Authors: Raine Cantrell
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #FICTION/Romance/Western
Maggie didn’t like the way McCready was staring at her. His eyes were too dark, too intense, and her flesh seemed suddenly hot, then cold. Her heart was beating too fast, and the tiny flutters spread to other parts of her body.
McCready stroked her spine, lingering to rub the small of her back. “Maggie, there’s a time to stop running and a time to stop being alone. Understand?”
Only a bit, she thought. She was aware now of the shape of his lips. He tilted his head to the side, but managed to bring his mouth closer. His lips were slightly parted, hovering near her own. Maggie turned aside. She had to get free or McCready would have her locked up in more than his cabin.
Maggie’s breath caught at the shock of his warm mouth skimming the shape of her ear. She couldn’t breathe without his scents filling her. The shimmery sensation spread with the slow slide of his lips down the side of her neck. He nuzzled the hollow of her collarbone. Maggie knew she was still groggy, and tired. That she couldn’t summon the will to fight him made her miserable. That was the only reason why the small murmur escaped her when he pressed her closer to him.
Rock-hard. Sun-hot. Maggie felt him over every inch of her body. He pressed a lingering kiss on her forehead, across her fluttering eyelashes, down to her cheek. She was surrounded by McCready. He just seemed to be everywhere.
His mouth found the corner of hers. One hand cupped the back of her head, bringing her around to face him.
“Maggie, I won’t hurt you.”
She heard the rich promise in his voice. The underlying heat of pleasure. She wasn’t reassured. This was her enemy. She couldn’t forget his trickery. McCready would use every bit of his snake charm to get what he wanted. Maggie felt her head clear.
His lips touched hers, shaping them to fit his larger mouth. His tongue, as arrogant as the rest of him, stole the moisture from her mouth. Maggie had had enough. She opened her eyes and pulled back.
“McCready,” she whispered, “I’ll be needin’ to use your bucket.”
“What?” he murmured, dragging his lips over the sweet generous shape of hers.
“The honey bucket, McCready. You’ve got to have one. And I need it.”
McCready’s head snapped up. “Now?” Maggie’s guileless gaze lay in wait for him. She nodded, then bowed her head. “Of course I’ve got one. I’ll just—”
“Leave, boyo. That’s all you have to do.” Maggie still wasn’t sure that he hadn’t taken advantage of her. She didn’t know what she would feel if he had. The only thing she counted on was that McCready was not going to stay in the cabin.
He had already decided that for himself. He released her and pointed to the rounded wooden tub leaning against the opposite corner from the bed. “Under there.”
Maggie hid her smile when he helped her to stand.
“You’re sure you’ll be all right alone?”
“Go on, McCready.”
The door barely closed behind him and Maggie moved. She thought about shoving the table in front of the door, but she didn’t want to lock herself in; she wanted to get out. The bar was missing to bolt the door from the inside. The latch was in place but there was no tie to fasten it. McCready thought he had her. She’d show him.
“Damn him!” There wasn’t a gun in sight. She eyed the wood box, but using a log to knock him out was too chancy. McCready wouldn’t go down easy. She knew he wasn’t going to give her much time. Maggie headed for the drawer in the cupboard. Forks and spoons rattled as she searched for a knife. Not a one.
If she was desperate enough, she could stab him with a fork, but his hide was likely so tough the darn thing would bend before doing any damage. There had to be something…
Turning, Maggie stared at the whiskey bottle and cards on the table. McCready was a gambler down to the bone. He had taken his biggest gamble in believing that she would meek as a mouse accept his imprisonment.
She glanced over at the bed. It didn’t matter if he had taken advantage of her or not. He would. And her betraying body would help him every step of the way.
McCready liked his bed kept warm. Maggie’s eyes glittered as she turned to the fire. She’d make sure he had no complaints.
The cold snap of the mountain air cleared McCready’s head. He stood a ways from the cabin, hands in pockets, gazing up at the brilliant stars spread against the velvet night.
From his memory came the fancy and fable that had given names to the constellations. The heat of July was ascribed to the rising of Canis the Dog with its bright star, Sirius. And Bootes, with its bright star, Arcturus, whose risings and fallings near the equinoxes were believed to portend great tempests. A fitting star for his Maggie.
? With the taste of her lingering on his lips he had no trouble accepting this. Dutch’s accusation was true. He did want to seduce her until her senses were pleasure-drenched with himself.
Look at the stars, he reminded himself. It’s a safe distraction that won’t tie your gut in knots and keep you randy like the parish stallion that Maggie called you.
But the scattering of stars had him remembering Maggie’s freckles and his intent to discover every one of them. With a snort of disgust, McCready raked his hair back. He had to stop thinking about her.
There above him were the twins, Castor and Pollux … McCready inhaled smoke.
He glanced behind to the cabin. Faint light rimmed the two shuttered windows. The smell of smoke was stronger. He wondered if Maggie had overfed the fire. If she had, she … His thought died. That wasn’t smoke from the chimney that he smelled!
McCready ran. Fear wrapped itself around his chest like a thick leather belt, tightening belt hole by belt hole until he saw black spots dance in front of his eyes.
He shouldn’t have left her alone. She had passed out and knocked over the lamp. He cursed, threw off the bar to the door, and plunged inside.
“Maggie!” The thick smoke haze stung his eyes into tearing. He gagged on the stench of burnt goosefeathers. He swiped at his eyes with one hand, extending the other in a blind search for Maggie. He felt the shape of a chair and spun around, overcome by coughing. Dropping to the floor, he crawled his way to the bed, sure he would find Maggie there. He offered prayers to a deity that he was sure had forgotten him. He promised to mend his ways, if only she wasn’t hurt. He’d give up whiskey. Never lie. Close the Rawhider on Sundays. Anything, so that Maggie was all right.
His shoulder hit the side of the bed. His throat was so tight with fear he couldn’t utter her name. He felt the top of the bed for her body. His fist came away with a mass of soggy feathers.
It took him moments to realize that the haze was lifting. It took him seconds more to understand what he held. Burnt, wet feathers. He reached out with his other hand smoothing over the bed and knew the pile was small enough to be no more than the pillows. The fear holding him in its grip slipped a notch.
There were no flames. No fire. Maggie hadn’t passed out and knocked over the lamp. McCready threw the mess he held against the wall. He came up in a crouch. Swallowed repeatedly until he felt moisture in his mouth.
“You Irish bitch! Where the hell are you?”
Maggie heard his bellow. She winced as another unseen rock jabbed her stockinged foot. She wanted to run. She looked behind at the light spilling from the open cabin door and knew McCready would come after her. But Maggie didn’t know what lay before her. She could break her neck. The thought crossed her mind that if McCready caught her, that would be his first choice. No, he’d keep her alive to get the mines.
Maggie knew time was past for her to move. She had not planned her escape well. A bone-chilling cold made her wish for a blanket. But how could she think about food, warmth, and water while McCready’s kisses were still hot on her mouth? Face it, Maggie, she told herself, steering clear of a clump of brush, you’re running from yourself as well as McCready.
Small rocks tumbled down. Maggie spun around to see how close McCready was and lost her footing. She went down hard on her knees. Panting, ignoring the scrape on her hand, Maggie scrambled down a rock face, frantic to find a place to hide. McCready surprised her. He had discovered her ploy faster than she would have believed, and was gaining on her.
But why run? she asked herself, crouching down at the base of the rock. McCready would go right by, and when he was far enough away, she would head in the other direction. Maggie gritted her teeth and huddled to keep her body heat. McCready mustn’t take long. She had to be up and moving before she was too cold.
She could hear him, hear his breathing somewhere above her, the grate of his boots against the rocks. The good Lord would not have blessed
with eyes to see in the dark. Not if there was any justice! She closed her eyes, imagining him standing there, searching for her.
Maggie would kill for a sip of his whiskey. Rubbing her arms wasn’t helping. And she didn’t need memory dragging up the sound of McCready’s voice when he burst into the cabin calling her name. He sounded afraid, afraid for her. Fool, she chided herself, that’s just what he’d like you to believe. But the thought wouldn’t leave her.
She glanced up, only to find the dark massive rock blocked her vision. What was McCready doing? Why wasn’t he moving? Her stomach rumbled and she pressed her hands against it.
Maybe he had given up searching for her? And maybe those stars would drop like stones and hit him, she amended in the next breath.
Damn him! Where was he? She couldn’t remain where she was. The stone held the cold of night just as it held the heat of the sun in the day. She had to believe she had made good her escape. Bracing her hands behind her, Maggie pushed herself upright. She still couldn’t see above her, but she listened and heard no sound that would warn her if McCready was close.
Now or never. Maggie pushed off the rock to run.
McCready’s strong arm snaked around her waist and hauled her up against him.
There was an instant when Maggie thought to fight him. The instant before he spun her around, holding her arm to the side and wedged his shoulder on her belly. It astounded her that McCready could lift her, but he did, hefting her over his shoulder so she hung head down.
“Ah, Mary Margaret,” he muttered with a light pat to her bottom, “you’ll lead me a merry chase. You’re like the Queen of Diamonds, never to be trusted. But I like spirit in a woman,” he observed with a cheerful voice. Taking a firm grip on her legs, he bounced his burden. “All secure?” Her grunt pleased him as he began the climb to the cabin.
“You know what gave your hiding place away, don’t you? It was your stink,” he said without waiting for her to answer. “The goose you tried to cook up there turned out to be your own.” McCready ignored the stitch in his side. “I’ll admit I expected better sport of you, Irish.”
Maggie, swaying to and fro, heard his disappointment. She damned it and him. Better sport? She’d give McCready more sport than he had ever had!
“I hope you’ll be gracious in your defeat, O’Roarke, and concede this first hand to me. I’ll even admit that for a minute or two you had me worried.” Liar, whispered a little voice that McCready chased quickly. Maggie had drawn the battle plan and picked the site, feeble as it was. But he had won the skirmish.
He made an effort not to pant to save his pride. He knew it wasn’t his strength but Maggie’s weight that was slowing him down. The thought of setting her free to walk back was rejected as fast as it came. He couldn’t chase her again, and he had a feeling that she knew it.
“Won’t … be … long … now, Maggie.”
His labored breathing only had Maggie worrying that he would fall. She had no room for pity. He had decided to haul her back like she was a side of beef, so McCready could suffer for it. But her satisfaction was short-lived.
“I need … to think … of a fitting … punishment … for your escape.”
The words she dismissed, but the shift of his hands on her thighs made her tense.
“Easy, girl,” he soothed, grinning for all he was worth. “I won’t be … too hard … on you.”
Hard? On her? Maggie couldn’t summon another thought.
She refused to grab hold of any part of McCready’s body. The constant swaying motion and blood rushing to her head, arms, and hands were making lights dance in front of her eyes. If he slowed down any more, she would likely pass out before he reached the cabin.
Maggie smelled their destination long before she saw the light. McCready didn’t hesitate at the door; he walked right in and dumped her in the middle of the soggy mess on the bed.
She sprawled where he dropped her, groaning. McCready hunched over, gripped his knees, and drew in heaving lungfuls of air.
“If … you move … I’ll…”
Breathe in and out, and damn her
. “Yeah … I’ll use … the belt on you.”
Maggie believed him.
It was hard not to, when he straightened and, with his gaze never leaving hers, opened the belt buckle.
“Found sense in your … flight, O’Roarke? Good. Don’t trifle with me.” McCready slid the belt free and let it dangle above her.
“Now, McCready…” Maggie found that she could move. Right into the far corner, where she scrunched up like a mouse.
“Looks like you’re wearin’ war paint, McCready, with those smoke streaks on your face.”
“You’re none too pretty yourself.” He had to swallow his chuckle. He couldn’t believe Maggie was cowering away from him as if she believed he would use his belt on her. Chuckles became laughter that couldn’t be contained. He looked at Maggie’s blazing eyes and knew she was about as cowered as he was.
“Checkmate, Maggie mine.”
Her hands curled into fists. “What’s that?”
“I’ve got you and you’ve got nowhere left to run.” McCready turned his back on her and shrugged out of his shirt.
Maggie stared at the wall. Her own shirt smelled of smoke, and the back was damp from lying on the bed. She was still cold. Maggie didn’t bother to look when she heard the bar slide across the door, nor did she move when McCready returned to the bedside.
“Get up.” He didn’t expect her to obey him, but she did, watching him with wary eyes. “Take off your shirt, Maggie.”
“It should be obvious, even to you.”
“You’d be thinkin’ I’m hidin’ a weapon?” Maggie refused to let her gaze drop below his nose. “If I had—”
“Maybe you are,” McCready snapped, giving her a light push with the heel of his hand so her back was against the wall.
Maggie was too shocked to fight him. He ran his hands from her shoulders to her wrists. He slid his hands under her arms and stroked down her sides to her hips. His gaze pinned her in place as surely as disbelief when he shaped her breasts and spanned her rib cage. She uttered a choked sound as he spun her around, sliding his hands into her pants pockets quickly and just as quickly running them down her legs. One finger traced the length of her spine. She felt his full hand span her hip then palm her bottom.
“Nothing’s where it shouldn’t be.”
Maggie wasn’t cold anymore. McCready left behind a flush that stole inside her. She turned slowly and found that she couldn’t understand the expression in his eyes. But she had no trouble understanding his warning.
“Don’t goad me, Maggie. Don’t dare me, either. I’ll call your bluff every damn time.”
She knew she was at the end of her rope; it was the reason that she nodded meekly. The reason why she couldn’t figure McCready at all.
“Truce?” he offered, reaching for the buttons on her shirt.
Maggie slapped his hand away.
“You need dry clothes, O’Roarke. Stop being stubborn. Try being grateful that I didn’t take a belt to your backside.”
“I’ll tend to meself.”
“Fine.” McCready knelt beside the bed and reached beneath it for the small trunk holding his clothes. “When you’ve changed, you can help me clean up this mess.” He flipped open the top and withdrew two clean shirts along with pants for himself.
Maggie eyed the shirt he handed her. “Where’s the rest?”
“That’s all you’re getting until your clothes get washed and dried.”
“You’ll be freezin’ me—”
“There are plenty of blankets.” McCready took his clean clothes to the fire. He added a few logs, for Maggie’s sake, not his. Cold and exhaustion had fled his body the moment he put his hands on Maggie. Wearing an angry scowl he kicked off his boots and stripped his pants. It took every bit of willpower not to turn and look at Maggie when she made a choked sound. He didn’t trust himself to see her watching him, but he could almost feel her gaze on him.
McCready admitted it weakened his resolve when he heard the rustle of her clothing falling to the floor. He refused to let the image of Maggie’s body and how it felt to him enter his mind. The woman would have him on his knees if she knew how much he wanted her.
He needed something to appease the hunger prowling his gut. And he expected that Maggie was hungry, too. Too bad they didn’t hunger for the same things.
After fastening the buttons of his fly, McCready lifted the bucket of water, swearing when he found it smelled as bad as himself.
“You finished, O’Roarke?” he asked, gathering his clothes into a small bundle. She didn’t answer. He turned and found Maggie perched on the edge of the bed, leaning against the wall. “O’Roarke?” Her name came out with a stifled groan. His shirt barely draped Maggie’s thighs, and she, uncaring of him, had those long legs stretched out in front of her. “O’Roarke!”
His shouted command made Maggie shake off her exhaustion and face him. Face him, but not look at him. She directed her gaze to the stone of the fireplace behind him.
“Gather up your clothes. I won’t sleep with this stink in here.”
Maggie lifted her shirt and rolled it tight. “Here, McCready.” She threw it at him. The shirt fluttered open and fell to the floor between them. Her pants and socks followed.
Hands on hips, McCready waited for the last, and when it wasn’t forthcoming, he went after it. Towering over her, he extended his hand. “There’s one more.”
Maggie didn’t argue. She took the crumpled chemise from between her and the wall and handed it over.
“I’ll be needin’ one of those blankets, McCready.”
“When we’re finished,” he snapped, his gaze sliding down her bare legs, long enough and shaped to make a man sweat. “Get up, O’Roarke. I’ll need your help to roll the tick.” “An’ what happens if I don’t want to help?”