Authors: Kate Watterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Western, #Erotica
A nightmare, Victoria decided, the jostling in the water around her enough to make a sane person scream. She wasn’t sure how it happened, but her arms were around Cole’s neck and she clung to him, squeezing her eyes shut, pressing her face to his throat.
“We need to be wet,” he told her, his breath warm against her ear. “Hold your breath just for a second.”
He ducked them under, the cool water closing over her head, and since she didn’t know how to swim, she would have normally panicked, but she was well beyond that stage. When he stood up, both of them streaming water, she realized the full extent of their danger.
The sky had turned a lurid color but it was the angry sound of the fire that was horrendous. It crackled, it screamed, and it blended with the cries of the animals. She had the horrible feeling she was also screaming, but the sound was muffled against Cole’s hard shoulder. The sparks came first, one singeing her back so she stiffened, the elemental blast probably lasting only a few minutes but the heat of it so profound she felt as if she had landed in the depths of hell itself.
Then, remarkably, it was over.
A thick haze of smoke lay over everything when she slowly opened her stinging eyes. Cole still held her, his clasp reassuring. “Easy,” he murmured, but there was soot on his face, she saw through the watery tears from the acrid aftermath of the raging fire. “We’re fine now. The worst is past.”
It was true. She could vaguely see Robert and Jace struggling to hold their panicked horses, their wet kerchiefs draped over the animals’ eyes. Bits of burning debris floated everywhere, and the pall of smoke was like a thick, choking mist, but that horrible roar was gone.
“She all right?” Robert called out, his voice ending in a cough.
“She’s fine.” Cole still held her close against him, and Victoria realized to her mortification he had one hand cupped around her bottom and her breasts were flattened against his hard chest. He lowered his head so his mouth brushed her ear. “I’ll be damned if you don’t even look beautiful covered in ash and soaking wet. No wonder we’re all going a little bit crazy.”
He looked beautiful too, his sleek dark hair clinging in silky wet strands to his strong neck, those high cheekbones and midnight eyes evidence of his heritage, and pressed up against him as she was, she could feel the honed strength of his very male body.
Then he kissed her.
The sensual journey of his mouth was slow and beguiling. It trailed from where his lips had been pressed against her ear across her cheek, following the line of her jaw until his mouth covered hers. His lips were warm and firm, and the probe of his tongue shocking but not unpleasant. Clinging to him, Victoria closed her eyes again, but for an entirely different reason, and gave a small gasp he swallowed as he teased and stroked. Their lips clung, and somehow the near-catastrophic primal force of the fire seemed to fuel the heat between them. She parted more. He accepted and slanted his mouth over hers more fiercely…
“Hey, damn you Cole, I can see you’re kind of enjoying yourself over there, but mind giving us a hand here?”
Her savior lifted his head, grinned in a flash of white teeth and obligingly waded to a shallower spot and set her down, letting her slowly slide down his body. Victoria felt a flush in her cheeks that wasn’t just the residual heat from the fire as he went to help Jace and Robert with the spooked horses.
We’re all going a little bit crazy…
For that matter, her own body tingled at the moment in some interesting places.
She’d noticed them watching her, of course. She was used to male attention; it was part of why she’d left England. Once the scandal of her father’s financial disaster broke, men who might have offered for her hand offered something else entirely. The idea of being mistress to some haughty aristocrat who no longer thought she was good enough to marry but certainly desirable enough to bed held no appeal whatsoever. What was more, she had come to despise the falseness of a society that held wealth and social status in such high regard that her friends had turned their backs on her simply because she was suddenly poor.
The three men who had just saved her life yet again owed her nothing. They could care less about her aristocratic bloodlines, her social status, her fortune or lack of it. They’d been kind, generous and respectful at all times, and truthfully, more gentlemanly than most of the bluebloods she knew back home. From some of their remarks she’d guessed that maybe all three of them were in trouble with the law in some way, but she’d stake her life—and had in an ironic sense, since she was so helpless—they were all three
Her pampered background hadn’t given her one single skill to help her survive in the wilderness. She couldn’t cook, saddle a horse or shoot a gun. She couldn’t even recognize the signs of a giant fire bearing down on them. They gave her everything and she gave back nothing.
All three of them wanted her. She’d grown up sheltered, but the past year had taught her a few things about life and one of them was that hungry look in a man’s eyes. Beauty was about her only possession at the moment.
At any time, they could have easily taken what they wanted. Defenseless and alone, she was all too vulnerable. But they hadn’t. They
No, but as shocking as the idea was, she
It didn’t say much for their powers of observation, but it took them a good half a day to realize Victoria was hurt. Part of it was trying to ride out of the devastation of the prairie fire, though the river had really slowed it down. Still it had been dark, the night full of smoke and places where small blazes smoldered. Victoria had ridden gamely until dawn, and when it became obvious from her sagging figure she was exhausted, Robert had taken her up with him and she had fallen asleep in his arms almost right away.
But when they finally stopped to eat and rest on a small knoll, the wind rippling the long grass, and he slid from his horse to reach up to help her down, she visibly winced.
What the hell?
“You were burned?” Robert ignored her protest, gently turning her by her shoulders so he could look at her back. Sure enough, the material of her shirt was singed right below her left shoulder blade, the hole the size of his thumb, which was a relief because it was probably painful but not serious. However, he didn’t want it to turn septic.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “I barely felt it at the time, and it’s a bit sore, but hardly worth bothering over.”
“Let me be the judge.” He lifted her soft, fair hair, the curls tangled after the dousing in the river, all of them and their belongings still smelling like smoke, but at least they were alive. He peered at the wound as best he could through the hole in her shirt. It looked angry and red enough to give him concern.
“It’s nothing,” she repeated.
“I bet it hurts like hell,” he said bluntly. “Let me take a better look.”
There was a small spring feeding a little creek and he took a clean cloth from his saddlebags and soaked it in the cool water. He had some salve he used for everything from bee stings to gunshot wounds, and he brought that also to where she now sat with her legs primly to the side. Cole was deftly doling out hard biscuits and dried beef strips as a makeshift lunch.
What a far cry from a London ballroom, but she endured it all with a poise Robert found gave him a whole new respect for the English aristocracy. He knelt next to her. “You can go ahead and turn your back, but you’ll need to unbutton your shirt and slip it down.”
Victoria stared at him with those lovely, luminous blue eyes. “I…”
When she faltered, he said in his best calming tone, “I took medicine at university until I decided to ride west. I may not be a practicing physician, but I do know what I’m doing. Let me treat the burn, we’ll eat our meal and then be on our way. Trust me, you’ll be more comfortable.”
Burns were notoriously painful and the muscles in her slender throat rippled as she squared her shoulders and complied. Kneeling in the grass, the sun showing the dazzling highlights in her golden hair, she worked the buttons of her shirt free and slipped it down, using her hand to sweep the long fall of her curls to the side, exposing her graceful back.
Her very naked back. Meaning her breasts were also bared, even if they couldn’t see them. Robert could sense Cole’s and Jace’s riveted attention, and he really couldn’t blame them, but he needed to concentrate on the task at hand. The welt was ugly, marring her otherwise flawless skin, and he first gently washed it and then applied the salve. During the process she didn’t move, her head slightly bowed, the loose, stained material of her shirt pooled around her waist.
“Better?” he asked, and then cleared his voice over the unnatural huskiness. Jesus, he had an erection and all he was doing was touching her back. True, she was half-naked at the moment, but still, he should have more self-control because, after all, she was injured.
Then she shifted, not quite a turn, but enough so she could give him one of her winsome smiles over her shoulder. “Better. Thank you. I wasn’t aware of how painful it was before now.”
They could all—every single one of them—see the pure tempting silhouette of her naked right breast. The nipple was a delicate rose, pointed and high, and the mounded flesh perfectly shaped and sumptuously full. Robert felt his mouth go dry and he couldn’t help it, he stared. He had the impression behind him both Cole and Jace had gone still, just as frozen as he was, their fascinated gazes no doubt also focused on the same part of her anatomy. Then she seemed to realize how exposed she was, for she blushed and pulled her shirt back up hurriedly, fumbling with the buttons.
They were in real trouble here. Rescuing Lady Victoria was both a blessing and apparently a curse.
“Excuse me.” Jace got up to stalk away. Robert stifled a laugh, because he had a feeling he knew just what his friend was going to go do. Relieving his own discomfort manually might not be a bad idea, though it wouldn’t be half as good as the real thing.
“I didn’t know you were a physician.” Victoria had turned around, her face still pink, and reached for her plate, gamely picking up the day-old biscuit which for even someone accustomed to trail fare tasted like sawdust.
“I never finished.” Robert fought the urge to adjust his straining cock and wiped his hands off with the damp cloth instead. “Got close, though, before the urge to roam a little became strong enough I left Boston.” He grinned. “I do know how to dig out a bullet, if need be. That’s how I met Cole.”
“It was?” Victoria turned toward where Cole still sat, grimly chewing his food and trying to pretend like he too was not aroused by that tantalizing glimpse of her breast. She looked horrified, her lovely face blanching. “You were shot?”
“It’s happened once or twice.” Cole shoved himself to his feet. “I haven’t always kept the best of company.”
Robert stifled a laugh at the quelling look he received. Too bad, he was going to tell the story anyway. “He was walking down the street in St. Louis, and Cole ran into an old…well, let’s say, a lady friend who remembered him pretty well. She tried to shoot him in a certain strategic spot, but lucky for him, her aim was off and she got his thigh instead. I happened to be nearby and saw the whole thing. He didn’t want a regular doc, so I helped him out.”
“A rather dramatic way to meet.” Victoria smiled and Robert felt his groin tighten even more. “Instant friends, I take it.”
“We get along together well enough.”
She turned to Cole, who was now packing up the food. “Forgive my curiosity, but why was she so angry with you?”
“Hell hath no fury,” Cole said in a laconic tone. “I slipped out of her bed without saying
. She was fonder of me than I was of her and I’d already figured out she had a temper. I didn’t know how to tell her my affection for her person was only based on a physical act she showed a lot of enthusiasm for, so I left. I thought I’d handled it pretty well until she drew that pistol.”
Both Robert and Cole watched her reaction to that somewhat bawdy recital. She was such a lady, proper and well-mannered, which was no surprise considering her background. But she was also a true lady in the sense she had a natural grace that Robert had a feeling would draw men to her even if she wasn’t so damned desirable in every other way.
“I see.” She somehow managed to look demure and provocative at the same time. “I’m in the presence of a true rake then, am I? Is my virtue in danger?”
Victoria should have had enough of fire after the night before, but there she was, playing with it.
Taunting a man like Cole Thune surely qualified. The expression on his face said he clearly remembered that audacious kiss in the river.
So did she. It had awakened something inside her.
In those distant ballrooms back in London, she had, during her brief season before her world crumbled to pieces, learned something about the art of flirtation. Of course, this uncivilized country and her rescuers were nothing like the sophisticated
dandies in England, but the basic concept was the same. Man and woman. A dance as old as time.
Only there were three of them and only one of her. She’d deliberately turned enough a few moments ago they could see her bared breast, and the ploy had a predictable effect. Was she a harlot for wanting to give them something back for all they’d done for her?
No. But perhaps she was for being so attracted to three different men.
The wind whistled past on a lonely sigh, reminding her no one would ever know—or care—if Lady Victoria Mead took a lover without the benefit of marriage. Or if she took more than one lover, for that matter. In this lawless place, what rules applied? There was no one to care if she lived or died.
Cole stared at her, his dark eyes unreadable, his lean, rangy body still by the side of his horse, the saddlebag half-packed. Robert also, wide-shouldered, with his hazel eyes, seemed at a loss for speech.
To tease them, she explained, “A rake is a man who seduces women and—”