Authors: Linda Lael Miller
Tags: #Romance, #Western, #Fiction
Inwardly, Piper sighed. Doc, having only the best of intentions himself, mistakenly believed that everyone else was the same way.
“I’ll tie Cherokee behind the sleigh and lead him out to the ranch,” Clay told Piper. “That way, you won’t have to worry about feeding and watering him if it snows again.”
“Thank you,” Piper said crisply. This, it seemed, was Clay’s version of appeasement, at least in part. “When will you be back?” The question was addressed to both Clay and Doc Howard.
“I’ll get here tomorrow if it’s at all possible,” Doc promised.
“Soon as I can,” Clay said, in his turn. “Dara Rose tells me the baby’s dropped a little, says it means we’ll have another daughter or a son anytime now, so a lot depends on how she’s feeling.”
“Maybe Dara Rose would be safer in town,” Piper said, fretful again as she thought of her cousin way out there on that lonely ranch, heavily pregnant. “Closer to Doc.”
” Doc reminded them both.
“You’ve delivered babies before,” Piper said. It was true; she herself knew of two different occasions when he had served as midwife.
“Only because I didn’t have a choice,” Doc answered.
“I’ve brought a few colts and calves into the world,” Clay put in, affably confident. “It can’t be all that different.”
Piper had had enough male wisdom for one day. As much as she dreaded their leaving, a part of her couldn’t wait for both Clay
Doc to make themselves scarce. Naturally, that meant she’d be alone with Sawyer again, but he slept most of the time anyway.
“Tell Dara Rose I’m grateful for the things she sent to town for me,” she said moderately. “Especially the book.”
Clay smiled. “She wrote you a letter, too. It’s in the box somewhere.”
The news heartened Piper, and at the same time made her regret that she hadn’t anticipated this and prepared a letter of her own, to send back with Clay. “I hope to see all of you at the Christmas program, if not before then,” she said.
Clay looked dubious. “I’ll do my best to bring the girls in for the party, if the weather allows, but I can’t see Dara Rose making the trip.”
“No,” Piper agreed sadly. “I suppose not. She’s well, though?”
Clay smiled. “She’s just fine, Piper. Don’t you worry.” His eyes lit up. “Tell you what. If Sawyer’s better by then, I’ll bring both of you out to the ranch Christmas Eve, after the program, and we’ll all celebrate the big day together. I’ll even see that you get back to Blue River before school takes up again after New Year’s.”
“I’d like that,” Piper said, cheered. The prospect of spending time with her cousin and the children, holding the baby if it had arrived by then, and, yes, taking long, luxurious baths in Dara Rose’s claw-footed tub, complete with hot and cold running water, renewed her.
A few minutes later, after bringing in more water and firewood, Clay and the doctor left.
Piper watched them go through the schoolhouse window, Sawyer’s buckskin gelding plodding along behind the team and sled. The sky had gone from blue to gray, she saw with trepidation, but she kept her thoughts in the present moment, since worrying wouldn’t do any good.
Emptying the crate Dara Rose had filled for her took up a happy half hour—there were notes from Edrina and Harriet, as well as a long, chatty letter from their mother—and Piper, feeling rich, made herself a pot of tea, lit the lantern against the gathering gloom of a winter afternoon, and sat down at her desk to read.
Dara Rose gave a comical account of ranch life, especially in her current condition, assured Piper that she had nothing to fear from Sawyer McKettrick, and related funny things the children had said. Between the approach of Christmas and being virtually snowed in, Edrina and Harriet had an excess of energy and bickered constantly, settling down only when Clay reminded them that St. Nicholas paid attention to good behavior and dispensed gifts accordingly.
By the time she’d finished reading the letter through for the first time, Piper was both smiling and crying a little. She’d miss Dara Rose and the children terribly if she went back to Maine, she reminded herself silently. They were all the family she had, after all, here
Still, in Maine she wouldn’t be the schoolmarm who’d housed a half-naked outlaw, as she would be here in Blue River. She could get another teaching position and eventually meet a suitable man and get married. Finally have a home and children of her own.
A hoarse shout from the bedroom startled her so much that she nearly upset her cup of tea. Alarmed, she bolted to her feet and hurried in to investigate.
Sawyer sat up in bed, breathing hard, his eyes wild, his flesh glistening with perspiration even though the room was fairly cold, being far from the stove. He was holding the pistol in his right hand, and the hammer was drawn back.
For one hysterical moment, Piper thought the shooter must have returned, maybe crawled in through the high window, but there was no one else in the room.
She kept her gaze on the Colt .45 in Sawyer’s hand. The barrel was long, and it glinted evilly in the thin light.
“Don’t shoot,” she said weakly.
Sawyer came back to himself with a visible jolt, blinked a couple of times, and, much to Piper’s relief, set the gun aside on the night table. “Sorry,” he said. “Guess I must have been dreaming.”
Piper lingered in the doorway, waiting for her flailing heart to slow down to its normal pace. Doc had done a good job of replacing Sawyer’s bandages; they looked clean and white against his skin. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “Dara Rose sent a lovely ham, and some preserves, too.”
He blinked again, then gave a raw chuckle. “You keep asking if I’m hungry,” he said. “Why is that?”
“You haven’t eaten since breakfast,” Piper said, a little defensively. “It’s almost suppertime now.”
Sawyer looked surprised, and she could tell he was wondering where the day had gone. “It is?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Did Clay bring me any clothes?”
She nodded. “Your trunk is right over there,” she said, pointing it out. “Shall I get you something from it?”
He considered the offer. “I’ll do it myself,” he said. “The way I figure it, the more I move around, the better off I’ll be. Besides, I need to go outside again.”
“Your horse is at the ranch,” Piper told him. “Clay took it with him when he left.”
He grinned. “I know that,” he said. “This trip isn’t about the horse.”
Sawyer swung his legs over the side of the bed. Though the quilt covered his private parts, she couldn’t help noticing that he wasn’t wearing trousers.
She backed quickly out of the bedroom, followed by the sound of his laughter.
She didn’t speak to him or even glance in his direction, minutes later, when he came out of the bedroom, but she knew he was dressed this time, instead of wrapping his upper body in a blanket.
She busied herself heating water—she was desperate for a bath, and planned on locking herself in the cloakroom with her small copper tub later on, when she was sure Sawyer had gone back to sleep—and then sliced Dara Rose’s fresh-baked bread and some of the ham, placing the food on plates. She opened a jar of peaches and added those, as well.
Sawyer returned and, forgetting, she looked his way. Saw that he’d strapped on a gun belt when he got dressed. The handle of the Colt .45 jutted beneath his coat, which was shorter than the ruined one, and just as well made.
“Supper,” she said, gesturing toward his full plate, which she’d already carried over to the desk, along with a knife, fork and spoon.
Sawyer nodded in acknowledgment of the one-word invitation, closing the door behind him. “I see there’s another bed in the back room,” he said. “I was going to offer to sleep on the floor so you wouldn’t have to, but I guess that won’t be necessary.”
Piper was at once touched and flustered by this statement, and turned her head so he wouldn’t see that in her face. She wasn’t about to discuss the second bed, because she didn’t expect to sleep in it, but she kept that to herself, too.
“Clay insisted it would be safe to let you have your pistol back,” she said, recalling the look in his eyes when he’d awakened from whatever nightmare he’d been lost in and immediately grabbed the gun, prepared to fire. “I don’t mind telling you that I’m not convinced it was a wise decision.”
Sawyer smiled wanly at this, made his way to her desk, and stood there, looking bewildered. He was wondering where she planned to sit, and she hastened, plate and silverware in hand, to one of the students’ places and sat on the bench.
Looking relieved, and singularly worn out from getting dressed and making the long slog to and from the outhouse, he said he’d like to wash up before he ate.
With a nod of her head, she indicated the basin she’d already filled with warm water and set on top of a bookshelf, along with a bar of soap and a towel. While Sawyer cleansed his hands and splashed his face, she began to eat. The ham and bread tasted especially good, after a couple of days of boiled pinto beans, and just the sight of those lovely peaches, picked in the autumn from Clay and Dara Rose’s own orchard and put up in their kitchen, made her mouth water in anticipation.
Sawyer dried his face and hands with the towel. “I could use a shave,” he said, as he returned to the desk and sat down to have his supper.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Piper replied. The stubble on his chin made him look like the rascal he probably was, but she didn’t find it unattractive. She probably should have, though, she thought. Particularly since they were shut in together, the pair of them, and almost certainly raising more of a scandal with every passing day.
“I’ll buy you a new cloak,” Sawyer said, out of the blue.
Piper stopped eating, delicious though the food was. “I couldn’t accept,” she said hurriedly. “It would be improper.”
He grinned. “We’re way past what’s proper already, wouldn’t you say?”
It was all too true. Piper colored up again. “You needn’t remind me,” she said.
The grin held. “I ruined your other cloak, didn’t I?” Sawyer asked. “The least I can do is replace it, so you don’t freeze to death this winter.”
“I’ll manage,” Piper insisted.
He concentrated on consuming his supper after that, even had a second helping of ham, but his gaze found her every few moments, and each time he looked at her, she saw a twinkle in his eyes.
At last he tired, gathered up his plate and silverware, and looked around for a place to put them.
“I’ll take those,” Piper said, and did. Since there wasn’t a sink in the schoolhouse, she’d wash them later in a basin she reserved for the purpose. By then, she was thinking about the bath she’d take in the cloakroom, once Sawyer had retired to his bed.
Presently, he said good-night and left her alone.
Piper immediately put water on the stove to heat, then hurried outside, to the shed, where she kept the washtub she meant to use.
The snow seemed to be melting, but by the time she returned to the schoolhouse, the hem of her dress was soaked and she was shivering with cold.
It would only be slightly warmer in the cloakroom, she knew, than it was outside, but there was nothing for it. She’d worn these same clothes all of yesterday, then slept in them, and then worn them all day
Now, she felt grimy.
She set the washtub in the cloakroom, filled it bucket by bucket, a process that took a very long time. Sneaking into her bedroom, relieved to see that Sawyer was sleeping peacefully, she collected a flannel nightgown, a washcloth, soap and a towel.
Inside the cloakroom, with a kerosene lantern to light her way, Piper moved the food box in front of the door, just in case, and quickly stripped off her clothes.
Goose bumps sprang up on her bare flesh, and her teeth chattered, but she was resolute. She
bathe, even if it was agony, because being dirty was far worse.
The lantern flickered—there was a breeze coming up through the cracks between the planks in the floor—and the bathwater, having taken so long to prepare, was lukewarm when she stepped into it.
Piper scrubbed diligently, dried off with the towel, and donned the flannel nightgown.
The prospect of sleeping on the floor again loomed before her and, as she moved the food box aside, took up the lantern and fled the cloakroom with her discarded day garments wadded up under one elbow, she wondered just how much one small, well-meaning and wholly decent person was meant to endure for the sake of propriety. Especially when that particular horse was already out of the barn, so to speak.
She stopped suddenly when she realized Sawyer was seated at her desk again, wearing half a shirt, since he hadn’t been able to put his injured arm through the appropriate sleeve.
He looked up from the book he was reading and smiled. “I wondered if you were shut up in there,” he said, with a nod toward the gaping door of the cloakroom. “Even considered coming to your rescue.”
“I thought you were asleep,” Piper said, still shivering even though—or perhaps
—she was wearing her warmest nightgown.
Sawyer’s blue-green gaze moved over her like a caress, came back to her face. “Yes,” he agreed. “I suppose you did think that. As it happens, though, I woke up and that was that. So I came out here, expecting to find you asleep on the floor, since you’re probably too stubborn to use that bed even after all the trouble Clay went to to bring it here.”
Piper shifted yesterday’s clothes, petticoat, bloomers and camisole included, from her side to her front, like a rumpled shield. “Don’t look at me,” she said.
He chuckled, averted his eyes. “That’s a tall order,” he replied, “but whatever else I am, I’m a gentleman, so I’ll comply with your request.”
“Good,” Piper said, not moving.
Sawyer seemed to be reading again, but Piper didn’t trust appearances. Nor was she convinced that he was a gentleman.
“Go ahead and take the bedroom,” he said. “I’ll sleep out here.”
silly,” Piper immediately countered, still clutching her clothes against her bosom. Her nightgown was warm enough, but her bare feet felt icy against the planks, where she seemed to be rooted. “You’re in no condition to sleep on a hard floor.”
Sawyer, remaining at her desk with a book open in front of him, smiled and carefully kept his gaze averted. Or so she hoped—desperately.
“Neither are you, I’ll wager,” he said dryly. “Anyhow, I saw a mouse run through here a few minutes ago. Bold little critter, too—scampered right through the middle of the room.”
Piper shuddered, and not just from the cold. She had a horror of things that crawled, slithered or scurried, though she’d kept that information to herself in case any of the rambunctious boys in her class got ideas about scaring Teacher with a garter snake or any other objectionable creature.
“What kind of name is Piper, anyhow?” Sawyer asked, turning the pages of the book so rapidly that he couldn’t possibly be reading from them.
“What kind of name is Sawyer?” she countered, edging toward the stove. If she’d stayed put, she was convinced the soles of her feet would attach themselves to the icy floor. And where, at this precise moment, was that mouse he’d mentioned seeing?
He chuckled. “I’m named after a great-uncle on my mother’s side of the family,” he confessed. His lashes were long, she noticed, the same shade of toasty gold as his hair. “My folks—Kade and Mandy McKettrick—had three girls before me, so I reckon they were prepared to call me Mary Ellen.”
In spite of herself, Piper laughed. She was warmer now, standing so near the stove, but no less embarrassed to be wearing nothing but a nightgown. Oddly, the sensation was not completely unpleasant. “You have three sisters?”
Sawyer nodded. “How about you? Do you have sisters or brothers?”
“I’m an only child,” Piper said.
And an orphan,
added a voice in her mind. “Dara Rose and I were raised together, though, so we’re as close as sisters.”
“That’s good,” Sawyer responded. He cleared his throat. “Aren’t you cold?” he asked.
cold, though the proximity of the stove helped a little. Suddenly, no matter what the shameful implications, she realized she couldn’t bear the idea of sleeping on the floor again. “Do you promise to conduct yourself like a gentleman if I agree to spend the night in the spare bed?” she asked, horrified to hear herself uttering such a thing.
Sawyer lifted his good arm, palm out, as if swearing an oath in a court of law. “You have my word,” he said.
Piper started for the bedroom doorway, giving him as wide a berth as she could in such a small, cramped space. “Wait until I say it’s all right before you come in,” she said.
Suppressing a grin, he nodded his agreement.
And Piper dashed past him, into the room that had been hers and hers alone, until night before last. Using sheets and blankets provided by Dara Rose, along with the bed itself and the lovely supper she and Sawyer had shared that evening, Piper quickly made up a cozy nest. Then, driven by the continuing cold and the shock of her own brazen boldness, she scrambled under the covers and lay there shivering until she’d adjusted to the chill of the sheets.
“I’m—ready,” she sang out, after a long time.
She saw the light from the lanterns, the one she’d used in the cloakroom and the one Sawyer had been reading by, blink out. He appeared in the doorway, a shadow etched against the darkness, and Piper’s heart began to pound so that she dared not speak, lest her voice tremble and betray the nervous excitement she felt.
Sawyer moved through the room, with only a slant of moonlight to see by, and, with an effort Piper could hear from beneath her blankets, took off his clothes. She heard the springs creak as he sat down on the other bed.
“Good night, Miss St. James,” he said, with a smile in his voice. “And sleep well.”
Piper didn’t answer. She was hoping he’d think she was already asleep.
Closing her eyes, she pretended as hard as she could.
* * *
the darkness, Sawyer cupped his right hand behind his head and smiled up at the ceiling, recalling the delicious look of surprise on Piper St. James’s very pretty face a little while before, when she came bursting out of the cloakroom in her nightdress and found him reading at her desk. Her mouth had been blue with cold at the time, and he’d wanted to wrap her up in a blanket—or better yet, his arms—to warm her.
Given her schoolmarm-skittishness, he reckoned that would have been about the worst thing he could do, but knowing that didn’t stop him from imagining the way she’d fit against him, curvy and soft against his own hard lines and angles.
The sensual image tightened his groin painfully, a reaction he wasn’t going to be able to do a damn thing about and therefore had better ignore as best he could. Sawyer set his back teeth, so great was the effort it took to change the course of his thoughts. Altering the path of a river probably would have been easier, he soon concluded.
He willed himself to relax, one muscle group at a time, starting with the part of his anatomy in the most need of quieting, and when he’d finished, still taut and achy in too many places, he resorted to counting in his head, by odd numbers. After a while, as the imagined digits mounted to astronomical totals, he found he could breathe normally again. Some people prayed, and some people counted sheep, but Sawyer always took refuge in arithmetic.
He closed his eyes, hoping to sleep.
It was no use, though. He was too aware of Piper, lying close by, in her spinsterish nightgown, with her glowing, just-bathed skin, and her dark hair clinging to her cheeks and forehead in moist tendrils. The scent of her was like perfume, faintly flowery, subtle.
“Mr. McKettrick?” Her voice was tentative. Soft. “Are you awake?”
He smiled again, having suspected she was playing possum. She’d called him by his given name once or twice that day, but now that they were both bedded down in the same room, “Mr. McKettrick” probably seemed a more prudent way to address him. “I’m awake,” he confirmed.
He heard her draw in a breath. “I was just wondering if—well, if you think the man who shot you might come back?”
Bless her prim little heart, she was scared.
“Not likely,” Sawyer said.
“Because he probably thinks he’s already killed me. Anyway, Blue River is small and a stranger would stand out.”
“That didn’t stop him before,” she reasoned. “He just rode right up and shot you, bold as you please.”
Sawyer grinned harder. His shoulder hurt, and he was lying a few feet from a woman he wanted and couldn’t have, but he was enjoying this exchange. Maybe, he speculated, Miss Piper St. James was scared enough to leave her bed and share his.
“Yep,” he said. “That’s what happened.”
“Suppose he didn’t leave Blue River at all? Because of the storm, I mean. He could be holed up around here somewhere, couldn’t he? Just waiting for his chance to strike again?”
“Maybe,” Sawyer allowed, relishing her concern. If it hadn’t meant Piper and her charges could be caught in the crossfire, he might have welcomed such a confrontation, since he’d be able to return the favor and put a bullet in the bastard, thereby evening the score. “It’s not likely, though.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“I’ve had some experience with these things,” he replied.
isn’t much comfort,” Piper said. “Are you saying that you’ve been shot before?”
He had to chuckle. “No,” he said. “I was referring to the nature of my work, that’s all.”
“What kind of ‘work’ involves getting shot?”
Sawyer said nothing.
“Are you an outlaw, Mr. McKettrick?” Piper persisted.
“Would you believe me if I said I wasn’t?”
She made a muffled sound, like a scream of anger, held captive in her throat. It made him smile again. “I think you owe me an answer,” she said, after a few moments.
“You do, do you?” he teased.
“Are you an outlaw?”
He thought it over. He’d killed a man once, though he’d been defending Henry Vandenburg, his former employer, at the time. Vandenburg’s attacker, one of those wild-eyed anarchist types, had shoved his way through a crowd, in a busy railway station, and thrust the business end of a gun barrel into the boss’s ample belly. Sawyer had stepped in, there was a struggle, and the pistol went off. The would-be killer bled out on the floor before the municipal police arrived in their paddy wagons.
“No,” he answered, feigning offense at the question. “Would Clay have asked me to serve as town marshal if I were?”
“Possibly,” she replied, after some thought. “You’re his cousin, and the two of you grew up together. It might be that he’s just giving you the benefit of the doubt by assuming that you are still the person he knew as a boy.”
“Could be,” Sawyer said, amused. She hadn’t been this talkative before, and he wondered if that meant anything. Then he decided she felt safer speaking her mind because they were under cover of darkness, and she couldn’t see him, or he her.
In a way, it reminded him of the old days on the Triple M, when he and Clay used to spend the night at their grandparents’ house sometimes. The room they’d shared had two beds in it, and the dark of a country night had been like a curtain between them, making it possible to tell each other things they’d have choked on in the daylight.
“That,” Piper said, “is a most unsatisfactory answer.”
“Clay trusts me because I’ve never given him any reason not to,” Sawyer said, relenting. Now that he wasn’t in Vandenburg’s employ any longer, he figured he didn’t have to be so secretive, but he still wasn’t inclined to spill his whole history. “I’m not an outlaw,” he added.
“Then what are you? Only outlaws carry guns.”
“Clay carries one. Is he an outlaw?”
” Piper admitted. “But he’s the marshal.”
There was a silence.
“Are you a lawman?” she asked.
“Not exactly,” Sawyer replied. He wondered if she’d warmed up yet, and if she was still scared—in need of a little manly protection. Being nobody’s fool, he didn’t ask. “How did you become acquainted with a lady of the evening?” he inquired instead, recalling that morning’s visit from Bess Turner.
Piper sounded impatient. “You heard what she said—her daughter, Ginny-Sue, is one of my pupils. And if you’re ‘not exactly’ a lawman, what are you?”
“I was paid to protect a man and his family,” Sawyer said. “And that’s all you need to know.” He barely paused before giving her a dose of her own medicine by barging right into her private business. “Generally, respectable women don’t befriend people like Ginny-Sue’s mother, no matter what the circumstances.”
Her tone was huffy. “Maybe I’m not a respectable woman. Did you ever think of that?”
Sawyer laughed. “Oh, you’re respectable, all right. You wouldn’t be so worried about my seeing you in a nightgown, not to mention our sharing a bedroom, if you weren’t.”
Piper was quiet for so long that Sawyer began to think she’d fallen asleep. Finally, though, she spoke again, and there was a note of gentle sorrow in her voice. “Bess loves her child, just like anybody else, and besides, however misguided she might be, she’s a human being. I see no earthly reason to shun her.”
Something thickened in Sawyer’s throat, which was odd. He wasn’t usually sentimental, especially not over prostitutes like Bess Turner, but something about Piper’s offhand compassion touched him in a deep place, and caused a shift in the way he thought of her.
The realization caused him considerable consternation.
He smiled at Piper’s use of his first name. That was more like it. “What?”
“Don’t be. I won’t hurt you.”
“It’s not you I’m scared of. It’s the man who shot you.”
“In that case,” he said, only half joking, “maybe you’d better crawl in with me.”
“I couldn’t do that!”
“Where’s the harm in it? Your reputation is probably ruined anyhow.”
There was a snap of irritation in her reply. “Be that as it may, I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I am
the sort of woman who gets into bed with a man she isn’t married to.” She swallowed so hard that he heard it. “I’m—unbesmirched.”
In other words, a virgin. No real surprise there.
“I won’t lay a hand on you, Miss St. James,” he assured her. That much was certainly true. He might
to do plenty, once Piper was lying beside him in that narrow bed, but he’d never tried to persuade an unwilling woman to share her favors before and he wasn’t going to start now.
To his amazement, he heard her get out of the other bed, hurry over, and slip in beside him. The mattress was more suited to one than two; they collided, and Piper almost sprang out of bed again when she realized he wasn’t wearing anything but the bandages and the sling on his left arm.
He knew this by the gasp she gave.
Piper,” he said.
She gave a comical little wail. “You might have told me you were—well—
“You didn’t ask,” he pointed out.
“This is horrible,” she lamented. But she was still there, under the covers. With him.
“Hardly,” he said. “We’re just two people keeping each other warm on a cold winter’s night, that’s all.”
“Maybe that’s all it is to
” Piper retorted. “I had hopes of getting married someday, and having a home and a family, before you came along and spoiled everything.”
He smiled in the darkness. “If that’s so, then I’m sorry,” he told her.
sorry,” Piper accused.
He yawned expansively. “Would you be convinced if I rounded up a preacher and the two of us got hitched?”
She gasped again.
He laughed, but the idea of taking a wife—
wife—was already starting to grow on him. He’d have preferred to court Piper St. James properly before he put a ring on her finger and took her home to the Triple M and the rest of the McKettrick family, but she had a point. Whether it was fair or not, she was probably compromised, all right, simply because they’d been alone together for a couple of days and nights. Some folks were just hypocritical enough to assume she’d thrown caution to the winds and succumbed to rampant lust at the first opportunity.