He delivered another hard blow, and this time she fell, sprawled in the grass at his feet, blackness threatening to close over her vision. “Get up, girl,” he growled. “You can walk or you can be dragged.” He reached down and grabbed the front of her borrowed blue Army coat, hauling her to her feet. Her knees threatened to buckle, and she grabbed his arm for support. “The army will buy you back pretty or beat to hell, they don’t care. Either way, they get to be heroes saving you from the injuns..” He shook her like a dog shaking a rabbit, and her teeth snapped together. “How beat up you get depends on you.”
She was breathing hard, her ears ringing and her vision wavering. She gritted her teeth, tasting blood.. I’ll not give this animal the satisfaction of seeing me fall again...
He nodded. “Good. See?” He jerked her forward. “You come along quiet, you get to stay pretty. Don’t give me a reason to put you on a leash.”
She let him drag her forward, her shaking legs barely holding her upright. The coat was digging into her armpits as she stumbled, jerked upwards as Stone held it wadded in his fist.
“Where...” she gasped, her voice shaking,. “where are we going?”
“Shut up,” he muttered. “You’re getting better than you deserve. Although that may change when Collins finds out you came out here warned the Sioux he was on his way.”
“Captain Scarcliff won’t...”
“My money’s on Scarcliff ending up dead, if he isn’t already. Collins means to give himself a promotion. So if I were you, I’d maybe re-figure who you need to be whoring up to.”
“What about you?” she spat. “You’re going to be in more trouble than I am, aren’t you? You know good and bloody well what’s really going on.”
“We all know good and well what’s going on, Red. And the safe bet is that you and your chattering mouth are probably going to disappear.” He gave her another violent shake, nearly dragging her off her feet. “But not before I get paid for you. I’m getting something out of this, at least.”
New panic clawed at her insides and she closed her eyes, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. She was sweating inside the wool coat, her face dripping with tears and exertion. Mr. Devereaux’s shooting doggedly replayed in her mind like a recurring nightmare. And what’s become of Jesse? Was he killed as well? She swiped the prickly sleeve of the coat across her face. And Storm...what’s become of you, beloved? If Stone isn’t bluffing...if there’s a coup in progress...there’s no telling what’s happening with Scarcliff’s detachment. Both of Collins’ scouts are dead. Did he have them killed? What did they know?
Her control was slipping away as fear wrapped more tendrils around her and started squeezing. She forced her mind away from it, fighting to keep her terror at bay. Storm...I have to get back to you. I have to. Summoning all her will, she focused her mind on his beautiful face, on the infinite depth of his eyes. The world didn’t exist outside his embrace; she wasn’t alive unless his heart was beating against hers. I have to keep going...keep breathing. Get back to him. Nothing else matters.
She clenched her jaw, groaning with defiant effort. He’ll let his guard down at some point. Stop fighting and pay attention. Be ready to bolt at any time.
What if I never see him again? The thought was incessant, loud, shouting over her efforts to stifle it. What if I die without holding him one last time? What if I do make it back and he’s dead? She hung in Stone’s grasp like a rag doll, suddenly too empty to weep.