Her Hero After Dark
She laid her hands on the buckle, but jerked them back when the American groaned in what sounded like intense pain.
“Continue,” he ground out.
What had the Ethiopians done to him? They must have tortured him brutally for even her lightest touch to hurt so badly. “I’ll try to be gentle,” she murmured, “but this buckle is really stiff.”
The thick leather was almost too rigid for her to undo. But finally, the tail of the buckle gave way and slid free of the metal. The collar fell away from him. She kicked it toward the back of the plane in disgust. No matter how crazy this guy was, nobody deserved to be treated like an animal. His neck was raw and bloody where the collar had been.
“Let me get the first aid kit and clean up your neck. That must hurt.”
One corner of his mouth turned up sardonically. She wouldn’t exactly call it a smile. The distant relative of one, maybe. It was a start, though. As gently as she could manage, she swabbed the raw flesh ringing his neck. As the filth surrendered to her gauze pads and peroxide, his dirt blackened skin took on a pink and mostly human hue. She worked her way around to his heavy, dark growth of beard. She estimated he hadn’t shaved in several months.
“How long were you in Ethiopia?” she asked.
He shrugged. Not the talkative type. Or maybe he’d just gotten out of the habit. If he’d been in solitary confinement for a while, he might not have had much opportunity for conversation with other humans. In her experience, once freed, such prisoners either wouldn’t shut up at all, or they became intensely taciturn like this man.
Jefferson Randall Stanley Winston. The name didn’t fit him at all. He ought to be called something like Gorilla Man. Or Jungle Giant. She snorted. Or Sasquatch.
Aloud, she asked, “Did the Ethiopians hurt you?”
He frowned as if he wasn’t exactly sure how to answer that.
She rephrased, “Did they torture you?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
What the heck did that mean? “Care to elaborate?”
She tried a different tack. “Your grandfather arranged for your release. He’s been very worried about you.”
That elicited a completely indecipherable grunt from him. Could be disgust, could be gratitude. No way to tell. Sheesh, talking to this guy was like conversing with a brick wall. Okay, Plan C. “Where did you tell the pilots to take us?”
He didn’t even bother to acknowledge that one.
Ohh-kay. “Do you have any other injuries that need tending?” she tried.
He made a noise that might almost be a snort of humor.
She gave up. If he wanted to talk, he would clearly do it in his own time and on his own terms. Normally, she would get a man like this a good meal, let him take a shower and sleep a little, and then she’d sit him down and debrief him on what exactly had happened to him. But how she was going to get this guy to talk was a mystery to her.
She watched him through slitted eyes as he leaned back in his seat once more and seemed to all but pass out. Exhaustion, maybe? Except it looked more like he was bearing incredible pain in stoic silence. What was up with that?
What was up with everything about this man? What in the hell had happened to him?
Just a little while longer. The plane would land in Bermuda where he’d told the pilots to go, and he would finally get the drugs his body was screaming for. And then, blessed relief. The pain would recede. It never went away entirely, but it would retreat into tolerable background noise. Until then, though, his entire skeleton ached as if every bone in his body was shattering into a million pieces. To call it excruciating didn’t even begin to do it justice.
He was no doubt scaring the hell out of the woman across the aisle, but he was in too much pain to care. A need to do violence, to lash out against the agony eviscerating him from the inside out, nearly overcame him. He clenched his fists until he feared he might break the bones in his hands.
Finger by finger, he forcibly unfolded his hands until his palms pressed flat against his thighs. He could do this. He could survive this nightmare. Just a little while longer.
The woman’s eyes popped open as the sound of the engines changed pitch and the plane began its descent into Bermuda. Leland had a beachfront mansion there where Jeff could stay. More importantly, Doc Jones could fly there with his drugs relatively easily. He envisioned the hilly island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean bristling with gracious, white stucco homes. He had good memories of summers there as a kid. It would be nice to be surrounded by familiar things again. It had been a long time. The past few years had been pretty crazy, culminating in the disaster in Ethiopia.
The plane bumped onto the runway and a groan escaped from between his tightly compressed lips, in spite of his best effort to restrain it. It was probably a perfectly fine landing, but even the lightest jarring sent daggers shooting throughout his body.
He glanced outside as the airplane came to a stop and frowned. Heavy tropical jungle? Since when did Bermuda have such vegetation? Alarmed, he surged out of his seat.
A pair of ominous, metallic clacks froze him halfway out of his seat. He looked toward the cockpit where both pilots, grim-faced, pointed heavy-gauge pistols at him. A glance to his right showed that the woman had joined them in aiming her sidearm at him.
Well, well, well. The lady had teeth, after all. Reluctant admiration coursed through him. Unfortunately, his soft tissue was as susceptible to lead as the next guy’s. He subsided in his seat cautiously.
“Welcome to Uncle Sam Airlines, Mr. Winston,” the woman bit out. “We do not necessarily fly the Friendly Skies. This is my plane and my crew. And you are my prisoner, not the other way around. Is that understood?”
She had guts to stand up to him like this. He’d be amused if he wasn’t hurting so damned bad. But the prospect of having to wait even longer for his drugs threatened to swallow him in panic. He was out of strength to hold on. Out of endurance. Out of time.
With a roar, he surged up out of his seat. But the woman was surprisingly fast. She ducked down the aisle and out the door before he could lay a hand on her. One of the pilots passed her something as she raced by the cockpit, but he couldn’t see what it was.
He followed her outside and came up short as she aimed a double-barreled shotgun at his chest. Her black gaze, leveled at him down the length of the weapon, was lethal. What little sanity he had left recognized death in her eyes. He pulled up short.
“Need us to restrain him, ma’am?” one of the pilots asked from the doorway of the plane.
Her gaze remained locked on him. She spoke slowly, as if she doubted his ability to understand her. He supposed he couldn’t blame her for that. “Let’s establish a few rules of engagement right up front, shall we, Mr. Winston? If you will give me your word of honor that you will not harm me in any way, I will swear not to sedate you or physically restrain you. But, if you break your word, I will not hesitate to do the same. Nor will I hesitate to kill you if it becomes necessary. Is that clear?”
“Crystal,” he answered wryly.
“Do you give me your word?” she demanded.
He studied her curiously. She was a courageous woman to face him like this. But, then, she probably didn’t realize exactly how courageous since she had no idea who he was—what he was. “I give you my word.”
“Say it. What do you swear?”
Another wave of pain slammed into him and he ground out from between clenched teeth, “I give you my word I will not harm you.”
She spoke to the pilot still hovering in the door. “If you’ll off-load my bag for me, Captain, I’ll let you be on your way.”
“Are you sure you want us to leave, ma’am? We can stay here until more backup arrives to, uhh, help.”
“No. The two of us will be fine. We have an understanding. I need you to go.”
Jeff wasn’t sure whether to be complimented that she trusted his word of honor or to despise her naïveté.
“All right.” The pilot sounded deeply doubtful. Smart man.
The woman stood statuelike and continued to point the shotgun at him as her bag thudded to the ground, the jet behind them cranked up its engines and taxied off. He glanced away from the woman and her shotgun long enough to watch the white jet accelerate down the runway and lift off into the afternoon sky.
There went his best and fastest hope for relief from his private, living hell. He swore under his breath and looked back at the woman. How to convince her to get his drugs for him before he died from the agony of his withdrawal?