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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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It was downright ridiculous, Sawyer knew, to assume a conscientious schoolmarm would turn into a raving wanton overnight, since she’d given shelter to a wounded stranger of the opposite sex, and never mind the kindness and courage she’d shown by dragging him inside and looking after him as best she knew how. After this, Piper would be no better than Bess Turner, as far as a lot of the locals were concerned.

Piper hadn’t answered his question and now, judging by the moisture he felt against the upper part of his right arm, she was in tears.

“Hey,” he said hoarsely, “don’t cry.”

“I can’t help it,” she sobbed. Since he reckoned she wasn’t the kind who cried easily, this was even worse. “Isn’t it enough that you
ruined my life?
Do you have to add insult to injury by
mocking
me, too?”

Sawyer was honestly confused. “Mocking you?” he rasped. God, he hated it when women cried, especially when it was his fault. Like now. “When did I do that?”

“When you m-made that r-remark about getting—hitched!”

“Piper,” he said, surprising himself as he much as he had her, “I was serious. I’ll marry you, if it’ll make you feel better.”

She struggled to a sitting position, and moonlight turned her tears silvery on her cheeks. Her hair fell loose around her shoulders and down her back, nearly reaching her waist. “But we don’t
love
each other!” she cried, in obvious despair.

Gently, he drew Piper back down beside him, holding her with his good arm. She rested her head on his bare shoulder, sniffling. “That’s true,” he said carefully, “but we certainly wouldn’t be the first couple who ever got married for practical reasons. Clay and Dara Rose tied the knot so she and the girls would have a place to live, and that arrangement worked out.”

Instead of comforting her, Sawyer’s words made her cry harder.

He was confounded, figuring he’d made a good case for holy matrimony.

He patted the back of her head ineffectually, afraid to say anything more in case he got it wrong. Again.

“That’s different!” Piper wailed out, after some shuddering and sniffling.

“What’s different?” Sawyer asked carefully.

“Clay and Dara Rose are different!”

“Why?”

“Because they were in love with each other from the very first,” Piper sobbed. “It just took them a while to notice!”

Against his better judgment, Sawyer laughed. He couldn’t help it. “People get married for all sorts of reasons,” he reiterated, when he’d caught his breath. “Love isn’t always one of them.”

“Well, it should be!”

“Lots of things ‘should be,’ but they aren’t.” It was the wrong thing to say, but Sawyer didn’t realize that until after he’d said it, when she slammed the side of one small fist into his belly. The blow didn’t hurt, but it sure startled him, and it knocked the wind out of him for a moment, too.

Piper might be small, but she packed a punch. Raised by and around strong women, Sawyer considered that a good thing.

“I don’t even know what kind of man you are,” she lamented, though she seemed to be regaining some control of her runaway emotions. “You could be a scoundrel, or worse.”

He smiled. “What’s worse?” he teased. A strand of her hair tickled his mouth, and he decided he liked the feeling.

“Murder,” she said. “Highway robbery.
Bigamy.

“Bigamy?”

“Dara Rose thought she was married to Edrina and Harriet’s father,” Piper blurted out, on one long breath, “and it turned out he already had a wife and children, that stinker!”

Sawyer remembered Clay telling him the story, the year before. He hadn’t thought about it since, though. “I’m not married,” he said quietly. “Never have been.”

She sat up again, looking down at him. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

Was she considering saying yes?

“You don’t,” he said solemnly. “You’ll just have to trust me.”

She ruminated on that for a while, still sitting up. “You didn’t—you couldn’t have—
meant
what you said? About us getting married?”

“I meant it, all right,” Sawyer replied. He actually
liked
the idea, and that was a bit unsettling.

“If we go through with this, it would be a marriage in name only.”

Up until now, Sawyer couldn’t have imagined himself agreeing to such terms, but he did. “All right,” he said. “But I reserve the right to try to change your mind.”

Piper mulled that over. He reckoned she was going to come to her senses and pull out of the deal. “Not until
after
we’re married,” she negotiated.

“Fair enough,” Sawyer said, and something inside him soared, as proud and free as a lone eagle against a wide blue sky. “Can I at least kiss you?”

More consideration on her part followed.

He sat up, careful to keep the quilts in place, just above his waist.

They stared at each other for a while, in the light of a waning moon filtering through a weather-grimed window.

Then she closed her eyes, puckered up, and waited.

Sawyer bit the inside of his lower lip, so he wouldn’t laugh. Then he placed his hand on the back of her head, very gently, and pressed her face toward his. He kissed her, worked her lips with his own until Piper sighed and opened to him.

He used his tongue. Carefully.

She moaned and slipped her arms around his neck.

He deepened the kiss slowly, because she was so obviously an innocent.

Piper whimpered, but she didn’t try to pull away.

It was Sawyer who did that. “Piper,” he said, his voice ragged from the strain of giving up what the rest of his body was demanding, “no more. I’m trying to do the right thing here.”

“I’d better go back to the other bed,” she said shyly.

“That might be a good idea,” Sawyer replied. He was hard as tamarack by then, and he didn’t want Piper to know it.

She left him, got back into the bed Clay had brought in from the ranch. The small distance between them seemed like miles to Sawyer, who fell back onto his pillows with a heavy sigh.

“Sawyer?” Piper said.

He probably sounded abrupt when he replied. “What?”

“I’ve never—” She fell silent, embarrassed again.

“I know,” he said more gently.

And after that, by some miracle, they both went to sleep.

* * *

P
IPER

S
EYES
FLEW
open when she realized it was morning, and she’d not only let Sawyer kiss her in the night, but she’d kissed him
back.
She sat up in her borrowed bed, pulling the covers up to her chin, and looked in his direction, but he wasn’t there.

She scrambled out from under the blankets, landed both feet on the icy floor, and made a dash for her bureau, where she rummaged for bloomers and a camisole. Clutching them in one hand, she grabbed her woolen dress, the one she’d planned on saving for really cold days, and stuck her head out the bedroom door.

Sawyer wasn’t in the schoolroom—he must have gone outside, to the privy.

Piper dressed in seconds, fumbling, hopping about, nearly tripping over her hem in the process, and then did what she could with her hair, winding it into a single plait and twisting it around the back of her head, where she secured it with hairpins.

The schoolroom was warm—Sawyer must have built up the fire—and the delicious aroma of fresh coffee filled the air. She went to the window, looked out. The snow was nearly gone, but she barely took note of that because she spotted Sawyer, dressed and talking amiably with Doc Howard, who didn’t get down off his mule. The poor animal was muddy to its knees.

Piper saw Doc smile and nod his head, and she ducked back from the window quickly, hoping he hadn’t seen her.

What was Sawyer
saying
out there?

Her cheeks flamed so hot that she pressed her palms to her face, trying to cool them down.
Surely
Sawyer wasn’t asking Doc Howard to fetch a preacher, so he and the schoolmarm could “get hitched,” she thought frantically. Yes, they’d talked about marriage, and it had seemed like a viable idea at the time, but in the bright light of day it was—well, it was insane, that’s what it was. It was
out of the question.

She remembered the kiss, felt the heat and pressure on her mouth as surely as if Sawyer’s mouth was on hers right then.

Her heart pounded, and bolts of fiery lightning shot through her, weakening her knees, melting parts of her that were too personal even to
think about.

She
was
wanton, she concluded, horrified. She’d not only
gotten into bed
with Sawyer McKettrick the night before, she’d let him kiss her.
Let
him? She’d as good as thrown herself at the man, and then she’d
carried on.
In fact, if Sawyer hadn’t sent her back to her own bed, she might have been swept away.

Things, she decided, could not possibly get worse.

Except that they did, and almost immediately.

Sawyer opened the door, came inside, spotted her sitting on one of her students’ desks with her hands pressed to her burning face.

He smiled. “There are some kids coming down the road,” he informed her. “Your students, I presume.”

Piper cried out, bolted to her feet. “No!”

“Yes,” Sawyer said. “Doc will be back at three-thirty, with a license and a preacher.” With that, he headed for the bedroom, pausing to pour himself a mug full of coffee along the way. From the inside doorway, he looked back at her over his right shoulder. “Better step lively, Teacher,” he said. “School’s about to be in session.”

He was barely out of sight when Ginny-Sue Turner burst in, cheeks pink, eyes eager. “I know the whole second chapter of Luke!” she blurted joyfully. “By heart!”

Piper’s smile might have been a little shaky, but Ginny-Sue was too young, and too excited, to notice. “That’s wonderful,” she said, resting a hand on the child’s shoulder.

“And Christmas is going to happen, after all!” Ginny-Sue enthused, glowing as she got out of her coat and mittens and warm woolen hat. “Mama said it would, because you told her so.”

Piper’s throat tightened, and she managed a little nod. She had no power to keep another snowstorm away, of course, but this child clearly believed she did.

It was a weighty responsibility.

Madeline Howard arrived next, small and blonde and very pretty, like her mother, followed by half a dozen other children.

“May I ring the bell, Miss St. James?” Madeline asked, beaming.

Piper assented, and the other students arrived by twos and threes. Even Edrina and Harriet made it into town for class—Clay had driven them in a wagon drawn by those same two plow horses he’d hitched to the sledge the day before, and he waved and smiled from the seat, reins in hand.

“Has the baby arrived?” Piper asked breathlessly, after picking her way through the mud to stand beside Clay’s wagon, looking up at him.

He shook his head. “Not yet,” he said, “but Dara Rose was mighty eager to get the girls out of the house this morning, so I figure she’s about ready.”

“You’d better get back there, quick,” Piper said, worried, but thrilled, too. In her excitement, she forgot about Sawyer McKettrick, hiding out in her bedroom behind the schoolhouse.

He’d be discovered, of course, if only because Edrina and Harriet surely knew he was there, and would want to greet him.

Clay nodded, lifted the reins and released the brake lever with his left hand. “Sawyer doing all right?” he asked, in parting.

Piper colored up, quite against her will, but held Clay’s gaze. “Yes,” she said.

Clay touched the brim of his hat in farewell, brought down the reins on the horses’ backs, setting them in noisy motion, and drove away.

If it hadn’t been so cold outside, sunny sky or none, Piper might have lingered in the schoolyard, putting off the moment when she’d have to face her pupils, but she didn’t have a cloak and she’d forgotten to wrap the blanket around her before coming to greet Clay.

So she marched inside, clapping her hands to get the children’s attention.

They were gathered around the undecorated Christmas tree, examining it for bird’s nests and chatting among themselves. Edrina and Harriet, as she’d expected, were out of sight, and she could hear them talking with Sawyer in the back room.

She closed her eyes for a moment.

“Can we fix up the Christmas tree today, Miss St. James?” one of the boys asked. “Jack and me, we could fix up a stand for it in no time, out in the woodshed.”

Piper set her hands on her hips and considered the suggestion in a teacherly way. “That would be fine,” she said, at long last.

The children cheered.

Two of the boys rushed outside, followed by several more.

“Edrina, Harriet!” Piper called pleasantly. “Come out here, please. We’re going to decorate the tree.”

Dara Rose’s children, both beautiful, with heads full of shining curls and cherubic faces, appeared in the bedroom doorway.

Harriet opened her little bow-shaped mouth, most likely on the verge of making some remark about her kinsman’s presence, but Piper quickly pressed an index finger to her own lips, shushing her.

Though she was very young, only in the first grade, Harriet read Piper’s signal and bit back whatever she’d planned to say.

For the next hour, the children kept busy, cutting strips of colorful paper, saved especially for the purpose, and pasting them together in loops, so they turned into long chains.

The boys returned from the shed, triumphant, with several pieces of wood cobbled together to serve as a stand for the tree.

After much ado, the stem of the tree was wedged into the simple stand. Piper found the box of handmade ornaments on the cloakroom shelf and brought it into the schoolroom, where the lid was ceremoniously raised.

Inside were other chains, made by other students and other teachers, along with a few carefully wrapped glass balls, tiny rag-doll angels, and stars cut from tin. Some of the stars had rusted, which only added to their charm, and the children were as enthralled as if they’d just found a pirate’s treasure.

BOOK: An Outlaw's Christmas
6.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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