Excerpt from The Ruination of Essie Sparks

   
     Essie followed Blackthorn's gaze down the mountain. Sure enough, a handful of men on horseback—who, from this distance, looked like ants—had returned to scour the banks of the creek—searching for their tracks. Still nearly a day behind.
     Only when she slid her gaze back to Blackthorn did she notice that his bronze skin had gone pale and he looked as exhausted as she felt. Leaning her forehead against the Aspen sapling he'd tied her hands around, she said, "How long do you think you can go on this way? With that bullet in your leg? You need rest and a doctor."
     He walked—half-staggered, really— to his grazing horse, pulled a water-skin from a saddle and drank thirstily. "They won't rest," he said, with a tip of his head in the direction of the men chasing them. "And I don't see a doctor anywhere, do you?" He surprised her by holding the water skin to her mouth and letting her drink next. When she'd stated her thirst, he sank down beside a tree a few feet away from her and leaned his head back against the bark.
     Essie rubbed her damp mouth against her upper arm. Sometimes, his gentleness with her was a surprise. "I could help you," she suggested. "Untie me. I'll take the bullet out."
     For the briefest of moments, those steely gray eyes of his flicked up to hers. He seemed to actually consider her offer, whether out of desperation or, more unlikely, hope, she couldn't tell. She could not read the man, which was probably just as well because she had no desire to understand him or, worse, to care about him.
     Still, when the moment passed, and it quickly did, he laughed. The sound was peculiarly without humor. "Let me understand," he said slowly. "I give you my knife so you can finish what the bullet didn't?"
     Essie snorted and looked away. Of course, she wouldn't have killed him. She was not a murderer, no matter the circumstances. Unlike... possibly, some people she knew. But, heaven help her, the chance to make him pay, in some small measure—with the sharp tip of his knife—for all the torment he'd put her through since the day began, wouldn't break her heart, either.
     Ugh. That she'd even contemplated such vulgar retribution shocked her almost as much as finding herself tied to a tree in the middle of the Montana wilderness. It was all his fault. He had brought her to such low imaginings.
     "Seáa..." he murmured with a condescending grin. "I came a little too close to the mark there, didn't I? Surprised you're only human, Essie Sparks?"
     Ooh! How she hated him!
     She leaned forward, leveling a look at him that made her feelings plain. "Do you know what I say? I say that you'll die here from stubbornness. From thinking you can somehow keep me as your hostage when I'm no good to you at all! They could care less about me. It's you they're after. Because they won't let some... some misguided—" She faltered, searching for the proper word.
     "—half-breed?" he supplied.
     She made a frustrated noise. "Some misguided renegade Cheyenne best them by taking what they think belongs to them. And I say that if you don't loosen that bandage soon, you won't have to worry about saving your leg from that bullet." She leaned her head on the sapling between her arms. "I say with my hands tied here, we will both die in this godforsaken place sooner, rather than later."
     With surprising effort, he had rolled a look at her, mid-rant, and was studying her in the fading afternoon light. Against all common sense, she was struck again by his beauty, his rugged, effortless beauty—of which, she was quite sure, he was completely unaware. In fact, if anything, she supposed he considered himself without appeal, a conclusion with which she should heartily agree.
     But nothing about this man was simple. Not the way his instinct to protect her seemed almost the equal of his instinct to ruin her today, nor the way he seemed able to crawl in her mind to know what she was thinking before she did. His complexity drew her and offended her at once. But when he looked at her, as he was doing now... despite the sudden sallow color of his skin, the awful scar bisecting his cheek or the bitterness in his eyes, she couldn't deny the effect he had on her. On both her heart and her forbidden female parts.
     Then, as if he'd made some decision, he slid the knife from the sheath at his hip and pulled himself closer to the tree she was tied to. The blade glinted dangerously in the thin sunlight.
     Instantly, she feared she'd gone too far. Said too much. There was a darkness in his eyes that hadn't been there before. A warning.
     She might have imagined the wounded look in his eyes when she flinched as the blade drew near. Yes, most certainly, she had. Still, when he slid the blade between her hands and slit the leather thong that tied them, she couldn't quite believe he'd done it.
     For a moment, she simply stared at her hands before scooting entirely out of his reach on her backside. Beneath her, the remains of last autumn's dry leaves disintegrated with a rush of noise.
     He gestured with his knife at the trail below. "Go."
     "What?"
     "Run back to them. Back to your pretty life."
     "My pretty life—? What would you know about my—? Wait. You... you're letting me go?" Was this a trick? If not, he wouldn't have to tell her twice. She shoved to her feet and backed up a few steps, glancing over her shoulder down the mountain, at the searchers, so far away. It had taken the whole day to get this far uphill. How long would it take her to go back down? What if the men gave up looking and disappeared? Could she find her way back on her own?
     "Night comes quick up here," he said, his words beginning to slur. "Maybe you'll find your 'friends' before a cougar finds you. Or a grizzly bear."
     She stopped in her tracks. A bear? Or a cougar? She glanced through the thick stand of trees surrounding them. A million places for an animal to hide.
     "Then," she said, "I'll need a weapon."
     "And I need a good leg," he said, leaning his head back against the bark. "Seems we're both... out of luck."
     She blinked. "You'll send me off with nothing to protect myself?"
     Gesturing with his knife, he said, "Count yourself lucky I didn't take that pretty scalp of yours." He was still watching her, but through half-lidded eyes. "You never know what I'll do next. Savage, that I am."
     When she didn't move, he warned, "Sun's going down. What you waitin' for?"
     She stepped closer to him, tearing the remains of the leather bands from her wrists. "What about you?"
     A questioning look furled his brow, as if he couldn't imagine what she meant.
     "You're... you're bleeding again."
     He glanced down at the fresh blood seeping against his leggings. "So?" His gaze rose to meet hers. She opened her mouth then closed it again. He closed his eyes and nodded. "I'll take care of the bullet myself. Get out of here."
     Essie frowned, uncertainly. "And you're not even going to tell who you are to Daniel or... or what this is all about?"
     "Learn to live with disappointment, Miss Sparks. Like the rest of us do."
     "Fine." Disgusted, she turned in an uncertain circle. "Fine. I'll go. Now that I've missed my train, and I'll... I'll have to buy myself a new ticket East." She glanced back at him, but he seemed not at all interested in her petty problems. "I hope you're happy. What was the point of all this? Did you always mean to release me in the middle of nowhere? As if it were all just a game to you? To leave me defenseless?"
     "We are all defenseless without our courage veho'a'e." Allowing his eyes to slide shut, he dismissed her. "I set you free. The choice to stay... or go... is yours."
     Turning toward the vast mountains behind them, she felt suddenly overwhelmed. Find her way out alone? Her eyes stung, but she refused to cry. Heaven knew, she'd managed not to cry this whole awful day, she wouldn't start now.
     But of course she would go. Regardless what awaited her on the way down that mountain; leaving was a thousand times better than staying here, willingly, with him.
     Turning back to tell him so, she was just in time to catch him pitching sideways onto the ground beside the tree. Out cold.
     Shocked, she stared down at him for a few long heartbeats, half-expecting him to sit up, tell her his ploy was just a test. But he didn't. She couldn't even tell if he was breathing. Her stomach plunged. She'd never wished him dead, for heaven's sake. Dropping down beside him, she pushed her fingers against the side of his throat, paradoxically relieved to feel a quick, thready pulse.
     An unladylike curse escaped her and she sat back on her heels.
     Now what?
     She tossed a look around at the darkening forest. It was not lost on her that she was officially on her own now, here, in the middle of nowhere. Or that, leaving him here, in the forest... amidst the grizzly bears and cougars and other prowling predators she couldn't name, could mean certain death for him.
     On the one hand, he'd gotten himself into this situation. This mess was not of her making.
     On the other hand, something unreasonable twisted inside her. Concern? For him?
     She argued against such a possibility, but those arguments did nothing to diminish her feeling of responsibility. If she left him here, he would certainly die. If she stayed, the odds were just as good that she would die.
     She studied him for a long moment. The dark sweep of lash that brushed his cheek, his face, savagely handsome, somehow looked less fearsome without his ever-present scowl.
     Don't be a ninny! You just got lucky.
     Take the knife. Take it and get out of here, now.
     She reached for it, prying it from his lax hand. The feel of the thing, the heavy heft of it against her palm, troubled her somehow as she remembered how he'd held it against her throat. But the beginnings of panic scrambled inside her, shoving away any protests from her conscience. This was her chance to escape and she would take it. What fool wouldn't?
     A few feet away, his horse lifted his head from cropping grass and snorted at her. And with that, her decision made itself. She would take the knife.
     She would take the horse.
     She would survive.
     Catching the animal, she pulled herself up into the saddle, shushing the dissenting voices in her head. Any sane person would do what she was doing. Any woman with a lick of self-preservation would run as far and as fast as she could away from a renegade like him.
     Anyone would.
     Pulling her gaze deliberately from the unconscious man, she kicked the horse into a trot and headed back down the way they'd come.
 
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