Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, 1833
Rebecca Benton hiked up her skirts, trying in vain to prevent the hem of her gown from becoming soiled. She groaned and plunked down on a moss-covered rock. The August day was hot, and she pulled a dainty handkerchief from her reticule to dab at the beads of sweat running down her flushed cheeks and trickling into the deep valley between her breasts. The perfection of her coiffure had wilted long ago, and now her long blond hair dangled loosely falling on her face.
Blast the heat!
Removing her bonnet, she puffed at one long tendril curling in her face and pulled out the last remaining pins. Tearing a length of lace from the hem of her gown, she used it to secure the locks at the nape of her neck.
Distracted by the night-blooming thimbleberry nearby, she rose, leaving her bonnet behind. The scent of musky damp soil mingling with that of pines and wildflowers filled her nostrils. This wooded area had an abundance of fascinating plant life, and every plant held her interest, right down to the rare mushrooms growing in the shade of the tall trees.
She tried to judge the time of day. The rays that managed to find their way in through the dense trees were low on the horizon. It would not be light much longer. Frustrated, she scanned every direction looking for something familiar. Surely, there was a rock, or fallen tree, an opening to spur her memory—anything? Nothing. Furthermore, the forest was getting thicker.
With her love of botany, Rebecca generally would have enjoyed this romp through the wilds of nature. However, this day, she was utterly lost in the middle of a vast forest. Having wandered around for the better part of the afternoon, she still had not a clue as to which way to go to find the road. The sun was moving lower in the sky, and if forced to spend the night in the wild, untamed environment, there was a very real threat she might not survive to see another dawn.
How Rebecca came to be lost was entirely her fault. She had been on route from her home in Philadelphia for her yearly visit with her sister who lived in Lancaster. The long journey kept her cooped up with other travelers in a stagecoach for the better part of two days. Wedged, on a hard wooden seat, between a snoring old woman and her overly talkative husband, the interior of the conveyance offered little in the way of comfort. An unscheduled stop by the driver to check a wobbly wheel was a welcomed respite—the perfect opportunity to stretch her cramped legs.
Upon exiting her cramped quarters, she found a mass of black elderberry bushes lining the road. Excited and thrilled with her discovery, she had moved from plant to plant inspecting her rare finds, wishing she had thought to bring her copy of the Botanic Family Physician so she could verify and collect some samples. It was her hope that someday she would be able to invest her money in opening an apothecary. These rare finds would help heal many patients.
At first, she had been too preoccupied with the vegetation to be worried about how far she had wandered from her traveling companions. It was not until she had turned to go back that she became frightened, realizing she had gone too far and could not find her way back. Her heart thudded wildly with the dawning that she was all alone.
The deepening shadows made her keenly aware of the many unfamiliar sounds in the woods. Every strange hoot or screech made her jump. Air, she needed air. She tugged at the bodice of her travel attire. Unbuttoning the first few buttons, she breathed a sigh of relief as a breeze cooled her damp throat.
By now, the stagecoach probably would have arrived in Lancaster. Her sister, Anabella, and brother-in-law, Martin Larson, would be terribly worried.
Sweet Mother Mary.
Rebecca squealed when she tripped over a root jutting up from the ground. Landing on all fours in a patch of black dirt, she scrambled to her feet and wiped the sweat from her face before noticing the soil covering her gloves.
Damnation. Glancing down, she saw stains on her gown, and only God knew how her face looked. It was no use trying to shake off the dirt, for it was ground well into the muslin of her gown.
Having to spend the night in these God-forsaken woods was quickly becoming a reality. Frightening tales of hooded highwaymen robbing lost travelers and raping young maidens as well as wild animals ripping throats and devouring unfortunate victims were various embellishments passed around at the social events. The approaching darkness seemed to stir the possibility of those horrors to life.
Chewing on her bottom lip, she looked around, with her heart pounding as the sounds of alien screeches grew louder with the setting of the sun. All the years she spent studying Botany would go to waste if she did not survive the night.
A large crow on its way to a nearby branch swooped down, its black wings flapping over her head. Her shrill scream echoed through the tall timbers and frightened beyond thought, she picked up her skirts and crashed blindly through the brush in the opposite direction. Sharp branches pulled and tore at her gown, scratched the tender skin of her face, and snagged in her hair. Her heart thudded wildly in her chest, forcing her on until she thought her lungs would burst.
More intent on what she was running from, she glanced back and never saw the tree. Striking it with considerable force, she fell backward, landing on her back in a pile of damp leaves.
A dark form swooped down and hovered over her like a gigantic gargoyle. Strong arms quickly enveloped her, and a deep voice scolded, “Miss? What are you doing out here all alone?”
Rebecca quaked. Her breath caught in her throat. Dressed all in black and wearing a cape, he looked like a phantom of the underworld.
Her brain felt scrambled from hitting the tree. “Are you a ghost?”
He examined the lump on her head. “Last time I took stock, I was a man. Can you stand?”
“I think so.”
The stranger helped her up but kept steadying hands on her arms. “Who are you. What sort of woman wanders alone in the woods?”
What sort of man would skulk about the woods? Thinking it wise not to let him know she was alone, she answered quickly. “I am not alone. My brother-in-law is right behind me…”
“You are lying,” he responded sharply gripping her arms. “Judging by your attire, you are not a common woman, but one of some social stature.”
Rebecca struggled and kicked his leg “Let me go.”
Damnation woman!” The man gripped her arms tighter. “There is nowhere to go.”
When she realized he had no intention of letting her go, she begged. “Please do not hurt me.”
To her surprise, he released her. “Hurt you? You are the one attacking trees and now me. I suggest you do not tempt fate as my patience is wearing thin. Answer my questions. How did you come to be wandering alone?”
Straightening her spine, she gave him terrified regard. Her only hope was to throw herself on his mercy and hope he would be a gentleman and help her. “I was on my way to Ellington Hall and became separated from my group. Perhaps you know of it?”
“Aye, it that property is to the North and so is the road. Miss, have you any idea of the dangers that could befall a woman alone in the woods? You are very fortunate I found you and not someone who would prey on your inability to defend yourself. It was very simple-minded of you to wander from your group.”
Her chin shot up. She should have admitted her stupidity, however somewhere between simple and minded her resolve to ask for mercy vanished. “Insolent brute. It is not your place to make judgments about me.”
The man dragged her against his body and wound an arm around her waist. “And you are a sharp-tongued, highly annoying lass, who has appeared at a most inconvenient time.”
“I am sorry to inconvenience you. Unhand me and I will trouble you no more.
Cupping her chin, he forced her to look at him. As strong and as powerful as his hand was, there was gentleness in his touch. His eyes captured and held her attention. So pale a gray, they seemed to burn with brilliance. She could not remember ever seeing such a shade, and the cool flashing depth within the crystalline orbs forewarned he meant her to obey him. “What is your name?”
Without further hesitation, she squeaked, “Rebecca.”
Though he stood far too close to be appropriate, she dared not move. He smelled of pine needles, earth, and tanned leather making the closeness not altogether unpleasant.
His eyes raked her face. “Rebecca…who?”
Feigning more fortitude than she felt, she managed, “And your name, sir?”
Ignoring her question, he continued. “Miss Rebecca Benton, you must have lost your mind, wandering away from the main road. If I were your husband, I would tan your backside for such stupidity.”
“Fortunately, for me, you are not…” she stammered.
“Unfortunately for me, you are now my problem.” As if bored, he dropped his hand from her chin and stepped back. “Sam.”
His attention seemed drawn elsewhere as he peered into the dense forest. “You may call me Sam” he repeated turning away. He pointed across a clearing. “I will see you to your sister’s home, but it is a hard journey, so we need to begin if you hope to make it tonight.”
With hardly a visible ray of light left, Rebecca looked around in wonderment. “Well, Mr. Sam, how do you expect us to proceed with no light?”
The man was already crossing the clearing. The effortlessness with which his long legs moved made it apparent, he felt quite comfortable in this darkening wilderness and determined to leave with or without her. Awarded no answer, Rebecca followed quickly, afraid to let him get too far ahead.
“Would you answer me?”
Her guide turned suddenly. Grabbing her arm, he hurled her into a thick group of bushes, dove in behind her, and sheltered her with his large body. His hand covered her mouth, and his eyes warned her to be silent. Not a moment later, harsh male voices grew closer.
“We took a grand booty this time,” one gruff voice muttered and then guffawed.
More voices joined laughing. By the sound of it, there were several. Sam lowered his face and rested his bristly cheek against hers as feet trampled the forest floor only a few feet from them. “Shhh,” he warned, letting his breath out slowly.
“To be sure,” another man hooted. “Should we stop here for the night?”
Hearing that, Rebecca stiffened. Sam lowered his full weight upon her. Looking at her, he lifted a finger of warning to his lips.
A gruff voice rose above the others. “No, we will go to the usual place and stop there. Keep moving.”
Rebecca let her breath out as the intruders crashed through the foliage. Even when the sound of their voices faded, and all became quiet again, Sam still did not remove his body from hers.
She pressed a knee upward and was about to give him a piece of her mind, but he covered her mouth just as more steps sounded in the distance. He pressed her to the ground until the night quieted once more.
Grabbing her wrists, he stood in one fluid movement, hauling her up with him. “Hurry. That way. Go.” he commanded in a harsh whisper. “Quickly, before we are found out.”
She slammed her hands to her hips refusing to budge. “Who were those men?”
His face contorted with apprehension as he shushed her, his voice only a hoarse whisper. “Thieving highwaymen. Hurry.”
He grasped her hand pulling her behind him. They ran for a long distance along a narrow path. The heaviness of Rebecca’s skirts hindered their progress, as she had to stop repeatedly to tug her hem out of thorny thickets.
The light of a lantern appeared on the trail ahead. Sam stopped abruptly listening. “We seem to have wandered into the highwaymen’s lair,” he whispered as he grabbed her hand and darted down another path.
In another half hour, it was dark save where the rising moon managed to shine through a break in the dense trees. Rebecca begged to stop. “I have to rest.”
With a grunt and arms akimbo, Sam obliged. “It is not safe to stop for long. “I do not think you will enjoy the hospitality of those criminals should they pick up our trail and discover there are witnesses to where their hideout is. We are not making enough progress. You must try harder to keep up.”
With nerves stretched taut, her ire peaked. By the time she answered, all but a slender thread of patience was gone. “I am doing the best I can. It would do you well to realize I am scared, exhausted, and hungry. We are running from thieves, my life depends on a man who is probably a criminal himself, and we are stomping through the thick of it with no regard that I am a woman. How can you expect me to keep up?”
Staring at her with blazing eyes, he repeated, “Damnation, woman. Do you have any idea what those men will do to you if they find us? What I do, is done to save your life.”
Rebecca put her face in her hands and wept out of sheer frustration. “Savage. I do not know how I can make this any clearer. I am exhausted.”
His hands flew up in frustration. “I, too, am doing the best I can…” He paced, rubbing his forehead, then stopped giving her stern perusal. “Perhaps your problem is your attire. If you could properly move your limbs, you might not be so slow or so tired.” A quick flick of his hand followed. “Stand up.”
Sore and weary, Rebecca did not care for his bossy, arrogant manner. But more than that, she did not like the way he looked at her. “Why?” she asked as he moved closer.
“There is not the time to argue over what must be done.”
“What must be done?”
“Forgive me, but those thieves could be upon us…”
“Forgive you for what?”
Sam grasped her wrists with one hand and yanked her to her feet. Determined gray eyes blazed into hers. “Still. Not one move.”
A flash in the darkness caught her attention. Light from the rising moon reflected from the surface of a knife aimed directly at her. Horror-stricken, she stiffened as he made several quick slices through the fabric at her waistline. Placing the blade between his teeth, he yanked the thick outer portion of her gown free of the bodice, leaving the much thinner undergarments of her skirt still intact.
A satisfied grin spread across his handsome features as he replaced the knife in a sheath on his side. “There,” he said, cocking his head sideways to admire his work.
Paralyzed with fear and sure he meant to kill her, Rebecca watched the remnants of her gown float to the ground. As she viewed the damage to what had been her most expensive traveling garment, she sprang to life with all the fury of a hellcat.
“Loathsome beast.” All the stress of the harrowing day rushed forth, and she lunged at him, bent on clawing his face.
Sam quickly warded off the attack. Crushing Rebecca against his chest, his large hands pinning her arms to her sides. Her struggles made him pull her closer, and his arms wound around her. This forced an uncomfortable awareness of his chiseled body where his broad ribcage flattened the mounds of her breasts, and powerful legs pressed against hers like bands of steel.
No man had ever held Rebecca in such an embrace. Moreover, without substantial clothing, she could feel every inch of his well-muscled torso. Her eyes widened. Not an expert on the male physique, she blushed profusely, instinctively aware the man who held her was indeed an excellent specimen.
With a tilt of his head, he seemed to be contemplating her with renewed interest. The pale gray eyes crinkled at the corners, and his lips curved into a smile. “First, a savage, now a beast, and all I am trying to do, girl, is save your spoiled life. We have a long, hard journey ahead of us, and I cannot carry you all the way. It is not my intention to hurt you, but you have to realize how dangerous a situation this is. I know you are scared and weary, but it is going to take cunning to get out of this alive. Promise me you will behave. Say ‘Yes’ and I will let you go.”
Rebecca quieted, reeling from the intimacy of the body molded to hers. A budding response, a tiny tingle bloomed deep within, bringing with it carnal stirrings entirely unfamiliar to Rebecca. Images of what he might look like—nude—flooded her mind and pinkened her cheeks.
Something akin to desire lit his translucent eyes. “Will you behave yourself?” he asked again.
Yanked from her naughty introspection, Rebecca nodded, mortified. “Yes, I promise.”
At her answer, Sam seemed to relax. Much kinder eyes gazed down at her. Rebecca stared back wide-eyed. His focus honed in on her mouth, and she found for the first time in her life, this most inappropriate time, she wanted a man to kiss her. When his mouth dipped closer, and his lips parted slightly, a dizzying thrill rushed through her making her forget all else. His lips were so near that their breaths mingled. In anticipation, Rebecca closed her eyes. Then abruptly, he released her with what felt much like a shove. Stepping back, his hands fell to tight fists at his sides. His features grew stern and the thrilling moment was gone.
“We best be on our way,” he growled with irritation. Without another word, he turned and strode away.
Rebecca blushed hotly. What just happened? Every feminine instinct—howbeit naïve—told her he had been about to kiss her, yet now he was stalking away. And what of the fact that she would have welcomed it?
The unnerving hoot of a nearby owl echoed in the darkness, rousing her to action. Gathering up the outer skirt of her ruined gown from the ground, she held it in place and scrambled after him. “You cannot mean for me to continue now that my gown is in pieces.”
“I can, and I do,” he answered without turning.
“You are a heartless savage.”
“Aye, I have been called worse,” he informed her, still moving away.
Giving up on the skirt, she stepped out of it and threw it around her shoulders like a cape. Scurrying behind the tall savage, she fumed in silence, careful not to let him get too far ahead in the darkness.
Though it peeved her to admit it, it was much easier to keep up with his long-legged gait without the hindrance of her skirts tangling around her legs. However, every step fueled vexation as thorny branches tore at her thighs.
© 2016 Leigh Lee