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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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As she was returning to the shelter of the schoolhouse, holding her skirts up so she wouldn’t trip over the hem, she spotted a rider just approaching the gate at the top of the road and recognized him immediately, even through the falling snow.

Clay McKettrick.

Piper’s whole being swelled with relief.

She waited, saw Clay’s grin flash from beneath the round brim of his hat. His horse high-stepped toward her, across the field of snow, steam puffing from its flared nostrils, its mane and tail spangled with tiny icicles.

“I told Dara Rose you’d be fine here on your own,” Clay remarked cordially, dismounting a few feet from where Piper stood, all but overwhelmed with gratitude, “but she insisted on finding out for sure.” A pause, a troubled frown as he took in her rumpled calico dress. “Where’s your coat? You’ll catch your death traipsing around without it.”

She ignored the question, wide-eyed and winded from the hard march through the snow.

Clay was a tall, lean man, muscular in all the right places, and it wasn’t hard to see why her cousin loved him so much. He was pleasing to look at, certainly, but his best feature, in Piper’s opinion, was his rock-solid character. He exuded quiet strength and confidence in all situations.

He would know what to do in this crisis, and he would
do
it.

“There’s a man inside,” Piper blurted, finding her voice at last and gesturing toward the schoolhouse. By then, the cold was indeed penetrating her thin dress. “He’s been shot. His horse is in the shed and—”

Clay’s expression turned serious, and he brushed past her, leaving his own mount to stand patiently in the yard.

Piper hurried into the schoolhouse behind Clay.

He crouched, laying one hand to the man’s unhurt shoulder. “Sawyer?” he rasped. “Damn it, Sawyer—
what happened to you?

CHAPTER 2

S
awyer, Piper thought distractedly—Sawyer
McKettrick,
Clay’s cousin, the man he’d been expecting for weeks now. That explained the initials on the man’s holster, if not much else.

Down on one knee beside the other man now, Clay took off his snowy hat and tossed it aside. Piper caught the glint of his nickel-plated badge, a star pinned to the front of his heavy coat. Clay was still Blue River’s town marshal, but it was a job he was ready to hand over to someone else, so he could concentrate on ranching and his growing family.

“Sawyer!” Clay repeated, his tone brusque with concern.

Sawyer’s eyes rolled open, and a grin played briefly on his mouth. “I must have died and gone to hell,” he said in a slow, raspy drawl, “because I’d swear I’ve come face-to-face with the devil himself.”

Clay gave a raucous chuckle at that. “You must be better off than you look,” he commented. “Can you get to your feet?”

Solemnly amused, Sawyer considered the question for a few moments, moistened his lips, which were dry and cracked despite Piper’s repeated efforts to give him water during the night, and struggled to reply, “I don’t think so.”

“That’s all right,” Clay said, gruffly gentle, while Piper’s weary mind raced. She’d heard a few things about Sawyer, and some of it was worrisome—for instance, no one, including Clay, seemed to know which side of the law he was on—though Dara Rose had liked him. “I’ll help you.” With that, Clay raised Sawyer to a sitting position, causing him to moan again and his bandages to seep with patches of bright red, draped his cousin’s good arm over his shoulders, and stood, bringing the other man up with him.

“I’ll put Sawyer on your bed, if that’s all right,” Clay said to Piper, already headed toward her quarters in the back. The schoolhouse was small, and everybody knew how it was laid out, since the building of it had been a community effort.

When word got around that she’d harbored a man under this roof, bleeding and insensible with pain or not, her reputation would be tarnished, at best.

At worst? Completely ruined.

The injustice of that was galling to Piper, but nonetheless binding. Lady teachers in particular were scrutinized for the slightest inclination toward wanton behavior, though their male counterparts sometimes courted and then married one of their students, with impunity. A practice Piper considered reprehensible.

“Certainly,” she said now, well aware that Clay hadn’t been asking her permission but feeling compelled to offer some kind of response.

She hovered in the doorway of her room—little more than a lean-to, really—with one tiny window, high up, while Clay wrestled Sawyer out of his coat then eased him down carefully onto the bed, pulled off his boots.

The effort of going even that far must have been too much for Sawyer, strong as he looked, because he shut his eyes again, and didn’t respond when Clay spoke to him.

“I’ll get the doc,” Clay said to Piper, as she stepped out of the doorway to let him pass. “Do you have any more blankets? It’s important to keep him warm.”

Piper thought with a heavy heart of the fine, colorful quilts lying neatly folded in her hope chest. She’d always envisioned them gracing the beds of some lovely house, once she was married, like Dara Rose, with a proper home.

“Yes,” she said bravely, and though she didn’t begrudge Sawyer McKettrick those quilts, she couldn’t help lamenting their fate. She’d worked hard to assemble them from tiny scraps of fabric, carefully saved, and many of the pieces were all she had to remember friends she’d left behind in Maine.

She swept over to her bulky cedar chest, raised the lid, and rummaged through the treasured contents—doilies and potholders, tablecloths and dish towels and the like—until she’d found what she was looking for.

As she spread the first of those exquisitely stitched coverlets over Mr. McKettrick, he stirred again, opened his eyes briefly, and smiled. “Thanks, Josie,” he said, and there was a caress in the way he said the name.

Briskly, because she was a little hurt, though she couldn’t have pinpointed the reason why such an emotion should afflict her, Piper put another quilt on top of her patient, and then another.

Then, because it was nearly eight o’clock, she went to the other end of the building, where the bell rope dangled, and gave it a tug. Surely none of her pupils would make it to school on such a day, but Piper believed in maintaining routine, especially during trying times. There was something reassuring about it.

The silvery bell, high overhead in its little belfry, chimed once, twice, three times, summoning students who would not come.

Piper’s hands, rope-burned from hauling up well water the night before, stung fiercely, and she was almost glad, because the pain gave her something to think about besides the man sprawled on her spinster’s bed, probably bleeding all over her quilts.

She retrieved a tin of Wildflower Salve from her bureau, careful not to make too much noise and disturb Mr. McKettrick. Carrying the salve back to her schoolroom, she sat down at her desk and smiled a little as she twisted off the pretty little lid to treat her sore palms.

There was an abundance of the stuff, since Dara Rose, impoverished after the scandalous death of her first husband, upstairs at the Bitter Gulch Saloon, had once planned to sell the product door-to-door in hopes of making enough money to support herself and her two small daughters, Edrina and Harriet. Instead, Dara Rose had fallen in love with Clay McKettrick, married him, and thus retained what amounted to a lifetime supply of medicinal salve, which she generously shared.

A half hour passed before Clay returned, with Dr. Jim Howard, the local dentist, riding stalwartly along beside him on the mule that usually pulled his buggy.

Everybody in Blue River liked Dr. Howard, whose young daughter, Madeline, was one of Piper’s best students. At eight, the little girl could read and cipher with the acuity of an adult.
Mrs.
Howard, however, was not so easy to like as her husband and daughter. Eloise wore nothing but velvet or silk, dismissed the town as a “bump in the road” and told anyone who would listen that she’d “married down.”

“Miss St. James,” Dr. Howard greeted her, with a friendly smile and a tug at the brim of his Eastern-style hat, as he stomped the snow off his boots on the schoolhouse porch, the way Clay had done a moment before. Doc was a large man, good-natured, older than his wife by some twenty years, and his eyes were a kindly shade of blue. He carried a battered leather bag in one gloved hand.

Piper barely stopped herself from rushing over and embracing the man, she was so glad to see him. The responsibility of keeping Mr. McKettrick alive had, she realized, weighed more heavily upon her than she’d thought it did.

She merely nodded in acknowledgment, though, as he closed the door against the cold daylight wind, and she hung back when Clay led the way through the schoolroom and into the chamber behind it.

Of course she couldn’t help overhearing most of the conversation between Clay and Dr. Howard, given that the whole place was hardly larger than Dara Rose’s chicken coop out on the ranch, classroom, teacher’s quarters and all.

Clay was asking how bad the injury was, and Dr. Howard replied that it was serious enough, but with luck and a lot of rest, the patient would probably recover.

Probably
recover? Piper thought, sipping from the mug of coffee she’d poured for herself. When Clay and the doctor—more commonly referred to as “Doc”—came out of the back room, she’d offer them some, too. She owned three cups, not including the bone china tea service for six nestled in her hope chest, which would remain precisely where it was, unlike her once pristine quilts.

“I’d like to take Sawyer out to my place,” she heard Clay say.

“Better wait a few days,” came Doc’s response. “He’s lost a lot of blood. The bullet went clear through him, though, which saves me having to dig it out, and Miss St. James did a creditable job of binding him up. He’ll have scars, but the wound looks clean, thanks to her.” A pause followed. “There’s a bottle of carbolic acid in my bag there—hand it to me, will you?”

There was another short silence, during which Clay must have done as Doc asked, soon followed by a hoarse shout of angry protest from the patient. He swore colorfully, and Piper winced. She believed that cursing revealed a poor vocabulary, among other personal shortcomings.

“Can’t take a chance on infection setting in,” the dentist said peaceably, evidently unruffled by the outburst. “The burning will stop after a while.”

Sawyer muttered something unintelligible.

Piper’s hands trembled as she set her coffee mug down on her desk. Doc’s reply to Clay’s statement about taking his cousin out to the ranch echoed in her mind.
Better wait a few days.

All well and good, she thought fretfully, but what was
she
supposed to do in the meantime? There was only one bed, after all, and she couldn’t sleep in a chair until the man was well enough to be moved, could she?

Mr. McKettrick was indeed badly injured, but this was a
schoolhouse,
frequented by children five days a week—children who would go home after dismissal and tell their parents there was a strange man recuperating in Miss St. James’s room. She wouldn’t be able to hide him from them any more than she could hide that enormous gelding of his, quartered in the shed out back. Even unconscious, Sawyer filled the place with his presence, breathed up all the air.

Clay emerged from her room just then, took a second mug from the shelf near the stove and poured himself some coffee. He was probably cold, Piper realized with some chagrin, having ridden in from the ranch, proceeded to Doc Howard’s, and then made his way back to the schoolhouse again.

“I guess we’ve got a problem,” he said now. Was there a twinkle in those very blue eyes of his as he studied her expression?

“Yes,” Piper agreed, somewhat stiffly. Maybe Clay found the situation amusing, but
she
certainly didn’t.

Clay took another sip, thoughtful and slow, from his mug. He’d shed his long coat soon after he and Doc arrived, and his collarless shirt was open at the throat, showing the ridged fabric of his undergarment. Like Sawyer, he wore a gun belt, but he’d set the pistol aside earlier, an indication of his good manners. “You probably heard what Doc Howard said,” he told her, after a few moments of pensive consideration. “I could stay here with Sawyer and send you on out to the ranch to stay with Dara Rose and the girls, but it’s hard going, with the snow still so deep.”

Jim Howard came out of Piper’s room, wiping his hands clean on a cloth that smelled of carbolic acid. “I gave him some laudanum,” he told Clay. “He’ll sleep for a while.”

Piper propped her own hands on her hips. She’d spent a mostly sleepless night hoping and praying that someone would come to help, and she’d gotten her wish, but for all that, the problem was only partially solved.

Perhaps she should have been more specific, she reflected, rueful.

“Must I point out to you gentlemen,” she began, with dignity, “that this arrangement is highly improper?”

Clay’s grin was slight, but it was, nonetheless, a grin, and it infuriated her. She was an unmarried woman, a schoolmarm, and there was
a man in her bed,
likely to remain there for the foreseeable future. All her dreams for the future—a good husband, a home, and children of her own—could be compromised, and through no fault of her own.

“I understand your dilemma, Piper,” he said, sounding like an indulgent older brother, “but you heard the doc. Sawyer can’t be moved until that wound of his mends a little.”

“Surely you could take him as far as the hotel without doing harm,” Piper reasoned, quietly frantic. She kept her hands at her sides, but the urge to wring them was strong.

Dr. Howard shook his head. Helped himself to the last mug and some coffee. “That could kill him,” he said bluntly, but his expression was sympathetic. “I’m sure Eloise wouldn’t mind coming over and helping with his care, though. She’s had some nursing experience, and it would temper any gossip that might arise.”

As far as Piper was concerned, being shut up with Eloise Howard for any length of time would be worse than attending to the needs of a helpless stranger by herself.
Much
worse.

“I couldn’t ask her to do that,” Piper said quickly. “Mrs. Howard has you and little Madeline to look after.” She turned a mild glare on Clay. “Your cousin needs
male
assistance,” she added. She’d dragged Sawyer McKettrick in out of the cold, cleaned his wound, even taken care of his horse, but she wasn’t
about
to help him use the chamber pot, and that was final.

“I’ll do what I can,” Clay said, “but Dara Rose is due to have our baby any day now. I can’t leave her out there alone, with just the girls and a few ranch hands. Once the weather lets up, though…”

His words fell away as Piper’s cheeks flared with the heat of frustration. She could demand to be put up in the hotel herself, of course, until Sawyer McKettrick was well enough to leave the schoolhouse, but that would mean he’d be alone here. And he was in serious condition, despite Doc’s cheerful prognosis.

What if something went wrong?

Besides, staying in hotels cost money, and even there in the untamed West, many of them had policies against admitting single women—unless, of course, they were ladies of the evening, and thus permitted to slip in through an alley door, under cover of darkness, and climb the back stairs to ply their wretched trade.

“You do realize,” Piper persisted, “that I have nowhere to sleep?”
And no good man will
ever
marry me because my morals will forever be in question, even though I’ve done nothing wrong.

Dr. Howard walked over and laid a fatherly hand on her shoulder. “I’ll bring over anything you need,” he assured her. “And stop in as often as I can. I’m sure Clay will do the same.”

Clay nodded, but he was looking out the window, at the ceaseless snow, and his expression was troubled. “I’ve got to get back to Dara Rose,” he said.

BOOK: An Outlaw's Christmas
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