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Fires of Innocence

Fires of Innocence

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Fires of Innocence

4.5/5 (3 Bewertungen)
406 Seiten
5 Stunden
Dec 15, 2013


A single act of kindness may lead to her greatest loss, or the greatest love she’s ever known in this enthralling romance set in California’s Old West.
California, 1867. The wilderness of Yosemite Valley is no place to be caught alone. When Scotty MacDowell rescues a wounded stranger from a fierce blizzard, she is thinking only of saving a lost traveler. She never expects she’s nursing a passionate lover back to health.
Seven months later, Alex Golovin returns to Scotty’s tiny cabin in the wilderness, but not to take her back into his arms. Instead of the man she loved, Alex returns as an angry lawyer, determined to run Scotty off of her beloved land. Caught between passion and responsibility, Scotty and Alex endure a daily struggle to stay true to their hearts, no matter the cost.
“Everything a lover of romance could ask for and more.” —Penelope Williamson, author of The Outsider
“Jane Bonander reaches to her readers’ hearts.”—RT Book Reviews
Dec 15, 2013

Über den Autor

Bestselling author Jane Bonander has published over a dozen full length novels and four anthologies, all dealing with the perils and passions of romantic historical fiction. She currently lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband.

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Fires of Innocence - Jane Bonander



Yosemite Valley, California—October 1867

Two figures trudged through the powdery snow. The one behind, the one with the rifle, gained steadily on the one ahead. Gripping his side, the man in front glanced over his shoulder as if to gauge the distance between him and his tracker. Despite his wound, he pressed on over the crest of the hill, then down the other side, his lungs burning from exertion, his legs and feet numb from the cold.

Suddenly, a rifle shot split the air. The bullet did not find its target, whizzing instead into the bleak, dead air beyond the trees.

The sound awakened the snow laden boughs of the sedate yellow pines, and as the morning sun sifted through their branches, the sudden warming shifted the dense masses on the ends of the lacy limbs and they fell, striking the ones below.

Little by little the sparkling snow crystals, alive with motion and bursting with sunbeams, gathered power and speed. In the distance, one could hear a dull rumbling. The man ahead, who was well down the hill, stopped briefly and listened. Recognizing the sound, he quickly looked back, then broke into a limping run, his hand pressed tightly against his side.

The tracker glanced behind him, momentarily frozen by the broad cloud-shaped drift that bounded over the cliff brows, descending at avalanche speed. Then, like an advancing army, a tremendous wind howled upon him, pushing the air aside. The hissing of the snow as it thundered down the mountain drove the breath from his lungs. He struggled against the riverlike flow, sucking in great gulps of snow and choking as the icy crystals clogged his throat. His rifle, wrenched from his grip, flew into the air, then disappeared into the plunging slide. The mass whirled and eddied around him, tossing him about like a snowflake in a storm.

The avalanche finally stopped on the valley floor, the tracker entombed beneath the weight of the slide. The air was suddenly clear again, and the snow-spray filtered softly through the sunbeams, finally coming to rest on the snowy meadows.

The wounded man, still gripping his injured side, struggled on.


Beneath the earth’s naked skin sculpted muscles of granite flex against the erosive forces of nature’s fist. Above the land, the silent snow prepares for invasion, gathering momentum on convex slopes, stressing the massive powdery cover until it breaks free on its downward plunge.

Ian MacDowell’s journal

Yosemite Valley, California—October 1867

Scotty MacDowell paused, listening to the thundering sounds of the avalanche in the distance. She’d heard them all morning. Surely now the passes were closed. Warm relief spread through her. She was alone and safe—until spring.

She slogged through the fresh snow, her pet raccoon, Muggin, curled around her neck like a scarf. Tightening her grip on the burlap sack that carried the dead rabbit, she shuddered as she remembered having to release the tawny-colored hare from the trap. Her father had always been the one to set and spring the traps, but now, with him gone …

Sucking in a ragged breath, she wondered how long it would take for the sharp edges of her grief to soften into something that didn’t hurt so much. Caring for her father and watching him die from the wasting disease had taken its toll on her, and now she counted on the long, quiet winter to rejuvenate her.

She looked up as a gathering of jays settled onto the branches of a Jeffrey pine, their harsh shack-shack complaints echoing her own dismal mood. Beautiful as they were, they appeared cheerless and uneasy during the early winter months, always hunched over against the cold, like tramps huddled around a fire.

A sudden breeze embraced the grove of lively silver pines, launching from each needle a carefully tempered note that created a serenade of sun sparkled wind song.

Scotty briefly closed her eyes. Of all the sounds that wafted through the winter air, wind music was her favorite.

She inhaled deeply, loving the fresh, cold fragrance of new snow. As she climbed up over a rise, she saw her cabin in the distance. A thick dollop of smoke chugged from the chimney, painting a gray smudge on the bright blue morning sky. Snuggled low against the tall granite, the small building appeared to butt up against the solid rock wall.

Scotty smiled, her grief lifting slightly as she looked at the scene—one she loved so much. She had always marveled at her father’s ingenuity, for there was a door at the back of the cabin that opened into a cave where their precious animals stayed warm throughout the cold, bone-crushing winter.

As they neared home, Muggin grew agitated, changing positions on Scotty’s shoulders and trilling out warnings. Scotty turned, noting with alarm that Muggin’s white tufts of facial vibrissae stood out stiffly, indicating danger.

She instinctively slowed her steps and touched the knife she had strapped to her waist. Squinting against the sunlight, she scanned the snow near the cabin. She’d seen cougar tracks last week, and was always concerned that predators might find a way into the cave.

She stopped and listened. The only sounds she heard were the pulsing cadence of her own heartbeat and the moaning of the wind as it ruffled the trees.

Stroking Muggin’s back to quiet her, Scotty stalked toward the cabin, grateful she hadn’t worn her father’s heavy boots. Her high, fur-lined deerskin moccasins allowed her to move through the snow with the stealth of an Indian.

As she approached the cabin door, she noted a peculiar pattern in the snow. She crept closer to get a better look at it, then stopped. Pushing back her fear, she stared down at the large footprints that led to her door. Surrounding each print were splashes of blood, emblazoned against the pristine blanket of snow.

Swallowing the terrified lump in her throat, she pulled out her knife. Muggin whined loudly, driving Scotty’s heart into her mouth. She stroked the animal again, then briefly put her hand around its muzzle to quiet it. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door a crack and peered into the room. Nothing appeared wrong, yet—

Suddenly a hand snaked around the door and pulled her inside. Her knife clattered to the floor and Muggin tumbled from her shoulders, squealing as she retreated into the far shadows of the cabin. The hand, hard and calloused, clamped over Scotty’s mouth and cold steel pressed against her throat. Stark fear prickled her skin, and black spots danced before her eyes.

Who are you? The voice was low and husky, rasping like chaff against her ear.

She winced, the blade pressing harder as he took his hand away from her mouth. I live here, she whispered, her voice strained with fear.

Her breath caught in her throat as his free hand dove beneath her jacket, moving shamelessly over her waist and hips, pausing briefly on her breasts. Wha— she gasped, stunned at his blatant familiarity.

Do you have another knife? Maybe tucked away inside your drawers?

She shook her head, clamping a lid on her fear. Her father had warned her about criminals and convicts who fled from the law to hide in the valley.

The intruder pressed the knife closer. His broad, hard chest felt as solid as a door against her back, and she knew he could kill her instantly if he wanted to.

Do you live here alone?

N-no, she lied. Her gaze flickered down to the hand that held the knife. Blood rimmed the sleeve of his jacket, and his thumb, which was pressed against her windpipe, was warm, wet and sticky. Scotty shuddered and swallowed against the urge to vomit.

Who else? He shoved the flat of the blade harder against her windpipe.

My … my father. She choked on the words as they squeezed past her throat.

His name?

She closed her eyes briefly. Beneath her heavy jacket and warm clothing she began to perspire. It dampened her armpits and snaked between her breasts. Ian … Mac … Dowell.

Liar, he hissed, then drew in a ragged breath, dragging the knife closer still as he groaned in pain. MacDowell … is dead.

His knife blade glided lightly across the side of her neck as he collapsed to his knees behind her.

She gasped, sucking in great gulps of air as she sprang away from him. She brought her fingers to the stinging sensation at her throat and felt the warm, sticky substance that slid from the cut. Startled, she stared at her bloody fingers, then swung around and looked at the intruder, who was doubled over, gripping his side.

He’d cut her! Terror seeped through her. As she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and wrapped it around her neck to stop the flow of blood, she wondered if he’d done it on purpose. Not daring to take her eyes off him, she backed away and removed her jacket, dropping it over a chair.

What do you want here? The voice that came out of her mouth sounded too high-pitched and frightened to be her own.

I’ve been shot, he answered, breathing heavily. You’re going to help me.

Scotty stared down at him. Even kneeling he was huge. His hair, long and wild, was as black as her own and he wore a full untrimmed beard that covered the lower half of his face. His eyebrows, dark as the brows of Satan himself, arched over his slanting eyes.

Her gaze drifted down his torso over his tan, blood-soaked jacket. He was bleeding badly; maybe if she wasted enough time, he’d pass out. She felt a sudden stab of shame at her thoughts. Why should I help you? she asked.

Because, he answered, slowly pulling a revolver from his pocket, I’ll shoot you if you don’t.

Fear pooled in her stomach. Bravely, she looked at his face. His eyes weren’t the eyes of a madman. They were an icy, hard blue and showed no signs of the pain he had to be feeling from his wound.

She gave him a brief nod. It did no good to deny him. The sooner she tended to him, the sooner he’d be gone. But where would be go? She shoved the thought away. That wasn’t her concern.

Come … come over by the fire, she said softly.

Making no sound, he slowly pulled himself to his feet. The skin under his eyes was gray.

She took her father’s sleeping roll and laid it in front of the fire, then unfolded a large quilt on top of it. She glanced over her shoulder and saw the stranger rub his free hand across his face. He weaved slightly, then shook himself, once again appearing to gain control.

You’ll have to remove your coat.

His breath came in harsh gasps, and he leaned against her father’s big chair by the fire. You’ll help me, he ordered.

Biting back a smart remark, she pulled his arm from the sleeve of the jacket, watching as he shifted the revolver to his other hand.

She wasn’t prepared for the sight that met her gaze. Swallowing convulsively, she gaped at his shirt. It was so drenched with blood that it stuck to his skin.

Feeling a sudden rush of concern, she pulled him to the bedroll and helped him lie down. As she leaned over him to examine the wound, she felt his gun against her ribs. She jerked away and stared down at him.

Off, he commanded softly.

She looked at him, hating the anxiety she knew was in her eyes. What?

Your shirt and trousers. Take them off.

She swallowed again, forcing down the panic. Wh-why?

He waved the revolver under her nose. I want to make sure you’re not hiding a weapon.

But I’m not. I’m not, she answered, shaking her head frantically.

Now. His voice proved he was still in control.

With shaky fingers, she slowly unbuttoned her flannel shirt, shrugging out of it and dropping it to the floor. Her nipples automatically tightened beneath her drab long underwear, and for the first time in her life, she felt foolish wearing her father’s clothes. She hesitated, tossing him a plaintive glance.

He waved the revolver at her again. The trousers.

With mounting apprehension she pulled off her moccasins and unbuttoned the fly of her britches: Thoughts, every one of them bloody and frightening, somersaulted through her brain.

For a moment, she allowed her imagination to run away, then, from somewhere inside her, she dredged up courage. This is the stupidest thing—

Hurry up, he interrupted. I’m bleeding to death.

Then die and be quick about it! She slid her trousers down to her feet and stepped out of them, wishing she had the nerve to tell him what she thought, but grateful she had a sensible tongue in her head. Then she stood before him, refusing to acknowledge her humiliation.

Come here.

She obeyed, only because she feared him.

On your knees, he ordered.

She balked. Why?

On your knees.

Trying to keep from shivering, she got to her knees and glared at him defiantly. Suddenly his free hand came up between her legs, moving swiftly over her thighs.

With the agility of a cat, Scotty rolled onto her buttocks and moved quickly to the side.

What in the devil was that for? she demanded, the shame at having been touched so intimately feeding her anger.

He gazed at her through narrowed lids. You could have had a knife strapped to your thigh.

She stood, regaining her dignity. Well, I didn’t now, did I?

No, he answered, a small indecent smile tugging at his lips. You didn’t.

Scotty took a deep breath. Now what? Master, she wanted to add.

Tend my wound.

She hesitated only a moment, crossed to the fireplace and put another log on the grate. Feeling naked in just her underwear, she self-consciously poked at the charred tinder, trying to keep her breasts from moving beneath her undershirt. After the fire was regenerated, she picked up a kettle of hot water, some wrapping flannel and a deep bowl, and returned to the intruder.

She shivered. Do you mind if I dress now that you’ve humiliated me?

His rude gaze raked over her. Yes, he answered with a smirk. I mind.

Cursing the devil who brought him to her, she lowered herself to her knees beside him, nimbly unbuttoned his shirt and the top of his long underwear. She dragged his arms from the sleeves.

The sight of the wound made her gasp. He’d been hit low on his torso, the bullet entering far to the right and just above his navel. Her gaze moved slowly to his face. His eyes were focused on her breasts, and she felt heat spread up her neck, into her cheeks. Bloody worthless convict. She was sorry whoever shot him had missed. No gentleman would stare so brazenly.

She quickly washed off the blood and examined the wound, ignoring his sharp intake of breath. The injury was wicked looking, but clean. Glancing up briefly, she saw the mass of curly black hair that grew so thickly across his chest that it hid his nipples. A funny feeling tunneled into the pit of her stomach, and she looked away.

She started to stand, but he seized her arm. His grip was like iron, and she knew it would be useless to fight him.

Where are you going?

You need a poultice, she shot back.

He let her go then, but she could feel his hot, suspicious gaze down the length of her back as she moved away from him.

Crossing to her spice chest, she pulled open the drawer that held the creosote leaves. After grinding them into dust, she added a small amount of badger oil and mixed them together.

She walked back toward him, keenly aware that he watched her. He was getting an eyeful, the mangy cur.

She knelt down beside him, suddenly unafraid. I certainly hope you’re happy, she said as she set down the poultice and wiped off the wound again. You’ve stripped me of all my self-respect.

He swore, then sucked in his breath as she shoved him onto his side and pressed the poultice against his wound. And you’re going to make me pay for it, aren’t you?

Don’t tempt me, she answered, pushing one end of the flannel under him so she could pull it out the other side.

He lifted off the floor slightly, allowing her to push the flannel through. I … wouldn’t dream … of it. He sucked in his breath again before relaxing against the bedding.

Scotty pulled the flannel across his wide chest, covering the lower half of his ribs, then under, around and back again, to just above his hair-covered navel. His flesh was firm and warm. The hair that covered him wasn’t soft, nor was it stiff. Her fingers grazed it often, and she had a wild urge to splay her palms over the area of his breasts and feel the pelt.

Her cheeks flared with heat at such thoughts. Surely he was casting a spell of some sort upon her. When she’d finished wrapping him, she fastened the flap to the side and glanced at his face. She seethed inwardly, for he was staring at her chest, smirking like a lecher.

She leaped to her feet and, with a mutinous glare, stepped into her trousers, pulling them up over her hips. She also slipped back into her shirt and buttoned it to her neck, ignoring him.

As she pulled on her moccasins, the thought struck her that he could be a killer or even a rapist. Slowly, she backed away.

If he were unconscious, she’d be safe. But thoughts of the long night ahead terrified her. She was already exhausted from tending to his needs. While it would be impossible to stay awake all night and keep her eye on him, she would have to try. He’d already proved he was a man who got the upper hand easily.

Come here, he rasped, waving the gun at her again.

Scotty swallowed bile, but didn’t move. What do you want now?

My clothes, he said.

Your clothes are all bloody.

He nodded. I know. Take them off.

Her mouth fell open. Off? Yours?

Off. Mine. He twitched the revolver in her direction.

Again, she grew cold. Crossing her arms over her breasts, she crept slowly toward him.

Hurry up!

She jumped at the harsh sound, then bent over him again, dragging his bloody shirt out from under him. He made a sound in his throat, but appeared to bite it back before it became a groan.

She studied him, hoping he’d finally lost consciousness. When he didn’t open his eyes or even move, she backed away.

The rest of them, he commanded.

Scotty swallowed a sound of annoyance, then went to the end of the sleeping roll, pulling back the blanket. She cringed. There was blood everywhere. She hastily threw the quilt back over him, then reached up under it and found the waist of his trousers. She noted with dismay that his fly was buttoned.

By the holy, if this didn’t get her knickers in a twist, nothing would. She hadn’t even had to undo her own father’s buttons when he’d been ill.

Taking a deep breath, she gingerly released each button from its hole, trying to ignore the heavy mound that lay behind the underwear. It wasn’t possible. The gesture, so painfully intimate, was made more so by the heat discharged from his body. Suddenly, the backs of her fingers accidentally grazed the mass, and it moved. She jerked her hand away and looked at him. There was a half-smile on his lips, and one black eyebrow was arched up over one eye.

You have a free hand, she sputtered, sitting back on her haunches. Do it yourself.

I like the way you do it, he answered with a wicked grin.

Her temper flared as her cheeks flamed. So that’s how it was going to be? With vicious glee, she thrust her hands up under the blanket, finished unbuttoning his fly, then jerked his trousers down over his hips and knees. With equal vengeance she pulled down his long underwear, trying to avoid touching the long, hard muscles along the outside of his thighs.

She stood, hoping she’d caused him pain. But when she looked at him, he actually appeared to be asleep—or maybe, she thought hopefully, he’d passed out. Not taking her eyes off him, she tiptoed closer, nudging him with her toe. He didn’t move, but the gun slid from his fingers.

Scotty couldn’t believe her luck. She inched closer still, knelt down and scooped up the weapon. Crossing the room in three quick leaps, she then hid his gun in one of the nooks in the rolltop desk.

She quickly pulled on her jacket, went outside and shoveled snow into a bucket, hauling it back inside and setting it in front of the fire. While she waited for the snow to melt, she went through the man’s pockets. She found no identification, only a beautiful gold watch with the initials AAG delicately scrolled on the back.

Running her fingers back and forth across the surface of the watch, she looked at the rough, wild man. He’d probably stolen it. Or maybe, she thought, her nerves cresting with fresh fear, he’d killed the owner first.

Shuddering, she set the timepiece on the counter. After stoking the fire again, she draped another quilt over him. Then, stretching her back, she walked over and sat down in her father’s chair by the hearth. After kicking off her moccasins and tucking her feet under her, Muggin scurried over and curled up in her lap.

Well, girl, she said, scratching that special place just above Muggin’s tail, what do you think?

Muggin stared at the quiet form on the floor and growled deep in her throat.

Scotty glared at the insolent stranger, too. My sentiments exactly.

She turned her head to the side, letting Muggin probe her heavy coiled braids in search of her hairpins. The movement brought a sharp stinging pain from under the cloth she’d wrapped around her neck, and she remembered that he’d cut her. She reached up and touched the cloth. It was dry. Well, at least she wasn’t bleeding. She’d dress it properly later. Right now, with Muggin unbraiding her hair, a drowsy lethargy was spreading through her.

She tried to keep her eyes open; she couldn’t afford to doze off. She had to watch the man, not only to make sure he didn’t start bleeding again, but to make sure he didn’t kill her in her sleep. She had to … She yawned behind her hand and nestled deeper into the chair. No, she couldn’t afford to sleep. Not only did she have her usual chores to do, but she still had a jackrabbit to clean.

Several hours later, Scotty awoke with a start. Immediately upon rising from the chair, she skinned and cleaned the rabbit and made a fresh batch of biscuits. While the biscuits were cooling on the counter, she went into the cave and mucked out Glory, her father’s mule’s stall, and hunted for eggs. It was always an adventure, for her scurrilous hen often refused to part with them. This time was no exception. She got bit. Cursing mildly, she pushed aside the deerskin that covered the opening to the cave and stepped into the cabin, her bleeding finger in her mouth. Cradling the precious egg in her other hand, she crossed to the counter and gingerly set her booty in a rounded dish so it wouldn’t roll out and break.

She turned as Muggin yipped at her from the hammock in the far corner. Oh, it’s nothing, little lass. Just that old hen trying to keep her egg for herself, she said.

The raccoon swung from the hammock like an acrobat tumbling from a circus net. She scampered over to Scotty, climbed onto the counter and nudged the egg with her nose.

Oh, no you don’t, Scotty scolded, hiding the egg in the cupboard. I know what you want, you rascal. She hauled the animal into her arms and held her like a baby. You not only want that egg, but you want me to butcher that nasty hen so you can feast on cooked chicken neck, don’t you?

Muggin fought her way out of Scotty’s arms and jumped to the floor, landing close to the stranger. Letting out an ear-piercing shriek, she scurried to the wooden box, peering out from behind it to stare at the man.

Scotty shook her head and went to wash up. He’d been motionless as a buried stick for hours, for which she was grateful. Every time she began to wonder who he was, thoughts of how he’d made her strip to her underwear bombarded her brain, fueling her fury. And when she thought about that, she remembered how he’d touched her, claiming to search for a knife. She also remembered that there had been almost as much heat in his gaze as there’d been in the fireplace. Sweet Mary, he was the most revolting kind of criminal. What cruel fate had brought him into her life, anyway?

Pushing away all thoughts of the man, she returned to the counter and began browning the rabbit meat for the stew.

She was engrossed in her cooking, having almost forgotten she wasn’t alone.

What the hell!

The deep, rumbling voice made her jump, and she dropped a piece of meat on the floor. For a moment she panicked, hunting wildly for the rifle she’d placed so carefully beside her. Finally seeing it, she grabbed it and swung around, pointing it at the intruder.

He was up on one elbow, frowning down at his naked chest. Suddenly he looked at her, and his eyes glistered dangerously. Where in the hell are my clothes?

Scotty swallowed hard. You told me to take them off. They were all bloody.

He made a growling noise in his throat, the sound wild and menacing. I didn’t tell you to leave me buck naked.

You didn’t tell me to dress you, either, she answered as tartly as she could, given the circumstances. She focused her gaze at the dark whorls of hair on his chest, remembering, in spite of herself, the fascination she’d felt when she’d touched it. It was safer than looking him in the eye—wasn’t it?

Would you have?

Her gaze moved to his face. What?

Dressed me?

She fumed. Not before I carved out your bloody heart.

He started to laugh, then sobered, groping the floor on either side of him. Dammit, where is it?

She gripped her rifle harder. Unconscious, he had seemed helpless enough. But now, he was awake, virile and … and male. And his brief teasing puzzled her. I … I put your gun in a safe place.

He swore, threw back the covers and bared himself in front of her.

She gawked at him and sucked in her breath, holding it so long she almost fainted. His shoulders were wide and hard, his arms appeared sculpted from granite, and his chest drew her gaze again, tempting her as it had done before. There was a blatant lustiness about him. His whole bearing was potent. And he seemed unbelievably dangerous now that he had some of his strength back.

Gasping for breath, she leaned back against the counter and briefly looked away. Heaven, hell and purgatory, the man had no shame. Nor did she, it would seem, considering how she stared at him and how her gaze was drawn irresistibly to him again.

He started to get up. The long, hard muscles of his thighs bulged under his weight. She gaped at the profusion of black hair below the bandage, the sight drawing her eyes like a bairn’s mouth to a sugar tit. Heaven help her, she had to do something.

Stop it! Stay back! Stay away from me! She jabbed the rifle at him, fending him off as though he were a charging grizzly.

Suddenly he doubled over and groaned, clutching his side. He lay back against the pillow, panting as drops of sweat beaded his forehead. I want my gun.

Not before I find out who you are, she retorted, regaining her composure.

I’m your worst nightmare if you don’t give me my gun.

The rifle made Scotty brave. And I’m yours if you dinna tell me who you are and why you’re here.

He closed his eyes and sagged against the pillow. All in good time, he muttered weakly.

"I want to know now. She touched the flannel binding at her throat. You almost separated my head from my shoulders. I think I have a right to know who the devil you are."

He lay there, unconcerned, his forearm over his face.

Scotty glowered at him. Who shot you?

He sighed, lifted his arm off his face and stared at her, again grazing her body with indecent arrogance. Someone who didn’t like what I do for a living.

She gave him a cynical look A few inches higher, and he’d have claimed your lung. Too bad he wasn’t a better shot.

He studied her, examining her chest and hips before dragging his gaze to her face. I liked you better in your underwear.

Her face got hot. And I liked you better when you were snoring like a dead hammer.

He grinned, a maddening half-grin that didn’t reach his eyes. Why? So you could get a better look at my body?

She gasped, feeling the blush heat up the roots of her hair. You arrogant, conceited, cocky, son-of-a—

Tut, tut, he interrupted, wagging a finger at her. That’s no way for a young lady to talk.

"I wish I’d had the pleasure of shooting you myself. I wouldn’t have missed the vital places," she added, glaring at his covered groin.

He continued to peruse her. Had his look been any hotter, her clothes would have become ashes and fallen to the floor.

Then I’m lucky you didn’t get to me first, aren’t I?

She squirmed under his scrutiny, terribly uncomfortable and unaccustomed to having someone examine her this way. She would have thought that after all that he’d put her through earlier, nothing would have bothered her. She was wrong.

Suddenly he gasped. A look of pain spread across his face. Do something, dammit, it hurts like hell. He swore again. I need a drink.

Scotty gripped the rifle and inched toward him. Move your arm away from your side. He did, and she glanced down at the blood that had soaked through half the binding.

Dredging up her courage, she said, I’m going to have to take a closer look at it.

He nodded, shoving the blankets down past his navel.

She looked at the expanse of flesh again. Up close, the symmetrical pattern of chest hair not covered by the flannel binding was dark and curly. As she knelt down beside him, memories of her father’s chest, thin in illness and void of hair, swam before her and she gave her head a violent shake.

Remember, she warned. One move out of you, and I’ll blow your bloody head off.

He lifted a black, contemptuous eyebrow in her direction, but said nothing.

She left him briefly to get fresh supplies, then returned and put

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