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