Authors: Peggy Webb
Tags: #Indian heroes, #romantic suspense, #Southern authors, #dangerous heroes, #Native American heroes, #romance, #Peggy Webb backlist, #Peggy Webb romance, #classic romance, #medical mystery, #contemporary romance
Copyright 2012 by Peggy Webb
Cover art design 2012 by Kim Van Meter
Publishing History/ Bantam Fanfare
Copyright 1994 by Peggy Webb
All rights reserved
Chickasaw Tribal Lands, Oklahoma
The village lay snug under a blanket of snow, somnolent and peaceful in the early morning light as if it had never known violence. Kate Malone knew better. She stood on her front porch, clutching her coat high around her neck, shivering.
The previous day’s fan mail had been slipped silently under the door of her clinic and still lay open on her bedside table.
Your tormentor watches you, pale face doctor witch. Repent or burn in hell.
Coward. Hiding behind his mask of anonymity. She would never back down, for the lives of a people she had come to love were at stake. Threats of hell didn’t scare her. She’d already been there . . . twice. And she’d survived both times.
Her boots sank into the snow as she started across her yard to the clinic. The cold air whipped her coat and set her adrenaline flowing. Five hours of sleep was not enough, but it was all she could allow herself. A dreadful sickness was stalking the Chickasaw children, and she was the only one who could save them.
With her head bent against the wind, Kate hurried along. Suddenly the wintry silence was rent by a sharp crackling sound. Kate froze. If it was her tormentor, she was fair game, for the nearest neighbor was two miles away. There was nobody to hear her if she screamed.
She balled her hands into fists and took a karate stance, ready to fight. The sound came again, and a pine bough dumped its heavy burden at her feet.
“Nerves,” she muttered, disgusted with herself. She couldn’t afford a case of nerves.
She’d rammed her fists into her coat pockets and started forward once more, when another sound tore the silence . . . a high-pitched wail of terror. Fear bloomed in Kate’s chest, and her own scream rose in her throat. The sound came again, shattering her nerves and the spell that bound her.
“Deborah!” Her head up, her heart riding high in her chest, Kate raced toward her clinic. The screaming had stopped, but a new terror presented itself. Smoke curled from the roof and an unearthly glow lit the windows.
“Please, God . . . please, God,” she chanted as she ran, not knowing what she asked for, knowing only that prayer was necessary.
The toe of her boot caught on a root, and she toppled like a felled tree. Scrambling in the snow, praying and swearing at the same time, Kate lurched upright and started running once more. Snow clung to her lashes, blurring her vision. The acrid smell of smoke burned her nostrils.
She knew she was making progress, for she could hear the vicious crackle of wood catching fire, but the clinic seemed to be receding rather than advancing. Her lungs burned and her eyes stung.
There was movement behind the clinic, and she saw a shadowy form racing toward the cover of trees. Kate tried to pick up her speed, but roots hidden in the snow threatened to trip her once more. As she fought for balance a million possibilities went through her mind, all of them terrifying.
When she finally reached the clinic, she was so weak with fatigue and fear, she leaned against the door. It was already warm from the fire inside.
Struggling against panic, Kate pushed it open. Smoke billowed from the examining room in the back, filling the waiting room with a thick black cloud. She flung one arm over her nose, then dropped to all fours and crawled forward.
“Deborah!” she screamed. There was no answer except the hissing of flames.
The smoke was so thick, she couldn’t see. Her head bumped into the receptionist’s desk, setting stars in her eyes and sending the telephone flying. Disoriented, Kate crawled backward. Her foot connected with the bookshelf, and books cascaded around her.
Choking on smoke and sobs, she clawed her way out of the book pile and inched blindly toward what she hoped was the back of the clinic. Her hands landed in something slick. Splinters from the old wooden floor tore at her skin and ripped at her nails as she clawed for purchase. Her knees hit the slippery puddle and she sprawled forward.
Soft flesh cushioned her fail . . . and luxuriant dark hair and the starched front of a nurse’s uniform.
“Deborah,” Kate called, terror reducing her voice to a scratchy whisper.
She levered herself onto her elbows, trying to see through the blanket of smoke. A burst of flame illuminated the room. Deborah Lightfoot lay in a pool of blood, her eyes staring blankly at Kate and her throat slit from ear to ear.
Keening like a wounded animal, Kate bent over her. She caught the wrist, knowing there would be no pulse, leaned her head against the chest, knowing there would be no heartbeat.
She was too late, too late.
“Deborah . . . Deborah!” she screamed, trying to staunch the flow of blood with her scarf, refusing to believe death had claimed her best friend. “Oh my God, I won’t let you die. Not you, too.”
Tears streaked through the grime on her cheeks, and smoke stung her lungs as she abandoned the futile effort to stop the bleeding and pushed with all her strength against the silent heart. Suddenly the entire west wall went up in flames.
Stricken, Kate stared upward as the roof buckled and began a slow, fiery descent. She cradled her arms over her head and pressed her face into her dead friend’s chest.
Eagle Mingo saw the flames as they leapt over the treetops. He urged his horse forward, refusing to give in to the terror that clawed his gut. If he’d been a praying man, he’d have called on the Great Spirit to spare him mercy and grace, but he’d ceased praying five years earlier, when he’d traded his heart and soul for a mantle of duty.
Angry tongues of fire licked the sky, and he leaned over his stallion’s mane, coaxing him in the ancient language of his people. The phone call that had sent him flying through the early dawn on his horse still echoed through his mind.
“Mingo, I think Kate Malone may be in real danger. My sources believe the man who calls himself her tormentor is going to strike soon.”
“Get some men over there,” he had told Martin Black Elk, chief of the tribal police and lifelong friend. “I don’t care whether she wants protection or not. Get them over there.”
“I will. Soon as the first shift gets in here, I’ll send a man to her place, but I don’t know if it will do any good. She’s about as easy to persuade as a wildcat.”
“Tell her it’s my orders.”
“The last time I mentioned the governor’s orders, she laughed in my face.”
“I’ll tell her, Martin. She won’t dare laugh in mine.” She might scratch his eyes out, but she wouldn’t laugh.
Eagle had meant to wait until sunup, but some dark premonition had sent him flying to his stables in the predawn hours. In this weather his stallion was much more reliable than either his Corvette or his Jeep. His mount was one of the few remaining of its kind, a Chickasaw horse, bred for speed and endurance.
As he neared Kate’s place he thought he heard a woman’s scream, but with the pounding of hooves and the howling of wind, he couldn’t be certain. Leaning low over his horse, he raced toward the blazing clinic.
“Deborah!” the woman screamed.
This time there was no mistaking the sound. It was Kate’s voice . . . coming from somewhere inside the inferno.
!” he urged his horse, bending low over its neck. “Go like the wind.”
When they were close enough to feel the heat from the fire, his stallion balked. Eagle knew he would never survive the blaze on foot. He whipped off his jacket and tied it around the horse’s head. Then he dug his heels into its flanks and the stallion vaulted through the wall of flame.
There were two bodies lying together on the floor, one with the long black hair of the Chickasaw and the other with hair the color of fire. Until that moment Eagle didn’t know it was possible to breathe after your heart had stopped beating.
The ceiling above them buckled, sending flames shooting downward. Heat seared his leg and the flanks of his horse. The stallion whinnied, sidestepping. Eagle wrestled him under control.
There was movement on the floor, and Kate twisted her head upward. In the eerie glow of the blaze she stared at him with eyes widened by shock and terror. Deborah Lightfoot stared sightlessly at him with eyes gone glassy in death.
“Reach for me, Kate!” She didn’t move. Eagle leaned far over the saddle. “In the name of all that’s holy,
reach for me
Tentatively she lifted her hand. He caught her arm and jerked her upright. Flames roared around them, and his stallion danced in place.
Counting on skills he’d learned as a child racing across tribal lands, Eagle circled her waist and scooped her upward just as the roof gave way. He couldn’t risk taking time to get her into the saddle. Holding her in an iron grip with her legs dangling over the side, he leaned low and urged his stallion forward. As they leapt through the flames and into the dawn, the roof caved in behind them.
“Deborah.” Kate sobbed as he pulled her into the saddle. Heat from the inferno still licked at their backs. Holding Kate against his chest, he leaned around her and jerked the coat off his stallion’s head.
Kate clawed at his face. “Put me down. Deborah’s back there.”
“There’s nothing you can do. Deborah’s dead.”
“I won’t let her be.” Tears streaked down her smoke-grimed face as she beat at his upper arms and shoulders. “Do you hear me? I won’t let her die.”
He wrapped one arm tightly around her chest, pinning her arms down, and with the other he guided the stallion into the woods behind the clinic.
Kate coughed and sputtered.
“Breathe, Kate. Breathe the fresh air.”
Shivering violently, she sucked air into her starving lungs. Then, with a strength born of desperation, she struggled against him.
“I have to go to her. Let me down.”
“It’s too late.”
“No! Don’t you dare say that. It can’t be too late.”
Sobs and shivers racked her body as she fought him. The stallion pranced, skittish and ready to bolt.
“Stop it, Kate. You can’t go back in there.”
“How dare you decide other people’s lives? Who made you God?” She drew back and her fist connected with bone. Tomorrow he’d have a black eye for his troubles.
He caught her right wrist, and she rammed his jaw with a left hook. “I don’t want to have to hit you, Kate.”
“You don’t give a damn about her, do you?” Her chin came up. “Hit me, almighty governor of the Chickasaw Nation.”
Snow and cinders from the burning building swirled around them. She was nearing hysteria.
With the swiftness of his namesake, he bent down and crushed her mouth under his. Her lips were cold and tasted of smoke and tears.
For a moment she struggled, wild and fierce, then suddenly her arms stole around his neck.
And he knew that in five lonely years he’d never stopped loving her. He held her close, kissing her with the desperate knowledge that this time would be their last. The murmurs of pleasure he remembered so well started deep in her throat, a soft humming sound that set his blood on fire. He became primitive, savage, with one goal in mind, one need overriding all others—to possess Kate.
“Eagle . . . Eagle.” Her voice was a broken plea, and he didn’t know if it was a cry for release or a cry for mercy.
He died a little inside. Breaking his long silence with the Father Creator, he called upon that all-powerful deity to pull them both back from the precipice of hell. When he released Kate, she sagged against him, spent.
He cupped her face, and they stared at each other, linked by a passion that had survived five endless years and yet separated by duty and honor. Eagle wanted to shake his fists at the heavens and curse the day he was born. Kate’s eves mirrored his agony.
Slowly, he traced her lips with one finger. Kate flicked her tongue against his skin, but the searing touch was gone so swiftly, he might have been dreaming.
“I should have let you burn,” he whispered.
“I wish you had.”
The river cried out to her in a voice full of anguish,
And out of the waters rose a creature, magnificent and golden, splendid in all his glory.
The sun lay along his wings and its heat spread outward,
Reaching toward her with hands of flame,
Reaching even the places she held most secret,
Reaching . . . reaching . . .
Until at last it burned her heart.