Authors: Elle Marlow
His fingers wrapped around her arm, infusing heat through the shirt and into her skin. He began to move it up toward her shoulder, and then back down again in a comforting gesture. Dutch’s touch was more than just reassuring; it drew other feelings from her. Willow’s blood heated through her veins. She understood when he’d told her it was too soon for her, and that she’d need to heal, but his touch was so different, so different than what the Apache had done to her. Still, she leaned further against him, feeling his Adam’s apple bob up and down against her as he swallowed. She wasn’t knowledgeable when it came to men, but his desire spoke to hers just as clear as those stars against the blackened sky.
“Would it make a difference if I told you that I wanted you? Would it matter if I said this was different?” she asked, placing a feathery kiss on his neck. The only reply came from crickets and the howl from a far off coyote. Finally, his deep voice vibrated against her retreating kiss. Willow then laid her head on his chest and took comfort in his deep breathing.
“My god, please don’t tempt me Willow. I’m still a man.”
“Ilene told Clem you got your parts blown off in the war and that’s why you won’t take the whores to bed.”
Dutch’s body stiffened like granite and then his resounding laughter echoed inside of his chest. She lifted her head to look at his face that was wide with a smile before the expression changed to a dark and smoldering one. His pupils deepened, and she licked her lips to ease the sudden dryness to them.
“I can assure you, I’m a complete, intact, man, and you’re funny when you’ve had too much to drink.”
“I might be drunk, but I know a damn fine man when I see one, Dutch. The best man I’ve ever met. I feel so safe with you. I feel better things than that. I’m happy with you. And I can’t for the life of me stop thinking about you. My body won’t let me.”
Hesitantly, she reached her hand up to lay it against his cheek. Her fingertips lightly grazed his short beard and there was something about touching his face that twisted her gut into a knot so tight, she stopped breathing.
“Willow, are you sure? Once a man and woman become intimate, they can never go back.”
“We’ve run out of time anyway. So what’s there to go back to?”
With her words, Dutch reached up so that he cradled her face between his palms. His chestnut eyes reflected the fire, letting her know he was about to give in.
“Crazy woman, you are without a doubt, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
“If you’re going to send me away, Dutch, then send me away a whole woman. Like you said, one who knows what it’s like to be thoroughly loved. Don’t let me leave Arizona fearing the unknown. I need to know that love doesn’t have to always have to hurt so damned much.”
His face moved within inches of hers. “I promise; I’d never hurt you. Just don’t let your mind drift from me. If you get scared, hold me tighter and say my name. Keep saying my name over and over and stay with me, can you promise me that, Willow?”
“Dutch,” she whispered, confirming she could.
His lips met hers and he wasted no time before he entered her mouth with his tongue, boldly claiming her mouth with enough fire that Willow’s body melted against him.
He was awake when the sun crested over the wooded ridge. Light beams streamed between branches, falling over his land like long ghostly fingers. Smoke from a distant fire also danced within the light and he knew the Apaches were not far away.
Willow snuggled against him and slid a hand over his chest. He’d made love to her right by the fire, on a blanket and they’d stayed there the entire night. Never in his life had he experienced anything like it. He touched her with more than his hands, he poured his heart over her. No doubt the Apaches watched in satisfaction. He’d sent them a message loud and clear that he was keeping the woman. But he wasn’t leaving, not yet. He’d send her to safety and he’d risk it for the gold. He needed it now more than ever. How else could he could offer her a life worth living?
The war-cry broke from the mountains and cut through the morning calm, sending a flock of birds to take flight. Dutch scrambled for his rifle, realizing too late that he’d left it inside his cabin. Before he could reach out and stop her, Willow had already jumped to her feet, a wide-eyed look of terror crossing her features before she ran inside his cabin to hide.
There were four warriors on horseback. Fallen Tree in the lead, his brother Crow Face just behind him, and further back, two others he didn’t recognize. They showed no fear as they approached. The only thing Dutch could think about was the fact Willow was inside his cabin with access to his guns, and if she became unstable and tries to fire, she’d get them both killed. Then he realized his mule was gone. They must have taken or killed him, because otherwise Fatty would have brayed out his warning. Dutch’s heart thumped inside his chest so hard, his knees nearly buckled.
He raised his hands in a welcoming gesture standing stark naked as Fallen Tree and Crow Face approached him each riding black and white horses.
“Yellow Rock. I’ve come to tell you the winds from the Devil’s hole grow strong. Hell is rising and the mountain is angry. You continue to take the gold stones from this mountain. You continue to give it for trade making all whites thirsty for more.”
Dutch eyed Crow Face as Fallen Tree spoke. “You should not have brought Crow Face with you Fallen Tree. I have no desire to talk with a man that rapes women.”
Fallen Tree gave his younger brother a sideways glance then shrugged. When his gaze met Dutch’s again, Dutch’s hairs stood up on his neck. It had been a long time since he’d spoke with the Apaches, but he knew they meant business today. He quickly whispered a silent prayer that Willow would not react to seeing her rapist right outside the window.
“I see you have accepted our trade. You have mated with Crazy Woman and now our people and our mountain are no longer in your debt,” Fallen Tree stated flatly. Crow Face made a guttural rutting sound staring pointedly at the cabin.
“Do not listen to him Willow,” Dutch ordered, squeezing his hands into fist. For a second, he was grateful his guns were inside, the urge to put a bullet in Crow Face was damn tempting. “Listen to me, Fallen Tree. She is not well, and she has my guns inside the cabin. Order Crow Face to stop his taunting of her or we will all be in trouble.”
Dutch turned his head toward the open door. “Willow! Don’t shoot. Do you hear me? Do not shoot. These men are not a threat, and they are not Yankees. Just stay inside the cabin.”
Fallen Tree and his companions all raised their guns towards the door of the cabin, thickening the tension in the air. For the first time in Dutch’s life, uncertainty burned a hole in his throat. “You are right, Fallen Tree, I have accepted her. But she is afraid. She doesn’t know what she is doing. I ask you and your brothers to lower your guns.”
“Your woman lives in two worlds. One world she does not belong in. You two are a good match since you are also living in a world you do not belong in. Take her and leave this mountain.”
“We will be going as soon as I get what I came for,” Dutch assured the Apache.
Fallen Tree pointed his rifle toward him and began to speak but was cut short by a piercing scream from Willow as she raced out the door holding a knife. She headed straight for Fallen Tree and his rifle. Dutch leapt in front of her taking Fallen Tree’s bullet into his thigh.
Instantly blood gushed from wound where the bullet burned a deep hole into the muscle. “Dutch! Dutch!” Willow’s voice, shrill and fast, was the last thing he heard before the world went dark.
Willow fell to her knees then scrambled backwards as the Apache dismounted from his horse. He looked closely at Dutch sprawled on the ground. He made a derisive snort, then shrugged.
“Nothing kills this man. He still breathes.”
Willow backed herself up right up against Dutch’s cabin. She held her breath, remembering Granny’s rule while she willed away the building hysteria.
“Dutch, Dutch, Dutch…” she closed her eyes and started repeating his name until her mouth dried from saying it. “Stay with him, Willow…stay with him…Dutch, Dutch…”
“Your words make no sense,” the Apache said, his upper lip curling in disgust.
Fallen Tree’s voice snapped her from her panic and birthed a courage from a soul with nothing left to lose. Dutch had saved her life and she’d be damned to repay him by being weak now.
“Save his life, you, pathetic man. You are wrong. He is not protected by bad spirits. I promise you, he will die without your help. Save his life or risk his spirit haunting you and your mountain for all time. You and your people will never be rid of him. There will be no true peace.”
Willow could see her words had struck some fear into Fallen Tree, but one thing was absolutely certain, too much blood was spilling from Dutch’s leg and he would die without help. She had no way to save him unless she could convince the Apaches to do it. “Save this man or so help me I will get revenge.”
At that moment, Fatty busted through the tree line making such a racket that the Apache horses spooked hard, nearly unseating them all.
“Argh! Fallen Tree!” Crow Face complained, as he fought to control his horse. “Do you remember the dog bite? My arm still aches. This woman is a witch. She calls the animals. Give her what she wants before something else happens.”
Fallen Tree glanced back at his brother and then nodded. He issued an order in his language to one of the warriors that was struggling with his horse in the background. The rider was up and over the ridge within seconds.
With the Apaches distracted, Willow crawled her way to Dutch’s body and then laid her hand over his forehead. His skin was cold and pale from the loss of blood. Her emotions surged but she bit down hard on her lip to keep herself in control. She then wrapped the blanket they’d slept on tightly around the wound hoping she could slow the bleeding and keep him alive until help arrived.
“Dutch. Stay with me…” she whispered, closing her eyes while repeating his name a few more times. “Stay with me…”
Willow opened her eyes, surprised at the sight of Granny. The eldest of the Parker family was mounted on the back of the Apache’s horse wearing a shift of soft hide, and with her long grey hair braided down her back. If Willow hadn’t known better, she’d swear the old lady was an Apache herself.
The old woman slipped from the rump of the horse and walked quietly toward her carrying a leather bag. Granny avoided making direct eye contact with her, but Willow saw a hallow darkness as the woman dropped to her knees at Dutch’s side.
Willow reached out to touch her, but Granny pulled back her arm to avoid the contact. Willow’s fragile bravery threatened to crumble in Granny’s presence, but she tried one more time to plead to her.
“Granny save him. Please. I love him, I love him so much. I can’t lose him too, Granny, I can’t…”
Granny kept her gaze on Dutch as her trembling, knotted fingers reached down into her bag to retrieve a long, narrow knife. Willow’s stomach clenched as the blade shimmered in the sun while Granny removed the blanket from the wound. Granny then carefully inserted the tip of the knife deep into the open flesh, causing Dutch to cry out in pain. Willow grabbed for his hand, squeezing it between both of hers while Granny worked to remove the bullet.
“Stay with me, Dutch…It’s almost over now…” She placed a kiss on his knuckles. Other than the Wiles, she’d never known love, but she sure knew it now—and she knew if she lost Dutch, she’d lose it all—her mind, her heart—everything.
“I won’t be able to handle it if you leave me, prospector.”
Dutch responded by tightening his grip.
Granny then reached for a satchel of gun powder, and poured it over the hole. She struck flint together several times and before Willow realized what she was going to do, flashes of sparks ignited over the wound, sealing it closed. Dutch moaned, but he was going to live.
Willow gave into an incredible wave of relief. Tears fell in steady streams as she gazed back at the Parker elder. “Thank you, Granny. Thank you so much.”
Granny looked away from her as she rose to her feet, and then walked back to the horse and the man who had brought her.
Fallen Tree came to stand at their side, casting a long shadow over Willow and Dutch. Willow welcomed the shade as she wiped the sweat from Dutch’s brow with the corner of the blanket. “You’re going to be okay now, Dutch,” she whispered close to his ear.
“This man will not take his spirit walk this day,” Fallen Tree commented from above. “What will you give in exchange for his life?”
Willow stopped blotting Dutch’s face at Fallen Tree’s words. She hadn’t considered the Apache would want something for Dutch’s care, but it changed nothing. She would have given anything for Dutch. After all, he’d saved her life not once, but twice. Nobody had ever risked so much for her. Biting down on her lip in resignation, she stood, knowing that the Apache might ask for the unthinkable.
Fallen Tree swept a glance over her slowly, purposely drawing out the worst fear in her possible. Willow’s muscles stiffened from the Apache’s visual perusal, but she stood as still as a stone. She would not pleasure him with even one quiver of the skin. She swallowed hard as his eyes, dark as any desert night, continued to survey her. She lifted her chin against it, ignoring that part of her that wanted to draw away. Willow braced herself, expecting Fallen Tree to grab her. Instead, the Apache grinned as if he saw right through her bravado. Again, the only thing that broke was her anger.