Read A Hero's Bargain Online

Authors: Rayne Forrest

A Hero's Bargain (17 page)

He was
suddenly in front of her, pulling her into his arms. She wrapped her arms
around his waist.

“I’m not
going to take any chances with this creature. I like living too much, angel.”

“I’m glad
to know that,” she murmured against his chest.

“We may
be gone until late tomorrow night.” He massaged the back of her neck. “I don’t
know the terrain or the distance. I’ve no way to judge how long it will take to
get there. And there’s no guarantee the
errol
will follow the same path
it’s taken before, no matter what Tyree says.”

“The men
have watched it almost constantly. Runners come and go all the time.”

His hands
were on her shoulders, squeezing, applying a wonderful pressure to her knotted
muscles. “Ah. That explains a few things. Do you think it’s unaware of being observed?”

“No. I
think it knows. Tyree doesn’t agree. He thinks the creature unintelligent.” She
was ready to dissolve into a puddle at his feet.

“But
you’ve seen its eyes, Saba. You know.” He released her. “Come to bed for a
little while. Then we’ll do what we need to do.”

Was it
all that simple for him? He stood in the shadow between the sunlight streaming
in the window and the bright glare from the open door. She couldn’t see his
face, his eyes. Her suspicions couldn’t remain silent any longer. Would he tell
her the truth? Did he know for sure?

“You know
what it is, don’t you? You know where it came from.”

Ryder
stood so still, there in that shadow, that she wondered if he drew breath. The
seconds stretched, building to a larger moment there would be no return from.

“I think
it’s a Xenturan. I’ll know for sure when I see it.” He reached out and took her
hand and started moving them toward the bed. She didn’t resist.

He
slipped out of his pants and sat on the edge of bed. His hands roved across her
hips, her ribs and finally cupped her breasts.

“I won’t
drop my guard on it, angel. I swear.” He pulled her down on the bed and wrapped
his arms around her, cradling her. His words brought back the memories she’d
tried so hard to erase.

“I’ve
seen what they can do, too, angel. And I wish to God you never had.”

Chapter 20

 

Ryder
closed his eyes and let the stillness of the room soak into his skin. The
village yard had quieted, a sure sign Tyree had passed along the message to say
goodbyes and then prepare. He wondered if they truly knew the stakes.

The
creature had sent clear signs it would not hesitate to kill. If this attempt to
resolve the situation failed, it was possible the
errol
would be angry
enough to destroy the village. Ryder had no doubt it was capable of such destruction.

He pulled
Saba closer into the circle of his arms. If he killed the creature, he’d come
back to her changed in ways he wasn’t sure he could explain to her. He felt the
fracture lines in his soul at the thought of killing outright. Even killing to
save his own life, or the life of another, would leave his conscience cloudy.

Better
his conscience than another’s, though. Tyree and Saba had told him, with all
honesty, the Ramalho did not commit murder. He believed them and he knew he
would manage where another may not. Even Tyree didn’t need the weight of such a
deed on his soul. Tyree led these people and had enough to carry.

And if
things went very, very wrong, well, Saba was young enough to find another man.
It wouldn’t be Tyree. They would all come back whole, or not at all. If he
missed, Tyree and those few hand-chosen by him would battle to the death to end
it now. He was sure she sensed that, too. She knew them better than he did and
he could sense it. He kissed her forehead.

“Saba, I
don’t want you to worry. I’ll be back.”

“I know.
But I will worry. Are you sure you’re strong enough? You could instruct Tyree
on how to use your weapon. He’s quite skilled at hitting his target.”

He didn’t
doubt that for a moment. He was sure Tyree was an accomplished hunter when it
came to providing meat for the tables.

He took
her hand and laced his fingers through hers and laid it over his heart. “I’m
crushed. You don’t think I can do this.”

She
jumped. “No! I didn’t mean that! It’s just that you were so ill. I will worry
you are not fully recovered.”

He
chuckled softly. “I’m as good as I’ll get, angel. Besides, according to the
headman, it’s got to be now. Ready or not, we go.”

“This is
not a stroll through the forest, Ryder. Do not take it so lightly.”

“I’m
not.” He rolled on his side to face her. His back still ached but he would
never admit that to her.

“Please,
Ryder. Just give your weapon to Tyree. You need not put yourself at risk.”

He would
not admit, even to her, that his weapon was useless in Tyree’s hands. If he had
access to
Faithe’s
computer banks, he might be able to adjust the weapon
for Tyree, but that option didn’t exist. On his own, he didn’t know where to
begin. If he tried to muddle his way through it, he could render the Eliminator
totally inoperable.

“No.
There isn’t time to teach him how to use it. I won’t miss. I swear.”

“There is
time. Do not be stubborn. Tyree learns quickly. Simply take him aside and show
him what to do.”

He tipped
her chin up, forcing her to look at him. Her mouth was set in a narrow,
stubborn line. Her eyes, the doorway to her soul, were angry.

“It’s
pointless to fight about this. I will not turn my weapon over to anyone.
Careless handling could bring disaster. You must believe me on this.”

“I
believe you do not know this place. You do not know the forest.” She struggled
to break free of his hold, but he refused to let her go.

“And you
are correct. But I don’t need to know the forest. Tyree and his men will get me
to where I need to go.” His temper flared. “Now be still.”

She
intensified her efforts to get away from him. “Why won’t you be reasonable? Let
them go without you.”

“No.” His
grip on her slipped as her knee grazed his thigh, too close for comfort. He
knew she didn’t intend it, but he reacted instinctively to cover his groin. She
seized the opportunity and sprang from the bed. He closed his eyes and forced
down his anger with her refusal to bow to the inevitable.

Gods, he
was tired. She was right to be concerned about him not being fully recovered,
but he didn’t want to worry her with the knowledge of the persistent ache up
and down his spine. He was certainly far better than the quivering mass of
jelly that had crash-landed on the planet.

He was
tired and she was frightened. It was a splendid recipe for a misunderstanding
and quarreling. He didn’t want to argue with her, but anything he said would be
wrong. He might as well just let her get it out of her system.

Only, if
he didn’t come back, the guilt of parting with hurtful words would haunt her.
He didn’t want that, but it loomed in front of them. He sat up and held out his
hand to her.

“We
shouldn’t fight, angel. Come and lie down. I’d like to make love to you.”

Saba
shook her head. “No. I won’t. I won’t give myself to you and then have you
leave.”

His
simmering anger bubbled over.

“Sex as
the prize for good behavior, angel? You learn fast.”

She
flinched. Yes, he was still a jerk where women were concerned. This was Saba
and he had to mend his ways.

He stood
and went to her, enfolding her in his arms. She was stiff, refusing to put her
arms around him. He deserved it. Saba was just young enough and inexperienced
enough where men were concerned not to be aware of how her words had sounded.

She
pushed at him. “We have work to do. I’ve got to find Jennica and prepare food
for the trail. Release me.”

Ryder let
his arms fall away. She grabbed her clothes and moved to the far corner of the
hut before pulling them on. Once dressed, she wouldn’t look at him. She waved
her hand in the general direction of the back door.

“Outside
there is a large black crock with the pig grease. I’ll send someone to get the
hide. You might want to cut it into sections first.”

“All
right. Do you have a sharp knife?”

She nodded. “It’s also outside.”
With that she was gone, out the front door without even looking at him. Sighing,
he sat in the chair by the hearth and called up his demons, trying to exorcise
them one more time.

* * * *

Saba mustered her dignity and
walked with her head held high to Jennica’s hut. Damn him! Why did he have to
act the hero? Why couldn’t Ryder just stay in the village and be safe? It
wasn’t fair.

She’d just found him and he was
going to get himself killed.

The door to Jennica’s five-sided
hut was open. The shape of the hut was an oddity in the village. Jennica’s
grandfather had built it, then needed more space for a rapidly growing family
and had simply moved a few walls. Saba came to an abrupt stop at the sound of a
man’s voice inside.

What is Tyree doing here?

She peeked inside and knew what he
was doing here. Kissing Jennica.

How long had that been going on
right under her nose?

It didn’t matter. She waited until
he stepped away from her aunt to announce her presence. Jennica jumped away
from Tyree, her cheeks turning rosy red. Saba shook her head.

“I suppose you are preparing food
for his pack?”

Jennica licked her lips and looked
at Tyree. “No. He said nothing.”

Saba rolled her eyes. “He said plenty,
Jennica. Just not with words. Perhaps he will get the ruined hide down from my
roof and see that Ryder makes progress with his task while we prepare two
packs.”

She
watched without comment as Tyree kissed Jennica once again and left without a
word. Her questions could wait until later.

“Come and
have dinner with me this evening. It will be good for us to have company.”

Jennica
flashed her a grateful look and nodded. She climbed up on a chair to pull two
packs down from a small storage loft that ran across the end of her hut without
being asked.

The women
had prepared traveling packs for many men over the years. They knew what was
needed and who had extra to spare. They added what they had to the packs then
took what extra fruit they had to Delnor’s hut to be shared. Other women had
gathered there with their packs and extras and soon the job was completed.
There was little discussion until they’d finished. Lammi touched Saba’s arm.

“Can this
stranger really kill the
errol
?”

Saba
patted her hand. She couldn’t allow her own fears to show. As headwoman, the
others looked to her for advice, and strength. She would not let them down,
even though she longed to tell them that her heart was cold with fear and let
them give her comfort.

“He
believes it to be so, Lammi. We’ll see.”

“Do you
not worry? Saba, we have seen your closed door. Do you think we don’t know what
must be between you and this man?”

What was
between them? Whatever it was it was not strong enough to keep him with her and
safe. He would rather go and die at the hands of the
errol
. Nothing was
between them. Nothing at all. Blackness swirled around her.

She was
aware of hands, soothing with their gentle touches, and of arms around her. She
was rocked gently on the tide of caring from her sisters, and yet she wondered
why they did not tend to whomever was sobbing. Her mother reached for her and
stroked her hair.

“Do
not cry, daughter, not for me. I am at peace.”

“Mother.
I’m so scared he will die, too.”

“Do
not worry. His love for you is as real as mine.”

The mist
swirled and her mother was gone. She was sitting on the floor of Delnor’s hut
with all the women hovering around her. Jennica held her tightly. Lammi was
holding a cup to her lips and spilling
akdov
into her mouth and on her
chin. She choked.

Many
hands pounded on her back. She wheezed and tried to speak.

“Stop
hitting me.” She started to giggle. How much of the potent liquor had they
poured into her?

Jennica
suddenly refocused in front of her. “The men will be victorious. Tyree has said
so.”

Saba
giggled some more. “And since he has decreed it, it will come to pass?”

Jennica
shook her head and sounded dismayed. “We have overdosed her. She’s
intoxicated.”

Hands
lifted her and soon she was lying on a bed, a calm pool surrounded by a gray
fog. Ryder’s face appeared above hers. His nose wrinkled.

“I’d say
she’s drunk. Good job, ladies.” His lips brushed her forehead then his breath
tickled her ear. “I love you, angel. I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Pain
split her heart. She grabbed at him, wrapping her leaden arms around his neck.
“Don’t go! Please don’t die!”

“I have a
job to do, and I’m not going to die. I promise, angel. I’ll be fine.” He
stroked her face with a large hand. She remembered his hands. They were strong
but they were not the hands of a man who did manual labor every day.

“You
smell.” Somewhere in the only lucid part of her mind that remained, she
cringed, disbelieving she’d said that to him. He chuckled.

“I do,
that’s right. When I get back, you can give me a bath and I’ll smell good
again. How’s that?”

“That’s
fine. I think I have to sleep now.”

His lips
brushed hers. “I’m sure you do. I hope your head doesn’t pound too badly when
you wake.”

She
closed her eyes, not wanting to see him leave. There was a sense of movement,
the murmur of voices, then quiet. She was spinning, spinning. The whole bed was
spinning. Sleep. If she took a nap, the bed would stop spinning. She hoped. She
hoped she wouldn’t be sick when she woke up.

Her last
thought as she drifted into healing sleep was a silent prayer that Ryder would
return safe and she’d sleep until he woke her.

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