Authors: Linda Lael Miller
Tags: #Romance, #Western, #Fiction
his wasn’t how she’d envisioned her wedding night, Piper reflected, as she and Sawyer played game after game of checkers, on the surface of her desk—which wasn’t to say she’d ever had a clear idea of what was
to happen. Oh, she knew the fundamentals, of course, the strictly anatomical part, but the rest belonged to the realm of speculation—mostly. She
felt some very interesting sensations when Sawyer kissed her the night before, ones that made her want more of the same, but her fear equaled her curiosity, perhaps even exceeded it.
The congress between a man and a woman, she had been taught, mostly by inference and whispers, was mainly a nasty and painful business, something to be tolerated, endured, with the husband’s happiness as a reward and, of course, the possible conception of a baby.
To Piper, the bearing, raising and cherishing of a child of her own—and preferably several—was a sacred calling indeed. Although she loved teaching, she knew the vocation was, at least for her, a prelude to mothering.
As for the husband…well, a good one, like Clay, was a blessing. A
one, on the other hand, would be a curse. Which kind
gotten remained to be seen.
Keeping her gaze focused on her game pieces—she was losing, badly,
Piper considered Dara Rose, and the way she lit up from the inside whenever Clay was around. She hummed a great deal, Piper had noticed on visits to the ranch, and even sang under her breath while she went about her household tasks. And even though there was never any overt sign of their intentions, Dara Rose didn’t seem to dread being alone with her husband at night, behind a closed bedroom door.
The whole thing was downright confusing, and Piper wished she’d been bold enough to ask Dara Rose what marital relations were really like, in their most elemental form.
Sawyer knit his brow, and while his eyes smiled, his mouth played at a frown. “What’s going on in your mind right about now, Mrs. McKettrick?” he asked.
She didn’t protest the “Mrs. McKettrick” part, even though she thought it contained a trace of benign mockery. “Nothing I want to discuss with
Mr. McKettrick,” she replied pertly. He’d blocked her few remaining game pieces into a corner of the board, and any move she made would result in sweeping defeat.
“Who, then?” he asked mildly.
“Dara Rose, if you must know,” Piper said, and then wished she hadn’t.
“Ah,” he said, as though that explained a great deal. Resigned, she moved her checker piece and he picked up one of his own and leapfrogged over her little band of huddled checkers, one by one. “Let me hazard a guess,” he went on, at his leisure, watching her with a smile in his eyes. “You’re wondering what to expect when a man and a woman go to bed together, not like we did, but in earnest.”
Piper’s cheeks flamed, and she knew her eyes were flashing, too. She couldn’t bring herself to refute the statement, though she would have liked very much to do just that. “I may be a—a virgin,” she sputtered, “but I’m not a complete fool. I
what men and women do together.”
He began to set up the board for yet another game, concentrating solemnly on the task. “Then why do you want to ask Dara Rose about it?”
“I did not say, at any time, that I wanted to ask my cousin about her very private relationship with her husband,” Piper said stiffly. Maybe she
said it, but it was very much on her mind, and he’d guessed that, obviously.
“But you do,” Sawyer said lightly.
” Piper lied. This was an unsettling aspect of her new self—skirting the truth—and she didn’t approve.
Sawyer’s glance strayed toward the front window then, and Piper realized he’d done that a couple of times in the past hour or so. She’d paid it no mind then, figuring he must be thinking about the weather, which was a concern to everybody, but now she sensed that there was another reason. Was he expecting someone? Waiting for something?
He wasn’t wearing his gun belt, she noticed now, with relief, but his Colt .45 had somehow found its way to the top of a nearby bookshelf.
“Last game,” he said, when the board was ready. He yawned then, but it looked and sounded contrived to Piper.
She studied him suspiciously, decided to call his bluff. “I’ve had enough of checkers for one night,” she told him, rising from her chair and smoothing her skirts, “and this has been a long and trying day.” Leaving the nearest lantern for him, she found a second one, struck a match to the wick, wrapped herself in the same old blanket, not wanting to spoil her new cloak, and started for the door.
Sawyer didn’t ask where she was going, but he did reach for his .45, shove it under his belt in a disturbingly practiced way, and follow.
“I’m only going to the privy,” she whispered, embarrassed.
“Not alone,” Sawyer answered. With that, he squired her outside, down the steps, and around to the back of the schoolhouse. The privy loomed ahead, in a faint wash of moonlight.
Much to Piper’s relief, he came to a stop at the corner of the school building and stood still, like a guard who took his duty very seriously.
Piper dashed for the outhouse, used it, and hurried out again, holding her breath.
Sawyer remained where he was, looking around, listening.
“What is it?” she demanded, whispering because that seemed to fit the mood of the moment. There was something clandestine about his bearing, and he was so keenly alert she could feel it.
“Nothing,” he said, taking her elbow and hustling her around front at such a pace that she nearly stumbled once or twice.
“I don’t believe you,” Piper said.
He steered her back inside the schoolhouse, shut the door and lowered the latch. “Go to bed,” he told her. “I’ll be staying up for a while.”
Sawyer turned his gaze to her at last, and she saw a worried smile lurking in his blue eyes. “Would you rather I came with you?” he asked.
She reddened. “Well, no, but—”
“Then go,” he broke in, distracted. “I’ll put out the lanterns and bank the fire in a little while.”
Piper opened her mouth, closed it again. Huffed out a sigh of frustrated curiosity.
“Go,” Sawyer repeated.
She went, but only after filling a basin with warm water and carrying it into the bedroom with her.
There, she undressed quickly, gave herself a cursory sponge bath, over in moments, and pulled on her nightgown. She hesitated, debating, then got into the spare bed, where she’d slept the night before.
After a while, the lanterns went out, and she expected Sawyer to join her, but he didn’t.
She waited, and then waited some more.
Still no Sawyer. Wasn’t he coming to bed?
bed, that is? It was getting late, and he’d extinguished the lanterns, though she hadn’t heard the stove door open and then clang shut, so he hadn’t banked the fire.
She got up, finally, and crept to the doorway, peering into the gloom of the schoolroom, faintly tinged with moonlight. Once her eyes had adjusted, she could make Sawyer out. He was next to the front window, but not in front of it, as unmoving as the eternal hills.
Piper saw the gun then—he was holding it in his upraised hand, at the ready.
She stifled a gasp.
“Go back to bed, Piper,” he said quietly. Until then, she’d thought he hadn’t known she was there.
“I want to know what’s happening,” she insisted.
“Go to bed,”
Piper bristled—he had no business giving her orders, being her husband in name only—but she did as he said.
Wriggling down between the covers, she fumed, but she was afraid, too. Something was definitely wrong.
She closed her eyes, not expecting to sleep, and was immediately swallowed up by a shallow, uneasy slumber.
* * *
a feeling, nothing Sawyer could really put a finger on, but over the years, he’d learned to pay attention to the subtler signs. Ever since supper, the fine hairs on his nape had been raised, and there was a familiar sensation, like the touch of an icy fingertip, dead center in the pit of his stomach.
Hell of a wedding night, he thought wryly. First checkers, and now a vigil alongside a darkened window.
He could see part of the schoolyard from where he stood, being careful not to make a target of himself. The decorated Christmas tree seemed to whisper and sparkle when it captured a stray beam of moonlight, and the desks and stove were nothing but shadows.
Something moved, over by the rope swing dangling from a branch of the oak tree.
A stray dog, probably, or a coyote.
Perspiration tickled his upper lip and his palm felt damp where he gripped the butt of his .45. The wound in his left shoulder throbbed with every heartbeat.
Maybe he was loco—after all, he’d married a woman he’d known for two days, and he’d been delirious part of the time, when he wasn’t cotton-headed from the laudanum.
Wasn’t that proof that he’d lost his mind?
He swallowed the raspy chuckle that rose to the back of his throat, eased his finger back from the trigger a little. And every instinct urged caution.
There it was again—something moving, more shadow than substance, at least at first. As he watched, holding his breath, silently willing Piper to stay asleep and not come wandering out here to hector him with questions, the shadow took on the shape of a man.
And Sawyer recognized the stance, the way the rifle rested across one forearm with an ease that bespoke long experience.
He’d worked with Chester Duggins, several jobs back, but he hadn’t seen him in years, hadn’t thought of him, either. If asked, Sawyer would have said Chester was six feet under by now, in some bare-ground-and-thistle cemetery, long forgotten.
“I know you’re in there, McKettrick,” Duggins called. His voice was quiet, just barely audible, but it carried far enough. “Come on out here, and let’s get this over with, so I can collect my money.”
Sawyer glanced in the direction of the bedroom, prayed that Piper would stay put. She wouldn’t, of course—when she heard the inevitable gunshots, she’d come running. And if Sawyer didn’t happen to be the one still standing, Duggins would shoot her, too.
He drew a deep breath, let it out slowly, and moved to the door.
He raised the latch bar, turned the knob as quietly as he could.
Stepped onto the porch, the .45 in his hand, with the hammer drawn back.
“Duggins,” he said companionably. “I thought you were dead.”
Duggins chuckled in the darkness. He was just a form, with a hat and a rifle, and Sawyer hoped to God that he himself was no more than that to the other man. “Near to it, once or twice,” the gunman replied. He hawked and spat. “I thought I’d finished you the other night,” he went on, “but darned if I didn’t hear otherwise, over at the Bitter Gulch Saloon. I was laying low over there, waiting out the blizzard, and one of the gals hid me in her room. She told me you were here, living and breathing, getting cozy with the schoolmarm.”
Sawyer didn’t move. He knew Duggins’s friendly chatter was meant to lull him, draw him farther out into the open. Knew there was no way out of this particular confrontation without killing or being killed.
And he was damned if he was going to leave Piper at Duggins’s mercy. That, if he recalled correctly, was nonexistent.
“I never figured you for a coward, Chester,” Sawyer said easily. They might have been dickering over the price of a horse or a piece of land, from their tone.
Duggins stiffened, raised the rifle slightly. “I was tired of tracking you, McKettrick. Plumb worn to a nubbin. Why, I barely managed to get to this burg before your train came in as it was, and then there was all that snow. Vandenburg had been on me for a good week before that, like stink on a manure pile, wanting you dead.” He paused, spat again. “If your death don’t turn up in newspapers all over Texas, and right soon, I don’t get paid.”
Sawyer wasn’t surprised to learn that Vandenburg was behind the attack; he’d figured as much. “That,” he replied, “would be a real pity.”
“Now, don’t be thataway!” Duggins whined. “None of this would even be happening if you’d just left the boss man’s missus be. Why, if we’d met up in any other circumstances but these, you and me, we’d probably have had a drink together and talked about old times.”
“I still think you’re a miserable, two-bit coward,” Sawyer said cheerfully. He’d heard a sound behind him, in the schoolhouse, and he knew he was almost out of time. Piper was awake, and she’d walk right into this in another few seconds. His tone was easy as he went on. “You bushwhacked me, Chester. In a snowstorm. And you did it that way because you knew you wouldn’t have a chance in a fair fight.” He stepped down off the porch and moved slowly to one side, so if Duggins fired at him and missed, the bullet wouldn’t go right through the schoolhouse door—and Piper’s heart.
“I done told you I was fed up with trying to run you to ground,” Duggins complained. “Now, you stand still, and we’ll have this out.”
“I’ve already drawn,” Sawyer told the other man calmly. “Even if you hit me, which you might not, given how dark it is, I’ll still get off at least one shot—more likely, two or three. And you know I’ll make them count. So why don’t you just lay that rifle down on the ground and step away from it with your hands up, before somebody gets hurt?”
Duggins gave a low, rough bark of laughter, like he was fixing to spit again. “Hell,” he said. “You’re just trying to talk your way out of this. And you’re wasting my time and your breath, because I mean to kill you proper this time.”
The whole world seemed to slow down then. Sawyer saw Duggins swing the rifle barrel in his direction, and he’d begun to pull the trigger back on the .45, but before either of them managed to fire, the night ripped apart, rent by a crimson flash of gunpowder and a boom so loud that it rattled the schoolhouse windows.
Duggins folded to the ground, with the gruesome grace of a dancer dying in midpirouette. His rifle struck the ground and went off, the bullet making a
sound as it tore away a chunk of the schoolhouse roof.