Authors: Peggy Ann Craig
As if reading her thoughts, his hand reached out and snatched up the coat. “Best get inside before it starts coming down in sheets.”
He leaped to his feet, gathered a handful of kindling and lit it from the fire, then turned and headed for the shelter hardly big enough to house Ivy, let alone a man of his size.
“Come on!” he shouted before disappearing beneath the fern covered structure.
Ivy swallowed the uncomfortable lump in her throat. There was no way she would share that tiny quarter with him. Good Lord, he was hired to track her down. Dead or alive. She shivered again, though not from the cold this time. She would rather soak to death, then seek his help. Straightening her spine, she planted her behind firmly on the ground and stared into the fire.
The rain started to
fall then. She watched as the long wet pellets fell intermittently at first, splattering the flames in the fire pit until they eventually increased in size and speed and doused it altogether. The hair around her temples began to curl into tight coils as it always did whenever it got wet. Goose bumps spread like wildfire across her skin. The cloak provided no protection from the cold rain. Without warning, she released a violent shiver.
She would not go inside.
It started pouring harder, coursing down her face and blinding her vision. She snuck a hand out from beneath her cloak and wiped madly at her eyes, trying to clear the rain away. A crack of thunder directly overhead had her body leaping in fright. Still she sat, utterly freezing.
When the rain found its way into the back of her cloak and down her neck, Ivy could
no longer endure it. She sprung to her feet and made a mad dash for the tiny shelter. How she wished he wasn’t in there. But there he sat looking smug on the makeshift bed she had earlier occupied.
He glanced up from his outstretched position when she came crawling inside. “Decided to finally join me?”
She ignored him, instead throwing off her wet cloak as a cold shudder raked her body.
“Might want to keep that on. It’s goin’ get mighty cold tonight.”
“I-it’s t-too w-wet,” she said over her shivers and tried to find a spot to curl up in which was as far away from Sam Michalski as possible.
“Should have come in when I told you to.”
Ivy turned and looked out the small entrance. It was a downpour by that point. Pounding the earth violently. The sound of it hitting the roof of Sam’s little lean-to shelter where he had covered it with birch bark, was loud but, surprisingly, did not leak. Ivy ignored the fleeting feeling of admiration.
Glancing around, the small confides of the shelter nearly had her turning and bolting for the great outdoors again. It was tiny. Smaller by the fact Sam Michalski took up most of the space. Ivy’s chest began to squeeze.
Air. She needed air. Turning back to the entrance, she opened her mouth and inhaled as much of the fresh rainy outdoors as she could.
“Now what’s the matter?”
She wasn’t going to respond at first, and then decided there really was no reason not to. “I have a phobia of small—confined areas.”
“You’re claustrophobic? For real?”
She frowned and shot him a look. “Yes, for real. Why would I be lying?”
He shrugged. “If it’s part of some cockeyed escape plan, you can just go ahead and forget it. I ain’t so gullible, Ms.
She felt her jaw tense, the beginning of her rising panic momentarily forgotten. “I can assure ye, Mr. Michalski, me fear of small quarters is very real.”
“Well, if you’re thinking I’d leave so you can have this shelter all to yourself, you are sadly mistaken. I ain’t moving.”
“I hardly expected ye to, Mr. Michalski.”
“Good, cause I’m mighty comfortable right where I’m at,” he said, leaning back and crossing his arms behind his head.
“Are ye implying I should be the one to leave?” Nasty images of her tied to a tree in the freezing, pouring rain drifted to mind.
“Well, seeing as you’re so
Fire lit her belly. “I’m not lying. It may just surprise ye to know not all mankind is built to withstand such primitive situations or such a harsh environment. Some of us are truly human and are susceptible to fears beyond our control.”
“Is that so?”
“Then how come you managed to come in this far?”
Ivy froze. Without even realizing it, her anger
drew her further into the shelter until she was only inches away from him. Her eyes spun back to his smirking face. “Ye did that on purpose.”
“You must be feeling better. Just as argumentative as you were yesterday.”
She stiffened, but chose to ignore this last comment. Instead, she asked, “How did y’know?”
Sam shrugged while he reached for his holster and remov
ed it. “Been around it enough times to recognize the signs. Back in the train, I saw it in your eyes right before I shut the door on the baggage car.”
“Surprising what a little distraction can do to the conscience, eh?”
When she only shook her head in confusion, he reached out and tapped one finger against her head. “It’s all up here. It ain’t real. It’s your mind messing with ya, is all.”
She frowned, feeling baffled. She did not like this man knowing her weaknesses so intimately. Or the unexpected comfort that he somehow understood her, even in the smallest way. She watched as he laid his holster on the ground between him and the stone wall behind his back, but still within easy reach, before he stretched out comfortably once again on the ground.
Irritated, Ivy asked, “Where am I to sit, Mr. Michalski? S
eems ye’ve gone and taken most all the room.”
To her surprise
, he shifted and patted the ground in front of him. “Right here, ma’am.”
Ivy felt her eyes go round. No way. Absolutely no way.
He must have read her mind, for he smirked suddenly. “‘Fraid so. I’m goin’ be needing to tie you round my waist, as seein’ there ain’t no trees in here to secure you to.”
“Ye—ye’re going to t
ie us together?” A rush of fear chilled her cheeks.
He nodded. “We’ll keep extra warm that way too.”
His brows raised. “No?”
She shook her head, not sure she trusted her voice. No way could she allow him to touch her.
He frowned. “Way I’m seein’ it, ya ain’t got a choice.”
Ivy frowned as well. Her pulse had begun to accelerate, and already she was having difficulties breathing.
“If you’re thinkin’ I might take advantage of you, think again. I already told ya, I ain’t that desperate.”
The sincerity in his eyes had her inhaling deeply and finally allowing some air into her lungs. Though, oddly, felt the bite of his insult. It certainly wasn’t the first time, but from this man, it left a bit of a mark.
Taking her time, she shuffled over to her side on her knees, taking care not to touch him if at all possible. Something he didn’t seem to
concern himself about, for he reached for her and dragged her back up against his chest. She sucked in a jagged breath. Along her back, she could feel his large form pressing into her.
His arms came around
to encircle her and Ivy couldn’t stop the small gasp from passing her lips. She bit down hard on her bottom lip, forcing any other protests—or screams, from escaping. How she hated being this close to a man. No other position could possibly make her feel more vulnerable. Weak.
McGregor, I ain’t going ravish your body, regardless what you may think.”
Her cheeks burned with humiliation and she would have dearly loved to tell him to go to hell and if he so much as laid an inappropriate finger on her person, she would bite it off. But her voice failed her, so she was left with no
choice but to lie silently in his arms.
Closing her eyes tightly, she concentrated on breathing. Forcing air pas
s her lips, down her throat, and into her lungs. She felt the rope being pulled around her waist and knew he was securing her to him. On the back of her neck, she felt his breath fan the hair covering her flesh. A shiver ran down her spine.
“Cold again, aren’t ya? And after I gone and got ya all dry and warm too.”
Without warning, his arms wrapped around Ivy’s midriff, causing her to freeze. But sighed inwardly when she realized his only intention was to secure her wrists together. What was her world coming to when she found relief in the arms of a man whose only intention was to bind her hands together to prevent her from escaping?
She had been thinking about it all day. If she had really wanted, she would be out of the rope and halfway across the countryside before he even woke. If she had any idea which direction to head. Case was, his warnings rang true. She knew nothing about the harsh land they crossed with its endless forests and rivers. Not to mention the wildlife.
And the fact was, she couldn’t even tell if they were headed north, south, west or east. She was completely and utterly lost. Like it or not, she was at the mercy of Sam Michalski
, who seemed to know exactly how to survive in this godforsaken land.
No matter how much she hated the idea, she
had to endure Sam Michalski’s company a little longer. Just until they reached within distance of civilization. Then she would happily leave the bounty hunter where he belonged. In the wilderness with the rest of the animals.
Ivy went stiff as she felt Sam Michalski’s arms slip around her. He had fallen asleep a while ago. She could tell by his heavy breathing. As usual, there would be no sleep for Ivy. Her daytime nap only reinforced that. Actually, it had been more than a nap. It had been a long
, deep sleep. Though it felt refreshing and rejuvenating, it was also shocking, not to mention frightening.
She had been twelve years old when she learned it was not safe to fall asleep. If she wanted to survive
, she had to learn to do with little sleep. It was those hours that his lordship would slip in and relieve his sexual needs on her sister. Ivy had been too frightened to say or do anything. Always, instead, hiding beneath her bed until he was done, then watch as his black boots left the room.
The memory of her sister’s tears as she tried to silence them into her pillow, haunted Ivy now. If only she had the courage to have helped her instead, maybe Moira would be with her now.
A noise outside the lean-to had her coming back to the present with a start. The rain had long stopped and the only sound in the forest was the odd water droplet as it fell from a branch onto the cold earth below. The air had a fresh after the rain smell, pronouncing the scent of the surrounding pine trees somehow.
There it was again.
Ivy held her breath, listening closely for the sound, trying to identify it. When it came again, closer, she gasped out loud. A hand swiftly covered her mouth.
Heavy footsteps passed by her head, not more than two feet away. Though these were not feet she heard, but paws. Big heavy paws that belonged to an equally large animal. Her only barrier being the thin wall of branches Sam used as material for the lean-to. Ivy froze all movement or sound, praying the bear on the other side couldn’t hear her trembling inside the shelter.
Sam must have felt them though, for his arm tightened around her, pinning her body even closer to him. To her surprise, she was not overcome with an urge to flee. Instead, an unbelievable sense of
safety swept over her.
Sam’s breath felt warm next to her ear as he
softly whispered, “We’re downwind. She won’t be able to smell us. Just stay still.” If she hadn’t been holding her own breath, she would never have heard him.
She nodded and was struck by the realization that she was glad Sam was there. Glad she was not alone. Glad his arms were around her. Never before in her life had she ever felt so protected.
And that was when the urge to flee eventually did come. But instead, she forced herself to remain still, biting her bottom lip hard to keep it from trembling. The forest was silent, making the sound of the bear’s snort sound that much louder. Every time the animal exhaled, it sounded so close, Ivy was sure the creature would discover them at any moment. She physically flinched when the animal’s breath was felt far too close to where her head lay.
dependable feelings of anxiety returned, bubbling deep in her gut. She tried desperately to suppress it. Now was not a good time to vomit. As if sensing her rising anxiety, Sam tightened his hold on her. One hand covering her mouth, the other slowly and almost as if he wasn’t aware, stroking her arm.
one covering her mouth tasted salty against her lips. Was he sweating? Was he as frightened as Ivy? The thought should have sent her reeling into a panic, but for some unexplainable reason, it actually had a calming effect.
So the man was human after all. Perhaps was in need of a little comforting as well. Not that she would offer him any, she told herself sternly. For all she cared, the bear could have him for dinner.
Heavy shuffling indicated the animal had moved toward the entrance of the shelter.
Ivy’s pulse skyrocketed and without even realizing it, she leaned deeper into Sam’s embrace. Sam squeezed her, obviously trying to send her a
mute warning to be still and silent. And he was right. She knew that. Whatever it took, she could not scream. Something she was fighting hard against.
Years of struggling to survive had built in a natural survival instinct in Ivy. She did not want to die. Not here. Not this way. If it meant she could not move for the next twenty-four hours, the next week if need be, she would do it.
To her relief, however, the sound of the bear’s heavy paws began to move away from the shelter. The sound of trees and bush rustled as the animal headed back into the woods and out of their camp, until finally it was silent once again. And even then, Ivy did not move.
“She’s gone.” Sam’s mouth was just over her ear and when he spoke his voice sounded so soft, so comforting. A warm ripple unexpectedly ran down her spine. Perhaps it was the pent up stress of having to remain so still when what she really wanted was to go running into the forest screaming at the top of
her lungs, which had tears welling at the back of her eyes. Now was not the time to cry. She pressed her lids tightly together, forcing them dry.
When she finally felt herself reasonably in control of her emotions, she said, “Will she be back?”
“Might,” he admitted. “Good chance she smelled what was left of our dinner in the fire pit.”
“Can you shoot it?”
Behind her back, she felt him grow rigid. When he spoke, his voice was no longer soft. “You can’t go around killing everything you don’t like.”
don’t like is the fact if she had come one step closer, she’d have found the entrance to this shelter.”
“She was looking for food. That’s not a crime.”
“Only if we be her choice for dinner.”
The arms around her body released her as Sam moved further away from her into the darkness. “Get some sleep, Ivy.”
Hearing her name from his lips sounded odd. And too cozy. She almost preferred ma’am. Or even Freckles. “I’m not sleepy.”
“Sleep,” he ordered. “I don’t intend to carry you through the woods, and I will not waste another day.”
“What if the bear comes back?”
“Ye don’t know that for certain. What if she does?”
“Then I’ll stay awake.”
Ivy frowned. “Won’t ye be needing your sleep?”
He sighed. “Make your choice. I stay awake or we become Thanksgiving dinner for the local bear family.”
It wouldn’t matter whether Sam slept or not, Ivy knew sleep would not come to her that evening. Not now. Not with the threat of danger nearby.
She felt him move behind her, heard the click of his gun and knew he was reloading it. “Feel better?”
“Aye.” He had no idea how much. “Thank you.”
A silence filled the small shelter. Behind her, Sam didn’t even move.
She shivered. It was a lot colder than the night before. The rain put a dampness in the air and it didn’t help that her clothes had gotten wet once again.
Not more than five inches behind her, she could feel the heat of Sam’s body. If she didn’t trust him so little, she would have craved his warmth.
“Good night, Ivy.”
She didn’t know why
, but she liked his voice. It was raspy and uncultured, but there was definitely something comforting about it. “Good night—Mr. Michalski.”
* * *
Ivy’s eyes flew open with a start. She had fallen asleep. Again. How was that possible? With all the sleep she had received yesterday, she would have thought remaining awake and ensuring the bear did not return and have them for breakfast, would have been easy. And then there was Sam Michalski.
She couldn’t trust him. He was a bounty hunter. Men who killed without mercy. Or conscience.
All for the sake of a dollar.
filled the lean-to. She blinked to clear the sleep from her eyes. A huge weight pinned itself to her back, nearly engulfing her in its form. And warmth. With horror she realized it belonged to Sam Michalski. During the night he had returned to attach himself to her body. His arms had come around and locked her in his embrace.
Ivy closed her eyes again. Not to
savor the feeling, but to still the growing pleasure his warm embrace provoked. She needed to focus. Needed to stop it. Concentrating, she lay still and listened to his heavy breathing behind her. He was still asleep.
If she moved very deliberately, she could be out of the ropes and his arms and
escape before he ever woke. Then what?
She bit her lip, hating the feeling of helplessness. She hadn’t found herself in a situation she hadn’t been able to get out of in a long time. It left her feeling weak, vulnerable. And Ivy knew only too well what could happen to a person who did not remain strong.
He shifted behind her, tightening his hold on her, before moaning in pain. Apparently, the big and tough Sam Michalski wasn’t immune to sleeping in cramped and uncomfortable quarters.
“Jesus,” he moaned, removing his arm to rub the back of his head.
Ironically, Ivy felt no pangs. His body had cushioned her from the hard ground. His arm, a comforting pillow.
“You awake?” he mumbled next to her ear.
“Aye. May I get up now?”
He didn’t reply immediately. Perhaps not fully awake, but then he moved and pulled his other arm out from beneath her. “Yeah. Hold still while I untie these.”
There was no fear of Ivy moving. She held herself erect as his hands worked at the ropes pinning her body against his. His fingers brushed the underside of her breasts several times and it took all Ivy had not to bolt like lightening, or worse, turn towards his touch.
At last he slipped the ropes from around her wrists and Ivy was free. She quickly pulled herself away from him and shuffled as far as possible against the twig wall. She could feel Sam’s eyes on her, but refused to lift her chin. The aloof persona she worked so hard to create,
she was finding difficult to resurface.
“You need to relieve yourself?”
Ivy felt her cheeks grow hot, but nodded nevertheless. He moved finally and slipped out of the shelter first. She was fairly certain the bear was nowhere in the area, but she would rather not be the first to have her head bitten off as it were. Not that she wished Sam’s death either, she thought, as he called out it was safe for her to emerge. The fact was, without him, she would never exit these woods alive.
As she emerged into the bright early morning light, she blinked and looked up at her captor. He was tall, scrubby and as mean looking as they came, but for some reason Ivy knew that wasn’t the real reason why she didn’t want this man to die. Sure
, he was not only her captor and link to survival, but there was something about him, something she wasn’t able to understand. She simply knew.
* * *
Sam waited while Ivy slipped behind some thick bush. He hadn’t bothered tying her up. If she made a run for it, he was sure to hear. He waited until she was finished, then led her back to their temporary camp. The rain had killed the fire he had built the night before, so he spent some time getting it started once again.
Next to him, though she tried to suppress it, he noticed Ivy trembling within her cloak. For some odd reason he felt a pang of guilt. Turning angrily
away, he snatched up the rope and marched over to her squatting position. Wordlessly, he reached for her wrists and secured them tightly before wrapping the other end around her ankles.
He could feel her eyes on him the entire time. Unable to stop himself, he looked up and noticed those unusual eyes of her
s strained on him. He cursed silently. She was starting to get to him. He had better toughen his skin. But, hell, for some stupid reason, he noticed the softness of her face, the creamy color of her skin with the smallest trace of pink in her cheeks from the cold temperatures.
Two fine brows slowly drew together, snapping Sam out of his unexpected musings. He grimaced before pushing himself to his feet. “You’re looking a whole lot more—“
Ah, hell, the word beautiful nearly fell off his tongue. This woman was not beautiful. Hell, she was as homely as they came. But that morning, as he kneeled before her, something about her was different. He wasn’t sure what it was, but there was definitely a difference. Her eyes didn’t look nearly as dull. Her skin not nearly as gray. And the dark shadows below her eyes he thought a permanent feature, were beginning to fade. Sleep was doing her a world of good.
“—healthy,” he finished oddly. Stop looking at her, he ordered himself. With more force than he
intended, he spun around and marched out of the camp.
“Where are ye going?”
“I won’t be gone long.” It didn’t fare well if she knew where or how long he would be gone. It only provided a time period of how long she had to plan an escape.
* * *
Ivy watched Sam’s back disappear into the thick underbrush. She didn’t like the way he was looking at her. It made her feel. . . different. Which in turn, made her feel nervous.