Authors: Patricia Hagan
Suddenly, he fell to his knees in the sand. The bull charged, exploding with fury into the crimson cape. Amber’s hands flew to her mouth as, without so much as a glance over his shoulder, Armand lured the beast back to him in a corkscrew turn around his pivoting body.
Armand stepped back, rose on tiptoe, and, as the bull drove straight for him, head lowered, Armand drove the sword high between the animal’s shoulder blades.
The bull crumpled, dying in a pool of blood.
The crowd screamed hysterically as Armand strutted proudly toward the presidential box. Every few steps he paused, taking sweeping bows to the thunderous ovation.
When he was standing just beneath the box, he looked up at Amber expectantly. She stared back, confused. What was she supposed to do at this point? While she wondered, Valdis snatched the hat from Amber’s lap and angrily tossed it out of the box into the ring. She watched, astonished, as Armand reached for it and missed. The hat landed in the dirt.
Armand looked up, eyes narrowing on Valdis’s glaring face. Armand turned his back and walked away, flowers raining down upon him from all around the arena.
“Good! Good!” Maretta was saying. “He missed the hat. A matador never misses the hat. You have shamed him, Valdis. He deserves it for letting the
Amber flared, knowing exactly what
meant. Leaping to her feet, she whirled on Maretta and cried, “How dare you say such a thing, Maretta? What have I ever done to you to make you hate me so? I didn’t ask Armand to throw me his hat. Now the two of you have embarrassed him in his moment of glory.”
“Sit down and shut your mouth,” Valdis snarled. “Do not incense me further, Amber. Already you have a merciless beating coming to you tonight.”
“You won’t touch me,” Amber cried, moving to the stairs. “I find both of you despicable!”
Amber ran down the steps, bumping into people in her haste. She reached the main corridor out of the arena and looked over her shoulder to see that Valdis was only a short distance behind her.
Running out the main gate, she felt herself being grabbed around the waist and she panicked. But it was not Valdis.
“Let her be, Valdis,” Cord Hayden barked as Valdis skidded to a stop before him. Cord kept his grip on Amber. “I’ll take her back to the ranch.”
People had stopped to stare, and Valdis struggled to control himself. In a strained voice, he said, “It would not be proper. The two of you would be alone. I have no duenna to send with you.”
“We have no need of a chaperone,” Cord scoffed. “Besides,” he added rakishly, “if I wanted to seduce Amber, it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference whether there was a duenna around or not.”
Amber gasped, and Valdis stiffened. “Señor, I will ask you to hold your tongue.”
“Just like you hold yours, right, Valdis?” Cord snapped, reaching out to wrap possessive fingers around Amber’s arm. “Let’s go.”
Valdis could only watch them walk away. He did not want a scene, not with people watching. There had been too much talk in the valley already. But one day…one day, he vowed, Cord Hayden would pay for daring to defy him.
“Wait here,” Cord commanded, leaving Amber near a hitching post as he went to talk to an old man standing beside a horse and wagon. Cord handed the man some money, then motioned to Amber.
“I am grateful to you,” she said softly when they were seated on the wagon’s crude wooden bench. Cord popped the reins and the tired-looking horse began lumbering forward.
“It won’t be as comfortable as riding in that expensive Alezparito carriage,” he told her as he stared straight ahead, “but maybe the company will be a bit more pleasant.”
“I’m sure it will be,” she said quickly, then felt foolish.
Cord flashed her a warm smile. “Don’t be nervous with me. I don’t bite. Well, not all the time. And when I do, it’s in places you’d like to be bitten.”
“Sir!” Amber gasped. Then she saw the laughter in his eyes and felt easier. “Do you always say such bold things to women?”
“Only to women who blush at bold things. Now tell me why you ran out of the arena looking so upset.”
She explained, and finished by saying, “I’m afraid I really didn’t know what was going on at the time, only that something had happened that infuriated both Valdis and Maretta.”
Cord laughed. “I’m surprised at Armand being so bold. It’s a pretty big thing when a matador dedicates his kill to a señorita. When the señorita is young, pretty, and unmarried, it’s usually a declaration of his intention to court her. For you to be sitting with Maretta…well, Armand is living dangerously.”
Amber stammered, “I…I hardly know him.” She shook her head from side to side, long hair whipping about her face in the breeze. “I never expected any of this. Sometimes I don’t understand what’s going on.”
Cord turned to give her a probing look. “Just what
you expect when you came to Mexico?”
She bit her lip, determined that the pain he had suddenly evoked would not bring tears. Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly, then said, “I don’t know, exactly. I only know what I didn’t expect…to find my father dead, my stepmother treated worse than a servant in her own house, and a tyrant like Valdis. He stole all the money I had in the world in order to keep me a prisoner. All I wanted was to leave here.”
Cord gently prodded, “I think you’d better tell me all of it, Amber. Start at the beginning.”
She shook her head in dismay. “I have no right to burden you with my problems, and besides…” she added fearfully, “how do I know I can trust you?”
“Do you have any choice?” he asked plainly.
“Yes,” she countered. “I can try to solve my problems myself.”
“Right now you aren’t doing a very good job. So why don’t you just unburden on me? I am no friend of Valdis’s. You can trust me.”
Amber gazed at him. Again, it was as though she had known him before, somewhere. Making a sudden decision, she told him all of it. He listened quietly, staring at the road ahead as the horse plodded along.
When she had finished, he began speaking in a low voice. “I’m going to try and get you out of there, Amber, but I will have to be careful. I can’t let Armand know just how desperate the situation is, and I’m going to ask you not to tell him.”
She blinked. “But why?”
“Damn it, woman,” he said, eyes blazing. “Don’t you understand? Armand is falling in love with you. If he even thought that Valdis would lay a hand on you, he’d go charging into that house and get killed. He is a great matador, but he’d never stand a chance against a killer like Valdis.”
“Killer?” Amber echoed.
“Yes, a killer,” he said tightly. “I’ve heard some ugly things, but there’s no need to scare you further by repeating them. Just believe me when I say the man is dangerous, and I want you to be careful. Don’t goad him, Amber. I’ll work something out.”
He shook his head. “Hell, I’d take you all the way to the border right now myself, but he’d have a goddamn army after us, and we’d never have a chance. We need time to plan.”
Cord sensed her fear and covered her hands with one of his and squeezed. “Listen, sweetheart,” he gave her a lopsided grin, “he isn’t going to hurt you. He’s just trying to scare you. If he wanted to hurt you, he’d have done it by now. I think he’s got other plans…like marriage.”
“Gossip spreads in the valley like sand in a windstorm. I’ve heard that Valdis brags he’s going to have the most beautiful woman in Mexico for his wife. Armand hasn’t heard that, or he would have said something. Let’s hope he doesn’t hear the gossip. Like I said, we don’t need him charging in like a white knight rescuing a damsel in distress.”
They rode in silence for a while, and Cord turned the wagon from the main road and urged the horse up over a tiny knoll. Reining to a stop, he got down and wordlessly held out his arms to Amber. She allowed him to help her to the ground. He took her hand and led her around a thick hedge of sage and cactus.
She gasped in delight at the view beyond. The valley stretched in the golden sunset like giant fingers of purple mist. Dusty emerald and rose clouds wafted through the vegetation. Light bounced off the rocks, turning stone into sparkling diamonds.
“It’s all so beautiful,” she whispered in awe. “I have never seen anything so lovely in all my life.”
Cord leaned back against a smooth, flat rock. Amber stood beside him until he lifted her and sat her on the rock. After a while, he said, “It’s one of the prettiest spots I’ve seen in Mexico, but it can’t compare with Pennsylvania.”
“Is that where you are from?” she asked.
He nodded. “I’ll go back there one day.”
He sounded so wistful. “Can’t you go back now if you miss it so? And whatever brought you all the way to Mexico in the first place? Were you running from the rebels?” she teased.
He chuckled, but she did not miss the slight glint of anger flashing in his eyes.
“No. I didn’t run from the rebs. And, besides, what are you doing out here in the desert with a Yankee? If Armand hadn’t told me you were from the South, I would have known it by the butter-and-grits accent.”
“I never took sides during the war,” she told him somberly, quickly explaining the sheltered, removed-from-life existence she had known with her grandmother. “We were just never involved in anything. I think there could have been a battle going on right outside the window, and Grandma would have closed the shutters and gone about her business.”
He had been staring downward as she spoke, muscular arms folded across his large chest. She watched as he suddenly leaned over, shocked at the tremors of pleasure she felt at the sight of his shirt straining tautly against his broad back. Picking a small yellow cactus flower, he handed it to her. “You’re like this flower, Amber. Tiny, vulnerable, innocent. There for the picking. For you have no one to protect you.”
He was leaning over her, so close she could see the thick lashes framing his dark brown eyes. “Until now…” he murmured huskily. “Until now, Amber…”
Powerful arms swept her against him in a crushing vise as his mouth came down on hers. His tongue parted her lips and he explored the intimate recesses of her mouth. She couldn’t control the desire quivering through her body, as warm and as penetrating as the gilded sunset bathing them in glory.
He released her and she gasped. “You…you shouldn’t have done that. It was—”
“—damn nice.” He laughed, cupping her chin and brushing his lips across hers. “And you liked it.”
She looked down and saw that she was still holding the fragile flower he had given her. Yes, it had been nice. She had liked it. Too much. And now she felt frightened, but within that fright was anger, and she lifted her face to look at him in a challenge. “I am not like this flower, Cord. I’m not going to let myself be weak and vulnerable. I am going to get my money back from Valdis, and I am going to leave Mexico, leave you and your kisses, and Armand and his charm, and Valdis and his power…none of these will hold me here.”
He placed a hand flat against the rock on each side of her and smiled. “You are such a tiny thing to have so much spunk…like a fluffy little kitten. All playful and cute one minute, all claws and spit the next.”
She wouldn’t let him know how uncomfortable she was. “First I’m a flower and then a kitten. I am me, Cord Hayden, a grown woman.”
“No, not grown. Not grown, little kitten. But you will be. And maybe I’ll be the one to teach you.”
He moved closer, towering over her. “I would like that—teaching you what a woman needs to know to please a man.”
“Well, you won’t get the opportunity,” she snapped, furious with herself for the emotions surging within. “Now, I think we had best get back to the ranch before Valdis comes looking for me. I have enough problems with him as it is.”
He was silent for a moment as he looked at her so probingly that it seemed he could see inside her soul. “Yeah, I think we better,” he said finally in a husky voice. “Because if we don’t leave, I’m going to give you your first lesson here and now.”
He moved closer, and she braced herself for his kiss, then cursed silently at the disappointment she felt when he didn’t kiss her. He merely lifted her from the rock and set her on her feet. Taking her arm, he led the way back to the wagon and helped her in.
Neither spoke again until the ranch was in sight; then Cord tersely reminded her to be wary of Valdis. “I’m going to figure out a way to get you out of there, but I’ve got to contend with Armand and his infatuation. He’s going to have notions of his own, I’m afraid.”
“He’s my friend,” she reminded him stiffly. “If he knew the danger, he would want to help me.”
He whirled on her. “Listen to me, damn it. Don’t trifle with Armand. I told you. He needs all his concentration in that ring. Let me worry about you. Armand thinks he’s in love, and when a man fancies himself in love, he gets careless. Armand can’t afford to be careless.”
“You wouldn’t get careless, would you, Cord Hayden?” she snapped as the wagon rolled to a stop before the house. “Because you’re not capable of loving anyone.”
His eyes narrowed. “It’s not necessary to love a woman to enjoy her,” he growled. “Armand will have to learn that—the same way I did.”