Sunday, October 17, 2010


Emma stepped into the main cavern, and a shadow rose along the wall then to the ceiling. Her hand flew to her mouth and she tried desperately to stifle the scream that rose to her throat. Terror, vivid and savage, rushed through her. She battled a growing sense of panic, biting down on her knuckles.

Someone was in the cavern with her, someone who had entered boldly and without rancor.

From the narrow opening she could see him standing there, swaying, as if he could barely keep upright. He was very tall, and when she recognized him, he looked good to her even though she could make out little of his features.

"Dakota," she whispered.


His voice was weak and thready. She could see the blood covering his shirt now. He slid down the rocks until he sat on the floor of the cavern, his head falling to rest upon his knees.

"You're hurt," she said.

He nodded, a strange smile playing across his lips. "You noticed, did you?"

Don't panic, she warned herself. He's hurt, but he made it back from wherever he went. After a moment's hesitation, Emma rushed forward, not knowing what she must do for him, realizing only that she must do something.

She bent down to his level, his hand touching her cheek, then falling away. Her gasp escaped her as his hand lay motionless on the cold, wet rocks. His eyes closed tight.

Then, as if he guessed her thoughts, he said, "Stop it, damn you, Emma, I'm not dying. There is nothing for you to worry about."

"I'll worry if I want to. Now let me have a look."

"No. Give me a minute to rest here, and I'll tell you everything that happened."

His voice was deep, rich, and it seemed that by sitting instead of standing, he'd regained much of his strength. As usual, his words were touched with an arrogant authority, a harshness, even a ruthlessness. But the knowledge he was more himself than she'd imagined gave her courage.

But his face…

His skin was pale, and as she touched his cheek and his neck to find his pulse, she was struck by the heat and the dampness, the contrast vivid and terrifying.

Despite the raging fever consuming his body, he watched her with eyes as sharp and brilliant as a wildcat's beneath his imperious, high-arched brows.

"You've been shot," Emma whispered, finding breath at last. Her fingers brushed over the wound and came away bloodied.

She looked up into his eyes.

They were haggard with pain and exhaustion. They stared at her, challenging and with a determined purpose.

"Bounty hunters?" she asked, furious with him for ven­turing out, angry because he'd hurt himself, and she didn't know what to do for him. She had been afraid of this ever since they set off on what he'd called a dangerous mission, one he'd been loath to be part of. Now he was hurt and in pain.

"They didn't follow me." One hand rested on her arm.

"I'm going for a doctor."

"No!" His grip tightened, then relaxed. "It's only a flesh wound."

She stood up abruptly and walked away from him, deter­mined to gather supplies and slip from the cave.

"You need a doctor."

The determination in her voice unsettled her. She could get lost out there, but she had no choice. Dakota wouldn't live without professional help.

"You can't go out there." He was upon her before she knew it, his hands planted firmly on her arms as his fingers formed steel bands around her. She opened her mouth to argue with him.

"I won't hear of it." His finger moved to touch her lips and stop whatever she planned to say.

She was forced to gaze into his endlessly brown eyes and see the determination and stubbornness that was Dakota. He'd made up his mind and that was that.

Well, she'd made up her mind too. "I won't let you die."

"Listen to me, Emma. Stone Pony will see that you get the right medicines. I don't need a doc--"

He stopped short, inhaling deeply. Emma knew he strug­gled to stand, that this last effort had stolen his strength.

"I... do... not... need... a..." he said, each word separate and distinct.

He swallowed hard, his throat moving convulsively. A wild fear filled Emma along with her realization he might not survive the night. She tried to support his weight, but she couldn't.

They fell to their knees.

And then he keeled over.
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