This time when Alika woke up, she knew she was alone before she opened her eyes. The chickee was so humid she could barely breathe. However, despite the need to go outside in search of fresh air, she couldn’t make herself move.
Yahola had changed so much of what she believed about herself. She was still trying to accept his command that she stay where he could see her, not just because his spirit might prove dangerous to her, but because the island was far from a peaceful refuge.
Considering her constrained existence at the fort, she longed to get to know her surroundings. Besides, she could barely think when Yahola was around.
The sun was high and unlike the prior day, not hidden behind clouds. As a result, light entered the chickee, affording her a better view of her body. There were bruises from the pounding she’d taken, and her fingers still looked slightly wrinkled. She wasn’t sure how she felt about being nude; maybe it didn’t matter. When she put her hands on her breasts, they were so sensitive she gasped. She hesitantly moved her hands between her legs to touch herself.
It felt as if she’d been both rubbed raw there and lovingly caressed. Her flesh seemed alive and newborn; she couldn’t think of any other way to describe it. Her sore jaw served as proof of what she’d done. If Yahola had come in, she didn’t know how she’d react.
Fighting her apprehension about something beyond her comprehension, she scrambled out of the small opening and stood on shaky legs. The sun beat down on the top of her head. She felt its heat on her shoulders and breasts. Not caring whether Yahola saw, she pressed her hands over her breasts until they’d absorbed the morning’s heat and then did the same to her belly and between her legs. This was her body. She’d risked her life putting distance between herself and the disgusting man who’d taken her virginity. Yahola was completely different from the colonel but that didn’t mean she should trust or follow him without question.
She might have turned her back to the sun to add even more warmth to her spine and buttocks if her stomach hadn’t rumbled. When she swallowed, she realized she was also thirsty. Belatedly, another need was asserting itself. After a look around, she walked over to a clump of bushes, squatted behind them, and relieved herself. When she straightened, a branch scraped against her thigh as if reminding her of her naked state.
Because she’d seldom worn shoes growing up, her feet were tough, but the rest of her was ill-equipped for a life without clothes. She needed to protect herself against sunburn, but she needed to find fresh water first. Thinking to orient herself, she turned in a slow circle. As she did, awareness of her surroundings returned. Yahola had told her that his spirit animal was a predatory black cat. Was it possible? Could a panther have come close last night because man and animal shared something?
And maybe her imagination was getting away from her.
More than maybe.
The sea was playing with the shore, but there was so much vegetation between her and the island’s edge that she couldn’t see that far. The ground here consisted of a mix of sand, mud, and crushed shells. The sand was still wet, and a multitude of low-growing plants nearly covered both it and the mud. She recognized sea grapes’ fat leaves and long, strong strands of sawgrass that had been flattened by the storm. She spotted a hole in the sand she suspected served as a home for a turtle.
Birds were everywhere this morning, their cries both ear-splitting and comforting. Insects buzzed and she ruefully acknowledged the feast mosquitoes would have once they found her.
Trees ranging from mangroves to cabbage palms and buttonwood all fought for space, making her feel somewhat claustrophobic, and serving as a reminder of the countless creatures—some of them deadly—that lived in and around the trees.
She tried to imagine how the island had come into being and whether yesterday’s hurricane had altered it. Maybe it had once been part of the Florida territory until wind and rain tore it loose from the mainland. Was it drifting? If so, where was it—and she—going?
Her stomach clenched. Almost from the time she’d learned to walk, she’d helped tend to the family’s garden, but no corn, beans, or squash had been planted here. She was hungry enough to eat anything she could get her hands on, but knew better then to try something she wasn’t positive was safe. So far she hadn’t spotted any wild plums or persimmons. The longer she took in her surroundings, the more her stomach protested. She attributed her weakness to lack of food. Although he hadn’t said so, Yahola had undoubtedly expected her to wait for him, but if he were out hunting, he might not return for hours.
Darn it, she’d been dependent on the colonel and his troop for every bite she ate, but she was no helpless child. Surely Yahola would be impressed if she found some fruit or tubers to supplement the meat she had no doubt he’d supply.
After studying the sun to get her bearings, she headed west. She wouldn’t go too far, just enough to get an idea of her surroundings. And she wouldn’t let sights and sounds alarm her.
Unfortunately, she’d underestimated how hard it would be to get through the vegetation, or how frequently changing directions would get her lost. No, not lost, she reassured herself after she figured she’d been traveling for about a half hour. Just a little disoriented. She’d find a tree she could climb and get her bearings.
She spotted several trees that were tall enough for her use, but the bark and branches cut her flesh, forcing her to give up after climbing only a few feet. The longer she stood looking around, the harder it was to deny she had no idea where she was, or how to get back to where Yahola expected her to be. He’d be concerned and angry, two things she didn’t want.
“Yahola,” she called. “Can you hear me?”
He didn’t reply, and although she couldn’t make out a human form among the wall of living things, she had the feeling she was being watched. It could be an animal, maybe an alligator or bear. Maybe Panther.
Fear filled her throat.
“Yahola, please, I’m here.”
The pleading note in her voice angered her. She was tired of being on edge. If need be, she’d survive on her own. Somehow.
But how? She had no weapons, not even shoes.
At first she thought her eyes were deceiving her. Then what appeared to be a particularly thick bush separated itself from its surroundings. Yahola, wearing shoes, with a spear and knife clutched in one hand and a deer carcass over his back, was striding toward her. She hadn’t seen him like this before—comfortable in his wild surroundings—strong and healthy, ebony eyes locked on her. More animal than human.
“Why are you here?” he demanded.
Taken aback by the sharp tone, she wrapped her arms around her waist. “I was hungry. I, ah, I’m capable of finding—”
“I told you to remain at my shelter.”
Careful. Don’t push him. “I didn’t know it was an order. There’s no reason to—”
He leaned to the side, causing the carcass to slide off his back and onto the ground. When he straightened, she fought the impulse to run, not that it would have done her any good. What had happened to her rescuer, the exciting man she’d had sex with? This one was so intimidating.
“I told you.” He spoke slowly. “The island has dangers.”
She tightened her hold on her middle. “You don’t understand. For the better part of a month I’ve been forced into an existence I wanted nothing to do with. I escaped—and wound up with you.” She licked her dry lips. “I’m trying to find me. I used to be self-assured. That woman is still in there somewhere.” She patted her chest. “I don’t dare lose her.”
She took his frown to mean he was trying to understand what she’d just said. As she waited for his reply, she attempted to put herself in his position. His existence was more primitive than hers had been on the family farm. As a warrior, he was expected to risk his life to protect and defend other Seminoles. He took his job seriously, probably considered it the most important thing he did.
“Come here.” He dropped the knife and jammed the spear into the ground near him.
Trying to swallow, she did as he’d commanded. She’d learned to obey the colonel’s commands so knew how to put someone else’s wishes before her own. Besides, even with her heart beating out of control, she wanted to understand Yahola.
He remained motionless as she presented herself to him. Then he grabbed her upper arm and hauled her over to a mangrove tree with exposed roots. He sat on a thick root and pulled on her arm, forcing her off balance. She landed on her stomach on his thighs.
“I will make sure you listen to me. Listen and obey.” He planted a broad hand over the back of her neck, preventing her from trying to get away.
This isn’t happening! I’m not—surely I’m not—
She was still trying to convince herself that she was dreaming when his fingertips dug into her buttocks. She squealed and pushed her toes into the ground, hoping to leverage herself so she could escape.
“You are my responsibility.” He forcefully rubbed her right ass cheek. “If I am to keep you alive, you must do what I tell you to.”
“No one said you had to—”
He slapped her left cheek, the sound like a drumbeat. “I cannot call myself a warrior if I do not do everything I am capable of to keep you safe.”
He was spanking her, delivering measured blows to her throbbing flesh. She didn’t know what to think, couldn’t think. Couldn’t begin to plan how to struggle.
Pain spread over her buttocks, ignited by the barrage of smacks Yahola was delivering. The longer he spanked her, the harder it was to remember she was a separate human being. At the same time—not that she wanted to admit it—she felt a kinship with the Seminole. He wasn’t punishing her simply to demonstrate his dominance. He needed her to absorb his lesson, to accept his dominance.
Finally, with her ass ablaze, the blows slowed and became less intense.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I shouldn’t have—”
“No, you should have not.” He followed up his comment by running his hand between her ass cheeks and pressing against her rear opening. “You will not disobey again, will you?”
She sniffed. “No, I promise I won’t.”
“I hope I can believe you.”
She probably would have said something if his finger wasn’t against her puckered flesh. There was something incredibly controlling about what he was doing, as if he’d taken command of her entire body with the intimate touch. She shuddered and bit her lower lip as new sensations enveloped her.
“You are a gift and a responsibility,” he said. “As a warrior, I must accept everything you represent.”
She wasn’t certain she fully understood what he was saying and right now it didn’t matter. As for why he was treating her the way he was, all she could do was experience. Emotionally and physically done in, she sagged over his legs. He took hold of her shoulders and set her back on her feet.
Blinking repeatedly, she forced herself to look at him. As much as she longed to massage her aching ass, she settled for clasping her hands.
He studied her for a long time. She considered covering herself, but given everything that had transpired between them, what did it matter? Finally, still saying nothing, he stood and walked over to where he’d left the deer carcass.
An image flashed through her mind. She saw him stalking the deer much as her family’s cats stalked mice and birds. Yahola’s muscles moved like oil over his frame, everything working perfectly. His eyes missed nothing while his ears caught the smallest insect sound. He became a predator, a killer. Masterful.
“You used your spear to kill it?” she asked.
“How? Deer run at the slightest sound. They—”
“This one did not.” His tone was sober. “My first task was to retrieve my knife and shoes. Once I had done that, I started hunting. When I came upon the deer, it was staring up into a tree, quivering, its eyes wide and mouth open, terrified.”
Yahola shook his head. “He did not know of me until it was too late. Something else had claimed its attention.”
“Could it have been a panther?”
Yahola’s gaze held hers. “I was intent on making my spear throw true. The deer traveled a short distance before it fell. There was no reason for me to return to the tree. I wanted to get back to you as soon as possible.”
Only she’d made that more complicated than he’d expected, something else she might have to apologize for.
“Can we go back to your shelter?” She hoped she wouldn’t have to admit she didn’t know where it was.
“Yes. There is a pool of rainwater a short distance from my place, which is why I selected that spot for my chickee.” His gaze slid to her interlocked hands. “I will let you go there while I prepare the carcass for cooking.”
“You trust me to—”
“To stay there, yes. You have learned your lesson. I will join you. It is a peaceful place, perfect for someone who needs time alone with her thoughts.”
“I do need…”
“There are no alligators in the pond and I have not seen panther or bear tracks. I will be so close that I will hear if you call out. The water is clear, perfect for drinking and getting clean.”
“Clean.” She ran her fingers through her tangled hair. “That sounds wonderful.” Nearly as good as some alone time.
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