A year of mostly successful avoidance. And then he made the idiot mistake of letting her hold his dog. A lurcher pup bred too well for his own good, cornering the first snake he happened to meet.
Badger lay curled at the foot of the bed. Thorne glowered at the sleeping ball of fur. This is all your fault, I hope you know.
“You’re awake.” Soft footfalls crossed to the bedside. A cool hand pressed to his brow. “I’m here.”
“How long have I been insensible?”
“Since yesterday afternoon. It’s a few hours yet before dawn, I think.” She stroked the hair back from his brow. “Thank God your fever’s broken. And the swelling’s much improved.”
He let his head fall to one side and surveyed his condition. Most of his body was draped with a clean white linen sheet, save for his injured right arm, which lay atop the bedclothes. The tourniquet was gone. A fragrant plaster covered his wound, held in place with strips of flannel. His entire arm had been washed clean, and the swelling had abated. The discoloration remained, however—red streaks and purple-black bruises covered his skin. It looked as though his arm had been caught in a clothespress.
He’d lived through worse. His arm scarcely hurt anymore. Instead, it felt numb. He flexed his muscles, attempting to make a fist. His fingers gave a feeble twitch.
Then he tried once more to draw up his legs. Nothing. That worried him.
She brought a cup of tea to his lips. He bent his head and sipped. The infusion had an herbal, faintly familiar taste. He thought he recalled her spooning it through his cracked lips sometime during the night.
“You stayed by me,” he said. “All night.”
She nodded. “I could not have done otherwise.”
“I’m in your debt.”
“I’ll think of ways you can repay me.” She gave him a wry, cryptic smile.
He glanced down at his uncooperative limbs and hesitated. “I . . . I can’t move. I can’t move my body below the neck.”
She didn’t show quite the concern or dismay he might have expected. “Oh, I know you can’t.”
He frowned with confusion.
She reached for the edge of the linen and lifted it, so he might peer beneath. Several lengths of bedsheet and neckcloth were tied about his torso and left arm, lashing him to the bed.
Bindings. Now that he understood they were there, he could feel similar restraints on his legs. All the knots were well out of reach.
“Why would you do that?”
“At first, because you were thrashing so much.”
Damn it. If he’d lashed out at her while he was insensible, he’d never forgive himself.
“Did I—” The words stuck. He cleared his throat with a harsh, desperate cough. “Did I hurt you?”
“But you were delirious, and I worried you’d do yourself more harm. So I bound you. And then I left the bindings on because”—she replaced the linen sheet, brought a chair to the bedside and fixed him with a challenging look—”you have some explaining to do.”
His heart began to pound. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t you? When you fell ill yesterday, you did a great deal of talking. About you and me.”
“Must have been delirious.” He eyed the cup in her hand. “I’ll take some more of that tea, if you will.”
“Not just yet.” She balanced the pewter mug between her hands and twisted it back and forth. “You seemed to think we knew each other.”
“We do know each other.”
“In the past,” she said. “As children.”
A knot formed in his throat. He struggled harder against his bindings. “You must be confused. I don’t recall saying any such thing.”
“I thought that might be the case.” She set the mug aside and reached for a sheet of paper. “Fortunately, I wrote it all down.”
She smoothed flat the creases in the paper.
He strove to look bored.
She made her voice comically deep and gruff. In an imitation of him, he supposed. “ ‘You’ve done so well for yourself, Katie. If she could see you, she’d be so proud.’ ” She lowered the paper. “Who were you speaking of? Who would be proud?”
He shook his head. “You need to release me from these bindings so I can see you home. You’re overtired. You’re imagining things.”
She waved the paper at him. “I’m not imagining this!”
At her loud protest, the pup came awake.
“There was something about how you’d worried I might place you, remember you,” she went on. “You also mentioned that you could see down my bodice, and you told me I smelled like paradise.”
“So now we’re back to ‘Miss Taylor.’ What happened to ‘Katie’?” She peered at him. “That’s another odd thing, you know. My name is Katherine. My friends call me Kate. No one calls me Katie. At least, no one has since I was a very small child.”
“Release me.” He mustered his voice of command. “I’ll see you home. It’s not proper for you to be here with me. Most certainly not alone, at this hour.”
“I’m not going anywhere until you give me some answers.”
“Then you’ll be here a very long time.”
She could keep him here a month, and his resolve wouldn’t crumble. He’d endured much harsher prisons, with much less comely captors. He could hold out for years.
“How does your arm feel?” she asked, changing the subject.
“How does it feel? It feels like wood.”
“I did some more reading while you were asleep. You can expect it to be numb for a few days, at least.” Her skirts rustled as she swept to the other side of the bed. She produced a vial of oil and pulled out the stopper. Tilting the bottle, she poured a shilling-sized pool of liquid into her palm. “This will help with the stiffness, the book said. It’s only plain oil from your cooking stores. I’ll fetch something aromatic from Summerfield later.”
She set aside the vial and rubbed her hands together, spreading the oil over both palms. Then she laid her hands to his bare skin and began to massage his deadened flesh. Her deft fingers kneaded him, chasing away the stiffness in his forearm.
Unfortunately, the stiffness wasn’t leaving his body altogether. No, it was merely relocating—to his groin. Beneath the bedsheet a familiar heaviness gathered and swelled.
He groaned. “Stop that.”
“Is it too painful?”
No. It feels too good.
“Will it help if I sing to you?” she asked coyly. “The way you begged me to sing to you last night?” She hummed a lilting melody, then sang the words that he already knew. “ ‘See the garden of blossoms so fair . . .’ ”
He sighed and closed his eyes. God, he hated that song.
“ ‘Roses in bloom,’ ” she sweetly sang on, “ ‘orchids so rare.’ ”
“Stop,” he growled at her. “Enough.”
Her massaging hands swept down the length of his arm, all the way to the bandage at his wrist. She turned his arm palm side up and simply laid her fingers across his hand.
“I’ve been staring at you all night. Searching what few memories I have from my earliest years. The more I look at you, the more I feel like there’s a puzzle I should be solving. But the pieces just won’t come together in my mind. And if you won’t volunteer any information . . .”
He sucked in his breath.
“ . . . then I have no choice but to bring out my most ruthless means of extorting it.”
“You’re threatening me with ruthlessness,” he scoffed.
“Don’t you think I have it in me?”
She caught the hemmed edge of the bedsheet and whisked it all the way down to his waist. His bare chest was exposed to the firelight. Every mark, every tattoo, every ridge of scar tissue. He burned with the sensation of exposure. She didn’t appear shocked, however. Only curious, in a markedly sensual way. No doubt she’d had a good view of him earlier. He hated that tending his physical infirmity had robbed her of yet more innocence.
But the way she unconsciously wet her lips as she regarded him . . .
He didn’t have it in him to hate that.
She uncorked the vial again and held it over his chest, tilting it by slow degrees until a trickle of oil poured forth. She drizzled the slick liquid in a lazy line down the center of his chest. Bisecting his chest and abdominal muscles, skipping over the linen binding him to the bed, tracing the furrow of dark hair that arrowed straight for his groin.
Holy God. The image was perversely sensual. Just what mischief did she intend? If she dragged her soft hands down his bared, oiled chest, he would not have to worry about forced confessions. He’d combust on the spot, leaving behind nothing more blameworthy than ash.
“I have a way of getting you to talk.” Her mouth quirked in a cold smile. “Prepare yourself for my secret weapon.”
Thorne steeled his loins.
“Here he is.”
She caught the pup in both hands, lifting him to a position directly above Thorne’s glistening abdomen. That twitching dog nose hovered just an inch above his oil-filled navel.
Thorne’s abdominal muscles flinched. So this was her grand, malevolent plan. She was going to tickle the truth from him. With the dog.
“Little Badger has been here all night with us. With nothing to eat save an old rind of cheese he sniffed out in your cupboard.” She screwed up her face and spoke to the dog. “You’re very, very hungry, aren’t you, dear?”
“You wouldn’t,” said Thorne.
“Oh, just watch me.”
“Katie, don’t you dare.”
Her eyebrows soared. “Ah. Now we’re back to Katie? My tactic is working already.”
He firmed his jaw and glared at her. “If you had any idea the torments I’ve endured in my life, you would know—I will not be done in by a puppy.”
“Let’s just try it and see.”
Thorne inwardly cursed. He could not be done in by a puppy, but this woman . . . she was a true danger.
She made eye contact with him, direct and honest. “My whole life, I’ve searched for answers about my past. My whole life, Thorne. I will not rest until you tell me the truth.”
She lowered the pup another half inch.
A quiver pulsed through Thorne’s belly.
“Badger, no,” he commanded, even though he knew the futility of warning a dog off such behavior.
The dog was a dog. He barked. He chewed. He chased.
God have mercy.
Kate kept her first bout of torture brief. She lowered Badger for just a few seconds of enthusiastic tickling.
Thorne growled like an animal. An enraged animal. His nostrils flared. The muscles of his abdomen tensed in staggered rows, hard as cobblestones beneath his skin. Tendons stood out on his neck, and his good arm was solid flexed muscle, embossed with thickly pulsing veins.
Kate’s own breathing quickened. He was massive and strong and furious and utterly at her mercy. A beast, but a beautiful one.
Near giddy with power, she momentarily restrained the pup. “Had enough?”
His breathing was heavy, his voice a hoarse rasp. “Stop this. Stop this now.”
“Beg me for mercy.”
“The devil I will.”
She lowered the pup again. This time he strained and arched beneath the ropes so hard, he had the bed frame rocking to and fro. The entire bed scooted several inches across the floor. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead.
She gave him another brief reprieve. “How about now?”