(Connor and Rebecca have just been waylaid by
two highwaymen...or are they horse thieves...or are they both?)
nudged his horse to move alongside Rebecca’s.
going to run,” he hissed into her ear. He could see that
she still had the unnaturally blanched skin and hot eyes of the
righteously furious. He smiled at her, an enveloping smile of tender
reassurance, a teasing warmth kindling his eyes. Rebecca returned
his smile with one that was full of the sort of joy most inappropriate
to the occasion.
“Now,” he whispered.
They kicked hard. Their
horses wheeled briefly in surprise, then stretched out into a blistering
run just as the first greasy ruffian made it to saddle.
Their mounts were swift, but hooves were soon thundering
uncomfortably close behind them; Connor glanced back over his shoulder
and saw the greasy ruffian riding recklessly, his pistol hand waving
free. Sunlight glinted on the barrel of the man’s pistol; it seemed
their pursuer meant to have blood for his humiliation. Connor swore
savagely, slowing his mount just a little to ensure Rebecca remained
in front of him. He had no choice but to shoot. He lifted his musket
and turned to aim.
It was too late. A sudden blow to his arm was already giving
way to numbness. he glanced down, watching as though in a dream
as the red of his own blood rose up through his shirt. Oh
Christ above, oh God, help us, I’ve been shot, he half-thought,
half-prayed. That bastard has the luck of the devil; he
Connor squeezed off a shot, then watched with both a crisp
sense of accomplishment and a sense of despair as the ruffian jerked
in his saddle, his hand pressed to his chest, his horse stopping,
rearing in sudden confusion beneath him. Connor had so hoped to
never take another life, and cursed as he felt his own crystal-edged
thoughts dimming as the ragged circle of red on his arm darkened
and spread. Pain was yet to come, Connor knew. Pain would be fortunate;
it would mean he was still alive.
Behind them, far behind them, clouds of dust rose in the
road. The rest of the men were now following. But Connor knew this
country well, and he knew his destination. As long as he could stay
lucid, he knew he could lead Rebecca to safety and these men would
never find them.
screamed. She glanced over her shoulder and pulled her horse to
follow when Connor jerked his horse hard to the right. They galloped
off the road, plunging over low fences, through thick stands of
trees, the leaves lashing at them, the coats of their gratifyingly
game horses blackening with sweat. Connor wove a path from memory,
a path that careened through a meadow sprayed in bluebells that
gave way to a brief swooping valley which led into a wood that grew
more dense and shadowy as the sun slowly dipped lower in the sky.
Their hoofbeats were soon muffled by deep layers of soft old leaves.
After what seemed both an eternity and merely an instant,
they came upon it: the hunting box, his father’s rarely used, discreetly
located hunting home in the woods. Connor had been certain it would
still be here, relatively untouched; these woods had been part of
his family’s holdings since Edward the III. He pulled his wet horse
to a halt and managed to dismount without stumbling too badly. And
then he lifted his pack from his horse with his good arm and stared
at the hunting box blankly for a moment, as if trying to remember
why he was there.
Rebecca pulled her heaving mare up next to him and swung
herself to the ground. She bent slightly, breathing hard, before
straightening herself to look around. She began to smile, but something
in Connor’s face stopped her.
“Connor?” she said, puzzled. And then she saw the blood
on his arm.
There was a buzzing in his ears. He put his hand against
the door of the hunting box and it gave, swinging open. He looked
out at Rebecca from the doorway, noticing that the light pouring
down through the leaves had turned her hair into a soft molten halo.
She has lost her cap.
“Becca,” he thought he said, for he could not hear his own voice,
and then the black came in from the sides of his vision like a curtain
pulling closed and he fell.
[back to top]
“Oh God, Oh God, Oh God,” Rebecca
murmured like an incantation over Connor’s fallen body. His head
lolled sickeningly against the boards of the floor. She touched
his eyes, his brows, as though searching for him, willing him to
re-inhabit his face; he was breathing, otherwise he seemed lifeless
as an effigy. A haze of panic began to move over her eyes.
Her vast and unseemly knowledge of bullet wounds and amputations
clamored in her head, words like bandages and suppurating and saws and
opium and Peruvian bark jigging among all the other learned advice from her
father’s scientific journals. She gave her head a rough shake to
sort it. This did the trick; somehow it all fell into
place, the things she needed to do in the order she needed to do
She drew in a deep breath to fortify her nerves and pressed
two fingers to Connor’s throat. A good pulse thumped there, a bit
fast, but strong and even. Rebecca closed her eyes against an almost
bruising wave of relief; it meant he had not yet lost a dangerous
amount of blood. Her own
short sobbing breaths beat in her ears as she considered the chore
of unbuttoning his shirt; how ridiculous, how dangerous, even, all
those buttons seemed now. She tore it open instead, sending tiny
buttons flying like shrapnel across the room.
She only needed to lift him a little to peel the shirt completely
away from his body, but she could not.
His weight was astonishing; the solidity of his unconscious
body as stubborn as gravity itself. It made her absolutely, irrationally
furious. She tore at the seams at the shoulder of his shirt, and
then lifted the sleeve away from his arm with breathless care. His
own blood and sweat matted the hair of his arms, and this made her
angrier still; for miles he had bled, leading her to safety. By
the time Rebecca confronted her first musket ball wound, a hideous
red little crater in the smooth hard muscle of his arm, it had become
her mortal enemy, and she would have victory.
The wound was only oozing now; the bleeding had slowed, the
blood was congealing. She delicately touched the edge of it; she
could feel the ball move. It was close to the surface of the wound,
which meant she had a very good chance of retrieving it whole from
Water. Where was his water flask? She plunged her hands into
Connor’s pack and began pulling things out of it in a controlled
frenzy, a small sheathed knife, needles and thread, a length of
rope, a flint, candles, something wrapped in cloth that turned out
to be a brush for the horses, something else wrapped in cloth that
turned out to be a couple of meat pies from the Thorny Rose Tavern. All the evidence of Connor’s careful thought and planning, all things
she had taken for granted. But
no flask. She found his fine brown coat folded neatly
and began tugging it out of the pack, but something heavy hindered
its progress. Please be the water flask, she thought.
Fumbling among the folds of the coat, she found a flask in
the inner pocket. When she pulled it out, something tumbled out
along with it: a soft copper
lock of her own hair.
She went blank for a moment, thrown oddly off-balance. The
things lined up neatly on the floor in front of her were like words
to a sentence in a language she had only begun learning, a sentence
punctuated poignantly by a copper curl. They told a story Rebecca
sensed she already half-knew; she could feel it radiating, increasing
in light, on the far reaches of her awareness.
She gave her head another rough shake. Mulling was a luxury
she could not indulge at the moment. She sniffed the flask.
Whisky. In the absence of water, it would have to do.
Rebecca spilled a bit of the whisky in her hands and rubbed
them together, creating a little puddle of dirt in her palms, and
then she rinsed the puddle away with another prodigal splash.
Cleansed as well as she was able, she tugged her shirt out
of her pants and using her teeth and fingers, ripped the hem of
it into a length of bandage.
Placing her fingers on either side of the wound she pressed
gently, muttering prayers, apologies, vicious imprecations. She
felt the ball shift. She pressed again, gritting her teeth, breathing
heavily, and this time it surfaced, whole and bloody. With cool antipathy Rebecca held the thing between two fingers and
glared at it, then flung it to the floor with an oath, as though
concluding an exorcism.
She soaked a bit of the bandage in whisky and cautiously,
in tiny strokes, swabbed the blood away from the hole torn in Connor’s
flesh. The edges of the
wound were thankfully relatively clean, and Rebecca marveled momentarily
at how much her life had changed: she had never dreamed that something
like a clean-edged musket ball wound could cause her to give thanks.
She would need to irrigate the wound, she knew, before she
bound it up. She took a deep breath before tipping bit of the whisky
At this Connor moaned, a long sound that writhed up out of
him like a hot wind blowing through the caverns of Hell, and he
stirred, his legs moving restlessly. The sound frightened Rebecca nearly witless. “Dear God,” she whispered, but found herself
at a loss for words to include in the prayer; it seemed her vocabulary
had abandoned her. Of necessity, for the moment, she had become
a creature comprised of instinct and nothing else.
Rebecca bound the wound neatly, with exquisite gentleness,
then sat back on her heels and stared down at him. She placed a
tentative hand on his chest over his heart to reassure herself of
its steady beating, and after a moment, unable to resist, her fingers
curled into the crisp hair there.
Lord God the man was lovely in a way she had never imagined.
The join of his neck to his shoulders, the taper of his shoulders
to his slim waist, the swell of taut muscle above his ribcage, the
wondrous texture and temperature and smell of his skin — this hidden
beauty made Connor seem a stranger with powerful secrets, like a
whole other country with its own laws. A restless curiosity and delight spiked through
her, finding its way even through her fear for him. Beneath her hand, beneath his skin, his heart beat. She put her
other hand on her own heart, to compare.
“Was it Robbie Denslowe?”
Rebecca jumped, jerking her hand away.
“Robbie Denslowe?” she repeated numbly.
“Who…who taught you just where to hit a man?”
Connor’s voice was frayed, dragging, but the sound of it
filled Rebecca near to bursting with some nameless emotion.
“Yes,” she said, almost a whisper. She sought his eyes.
They were dark and glazed with pain, but behind the pain, he was
fully there, indomitably amused and warming at the sight of her. Rebecca uncertainly touched his hand, and his
fingers closed over hers tightly.
“Robby Denslowe should be knighted,” Connor muttered.
He managed to lift one corner of his mouth in a smile before
closing his eyes. His face contracted, the quickening of his breath
betrayed his struggle with pain. His thumb began moving in an unconscious
stroke across the top of her hand.
“The horses?” He asked, after a moment.
“I will see to them,” Rebecca assured him.
“The bleeding has stopped. I took the ball out, Connor.
I took it out whole.”
“Did ye now?” He smiled again, eyes still closed. “Oh, but you are a marvel, wee Becca.” His voice had begun to sound like a sigh.
“A marvel,” Rebecca repeated softly. It was all she could
manage. It seemed just the
appropriate word for everything at the moment.
“Hmmph,” he said, an ambitious attempt at a laugh. “Wee Becca, I think I shall need to get very
drunk, very soon. Take…take
the musket and knife out with you when you see to the horses. There
is a stream nearby…ye can find it by sound.
And put the flask in my hand, if ye will.”
He gave her hand a squeeze and released it. His face had
retreated from her again, contracting. She folded a blanket in quarters
and positioned it under his head, and he accepted her ministrations
without a word. With one
more glance down at him, she picked up the horse brush and the sheathed
knife and took them outside.
The horses were nosing about the front of the hunting box
quietly, looking for tender grasses. “Come my dears,” Rebecca said
softly. “We are sorry to leave you so long, but we had urgent business
inside.” She unsaddled both
horses, then unwrapped the brush and gave the mare a rubdown, murmuring
to her about her bravery, her speed, her beauty.
And then she turned her attention to Connor’s horse, the
gray, and he was told how handsome he was, how valiant, how swift.
The horses’ ears twitched forward, enjoying the lilting softness
of her voice, the smooth sure strokes of her hands.
“Let us find the stream now, shall we?” She collected the
reins of the horses in her hand and shouldered the musket, then
stood still, looking up, listening. A breeze shook the dazzling
little coin leaves that hung from the aspens; the larger oak leaves
waved at her like languid hands, glowing in the lowering sun as
if lit from within. Beneath hushed rustle of the leaves she heard
it, a soft melodious rushing. She
led the horses toward the sound, stopping every now and then to
mark a tree with her knife so she could find her way back to the
The stream was a pretty thing, silver and gilt in the sun,
winding among large smooth stones, bridged by slim trees thick with
leaves. When the horses
bent their heads to drink, Rebecca pressed her palms against her
weary eyes. They smelled of horses and Connor, musk and salt and
blood and whisky. They spoke of the enormous distance she had
come. She did not want to wash them just yet.
Rebecca leaned companionably against her brown mare, then
closed her eyes so the remaining warmth of the day could touch her
eyelids. After a space of
time she let the sobs take her, surrendering to a tangle of emotions
that burned and confused and goaded and excited. The day came back
at her in a torrent: The gift of an Herbal, Connor’s hands warm
against her back when she thanked him. Pistols pointed at her. The
fetid breath of a highwayman on the back of her neck, his hand crawling
over her breast. Connor
bleeding, his head lolling against the floor, his dark hair stark
against his white face. His heart beating beneath her hand.
A soft copper lock of her own hair.
And through it all, through all the chaos
and terrible, wonderful newness, a strange blooming elation had
buoyed her, a hot bright thing that swelled and pressed at the very
seams of her being. It demanded release, demanded something from
her. She wasn’t sure yet what to call it, but she had her suspicions.
She did know it had everything to do with
She would happily face a dozen pistols,
a dozen highwaymen, without flinching. For Connor.
When the sobs had run their course, Rebecca felt renewed
and absurdly, dizzyingly cheerful. She knelt next to the stream
and rinsed her hands, then splashed a little cool water on her face,
a baptism, in a way, of her new self. Today she had taken a musket
ball out of Connor Riordan, and he had gripped her hand, seeking
strength from her and finding it. This did not tilt the balance
between them, but righted it momentarily: Rebecca had not fully
realized until that moment how much she had wanted, needed, to give something to Connor. One
did not need to pose naked on a chaise to feel powerful and womanly,
she now understood. One needed only a musket ball wound and the
feel of a beautiful man stroking the back of one’s hand.
The ground felt solid beneath her feet for the first time
in days, and Rebecca, relishing her new balance, thrust her arms
high into the sky as if trying it on like a coat, and stretched
deliciously. Then she turned to lead the horses back to the hunting
box, humming a little tune of her own invention.
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