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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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Soon, the tree stood glittering, ready for Christmas.

By midday, the weather was turning gloomy again, the sky dark and heavy with snow, and fathers and uncles arrived in wagons and on horseback, to collect their offspring and see them safely home. Two of the mothers came as well, and peered curiously at Piper, as though they weren’t sure they recognized her.

When the first fat snowflakes drifted down, Ginny-Sue took her leave, squeezing Piper’s hand before she hurried outside. “Don’t worry, Teacher,” she said.

“Christmas will still come—you’ll see!”

CHAPTER 6

O
f all Piper’s
pupils, only Edrina and Harriet remained at the schoolhouse, waiting for Clay to come for them. Heedless of the continuing snow, they laughed with Sawyer, who had hauled Piper’s rocking chair out of the bedroom and now sat with one of the little girls on each knee, telling stories about himself and Clay as boys.

The fire in the stove warmed the room and steamed up the windows in a cozy way, and the Christmas tree lent a definite air of festivity, but Piper was nervous, just the same.

From a practical standpoint, she knew that Clay wasn’t late—it was not quite three o’clock and he had farther to travel than most of the other parents—and even if he’d gotten off to an early start, the weather would surely slow him down.

No, it was Dara Rose she was concerned about.

Hadn’t Clay said, that very morning, that Dara Rose had seemed anxious to get her daughters out of the house? Wasn’t that an indication that the baby might be coming?

Piper bit her lower lip and busied herself at her desk, pretending to study her attendance records. Dara Rose was healthy, she reminded herself, and strong. She’d had two other children with no problem at all, hadn’t she?

But Edrina and Harriet had been born in a large
city,
with a real doctor present at each of their births, and Dara Rose had been younger then.

Was she giving birth right now, this minute, way out there on that isolated ranch?

Had she run into some kind of trouble with the delivery, the kind Clay didn’t have the knowledge or skill to handle?

At three-fifteen Piper heard the squeal of wagon wheels being braked, the snorting and tromping of horses, and rushed to the front window to wipe away some of the mist and look outside.

Clay, wearing a heavy coat, with the brim of his hat pulled low over his eyes to shield his face from the blustery weather, jumped down from the wagon box and left the team standing, their nostrils puffing out white clouds of breath.

Piper looked harder, trying to discern something from Clay’s bearing or manner—his face was still hidden from view by the angle of his hat—but he revealed nothing as he made his way toward the schoolhouse with long, even strides.

Edrina and Harriet must have heard the team and wagon, too, because they were beside Piper in a matter of moments, standing on tiptoe, fingers gripping the windowsill, trying to see out. Perhaps they’d been more anxious than they’d let on.

Clay finally reached the porch, paused to stomp the snow and mud from his boots.

Piper wrenched open the door, but stepped aside when Edrina and Harriet scrambled past her.

Clay stepped over the threshold, shut the door, and crouched, putting out an arm for each of the girls. His hat fell backward and the beaming smile on his face was revealed.

“Girls,” he told his stepdaughters, his eyes misting over like the windows, “you’ve got a brand-new baby brother waiting for you out at the ranch. Your mama’s just fine, and she’s hankering to show the little fellow off to you.”

Edrina and Harriet jumped up and down with happiness as Clay straightened, nodded a brief greeting to Sawyer, then shifted his gaze to Piper.

“It was an easy birth,” he told her quietly. “Dara Rose is well, if a mite worn-out, and the baby is big enough to fight bear with a switch.”

Piper wept tears of joyful relief and gave Clay a quick, sisterly hug.

“Congratulations,” she said, stepping back and smiling up at him.

That was when she felt Sawyer standing behind her. He rested his good hand on her shoulder briefly before reaching past her to extend it to Clay.

The two men shook hands.

“Another McKettrick,” Sawyer said. “I’m not sure the world is ready for that.”

Clay laughed. His face and ears were red with cold, but his eyes gleamed with love and pride. “We’re going to call him Jeb,” he said, “after my pa.”

“Will you stay for coffee?” Piper asked, out of practicality. “It’ll help keep you warm on the way back home.”

But Clay shook his head in refusal, nodded to the girls to get their things together so the three of them could get going. “If we hurry, we can make it before dark,” he said, more to Piper and Sawyer than the children, who were busy bundling up for the long, chilly ride ahead. “Dara Rose will fret if we’re not back in time for supper.”

Piper felt tearful again, full of longing. Oh, to go with Clay and Edrina and Harriet, to make supper for the family and fuss over Dara Rose and the new baby.

Clay seemed to read her mind. “It’ll be Christmas soon,” he said, gruffly gentle. “You’ll see Dara Rose and make Jeb’s acquaintance then.”

She swallowed, nodded, and hastened to help Edrina and Harriet with their coats and hats and mittens and scarves. She kissed each one of them goodbye—when the other pupils were around she tried hard not to show favoritism—and said she’d see them in the morning, if the weather allowed.

“You need anything?” Clay asked as an afterthought, glancing at Piper but mainly addressing Sawyer, after he’d put on his hat and sent the girls racing for the wagon out front.

“No,” Sawyer said, with warmth and amusement in his voice. “You go on home and look after your family, cousin. We’ll be just fine on our own.”

Inwardly, Piper stiffened. In all the excitement over the new baby, she’d forgotten all about Doc’s imminent return, with the preacher in tow.

No sense bringing that up in front of Clay, though. It would take too much explaining, and he might feel torn between going home to Dara Rose and the baby and staying for the wedding.

Not that there was going to
be
a wedding.

Piper meant to make that abundantly clear as soon as she and Sawyer were alone. She’d made a rash decision, she’d tell him, but now she’d changed her mind.

Only when Clay and the girls drove away did she turn around to face Sawyer.

He was standing so close that his injured arm, still in its sling, bumped against her breast. A slow, sultry smile lit his eyes and touched his mouth.
That
mouth. Piper could almost feel it against her own, seeking, exploring, and finally, commanding.

She caught her own breath. “About last night—”

Sawyer grinned, easy in his skin and damnably sure of himself, and curled his right index finger under her chin. “A deal’s a deal, Miss St. James,” he told her huskily. “Besides, the word’s surely out by now. There’s a man over at the schoolhouse, that’s what folks are saying, and something unseemly is going on for sure.”

Piper pressed her back teeth together. He was right, of course. She’d seen the way those mothers, those
hens,
had looked at her, when they came to gather their chicks under their figurative wings. They’d known, even before their children got a chance to give an account. Eloise Howard must have spread the word, just as Piper had feared she would.

Besides, the Blue River schoolhouse was too small to contain such a secret; even though Sawyer had been courteous enough to stay out of sight while the students were there, they would have guessed that Edrina and Harriet weren’t addressing empty space when they’d hurried into the back room that morning, chattering like happy little magpies. Why, they hadn’t even paused to take off their coats.

Piper gave a little groan of frustration. “What if we’re making a terrible mistake?” she whispered hoarsely.

Sawyer smiled, placed a brief, feather-soft kiss on her mouth, instantly awakening every wanton tendency she possessed—and the number of those tendencies was alarming.

“Most of your questions start with ‘what if’ or ‘how do I know,’” he observed. “There aren’t any guarantees in this life, Piper. The whole proposition is risky from the get-go right up to the end.” He paused, wound a finger idly in a tendril of her hair, a gesture almost as intimate as last night’s kiss. “I can promise you this much, though—I’ll provide for you, I’ll protect you, and I’ll never lay a hand on you except to give you pleasure.”

Pleasure?
She blinked at the word. She’d always considered that the province of men and, perhaps, women like Bess Turner.

But, wait, she reflected, avoiding Sawyer’s eyes by looking down and to the side. Dara Rose wasn’t a loose woman, and she certainly seemed to enjoy married life. She hadn’t said so outright, but Piper
had
wondered, a time or two, about the way her cousin and Clay smiled secrets at each other. The way they touched when they thought no one was looking.

Sawyer touched the tip of her nose just then, and her gaze swung straight to his, connected with a jolt, like a metal latch. “You’re blushing,” he said, in a low, pleased drawl. “Was it the word
pleasure?

“Of course not,” Piper lied. She’d been raised, like most women of her generation, to believe that “pleasure” and “wickedness” were one and the same thing. Luckily, she was saved from having to make a case for propriety by a knock at the door.

She jumped at the sound, startled because she hadn’t heard a wagon or a horse approaching the schoolhouse.

Sawyer merely smiled.

She whirled away from him, in a billow of gray skirts, and opened the door, thinking Clay and the girls must have found the going too hard and turned back. Nothing would have stopped Clay from returning to Dara Rose and the baby, she knew, but that didn’t mean he’d put Edrina and Harriet’s safety at risk in the doing of it. He’d leave them with her, if he thought they were in any danger.

Instead of Clay and the girls, though, she found herself face-to-face with Doc Howard, his smugly disapproving wife, Eloise, and the Methodist circuit preacher, a towering, bearded man of dour countenance, fearsome as an Old Testament prophet bringing word of impending doom. He looked ready for battle, too, as though he’d come to that little schoolhouse to fight the devil himself, hand to hand, standing there with snow dusting the shoulders of his tattered coat and the brim of his once-fine hat.

“C-come in,” Piper said, stepping back to admit them all. She was only too aware of Sawyer standing nearby, looking on with amusement.

Blast him, he was
enjoying
this, she just knew it.

“You’ve made a wise decision,” Mrs. Howard said loftily, pulling off her elbow-length kid gloves and narrowing her eyes at Piper as she spoke. She wore a dark blue woolen cloak over a dress almost the same color, and her hat was huge. With the snow, it looked as though the woman was carrying a miniature landscape on her head.

Dislike welled up in Piper, but she held it in check. She was, regrettably, in no position to make her opinions known, especially since Mrs. Howard was on the school board and could have her dismissed without any difficulty at all.

“Have I?” Piper countered, with false sweetness.

Eloise Howard narrowed her china-blue eyes even further, to little lash-trimmed slits. Doc Howard, the preacher, and even Sawyer seemed to recede into the now-fuzzy surroundings. “I’m sure you’ll agree,
Miss
St. James,” Eloise said, through her tiny, perfect teeth, “that the moral well-being of our children must be the paramount consideration here.”

Piper was mad enough to spit. She was a good teacher and, besides, it wasn’t as if she’d been teaching her pupils to dance the hurdy-gurdy. This situation, meaning Sawyer’s presence at the schoolhouse, had
befallen
her—she’d done nothing to bring it about, nothing at all.

Except for trying to do the right thing.

She was to be held accountable, nonetheless, and that, in her opinion, was a travesty.

“Now, Eloise,” Doc interceded, after clearing his throat, “leave the preaching to Brother Carson, here.”

Nobody laughed at the paltry joke, if it was intended as one, or even smiled.

No one besides Sawyer, that is. Out of the corner of her eye, Piper saw the corner of his mouth twitch.

“Morality is a serious matter,” Brother Carson pontificated, in a thundering voice. He held a huge Bible in the crook of one arm, as though poised to use it as a weapon if the need presented itself. His gaze sliced, lethal and dark with condemnation, between Sawyer and Piper. “God is not mocked,” he added. “We must root out sin wherever we find it!”

Piper didn’t know how to respond to that, except to flinch slightly and take half a step backward, which caused her to collide with Sawyer.

Determinedly jovial, Doc Howard chose that moment to shove a parcel at Sawyer—it was wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. “Here are the things you asked me to fetch from the general store,” he said, a little too loudly. Then, spotting the Christmas tree, he went on, “Now isn’t that a merry sight!”

“We can thank the Germans for that bit of frippery,” the preacher boomed, without appreciation. “A fire hazard at best, idolatry at worst.”

“What’s this world coming to?” Sawyer mused lightly.

Piper resisted the temptation to elbow him, hard. She couldn’t take a chance on doing further injury to his bad shoulder.

Eloise was still watching her, with a sort of curious abhorrence, the way she might watch some poor soul traveling with a freak show, but she directed her words to her husband when she spoke. “What about the marriage license, James?” she asked, in a condescending tone. “Did you ‘fetch’ one of those, too?”

Doc Howard blushed slightly, and Piper felt sorry for him.

Her own dealings with Eloise Howard were intermittent ones. His were constant.

He patted the front of his suit coat, then reached into the inside pocket and drew out a folded document. “It’s right here,” he said. “Judge Reynolds agreed that this is an emergency, so he issued the license without the usual waiting period.”

Brother Carson opened his Bible, flipped through the pages until he found a sheet of paper tucked away in the Psalms, and cleared his throat. “Dearly beloved,” he growled out, squinting down at the words scrawled in black ink, “we are gathered here—in the sight of God—”

“Wait,” Piper interrupted, but after that, words deserted her.

Brother Carson looked up, his black eyebrows bushy as caterpillars.

Eloise Howard blinked once.

“I know this must seem hasty,” Doc put in bravely, after an anxious glance at his wife, “but there’s nothing for it. Marriage is the only solution.”

BOOK: An Outlaw's Christmas
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