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Authors: Linda Lael Miller

Tags: #Romance, #Western, #Fiction

An Outlaw's Christmas (9 page)

BOOK: An Outlaw's Christmas
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“But—” Piper protested.

Sawyer cupped a hand under her elbow just then, and, somehow, that gave her strength. They were being railroaded into this, both she and Sawyer, but she supposed the situation could have been worse.

He might have been old and ugly, for instance.

And she might have been repulsed, rather than excited, by his kisses.

She sighed. “Go ahead,” she said wearily.

And so it happened that Piper St. James was married—
married—
to a man she barely knew. Instead of a wedding gown, she wore her gray woolen schoolmarm’s dress. There were no real guests, no family members present; she didn’t even have a bridal bouquet.

The whole ceremony was over in under ten minutes, in fact.

Piper was in such a daze that she barely registered Sawyer’s perfunctory wedding kiss.

They each signed the marriage license, and Doc snatched it up like it was a Spanish land grant or something, saying he’d file it with Judge Reynolds and bring back a copy when he could.

The preacher slammed his Bible shut on his handwritten wedding vows, nodded abruptly, and turned to leave without so much as a goodbye.

Doc, too, seemed anxious to escape, and he all but dragged Eloise out of the schoolhouse. Mrs. Howard, Piper suspected, with rancor, would have preferred to stay and gloat for a few minutes.

In what seemed like a blink of an eye, the others were gone, leaving Piper alone with her new husband.

She squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself not to cry.

The rustle of paper caught her attention, and she looked sideways to see that Sawyer was opening the parcel Doc had given him earlier. He’d set it aside, without comment, in order to make his marriage vows.

A garment made of rich, russet-colored wool lay folded inside, along with a narrow gold wedding band, perched atop one of the folds.

Smiling, Sawyer slipped the band onto her finger.

Amazingly, it was a perfect fit, like Cinderella’s glass slipper in the fairy tale.

Piper couldn’t speak. Moments before, she’d been on the verge of tears, and now she wanted to laugh like a madwoman. She was hysterical, that was it.

And, furthermore, she was
Mrs. McKettrick.

Who
was
that, exactly? How was she to proceed?

Using his right hand, Sawyer caressed her cheek. “I’ll keep my word, Piper,” he said. “For now, we’re only married on paper.”

Her eyes widened. “For now?” she echoed. Surely this was all a dream—a terrible, wonderful dream—and she’d awaken at any moment.

Again, that wicked tilt appeared at the corner of his mouth. “I have every intention of seducing you,” he said, his voice at once quiet and forthright, “sooner or later. In the meantime, you’re a respectable woman again.”

Piper might have taken umbrage at that, if he hadn’t chosen that moment to unfurl the beautiful russet-colored cape he’d bought for her. It had a deep, elegant hood and was trimmed in black silk piping.

She’d seen the garment on display over at the mercantile, not once but many times, but it cost the earth and she’d never given a single thought to owning it. Neither had most of the other women in town, she’d bet, since it was the sort of thing a grand lady would wear to the opera.

Needless to say, there was no opera in Blue River, Texas.

Spellbound, she accepted the cloak, draping it around her shoulders, marveling at the weight of it, and the supple softness of the fabric, almost like velvet, and the way it seemed to wrap her in grace.

“Do you like it?” Sawyer asked. He sounded almost shy. “I guess it wouldn’t have been a proper gift before, but now that we’re married—”

She raised shining eyes to him. “Oh, Sawyer,” she said, in a rapt whisper. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.”

“Neither have I,” he said then, very gravely.

And he was looking at her as he spoke, not at the cloak.

Piper’s native practicality reasserted itself a few moments later, and she took the cape to the cloakroom and hung it up there, out of the way, where it wouldn’t be stained, or get snagged on something.

“Thank you,” she said, with crisp dignity, when she came out again.

Sawyer was feeding wood into the stove by then. “You’re welcome,” he said.

Shyness overwhelmed Piper in that moment. She didn’t know how to be this new person, this Mrs. McKettrick she’d become with almost no warning at all. “You were forced into this,” she murmured. “Just as I was. It isn’t fair.”

“I guess we’re victims of circumstance,” Sawyer replied philosophically. “Nothing to do now but make the best of things.”

“I’ll start supper,” Piper said quickly, maintaining a safe distance. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Sawyer, exactly; if he were a masher, she’d have known it by now. Even with one arm bound up in a sling, he could have taken advantage of her at almost any point in their brief acquaintance.

No, she realized, it was
herself
she didn’t completely trust.

She’d gotten into bed with this man the night before.

She’d allowed him to kiss her—not only allowed it, but
reveled
in it.

It made her blush to think what she might have let Sawyer do after that, if he hadn’t had the decency to send her away.

The truth struck her, hard.

Even the forced marriage hadn’t been entirely beyond her control—she could have packed a satchel, boarded a train and left Blue River forever, started over somewhere else, maybe even changed her name. Or she could have put her foot down, that very afternoon, when the Howards and Brother Carson showed up, and flatly refused to go through with the ceremony.

There would have been repercussions, of course. But wasn’t being married to a man she barely
knew
a repercussion?

There was no getting around it. Some part of her had
wanted
this, had seen the chance and reached out to grab hold.

Piper was baffled by all this, even stricken, and yet—excited, even thrilled. Her life had always been so proper, so predictable, so
ordinary.

Now, all of a sudden, some other, unknown Piper had come to the fore and quite handily taken matters into her own hands. This was a bold and brazen Piper, a person she’d never imagined she could be.

Leaving her to her confusion, probably blithely unaware of it, being a man, Sawyer went outside for wood and water, managing these chores ably with one arm, and it struck Piper that he was recovering rapidly. He still needed a shave, but his hair was combed and his color was good, and he seemed to have significantly more stamina than one might have expected, after such a severe and recent injury.

Soon, he’d be well enough to leave the schoolhouse.

Maybe he’d even change his mind about accepting the marshal’s job, and go back to his former occupation, whatever that was. He’d said he’d been paid to “protect a man and his family.” Was that just a polite way of saying he was a common
henchman?
An outlaw, for all practical intents and purposes?

As for the marriage, well, that might have been some sort of ruse on his part. Men walked out on wives and families all the time, didn’t they?

Piper gave herself a mental shake as she sliced more of Dara Rose’s ham and laid it in the skillet waiting on the stove. She was letting her imagination run away with her. If Sawyer already had a wife tucked away somewhere,
someone
in that sprawling McKettrick clan would know about her, wouldn’t they? According to Dara Rose, Clay exchanged letters with half the family. Surely, he’d have heard the news from one of his many relations, if not Sawyer himself. And honor would have demanded that he step in and prevent an illegal marriage.

Except that Clay hadn’t
known
she and Sawyer were about to get married. She hadn’t had a chance to tell him, wouldn’t have known what to say if she had, and it was a good bet that Sawyer hadn’t said anything to his cousin, either.

Sawyer came in, bringing the scent of snow and pine pitch along with him, and dropped wood into the box next to the stove.

“I don’t think this weather is going to last,” he said. “The snow’s melting as soon as it hits the ground.”

Piper nodded, biting her lower lip and spearing at the slices of ham with a fork as though the task required all her concentration. This was her wedding night, she thought, with glum amazement, catching sight of the golden band shimmering on her finger.

How had this
happened?

Just a few days ago, she’d been an ordinary schoolteacher, a little discontented with her lot in life, perhaps, but certainly not unhappy. Now, she was legally Mrs. Sawyer McKettrick—but what did that mean, exactly? Would she even be able to keep her job?

Married women rarely taught school—it was considered improper and a poor reflection on the husband’s ability to provide—even if said husband was a worthless layabout, drinking his way to the grave. The wife and any children unfortunate enough to be born of such a union were expected to politely starve to death, without so much as a whimper of complaint, if only for the sake of appearances.

Appearances!

Piper forgot herself and swore aloud. “Thunderation!” she blurted out.

Sawyer reminded her of his presence with a question. “Did you burn yourself?” he asked, from somewhere behind her. He sounded calmly concerned.

“No,” Piper said. “I was just thinking about—things.”

“Things?”

“Men. Women. Marriage.”

He eased her aside, took over the fork she’d been wielding, repeatedly turning the meat in the skillet, whether it needed turning or not. “I’ll do this,” he said. “And what about men, women and marriage?”

She flounced to her desk chair and plunked down in it, glad to have something to think about besides what might happen when the lamps went out later in the evening. She had no confidence whatsoever in her own ability to conduct herself like a lady.

“Women get a raw deal,” she said. “We can’t even
vote,
for pity’s sake.”

“I agree with you there,” Sawyer replied, surprising her. “It isn’t right.”

Piper was picking up steam, like a locomotive chugging out of the station. “Men can go right ahead and beat women, if they want to, wives
and
children. If they’re no-accounts, their wives can’t go out and earn a living, even to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads. They wind up like Bess Turner if they try.”

“Whoa,” Sawyer said affably, forking the meat onto two plates and bringing one to her, along with a slice of the bread she’d already sliced and buttered and a spoonful from the jar of peaches she’d opened the night before. “If that’s what you think marriage is going to be like, it’s no wonder you’re jumpy.”

Piper drew in a deep breath. “I might have gotten a little carried away,” she admitted, touched that he’d brought her supper to her. Except for Clay, who doted on Dara Rose even though he was unquestionably the head of their family, she’d never seen a married man do that.

He went back for his own plate and sat on the edge of the desk to eat. “I wouldn’t beat you,” he said, after a long time. “Or any kids we might be lucky enough to have. For that matter, I wouldn’t beat a dog or a horse or any other living creature.”

She looked up at him. “Not even a man?” she asked.

“That’s different,” he said, his gaze level as he studied her.

“Is it?”

“Yes,” Sawyer replied, after a few moments of thought. “I don’t go around looking for fights, Piper, but if one comes my way, I mean to hold my own. And if I run into the yahoo who shot me, I’ll shoot him without missing a breath.”

“You are a very complicated man,” she observed presently, having mulled over what he’d said.

He cocked a grin at her. “I reckon I am,” he said. “Keeps things interesting, wouldn’t you say?”

She sighed, let the question go unanswered, since she knew it didn’t need a reply, and presented one of her own. “What happens when you’re well, Sawyer?” she asked, with a glance at his sling and bandages, bulging under one side of his half-buttoned shirt. “Will you stay here in Blue River, and serve as marshal?”
Or will you retrieve your fancy horse from Clay’s barn and ride out, leaving me behind?

“I’ll be here long enough to track down the son-of-a—the man who shot me, and make sure justice is served. Come spring, though, I expect to head north, home to the Triple M. Build a house and settle down.”

In all that, there was no mention of bringing a wife along, but Piper didn’t point out the omission. For one thing, she was much more concerned by Sawyer’s implacability, and his plan to bring in his assailant.

He could get killed doing that.

Or become a killer.

Both possibilities terrified Piper.

They finished their suppers in silence, and Piper did the dishes—Sawyer tried to help, but she elbowed him aside.

Darkness gathered, thick, at the windows, and the little stove labored hard to keep out the evening chill, though the snow had stopped coming down, at least.

Sawyer rummaged around and found the battered checkerboard and chunky wooden game pieces Miss Krenshaw or one of her predecessors had left behind. Piper sometimes allowed the children to hold tournaments, on days when they’d behaved particularly well and completed their lessons to her satisfaction.

He set the board up on her desk. “Black or red?” he asked.

Piper, drying her hands, turned away from the dish basin, the task complete. “What?” she asked.

Sawyer grinned. “Do you want the red pieces, or the black ones?”

She frowned. “You want to play checkers?”

His grin widened. “There are things I’d rather do,” he admitted, “this being our wedding night. But I’m a man of my word, Mrs. McKettrick. A virgin bride you are, and a virgin bride you will remain. For the time being, that is.”

She blushed. “Red,” she said.

He gestured toward her chair, and she sat down. He rested one hip on the other side of her desk, as he’d done before, when they were having supper.

“Your move,” he said.

BOOK: An Outlaw's Christmas
11.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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