As soon as Lucy was off the horse and untied, she slapped her abductor across the face as hard as she could, and when he stood there, looking at her smugly, she slapped him again.
"What was that for?" His brow wrinkled in confusion.
Her fists were clenched at her sides, and her chest was heaving with anger. She couldn't think straight, she was so mad. "For stealing me away. What do you think you were doing?"
"Those men were shooting dice to see who would win you."
Lucy looked at him hard, thinking she had just met the dumbest man in the West, even if he did have beautiful eyes surrounded by the thickest fringe of lashes she'd ever seen on a man. His calm took the wind right out of her sails, leaving her trying to decide if she should explain. Her fate had already been settled. The wagon master was taking ownership, and they were just trying to decide who got to have sex with her first, because in the master's words: "Share 'er equal, boys. I dinna wan' any fisticuffs over 'er 'fore we get to Cali." Now this man had turned her into a runaway slave. She didn't even want to consider the horror of what would happen when she was caught. The wagon master and his men had only intended to have sex with her, and that certainly wouldn't have led to her death, though it would surely have been disgusting. Caught as a runaway, she'd be flayed, and depending on who was doing the punishing, she might or might not survive. The fate for the man who'd aided her would be no better. It was at that moment she realized she was as naked as the day she was born. Ducking down, she clamped her knees together and plastered her arms around her breasts. "Don't look at me!"
He tilted his head and laughed at her. "I already had my fair share of seeing all I needed to see. You could use a bath."
Lucy's eyes went wide, and her mouth dropped open, but she was speechless as he turned and walked away. Over his shoulder, he said, "There's a fair-decent waterin' hole beyond those shrubs. You can wear one of my clean shirts after you wash off."
She harrumphed but quickly edged around the scrub to hide herself. She saw he was right. There was a decent size pool of crystal clear water, the cleanest she'd seen in months. She sighed and knelt, dipping her hand in to drink, but then stopped when she caught her reflection. Dirty didn't cover it. The layer of thick dust coating her was so light in comparison to her dark skin. She looked like a bag of flour had been dumped on her head. Her long hair, which had started the day in a tight braid wound into a tidy bun, was sticking out in a hundred directions, the plait barely winning the fight. She forgot all about drinking and dived into the water. She scrubbed herself until she felt raw, then scrubbed some more. She wished she had a piece of soap but settled on scooping loose sand from the pond floor and rubbing herself with it. Once washed, she didn't want to leave the water. She was cool, clean, and refreshed for the first time in what seemed like forever. God, why had they left Jonesboro?
If Oliver hadn't heard those men debate, they might still be there, but that man Lincoln had him convinced war was coming, and Oliver wanted nothing to do with fighting. It didn't help he'd already gotten the westward itch. Emma wouldn't agree to go to California for gold, but when he'd told her he might be conscripted, her stance weakened. When he promised that Lucy would be a free woman in California, she'd completely caved.
Lucy had begged Emma not to agree on her account. She reminded her of the Donner tragedy. No one in their right mind would undertake such a dangerous journey if they didn't have to, would they? They had.
"Look what it got you, Emma Kraus. Dead and buried. Better he'd gone to war; then we'd at least still have each other!" Lucy sobbed, finally allowing herself to mourn. "I want you back, damn it! I want you back."
A man's voice cleared, and she turned quickly to find the cowboy watching her.
"Can't a woman have any privacy?"
"With you howlin' like an injured animal, you'll draw cougars down from the mountain, looking for an easy meal."
She narrowed her eyes, was ready to let him have it, but saw a glimmer of laughter in his. He was teasing. That wasn't fair. She wanted to rant and rave. She wanted to kick something. Or someone. Her face crumbled. She didn't want to smile or be happy ever again, and she knew if she spent much time with this cowboy, she might. She buried her face in her hands.
"Please don't cry."
His voice was close, too close, considering he'd been standing on the water's bank. She felt his arms go around her, and she didn't have the strength to fight him. She sobbed against his shoulder, not caring the fabric of his shirt was soaking wet. He'd waded into the water fully clothed, though he'd left his wide-brimmed hat back on the shore. "I want Emma back."
"It's all right. I promise. Everything is going to be fine again."
She didn't know how he could make promises like that. Life hadn't been right or fine since they'd left Illinois. But hearing his whispers against her ear, she wanted to believe him. Keeping her face pressed against his shoulder, she looked up at him. She'd never been this close to a man her own color. Sure, she'd seen them working in the fields, even making deliveries to the house--so she was close enough to take the package, close enough to wonder what it might be like to touch their skin and to see her hand against their flesh.
There was a man in Illinois she'd once hoped she might someday be allowed to marry. She'd been eleven then and believed in such foolishness as love and happily ever after. His name was Ezra. They'd never said more than a few words to each other. He worked in the stables, and she was bound to the house, but she'd seen him in the paddock on a hot day. He'd pulled off his shirt, and his dark skin had glistened under the heat of the sun. Lord have mercy, his muscled chest was a fine thing. She'd wanted nothing more than to feel his muscles ripple under her fingertips; then he'd turned his back to her, and she'd seen his scars, which had made her want to run her mouth over the line of his finely sculpted back.
The man holding her now was muscular too. She could feel the strength in his back as she rubbed her hand over his damp shirt. He felt perfect, smooth and strong. He might look to be wild to the bone, but he'd been tamed at some point. He must have been.
He bore no scars that she could feel. She found herself wondering if he looked as fine out of his shirt as the man back in Illinois.
"I'll keep you safe. No one is going to hurt you. No one is ever going to make you their slave again."
She shook her head, wanting to explain to him that she'd never felt like a slave, but her breath left her lungs when she turned her face to do just that and got caught in his gaze. The laughter in his eyes had turned dark. She knew that look. Men had stared at her like that ever since she'd grown breasts. She'd always feared the lust riding the men who looked upon her that way. She decided she must have the fever, because being in this man's arms, having him gaze into her eyes with hunger she didn't quite understand, only made her curious to find out if she'd hate his kisses too.
Her breath hitched.
She lifted her fingers to touch his rough jaw. Her hand looked right there, dark on dark. She traced his jaw before curiously sliding her finger over the rosy red of his bottom lip. She could feel his breath, falling warm over her fingertips, and it was a barely conscious thought that she might be playing with fire. She felt him go very still beneath the crush of her breasts as she caught his face between both her palms.
Lucy looked hard at him, memorizing the sharp arch of his dark brows, the hard edge of his cheekbones, and the fine lines around his eyes that told her he smiled every chance he got. He had a scar that cut through his right eyebrow, making him look even more dangerous than she'd first imagined, and his nose had the slightest bend, as if it had been broken once or twice before.
She liked how the heat smoldering in the depths of his irises made her feel warm and full. He wanted to kiss her. Lucy knew it. She could feel it. She thought he might want to do more than kiss her, because there were consequences when men had that look of lust in their eyes. Lucy closed her eyes, willing herself to not be afraid. This man, this moment, was her choice. No one was forcing her to do anything she didn't want to do. She lifted her mouth, begging to find out, and was rewarded with a taste of heaven as his lips touched hers.
His lips were soft, like the luxurious fabric so popular with the ladies in town. Velvet. She pressed her mouth closer and was shocked when she felt his tongue run along her bottom lip. She jerked away and stared at him. He smiled, and it seemed a very wicked smile. "You almost had me convinced."
"Convinced?" she repeated, confused.
"That you weren't as innocent as I first believed, but you are, aren't you? Sweet? Innocent? Virginal?"
"I-I--" She stuttered. She wasn't about to admit she wasn't a virgin, but she wouldn't have him thinking she was a trollop either.
He released her and swam back to shallow water before slogging out. Water poured off his wet clothing. Stunned, Lucy dog-paddled, not willing to follow him, but completely unable to look away.
He kept his back to her as he unbuttoned his shirt and peeled it off. He wrung out the water before spreading it out over a low shrub to dry beneath the sun. His dark, wide back was even broader and more muscular than the man she'd mused about back in Illinois. Mercy, the man is as sleek and muscled as a prized stallion. Flushing, she closed her eyes, not understanding how looking at a man's bare back could make her feel so strange inside her own body. When she opened her eyes again, he was sitting on the edge of the bank and pulling off his boots to pour out the water collected inside. He still wore his buckskin pants, and she found she was disappointed by that. Realizing he was watching her, she blushed at her thoughts and looked away.
"I brought you a clean shirt when you're ready to come out."
"What if I'm never ready?"
He smiled, waiting patiently. "'Bout dark, when the animals come down to drink, you'll come out of there fast enough."
Lucy tensed. She hated night on the prairie. Almost every evening directly after twilight, they heard the yipping, hyperactive howl of coyotes, which was terrifying enough, but sometimes they'd heard the scream of a big cat, and she could do nothing but cover her head with a blanket and quake. There could be no worse death than being eaten alive. Dear God, the sun was already setting too. The brilliant strokes of orange and lavender painting the sky terrified her. Nervously glancing around for any movement on the bank, she demanded, "Close your eyes."
"You watched me."
He'd had his back to her the entire time. How would he know if she'd watched or not? Looking away, she blushed. "All you took off was your shirt...and your boots. I'm as naked as the day I was born."
He smiled wider and held out the dry shirt. She lifted her chin and waded out of the water. Snatching the shirt, she pulled it on. The fabric covered her to her knees. "It's not exactly decent."
"It'll get you to town."
"Rag Town's less than a day's ride and the last chance to restock supplies before Carson City. You did want to get to California?"
Hope brightened in her chest. California meant freedom. Even though it hadn't seemed important while Emma and Oliver were alive to take care of her, she certainly didn't want any other man laying claim to her. She looked at the man sitting at her feet. He hadn't moved since she'd lumbered out of the watering hole. He was just staring off across the water. If he wanted to keep her as a slave, he wouldn't be willing to take her to California, would he? And even when he'd held her at his mercy and naked, he hadn't tried to stick his thing in her. She frowned. He hadn't even wanted to when she'd kissed him. She looked at him more closely. He sat cross-legged, still wearing his buckskins. Maybe he is defective. She'd lived with livestock long enough to know sometimes animals were born not altogether right. "Is there a reason you didn't take off your pants to dry?"
He looked up at her. "If I leave them on, they'll dry to fit my body. If I take them off, they'll shrink, and I'll never be able to get them on again."
He narrowed his eyes, but she made no further comment, and he didn't ask. She moved a little farther away and sat, keeping a respectable distance between them. "How far is it back to the wagon train?" In her mind, it didn't seem far. He hadn't kept her slung over the back of his horse very long at all.
Lucy gasped. They couldn't have traveled so far. Could they? He had been riding hell-bent for leather. Oh God. "I have to get back to the wagon train."
"Sorry, darlin', not possible."
"Just point me in the right direction. I can walk."
The man had the audacity to laugh at her.
"I'm capable. I'm going with or without your help."
"I have no doubt," he whispered under his breath. He stood suddenly and crossed the space between them. He hefted her to her feet and spun her around. His mouth pressed down on hers, silencing the startled sound that escaped her lips. She felt his tongue again and fought against his advances. She expected his roughness when she struggled. According to Oliver, that's what men did: They subdued and took what they wanted. It was their nature. Well, she was tired of being forced into doing something she didn't want to do. Never mind she'd been more than willing a moment ago when he'd held her gently out in the pool. Now he was just like any other man. She pulled her face away. "Stop! Please!"
He let her go and jerked away from her like he'd been burned.
Turning his back to her, he muttered, "I'm sorry," before asking, "Why would you want to go back there?"
Lucy bit her lip. She couldn't tell him the truth, but if she didn't make it a good-enough reason, he wouldn't take her. She walked up slowly behind him and pressed her hand against the middle of his back. Having a bluish cast to it, his skin was darker than hers. He was perfectly made, all sinew. He was strong enough to have forced her if he wanted to. Stronger by far than lesser men who had taken what they wanted. She hoped that meant there was something more to his character than the danger she suspected. "Haven't you ever lost someone you loved? I just want to say good-bye."
He went completely still beneath her touch, and she knew she'd struck a chord with him. There wasn't a person alive who hadn't experienced death. She just hoped he had enough heart left to compel him to help her.
"If I do this one thing for you, you'll stop fighting me?" He turned to face her, and she didn't like what she saw in his eyes. He wanted to make some kind of a deal. Did he just want her to spread her legs? He could take that without negotiating.
"What do you want from me?"
He lifted his big hands and grasped her shoulders. For a second she felt fear, but then she realized he was trembling. "I want you to be mine."