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Authors: Linda Lael Miller

Tags: #Romance, #Western, #Fiction

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BOOK: An Outlaw's Christmas
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Clay was still in the rocking chair when she returned, looking at the Christmas tree, and he stood up quickly when he realized she was there.

“Sit down, Clay,” she said quietly.

But Clay shook his head. “I’d best be heading for home, anyway,” he said. “There’s not much I can do here, and Dara Rose will be watching the road for me.”

Piper nodded, thick-throated again. One of these days, she reckoned, she might be “watching the road,” too—for Sawyer. Only, unlike Clay, he might never come back to her.

She brought herself up short. She wasn’t a real wife to Sawyer, after all, and the schoolhouse wasn’t their home. When he was well enough, her “husband” would go his way, and she would go hers.

Clay had read her expression before she realized he was looking at her, guessing her thoughts, and he laid a brotherly hand to one side of her face.

“Give Sawyer a little time,” he said. “He’ll get things straight in his head pretty soon.”

“He’s leaving,” she said, not meaning to but unable to hold back the certainty that it was so.

“I reckon if Sawyer goes anywhere, he means to take you right along with him,” Clay replied, very quietly. “I know you have your doubts, Piper, but Sawyer didn’t marry you just to save your reputation. He’s a fine man, but he’s no martyr, and he could have handled this situation a dozen different ways without standing up with you in front of a preacher.”

“Name one,” Piper challenged, too proud to cry but wanting to, wanting to very, very much.

Clay chuckled. “Well, he could have sent you to Dara Rose and me, for one thing. There would have been a scandal, sure, but once folks had a chance to jaw about the particulars for a while, they’d have gone on to something else, and you’d be right back here in this schoolhouse, like nothing ever happened. For one thing, teachers aren’t that easy to come by, way out here. The pay’s pitiful, and it’s a hard, lonely life.”

Piper gave a small, strangled laugh. “How comforting,” she said. “What was I worried about, when I have a ‘pitiful’ stipend and a hard, lonely life to look forward to?”

Clay grinned, shook his head. “I’ve never been good with words,” he allowed. “What I’m trying to say is that everything will be all right in the end.”

“I can’t imagine what makes you so sure of that,” Piper observed.

“Just the same,” Clay countered good-naturedly, “I
am
sure. Besides, it’s almost Christmas. Have a little faith, will you?”

Have a little faith, will you?

Clay’s offhand injunction played in Piper’s mind long after Doc and Clay had both left the schoolhouse.

Easy enough for him to say, she concluded, as she built up the fire and rummaged through the food box in the cloakroom for the makings of a simple meal.

Upon awakening, Sawyer still looked like hell-warmed-over, but he insisted on joining her in the schoolroom for supper. She gave him the desk chair again, and refrained from conversation since he looked a mite grumpy. His fresh bandages were bulky under his sling, and perhaps a little too tight.

“Clay’s gone home?” he asked, finally.

Piper refrained from pointing out the obvious. “Yes,” she said mildly. “He fed and watered Cherokee before he left, and brushed him down, too.”

Sawyer nodded, thanked her when she put a plate in front of him, containing scrambled eggs, some fried ham, and two thick slices of bread toasted on top of the stove. Ate slowly and awkwardly, and with a dignity that pinched Piper’s heart.

“In a few days, it will be Christmas,” she said, finding the silence unbearable.

“Yes,” Sawyer said dully. She knew without asking what was bothering him, or part of it, at least. The aftermath of a death was always sobering, and on top of that, he’d found riding a horse, something he’d probably done almost every day of his life, with unthinking ease, to be suddenly difficult.

“I wonder how Bess is holding up,” Piper said. She’d nibbled on some toasted bread earlier, while cooking, but she really wasn’t very hungry, so she hadn’t filled a plate for herself.

“To hear Doc tell it,” Sawyer answered, his eyes bleak, “she’s got other concerns. Her little girl’s come down with something.”

“Ginny-Sue is sick?” Piper asked, immediately concerned.

Sawyer nodded. “Doc wanted to go and see her, but his wife put her foot down. Said she’d leave him, and take their daughter with her, if he showed his face in a brothel, no matter what the reason.”

Piper thought of Ginny-Sue’s beaming delight over memorizing the second chapter of Luke, her parting assurance that Christmas would happen for certain now, with the big snowstorm over.

And she put one trembling hand to her mouth.

Sawyer, seeing her face, looked regretful. “Doc said it was probably nothing serious,” he said. “Sure, Bess is worried, but you know how mothers are.”

Piper was already on her feet, hurrying into the cloakroom, taking the lovely russet cape from its hook and swinging it around her shoulders. She was raising the hood to keep the wind from stinging her ears as she emerged into the schoolroom.

Sawyer was standing by then. “Hold on a second,” he said, frowning. “Where are you going? It’s dark out, Piper, and it’s cold.”

“Drat that Eloise Howard,” Piper muttered, and that had to suffice for an answer. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

With that, she left the schoolhouse.

It
was
dark, and the wind was brisk, but her cape protected her.

As she crossed the yard, Sawyer called to her from the doorway of the school. “Piper, wait! I’ll come with you—”

She turned, still walking, but backward. “You’ll be nothing but a hindrance,” she called in response. “Stay here, please.”

“Piper!” Sawyer yelled, when she turned her back on him again and marched onward.

Thinking only of Ginny-Sue, Piper picked up her pace.

Passing the churchyard, she saw the new grave, where Mr. Duggins had been laid to rest, God forgive him. She wondered if he’d had family somewhere, parents or a wife and children, say, and if anybody would shed tears of sorrow when word of his passing reached them.

On the main street of town, the businesses and shops were all closed up and dark. Except, of course, for the Bitter Gulch Saloon, which seemed to be doing a rousing trade, as usual.

Piper stopped on the plank sidewalk, eyeing the swinging doors with trepidation. Light spilled over and under them, like some smoky liquid, and the tinny clinkity-clink of an out-of-tune piano, badly played, tinkled in the cold air.

Deciding, after much personal deliberation, that she wasn’t quite bold enough to walk through those rickety doors into the sawdust heart of a saloon, Piper bustled around back, moving between the buildings, and approached the much less daunting rear entrance.

Standing on a small porch with her chin high and her shoulders squared, she knocked purposefully.

A rotund black woman answered, wide-eyed at the sight of Piper. She laid one hand to her substantial bosom and sucked in a shocked breath. “Lord, have mercy,” she said. “It’s the schoolmarm!”

Piper drew a deep breath. “Let me in, please,” she said. She’d seen the woman once or twice, over at the mercantile, but they’d never exchanged more than a few words. “I’ve come to look in on Ginny-Sue.”

“But, ma’am,” the woman argued, “this here’s a
bawdy
house!”

As if she hadn’t known. Piper looked over one shoulder, half expecting to see Sawyer in pursuit, but he hadn’t caught up to her yet. She met the cook’s horrified gaze again and whispered, “Hurry. There’s no time to lose.”

The woman stepped back, admitting Piper to a large and amazingly ordinary kitchen, well-equipped, with a big cast-iron cookstove, bins for sugar and flour, a table surrounded by matching chairs, and a cabinet filled with lovely china. There was even a sink.

“You really shouldn’t be here,” insisted Bess Turner’s cook, in an anxious whisper. “Anybody sees you, there’ll be hell to pay!”

Piper put out a hand and introduced herself as Mrs. McKettrick, rather than Miss St. James. It was a small indulgence, she thought. No harm in pretending for a little while.

“Cleopatra Brown,” the cook responded. Her eyes looked enormous in her round ebony face. “You wait here, and I’ll fetch Miss Bess.”

Piper had spotted the rear stairway by then, and she wanted to climb it, open doors until she found Ginny-Sue, see the child for herself. If Ginny-Sue was seriously ill, she meant to get Doc Howard by the collar and
drag
him over here, and to the devil with any objections
Mrs.
Howard might raise.

She paced while Cleopatra was out of the room, went once or twice to peek through the misted-over window in the back door, in case Sawyer had tracked her this far.

Of course, he, being a man, would probably enter by the
front
way.

The rush of annoyance at the idea sustained Piper in the face of her already waning courage.

After a few minutes—very
long
minutes—Bess descended the rear stairway, be-feathered and bejeweled, with her face painted like a garish mask. Cleopatra hovered close behind.

“You shouldn’t have come,” Bess fretted, pausing halfway down, but there was a spark of something that might have been hope in her jaded eyes.

“Nevertheless, I have,” Piper replied briskly. “I must know about Ginny-Sue. How is she?”

“She’s poorly,” Bess admitted, coming the rest of the way down the stairs. “She’s real poorly. It came on sudden-like—she was playing outside without her hat and mittens—said she’d found a cat hiding in the woodpile and she was trying to get it to come inside for some warm milk—”

Piper took both Bess’s hands, found them colder than her own, even after the walk from the schoolhouse. “I’ll get Doc Howard,” she said.

“He won’t come,” Bess said, with sad certainty.

“He
will,
” Piper replied, “if I have to drag him!”

Bess smiled tentatively. “If you’d just say howdy to Ginny-Sue, I’m sure that would bring her right around,” she said. “She thinks you hung the moon right up there in the sky, you know.”

Piper’s eyes burned. “Take me to her,” she said. “Please.”

Bess nodded once, turned, and led the way back up the staircase to the second floor, her thin shoulders stooped and mostly bared by the scantiness of her dress. Cleopatra moved aside to let both women pass, but she didn’t look at all congenial, no doubt thinking that nothing good could come of the schoolmarm’s highly improper visit to the upper reaches of a brothel.

Piper might have conceded the point, if challenged, but she didn’t hesitate, let alone turn back.

The upstairs hallway was lined with gilt-framed mirrors, and there was a costly runner, probably Turkish, on the floor. The air smelled of talcum powder, stale sweat, and quiet depravity.

To know that little Ginny-Sue was growing up in this place was almost more than Piper could endure. Given her druthers, she’d have bundled the child up in a blanket and physically carried her out of here, never to return.

Bess stopped in front of a door and rapped lightly at the framework. “Let me in, Emmie,” she called out softly.

Piper heard a key turn in the lock, and the door creaked open, revealing a scrawny, bare-faced woman clad in a red silk wrapper. Emmie, presumably.

Relieved to learn that someone had been sitting with Ginny-Sue, and that there was a locked door to protect her from unwanted visitors, Piper smiled at Emmie, though only slightly.

Emmie, stepping back to admit them, widened her eyes. Piper concluded that she probably looked as exotic to the other woman as Emmie did to her.

“She’s no better,” Emmie said to Bess.

The inside of that room was a revelation to Piper, at complete odds with the structure that surrounded and upheld it, but at the moment she was concerned only with Ginny-Sue.

The little girl lay in a huge and elegant bed, with gilt posts and a painting of sheep and shepherdesses on the headboard. She opened her eyes, smiled a tiny smile when she saw Piper.

“I know the whole second chapter of Luke,” Ginny-Sue said.

“Shhh,” Piper said, smoothing back the child’s hair. Her forehead was hot and dry, though the front of her finely embroidered nightgown clung damply to her small chest. “How do you feel?”

“My throat hurts,” Ginny-Sue confided, and her hand fluttered up to rest there, fragile as a hatchling bird.

Piper blinked back tears. Smiled. “Maybe you’ve been practicing your piece too much—for the Christmas program, I mean.”

Ginny-Sue smiled back, but the effort seemed to exhaust her. “Is it Christmas yet?” she asked. “Did I miss the program?”

Piper shook her head quickly. “No, sweetheart. Christmas is still a few days away.”

Emmie and Bess slipped out, leaving teacher and pupil alone.

Ginny-Sue closed her eyes, but the smile lingered, faint, on her lips.

Piper looked around then, noticed the fireplace, with a lovely blaze burning on the hearth, the velvet draperies on the windows, the carpets on the floor. Paintings of flowers, delicately wrought in watercolor, graced the walls. There were easy chairs, upholstered in cheery prints, and a door opened onto a bathroom. She could see the side of a long porcelain tub. And there was electricity, at least here, if nowhere else in the Bitter Gulch Saloon.

This, then, was the haven Bess Turner had made for her child, a place apart, a world that belonged only to the two of them.

Piper turned back to Ginny-Sue, gently took her hand, and seated herself on the edge of the fancy bed.

Then she closed her eyes and she prayed.

Ginny-Sue slept on.

Cleopatra came back into the room, bringing a tray laden with tea things. “There’s a man downstairs,” she said solemnly. “Says you’d better come and talk to him.” China rattled as she set the tray down, poured fragrant, steaming orange pekoe into a translucent cup. “What do you want me to tell him?”

“Does he have one arm in a sling?” Piper asked calmly.

“Yes, ma’am, he do,” Cleopatra answered.

Sawyer, of course. “Tell him to fetch Doc, or send somebody else if he’s not strong enough. Whoever goes is to say that if Mrs. Howard objects, I’ll come over there myself and see to the matter personally, and she does not want that to happen.”

BOOK: An Outlaw's Christmas
4.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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