The Cowboy Rescues a Bride (Page 34)

The Cowboy Rescues a Bride (Cowboys of Chance Creek #7)(34)
Author: Cora Seton

Fila changed her wrapping as fast as she could, realizing she had only a few more items of dry clothing to use. As she listened to Ned talk, she decided she’d have to use them sparingly—if she ran out, she’d be in trouble.

“The thing about courage is, it doesn’t feel good in the moment.”

Fila slowed what she was doing.

“Heroes aren’t people who are somehow unafraid in a crisis—heroes are the people who feel afraid and still do what needs to be done.” Ned watched her finish up. “I heard that over and over again when I was growing up, but I didn’t get it. Not until recently.”

“What happened recently?” She stood up, ready to go again.

“I met you.” He made his way over to her in the middle of the snowy road. Took her hand and squeezed it, leaning heavily on his crutches. “This is going to sound all wrong, but when men fake bravery, I guess I’m as easy to fool as the next person. I just assume they don’t feel fear. But when I saw you—just a slip of a thing—and I heard all that you’d done”—he shrugged—“I knew you had to have been afraid while you did it. But you did it anyway. That’s my definition of brave.” He dropped a kiss on top of her head and turned to keep going.

Fila stood still for a moment, warmed by what he’d said—by his understanding. Now she had a word for when she felt sick to her stomach, tied up in knots, ready to faint.

Brave.

She bit back a smile as tears clouded her eyes again.

She hated being brave.

Too bad she didn’t have a choice.

They slogged on for what seemed like an eternity, until her toes went past burning with the cold, to numb, to simply not there anymore. She didn’t know how she was staying on her feet. Didn’t know how Ned had remained upright for so long, either.

“How much farther?” she gasped at one point.

“I’d say we’re a bit over halfway there.”

Halfway there. Fila wanted to hang her head and cry. It would be different if she were on her own. She could run for it and reach safety and warmth sooner. She could find boots or—

Ned must have had the same thought. “Fila, you need to go ahead. Break into the house, find something for your feet and mine. Get coats, a flashlight. Then come back for me. I’m slowing you down too much.”

The idea appalled her. “What if you slip? What if—”

He turned her way. “This isn’t a game. We could die out here. You could get frostbite. Heck, we both could. We might have already.” He sagged down on his crutches. “Honestly, I don’t see any other way.”

“How do I get in?”

“However you need to. Fitzgerald won’t care. Break a window. Anything. His house isn’t visible from the road, though. Watch for a wooden fence. You’ll see the gate across his driveway. Open it and follow the driveway down and you’ll find the house.”

She evaluated the proposition quickly. Dusk was already falling. Temperatures were going down. Neither she nor Ned were dressed for the weather. She could be back in less than an hour if she hurried on alone.

She would definitely hurry.

“Okay.”

“That’s my girl.” Ned straightened. “I’ll keep going, nice and slow. That’ll keep me warm until you come back. Go fast, but be careful. We don’t want both of us laid out.”

She nodded. Hesitated. Suddenly she hated to be alone.

“Come here,” Ned said softly.

She did so and he cupped her jaw with his hand. “It’s going to be all right. I promise. Remember how brave you are.” He kissed her until she sighed against him. She didn’t pull away. She knew it was safe to kiss Ned. She was alone in a snowy wilderness with the man, but she wasn’t in Afghanistan. There were no armed terrorists, no gossiping village women, no one at all to disturb them. As the seconds passed, his kiss deepened, and he slid his lips over hers until she thought she could lose herself for good in his arms. When he pulled away, Fila clung to him in wonder. He smoothed her hair back from her forehead. “Come back soon, you hear?”

She nodded and scampered away, racing down the lane into the thickening dusk.

Chapter 20

Now that Fila was gone, Ned gave voice to the groans he’d been suppressing as he moved. Every step hurt like daggers through his skin. He wondered if he was damaging his leg by working it like this, but he didn’t see an alternative—other than to freeze to death.

There was no reason Fila couldn’t make it to Fitzgerald’s house and bring back warmer clothing and footwear, at the least, in time to save him from permanent damage. He’d still have to make the rest of this painful journey but at least he wouldn’t lose any toes. As the shadows lengthened and the night drew in, however, he began to worry about what would happen if Fila lost the track. Even if she kept to it, she might not see the fence in the darkness—especially in the falling snow. Surely the driveway would be visible, but she was tired and cold. Maybe she’d lose her way.

Ned picked up the pace, visions of Fila wandering the woods without shoes filling his brain. When his crutch hit a patch of ice under the snow it slid straight out from under him. He wavered for a moment, still balanced on the other one, before it snapped and he keeled over. He cried out with the pain of impact.

And groaned when he realized he couldn’t get up again.

Fila ran for as long as she could, but as the dusk turned to true darkness she realized she needed to pay close attention to the sides of the road to spot the driveway into Fitzgerald’s cabin. She watched for the wooden fence Ned had told her about, trudging quickly through the snow, not bothering to change the wrapping around her foot anymore, but as the remainder of the daylight leached out of the forest, her fear came back.

Had she already passed the driveway? How many miles had she come in her headlong rush? Surely she should have seen it by now.

She told herself she’d walk for fifteen more minutes before she turned back, but then she realized she had no way to judge the passage of time. She began to count, but as her footsteps increased their pace, so did her counting. She slowed down again. Lost her place. Started over.

Gave up.

She began to think she’d be walking this path forever and ever. Back and forth, through the dark and cold, her feet numbing until she could barely stumble forward.

The pure darkness surrounding her reminded her of the mountain village she’d left behind with its absence of electricity. You could look out from the mountain and see nothing but blackness all around you. When the winter winds howled and the snow drifted up she’d felt like she’d been alone in an alien world. Once, after a particularly hard day, she’d nearly convinced herself that was the truth. She’d stood outside the compound where she lived and stared up at the stars searching for an answer there.