Excerpt from Lone Star Heiress
In a matter of seconds, Mitch knelt beside the all-too-still form, checking for signs of life. When he saw the rise of her chest, his frenetic heartbeat slowed slightly. But he refocused immediately. He needed to find out just how badly she was hurt.
His breath caught for a moment as he spotted reddish stains on her shirt and hands. But a heartbeat later he realized they came from berries, not blood.
Why was she out here alone, and why was she dressed as a boy?
He shoved that thought aside-there would be time later for those questions, once he'd made certain she was okay.
It was his fault she'd fallen. He hadn't intended to startle her, but that didn't absolve him of the fact that he had. He of all people knew that actions often had unanticipated consequences. He also knew his imposing size could make strangers uncomfortable at the best of times. For a lone female who wasn't expecting him-even one dressed as a boy-his arrival must have been a shock.
She stirred and he turned his attention to her face, only now taking in her physical appearance. Her nose and cheeks were dusted with a liberal sprinkling of freckles, giving her a youthful look. Her still-closed eyes were partially covered by a fringe of reddish brown hair that had escaped her braid. He absently brushed the tendrils away from her face and was rewarded with a grimace and a soft moan, welcome signs that she was regaining consciousness.
"Easy," he said, still uncertain of her condition..
She started at the sound of his voice, and her eyes flew open, regarding him with wide-eyed confusion and uncertainty. The deep clover-green of her irises startled him momentarily. They were the most amazingly intense eyes he'd ever seen.
"Are you hurt?" He kept his voice calm, trying not to further alarm her.
"I don't…my head hurts, but I think I'm okay."
She made as if to sit up, but he placed a hand on her shoulder, gently restraining her. "Easy now. Take a minute before you move around too much."
She gave him a peevish frown. "I need to sit up-the ground's wet."
That's what she was worried about? Probably still addled from the fall. "I understand, but let's check you out first."
The suspicion in her expression deepened, and she attempted to put more distance between them. "I can check my own self, thank you."
Though her words were assertive, her tone was slurred and she seemed none too steady. He didn't want to agitate her further, however, so he nodded.
"All right, but if you insist on sitting up, at least let me assist you." He placed a hand at her elbow and helped her up, keeping close watch for signs of injuries or weakness. Once he was sure she wouldn't fall over again, he eased back on his haunches, ignoring the dampness seeping through the knees of his pants, trying to maintain a non-threatening pose.
As soon as he moved back, she pulled a knife from somewhere and had it unsteadily pointed at his chest. "If you're thinking to rob me, mister, you should know I don't have much worth stealing, but what's mine is mine."
The dog, alerted by her tone, stiffened and bared its teeth at him.
"Whoa, there." Mitch threw his hands up, palms out, trying to assure her he wasn't a threat. The knife, while not especially large, looked sharp enough to do some damage. And although he was quite certain he could take it from her with little effort, he didn't want to do that unless he had to. "I just want to make certain you're okay, nothing more." She placed her free hand on the dog's back, but he had no illusions she was restraining him.
"I'm talking about before that. Why were you sneaking up on me that way?"
"I didn't sneak up on you. I happened on you while looking for the mulberry trees. My apologies if you were startled."
She blinked those amazing eyes as if trying to clear her vision, and the trembling in her hand grew more pronounced. Was it due to pain? Or weakness?
"Are these trees on your place?" she asked. "`Cause I didn't mean to trespass."
Trespassing should be the least of her worries right now. He didn't like the slur that had crept into her voice. Time to be firm, for her own good. "We can discuss all that later. Right now I need to know if you're badly hurt."
She still didn't lower the knife, though the effort seemed to cost her. But her left hand moved from the dog to the back of her head. "I…my head-" She pulled her hand back and stared at it as if it belonged to someone else.
It was stained with blood.
Mitch bit off an oath. "You are hurt. Let me have a look." He moved in closer, and she quickly raised the knife to block him, swaying slightly with the effort. Her dog let out a warning growl.
This girl had more spunk than sense. "I'm only trying to take a look at your injury-that's all. You're bleeding and it's not something you can tend to yourself."
Without a word, she nodded, her gaze never leaving his face.
Keeping his moves slow and smooth, he shifted to get a better look, ignoring the knife that unsteadily tracked his movements. A patch of blood on the back of her head stained her hair, matting it against her scalp. The wet, muddy ground she'd been lying on hadn't helped matters any either. He tried gently parting the hair but couldn't see much beyond the blood.
He moved to face her again, and realized she'd closed her eyes. Had his ministrations hurt her?
But a moment later her eyes opened with obvious effort and her gaze held a question.
"I'm going to get my canteen so I can clean this up and get a better look. Try not to move."
She nodded wearily, then winced. "There's a shallow creek just beyond those trees." Her voice sounded strained and pain shadowed her expression.
He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile, crossed his fingers that she'd be all right until he returned, then sprinted back to Seeley.
Snatching up his canteen and the small cloth bag he'd intended to put the berries in, he quickly headed back, only detouring once when he saw her own canteen amongst her things.
Mitch pulled out his handkerchief as he knelt beside her again. Her hand was back on the dog's neck, but now she seemed to be using it for support rather than restraint. Not a good sign. Still, her stoicism and ability to keep her wits under the circumstances was commendable.
"I'll be as gentle as I can," he said as he wet the cloth.
She tried to raise the knife again. With a sigh, he wrested it from her in one quick move, then set it carefully out of her reach.
He regretted the spark of fear he saw in her eyes. "I'm sorry," he kept his tone matter-of-fact, "but I can't have you hurting either yourself or me while I'm focused on fixing you up."
She watched his every move, and he saw the caution and uncertainty she was trying to hold at bay.
"I guess I should introduce myself," he said, hoping to distract her. "Mitch Parker, at your service."
"Ivy Feagan." She offered her name reluctantly, then he heard a quick intake of breath as he dabbed at the cut. She indicated the dog. "This here is Rufus." Her voice had a note of challenge in it.
Good. He preferred bravado to fear.