Authors: Patricia Hagan
She struggled, her pride at stake, but she knew he was right. “Perhaps,” she said finally, “I never wanted to marry Armand. Perhaps I used him to make you jealous.”
She started to say more, but Cord had suddenly tensed, listening, the instinct that had saved his life so many times taking over. Motioning to Maretta to stay where she was, he drew his gun and, with a lightning-quick movement, leaped behind a post and pointed his weapon toward one of the stalls, crying, “Come out of there or you’re dead.” In a moment, his eyes widened at the sight of the frightened little boy slowly stepping from the stall. His black, tousled hair hung down, partly concealing the round chocolate eyes. The child was trembling, his lips twitching.
“You!” Cord gasped, holstering his gun. “You must have been following me—and you did a damn good job of it, too.” He crossed to kneel before him and place his hands on the skinny arms. “You don’t have to be afraid of me, boy. Tell me why you’ve been following me. What do you want?”
The boy continued to stare at him in silent terror.
Cord scratched his chin thoughtfully. “They say you have never spoken a word. You don’t understand my language anyway, do you? Now why would you follow me?” He shook himself, took a deep breath, and continued, wondering whether the boy knew Spanish, “Is it the lady, the one who was kind to you? Amber?”
Armand blinked in recognition, his eyes taking on a glow. He nodded. He knew the name Amber.
Cord’s heart was racing. He struggled to seem calm lest he frighten the boy more. There was no knowing what he had been through since running away from his village.
“Amber,” Cord repeated, pointing to himself, then to the boy. “Amber. Can you take me to Amber?”
To Cord’s delight, the boy nodded, smiling. Cord slapped his thigh in jubilation and stood up. By damn, the boy knew where she was! Maybe he had followed Valdis from the village.
Cord and little Armand were almost out the stable doors when Maretta cried out, “You cannot leave me like this! This time I am not drunk. I will remember clearly the pain, the way you shame me. I will see you dead for this!”
Cord turned and looked at her. “Believe me, Maretta, I am sorry,” he murmured, “but it’s best this way.”
“You are no man!” she cried scornfully. “A real man could not walk away from me!”
Yes, he could, Cord thought resolutely as he continued on his way. A real man could walk away…if he was heading for a real woman.
Amber stared about her. Another cave, but this time, it curved far down into the bowels of the earth. There was a narrow, winding stream that came from somewhere and ran directly in front of the damp hollow where Valdis had left her. He kept a torch lit, but gave her no warmth. It was not the cold that bothered her so much as the constant, eerie screeching of bats hanging above.
She leaned her head back against the wall of rock behind her. Never mind the creeping insects, or the slimy worms that sometimes crawled over her. None of it mattered. Her mouth felt dry, parched, and if someone did not help her soon, she knew she was going to get sick and die. Soon, she might not even care.
Hearing footsteps approaching, she braced herself. Valdis stooped to enter through the narrow opening, and she saw that he carried a small pot and a jug.
“I brought you some food,” he said pleasantly, sitting down beside her as though they were dining at home. “A delicious stew and some cool water. Eat and you will feel better.”
He set the utensils aside and swiftly produced a knife to cut the ropes from her wrists. Quickly, gratefully, she began to rub them to start the circulation moving through her numb fingers, painfully aware of how weak she had become.
Valdis took her chin in his hand. “You do not look good. Almost a week now, and you are puny. The other women have told me you lose your food as soon as you eat it. What am I to do with you?”
“Let me die,” she mustered enough energy to snap.
He threw back his head and laughed, the sound echoing through the cave. “No, no. You cannot die. I have many plans for us. Soon now, I will return home and declare I have found my mother’s murderer. I have almost made up my mind which of my men will take the blame. I will once more rule the valley, and you will be my mistress. I will dress you in the finest gowns, and will even take you to Paris and Spain to buy them. I will build you a hacienda to make the wealthiest women in Mexico envious.” He shook his head. “But what are we to do with you? You look terrible. Everyone would laugh at Valdis Alezparito for being taken with such a señorita as you have become. We must do something.”
She stared. “You leave me here in this damp hole with spiders and bats. I have not had a bath or a change of clothes since I got here, and the food you bring me is slop. And you talk of fine gowns and haciendas! I think you are crazy, Valdis.”
He frowned, eyes narrowing, fingers flexing. “No, I am not crazy. I am in perfect control. I have left you here to teach you a lesson. Now I am going to let you have some fresh air and a bath. The women will wash your hair. I have a lovely dress for you to wear. But first you must eat. This stew is good. I have deliberately sent slop to punish you, just as I have left you here, alone, to think of what your life will be like forever if you do not obey me.”
He dipped a spoon into the pot and extended it to her lips. She swallowed. It was good. And the water he offered was fresh and cool, not stagnant and sour.
“See?” He grinned. “Things can be better for you. You have learned how bad they can be. Now you will learn how good they can be. You will decide how you are to live your life with me. You will either be mine, to do my bidding, or I shall hand you over to my men and let them tire of you before we feed you to the buzzards. The decision is yours.”
Amber said nothing. It was not the time to provoke him. She wanted all of the stew. She wanted strength. Without it, she was totally at his mercy.
“Now,” he said when she had eaten. “I will carry you up and outside. It is a lovely day, warm, with sunshine. There is a nice place nearby where you will be bathed. Then we will talk. You will find I am not so bad as you think. One day you will love me. I know this.”
She did feel better after eating, but as he helped her to her feet and guided her out, she pretended weakness, leaning against him, hating to touch him but knowing she would have to feign sickness so as to put off the time when he would ravish her.
They climbed a narrow, winding trail, moving up and up, until at last they stepped into the bright sunshine. Amber squeezed her eyes shut at the sudden light and covered her face with her hands. Valdis’s men, lounging about, drinking, playing guitars, or cleaning their weapons, looked at her and laughed. The few women glowered at her.
Amber squinted as Valdis ordered someone to take her away and bathe her. She was thrust into the work-worn hands of a hard-looking woman. Her fleshy bosom sagged, and she was much too heavy in the hips.
To Amber, Valdis snapped, “Do as she wishes. She has little patience. Give her any trouble, and she will probably scratch your eyes out.”
Doggedly, Amber followed the woman through brush and around cactus, over sand mounds and rock formations. Then they stepped into a clearing where there was a cool, clear pool in a stream beneath a small, cascading waterfall. It did look delightful, and the angry-looking woman did not have to order Amber out of her rancid clothes. The woman tossed her a bar of lye soap, which Amber quickly rubbed over her body. She scrubbed until her skin was pink, then dove down to swim beneath the water for a moment before surfacing with strong, sure strokes. Oh, it felt good to breathe fresh air, feel the warmth of golden sunshine, and to be clean!
“See the lovely dress I have for you?”
Amber treaded water and turned. Valdis was standing on the mossy bank, holding out a gown of pale-green muslin. It was of a simple design, with long sleeves, one of which he held up. “We need, my lovely one, to hide the rope burns on your wrists.”
He sat down upon a rock, laying the dress carefully across his lap, looking quite pleased with himself.
Amber, making sure she remained in water deep enough to hide her nakedness, called, “Why do you wish to hide the rope burns? Are you ashamed for your men to know you keep me tied?”
“My men have nothing to do with it. It is our stubborn friend, Cord Hayden, who must not see them.”
The sound of his name stunned Amber. “Cord? You have no need to fear him. He left me and the others long ago, before we returned to the Indian village.”
He shook a finger at her and chanted, childlike, “Fool me once, and shame on you. Fool me twice, and shame on me!” Laughing, he gloated, “I shall not be fooled again, señorita. I have had many scouts out watching. Gerras, who never gives up wanting your little Dolita, has watched the Indian village since we left there. He saw Hayden. I was not worried, for I knew he would have a very hard time finding this camp. But then my sister came, using a secret shortcut. She tells me she thinks maybe the bastard boy is bringing Hayden here. It seems the boy has taken to you. He must have followed Gerras and me when we brought you here, for he seems to know the way. That is what Maretta thinks, anyway.”
“Armand!” Amber whispered faintly. He had followed her. And he was bringing Cord! But, dear Lord, Valdis knew, and he was waiting. They would both be killed. She screamed, “No, Valdis, don’t kill them. I’ll do anything you ask.”
She stumbled from the water and made her way over to him, embarrassed to be fully exposed, trying to ignore the sudden look of desire that leaped into his eyes.
She gasped, “I tell you I will do anything, damn you! Don’t hurt them!”
He slapped her, knocking her down. “I grow weary of your fire. I may decide to kill you and be rid of your insolence once and for all.”
He reached down to twist her hair. “You will put on this dress. Your hair will be brushed until it shines. You will paint your lips and your cheeks, and you will smile. When your hero arrives, you will tell him how happy you are with me. You will tell him that at long last you have found a real man to love. You will make him believe you. You will tell him to go away and leave you forever. You will even describe to him how we couple, how I make you feel.” He took a deep breath, stood back, and let go of her hair. Smiling, he said, “When you do this, he will go away and plague me no more.” He looked at her, hard. “The boy will not be hurt. No one will be hurt if you cooperate.”
“What will happen to the boy?” she asked fearfully.
Valdis looked impatient. “I do not wish to keep you tied, but I want you to be obedient. The boy will remain with us, to keep you compliant.”
Armand to stay with her! She hardly dared believe it.
“Now then, we shall have no more problems, shall we?” He whacked her buttocks sharply, then squeezed. “You want the boy to be treated well, so think of that when I come to you tonight after I have gotten rid of Hayden forever. You can show me how appreciative you are of my kindness to your matador’s bastard.” Without warning, he crushed her in his arms, covering her mouth. When he released her, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and he reached out and squeezed one nipple painfully. She cried out, and he roared, “Never do that! Never shrink from my touch or look as though you do not like me. Thank me each time I favor you with my hands, my lips, or my rod of love. Soon, you will be on your knees, begging me to take you, over and over.
“Remember, two lives will depend on how pleasant you learn to become—yours and the child’s.”
They had ridden through the morning, and already the sun was high in the sky. Cord could see the wisdom in waiting for nightfall but did not want Amber in danger a minute longer than necessary.
When a rocky knoll came into sight, straight ahead, the boy reached up from his pony to tug at Cord’s sleeve.
“This is it?” Cord reined his horse in and looked down at the anxious black eyes. “All right, friend.” He forced a grin. “This is where we part company for a while. To be safe, you are going over there to that clump of sagebrush and hide yourself and your pony. Wait till I come back. Understand?”
The boy stared. With a sigh, Cord led him to the dense patch of brush and pointed to the ground. “Here.” He pointed to the boy. “You stay.”
Cord turned to ride away, and when the boy started to follow, he repeated his orders, harshly. This time, Armand understood.
A mountain range lay straight ahead, and to his right lay thick clumps of cottonwoods and pines. It meant going out of his way, but it was his only chance to slip up secretly on the camp. Suddenly he caught a glimpse of smoke and realized it was a campfire. He had found the hideout! He kicked his horse to a full gallop and rode straight for the cover. He picked his way through the rough terrain, using the smoke as a beacon to guide him. Finally, he figured he was close enough to go on foot. Dismounting, he took his rifle, left his horse tied, and began to walk stealthily, hunched over, pausing every so often to listen for sounds.
It took an interminably long time before he saw the fire, just on the other side of a large, jagged rock, and he crawled the rest of the way on his belly. Easing his head up ever so slightly over the rock, he stared down at Valdis’s men sprawled around the fire. Some of them had camp women in their arms. They passed bottles back and forth. Some slept. Everything was peaceful, and Cord figured no one suspected he was there.