Sorry I’ve been away so long! I left you stuck with that shackling scene forever. Not deliberate, I assure you. I find it very hard to keep the flow of my story in mind when I'm doing other things. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks realizing I need to rework aspects of Striking Distance, freaking out over that realization, and then getting down to work.
This time, I really had to pull out all the stops to figure out what I needed to change, even hanging a clothesline across my living room and putting note cards on it with clothes pins.
I finally came to grips with the situation, went back to Chapter 1 — yes, Chapter 1 — and included an element of backstory I hadn’t wanted to include because it was just too emotional. It took an email from a friend who independently came up with the same backstory element and suggested I consider it — to which I replied “NO!” — for me to realize that this just had to be the way it was.
Now I’m back up to Chapter 3. And when is this book due? Now?
But in the midst of this, I got an email from my wonderful editor sharing with me the art for the reissue of Ride the Fire, which may be my best book of all time. Everything about that story was inspired, every moment on the page clear. I wrote it in five months while working full time — close to a record for me. And when I was done, I was so devastated by the emotional toll of the story that I could do nothing but cry for six weeks. I was a hot mess.
Ride the Fire has been out of print since I got the rights to the story back from Dorchester, which originally published it in 2005. This version will include the as-yet-unwritten epilogue, as well as some tweaks to bring it into alignment with the author’s cut of Carnal Gift. If you remember, Dorchester cut 100 pages out of Carnal Gift to make it fit the company's maximum page count. It broke my heart and really hurt the story. It also made me revise Ride the Fire before I was even finished with it. When I self-published Carnal Gift, I restored those pages, but that meant that Ride the Fire was now out of sync.
When this version of Ride the Fire is released in February 2013, the Kenleigh-Blakewell trilogy will be as I intended it to be. The first two books are available as ebooks. Ride the Fire is being published by Berkley so it will be in both print and ebook format.
So how about an excerpt from Ride the Fire?
Here’s when Nicholas met Bethie....
Elspeth Stewart woke with a start, heart racing.
She rose as quickly as she could, grabbed the rifle, which sat, primed and ready, next to the bed.
If it was the same vixen that had harried them yesterday, she would shoot, and this time she wouldn’t miss.
And if it were Indians or renegade soldiers?
Her mouth went dry.
Quickly, quietly she crossed the wooden floor of the cabin that was her home, lifted the heavy bar from the door and slowly opened it, dread like ice in her veins. Outside it was still dark, the first light of dawn only a hint in the eastern sky. She peered past the door toward the poultry pens and saw a small honey-colored fox dart into the underbrush.
In a warm rush of relief, Elspeth stepped quickly onto the porch, raised the rifle, cocked it, fired. A yelp, followed by silence, told her she had hit her mark.
She stepped back inside long enough to put down the rifle, put on her cloak and slip into her boots — she had taken to sleeping fully clothed since Andrew’s death, but that didn’t include boots — before going outside to see what damage had been done.
The vixen lay dead in the bushes. Its teats were swollen with milk, and Elspeth felt an unexpected pang of empathy with the dead animal. It had only been trying to eat so that it could feed its new litter of kits.
She pressed a hand protectively to her rounded belly. In a few weeks, a month at most, she would be doing the same. Which is why she needed to protect the geese and chickens, she thought, brushing aside her sentimental response.
She squatted down, picked the vixen up by its tail and carried it away. She didn’t want the smell to attract bears or wolves.
When she returned, the geese were still honking and flapping angrily about, but there were no bloody wings, no broken feathers that she could see. Andrew’s fence had held.
“Quit your flaffin’!” she scolded. She wasn’t truly angry with them. Geese were better than dogs when it came to alerting their masters to danger. Her life — and that of her unborn baby — might well depend on them one day.
As it was so close to dawn and she’d be getting up soon anyway, Elspeth decided to start her morning chores. She fed the geese and chickens, gathered the few eggs that had been laid and set off to the cowshed for the morning milking. By the time the animals had been fed and Rona and Rosa, her two mares, had been led out into the paddock, the sun had risen behind a heavy blanket of clouds, and the air smelled of lingering winter.
She drew water from the well and carried it inside to heat for washing and for her morning porridge. She had just stepped through the door, when she saw the fire had died down to embers and needed wood. But there was no firewood stacked in the corner. And then she remembered.
She hadn’t had time to split more wood for the fire yesterday and had been so tired after supper that she had fallen asleep at the table, leaving the chore undone.
Her stomach growled.
“Well, Bethie, you cannae be expectin’ the wood to chop itself.” She lifted the heavy water bucket onto the table, took the ax from its resting place beside the fire, went back out into the chilly morning.
The woodpile stood on the west side of the house, and it was dwindling. She hadn’t worked out how she was going to fell trees by herself; that was a problem for another day. She awkwardly lifted a large piece of wood onto an old stump, hoisted the ax and swung. The ax cut halfway through the wood, stuck. She pried it loose, swung again. The wood flew into two pieces.
In the two months since Andrew’s passing, she had gotten better at chopping firewood. She no longer missed and sometimes even managed to split the wood with one blow as Andrew had done. Still, it was an exhausting chore, one she did not enjoy.
How long could she last out here alone? The question leapt, unbidden and unwelcome, into her mind. It was followed by another.
Where could she go?
She lifted another piece of wood onto the stump, stepped back, swung and soon found herself in a rhythm.
Perhaps after the baby was born she could go to Fort Pitt or one of the other forts and find work there. At least she and the baby would be safe from Indians and wild animals. But would there be other women? Would they be safe from the soldiers?
Perhaps she could journey to Harrisburg or even to Philadelphia. But that meant traveling for weeks alone through wild country, across the mountains, over rivers and through farmsteads. The very idea of swimming across rivers with her baby or sleeping in a bedroll in the open without the protection of four sturdy walls terrified her.
One thing was certain: She could not go home.
Nor could she stay here forever. She’d managed well enough so far, but what would she do when it came time to plant crops? Could she manage the plough? And what of the harvest? Could she care for her baby, harvest the crops, slaughter the hogs, make cider and salt the meat all at the same time? Her days had been full and long when Andrew had yet lived. How could she manage to do both his chores and hers with a newborn?
And what would she do when her time came?
She’d never given birth before, never seen a baby born. And though she’d helped cows to calve, she knew having babies was different for women. Would she know what to do? Would both she and her baby survive the travail?
And then there was the threat of Indians and others who prowled the frontier. Few families had escaped unscathed during this war. Men, women and children had been butchered like cattle — shot or burned alive and scalped by Indians fighting for the French. A family only a few miles to the north had been attacked at midday while working in their fields. The oldest sons had been killed and scalped, the daughters and younger boys kidnapped. They’d found the oldest daughter several miles away a few days later. She’d been tied to a tree, her body consumed first by fire, then by wild animals.
Of course, Indians weren’t the only two-legged danger. Criminals flocked to the frontier, eager to escape the gallows. Deserters, too, hid in the forests, both French and English. Everyone knew of the family near Paxton that had welcome two travelers to sleep before their hearth one evening, only to be murdered in their beds.
Andrew had done his best to protect her from these dangers. But he had died just after Christmas of a lingering fever. Although Bethie had tried everything she knew to save him — every poultice, every herb, every draught — he was not a young man and had died one night in his sleep while she sat beside him and held his hand. Already in her seventh month, she had barely managed to dig a shallow grave for him in the frozen earth.
She hadn’t had a night’s sleep since, waking to every sound with her heart in her throat.
There was one other possibility, of course, one she almost refused to consider. She could try to find another husband. After the baby was born, she could ride to the nearest settlement, visit the church or meetinghouse and tell the minister that she was widowed and needed to find a husband. But would they help her? Would any man want both her and her child? And if she did find a husband, would she regret it?
Her mother, widowed when Bethie’s father was killed by a falling log, had found Malcolm Sorley in much the same way. A big man with a dour temperament and fists like hams, he’d moved with his bully of a son, Richard, into the cabin that had once been a happy home and had done his best to beat the fear of God into his new wife and stepdaughter. Bethie had done her best to avoid the rages of her new father, but Malcolm Sorley had left his share of welts and bruises on her. Then he had turned her mother against her.
Richard had done far worse.
And while a husband brought protection, marriage brought duties that pleased her not at all. She had no desire to lay beneath a man, to feel him touch her, to feel him inside her. If she could devise it, she would be content to live as a widow for the rest of her life.
And so Bethie arrived at the same stalemate she always came to whenever she allowed herself to think of the days ahead. There was no place for her to go and no way she could safely stay.
Coming to the frontier had been Andrew’s idea, not hers. And though he had been kind to her and had taken her from a living hell, she found herself feeling angry with him for deserting her and her baby to this life of fear and doubt.
She rested the ax on the ground, out of breath, her arms and lower back aching, glad to find a good stack of wood already piled on the ground beside her. It was enough to last her the rest of the day and the night, but she would need to chop more this afternoon if she didn’t want to be in the same state tomorrow morning.
She rubbed a soothing hand over her belly, felt her baby kick within her. Then she squatted down and picked up as many pieces as she could carry. She stepped around to the front of the cabin, her arms full, and froze, a scream trapped in her throat.
A man on horseback.
He sat on a great chestnut stallion only a few feet away from the cabin’s door, stared down at her through cold eyes, pistol in hand.
The firewood fell from her arms forgotten. She glanced wildly about for the rifle, realized the she had left it inside the cabin. A deadly mistake?
She forced herself to meet his gaze, tried to hide her fear, the frantic thrum of her heartbeat a deafening roar.
Where had he come from? Why hadn’t she heard him? And the geese — why had they made no sound?
He was an Indian. He must be to have crept up on her so quietly. Dressed in animal hides with long black hair and sun-browned skin, he certainly looked like an Indian. But his eyes were icy and blue as a mountain lake, and most of his face was covered with a thick, black beard.
Heart pounding a sickening rhythm in her chest, she swallowed, pressed her hands protectively to her belly. “M-my husband will be back soon.”
“Your husband?” His accent was distinctly English and cultured, his voice deep. He smiled, a mocking sort of smile. “Is he the poor fellow buried out back? Aye, I’ve already met him.”
The man started to dismount.
“Nay!” Close to panic, Bethie wasn’t sure where her words came from. “Stay on your horse, and ride away from here! I am no’ wantin’ for means to protect myself!”
He climbed slowly from the saddle, his gaze dropping from her face to her swollen belly, a look of what could only be amusement in his eyes. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
It was then she saw the blood. His hands were stained with it.
Her heart beat like a hammer against her breast, and for one wrenching moment, she knew he was going to kill her. Or worse.
If only she had the rifle! If only she could get inside the cabin, bar the door. But he stood between her and refuge. She took several steps backwards, was about to run into the darkness of the forest, when he sagged against his horse.
Blood. It had soaked through the leather of his leggings on the right side, darkened the back of his right leg all the way to his moccasin. Was it his blood? Aye, it must be. He had tied a cloth around his upper thigh to staunch the flow.
He was injured, weak, perhaps nigh to collapse. Some part of her realized this, saw it as the chance she needed.
She ran, a desperate dash toward the cabin door, toward safety, toward life. She had only a few steps to go when arms strong as steel shot out, imprisoned her.
“Oh, no, you don’t!”
“Nay!” She screamed, kicked, hit, fought to free herself through a rising sense of terror.
“Ouch! Damn it, woman!”
The click of a pistol cock. The cold press of its barrel against her temple.
She froze, a terrified whimper in her throat.
His breath was hot on her cheek. “I have no desire to harm you or the child you carry, but you will help me, whether you wish to or not! Do you understand?”
She nodded, her mind numb with fright.
Pistol still in hand, he forced her to hold the stallion’s reins while he unsaddled it and carried its burdens inside the cabin. Then he watched as she led the animal to a stall in the barn, settled it with hay and fresh water from the well. And although she had hoped he might fall unconscious, he showed no further sign of pain or weakness apart from a bad limp.
“Get inside, and boil water.”
She crossed the distance from the barn to the cabin, her stomach knotted with fear, the heat of his gaze boring into her back. Then she saw the firewood scattered on the ground. She stopped, turned to him, half afraid to speak lest she provoke his ire. She had no doubt this man was capable of killing. “I-I’ll need the wood.”
Blue eyes, hard and cold as slate, met hers. He nodded — one stiff jerk of his head.
She eased her way down, began to fill her arms.
Nicholas watched the woman pick up firewood. She had no idea how close she had come to escaping him moments ago on her doorstep. Dizzy from blood loss, he had found it surprisingly difficult to subdue her, had been forced to wield the threat of his pistol. He could not risk getting close enough for her to knock it from his grasp. He was fast fading, and without the weapon he would not long be able to bend her to his will. He had no doubt that if given the choice she would leave him out here to die, even kill him herself.
He didn’t blame her. There was only one rule on the frontier — survival. A woman without male protection could not be too careful, particularly a young and pretty one. And even heavy with child, she was a beauty.
How old was she? Nicholas guessed eighteen. Her cheeks were pink from exertion, her skin flawless and kissed by the sun. A thick braid of sun-streaked honey-blonde hair hung down her back to her waist. Her curves, enhanced by her pregnancy, were soft, womanly and easily apparent despite the plainness of her grey woolen gown. And although she was great with child, she had felt small in his arms. Her head just touched his shoulder.
He looked on as she struggled to stand. Though she was obviously very near her time, she was surprisingly graceful and was soon back on her feet and walking toward the cabin, arms full, her braid swaying against the grey wool of her cloak with each step.
Nicholas followed, but even this small effort left him breathless. His heart hammered in his chest, fought to pump blood no longer in his body. The Frenchman’s blade had gone deep, and while it had failed to sever his tendons and drop him to the ground as the bastard had no doubt hoped, it had clearly cut into a major blood vessel.
He’d left Fort Detroit early in the morning almost a week ago, having earned more than enough from his pelts to replenish his supplies. He’d traveled south for most of four days before he got the feeling he was being followed. The signs were subtle — the twitching of Zeus’ ears, the cry of a raven startled from its perch somewhere behind him, a prickling on the back of his neck. He’d urged Zeus to a faster pace, kept up his guard, hadn’t stopped to rest or eat until well past nightfall.
They attacked just after midnight. The first sprang at him out of the darkness and might have succeeded in killing him had Nicholas not been awake and waiting. And while he’d grappled with the first, the second had leapt from hiding to deal a surprise deathblow. Nicholas had quickly dispatched the first attacker, but the second managed to slash his thigh before he had buried his knife in the man’s belly. He’d recognized them both from the fort — French trappers who weren’t ready to relinquish the Ohio Valley to the English.
Nicholas had realized immediately he was badly hurt. He’d have treated the wound himself had he been able to see it and reach it with ease. Instead, he’d tied a tourniquet around his leg and had reluctantly ridden through the night hoping to cross some farmstead where aid might be available.
As he’d grown weaker, he’d all but resigned himself to death. He was already dead inside. What did it matter if his body died, too? Wasn’t that what he’d secretly been searching for all these years? But just before dawn, he’d heard a gunshot to the east and had followed it until he’d heard the sound of someone chopping wood. He hadn’t expected it to be a woman, much less a woman alone.
He hadn’t asked a soul for help in more than six years. It galled him to have to do so now. He followed the woman inside. “Build up the fire.”
The cabin was small with a puncheon floor that looked as if it had been newly washed. The only light came from a small window covered with greased parchment. A rough-hewn table sat in the center of the room, a hand-carved bedstead against the far right wall. In the far left corner on the other side of the fireplace sat a cupboard and before it a loom, a spinning wheel, and a rocking chair. Dried onions, herbs and flowers hung from the rafters, a feminine touch that for one startling moment reminded him of the cookhouse on his plantation. A rifle leaned against the wall beside the door.
Nicholas checked the rifle to make certain it was not primed and loaded. Next he removed his buffalo-hide coat and his jacket, tossed them over one of the wooden chairs.
Black spots danced before his eyes. He pulled out another chair, sat, watched as she stirred the fire to life and poured water into the kettle to boil. “You’ll need thread and a strong needle.”
She started at the sound of his voice. She was terrified of him, he knew. He could taste her fear, smell it, see it in the way she moved.
(c) copyright 2005, 2012 Pamela Clare