come out of the gloom and into the flickering light. Another dream, she thought with a little sob. Then he looked at her. Strength poured back into her body, and she scrambled to her feet "Jake!"
She would have run to him, but she was yanked ruthlessly back. He gave no sign, barely glanced her way as he walked his horse toward the group of Apaches. He spoke, but the words were strange, incomprehensible to her.
"Much time has passed, Little Bear."
"I felt breath on my back today." Little Bear lowered his rifle and waited. "I thought never to see you again, Gray Eyes."
Slowly, ignoring the rage bubbling inside him, Jake dismounted. "Our paths have run apart. Now they come together again." He looked steadily into eyes he knew as well as he knew his own. There was between them a love few men would have understood. "I remember a promise made between boys. We swore in blood that one would never lift a hand against the other."
"The promise sworn in blood has not been forgotten." Little Bear held out his hand. They gripped firm, hand to elbow. "Will you eat?"
With a nod, Jake sat by the fire to share the venison. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sarah huddled on the ground, watching. Her face was pale with fear and exhaustion. He could see bruises of fatigue under eyes that were glazed with it. Her clothes were torn, and he knew, as he ate and drank, that she must be cold. But if he wanted her alive, there were traditions to be observed.
"Where is the rest of our tribe?"
"Dead. Lost. Running." Little Bear stared broodingly into the fire. "The long swords have cut us down like deer. Those who are left are few and hide in the mountains. Still they come."
"Crooked Arm? Straw Basket?"
"They live. North, where the winters are long and the game is scarce." He turned his head again, and Jake saw a cold, depthless anger-one he understood. "The children do not laugh, Gray Eyes, nor do the women sing."
They talked, as the fire blazed, of shared memories, of people both had loved. Their bond was as strong as it had been when Jake had lived and learned and felt like an Apache. But they both knew that time had passed.
When the meal was over, Jake rose from the fire. "You have taken my woman, Little Bear. I have come to take her back."
Little Bear held up a hand before the scarred man beside him could speak. "She is not my prisoner, but Black Hawk's. It is not for me to return her to you." "Then the promise can be kept between us." He turned to Black Hawk. "You have taken my woman." "I have not finished with her." He put a hand on the hilt of his knife. "I will keep her."
He could have bargained with him. A rifle was worth more than a woman. But bargaining would have cost him face. He had claimed Sarah as his, and there was only one way to take her back.
"The one who lives will keep her." He unstrapped his guns, handing them to Little Bear. There were few men he would have trusted with his weapons. "I will speak with her." He moved to Sarah as Black Hawk began to chant in preparation for the fight.
"I hope you enjoyed your meal," she said, sniffing. "I actually thought you might have come to rescue me."
"I'm working on it."
"Yes, I could see that. Sitting by the fire, eating, telling stories. My hero."
His grin flashed as he hauled her against him for a long, hard kiss. "You're a hell of a woman, Sarah. Just sit tight and let me see what I can do."
"Take me home." Pride abandoned, she gripped the front of his shirt. "Please, just take me home." "I will." He squeezed her hands as he removed them from his shirt. Then he rose, and he, too, began to chant. If there was magic, he wanted his share. They stood side by side in the glow of the fire as the youngest warrior bound their left wrists together. The glitter of knives had Sarah pushing herself to her feet. Little Bear closed a hand over her arm.
"You cannot stop it," he said in calm, precise English.
"No!" She struggled as she watched the blades rise.
"Oh, God, no!" They came down, whistling.
"I will spill your white blood, Gray Eyes," Black Hawk murmured as their blades scraped, edge to edge. Locked wrist to wrist, they hacked, dodged, advanced. Jake fought in grim silence. If he lost, even as his blood poured out, Black Hawk would celebrate his victory by raping Sarah. The thought of it, the fury of it, broke his concentration, and Black Hawk pushed past his guard and sliced down his shoulder. Blood ran warm down his arm. Concentrating on the scent of it, he blocked Sarah from his mind and fought to survive.
In the frigid night air, their faces gleamed with sweat. The birds had flown away at the sound of blades and the smell of blood. The only sound now was the harsh breathing of the two men locked in combat, intent on the kill. The other men formed a loose circle around them, watching, the inevitability of death accepted.
Sarah stood with her bound hands at her mouth, holding back the need to scream and scream until she had no air left. At the first sight of Jake's blood she had closed her eyes tight. But fear had had them wide again in an instant.
Little Bear still held her arm, his grip light but inescapable. She already understood that she was to be a kind of prize for the survivor. As Jake narrowly deflected Black Hawk's blade, she turned to the man beside her.
"Please, if you stop it, let him live, I'll go with you willingly. I won't fight or try to escape."
For a moment, Little Bear took his eyes away from the combat. Gray Eyes had chosen his woman well. "Only death stops it now."
As she watched, both men tumbled to the ground. She saw Black Hawk's knife plunge into the dirt an inch from Jake's face. Even as he drew it out, Jake's knife was ripping into his flesh. They rolled toward the fire.
Jake didn't feel the heat, only an ice-cold rage. The fire seared the skin on his arm before he yanked free. The hilt of his knife was slick with his own sweat but the blade dripped red with his opponent's blood. The horses whinnied and shied when the men rolled too close. Then they were in the shadows. Sarah could see only a dark blur and the sporadic gleam of a knife.
But she could hear desperate grunts and the scrape of metal. Then she heard nothing but the sound of a man breathing hard. One man. With her heart in her throat, she waited to see who would come back into the light. Bruised, bloodied, Jake walked to her. Saying nothing, he cut through her bonds with the blade of the stained knife. Still silent, he pushed it into his boot and took his guns back from Little Bear.
"He was a brave warrior," Little Bear said.
With pain and triumph singing through him, Jake strapped on his gunbelt. "He died a warrior's death." He offered his hand again. "May the spirits ride with you, brother."
"And with you, Gray Eyes."
Jake held out a hand for Sarah. When he saw that she was swaying on her feet, he picked her up and carried her to his horse. "Hold on," he told her, swinging up into the saddle behind her. He rode out of camp without looking back, knowing he would never see Little Bear again.
She didn't want to cry, but she couldn't stop. Her only comfort was that her tears were silent and he couldn't hear them. Or so she thought. They'd ridden no more than ten minutes at a slow walk when he turned her around in the saddle to cradle her against him.
"You've had a bad time, Duchess. Go on and cry for a while."
So she wept shamelessly, her cheeks pressed against his chest, the movement of the horse lulling her. "I was so afraid." Her voice hitching, she clung to him.
"He was going to-"
"I know. You don't want to think about it." He didn't. If he did, he'd lose the already-slippery grip he had on his control. "It's all over now."
"Will they come after us?"
"How can you be sure?" As the tears passed, the fear doubled back.
"It wouldn't be honorable."
"Honorable?" She lifted her head to look at him. In the moonlight his face looked hard as rock. "But they're Indians."
"That's right. They'll stand by their honor a lot longer than any white man."
"But-" She had forgotten for a moment the Apache in him. "You seemed to know them."
"I lived with them five years. Little Bear, the one with the eagle feather, is my cousin." He stopped and dismounted. "You're cold. I'll build a fire and you can rest a while." He pulled a blanket out of his saddlebag and tossed it over her shoulders. Too tired to argue, Sarah wrapped it tight around herself and sat on the ground.
He had a fire burning quickly and started making coffee. Without hesitation, Sarah bit into the jerky he gave her and warmed her hands over the flames.
"The one you...fought with. Did you know him?"
He'd killed for her, she thought, and had to struggle not to weep again. Perhaps it had been a member of his own family, an old friend. "I'm sorry," she managed.
"For what?" He poured coffee into a cup, then pushed it into her trembling hands.
"For all of it They were just there, all at once. There was nothing I could do." She drank, needing the warmth badly. "When I was in school, we would read the papers, hear stories. I never really believed it. I was certain that the army had everything under control." "You read about massacres," he said with a dull fury in his voice that had her looking up again. "About settlers slaughtered and wagon trains attacked. You read about savages scalping children. It's true enough. But did you read any about soldiers riding into camps and butchering, raping women, putting bullets in babies long after treaties were signed and promises made? Did you hear stories about poisoned food and contaminated blankets sent to the reservations?" "But that can't be."
"The white man wants the land, and the land isn't his-or wasn't." He took out his knife and cleaned it in the dirt. "He'll take it, one way or the other." She didn't want to believe it, but she could see the truth in his eyes. "I never knew."
"It won't go on much longer. Little Bear and men like him are nearly done."
"How did you choose? Between one life and the other?"
He moved his shoulders. "There wasn't much choice. There's not enough Apache in me to have been accepted as a warrior. And I was raised white, mostly. Red man. That's what they called my father when he was coming up outside an army post down around Tucson. He kept it. Maybe it was pride, maybe it wasn't."
He stopped, annoyed with himself. He'd never told anyone so much.
"You up to riding?"
She wanted him to go on, to tell her everything there was to tell about himself. Instinct held her back. If she pushed, she might never learn. "I can try." Smiling, she reached out to touch his arm. "I want to-Oh, you're bleeding."
He glanced down. "Here and there."
"Let me see. I should have tended these already." She was up on her knees, pulling away the rent material of his sleeve.
"Nothing a man likes better than to have his clothes ripped off by a pretty woman."
"I'll thank you to behave yourself," she told him, but she couldn't muffle a chuckle.
It was good to hear her laugh, even if only a little. Most of the horror had faded from her eyes. But he wanted it gone, all of it. "Heard you made Lucius strip down to the skin. He claimed you threatened him." This time her laughter was warmer. "The man needed to be threatened. I wish you'd seen his face when I told him to take off his pants."
"I don't suppose you'd like me to do the same." "Just the shirt should do. This arm certainly needs to be bandaged." She rose and, modesty prevailing, turned her back before she lifted the hem of her skirt to rip her petticoat.
"I'm obliged." He eased painfully out of his shirt. "I've been wondering, Duchess, just how many of those petticoats do you wear?"
"That's certainly not a subject for discussion. But it's fortunate that I..." She turned back to him, and the words slipped quietly down her throat. She'd never seen a man's chest before, had certainly never thought a man could be so beautiful. But he was firm and lean, with the dark skin taut over his rib cage and gleaming in the firelight. She felt the heat flash inside her, pressing and throbbing in her center and then spreading through her like a drug.
An owl hooted behind her and made her jolt. "I'll need some water." She was forced to clear her throat. "Those wounds should be cleaned."
With his eyes still on hers, he lifted the canteen. Saying nothing, she knelt beside him again to tend the cut that ran from his shoulder to his elbow.
"This is deep. You'll want a doctor to look at it."
Her eyes flicked up to his, then quickly away. "It's likely to scar."
"I've got others."
Yes, she could see that. His was the body of a hero, scarred, disciplined and magnificent. "I've caused you a great deal of trouble."
"More than I figured on," he murmured as her fingers glided gently over his skin.
She tied the first bandage, then gave her attention to the slice in his side. "This one doesn't look as serious, but it must be painful."
Her voice had thickened. He could feel the flutter of her breath on his skin. He winced as she cleaned the wound, but it was the firelight on her hair that was making him ache. He held his breath when she reached around him to secure the bandage.
"There are some nicks," she murmured. Fascinated, she touched her palm to his chest. "You'll need some salve."
He knew what he needed. His hand closed over her wrist. Her pulse jumped, but she only stared, as if she were mesmerized by the contrast of his skin against hers. Dazed, she watched her own fingers spread and smooth over the hard line of his chest.
The fire had warmed it, warmed her. Slowly she lifted her head and looked at him. His eyes were dark, darker than she'd ever seen them. Storm clouds, she thought. Or gunsmoke. She thought she could hear her heart pounding in her head. Then there was no sound. No sound at all.
He reached for her face, just to rub his palm over her cheek. Nothing in his life had ever seemed so soft or looked so beautiful. The fire was in her eyes, glowing, heating. There was passion there. He knew enough of women to recognize it. Her cheeks, drained of color by fatigue, were as delicate as glass. He leaned toward her, his eyes open, ready for her to shy away.
She leaned toward him, her pulse pounding, waiting for him to take.
An inch apart, they hesitated, his breath merging with hers. Softly, more softly than either of them would have thought he could, he brushed his lips over hers. And heard her sigh. Gently, with hands more used to molding the grips of guns, he drew her to him. And felt her give. Her lips parted, as they would only for him.
Boldly, as she had never known she could, she ran her hands up his chest. Was he trembling? She murmured to him, lost in the wonder of it. His body was rigid with tension, even as he took the kiss deeper, gloriously deeper. She tasted the hot flavor of desire on his lips as they moved, restless and hungry, over hers.
Eager for more, she pressed against him, letting her arms link tight behind him, and her mouth tell him everything.
He felt the need burst through him like wildfire, searing his mind and loins and heart. Her name tore out of him as he twisted her in his arms and plundered her mouth. The flames beside them leaped, caught by the wind, and sent sparks shooting into the air. He felt her body strain against his, seeking more. Desperate, he tugged at the torn neck of her blouse.
She could only gasp when he covered her breast with his hand. His palm was rough with calluses, and the sensation made her arch and ache. Then his mouth was on her, hot and wet and greedy as it trailed down. Helpless, she dragged her hands through his hair.
She had faced death. This was life. This was love. His lips raced over her until she was a mass of nerves and need. Recklessly she dragged his mouth back to hers and drove them both toward delirium. His hands were everywhere, pressing, bruising, exciting. With her breath hammering in and out of her lungs, she began to tremble.
His mouth was buried at her throat. The taste of her had seeped into him, and now it was all he knew, all e wanted to know. She was shuddering. Over and over, beneath his own, her body shook. Jake dug his fingers into the dirt as he fought to drag himself back. He'd forgotten what he was. What she was. Hadn't he proven that by nearly taking her on the ground? He heard her soft, breathless moan as he rolled away from her.
She was dizzy, dazed, desperate. With her eyes half closed, she reached out. The moment she touched him, he was moving away, standing.
He felt as though he'd been shot, low in the gut, and would bleed for the rest of his life. In silence, he smothered the fire and began to break camp.
Sarah suddenly felt the cold, and she wrapped her arms around herself. "What's wrong?"
"We've got to ride."
"But..." Her skin still tingled where his hands had scraped over it. "I thought...that is, it seemed as though..."
"Damn it, woman, I said we've got to ride." He yanked a duster out of his saddlebag and tossed it to her. "Put that on."
She held it against her as she watched him secure his saddlebags again. She wouldn't cry. Biting her lip hard to make sure, she vowed she would never cry over him. He didn't want her. It had just been a whim. He preferred another kind of woman. After dragging the duster around her shoulders, she walked to the horse.
"I can mount," she said coldly when he took her arm.
With a nod, he stepped back, then vaulted into the saddle behind her.