Authors: Jennifer Blake
“Don't fight me,” he said in strained patience and not even a glance at her clawlike grasp. “You're bleeding to death. The only way I have to prevent it until the ambulance gets here is to apply pressure.”
“Hurtsâ¦” she managed.
“Can't help it. I have to be certain.”
That might be so, but it made it no easier. He was so close, too close. She could feel the heat of him, catch the scents of clean uniform, soap, leather and warm male that mingled with the more immediate smells of mud and blood. His touch was firm, inescapable, but carried no hint of vindictiveness. A muscle stood out in his square jaw, and the skin around his mouth was pale, as if he might not be as
unmoved as he pretended. He wasn't enjoying what he was doing, or so it appeared. It was some consolation.
She wasn't exactly having a ball, either. She closed her eyes again as the darkness threatened once more.
“Cousin Betsy will want to see you in jail for robbing her store. It's the second time she's been hit since she bought the place.”
He was talking to keep her with him, Tory realized in vague appreciation. She wanted to deny what he said but had no breath left for it. Instead, her mind went spinning off into semidelirious images. The pain under his hand was like a hot iron pressed against her shoulder. It was as if she were being branded, marked as a criminal by the firm touch of the sheriff. The tears that seeped from between her lashes seemed to scald as they gathered in the hollows under her eyes.
“First time it happened, it was a couple of local boys looking for easy cash,” he went on. “They got off with probation because they were juveniles. Betsy was pretty upset since the old man of one of the boys gambled away the money at the boats in Natchez and the families were too broke to pay restitution. She'll prosecute with a vengeance now. You'll do time.”
The agony in Tory's shoulder and the implacable sound of the law officer's voice seemed to merge. Red-hot anger flooded over her. She clutched at it, since it helped clear her head. In husky tones, she said, “I won't. Not ever.”
“You think you're immune because you're female?” He clamped down even more on the wound, as if to emphasize his ability to enforce punishment.
“Not immune. Innocent.” It was amazing how much effort it took to form the words. Her tears spilled over again. They blurred her vision so the man kneeling at her side shimmered in a prismatic nimbus of light.
“Not likely, honey. Armed robbery, resisting arrest, endangering the life of an officer. You've got a long list to answer for.”
As he spoke, he used his free hand to wipe at the wet track along her cheek. Tory turned her head away from the warm touch that seemed to linger with the disturbing feel of a caress. She didn't want him to see her crying, hated feeling so weak when he was so strong. “I'm not your honey, damn you. I didn'tâ¦didn't rob anybody. And I'll see you in hell before I serve a single day in your stupid jail.”
“You'll wind up where it's hot tonight if you don't be still and let me take care of you.”
“So you can throw me into solitary confinement, I suppose.” She breathed in short gasps, knowing she should conserve her strength, but was too frustrated, too despairing, to keep quiet. She'd been through three harrowing days with Zits and Big Ears. For it to end like this was the last, unbelievable, straw.
“Oh, we'll get you some company. The creeps who abandoned you, your so-called friends, should make fine cell mates.”
“If you can catch them.”
Tory knew that the waspish taunt was a mistake as soon as the words left her mouth.
“Thanks for the reminder,” he said, his tone clipped as he turned to speak again into the microphone attached to his shirtsleeve. “Sherry, update me?”
“The suspects haven't been located, Sheriff Benedict.” The dispatcher rattled off the movements of a half-dozen police units along with numbered locations then ended with, “Unit 120 from town is covering the east section.”
“That's Cal tonight, right?”
“Have him check out Fire Tower Road.”
Tory listened to the byplay with a sinking feeling. She needed to revise her knee-jerk impression of this lawman as a dumb hick. His quick actions and up-to-date equipment, not to mention the clear, assessing power of his gaze, suggested something very different. He'd allowed Zits and Big Ears to get away from him, true, but that was her fault. He could easily have left her lying in the road while he chased them down. It said something for him that he had not.
It wasn't like her to think in terms of stereotypes or to misjudge people. Or was it? Harrell had certainly fooled her with his quick grin and outgoing habits. She'd been taken in enough that she'd even promised to marry him. Not that she wanted to think about that now. Her ex-fiancÃ© wasn't someone she wanted to waste time on ever again.
“So you've lost them,” she said, her tone as even as she could make it.
The sheriff lifted a shoulder, a movement that caused the muscles under his shirt to bunch and flex. “Could be. This Horseshoe Lake area is a maze of old logging and oil well sites and tracks that lead to fishing camps. If they have sense enough to cut their headlights, hide out a couple hundred yards down some overgrown trail, we may never see them.”
“You don't seem too concerned.”
“Turn-Coupe is a close-knit community. We watch out for our own. Everyone knows everyone else. Strangers stand out.” He flashed a tight smile. “Someone will spot them and give me a call. They always do.”
She felt sure that was true. The sheriff was a man to be trusted; even she could see that. The authority in his voice and air of command had drawn her toward him the minute
she stumbled from the van. It had been a mistake, in her case. And she wasn't sure what it was going to take to make it right again.
“Here, hold this.” As he spoke, he caught her good arm and pulled her hand across to keep the bandages in place on her shoulder. She flinched as he brushed the raw strips on her wrists where her tape bonds had been pulled away. He paused, then turned his upper body to allow the light from the patrol unit's headlamps to fall across her arm. A frown drew his brows together. “What's this?”
Tory glanced from her blood-crusted skin to his narrowed eyes. “What does it look like?”
“As if you'd been tied up.”
“Give the man a prize.” Her wrists should hurt, she thought in morbid fascination, but the blazing torment in her shoulder and throbbing at the front of her skull made the scrapes seem trivial.
The sheriff studied the patrician slenderness of her fingers, the once perfect sheen of manicured nails, and the smoothness of skin that had rarely seen a pan of dishwater or done a day's work. He surveyed the expensive white silk that covered her before meeting her eyes once more. “So,” he said in grim understanding. “Been indulging in a little bondage play?”
Her gasp was so sharp that it hurt her throat. “Do I look likeâ¦like someone who would enjoy such a thing?”
He stopped abruptly, and Tory was startled to see his skin darken, a change visible even in the uncertain light. For a brief moment she was far more aware than she wanted to be of his long fingers brushing the curve of her breast, the breadth of his shoulders as he hovered above her, and the firmness of his touch. Her stomach muscles
tightened and she drew a ragged breath. In bald explanation, she said, “I was kidnapped.”
“Sure you were.”
His disbelief hurt, which was strange. Why should she expect this Louisiana lawman to believe her? She wasn't even sure her stepfather would accept her version of what happened, and he knew her better than anyone, was the only person in the world who might care whether she lived or died. As the realization sank in, she felt her anger seep away, leaving misery and weariness in its wake.
“Hold this,” the sheriff instructed again as he placed her palm over the bandaging on her shoulder. He paused a second, then released her and picked up the scissors once more. He cut the neck of her top across to the shoulder and down to the armpit, severing the sleeve, then peeled the blood-soaked material away to expose the miniscule lace bra underneath. He paused again.
Tory clamped her jaws together to hold back her protest for both his tactics and the wave of pain that they caused. He glanced at her face, then, but made no comment, for which Tory was grateful.
With relentless efficiency, he ripped open more packages, applied a fresh compress, and then wrapped it with a wide strip of elastic bandaging to hold it in place. Her grasp on consciousness loosened, ebbing and flowing like the waves on the beach at Sanibel Island, her favorite place in the world. Sometimes, when she felt most attuned to the sea, she lay with her feet in the surf, waiting for the tide to come in. Gradually, the waves reached higher and higher until they broke over her head, submerging her. She felt that possibility now, as if a dark tide were rolling toward her. If she let go, didn't fight it, she thought she might be taken out to sea.
Her lashes flickered down, remained close. Distantly, she
felt the sheriff wiping the blood from her skin, taking care not to touch the wound. The pungent smell of alcohol hovered on the air, then began to fade.
“Sherry? Where's that ambulance?” The voice of the man who knelt over her carried a new hardness.
“Sorry, Sheriff,” the dispatcher answered promptly, as if she also noted the difference. “I'll patch them through so the driver can give you an ETA.”
Silence descended, broken only by the low hum of the night creatures and the rustle of paper and plastic as the sheriff gathered up bandaging trash. Then the radio sputtered again as the driver came on to say he was five minutes away.
Tory heard the sheriff rise, then crunch across the gravel to the patrol car. The blue-and-white strobe lights flared into the night with blinding intensity even behind her closed eyelids. He had turned on his flashers to help the ambulance locate them.
The sheriff didn't return. Tory grew aware of a vague sense of having been abandoned. She tried to ignore it, told herself that she was lightheaded from all that had happened, that the man wasn't her anchor or her guardian angel, far from it. He'd done his duty toward her, and that was all she had any right to expect. Anyway, she didn't know him, didn't need him, and certainly didn't care if he went away and left her to die alone.
It didn't help.
Alone, she was always alone, she thought with a shiver. No real friends or close family, no one who understood or cared who she was inside. It had been this way for as long as she could remember; she should be used to it by now. She had learned to hide her fears, to pretend to be harder and more sophisticated than she really was, to use invented personalities like the playgirl, the socialite, the princess as
masks to hide her insecurities. She'd become so adept at it that she sometimes wondered herself what the real Victoria Molina-Vandergraff was like.
The sheriff was coming back after all; she could hear his footsteps. Hurriedly, she wiped at the wetness under her eyes then lowered her trembling hand to her side. The sheriff of Turn-Coupe seemed to notice things that others might miss, she thought, and felt a shiver crawl up her spine at the idea.
“Are you cold?”
He hunkered down beside her again and reached to smooth his fingertips along the goose bumps that beaded her bare forearm. That touch triggered a fresh shudder that seemed to have no end.
“No,” she whispered. “Yesâ¦I don't know. The night is warm, but I feel soâ¦so cold inside.”
“Shock from trauma,” he said softly, almost to himself. He turned to stare down the road with his head cocked to one side, as if listening for the ambulance. As the seconds passed with no sign, he breathed a soft imprecation and swung back to her.
He eased to the ground beside her with care, lying along her injured left side. Rolling her gently away from him, he slid his arm under her head and nestled her back against his chest. He circled her waist, then drew her closer, so she was tucked into his body from her shoulder blades to her ankles.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
His warm breath brushed her cheek as he answered. “Sorry. It's the best I can manage until the ambulance crew gets here with a trauma blanket.”
Tory knew she should reject the intimacy, but it was impossible. His body heat was so welcome, seemed so necessary, so right. Still it set off renewed shivering that made
her shoulder ache with fresh intensity as the damaged muscles contracted to retain warmth. She huddled closer, accepting his strength, absorbing it as if it were life itself.
He held her carefully, shifting only to bring his long length into even firmer contact. He was so close that she could feel every button on his shirt, the hard metal star pinned to his chest, even the steady throb of his heart.
Tory focused on these things in an effort to block out the pain. Her breathing deepened and slowed to match the rise and fall of his chest. Each deliberate inhalation and sighing release of air seemed to take her deeper into the sanctuary he represented. Her gut-wrenching shudders slowed, became an occasional hard tremor.
By slow degrees, a singular sensation replaced her distress, the intimation of a state she almost didn't recognize, had come close to forgetting. She opened her eyes and stared blindly at the stretch of dirt and gravel in front of her as she circled the odd perception in her mind.
She felt safe.
It was strange beyond belief. It was improbable, impossible, unacceptable, yet it was also true.
Safe. At last.
No one knew where she was, at least no one who mattered. No one knew who she was or where she'd come from. No one wanted anything from her, or expected anything of her. She had nothing and no one to fear. At least for a short while, a few brief, lifesaving moments, she was truly safe.