Cursing under his breath, Jacques hoisted the woman’s body over his left shoulder and headed for the cabin. She would come out of her faint in a few minutes, and he wanted to spare her the sight of her husband’s fate.
He entered the one-room cabin and paused on the threshold to let his eyes adjust to the dim light. A two-legged puncheon table attached to the opposite wall came into focus, followed by the fireplace to his left. On the right, a wood-slat bed filled the far corner.
Jacques laid the woman on the bed.
Noticing blood on her dress, he wondered if it were her husband’s or his own. His shoulder burned like hell. Though little more than a scratch, the damn thing was still bleeding, and he had no wish to leave a trail even the dull-witted English could follow.
Jacques stood and eased his knapsack over his shoulder with a strained grunt. After dropping it on the table, he looked around the room. On the hearth, he found a bucket of water and a towel. He folded the cloth and pressed it on the wound until the bleeding stopped, then rinsed his hands and arm.
For a moment he wondered about the people who lived here. They spoke French, so they must be Swiss, or perhaps Huguenots, descendants of the Protestants driven out of France many years ago. What had their lives been like in Europe? What despair had driven them to brave the wilderness? Or had they foolishly thought they were better off here?
Holding the towel to his shoulder, he walked over and stood by the bed to check on the woman, who was still in a faint. Despite her pallor, he noted that her skin was fine, her nose straight and thin. She had a lower lip just full enough to entice a man to taste it, and a stubborn chin that dared him to try. Under different circumstances…
She was perhaps not as lovely as he’d thought when he first saw her standing in the clearing—her hair, the color of corn silk, shining in the sunlight. Still, she was tall and fair, with slender curves and shapely ankles visible beneath the short skirts of a farm wife.
And now she was a widow. He stared down at the woman and silently vowed to see that no more innocents died today.
The woman gave a soft moan and opened her eyes. When she spotted him, she shrank back against the wall, arms folded defensively across her breast. His gut tightened. He didn’t enjoy terrifying women, but fear should make her easier to control. She had already proven unpredictable.
Terror, stark and vivid, glittered in her eyes. “Who are you?”
“My name is Jacques Corbeau, lieutenant in the army of France. And you are my captive.”
Mara inhaled sharply, panic building inside her. This couldn’t be real. It was all a bad dream. She would wake up soon and tell Emile about it, and they would laugh. And laugh and laugh and… She swallowed the hysteria engulfing her.
“Madame, are you listening to me?”
The Frenchman’s voice, sharp and insistent, demanded her attention. “There is not much time. My companions are not patient men. We must leave soon, but first I want you to bind my shoulder. Where do you keep bandages?”
Her mouth and throat were dry when she swallowed, but she choked out an answer. “The trunk. Under the bed.”
He squatted beside the bed, pulled out the trunk and rummaged through it. She watched his every move, unable to take her eyes off him, alarmed by the physical threat he represented.
He was a tall man who dominated the cabin as Emile never had, and his state of undress revealed nearly every inch of his lean and powerful form. Not only was he bare to the waist, but his breechclout and leggings failed to completely cover his thighs and buttocks. He had a wide-shouldered, rangy body and long, sinewy legs. He looked strong, virile, and dangerous.
A cold knot formed in Mara’s stomach. The French had killed her father and now her husband. What would they do to her?
She wrapped her arms around her waist. Her grandfather would say whatever happened was God’s will, but she rejected that idea. What kind of God allowed such awful things to happen?
Fearfully, she watched as the Frenchman shoved the trunk back under the bed and stood. He held out the bandages, and she froze. She couldn’t touch him, she just couldn’t.
The man’s heavy black brows drew together in a fierce frown, but his voice was without emotion. “Madame, I am all that stands between you and the men who killed your husband. I can be persuaded to act as your protector. It is to your advantage to do what I command.”
He dropped the bandages beside her on the bed and reached out to touch her hair. “Must I remind you, in my companion’s eyes, scalps are more valuable than live captives?”
Horror sliced through her fear. “Emile!” She shot off the bed and bolted for the door. The Frenchman caught her around the waist before she could reach it.
“It is too late, madame,” he said in a hushed voice. “It is done.”
“No,” she moaned, as she fought to banish the image of a bloody scalp, raw flesh.
The Frenchman turned her toward him, holding her by the shoulders, and spoke in an insistent voice. “Listen to me and be sensible. You must be strong now. We have a long journey ahead of us.”
Dazed, she stared at him. “A journey? To where?”
Mara gasped. The dreaded enemy stronghold deep in the wilderness. She struggled to get free, clawing at his powerful arms.
He gripped her tighter, grimacing as he did. “Stop it! What chance do you think you have against three men? Do as I say and you will live. Refuse and…” He let the implication hang in the air between them.
Live. Yes, that was what she must do. She must bide her time and stay alive. Her brother would find her and exact revenge. But for now, she was on her own.
She straightened her spine and stared into the Frenchman’s eyes. “How do I know I can trust you, monsieur?”
He met her gaze, but a shadow darkened his eyes. “You have my word of honor.”
Bitterness filled her. “The word of a Frenchman? What is that worth?”
“For the moment, madame, your life.”