A shiver of heat splashed through Amanda when the stranger’s gaze raked the partially dried hair scattered around her face and shoulders. His attention dipped, lazily taking in the water-darkened bodice of her cream-colored shirtwaist and the dark rose skirt that clung to her hips like a clammy second skin. She’d heard rumors of men who could strip a woman bare with one smoldering glance, but she’d never met one who would dare. Until now.
As the man’s attention poured over her, Amanda had the unpleasant feeling he could see right through the saturated barrier of cloth. A warm, tight sensation curled in the pit of her stomach: unfamiliar, alarming. She tipped her chin up defensively. Crossing her arms over her chest, she cut his lewd investigation short. His gaze took its sweet time lifting to hers.
His grey eyes shimmered in the mid-morning sunlight, telling her it was far too late for modesty. His appreciative expression said something else again; that he’d already decided what “type” of lady she was… and that he could tolerate her sort with little trouble.
“I suppose you’ll be wanting my help now, ma’am?” The way his tongue wrapped around the word “ma’am” sent an odd, warm-cold tremor down Amanda’s spine. Somehow, he made it sound less like a title and more like a sensual endearment.
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” she replied stiffly, and thought, why not? Her left leg throbbed from supporting her idle weight for so long. She was wet and chilled to the bone. She knew if she didn’t allow this man to help her, she might never get out of this frigid water.
He nodded and turned his attention to Roger. “Go find some sticks and get a fire started. Don’t skimp; I want it blazing. The lady’s going to need all the heat she can get once she’s out of there. And get some blankets, too. All you can spare. There’s a couple rolled and tied on my horse. Use them.”
Roger’s golden brows slashed high, disappearing beneath the curls that kissed his forehead. He glanced up at the stranger as though the man had lost all grip on reality.
“You want me to do what?”
“Get a fire started,” the man gritted impatiently, even as he sank to the ground and began yanking off his knee-high moccasins.
“What the hell are you waiting for, kid? I want that fire started, and I want it started now!”
It must have been the ring of authority in the man’s voice, Amanda decided. Either that, or the veiled threat glistening in his eyes. Whatever the reason, Roger spun on his heel and sprinted into the woods with unheard-of speed.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, princess,” the man said as, lithely pushing to his feet, he took a step toward the river. His attention rose from the spot where the water lapped at her hips. His gaze ascended—slowly, hotly—over her breasts, her shoulders, her chin, and lips.
Finally, he locked onto her fear-widened eyes. In that instant, Amanda knew why Roger had run. If her foot wasn’t stuck, she would do the same thing. The savage glint in the man’s eyes, coupled with his insolent perusal, had a terrifying affect on her.
“You have a name?” His question was instantly followed by a loud splash. He’d just taken his first swaggering stride into the icy river.
“O-of course.” Closing her eyes, Amanda stifled a groan in the back of her throat. Her voice deserted her. Not for all the money in the world could she have forced her eyes open at that moment, forced herself to watch as that dangerous-looking man stalked toward her like a hungry wolf hunting down its trapped, defenseless prey.
You going to tell me what it is?”
His voice was closer. Amanda thought that reason enough not to answer him. That, and the feel of the water being disturbed around her. The icy current lapped at her stomach. She rolled her lips inward and ordered herself not to shiver. It wouldn’t do for this man to think her tremors were caused by his nearness and not the water’s numbing coldness. And he was near. She could sense it, feel it.
“Okay, princess, let me put it another way. You want to get out of this river any time soon?”
Amanda’s eyes snapped open. A split second too late, she realized it for the mistake it was. The stranger was standing close. Too close. The span of his shoulders and chest cast a chilly shadow over her, blotting out the warmth of the late morning sun, blotting out everything.
The water was cold, but it would have needed to be covered with a thick sheet of ice to counterbalance the intense male heat his lean body radiated. The earthy, leather-and-spice smell of him surrounded her, seeped through her, seeped into her. The scent warmed her blood, thawing what Amanda had begun to think would be an everlasting chill.
She didn’t feel chilled right now. Just the opposite; she’d never felt so hot in her life! The man angled his head to look down at her, and Amanda saw that he’d removed his hat. His straight black hair scattered flatteringly around his face.
The breeze tossed the inky strands around his shoulders. Her gaze picked out a thin, tight braid, no thicker than her pinkie, woven into the underside of his hair, just behind his left ear. She trailed the braid down to a small brown feather, anchored by a leather thong tied to the end of it. On another man, that braid would have looked more than odd; it would have looked feminine. She wondered why it didn’t work that way on him.
“Well, what’s it going to be, princess?” he asked, his warm breath puffing over her cheeks.
“The way I see it, you’ve only got two choices. Either you stand there gawking at me all day, or you answer my question so I can dig you out. I’d say it’s your call.”
Question? she thought dazedly. Had he asked her a question? Maybe. She couldn’t remember. It was hard to remember her name with him standing so close. Amanda told herself her lengthy stay in the water had warped her mind as well as her fingertips, but she wasn’t convinced.
No, more likely it was seeing the man’s eyes up close that robbed her of the will to speak… as well as a good deal of breath! His eyes weren’t grey, as she’d first thought, but a rich, smoky silver. The intensity of his gaze was enhanced by a fringe of thick, sooty lashes, and emphasized by his deep copper skin.
“Guess I was wrong. Looks like you don’t want out after all,” he said as, tearing his gaze from hers, he pivoted and began wading back the way he’d come. Only after his body heat—the smell of him, the confusion of him—had been removed, did Amanda shake herself to her senses. By that time he was climbing lithely onto the grassy riverbank.
“Wait, Mr….!” He didn’t turn around.
“Un-uh. That was my question, princess. And until you answer it, you’re staying put.”
Amanda blinked hard. That was it? All he wanted was for her to tell him her name and then he’d help her out? That seemed reasonable enough. No, it wasn’t reasonable at all! A gentleman would never leave a lady stranded in the middle of frigid water merely because she hadn’t supplied her name the second he’d snapped his fingers and demanded it.
Then again… Her gaze narrowed on his back, on the way the tough denim pants clung wetly to his heavily muscled thighs and calves. She reassessed. This was definitely no gentleman. Her deduction had nothing to do with his native heritage. It had everything to do with the way he dressed—truly, those pants were indecent!—and the way he walked—make that swaggered. His every move screamed arrogance and authority.
Which would have been fine, were it an unintentional, spontaneous thing. It wasn’t. Amanda had a gut-feeling this man knew exactly what kind of cocky, insolent impression he made on people, and that he played it to the hilt. When he turned his head and regarded her from over one shoulder, Amanda knew she was right. She also had an uneasy feeling that he knew what she was thinking.
“Change your mind yet?” As he spoke, he sat down in the grass and reached for his moccasins, although he made no move to tug them on. Yet. The enormity of what he was doing hit Amanda like a slap. She glared at him. “You aren’t really going to leave me here, are you? Just because I wouldn’t tell you my name?”
He tipped his head to one side. A lock of black hair fell forward on his brow when he shrugged.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t think you’d dare.”
“Then you don’t know me very well.”
Her chin tipped haughtily. “I don’t know you at all.”
“We could do something about that.”
Was it possible for a grin to be devastating yet emotionless at the same time? Amanda wouldn’t have thought so—until she saw the proof of it with her own eyes. Her heart flipped over in her chest, its tempo hammering in her ears. Her trembling fingers closed around the water near her hips in empty fists.
“That wasn’t very nice,” she snapped, and stifled a groan when his grin only broadened.
The smile, she noted, didn’t reach his eyes. They remained narrow and frosty.
“I’m not a very nice person,” he said.
“Ask anyone, they’ll tell you.”
As though to prove it, he started tugging on his moccasins. When he was done, he pushed to his feet. In the same fluid movement he swiped up his hat and settled it atop his head. He pinched the low-riding brim between his index finger and thumb, nodded to her in mock politeness, then turned and walked toward the trees.
Amanda blinked hard. Dear God, the man really was going to desert her. The rotten bastard! She didn’t realize she’d said the words aloud until she saw him stop. His shoulders squared. His back stiffened. Even from this distance, she could see tension pull the muscles in his back, shoulders, and arms taut.
Come again, princess?”
Since it was too late to deny it—the damage was already done—Amanda sucked in a deep breath and repeated herself, loudly, and clearly enough so he would have no doubt as to what she’d just called him. “Goddamn. That’s what I thought you said.”
He sucked in a sigh and released it in a slow hiss. Then he shook his head—regretfully? she doubted it—and plucked off the hat. With a flick of his wrist, he sent it hurling to the grass.
“Guess I’m going have to fetch you out of there after all.”
There was something in his tone—too calm, too leashed—that sent a shiver down her spine. Amanda couldn’t pinpoint the underlying emotion he’d stressed, and, as she watched him again tug off the deerskin moccasins, she stopped trying.
Before she knew it, he was trudging through the water toward her. Forcing herself not to shiver in dread took all her concentration. Wondering what had made him change his mind, she glanced up. He glanced down.
Silver and green warred, and in that instant Amanda knew exactly why he’d decided to free her. His eyes were narrowed to steely slits. His jaw was bunched hard, and a muscle ticked beneath the high copper plane of his cheekbone. As she watched, his lips thinned into a tight, uncompromising line. Calling him a bastard had hit a sore spot with him. The man was quietly furious.
Worse—much, much worse—all that tightly leashed anger was directed at her. The knowledge seemed a good enough reason for Amanda to flinch when he stopped so close his chest threatened to graze the very tips of her breasts. “I-I’ll tell you my name,” she offered, and winced when her voice squeaked.
“Don’t bother. Where are you stuck?”
Swallowing hard, she fixed her gaze on one of the flat metal buttons trailing down his shirt. As for the tight bands of muscle rippling beneath the dark blue cloth… well, she refused to notice them at all. “Amanda Lennox. That’s my name.”
“That’s dandy. I repeat: Where are you stuck?” His hand came out of nowhere. His index finger hooked under her chin, dragging her gaze up. His warm, sweet breath blasted over her face when he said, “Better give some thought to answering me this time, princess. You’ve got exactly ten seconds to tell me what’s going on under this water. After that, my hands start doing some exploring of their own.”