There was nothing in the way of a modern convenience at the Cornish farm. Rees’s hands slipped on the well crank twice before Theo brushed her not-so-sweetly out of the way and brought the water up himself.
“I can do it,” she protested.
His answer was a disbelieving grunt as he emptied the bucket into one of the two he’d brought outside and dropped it down the well again. His shirt was the same thin roughspun as Liam’s, only light. It had been white once, a long time ago. It clung to the perspiration down the backs of his lean arms.
His silence, the sheer boldness of him – following her out here, pushing her aside, acting not at all like any sort of gentlemanly southerner, his being here in the first place – pricked at her temper. She was still frightened, she was hungry, and she was close to tears with nerves, staggering under the weight of all that had happened in just a week’s time; and now this sullen, bearded stranger with wolfish green eyes was treating her like a prisoner in her own home.
“I said I’d do the stitches,” she said, folding her arms beneath her breasts. “I only came out for the water; I wasn’t going to run away and leave my sisters alone with the two of you.”
“Good.” He poured into the second bucket, gathered up both and turned back toward the house. “But I’ll be damned if I trust some big-mouthed little bitch I just met.”
That’s what he’d called her. The Yankee. She could smell the hot stink of his breath; could remember the feel of him on top of her, the warm slide of his blood between her fingers and down the front of her last good dress. The copper smell of it had burned the insides of her nostrils, embedding itself deep in her head. He was there in every nightmare, every shadow, every stray leaf tumbling down the road, making her jump. Bitch, he’d said in her ear, and her answer had been the kiss of steel through his throat.
She sidestepped in front of him, tilting her head all the way back so she could make eye contact. The hand she brought up against his chest was fruitless, but he pulled to a halt, water slopping. His scowl would have frightened her…before. But not after what had happened to her. Now, her terror was a part of a larger, more urgent anger that came bubbling up the back of her throat.
“No!” she said, and his frown was full of confusion.
Because I can, she thought wildly. Just because I can say it. She took a breath.
“No, you look! I am not – not some…lady of the evening…you paid for a ride! You will not call me that!”
“What?” He flashed a tight, mocking smile. “Bitch?”
“You won’t,” she said through her teeth.
“How’s a girl,” he said, leaning low over her, evening sun catching flecks of gold in his eyes, pressing shadows into the lines around his brows, “with nothing but a coupla teacups to her name get such high ideas about herself? In case you hadn’t noticed, honey, you’re just as dirt poor as me.”
“And since when does that give a man a right to act like an animal? Everybody’s poor,” she spat. “But you don’t have to lose all sense of decency.”
“Decency?” His brows went up and the mocking smile twisted. “Tell you what: I’ll treat you decent when you act decent.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
He snorted. “I’ve known ladies of the evening with better manners than you.” And he stepped around her and kept walking toward the house.
“You-you’re horrible,” she said as she hurried to keep up with him, too incensed to come up with a proper insult. “And…and you smell, and you most likely have lice too.”
“Want to check for me?”
“I should never have let you come in the house. You–”
He moved too fast for her to comprehend. Water sloshed over her shoes as the buckets slammed to the ground and before she could move away, he had her forearm clamped against his much harder one, his grip on her elbow painful. All pretext of humor had abandoned him as his face crowded hers; he was coldly serious, his intensity sending anxious tremors all through her. Don’t poke the bear, she’d told Annabel, and here she’d just wacked it upside the head with a forge hammer. Never in her life had she seen a man look so stern, so focused, so threatening. Her pulse slammed hard in her ears, drowning out the evening sounds around them, leaving only enough space for their words.
“Now you listen to me,” Theo said, voice low and urgent. “You can hate me all you want. Pretty sure I hate you too. But Liam” – he swallowed – “he’s bad cut up, and I’d sew him myself if I wouldn’t do a butcher’s job of it. If you can stitch him closed nice and neat – and keep real quiet about it – then we’ll owe you. Do you get that?” He gave her a gentle shake. “You girls don’t have enough firewood to get through the night and you don’t have any shot for the rifle” – she shivered again to realize that he knew she’d been essentially unarmed – “so having Liam Bennet owe you is a place you want to be in. Understand?”
There was a lump in the back of her throat. Her eyes burned. She was just so tired, and so scared, and she didn’t want to do any of this. “M-my sisters,” she stammered, “are only girls and they’re-they’re not married and I just…”
Understanding dawned in him; his features softened as he sighed loudly through his nostrils. His hand stayed on her elbow, but his grip became gentle. “Nothing’s gonna happen to your sisters. I promise you that. We didn’t come here to bloody virgins.” Another shake, this one more of a squeeze. “Yeah? I might smell and I might have lice, but I’m not so bad as all that.”
Rees took a deep breath and let it out in a rush, trying to gather her scattered emotions. She was mortified to be this near tears in front of this man, and was both touched and relieved by what he’d said.
“Promise,” he added.
Another breath. “I…” He let go of her and she dashed her hand beneath her nose. “I don’t have very good thread.”
He shrugged as he picked the buckets back up. “If it’s clean, then it’s better than what I was gonna use.”