Excerpt From Ride The Fire
Nicholas awoke with a jerk, caught between the nightmare and wakefulness, his heart pounding, his body covered with sweat. He struggled to open his eyes, found himself lying on his stomach in someone’s bed, his head on a pillow. His right leg throbbed, burned. His head ached. His throat was parched as sand, and a strange aftertaste lingered in his mouth.
From nearby came the swish of skirts, the sound of a log settling in a fire, the scent of something cooking.
Where was he?
Through a fog he tried to remember. He’d been attacked. The Frenchmen from the fort. He’d lost a lot of blood, had ridden in search of help. The cabin. The woman.
Bethie was her name. Elspeth Stewart.
She’d helped him, cleaned his wound, cauterized it — not altogether willingly.
Nicholas lifted his head, started to roll onto his side to take in his surroundings, found he could not.
His wrists and ankles were bound to the bedposts.
Blood rushed to his head, a dark surge of rage, of dread.
“You’re awake.” Her voice came from behind him. “You must be thirsty.”
“You little bitch!” He pulled on the ropes, his fury and dread rising when they held fast. “Release me! Now!”
“I-I cannae do that — no’ yet. I’ve made broth. It will help you regain—”
“Damn your broth, woman! Untie me!” He jerked on the ropes again, outraged and alarmed to find himself rendered powerless. Sharp pain cut through his right thigh.
“Stop your strugglin’! You’ll split your wound open and make it bleed again.”
Infuriated, Nicholas growled, a sound more animal than human, even to his own ears. He jerked violently on the ropes, but it was futile. He was still weak from blood loss, and the effort left him breathless, made his pulse hammer in his ears.
He closed his eyes, fought to subdue the slick current of panic that slid up from his belly, caught in his throat.
She was not Lyda. This was not the Wyandot village.
His heartbeat slowed. The panic subsided, left white-hot rage in its wake.
“Why did you do this? I told you I meant you no harm!” He craned his neck, saw that she stood before the fire, ladling liquid into a tin cup, a brown knitted shawl around her shoulders.
“Is that no’ what the wolf always says to the lamb?” She carried the cup to the bed, sat. “Drink. It will help to replenish your blood. Careful. ’Tis hot.”
Tantalized by the smell of the broth and suddenly aching with thirst, Nicholas bit back the curse that sat on his tongue, drank.
Bethie held the cup to his lips, watched as he swallowed the broth, her heart still racing. For one terrible moment, she’d feared the ropes would break or come loose. She’d known he would be angry with her, but she hadn’t expected him to try to rip the bed apart.
Truth be told, she feared him despite the ropes. Although he’d given up for the moment, she could feel the fury coiled inside him. She could see it in the rippling tension of his body, in his clenched fists, in the unforgiving glare in his eyes. He made her think of a caged cougar — spitting angry and untamed. He was not used to being bested.
The arrogant brute! Did he imagine she would grant him warm hospitality after the way he’d treated her? It served him right to be bound and helpless!
As if a man of his strength were ever truly helpless.
Her gaze traveled the length of him as it had done many times while he’d slept, and she found her eyes focused of their own will on the rounded muscles of his buttocks where the butter-soft leather clung so tightly.
Mortified, she jerked her gaze away, felt heat rise in her cheeks. Her stepfather had always said she was possessed of a sinful nature.
“More.” His boorish command interrupted her thoughts. He glowered at her through eyes of slate.
“Aye.” She stood, hurried to the fireplace, ladled more broth into the cup, uncomfortably aware that he was watching her.
“How long do you intend to keep me a prisoner?” His voice was rough, full of repressed rage.
She walked back to the bed, sat, feigned a calm she did not feel. “’Tis your own fault you lie bound. You cannae be expectin’ to be treated as a guest when you behaved like a felon. Drink.”
He pulled his head away, his gaze hard upon her, held up the ropes that bound his wrists. “This isn’t necessary.”
“You threatened me, held your pistol to my head, forced me to do your will and admitted to killin’ two men. Do you truly expect me to trust you?”
He frowned, his dark brows pensive. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“As I recollect, you seemed quite bent on frightenin’ me.”
“I didn’t have time for social graces. My need was dire.”
“So is mine!” She stood in a surge of temper, met his gaze. “I cannae risk you regainin’ your strength and then, when you no longer need my help, hurtin’ me or my baby or takin’ what is ours and leavin’ us in the cold to starve! I dinnae even know your name!”
For a moment he said nothing. “Kenleigh. Nicholas Kenleigh.”
She repeated his name aloud.
“Now that we’ve exchanged pleasantries, Mistress Stewart, you will release me.”
“Nay, Master Kenleigh. I willna — no’ just yet.” She lifted her chin. “You’ll stay as you are till I’m certain you pose no threat to me and my baby.”
He gave a snort. “And how will you determine that?”
“Drink.” She held the cup once more to his lips. “Perhaps I shall have you swear an oath, a bindin’ oath.”
He drained the cup, looked up at her. “And if I am a murdering liar, a man with no honor, the sort of man who would harm a woman ripe with child, how would this oath prevent me from doing whatever I want the moment you cut me free?”
Bethie stood, walked back to the fireplace to refill the cup once more, the truth in his words dashing her sense of safety to pieces. “Are you sayin’ I should never set you free, Master Kenleigh?”
“No, Mistress Stewart. I’m saying that unless you plan to keep me a prisoner forever and care for me as if I were a babe untrained in the use of a chamber pot, sooner or later you have no choice but to trust me.”
She walked back to the bed, felt her step falter. In truth, she hadn’t thought about how or when she would release him when she’d bound him to the bed. Nor had she considered what keeping him bound would mean. She’d been thinking only of a way to restrain him and deprive him of his weapons, and she had accomplished that.
A babe untrained in the use of a chamber pot? Good heavens!
She reached the bed, sat, held the cup once more to his lips. “Very well. I shall cut you free. But you shall first swear to me by all you hold sacred that you willna do anythin’ to harm me or my baby or to deprive us of our hearth and home.”
He swallowed, licked broth from his lips. Then a queer look came over his face. He stared at the tin cup, then gaped at her. “You drugged me!”
How did he know? “I-I gave you medicine to ease your pain — and make you sleep.”
He laughed, a harsh sound. “You drugged me so that you could bind me and take my weapons.”
He stated it so plainly that Bethie could find no words to soften the truth of what she’d done. She rested a hand protectively on her belly, felt her baby shift within her. “Y-you left me no choice.”
Nicholas saw the defiant tilt of her chin, noticed the pink that crept into her cheeks. He noticed, too, the way her hand softly caressed the swollen curve of her abdomen as if to calm the small life inside her.
What would he have done in her place?
He dismissed the question — and the irritating impulse to defend his previous actions toward her. There was only one rule in the wild — survival. He’d only done what he’d felt he had to do to stay alive.
And so had she.
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