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Authors: Peggy Ann Craig

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“Come on, get up.”  She heard Sam’s voice, though it sounded very distant, she felt his hands clutch her shoulders and pull her into a standing position.

She mumbled something, though what, she wasn’t sure.  And since he gave no reply, he too mustn’t have heard as well.  They were walking again.  Though she couldn’t rightly remember doing so.  Her body felt as if it no longer belonged to her.  Everything became one huge haze.

Ahead of her, Sam was talking
, but she couldn’t focus enough to make out his words.  In the distance, she heard the cry of a vulture.  Waiting for dinner?  Could it sense Ivy’s impending death?

Then
the sound of gurgling water reached her ears.  It was soft, not a large source.  Something damp soaked through her boots.  She glanced down and was able to focus long enough to see a wide river, though it was shallow in spots where large boulders protruded.

“Watch your step.”

Her head spun around to the man leading the way.  He was making his way gingerly across the boulders.  The rope tugged and Ivy was forced to move onward.  Beneath her, the river glistened in the early morning sun.  Its brightness made her eyes squint.  Its movement making her head swim.  She stopped, trying to steady herself, one foot hovering precariously on a boulder.

“Keep moving!”

Her chin snapped up, which turned out being a vast mistake.  The movement had her brain literally swirling inside her head without a lifeline, as the earth beneath her spiraled around her feet.  She blinked several times, trying desperately to remain focused.  But it was useless.  Then all of a sudden, everything went black.

 

* * *

 

Sam felt the rope snap tight around his waist where he had tied his end.  He glanced back at the exact moment he saw Ivy go down.  There wasn’t enough time to catch her before she collapsed into the shallow river.  She was unconscious before she even hit the water.  He cursed, moving angrily back to lift her now wet body into his arms.  That was all he needed.  Have her die of hypothermia and he would have to indeed drag her body back the entire way.

As he hoisted her into a more secure position, her head fell back over his arm, exposing her pale face already nearly blue with death.  Something tightened in his gut.  Hell, he couldn’t let her die.  And he knew the inconvenience of
delivering her corpse through the wilderness until they reached civilization, was not the reason.

He dropped his gaze to her face and noticed a strand
of wet hair plastered against her cheek.  With one hand, he brushed it aside and stared down at her.  Even through the thickness of his heavy leather coat, he could feel the coldness of her damp clothing.  In addition to the gray cloak, her black knit skirt beneath was wet and heavy.  It wrapped itself around his legs like a clinging vine, causing walking awkward, but he reached the banks of the river and strode purposely to a dry spot.

He would have to find her some form of shelter quickly.  And fire.  Not very pleased with the idea, he also knew he would need to remove those wet clothes and warm her as soon as possible or the threat of hypothermia could set in.  He laid her beneath a huge uprooted tree
, then quickly stripped the wet clothes off her body.

As he did, the idea to leave her to die and continue on his way crossed his mind.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  No criminal was ever worth the risk.  But he was determined this woman would get what she deserved.
  Dying a quiet, peaceful death beneath the evergreen trees, was not justice.

His eyes strayed to her pale face.  Lips a near transparent p
urple, but for the trace of blue beginning to ring them.  He pushed aside the unwanted thought that saving her life had more to do with just watching her swing.  He had absolutely no feelings for this woman.

And yet he couldn’t deny the tightening around his chest, the quickening of his pulse as his eyes roamed her naked form.  Surprisingly, hidden beneath her
gray and black attire was the form of a magnificent female.  Her body was in complete contrast to her face.  The skin covering her exquisite curves reminded him of buttermilk.  Creamy white and looking just as sweet.

Sam shifted uncomfortably, becoming aware of his body’s reaction to her nakedness.  Hell, he had an urge to reach out and stroke that skin.  Run his tongue over its milky texture to see if it tasted as good as it looked.  His fingers tingled with the
desire to roam over that flat belly and up to those two mouth-watering breasts.  They were perfect in scope and shape.  Just the right size to fit snugly into the palm of his hand.  Or mouth.

His member jerked to life and Sam growled in self-disgust.  What the hell was wrong with him?  Hadn’t he learned anything from Daphne?  Rage filled his heart.  He had sworn never to allow another woman to get the better of him again.  Most in particular a woman like Ivy
McGregor.

She shiver
ed beneath him, her fully naked form exposed to the cold. Sam released a heavy breath, then shoved out of his coat.  The woman may be heartless, but for some reason Sam was drawn to the need to keep her alive.  He lifted her body and wrapped her in his coat.  As he did, something on her back caught his attention.

Scars.

Long, jagged scars.  He recognized them immediately.

Flogging.  A form of whipping not uncommon
in prisons.  The fact it proved he was correct and that she had spent time in incarceration, did not leave him feeling satisfied.  Instead, something gnawed at his insides.  What type of person whipped a woman?

He shook his head, ridding the unexpected question.  Whatever she had done to receive her whipping, more than likely was well deserved.  Her looks were beguiling.  It was in his
best interest to remember that.  Whatever occurred in the next three days, Sam would not allow himself to go soft.  For when he returned her to Chicago, she would be receiving a far worse fate.

 

* * *

 

Consciousness began to creep back into Ivy’s head.  The fog swirling around her brain began to slowly ease.  A pounding in the back of her eyes made it nearly impossible for her to open them.  With much effort, she pried her lids apart.  Directly in front of her was some form of structure made of underbrush.  The aroma of something roasting on a fire reached her nostrils. She forced herself to try and focus.

Where was she?

The haze hovering over her brain evaporated completely and memory flooded back.  With a start, her eyes flew open and she sat bolt upright.  The movement caused her head to feel as if it weren’t completely screwed on right.  Her hands came up immediately to press against her temples as if to hold it still.

She had fallen asleep.  How was that possible?

Her eyes took in her surroundings.  She was enclosed in some type of shelter made entirely of forest debris.  No higher than three feet, or wider than six.  One wall was sheer rock, the other a man-made lean-to of tree branches, brush, leaves and moss.  The sound of movement just outside, had her attention turning toward the entrance to see Sam Michalski stick his head in the opening near her feet.

Automatically, she curled them towards herself.

“You’re finally awake.”

Still feeling confused, she asked, “How long have I been sleepin’?”

“Nearly all day.”  He moved away from the entrance.  “Come on out and get something to eat.”

He was gone before she could answer.  Her stomach felt terribly empty and the tantalizing aroma was stronger now and teasing her horribly.  Ivy glanced down and realized for the first time, she was wearing Sam’s long tan
-colored coat.  It was unbelievably warm, but scratched her naked skin slightly.

Naked skin?

With a horrified gasp she realized she wore nothing under his coat.  A wave of nausea filled her stomach.  Then rage.

Eyes burning, she crawled out of the shelter to confront her molester.  Tears
hovered near the surface, but she fought with every nerve to keep them in check.  She would not give him the pleasure of knowing he had hurt her.  Men like him took great pleasure from that awareness.

Clutching his coat securely to her body, she took the few steps needed to stand directly above him.  He was crouched near a fire,
the corpse of some unknown critter roasting over the flames.  The aroma drifted up to her nostrils and betrayed her.  She felt herself go weak.  Her stomach gave off a loud growl reminding her just how terribly hungry she was.  It nearly knocked the anger completely out of her.  But not nearly enough.

Sam glanced up when he heard her stomach.  “You’re starving.  Sit down and eat.”

Instead, she remained where she stood.  “Where are me clothing, Mr. Michalski?”

A frown danced between his brows before he gestured toward a c
luster of trees.  “Over there.”

Her bottom lip tremble
d hard from her efforts to hold the bubbling inferno within back.  “Ye had no right.”

He glanced back up again.  A look of confusion on his face.  “Had no right to do what?”

“I’m naked.”  She bit her lip, trying unsuccessfully to conceal its revealing tremble.

“No kidding?”  His sarcastic quip only made her insides boil.

“Ye bastard,” she whispered on a hoarse note, for she was barely able to talk with the huge lump forming in her throat.  The urge to break down was overwhelming.

“There’s gratitude for ya.”  He made a disbelieving mug.  “Generally, where I come from, people think a thank you is more appropriate.”

It took all Ivy’s willpower to keep herself from lashing out and striking him.  “Ye arrogant pig.”

“What?  You would have preferred I let you die of hypothermia?  Or better yet.  Leave you in the river?  Hell, lady, don’t think I didn’t consider it.  I’m beginning to regret I didn’t.”

At the mention of the river, Ivy recalled crossing the shallow water, with its sparkling but hypnotic waves glistening in the morning sun.  Recalled how horrible her head felt, her entire body actually.  Then everything had gone black and the next thing she recalled was waking up in the twig shelter.

He must have noticed the memories beginning to return, for he got to his feet and his full height and towered over Ivy.  She tried hard not to allow his looming frame to intimidate her, but she couldn’t pr
event herself from taking an unsteady step backward.

“Y-ye took advantage of the situation.”

“How’s that?”

“Ye,” she began, but had to stop to clear the sudden frog in her throat.  Lord, he was so close.  “Ye violated me.”

The rim of his hazel eyes turned red.  “Like hell I did!”

His rising voice, full of such visible
rage, had her taking another step back.  “T-then why am I naked?”

“You fell in the river!  If I hadn’t stripped
you of your wet clothes, you’d freeze to death in this weather!”

She didn’t recall falling into the river.  Could that be true?  Was he lying?  She stared up at his face, so full of anger and disgust and she knew.  Drawing in her bottom lip, she felt the onslaught of an uncomf
ortable remorse wash over her.

He hadn’t assaulted her.  He had saved her life.

He had saved her life?

Suspicion swiftly replaced her anger.  “Why?”

“Why?”  He shook his head, the disgust still dancing behind his eyes, but he did take a step away from her allowing Ivy to breathe easier.

“W-why did ye help me?  I’d a thought ye’d prefer to see me dead.”

His face relaxed just briefly as if he was remembering something, then just as quickly it turned rock hard.  Dropping his body back down on the ground, he reached for the dinner he was cooking.  “You won’t be dying out here, lady.  Not if I have anything to do with it.”

Ivy’s brows puckered in part confusion and part anger.  “They must be paying ye an awful lot, Mr. Michalski.  I’d hardly think I was worth the trouble.”

“I’ve endured worse situations,” he told her, then added, “But the fact is, Freckles, you’re worth more alive than you are dead.”

Chapter
6

Sam watched as her skin
drained of color, returning to its usual gray complexion.  When at first she stepped outside, he couldn’t help but notice she didn’t look as colorless as per her usual appearance.  Actually, a slight pink had tinged her cheeks.  No doubt from the outrage she was trying to keep in check.  That made him frown with disgust.  She had truly believed he had taken advantage of her while she lay unconscious.  But to make matters worse, he had wanted to.

He looked at her
ashen face and wondered what the devil was wrong now.  Yeah, he was a little blunt.  Perhaps a bit heartless, but it wasn’t as if she was the type of woman he needed to watch his tongue.  He cared not an iota if he insulted her.  Angrily, he stoked the fire.  From his peripheral vision, he knew she had not yet moved.

“Your clothing should be dry by now,” he said, knowing his voice sounded harsher than he preferred.  Being angry was allowing her to get to him.  To his emotions.  He would not get involved.  Not again. 

She did not move.

It was several seconds before she asked, “Who are ye?”

He glanced up, caught off guard by the sound of trepidation in her voice. 
Now
she was beginning to grow fearful? He shot his eyes heavenward then pushed himself to his feet and stomped over to the low underbrush he used to spread her clothing out to dry.  Snatching them, he turned and threw them angrily toward her.

“Get dressed.  I’d like to have my coat back before nightfall.”

Though she snatched her clothes, she still refused to move.  In that irritating, soft little accent of hers, she asked again, “Who are ye, Mr. Michalski?  Ye told Mr. Radford you were in the acquisitions business.”

Sam looked over at her, noticing her skin
color shift from gray to green.  His brows dipped.  Where was she going with this?  “That’s right.”

Confusion and fear danced across her face.  He watched in fascination as her bottom lip tremble
d.  “Are ye—are ye one of those—those—“

“Bounty hunters?” he supplied as he broke off a leg of the dead rabbit.  Then stepping over the fire pit, he walked toward her and
found it oddly satisfying to see her take a stumbling step backwards.  “Yes, ma’am.”

He heard her silent bu
t swift intake of breath.  “But—but, those men are—are—“

”Animals?”  He chuckled and handed her the rabbit leg.  “Most are.  Hard to remain human when surrounded by cold-blooded killers.”

She did not take the offering.  She simply stood there looking at him with big frightened eyes.  Funny, while he stared back, he thought how the color of her eyes no longer reminded him of blue ice, but rather soft clouds drifting past a blue sky on a warm summer day.

Shrugging the thought aside, he reached out and grabbed her hand, dropping the cooked leg into it.  “Eat.  You need to gain your strength back.  We’ve already wasted an entire day.  I won’t have you holding me up any longer.”

At last she moved.  She turned and headed toward the shelter, presumably to change into her own clothing.  Deciding to rid the woman from his mind, he released a heavy sigh and returned to the carcass and his meal.

She exited the small shelter he had built while she slept five minutes later fully dressed.  For some reason, he felt a wave of relief.  Though she was tall, his coat trailed slightly behind her, covering her naked form entirely.  With the exception of her feet.  For some stupid reason, the sight of those dainty little toes peeking out from beneath the hem of his coat, caused a stirring deep in his gut.  And lower.  No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to get the
image of the woman’s naked form out of his mind.

He bit angrily into his food
, then lifted the canteen to his lips and took a large swig of the ice-cold spring water he collected from the creek.  The last thing he would do was think of Ivy McGregor in that manner.  It was bad enough he had held her in his arms most of the morning until her trembles finally subsided.  She had been stone-cold and no amount of fire was warming her.  Finally, he was left with no choice but to pull her into his arms.  He had rubbed his hands all over her body; forcing circulation back into her veins, but in the same process raised the blood pressure in his own.

He groaned.  Hell, ha
d it been that long since he lain with a woman?  Perhaps his lifestyle was starting to get to him, if he was finding the likes of Ivy McGregor tantalizing.  The sooner he got them out of these woods, the better.  And once he did, the first thing he would do was head straight for the closest brothel.

He
unraveled a shoot of tobacco and dropped a small amount into his mouth just as he heard the sound of shuffling coming from behind him.  He turned and saw her limp slowly toward the fire.  His gaze drifted down to her leg, concealed now by her long skirts and felt the same odd feeling tug at his brow.  “Leg still hurting?”

She simply gave a single nod, but said instead while holding out his coat, “I thank ye for the loan.”

Then she approached the fire, still holding the uneaten piece of meat, and held her hands out for warmth.  He thought she wasn’t going to say anything further, but was surprised when she asked, without looking at him, “Why do ye do it?”

He shifted the tobacco to one side of his mouth and glanced over at her.  Without asking, he knew what she was referring to.  “The pay’s
good.”

“I see,” she quietly said, still staring into the fire.  “Alive or—dead?”

“Yep.”

“Ye can do that?  Be taking someone’s life and not be charged with murder?”

“Yep,” he mumbled again, spitting a piece of the tobacco into the fire.  “Law says so.”

He heard the
softest swoosh of her breath as she inhaled sharply.  Sam shrugged.  Guess the woman had no idea what she was getting herself into when she bashed that poor fellow’s skull.

“Where are ye taking me, Mr. Michalski?”

He swirled his tongue around to the back of his teeth where a piece of tobacco got lodged.  “Already told you.  Chicago.”

“Where to in Chicago?”

“Where?”  He frowned at her, sticking his pinky finger in his mouth to dislodge the weed.  “Where do ya think?”

“Back to the
Hendrickson’s?”

He paused, narrowed his eyes, then leaned forward and pointed an accusing finger at her.  “You stay away from those fine folks.  The Hendrickson’s are good people and you’ve already put them through hell.”

To his surprise, anger darkened her own eyes.  “Ye know nothing about the Hendrickson’s.”

“I know they didn’t deserve to have their oldest son bludgeoned to death.”

She literally snapped back as if he had physically struck her.  Sam only shook his head.  Yeah, hearing it spoken out loud had a nasty way of making the crime real.  He didn’t doubt she had subconsciously tried to bury the memory.  Most did.

It wouldn’t surprise him if regret was now beginning to seep in at that very moment.  It was reported that she and Philip Hendrickson were lovers and after he replaced her for a younger maid, she had flown into a fit of jealousy and lashed out with an iron poker.  When his body was found, a bloody handkerchief
covered his brutally bashed face.  Hence the nickname.  It wouldn’t be the first time a woman had reacted on her own selfish emotions.

He watched the blood drain from her face and knew his words stung.  But she needed to be reminded, and reminded often of what her jealous
behavior had done.  It was the coward’s way out to try and claim they were clear of all blame.  He wouldn’t doubt her next words would do just that.  But he would make certain this woman would know exactly what she did before they pulled the noose.

He waited, but no words crossed her lips.  Admittedly, he was surprised.  They always begged for mercy and pleaded their innocence.  Always.  And so would Ivy
McGregor.  Just like any other criminal.

She sat down in front of the fire, staring without blinking into the flames.  The meat in her hand
, left discarded in the billows of her skirt.  Sam noticed her skin was just as pale as it had always been, but the dark circles under her eyes were not nearly as visible.  He knew she had not slept an ounce during the night and today’s sleep had done her a world of good.  Though not nearly enough.  She still was weak.  As if at any moment she may snap and break.

He got up and removed the
food from her lap, then dumped some water from the canteen onto her newly dried skirt.  She yelped and leaped to her feet.   “What the deuce?  Have ye gone mad?”

“Scrub it clean,” he said, gesturing to the stain on her skirt left by the meat.  “Otherwise, the scent will be sure to lure a bear.”

The anger drained from her cheeks, leaving them an unhealthy pasty shade.  “A bear?”

He ignored the fear in her voice and
shoved the piece of meat back into her hands, saying, “Eat up, Ms. McGregor, you’re gonna need your strength.  We’ve got a long walk ahead of us.”

Her face turned slightly toward him, revealing a rather stunning profile.  He
didn’t fancy the pale complexions of the female species, regardless of the fashion trend, preferring his with a little color.  If Ivy McGregor had just one ounce of color to her cheeks, hell, she might be one hell of a looker.

“May I have some water?”

Sam nodded, reached for the canteen and tossed it to her.

“Will we be leaving shortly?” she asked after taking a long swallow.

“Nope,” he said, throwing a piece of wood into the fire and fueling the flames to emphasize his point.  “Getting late.  It’ll be dark soon.”

Nodding, she
glanced at the rabbit leg he had given her, then absently began to eat.  Sam sat back and watched her.  She ate with small little bites, chewing the morsel thoroughly with her mouth closed before swallowing it altogether then taking another bite.  Like some refined lady.

Except, she most definitely was no lady.  Upstairs maid, more like it, if he recalled correctly.  But there was something about her, be it in her erect posture or the manner in which she ate, that reminded him of one.

“Where did you get the scars?”  He was surprised to hear himself ask.  He didn’t really want to know.  Didn’t care.  But he sat there waiting for her answer nevertheless.

The only sign she acknowledged his words
, was the slightest turning of her profile, otherwise, she ignored him.

Sam shrugged carelessly.  What did it matter to him anyways?  He already knew the woman
was a conniving criminal.  He needed no other proof.  Yet, for some odd reason, needed to hear her admit she had spent time in a prison.

He continued to watch her, waiting for her to say something.  Anything.  Still she remained silent.  Hell, he couldn’t shut her up yesterday.  He frowned and studied her closer.  Was she hatching up some great escape plan?  Now that she had her strength back
, was she planning on making her get away?

“Ever lived out in the wilderness before?”

No reply.

“Ever lived off the land?  Survived in the open without any sign of civilization for miles?”

Again, silence.

“Go so hungry for days, the site of your own flesh looks appetizing?”

Her eyes shifted, but she made no comment.

“Stare into the jaws of a grizzly or trapped into a corner by a pack of snarling wolves?”

“Are ye trying to frighten me, Mr. Michalski?”

“No, ma’am,” he said, spitting a tough piece
of tobacco into the fire.  “Warn ya, is all.”

She turned then and looked him fully in the eye, but offered no words.

“In case you’d be thinking of making a run for it,” he told her.

She held his gaze, her eyes blank, not giving away any of her internal thoughts.  Something Sam had mastered many years ago.  Though with his prisoners, he usually found the
y were an emotional lot.  It was his opinion others had it wrong.  They always assumed killers were heartless, unemotional beings.  Way Sam saw it, they were overly emotional.  Unable to withhold their feelings and ending up acting upon them.  Made him wonder why there weren’t actually more female criminals.

His eyes slid to the one sitting in front of his fire now.  For some reason, she had trained herself to retain her emotions.  Which didn’t match the crime she committed.  Any woman who bludgeoned her lover’s skull umpteen times before finally taking him out of his misery, was an emotional volcano.

On their own accord, his thoughts drifted back to the scars on her back.  Why his mind kept wondering about them, he wasn’t certain.  Oddly, they nagged his conscience.  Something not right about a woman being whipped.  Even one as cruel as Ivy McGregor.  Fact was, she was so damn frail looking, he would have thought she’d snap with just one blow.

 

* * *

 

Ivy felt the first drops of rain before she heard the low rumbling of thunder in the distance.  Great.  She had finally begun to feel warm.  She did not look forward to getting wet.  The rain had a nasty way of getting into her bones.  Shivering, she pulled her cloak closer and tried to burrow into the little bit of warmth it provided.  Unconsciously, her eyes drifted to Sam’s coat lying discarded on the ground next to him.  She would never admit it out loud, but she missed its warmth.

BOOK: The Color of Ivy
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