Cole took a final drag from the stub of his smoke, tossed it down, and ground it out with the heel of his boot, watching as the remains easily blended into the soft dirt. Blowing the smoke to the side, he watched with narrowed eyes several yards ahead as the man hired as guard lazed back, his heels upon the stone wall that surrounded the Perkins estate. The guard’s hat fell over his face.
“Couldn’t see a hand in front of his eyes,” Cole scoffed. He despised laziness. It was a damn good thing the lazy son of a bitch watchman didn’t answer to Cole.
If the guard had any idea who lay waiting in the shadows of the forest, he wouldn’t be lying back napping either. He’d hold that pistol that lay on the terrace by his feet with both fucking hands. More than likely, though, he’d run screaming for his life like a schoolgirl.
Cole shook his head. It’d be like taking candy from a baby. It was too bad, really. He much preferred a struggle.
Maybe he’d get lucky tonight. Maybe the girl would put up a fight. He cracked his knuckles, a slow, wicked grin revealing white teeth against tanned skin. He’d taken a good look at her earlier, her skin as white and unblemished as newly fallen snow, her cleavage full and welcoming atop the bodice of her fitted dress. How he longed to run his dark, wicked hands through her soft blond curls and yank that hair, making her scream. Just watching her run her silver hairbrush through her long tresses as he hid in the shadow of the veranda made him hard as hell.
Her daddy would pay dearly for what he’d done.
He turned to the darkness and raised a hand, giving the signal. Four shadows moved to obey, Cole ahead of the pack. He was the one they answered to, and the largest of the crew. They’d traveled hundreds of miles to get here. And now the moment had come.
It was time to enact justice.
Judgment and damnation for all. And if things went his way, there would be pain.
Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody. ― Mark Twain
“Make a sound, darlin’, and you’ll regret it.”
His voice was deep and raspy, sending a chill of fear through Aida. She gasped as she sat up in bed, instinctively scurrying backward, but with two large strides he was upon her, pinning her back down upon the bed, one hand grasping her wrists as a second whipped a bandanna from his pocket. He released her hands and tied the bandanna quickly around her mouth, the knots so tight she winced in pain. The rough fabric smelled like tobacco and bacon, and her stomach twisted. Her eyes flitted around the room, trying her best to find a means of escape. One small man stood behind her captor on the left, and a taller, thinner one on the right. She was overpowered and outnumbered, but she would not go down without a fight.
Even if she’d had warning, she never would’ve been able to fight off three full-grown men by herself. Swatting away flies from her lemonade on a hot summer day was about as fast and furious as her little hands had ever swung. Her eyes flew open in the darkness as her worst fears became a reality.
The blood rushed through her ears, her heart thudding, as she kicked out her foot and happily connected with her captor’s stomach. He doubled over in pain, cursing, as the other two moved toward her. Swiftly, her hands momentarily freed, she grasped the glass of water on her nightstand and whipped it at the small man on her left. It hit him with a thud, water splashing all over him and the wall, as the glass fell to the floor and shattered. As the third man moved to close in on her, bending down to restrain her, she kicked her right foot out and hit him straight in the face. He howled, both hands covering his face, but the first man had already recovered. With one swift move, he pinned her wrists down on the bed, deftly tied them with the length of rope, and to her shock, twisted her over on her side, smacking his palm against her thinly clad backside. Half a dozen vicious, searing swats took her breath away and made tears come to her eyes. She cried out, but couldn’t escape, the bandanna gagging her screams, the rope making her helpless to fight him.
His arms came around her, lifting her straight off the bed and over his shoulder as if she weighed nothing at all. Unable to defend herself with her hands, she kicked her feet as best she could, but one arm tightened around her legs as his hand came down again, blistering her backside.
Later, she would remember that he never lifted a fist to her, but only the palm of his hand on her backside.
“Y’all right?” he hissed into the darkness to the other men. But the two she’d managed to attack had recovered already and they now moved as one, following their leader to where the large window opened to the balcony, the curtains billowing in the wind. Panic rose. They were going to kidnap her. She had to get away. But even twisting with all she had, she was helpless against his grip, restrained against most movement. Shouts and the sounds of shattering glass could be heard in other parts of the house as they moved swiftly. She had two thoughts at once—first, that Lucille, her tutor and only friend, who’d been sent from them the week before, had been spared in the melee, and second, a fervent wish that someone even more savage had come for her father, and in the struggle, killed him.
As Aida woke, she kept her eyes closed. She couldn’t remember at first where she was or how she’d gotten there. As her eyes remained shut tight, she lay still, trying to assess the situation as best she could. It all came back to her at once.
Beneath her back she felt warm, soft blankets, some type of Indian animal skin, perhaps. Her wrists were still bound tightly, and the rope chafed against her tender skin, along with the gag around her mouth. The chemise she’d been wearing when taken from bed felt like it was intact, though it offered her little protection. And as she lay on the ground in the dark, she could still feel the stinging on her backside, an immediate reminder of the cowboy’s vicious palm the night before.
“Wakin’ up, darlin’?” crooned a voice by her side, and her eyes flew open. It was her captor from the night before, the leader of the group. He still wore his bandanna over his mouth, and his eyes were trained on her. She tried to sit up, but was tied in too awkward a posture, so she struggled. He reached over, yanking her up by the shoulders so she could slouch into a seated position. He sat on the ground, knees pulled up to his chest, his arms resting lazily, but one hand reached to his waist and removed a gleaming pistol. She glared at him as he watched her, his eyes as dark as coffee, brooding and calculating.
“You sit there like a good little girl,” came his low drawl as he pulled his bandanna down from his mouth. His voice was so deep and raspy it made her hair stand on end. “Now that I’ve gotten your attention, you’ll listen to me. You listenin’, darlin’? You nod that pretty little head if you’re listenin’.”
She glared at him.
He placed the gun on the ground and crawled over to her. Fear made the hair on her arms stand up as he reached a hand out to her, but it was only to unfasten the bandanna from her mouth. As soon as it was released, she sucked in a deep breath, pulled her face away from his hand, and spat at him, hatred boiling up inside her. She wanted to grab the bandanna around his neck and twist it around his neck. He flinched as her saliva hit his cheek, his fingers going to the back of his head and whipping off his own bandanna. He bunched up the fabric and swiped it at his face, tossing both bandannas to the ground.
He sat back, glaring. Now that his mask was removed, she was able to fully take in his appearance. His hair was dark brown, matching his coffee-colored eyes, thick stubble covering his square jaw. His features were even and rugged. If she wasn’t so filled with fury at her captor, she’d consider him an attractive man, every bit a toughened cowboy or gunslinger. His jaw was clenched, his lips a thin line, as he spoke to her in his low, raspy voice.
“I know who you are,” he said. “And you’ll listen to me now without a fight. I’ll tell you exactly what I expect of you, and you’d do well to do as I say, or I’ll take that strap I have hangin’ on the side of my horse, and tan your backside. You understand me, Aida Marie Perkins?”
The use of her full name and the threat of the strap made her stomach clench. She looked to the saddle of his horse, where a folded piece of sturdy leather did indeed hang, next to a stout riding quirt, ready for use. She wondered why he had it and how often he used it. He eyed her thoughtfully for a minute, his eyes filled with steely conviction. She knew in her gut he would indeed make good on his promise. Glaring at him, she nodded.
“My gripe ain’t with you,” he said, “but with your father. You’re comin’ with us as our captive, ransom against what your daddy owes us. We have a long, dangerous journey ahead of us, and there are rules you’ll be expected to follow. You hear me?”
Aida shifted, still glaring, and refused to answer. His eyes rested on the strap. Noting the silent threat, Aida felt fear claw at her chest for a quick minute. She nodded.
His eyes focused on hers for a moment before he continued. “You’ll do as I say. Everyone in our company obeys me, you and the other four men I have with me. There’s no room for disobedience or disrespect. That means you’ll eat what I feed you, come when I call you, and do what I say. Anything short of complete obedience, and I’ll punish you.” He paused as his words sank in. “Soundly.” His eyes darkened. “And I’ll expect you to treat me with respect. Understood?”
She glared at him, hatred a live, pulsing heat between them. Her words were a low hiss. He could whip her, he could tie her up, he could make her obey, but she’d let him kill her before she’d ever give him respect.
Though her mouth was dry, she used up what she had left as she spat again on the ground with vehemence. “You filthy scoundrel!”
He watched her through eyes so narrow they were no more than slits before he shifted up and drew even closer to her, while she cursed furiously. Though her heart thundered in her chest, she still did not regret refusing to submit. He reached a hand to where her long, wavy blond hair hung loose about her face, grabbed a fistful, and yanked so hard she felt the piercing pain along her scalp and spine. She cried out involuntarily as his mouth came to her ear.
“I gave you a choice, little girl, and I gave you one chance to do this the easy way. I’ll have you know it’ll be my immense pleasure to whip your gorgeous backside raw while you scream for mercy. Darlin’, you just gave me exactly what I came for.”