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Authors: Sheri WhiteFeather

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BOOK: Once a Rebel
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“Thank you.” She ascended the porch, the dog on her heels.

The FBI operative waited where he was, still keeping an eye on them.

Ethan escorted her into the cabin, resting his hand on the curve of her back. He turned and saw the agent drive away slowly, leaving them alone. Cautious, he locked the door, and the sound of the bolt clicking into place jarred the silence. Chocolate ran to greet the other dogs, wrestling with them, sliding across a small area rug.

“I'm so sorry about Lily,” Ethan said.

Susan took an audible breath and blinked away her tears. “They're going to find her. They're going to bring her home. We have to believe that.”

“Of course we do.” He set her bag on the end table, next to his hat. His heart ached for the rancher who'd lost his wife.

She moved toward the window, her footsteps echoing on the floor. Her face was scrubbed free of makeup, and her hair was secured with barrettes on either side of her face. She looked younger than her thirty-five years, wearing an oversize sweater draped over a pair of jeans.

He realized how awkwardly they were behaving, but this wasn't a casual visit. She had agreed to sleep at his cabin, and he'd promised to keep her safe. He doubted that Jason would come back, not with the feds patrolling the ranch. But he wanted to protect her just the same.

For Ryan.

And for himself.

Silent, he watched her. She remained at the window, looking through the pane of glass. Beyond it, darkness enveloped the ranch.

“I keep wondering where Lily is,” she said. “Where Jason took her.”

“Me, too.” Ethan moved closer, standing beside her, recalling one of his first encounters with Lily. “She gave me an Apache amulet. It was years ago. Soon after she married Ryan.”

“Really?” Susan turned to face him. “Why did she give it to you?”

“Because Ryan told her that I had Indian ancestry. Not Apache, though. Another tribe. Comanche. But she gave me the amulet anyway.”

Susan seemed intrigued. “Where is it?”

“In storage with most of my other things. I've never worn it.” He stalled, tried to explain. “I'm not registered with the tribe or anything like that. It's not something I can claim.” And the Native American bloodline had come from his mother's side, something that didn't sit well with him. “It's so minuscule. You know, my great-great-great-somebody was Comanche. Lots of Americans have that kind of Indian blood. It was sweet of Lily to think of me, but I never understood why it mattered.”

She tilted her head. “Maybe she was honoring your great-great-great-somebody. Maybe that mattered to her.”

He pressed his palm against the window. “I should get the amulet out of storage and wear it for Lily.”

When he dropped his hand, they both turned quiet. The wind had kicked up. He could hear it whistling through the trees, like ghosts leaping off branches, haunting the air. The weather had been strange. Mild one day, brisk the next. He wondered if he should build a fire to keep Susan warm.

“Are you hungry?” he asked. “I can heat up a can of soup.”

“I'm fine. Rosita made dinner. But you can eat if you want to.”

“I'm fine, too. I was just offering you something.” Trying to make her comfortable, to give her the illusion of home. At this point he would do anything to make her feel safe. “I'm glad Ryan asked me to look after you. I'm glad you're here.”

“So am I.”

The wind made another chilling sound, and she stepped closer to him, letting him be her prince, the man he'd always wanted to be.

“When the FBI interviewed me, I told them I was on the phone with you last night,” Ethan said.

“I told them that, too. That I fell asleep.”

“I didn't sleep,” he admitted. “I was up all night, listening to you. Your breathing was so soft, so…” He let his words fade, realizing how romantic they sounded. “I wish I would have checked on you in person. When I took the phone outside, I counted thirteen stars in the sky. I wasn't sure if that was a bad omen. I'm still wondering if it is.”

“Can you imagine how I feel? Knowing that I slept through the kidnapping? I've been telling Ryan not to feel guilty. But what about me? I was in the house when Lily was taken.”

“It's not your fault that you didn't wake up.”

“I know. But it still hurts.”

Giving in to the need to hold her, he took her in his arms. She heaved a battered sigh, clinging to him like a lifeline, burying her face against his shirt.

He stroked her hair, letting the silkiness slip through
his fingers. She lifted her head, and their faces were only inches apart. All he had to do was lower his mouth to kiss her.

But he didn't. He couldn't. Not after the promise he'd made to Ryan. The older man hadn't arranged this as a sexual interlude. It was more than that. Something deeper. Stronger. Something that went beyond an affair.

A bit nervous, Ethan wondered if Ryan hoped that they would fall in love, if he actually thought they were headed in that direction.

He let go of Susan, then glanced at his dusty straw hat, the subtle reminder of who he was. Forever didn't exist, not for a veterinarian from Texas and a psychologist from California. Country boys and city girls didn't mesh, at least not for very long. His parents were proof of that.

An affair, he decided, would be a heck of a lot easier.

“Ethan?”

His pulse thudded in his ears. “Yes?”

“Are you tired?”

“A little,” he lied, knowing he probably wouldn't sleep a wink. “Are you?”

She nodded, and he offered to make up their beds, to get the cabin ready.

For the girl of his boyhood dreams to spend the night.

Eight

S
usan wasn't as tired as she'd claimed she was, but she thought it would be easier to settle in for the night, to try to relax. Her heart was tripping all over itself, wanting to get closer to Ethan.

Too close, she thought.

He pulled out the sofa bed and put some fresh sheets on it, tucking the clinical white cotton into place. She would have preferred to sleep on sheets that carried his scent. That his body had touched. But he even changed the pillowcase.

Chocolate jumped up on the bed and tried to lie down while Ethan was still in the process of making it, and he shook his head and shooed the dog away. Susan smiled at the persistent Lab. The other dogs were watching
him, waiting to see if he was going to defy his master and leap back onto the bed. Chocolate was, without a doubt, the leader of the pack, the wild one of the bunch.

But before he got the chance to impress his canine comrades, Ethan shot him a don't-even-think-about-it glare.

Chocolate gave up and slumped onto the floor, like a kid who wanted to make faces behind his dad's back.

Ethan rolled his eyes and spread a blanket over the top sheet. Susan noticed that it had horseshoes printed on it, sort of like his tattoo, the sexy artwork on his back. Of course she couldn't see his tattoo. His chest wasn't bare.

Suddenly she wondered what he was going to wear to bed. If he would be half-naked.

She'd brought the most conservative sleepwear she owned: a white nightgown with a high-neck collar and lace trim. She'd purchased it at a Victorian-replica flea market, along with a few pieces of furniture she didn't need. But spontaneous shopping sprees were Susan's pamper-herself whim, a female indulgence that sprang from being single.

And lonely, she thought with a grimace.

Ethan glanced at her. He was almost finished making the bed. “Are you okay? Never mind,” he added quickly. “Dumb question.”

No, it wasn't dumb at all, but she didn't have the courage to admit that she hadn't been thinking about the kidnapping as he probably assumed.

She reached for her bag. “Is it all right if I change in your bathroom?”

“Sure. Go ahead.” He folded down the blanket, fussing a bit too much with the bedding.

She went into the cramped bathroom and caught sight of his toiletries on the counter. He used liquid soap, citrus-flavored toothpaste and an electric razor. His aftershave came in a blue bottle, nothing costly, just a drugstore-stocked item that made a simple statement.

Susan refrained from taking a secret whiff, just as she resisted the urge to use his toothpaste. His mouthwash tempted her, too. But she wasn't about to become a this-belongs-to-him thief. Her crush-crazed days were supposed to be over.

Finally she changed into the Victorian-inspired nightgown. Removing the barrettes from her hair, she gazed in the mirror, exhaled a shaky breath and prepared herself for the night ahead.

She entered the other room and saw Chocolate curled up on the bed, looking like the lord of the spoiled-pet manor.

“You gave in,” she said to Ethan, who was crouched on the floor, building a fire in a stone hearth. “You let him have his way.”

Engrossed in his task, he didn't turn his head, not even for a quick glance. “I figured he was going to sleep with you anyway.”

“What about the other dogs?”

“They'll probably crash with me.”

“What are their names?” she asked, realizing she'd never inquired about them.

“Clark and Kent.”

“Like Superman?”

He poked at the fire. “Yep.”

She sat on the edge of the bed and patted Chocolate's head. He gave her a hyena grin. Clark and Kent were watching Ethan.

The flames, she noticed, sent shades of red dancing across his skin. She could see a hint of his profile, the hard edges and sculpted lines.

He finally turned around. Then froze.

Confused, Susan merely blinked at him.

He jammed his hands in his pockets. “You look like an old-fashioned bride.”

Embarrassed, she made a face, scrunching up her nose, wishing she'd thrown on a pair of baggy sweats instead. “It's not supposed to resemble a wedding dress.”

He remained where he was, standing in front of the crackling fire, with fragrant timber scenting the air. “I was talking about the honeymoon part. The virgin stuff.”

That was even worse, she thought. She was about as far from virgin as a woman could get. “I guess I over-did it.”

“No. I like it.” He swept his gaze over her. “I think you look pretty.”

“Thank you,” she managed, still feeling self-conscious.

“You're welcome,” he responded, still checking her out.

Silence drifted like a buoy at sea, and Susan struggled to start a new conversation. But nothing came to mind. Nothing but soundless waves washing over her.

Ethan broke the tension. “I should get my bed ready.” He walked across the room, making noise.

Unable to find her voice, she simply watched him from beneath her lashes, trying to keep her anxiety hidden.

He removed a sheepskin throw from the top of the armoire, placed it on the floor and rolled a sleeping bag over it.

That was it. His bed was ready. And it was next to hers, only lower. But he'd chosen the most logical spot. The cabin didn't provide a lot of free-roaming space, so he'd done the best he could, leaving the path to the bathroom open. At least she wouldn't step on him in the middle of the night if her anxious bladder beckoned.

“I'm going to use the head,” he told her.

Susan relaxed, realizing his bladder was more anxious than hers. She tried not to listen, but she heard everything: his practiced aim, the toilet flushing, the faucet running. She even heard him brushing his teeth, using the toothpaste she'd wanted to sample.

If they were lovers, it wouldn't matter. They would be used to the intimacy. But being this close to him, being part of his nighttime ritual, made her feel strangely sexual.

When he came out of the bathroom, she saw that he'd removed his shirt and his boots, but he still wore his jeans. The top snap was undone, creating a slight gap in the material.

If she kissed him, would he taste like citrus?

“Are you ready?” he asked.

She knew he meant for bed. “Yes.”

Ethan darkened the cabin, and the fire blazed even brighter, painting him in reddish hues once again.

Susan no longer wondered what he intended to wear. Apparently he'd decided to sleep in his jeans.

While he settled onto the floor, Clark and Kent joined him. Chocolate leaned over the bed and stared at them. Then he jumped down, snuggled next to Ethan and whined at Susan, as if she'd just abandoned him instead of the other way around.

Speaking softly, she tried to soothe the dog, but her calming words only made things worse. Within no time, he was leaping up and down, between her and Ethan, frantic about where to sleep.

“I don't think this is going to work,” she said.

Ethan sat up and dragged his hand through his hair. “I'll put him outside.”

“Don't do that. It's windy out there.” She sat up, too, a sudden chill racking her bones. Lily's kidnapping came back full force, and she gulped the air in her lungs, imagining her in a dark, dank place. “Please, Ethan, let him stay.”

“And sleep where?”

She rocked forward, hugging herself, but the dark and dank image wouldn't go away. “With us.”

His voice turned rough. “You mean together?”

Chocolate was still doing his neurotic dance, leaping from bed to sleeping bag. “Yes.”

“I promised Ryan I'd keep a proper distance between us.”

She looked at Ethan and felt her heart stumble. The flames created a halo effect, making his skin glow. His knees were drawn to his chest, and she realized he was hugging himself, too. “Three dogs is a proper distance,” she said. “Clark and Kent can sleep with us, too.”

He blew out a ragged breath. “I feel like I'm betraying Ryan.”

“But you're not. He asked you to protect me, and you will be.” She needed him next to her, close to her. “I want to reach out and know you're there.”

“Is that honestly how you feel?” He stood, then sat on the edge of the bed so they could talk face-to-face, so they could look into each other's fire-lit eyes. “You're not just doing this for Chocolate?”

She touched his hand. “No. It's for us, too.”

His fingers found hers. “I've never slept with a woman and not had sex with her.”

She almost laughed, almost cried, almost pulled him down on top of her. “There's nothing wrong with cuddling. It will be good for you.”

“Then I better get under the covers.” He smiled, motioned to her canine bedmate. “Like he did.” By now Chocolate had cemented himself to Susan, aware, it seemed, that his “parents” were going to stay together.

She made room for Ethan and he slid next to her, taking her in his arms. She couldn't imagine a safer place to be. She could feel the rise and fall of his chest, the warmth of his body, the raw, rugged strength of his embrace. She pressed her lips against his shoulder, and he ran his hand along her back, along her old-fashioned nightgown. For one crazy instant, she actually felt like a virgin bride.

He called the other two dogs, and they leaped onto the bed and nudged their way into the coziness. Chocolate was already snoring, with his butt in the air.

Susan closed her eyes, grateful for the tall, dark angel
Ryan had given her. For Ethan Eldridge, the honor-bound boy who'd grown into an honor-bound man.

“Will you say a prayer with me?” she whispered, opening her eyes and watching the fire.

“Of course I will.” He held her even closer, and together they spoke to the Creator.

Asking Him to keep Lily safe, to bring her home, to reunite her with her husband.

 

Darkness surrounded her, looming like monsters, invisible creatures breathing down the sides of her neck. Lily squinted, but she couldn't see through the blindfold, not even the slightest hint of light.

How long had she been gone? A few hours? A full day? She couldn't remember how many times Jason had drugged her. She'd been drifting in and out of consciousness, waiting for the monsters to strike.

She had no idea where she was. The ground was uneven and the surface beneath her back seemed bumpy.

She listened for background noise, but nothing stirred. Her hands and feet were bound, and a rough cloth, a gag, cut into the sides of her mouth. She wanted to wet her lips, but she couldn't.

Images of Ryan swirled in her fog-enshrouded mind. Memories. Photos she couldn't touch. The man she loved.

Footsteps sounded, and she stiffened, chills crawling up her spine.

Jason had returned.

“Lily, my love.”

The familiar greeting brought bile to her throat. But she couldn't vomit. She couldn't purge this nightmare.

He'd touched her earlier, running his hands all over her body, like thousands of poisonous spiders spinning a web. He hadn't raped her, but she feared he would.

Suddenly she heard a small click, then smelled the scent of burning tobacco. He'd just lit a cigarette.

His lighter clicked again—the metal lid snapping shut. “Are you scared of me?” he asked.

She didn't react. Nothing. No movement. She would rather die than admit how afraid she was.

“I'm holding a lantern up to your face. I can see you, Mrs. Fortune. Don't you wish you could see me?”

Mrs. Fortune.
She tried to envision her wedding day, to escape in Ryan's arms.

“Do you know how much I want to hurt you?”

Beneath the blindfold, she squeezed her eyelids, closing them even more, trying to block out his voice.

“This much,” he said, burning her arm with the cigarette.

She flinched from the pain, from the searing of flesh.

“That's my girl. Show me how much it hurts.”

He did it again. Then he kissed her, right over the gag. She could feel his face pressed against hers.

The bile in her throat returned.

“I'll be back in the morning,” he said, pulling away, chuckling to himself. “But for now you need to sleep.” He tucked a blanket around her. “Bad dreams, Lily.”

When he covered her nose with a chemical-doused rag, drugging her once again, she breathed deeply, welcoming the slumber, praying that morning would never come.

 

Ethan awakened at the crack of dawn, but the rest of his family—for lack of a better word—was still asleep. Susan's body was pressed close to his. Incredibly close, he thought. So close, her face was buried against his chest. He could feel her breath rippling across his skin, stimulating his nipples.

Chocolate was on the other side of her, with his head propped against her hip. He'd even drooled on her nightgown. Clark and Kent were curled into two furry balls, relying on each other for warmth.

Ethan moved his arm and wrapped it around Susan. He wanted to lift her chin and kiss her, to fill his senses with a blast of tongue-tangling heat.

Cuddling was nice, damn sweet, but it wasn't the same as…

Chocolate opened his eyes and squinted at him, catching him in a sexual thought.

He squinted right back. The dog had no room to talk. None whatsoever. He'd stuck his nose in Susan's crotch on the first day he'd met her. Ethan hadn't even gotten to first base.

She made a slow, soft, moaning sound and his body reacted, electrifying the teeth on his zipper.

Thank goodness Chocolate had gone back to sleep. He wanted to enjoy this moment without feeling guilty.

Of course that was wishful thinking. His promise to Ryan weighed heavily on his mind.

Slipping out of bed, he eased away from Susan. The lost contact almost made him shiver. But the cabin was
cold. The fire had burned out, leaving nothing but charred wood.

He went into the bathroom to splash some water on his face and brush his teeth. Susan had left her overnight bag on top of the hamper, a reminder that she was only staying for one day. He wondered what Ryan would say if he asked the older man for permission to keep her until Lily came home.

BOOK: Once a Rebel
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