DG kept enough thinking power on Flicka so she wouldn't lose control of the horse. The rest was occupied with figuring out why her life was so fucked up. Maybe the witch had cursed her when she flung her off the Tower. Maybe there was another nursery rhyme prophecy. Punishment for letting the witch out explained all the other bad shit she had dealt with. But Wyatt Cain calling her sweetheart and not meaning a damn thing by it was a whole new level of hell!
Now he was giving her one of those sidelong appraising glances. They were way too close to those 'what is the crazy Slipper going to do now' looks from the Palace. He's still in love with Adora, and he's worried because he knows how close to the edge she is. Being a friend gave him the right to worry; she worried about him.
Why had she run after him? Life was worse without him in it, even just as a friend. She needed to paint.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Whatever you want to ask, just ask." His eyes opened wide. "You've been sneaking looks at me ever since we got back on the road, waiting for me to fall apart or something."
"But you don't. You pour it all into your paintings." How was he able to do that? It was like he could read her mind.
"I didn't have anyone to talk to about it, unless Raw was visiting."
Cain's lips twitched. "I know that. And I know I'm going to sound like the Zone's biggest hypocrite when I say this. You need to talk about your feelings and I'm here."
Mr. Stoic Tin Man wanted to talk about feelings? DG glanced up, making sure two suns were still in the sky. Raw must have given him instructions; that explained Cain trying to be warm and fuzzy. "Thanks, Cain, but not right now." He nodded and turned his full attention to the road.
She couldn't tell him everything. Aurissau would be short a prince when Cain got through with him. She couldn't let Cain do that to himself. And she didn't want to see disgust on his face, so no telling him about her dating life on the Other Side either. Had she known she was going to a world that was so uptight about marriage, she would have waited. The sex wasn't worth it.
Cain pulled his horse to a stop. DG stopped Flicka behind him. Another man on horseback blocked the road ahead. "Good day, folks. Passing through?" The smile across his swarthy face didn't reach his eyes.
Cain shifted the reins to his left hand. "Yes. Brick Route has a toll now?"
The stranger's oily, brown ponytail slipped off his shoulder when he laughed. "No, we're shoppers, not toll keepers. Get them!"
Two men burst out of the woods on each side of the road. One grabbed the shotgun on Cain's saddle and the one on the left grabbed the horse's bridle.
"Thea, run!" Cain pulled out his pistol.
DG saw two more men dressed in brown and green heading her way as she whirled. She kicked her heels. Flicka jumped into a gallop.
"Get her! Women are always worth more!"
Something whizzed past her face. Her arms flattened to her sides and something tightened around her chest, pinching her arms. She saw the lasso around her before the rope tightened more. Flicka escaped from between DG's legs. Her butt jolted against the broken bricks. She couldn't stop her head from falling back. Pain spiked and blackness swallowed the world.
She heard the groaning first. Then she felt the strong arms around her and the broad chest under her cheek. Men ambushing and surrounding them; she tried to push away.
"Easy, sweetheart, it's me. I've got you." Cain spoke as their moving jostled her head and pain spiked through it. But the body embracing her smelled like Cain--leather mixed with gunpowder and something else that always made her heart beat faster.
Cracking open her eyes, all DG saw was brown. She shifted her head up and Cain's face came into focus. The worried glare eased from around his crystal-blue eyes. "How do you feel, sweetheart?"
"Head hurts," she whispered. Her throat was dry too. Suddenly, the whole world bounced hard. Cain tightened his grip, but his muscular body didn't soften the impact by much. A whimper escaped the lance through her brain that made thinking impossible.
"Bastards can't drive either." Cain shifted her so her cheek rested near his shoulder and her forehead against his neck. "What do you remember?"
"Any aspirin, Cain?" She swallowed a few times.
"I don't know what that is, but I think the answer is no. Do you remember your name?"
DG didn't feel like a pop quiz while her head pounded like a whole marching band used it as a drum. But Cain wouldn't stop asking. "Thea Cain but I'm named after the first Slipper. And you're Wyatt Cain."
She felt his sigh of relief, heaved too silently for her ears to hear. "You got a knot on the back of your head the size of a small egg." She got a hand free and found it. He waited until she finished gasping from exploring the tender area. "Do you remember what happened?"
"We saw Raw and then we got attacked on the Brick Route. Did they hit me?"
"No, they pulled you from your horse and your head slammed into the ground." He rubbed her back.
"Where are we?"
"Prisoners, locked in a van. From what I could see of the suns, we're heading west." Cain's fingers unlocked muscles DG didn't realize were tense. "They're slavers."
She struggled with that. "But slavery is illegal, right?"
"Where law and order is recognized, it is." Cain's voice hardened, but his hand gently stroked her back.
If she didn't move her head and concentrated on his touch, she could pretend she was fine. "Are you hurt?"
"Took a few licks. Staying conscious to take care of you was a better plan. I should've protected you better."
"Horses need airbags." She plowed on before he asked what she meant. "We're still together, right? Now we need a plan."
Cain's jaw spasmed. "I'm out numbered and weaponless, and you can't swing a stick in your condition."
"The worst I ever did spilling from a bike was scraping up my leg. Pulling rank won't help."
He leaned his head against the wall of the van. "Only if you want to get sold to one of the fringe kingdoms and ransomed back to your mother."
"Didn't think it would work." The van bounced again and she grabbed two fistfuls of his duster.
"What about your magic?"
"Have to concentrate. Hard when it feels like someone's drilling through your head."
Cain stopped rubbing her back and tightened his hold. "They can't be crazy enough to drive through the night. I'll talk to them, don't draw attention to yourself. Okay?"
"Try to get something for my headache out of them." DG closed her eyes.
"I hate to do this to you now, but we need to make sure you can walk." She groaned as his arms slackened around her. "You've been through worse than this." Cain pushed until she stood; she clutched his forearms while he gripped her elbows. "Take a few steps."
"Easier said than done," she hissed. The pain in her lower back and pelvis matched the spike in her head. She kept one hand on the Tin Man as she walked away. "I wish Raw had changed his mind."
Cain's arm eased her to the floor of the van. "I can't help with the bruises, but I think I can help with the rest."
DG laid face-down while Cain's hand pressed against her spine. Her vertebrae popped and the pain eased. His hands formed a triangle right above her butt, and something in her pelvis shifted. She felt like she could move. She rolled over, sat up, and hissed before she knelt on her knees. "Butt is bruised." He looked at her hips. She told her flip-flopping stomach that he was only making sure she was okay. Her stomach didn't believe her. She cleared her throat. "Thanks, that feels better. So you're a chiropractor too?"
He looked up at her face, and his uncovered ears reddened. "A trick my father taught me for dealing with bad spills. What did you call it?"
"Chiropractors are healers who specialize in adjusting the spine on the Other Side." The light came in through window slits next to the roof. Like DeMilo's wagon, you could stand inside, and other than themselves, it was completely empty, not even a sign of Cain's hat.
The van jolted again, throwing DG into the air. Cain caught her before she slammed into the floor. He hugged her close and her heart started hammering. The throb in her head matched and it was easier to sag against him. "Don't talk about the Other Side," he said next to her ear. "Don't want these guys to realize you're a Slipper."
"Would that make me worth more or less?"
"I'm serious, sweetheart."
Yeah, special circle of hell. DG swallowed and hoped her voice was normal. "Defense mechanism, sorry. I'll keep quiet."
"Stay as close to me as you can." Cain's arms tightened more. "Hopefully, these guys will just secure us."
"I'll do my best." The van rocked as it came to a stop and the engine died. Cain squeezed her one more time and set her next to him.
The doors swung open. Two of the men who had attacked them pointed their shotguns into the van. "Come on out!"
Cain climbed out first with a grimace. She ignored her throbbing head and leaned on his offered arm. He wrapped it around her so she could continue to lean.
The speaker of the pair had a straggly red beard stretching over his pointy chin. "The pretty bitch woke up." His voice added to the throb. She winced and pressed closer to Cain while the redhead smacked his lips.
Cain growled. "Her head hurts. Do you have any medicine?"
"Better get used to ouchies," the redhead chuckled and gestured with the shotgun. "Get some water."
They had parked next to a swift stream that descended the slope over steps for a giant carved from the rocks. It had white churned water, but less than a full waterfall. The other three men were putting up a canvas tent downstream. The three horses were tethered to the van's front bumper. Only one sun was in the sky, but it dropped closer to the horizon the van pointed to.
Cain helped DG kneel on a rocky slab next to the stream. She cupped her hands, bringing the icy water to her lips. The redhead trotted to the rising tent, leaving a grubby bald man guarding them. Cain ignored the guard and pulled a dark blue bandanna from the duster's pocket, soaked it, wrung it out, and held the folded mass against the bump on her head. DG sighed, resting her hands on her thighs. The throbbing eased under the cool.
The redhead captor returned, carrying a tin mug and white paper packet. She held the bandanna to her head, so Cain took the mug and packet. "Drop a lot of people on their heads?"
"We can take it back, old man."
Cain ignored him as he poured the contents of the packet into water in the mug. He swirled the water to mix it before passing the mug to DG. "Drink all of it."
What touched her tongue was bitter, so she gulped it down fast. The worst the medicine tasted, the better it worked. She rinsed the mug out and drank some more water before giving it back. She re-wet the bandanna to restore the cool.
The other men had finished with the tent and started a fire. Now they sauntered to the group at the stream, passing a large bottle between them. Alcohol and guns, a great combination. The throbbing eased, either the medicine was working or the dread settling in her stomach gave her nerves something else to focus on. Her eyes met Cain's and his lips were pressed together.
"Let's have a look at what we got." The rider with the ponytail suggested after he swallowed his swig. "Stand up."
Cain glared at him while helping DG stand. The last time she had seen that expression on his face, she'd had to plead for Tutor's life. These creeps wouldn't be getting pity like that from her. Cain nudged her behind him, but the bald guy gestured with his shotgun to stop.
The five of them hemmed in her and Cain on the stream bank, blocking off escape. Ponytail man pointed to Cain. "Coat and vest. You won't need them." Cain clenched his jaw as he shrugged off the duster. The youngest looking, skinny with a mop of curly blond hair, took the duster, the belts, and the vest. Ponytail man nodded. "Somebody will want him," he confided in his men. "Not as much as the little bitch."
Cain growled and DG got closer to the Tin Man. Ponytail man took another swig from the bottle and passed it to his right. "Come 'ere, you little bitch."
DG shook her head as her stomach knotted. Cain's arm circled her waist and pulled her closer.
"Don't play tough with us," Ponytail man sneered. "Separate them."
The redhead passed his shotgun to the Ponytail man. DG dodged behind Cain, but there wasn't any room between the four men and the stream. She moved aside and the man with a short brown beard yanked her arm. She fell against him.
Cain punched the redhead in the stomach, but the skinny blond grabbed and twisted back his right arm. The redhead latched onto Cain's left arm, and punched him in the head.
The man with the brown beard gripped her upper arms as he grinned. DG kicked. His grin disappeared as he stepped back. She kicked again, hitting the side of his other leg and twisted her body to break loose. He squeezed her arms tighter. "You'll pay for that, you little bitch!" He had pulled her closer to the two men with the shotguns.
Cain bellowed with rage. That jerked DG's attention away from her opponent. They had driven Cain to his knees and held his arms out while the bald man hit Cain in the head with the butt of the shotgun.
"No!" DG flailed. She kicked both her feet while he held her up. She had to get to Cain. They had no idea what they were reenacting for her Tin Man.
A hand grabbed her black braid and pulled her head back. Ponytail man licked his lips. "Ain't you feisty. They pay top platinum for feisty."
His eyes gazing down her shirt pissed her off even more. "Let me go!" She threw her heel back to kick Ponytail man.
"Get your filthy hands off her!" Cain's shout echoed off the surrounding rocky hills.
"Gag him. I'm tired of hearing his bullshit." Ponytail man released her braid and grabbed her chin. Cain's bellows were muffled but DG couldn't turn her head to see what they were doing to him. "You need to get used to your new station in life, bitch." Ponytail man sneered as his fingers tightened. "Now stop fighting and do as you're told."
"Go to hell!" Her foot connected with the bearded man's knee, and as his leg buckled, she broke free. Another foot tangled with hers as she ran and an arm snaked around her neck, pulling her against the male chest.
"By the gods, I'm going to limp for a month!" The men holding Cain down laughed at their bearded partner. Cain pulled against their grips, ignoring the shotgun aimed at his chest. His icy blue eyes glared at her captor and his jaw worked against the dirty green scarf between his teeth.
Ponytail man's voice filled her left ear. "You need a bath after a display like that, bitch."
"Go scrub your own dirty mind!" The pressure around her neck tightened and it was hard to breathe.
His arm loosened. "Enough of that. You're going to do what you're told or we're going to shoot your old man."
DG's eyes widened as she stopped struggling. "You wouldn't."
Ponytail man chuckled. "That got your attention, didn't it? He's not worth the trouble he's already been. But it's your choice."
Her heart pounded as she looked at Cain again. The end of the shotgun looked closer to his chest. DG didn't want these creeps to see her naked, and their plans wouldn't stop there. But if they killed Cain and raped her, she couldn't escape alone. Her chances were better with Cain.
Cain didn't want her, and she knew how to deal with drunken louts thrusting into her. It was the best of their horrible options. "I'll take the bath."