Her hand stalled as she sat up. Fine-tuning her hearing, she waited for another sound, something to let her know Seth had returned.
The quiet was interrupted by an odd, faint scratching. Flipping her legs over the edge of the bed, she scanned the room, noting one boot on the floor.
She was halfway across the room when she noticed the other boot, still atop the trunk, wobble. She took another step, but froze as a tiny head popped up over the top. Her heart jolted, throbbed against her rib cage, and then the snake noticed her. Or she realized it was a snake. Either way, it hissed and she screamed.
In a single bound she was back on top of the bed, screaming the only name her mind knew. “Seth! Seth...!”
Shrugging out of his coat, having just walked into the house, Seth left the garment in his wake as he flew up the stairs. The terror-filled screams sent ice pumping through his veins.
He shot down the hall, and rounding the corner into her room, slid to a stop. She stood on the bed, up against the wall near the headboard. The lamp beside her bed flickered in the darkness, turning her thin nightgown gossamer and silhouetting a shape beneath that stole his breath away.
Another scream, his name, pierced the air. One of her trembling arms was held out, pointing toward the far side of the room. He saw it then, the bull snake. A young one from the size of it. They all had bad attitudes, and this one was no different. Reared up, forming an S with its body, it lunged forward while backtracking across the top of the trunk. He was thankful such a minor thing was the cause of the commotion. For a moment he’d imagined one of Per-Cum-Ske’s braves climbing through a window. The man had been too curious about her, and that had got Seth’s goat early on in the meeting.
He crossed the room, snatched up the critter by the back of the neck and tossed it out the open window. A brave would have needed a ladder to enter her window, and none were left lying around. Turning back to assure her all was fine, he felt his heart jolt again. Not only was her gown see-through, her face was colorless.
“Shhh,” he whispered. “It’s gone.”
Still cowering near the wall, she shook her head.
“It’s gone,” he repeated, walking slowly to the side of the bed and holding out a hand. “Come here.”
Her head didn’t move, but her eyes did. “Seth?”
“Yes, it’s me. Come here, sweetheart.” The endearment rolled off his tongue without thought as he took her hand and tugged her toward him.
She crumpled onto her knees and latched her hands around his neck. Catching her with both arms, he pulled her forward, held her trembling body against his chest. “Shhh,” he repeated as his insides filled with unfathomable warmth. “It’s gone.”
“It was huge,” she gasped.
“No, he was just a little guy,” he teased, hoping to ease her fears. “And he’s gone now.”
“Where’d it come from?”
He shouldn’t be enjoying holding her, for she was scared, but she felt so good pressed against him like this. Just the thin cotton of his shirt and her gown separated his chest from her breasts, and that had his blood pulsing. Running a hand down the length of her hair, stopping to press his palm into the small of her back, he answered, “It must have been left over from one of the crates or barrels.”
“What did it want?”
She was calming down a touch. Her breath was no longer coming out in tiny gasps, but he continued to run a hand up and down her back. “A mouse or two, I’d suspect.”
“I don’t mind mice.”
Her voice was so tiny and meek he smiled and brushed a kiss to the top of her hair, which hung between her shoulder blades. He’d watched her brush it out, standing in the doorway back at their cabin last night, and wondered. Five years ago, Millie’s hair had hung past her waist. He remembered that because Rosemary had pointed it out, when noting differences between them. She’d said Millie had no style.
People could cut their hair, did all the time. Millie could have, too. He’d contemplated that again in the past few hours, while telling himself he wasn’t jealous of Per-Cum-Ske’s interest in her. Yet Seth had also started to wonder if he’d judged too quickly. Started questioning if this could in fact be Rosemary, his wife; maybe she’d changed. They’d spent only a few hours together back then, and she had been upset—which could bring out the worst in people. If only he had a picture to compare. But he didn’t. Other than the one in his mind, which, he had to admit, he’d painted very unflatteringly over the years.