Race scarcely felt her blows. But what she was saying nearly took him to his knees, every word breaking his heart. He understood now. Why she had come to this knoll. Why she looked as if someone had blacked both of her eyes. Why she'd been in shock when he found her. God help them both, he understood, and wished he didn't.
"Honey, listen to me. Listen, all right? There was nothin' you could've done. Nothin'! Save die beside her. You did what came natural. It's instinct to run if stayin' means you're gonna die! You think I wouldn't? Think again. I woulda left you to eat my dust."
"You liar!" She punched his shoulder again. "You wouldn't have run! You would have fought! If she'd screamed your name, you would have tried to save her!"
"If I was armed, damned straight. But you wasn't."
"Don't!" She held up her hands as if to block out the sound of his voice. "Even without guns, you would have fought them. Tried, anyway. With your fists if nothing else."
"And you think you should've? That just plain don't make sense. With your fists, Rebecca? You really think you can belly up to a man? He'd knock you into next week. Turn you every which way but loose!"
"You don't know that. Not for sure! I could've tried! I could've done something!"
Race could see she wasn't registering anything he said to her. In one ear and out the other. Christ Almighty. The guilt was tearing her apart, eating her alive. She screamed my name, and I covered my ears!
He bent and caught her behind the knees with one arm. When he tossed her over his shoulder, she shrieked. That was fine. He meant to startle her. Meant to scare the hell out of her, in fact.
"What! You put me down! What're you"
He jostled her to get a better hold. "Be still! Start throwin' yourself, and I'll drop you on your fool head!"
As he struck off toward camp, she made fists over the back of his belt to lever herself up. "Where ? What do you think you're doing?"
That was a damned good question. He was tempted to stop and put her down. Just because she'd gone loco didn't mean he had to go with her. But if he put her down, then what? The first time he turned his back, would she be here again, hoping to die? Hell, yes. As long as she had those crazy thoughts in her head, she wouldn't feel she deserved to live, and he couldn't say he'd blame her.
He had to do somethingeven if it was wrong.
"Where are you going?"
Lengthening his strides to carry them closer to camp where he at least knew he had men riding guard, he said, "I'm lookin' for a patch of soft grass."
Her voice breaking with every bounce of his stride, she said, "So-o-ft gra-aa-ass?"
"I gotta bad knee. When I rape a woman, I gotta do it on soft grass."
Silence. Then a shrill, "What?"
At least he had her undivided attention. He saw Preach in the distance, riding circle, and lifted a hand. Preach swung his Stetson above his head to return the greeting. Race veered in that direction, Rebecca swinging back and forth over his shoulder like a burlap bag filled with hissing and spitting cats.
Preach, seeing that Race was heading toward him, wheeled his sorrel and rode to meet him. Race waited until horse and rider were nearly upon him, then gave his hired hand an exaggerated wink, after which he reached up and gave Rebecca's upturned fanny a friendly pat and squeeze. She made a sound that sounded like a cross between the bray of a jackass and one of Cookie's snorts.
"Hey, there, Preach!" Pat, squeeze. "I gotta favor to ask. You reckon you can ride circle for a bit, right around this here spot? Off a ways, of course, to give us some privacy?"
"You put me down!" she shrieked. She shoved harder on his belt and swung up, trying to see Preach. "This man has lost his mind! Tell him to put me down this instant!"
Preach gave Race a long, hard look. Then he smiled slightly. "Well, now, ma'am. Him bein' the boss, he don't take orders from me any too good." He turned a twinkling gaze on Rebecca, who'd lost her grip on Race's belt and was back to dangling upside down again. In a lower voice, he said, "What'n hell are you up to, boss?"
Race patted her on the fanny again. "Well, it appears I gotta prove a point to this young lady. She's from Missouri. One of them mule-headed folks that's gotta learn every damned thing the hard way."
One of Preach's eyebrows shot up. "You don't say."
"Mr. Spencer! You-put-me-down-this-instant! If you don't, mark my words, you shall live to regret it!"
"Darlin', I told you, I gotta bad knee. First I gotta find soft grass." Race gave Preach another wink, then started walking again. Rebecca thumped him on the hip. When that didn't get his attention, she made another awful sound, and then he felt her trying her damnedest to bite the small of his back. He whacked her on the rump, putting enough force into the swat to make it sting. "Don't you dare bite me."
"Ouch!" She twisted and swung. "You put me down! I swear, if you don't end this foolishness this instant, I'll "
"I'll report you!"
"When you reach Denver, you be sure to do that very thing!"
She hung limp for several seconds, saying nothing. Then he heard her release a long-suffering sigh. "I know what you're trying to do, Mr. Spencer," she informed him, her voice jiggling with his every step. "And I appreciate the thought behind the gesture, even though I disapprove of your tactics. But it won't work. You're not a ruffian, first of all. So you see, the correlation you hope to draw isn't-"
"Theoh, never mind! Truly, this is very sweet. I don't think anyone has ever gone to such lengths to make me feel better before, but I'm telling you, it won't work."
She had stopped sobbing. That was a leg up. "It ain't like I'm goin' to a lot of bother. Makin' love to you might be a hair more taxin'. A man's gotta put some effort into that. It ain't like that with rape, though. Lot of fun for him, not much for her."
She sighed again, loudly, the sound stuttering with each bounce. "I'm not in the least afraid of you, Mr. Spencer. Yesterday morning, this may have worked. But I assure you, it shan't today! You're nothing if not kind and caring, and I know it. You'd never harm me. Not in a hundred years."
"Horny as a three-pronged goat. That's what I am. Damn. If I don't find a soft spot soon, I'm gonna be plumb tuckered before I get to the fun part."
He chuckled. "You don't think I mean to do it, do ya?"
"Well, of course not! Which is why this won't work. I know very well you're not about to hurt me, which means I shan't be afraid of you no matter how fiercely you snarl, which means that I shan't fight you as I would a ruffian. Which brings us back to my point, no correlation!"
Race swung her off his shoulder, angling an arm up her back to break her fall just enough that she wouldn't be hurt, but not enough to prevent a landing that gave her a good hard jolt. She blinked in startlement. He followed her down, vising her hips between his knees.
As he captured both of her wrists in the grip of one hand and reached to unbuckle his belt, he said, "Honey, you got it all wrong. You ain't gonna fight me at all. In case you ain't noticed, I'm a hell of a lot bigger than you."
"Exactly," she said, looking up at him as if he weren't too smart. "I shan't fight you. So what is the point?"
Race gazed deeply into her blue eyes, almost as pleased by the trust in him that he saw there as he was surprised by it. Unfortunately, it didn't exactly serve him well at the moment. "You ain't real savvy, are you, darlin'?"
Belt unbuckled, he sat back and gazed down at her with what he prayed was a lecherous grin pasted on his mouth. Her eyes widened when he reached to unbutton her bodice. "Mr. Spencer, it is possible to carry this too far."
"Not a chance. I done it enough times to know when I'm finished." Two buttons, three. He thanked God she had so many buttons. "Now this is what we're gonna do," he said, looking deeply into her eyes again. "I'm gonna hold you down and have myself a real fine time, and you pretty much won't. And when you figure that out and start tryin' to get away, that's when you learn a hard fact. Which is there ain't a goddamned thing on this green earth you can do to stop me. You understand how it's gonna go now?"
The clear blue of her eyes darkened slightly as he unfastened the fourth button. They darkened considerably more with the fifth and sixth. By the eighth, she was beginning to look a little panicked.
A little panicked wouldn't quite get the job done. He avoided looking into her eyes again. Everything in him rebelled against doing this. But, damn it, he had to. At this point, he didn't care if she hated his guts for it. Anything to get that pain out of her eyes. And talking sense to her sure as hell wasn't going to do that.
Race parted the front plackets of her dress. "You sure are a pretty little piece of baggage. I think I'm gonna have more fun doin' this than I thought." He trailed his fingertips along the neckline of her exposed chemise. "Oh, yeah."
She bucked. And he had to hand it to her, she put more strength into it than he would have given her credit for, almost unseating him. Then she surprised him yet again by twisting a hand free from his grasp. Slash. She caught him with her fingernails at the corner of his eye and ripped her way along his jaw.
"Ouch!" Race reared back and grabbed for his face. Bad mistake. In the process, he relaxed his grip on her other wrist. She jerked that arm free as well. "You got me in the eye! Damn it, Rebec" Her fist landed in his other eye socket-not on, but in, the size of her knotted hand a perfect fit. Race felt as if his eyeball jammed into his brain.
Blind. He couldn't see anything but a blur, that being a totally pissed-off, panicked female. He cupped both his hands over his eyes, leaving only his nose exposed, and she went for that next, shoving hard with the heel of her hand. Pain. It slammed up the bridge of his nose, and, lo and behold, he could see something.
"Son of a-aa-a bitch!" He grabbed his nose, felt the unmistakable warm wetness of blood on his palm, and threw up his other arm to shield his face from further attack. "You broke my goddamned nose!"
She went suddenly still. Race swung off of her to kneel hunched over.
"Rest period!" he cried. "No fair hittin' a man when he can't see!"
Pain. He couldn't believe this. He hadn't even touched her anyplace important. Damn. She had broken his nose. Right at the weak spot. Slicker than shit.
He heard her slither away from him, her breath coming in fast pants. Then he heard her get up. The sound of little feet pattering across the grass to escape him brought no joy to his heart. He wanted to roar at her to get her little butt back there, that he wasn't finished with her yet. Not by half.
He twisted to sit cross-legged, elbows braced on his knees, face cupped in his hands. Instead of teaching her a lesson, he'd learned a couple, the first being not to tangle with a female unless he was willing to hurt her, which he wasn't, the second that he couldn't count on her to give him the same quarter.
Oh . . . damn. His nose! Crooked as the Allegheny. He pictured her running into camp, screaming, "Rape!" with her dress half-unbuttoned and her hair going every which way. He groaned. Pete would probably come out and finish what she had started. Race doubted he could defend himself. Blind. He stood corrected. The girl never should have run and hidden in the bushes. She should have waded right in and kicked ruffian ass.
He almost parted company with his skin. "Jesus H. Christ! Don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Oh, Mr. Spencer!" she said in a faint, shaky voice.
"I thought you run off!"
"Well . . " Catch of breath and a squeaky mewling noise. "I did run off a ways. Oh, lands! I just had to come back."
"Why. To drop kick me?" He wiggled his nose and cursed under his breath. "You'd best haul ass while you can. I'm gonna be damned mad as soon as I can see!"
He gave his nose another wiggle, then clenched his teeth and made a humming sound at the back of his throat to keep from cursing to turn the air blue.
"Are you going to be all right, do you think?" she asked in a worried little voice.
He jerked his head up to gape at her blurry outline over his bent thumb. "Hell, no, I'm not gonna be all right! You broke my nose!"
"Oh, dear. Do you truly think it's broken?"
She'd damned near shoved his gristle into his brain, and now she sounded remorseful? He heard a rustling sound and the blur of her face came closer. The next instant her small hands were trying to pull his away from his face. "Oh, Mr. Spencer, I'm so sorry. May I look?"
He jerked away. "You stay away from me. Christ! I thought you were a cheek turner!"
Race realized he was talking through his wrist. He wrenched his mouth to one side and blinked to bring her into focus. That sweet little face. All those golden curls. She looked like an angel. What an illusion.
"A cheek turner! One of them Bible thumpers that don't believe in violence!"
"Well, I was. I've-it would seem I've fallen from grace."
He glared at her for a moment. No question. He outweighed her by at least a hundred and ten pounds. "Fallen from grace?"
"I asked you very politely to desist."
Race had no idea what "desist" meant, but judging by the context of the sentence, he got the nub of it.
"I thought you said you wouldn't fight me. Next thing I know, you're clawin' and spittin' like a she-cat."
He heard her make a muffled sound of distress. Then she tried to pull his hand away again.
"Leave me alone, I said! Go nettle the plug-uglies!"
"Oh, Mr. Spencer, I'm so sorry!" Her voice went all quavery. "You frightened me!"
He shot her a glare. "Don't you dare."
"Dare what?" she asked shakily.
"Start cryin'. I mean it. Not one tear." He saw tears welling, and he narrowed his eyes.
"I'm sorry. It's just-oh, lands, I don't know what came over me." She bent forward at the waist, a hand pressed to her throat as she tried to see behind his fist. "I didn't mean to hurt you! Honestly I didn't."
"Could've fooled me."
"Are you positive it's actually broken?"
Race felt fairly certain. The bridge was leaning toward his right eye. "You know, this ain't the least bit fair. Puckerin' up. Makin' me feel bad. I didn't hurt a hair on your head, and didn't plan to!"
"Oh, mercy, I know. That's why I came back. You were a little too convincing there for a moment. I'm afraid I lost my head." She tugged on his wrist. "Let me look."
"Rebecca, keep pesterin' me, and you're fixin' to get swatted on your other cheek."
"Oh, you're such a meany. Come on. Move your hand. I won't hurt you, I promise."
Race had made grown men turn tail with a glare. How was it that this half-swatch of muslin had absolutely no fear of him? "I am mean. Meaner'n a sidewinder with a nasty disposition."
"I know." She drew his hand slightly away from his face and her breath caught. "Oh, merciful heaven, what have I done?"
"Is it that bad?" He crossed his eyes trying to see.
She touched her fingers to her mouth, and tears spilled over her lashes onto her pale cheeks. "Oh, Mr. Spencer, it really is broken! Oh, Lands! What have I done? You were so handsome, and now just look at you!"
He flopped on his back and stared at the sky, thinking he'd rather have a bad case of bawdy-house itch than deal with her tears. "Don't get all worked up. It's got a weak spot and breaks kinda easy. I know you didn't mean to." Angling an arm over his eyes, he sighed. He knew by tonight he'd have two prize-winning shiners. A busted nose usually brought black eyes with it. The pain had eased up, at least. "Aw, hell. I had it comin'. Of all the damned fool things I ever done, that takes the prize. I wanted to make you feel better, and that was all I could think to do."
From under his sleeve, he saw her crouch next to him and loop her arms around her knees. "I know that," she said. "And it was foolish. But for some strange reason, it did make me feel better."
He let his arm drop down onto the grass above his head. "It did?"
Still hugging her knees, she rocked forward onto her toes to look down at him with the biggest, prettiest, most shimmery blue eyes he'd ever seen. "Just knowing you care that much makes me feel a bit better. After what happened to Tag, I'm amazed you don't detest me."
For a few brief moments, he'd nearly forgotten about Tag. Now the guilt slammed into him again. "What happened to Tag wasn't your fault," he said huskily. "It was mine. For not lookin' after him good enough."
A tear clung to one of her bottom lashes. Just hung there, glistening like a tiny prism. "I'd tell you how wrong you are to think that," she said, "but I know it wouldn't help. It's going to hurt, no matter what."
Just as she was going to hurt, no matter what. She screamed my name. He'd never forget the pain in her voice when she'd said that. "I reckon that's true," he admitted. "And that bein' the case, there ain't much point in you tryin' to elbow in and take some of my blame. You got enough of your own."
She gazed at the horizon for a long moment. "We're a fine pair." She released a weary sigh. "Oh, what a miserable day. I'd like to wish some of my life away-anything to put this far behind me."
Race could have gone for that himself. "Rebecca," he whispered huskily. "You gotta promise me, darlin'. Give me your word that you won't do somethin' loco like this again. No matter how bad you feel."
She drew her gaze back to his. "I feel as if I'm destroying your life."
"Then you oughta stay around to help me put it back together again."
Her mouth quivered at the corners. "Do you really want me to?"
In that moment, Race knew he wanted nothing more, and that it would probably end up being the biggest heartbreak of his life. "I really do," he whispered.