The heavy meal seemed to mellow the stranger out slightly. He sat at the table and picked his teeth, his feet stuck out at angles. “Damn, woman. I’m almost too tired to fuck you.”
Fila lay on her side facing the man, her wrists tied behind her. A tear slid down her cheek, but she continued to twist her hands, making use of the slack in the fabric. Add to that the natural stretch in the strip of towel and she was close to getting free again. But then what? If she got loose he’d just hit her again. Why hadn’t she waited until she was closer to the man before throwing the soup? Why had she botched her best chance? She knew what he meant to do. Raping her was only half of it. Neither she nor Ned would be alive to see the morning.
Maybe it was just Fate catching up to her. She should have been dead ten years ago when the Taliban shot her parents. She’d been living on borrowed time ever since. But Ned was a young man—he had his whole life ahead of him. He had family who loved him, friends, a ranch. He couldn’t die like this. Not at the hands of this man.
She shifted to cover the movement of her arms and watched the puppy bound up to the man and put its paws up on his lap.
“What do you think, Dell? Is it time for us to have some fun?”
The puppy simply gamboled around. It was far too young for him to have trained it. The knot around her wrist loosened slightly and she quickly pulled the end out of it and felt the whole wrapping shift. Blood returned to her hands, making her fingers tingle. Fila wanted to tear her bindings free once and for all, but decided to wait. Her only chance lay in surprising her captor. And doing a better job of it than she’d done last time.
“Let’s go check on your friend before we get this party started.”
Rough hands gripped her arms and yanked her upright. She kept her wrists carefully together, her fingers holding her bindings tight. Her head spun and a warm trickle slid down her cheek as she found her feet. Blood. The man shoved her ahead of him through the archway into the living room where Ned lay senseless on the floor in front of the woodstove where she’d left him. She was grateful he was unconscious. The less he knew about what transpired, the better, since there was nothing he could do to stop the man.
“Maybe he’s dead already.” The man sounded disappointed. “What’s wrong with him anyway?”
“Pneumonia. It’s highly contagious.” She wished the illness would jump bodies and strike the man dead right now.
He nudged Ned with the toe of his boot. “Hey, buddy. You awake?”
Stay silent, Fila prayed, but he didn’t. Ned groaned and shifted. Whispered something.
Ned said it again, but Fila couldn’t make out his words. The man shoved her onto the sofa where she flopped like a ragdoll. She kicked and heaved herself until she was sitting upright in time to see the stranger kneel down and bend over Ned’s body. Her fingers worked at the ties until she was completely free of them.
“Asshole!” Ned said at the same time he whipped a length of wood out from under his covers, and came up on one elbow to bash the man over the head with it. The man seized his arm and the club few across the room, nearly striking the puppy, who had settled down with a sigh a moment earlier. It leaped to its feet and barked as the man punched Ned in the face. Ned howled in pain. Fila saw her chance. She leapt from the couch and snatched the log up off the floor, the puppy dancing all around her. It barked and yipped and scrambled right up and over Ned’s prone body. The stranger swore at it, batted it away. Taking advantage of his distraction, Fila lifted the club over her head and smashed it down on the man’s skull. Raised it again and swung it like a baseball bat to knock him off of Ned’s legs. She raised it again. Brought it down. Each time it hit him with a satisfying smack. Each time the man shuddered, struggled to rise and sank down again when the log connected with his head.
She pulled up a fourth time and slammed it down. That was for her parents, shot dead before her eyes. Lifted it and swung it down. That was for her years of loneliness. Up and down. For the times she’d been beaten. Up, down. For the times she’d feared for her life. Up. Down. For the years she’d lost. Up—
“Fila. Fila!” Ned croaked, eyes wide, propped on his elbows, fighting for breath. “You’ll kill him!” The puppy stood crouched behind him barking again and again.
She turned on them wild-eyed. Did he think she cared? They’d never shown her mercy. None of them. And he expected it of her? She lifted the club again.
“Fila—look at me!”
She missed, swinging around at the last second.
He held out a hand to her, gasping in pain, but refusing to lie back down. One look at his burning eyes and pleading expression and she came back to herself. She took in the man puddled at her feet. The bulk of him wrapped in a ball like a child. He was unmoving. Covered in blood.
Blood she’d shed.
Fila dropped the club. Swayed. The puppy whined but stayed by Ned’s side.
“Fila.” Ned tried to move to her, but couldn’t. He lay panting, tangled in the blankets she’d covered him with earlier. “It’s okay, honey. You’re okay.” He lurched to a sitting position, his breathing rough, his words even rougher. “Come here.”
She shook her head, the enormity of what she’d done overwhelming her. She’d nearly killed a man. Maybe she had.
“Fila. It isn’t over yet. He could wake up again.”
She stared at Ned, barely comprehending his words. Wake up? The man wasn’t even breathing.
She inched forward, hardly daring to breathe herself. Placed her fingers in front of the man’s face. His breath feathered over them. Shallow, but definitely there.
He was still alive and if he woke—when he woke—he’d want to kill them more than he had before.
She glanced at the branch she’d dropped.
“No,” Ned said. “That way isn’t for you. Find the rope you used to tie me to the post.”
After a long moment she did what he said. Ned was right—she wasn’t a killer.
But the thread that separated her from one was as thin as gossamer.
He was dying.
Ned could feel the pneumonia taking hold deep in his lungs in a way that left him coughing and gasping to breathe. Chances were he’d make it through another day or two—long enough for someone to rescue them—but he was getting close to a line that once crossed would be hard to come back from. If delirium took him again, Fila would be alone with a murderer. From the look of the bloody gash on the back of the man’s head, he wasn’t the only one walking side by side with death in this cabin.