Pain erased all sense of time. Lillian didn't know how long she'd hung, her muscles exhausted from the strain, her mind full of warnings she was helpless to do anything about.
Her throat was raw from screaming before Grady had gagged her. Now the cloth gag stuck to her dry tongue. She squinted through tired eyes at the pail of water sitting by the edge of the mineshaft. She could look right down into it, the water taunting her with how good it looked, how it would taste cool and refreshing as it slid over her tongue, down her throat. It would soothe her throat if she could just reach it.
But there was no hope of that.
They'd tied her up and left her to die of thirst. Lillian closed her eyes.
No, don't look at it. Don't think of it. Think of something else.
Pain shot from her broken right toe up her ankle and leg. The scent of burnt flesh still filled her nostrils. He'd seared the brand across the top of her breast. Memory lodged in her body where pain radiated along with heat, echoes of his laughter still ringing in her ears.
A single tear slipped out and ran down her cheek.
It hadn't mattered what he did to her or how relentless they were. She still couldn't tell them where the money was. She couldn't tell because she didn't know. And no amount of torture could change that one fact.
Lillian squeezed her eyes tight and prayed her lie had bought enough time to get away. Though how she'd ever get out of this she didn't know.
She had to get away before he returned, angrier than ever because she'd lied.
Mr. Thomas Shelton, her former fiancé, was probably well to California by now, and rich as the cream Lillian used to pour into her tea every afternoon. He'd done more than abandon her along with the promises he'd made to her. He'd left her to face the anger of everyone in town who he had robbed.
Dear God, but she was thirsty. If she could only have a drop or two of water. Lillian kept her eyes closed so as not to look at the pail again.
Mr. Shelton, the president of Shelton Security Bank and a widower, had finally asked for her hand in marriage after months of waiting. She'd thought she'd close the dressmakers shop. Fact was, she wasn't making much money. It hadn't been going well. The women living in town or in the outlying areas did their own sewing and except for a few bridal gowns and mending the saloon women's clothing, Lillian had made no other sales. Nevada was nothing like New York, where a woman needed a new gown for an event or wanted one simply because it was the latest new fashion.
She'd been foolish to follow her cousin out west, even if he was her only living relative. Carl was nothing like the boy she'd grown up with. Letters could be so deceiving and she hadn't seen him since he was ten.
Yet he'd written to her, urging her to come out west after her parents died. Convinced her it was better to be with family. Promised to help her set up a dressmaker's shop now that she had to make a living. She'd always enjoyed sewing for herself and her ailing mother and the dresses she made always brought compliments.
She'd also been drawn in by the adventure of moving west. So she'd left the town she'd spent her entire life in.
Carl had been nice enough at first, helping her set up shop, introducing the townsfolk to her. But after the first few weeks, he spent all his time playing cards and running up debts in the saloon and the mercantile, then expected her to pay for them.
He seemed to have the idea that because he'd done this favor for her, she was indebted to him for life. It was a debt she could never repay.
Carl thought she owed him and he thought she had the money. Even her own cousin didn't believe her.
The pain in Lillian's shoulders from the pressure of her own weight pulling her down pushed away her thoughts. Her arms being stretched for so long made her jerk and flinch, though she knew it was futile to fight and she barely had any fight left. But she couldn't help pulling against the ropes even though it only made things worse.
Oh, what she'd give for someone to cut her down and a fast horse. She'd learn to ride, as if her life depended on it.
He wasn't far from town, and looking forward to a warm bath to wash away the dust of the trip and then a good hot meal. Maybe if he were lucky there'd be a warm and willing woman too. He'd been a long time without a woman.
It was then he saw her. Long golden hair, which caught the rays of the setting sun, lighting those tresses up like a flame. Red-gold hair swinging in a gust of wind.
What the hell?
He blinked twice to clear his head, in case he was seeing some fools gold of a dream.
But when he opened his eyes she was still there, bound by her wrists, suspended over a wide mineshaft; her bare feet tied together at the ankles and her long hair blowing in the wind.
Who had strung her up and why?
He pulled his rifle out and rode closer, his senses on alert. The area appeared to have been abandoned, but he knew you could never trust appearances.
The appaloosa lost her footing briefly and rocks rumbled down the mountain. He tensed, waiting for a sound or for the end of a rifle to appear, but all was silent and still.
He slowly rode closer. The only sounds on the mountain were the wind and the steadier footsteps of his horse.
By the time he reached the woman it was clear there was no one else about.
He swallowed hard, shifted in the saddle as his thoughts shifted.
Damn, she's beautiful. The knots are all wrong. Whoever tied her was no cowboy. If she struggled those knots will only tighten more, hurting her worse.
His fist tightened around the reins.
That's no way to treat a woman.
Her long hair blew in the breeze again. He rode around to the other side. He had yet to see her face.
Dear God, not them again. Please don't let it be them. Not again. I can't take much more. I don't want to die here, today.
The horses stopped and the only other sound was the wind. She could feel eyes upon her.
She didn't want to look, didn't want to open her eyes for fear of what she'd see.
But she forced herself to open them, fought the fear and the dizziness and for one brief moment her gaze met his.
Long enough to see his eyes were like summer lightning, intense and flashing with some dark emotion.
Then her world went black.
Her blouse was torn, ripped down the side, exposing pale creamy skin so fair it clearly had never seen the sun. Newly drawn, in the shape of a curving "S" the scorched and bloody "S" was an abomination upon her breast, her skin.
The violence of such brutal torture hit him in the gut, taking him by surprise for he was not a soft man and he had seen much.
Who the hell had done this to her and why?
His gaze traveled up to the perfect oval of her face, eyelashes which rested against pale skin, golden hair trailing down unbound. Her pale cheeks streaked with tears.
They'd gagged her. She made no sound because she couldn't.
He clenched his fists. He wanted to hunt down the son of a bitch who'd done this to her and exact justice. He wanted to cut her down and take away the pain.
Her lashes fluttered and she opened her eyes to look straight at him, her eyes widening in alarm and pain. Fear flashed in her green eyes for one brief moment before she passed out completely limp.
"No. Damn it."
Rope burns marred her skin and the front of her skirt was ripped. Wind caught her skirt and it blew just enough for him to see the bruising on one leg.
He looked up at the rope, which was fraying above her bound wrists.
It wasn't going to hold. Need to get her down. Now.
"Son of a bitch."
That rope breaks and she'll fall to her death.
He gathered his lasso, looped it around and threw it once to test it.
One chance. It might be all she had.
Available now. For ePub, Mobi, Lit, Html
release Feb. 15, 2012
ISBN 13 - digit
ISBN 10 - digit