Cade broke into a hard run.
KID-SKINNED BOOTS POUNDED THE FOREST FLOOR AS SHE WEAVED BETWEEN PINE AND BIRCH, PUSHED THROUGH BRUSH THICK ENOUGH TO SWALLOW A CHILD WHOLE.
Panic tripped reflexes, stretched muscle, drove beyond limits. Briars grabbed her clothes, ripped her face, but she felt no pain. Felt nothing but blood pounding in her ears, breath burning her lungs.
CADE HAD TAKEN CHANCES SHE COULD NOT AFFORD. SHE HAD KNOWN THE RISKS GOING INTO THIS. ALL FOR NOTHING NOW, AND NOW SHE WAS DONE IN.
Bolting through a sea of knee-high ferns, she leapt over a rotted log, landed in a stream and soaked her breeches clean through. She skidded over moss-covered rock, hurried up the opposite bank, and cut around a wall of yellow birch.
THE APPROACHING SOUND OF WOOD CREEK TOOK HER IN THE DIRECTION SHE HOPED WAS SOUTH. TO GET LOST OUT HERE WAS DEATH, NOT THAT IT SHOULD EVEN MATTER NOW. IT SHOULD NOT, YET STRANGELY, UNFORGIVABLY, DEATH NO LONGER SEEMED A VIABLE SOLUTION.
For over a year, it had been the symbol of sweet relief, an end to unjustified suffering. Now the possibility of death brought a stubborn will to live, an inexcusable mask over her immediate fear.
HAD SHE LOST HIM?
Blackflies clouded around her face. What seemed like a mile passed before she allowed herself to stop and listen. Her breath escaped her as heavy as a plow horse’s, yet she heard nothing else. No birds, no wind. No sign of him.
SWEAT DRIPPED INTO HER EYES AND STUNG THE SCRATCHES ON HER FACE, BUT SHE DID NOT MOVE. SHE DID NOT DARE.
She waited, watched. Nightfall clawed at the forest; dancing shadows which promised only fear.
Relief did not come directly. It never did. She had to coax it, convince herself it was all right, that she had survived.
NOT THAT SURVIVAL WAS DESERVED. CADE’S ACCURACY WITH A FIREARM HAD ALWAYS BEEN FLAWLESS. SHE HAD ONLY MAIMED GREY WITH A SLIGHT ARM WOUND. HE HAD BLED LIKE A STUCK HOG, BUT IT WAS NOT ENOUGH. NOT ENOUGH BECAUSE HE WOULD SURVIVE FROM IT. HOW SHE COULD MANAGE SUCH TERRIBLE AIM, SHE COULD ONLY BLAME ON NERVES.
And fear, of course, was inexcusable. She would have to go back. She had no other solution, no choice. Grey could not possibly be allowed to live, though death was too good for him. Hell was too good for him.
SHE WOULD HAVE TO GO BACK BEFORE NIGHTFALL, AND SHE WOULD HAVE TO FIND WHERE SHE HAD DROPPED HER MUSKET, ANOTHER FOOLISH MISHAP ON HER PART. AND SHE WOULD BE CAREFUL THIS TIME.
And Grey would be dead by dawn.
RELIEF SLOWLY BEGAN TO WASH OVER HER AT THE PROSPECTS OF A SECOND CHANCE. SHE WAS DOING THE RIGHT THING, AND ALL WOULD WORK OUT FINE. SHE WOULD GO BACK, FINISH GREY OFF, THEN SHE COULD GO HOME AND—
Cade heard the shot before she felt the pain. The sound cracked her skull, rattled her ribcage. Smoke immediately blinded her as pungent, acidic sulfur stung her nose.
ONE MOMENT NOTHING, THE NEXT: A RED AND GOLD PAINTED DEMON APPEARED OUT OF SMOKE AND SHADOW.
One of Grey’s men. Well over six feet tall. His red British jacket was stark contrast against the shadowed forest.
CADE STUMBLED BACKWARD, INSTINCTIVELY REACHED FOR HER MUSKET, WHICH WAS NOWHERE TO BE FOUND. SHE TUGGED ASIDE THE TURNBACKS OF HER COAT AND PULLED HER DAGGER FROM THE SHEATH THAT WAS STRAPPED TO HER THIGH.
Panic rushed into her ears, through her brain, fast, faster, clouding the veil between wake and unconscious.
SHE HAD ONLY FAINTED ONCE BEFORE, WHEN SHE HAD RECEIVED THE NEWS THAT HAD CHANGED HER LIFE. AT THE TIME, SHE HAD NOT REALIZED WHAT WAS HAPPENING WHEN BLACKNESS OVERTOOK HER. THEN SHE HAD WOKEN WITH BEN’S TWO FRIENDS, HIS FATHER AND BROTHER KNEELING OVER HER, REPEATING THE HORRIBLE NEWS.
Sharp, searing pain cut her arm and down into her hand, the opposite one with which she gripped the knife. Her lungs burned, not just from running. This was liquid fire melting her from the inside out. Slicing open her heart and lying it bare.
SHE STAGGERED PAST A CLUMP OF FERNS, NEARLY LOST HER BALANCE, AND RIGHTED HERSELF. THE REDCOAT CAME AT HER, ALL SIX FEET OF HIM IN THREE LONG EASY STRIDES; A HUNTER READY TO FINISH HIS KILL. HE MADE NO SOUND, NO EXPRESSION, DID NOT EVEN MEET HER GAZE. HE WAS ON A MISSION, AND SHE WAS CLEARLY TAKING TOO MUCH OF HIS TIME.
Cade stared: black eyes, black hair just grazing his shoulders. He wore buckskin leggings, a string of beads and a gold medallion against his bare chest.
REALIZATION BROUGHT ABOUT SURPRISE, EVEN IN DYING. HE WAS INDIAN, NOT ONE OF GREY’S SOLDIERS.
Shock became victory mixed with the overwhelming sense of loss. She had failed at killing Grey, but Grey’s men had not been able to catch her, at least. No, instead she had stumbled upon the path of an Indian who would finish her off.
THE INDIAN GRABBED HER SHOULDER, YANKING HER CLOSE. BEFORE HE COULD FINISH HER, CADE THRUST HER BLADE INTO HIS BICEP, BURYING IT ALL THE WAY TO THE HILT. HE RELEASED HER, SHOUTED SOMETHING SHE COULD NOT UNDERSTAND.
She tried to run, stumbled, fought to stand. Blood soaked her coat, ran off her fingers. It spotted the ferns at her feet.
SHE TOOK ONE LAST LOOK AT HER KILLER. HE WAS PULLING THE BLADE FROM HIS ARM.
Then all went black.