Authors: The Law Kate Malone
“Jethro?” Nora said, as though she were disciplining two five-year-olds.
He shrugged. “Okay by me.”
“Fine, then it’s settled. You’ll meet one more time for a riding lesson.”
Nora turned her back on the feuding couple and grinned like the cat who’d caught the canary. Kate grabbed her arm and walked them both away, stifling a hearty laugh.
“Nora, you’re priceless.”
With a modest lift of her shoulder, Nora smiled. “I’m learning how to speak my mind. Getting to know you, Kate, and all you’ve accomplished has helped me voice my opinion.”
“Uh-oh. Abe’s not going to like me much for that.”
“Abe adores you. He likes me less shy.”
“Oh, Nora, if you’ve learned a little from me, I’ve certainly learned so much more from you.”
Kate left the livery with lifted spirits. And to think this morning she had been certain there wasn’t one thing that could put her out of her melancholy mood.
Hours later and after a small meal, Kate readied for bed. Tonight she’d not have trouble sleeping. She was just plain exhausted. She poured a bit of rosewater into a deep cornflower-blue bowl and dabbed at her face and neck. The liquid refreshed and cooled her skin. She toweled off quickly and donned her favorite, most comfortable nightdress, then climbed into bed.
She hadn’t been there more than three minutes
when she heard sharp knocking at her door. Kate bounded out of bed, more curious than concerned as to who would be calling on her so late in the evening. Slipping her arms through her robe, she tightened the sash and strode barefoot to the front door.
“Who is it?” she asked from behind the door.
“It’s me, Kate.” She immediately recognized Cole’s voice. He was the last person she expected, and the one person she definitely didn’t want to see tonight.
“It’s late, Cole.”
“I know. Kate, open up. I need you.”
ate unfastened the bolt and, with a quick thrust, opened the door. “Cole, if you came to apologize—”
She stopped when she caught sight of Cole. His face appeared pale and his eyes were laced with concern. She’d known Cole a lifetime and she couldn’t recall seeing him so distraught. “What is it?”
“It’s Meggie,” he said with urgency.
“What about Meggie?” Kate’s heart pumped faster.
“She’s sick with fever. I can’t seem to get it to break. She’s thrashing around in the bed.” Cole ran a hand through his hair. “Her mother, Lydia, would come down with fever often. One time she nearly died.”
“Did you call for the doctor?”
“He’s out delivering Mrs. Gregory’s grandchild.” Cole tried to keep desperation out of his voice, but Kate heard it. “They took off together as soon as I
got back to town today. Caroline is known for having hard deliveries. Both are at her place right now.”
Kate nodded. “What can I do?”
Cole didn’t hesitate. He lifted his eyes and met hers directly. “Will you come?”
It was plain to see Cole needed someone. And he’d come to her for help. He stood there on her porch, not as the sheriff, not as the man who’d nearly broken her heart in two, but as the young boy she’d grown up with. Her best friend. In the past, they’d always supported each other, in good times and bad. Kate wouldn’t refuse Cole. Not when he came to her out of a friendship she cherished. She’d do what she could for his little daughter. Lord knows, the child could be in danger.
“Of course, I’ll come. You go on, get back to her. I’ll be dressed in a minute.”
“I’ll wait for you, Kate. Johnny is sitting with her now.”
Kate wouldn’t argue. She knew Cole’s stubborn nature, and when his mind was set, nothing much could change it. “I’ll be just a moment.”
She dressed quickly and found Cole pacing in her parlor. “Let’s go.”
Cole took her hand and they walked at a fast pace to his house. Once inside, he led her to Meggie’s bedroom. “She’s in here.”
Kate entered and Johnny Martinez rose from his chair. He nodded a greeting to Kate, then turned to
Cole. “She’s still burning up. I’ve been putting the cold rag on her forehead like you said.”
“Thanks, Johnny.” Cole bent down to Meggie and brushed aside damp golden locks that had stuck to her moist forehead. The child looked so small, so fragile in the big bed. Her cherub face appeared flushed with color. “How’s my little Megpie doing?”
The child opened her eyes and gave a little shrug.
Cole turned to Johnny. “Why don’t you go on home, Johnny. I appreciate you coming over. Looks like it’s going to be a long night. You’ll need to open up the office in the morning.”
“Right, boss. Don’t you worry about a thing,” his deputy said, then glanced at Kate. “I think our little
will be in good hands now.”
Kate cast him a small smile and hoped he was right. As soon as he left, she sat down on Meggie’s bed. “Hi, Meggie. I’m a…friend of your daddy. My name is Kate. Do you remember meeting me?”
Meggie gave a little nod, her weary blue eyes rimmed with red. Poor child, Kate thought, and she was suddenly glad Cole had come for her. Meggie needed a woman’s touch tonight. “I’m sorry you don’t feel well, but your daddy and I are going to stay with you and make you feel better real soon.”
Meggie closed her eyes then and Kate lifted hers to Cole. “Let’s let her try to sleep. When she wakes later, I’ll get her out of her sweaty nightclothes and give her a little bath. Then we’ll try to give her some water or milk.”
Kate stood and took Cole by the arm. He was stiff as a rod and immovable. “I’m staying,” he said.
“We’ll check on her in a few minutes. All this talk might wake her. C’mon, I’ll fix us both some coffee. Like you said, it’s going to be a long night.”
Reluctantly Cole allowed Kate to lead him out of the bedroom. He showed her where the coffee was then sat down on a kitchen chair and ran his hands down his face. Kate began brewing the coffee. “She’s going to be all right, Cole.”
He blew out a breath and shook his head. “She’s never been this sick before.”
“When did she come down with it?”
“I’m not sure. I was out of town most of the day and when I came back, Mrs. Gregory said Meggie was tired from playing with Caroline’s children this afternoon and I should put her down early for bed. Not long after that, Mrs. Gregory got word that Caroline was having the pains. She went for Dr. Royer and both went to see about Caroline. Meggie didn’t eat her supper then she went to lie down on the sofa. That’s when I noticed her body burning up.”
“I once had a fever that lasted three full days,” Kate said, bringing two cups to the table.
Cole shook his head, a look of complete fear crossing over his features. “I won’t last three days. Not if Meggie is this sick.”
Kate put her hand on his arm. “I’ll be here as long as you need me, Cole.”
Cole covered his hand over hers. “Thanks, Kate.”
There was no need for thanks. No matter what had happened between them in the past, Kate wouldn’t desert her friend. And right now, that’s all she saw Cole as being. A friend who needed her.
She poured the coffee and set out biscuits and honey she’d found wrapped in a covered bowl on the counter. “Here you go. You should eat something. I bet you missed your supper too.”
“I couldn’t eat a thing once Meggie took sick.”
“You’re tired and hungry, Cole. Eat a biscuit and have some coffee.” Kate shoved a plate under Cole’s nose.
He cast her a sour look. “You’ve always been bossy.”
“And you’ve always been stubborn,” she said kindly. This was not the time to argue with him. She was here to lend support.
Kate smiled when Cole lifted the biscuit and bit into it.
She took a sip of coffee. “We should take turns with Meggie. I’ll go in now and sit with her. When she wakes up, I’ll undress and bathe her. Why don’t you try to get some sleep?”
“No, Kate. I can’t sleep.”
“Okay,” she said, softly blowing steam from her cup, “but at least rest on the sofa. I’ll let you know if Meggie needs you.”
Cole narrowed his eyes and grimaced. “You’re gonna badger me until I do, aren’t you?”
Kate grinned. “You asked for my help, didn’t you?”
“I’ll rest if you do, later on. I know I got you out of bed tonight.”
“I don’t mind,” she said honestly. “I’d rather be here with… Meggie. And I’ll close my eyes later on. I promise.”
Cole finished the biscuit and followed Kate into Meggie’s bedroom. He bent to give the child a soft kiss on her forehead, then turned to Kate. “Call me if you need anything.”
“I will.” Kate took up a spare blanket, pulled the chair closer to Meggie’s bed and plopped herself down. “Meggie and I will be just fine.”
But ten minutes later, Meggie began thrashing again in the bed. Kate rushed over to her, putting a hand on her forehead. She was hot with fever still. “Meggie, sweetie, wake up.”
Cole sat down on the parlor sofa and closed his eyes. He wouldn’t get a wink until Meggie was up and about, free of fever. She’d looked so miserable earlier, her usual bright eyes cast in a misty haze. Cole couldn’t get her to eat or drink a thing. Maybe Kate could do a better job.
Thank heavens, she’d been willing to come back with him tonight. She’d taken over the minute she walked through the door, grasping hold of the situation. Cole had been at his wits’ end, trying to tend to
Meggie without much success. He didn’t know about such things. Meggie had never taken sick like this. Sure, she’d had a case of the sniffles from time to time, but she’d never broken out with such a high fever before.
And just having Kate here made Cole feel better. He’d needed her desperately and she’d come, no questions, no qualms. It had been just like old times in their early years; when one had needed the other, they’d always come through. The friendship they’d shared over the years was rare and precious, but ever since Kate had come back to town, he’d considered it fragile at best. It would be a hard thing to lose a friend like Kate. Cole hoped it never came to that.
“Cole,” Kate whispered in the darkened room.
He opened his eyes. She stood before him, a steady stream of light from behind casting her in a warm glow. It struck him like lightning—to open his eyes and have Kate there, with him, sharing this situation. “Kate?”
“Meggie woke up. I need you to bring in a tub and get some towels.”
Cole bounded from the sofa. “Is the fever still raging?”
“Yes, she’s uncomfortable, but the bath will cool her down considerably.”
Instead of using the tub in the washroom, Cole fixed up a large metal bucket filled with warm water, as per Kate’s instructions. Not cold, but not hot, either, she’d advised. The water should be a bit cooler
than Meggie’s body temperature. Cole brought the container in and set it down. Kate had Meggie partially undressed.
“Look, your daddy’s here, Meggie,” Kate said. “And you have my permission to splash him all you want.”
Meggie smiled at Kate, then glanced at him. Her face was ashen, but her eyes lit a bit from Kate’s remark.
“And you can soak Miss Kate with water all you want,” Cole teased back.
Meggie giggled then, bringing a measure of joy to Cole’s heart.
Kate lifted her from the bed, undressed her swiftly and Cole helped set her down into the tub. Meggie shivered a bit. “Is the water too cold?” Cole asked.
Kate rolled up her sleeve and stuck her elbow in. “No, just right.”
Meggie shivered again. Her voice was a low, uncomfortable whine. “How long do I hafta be wet?”
Kate finger-combed Meggie’s long, curly tresses, taking her time, speaking softly. “Not long, sweetie. Just close your eyes and lean back a bit. My mama used to tell me a story about the golden bear. Would you like to hear it?”
Meggie nodded and Kate began to weave a tall tale. “There was once a very small young bear cub whose coat was very silky. Why, Meggie, the bear’s fur was nearly the same pretty yellow as your hair.”
“Really?” Meggie asked.
“Yes, sweetie, now close your eyes and picture this little bear cub wandering away from his mama because, for such a small creature, this little fella had the most monstrous appetite. He went in search of…huckleberries.
Cole listened to Kate’s tale, smiling at the creative way she told the story. With her eyes beaming wide, Kate’s voice would lower then raise, her tone becoming either sullen or silly, according to how the adventure unfolded.
Within minutes, Meggie had dosed off, her head resting comfortably against Cole’s arm. Kate stroked his daughter’s head, a constant gliding of her hands, touching, caressing…caring. Sometimes her fingers would accidentally sweep over him as well and the hairs on the top of his arm would rise with awareness.
After finishing the story Cole was sure Meggie hadn’t heard entirely, Kate whispered, “She’s much cooler now. Let’s let her sleep a little while longer in the tub, then I’ll dress her in clean clothes and tuck her back into bed.”
“Kate, you’ve done enough. You must be exhausted. Go rest on the sofa and I’ll get her back to bed. Once she’s asleep, I’ll see you home.”
“You don’t have to see me home, Cole. It’s not that far, but I will rest my eyes a bit before checking on Meggie again.”
“You don’t have to stay,” he said, grateful for her help but even more grateful that she’d lent moral support.
Cole didn’t know enough about children’s illnesses to face this situation alone.
“I want to…for a little while longer. I’ll be in the parlor if you need me.”
Cole nodded and Kate left the room.
Less than an hour later, after removing Meggie from the tub, dressing her in new nightclothes and tucking her back into bed, Cole went to check on Kate. She’d been quiet and he wondered if she had decided to go home after all.
Cole stood at the entrance of the parlor and smiled. Kate lay cuddled on the sofa, folded up in a quilt, resting her head back against the cushion, fast asleep. He watched her breaths come easily and decided not to disturb her. She deserved the rest she craved. Cole rubbed his neck then, and his sense of propriety knocked him upside the head.
She shouldn’t be here overnight. It wouldn’t be good for her reputation. She was already the subject of town gossip, with her free spirit and bold attitude defying the town ordinance, and Cole didn’t want her helping him tonight to cause her any undue trouble. Not tonight. Besides, Kate had a way of getting into trouble all on her own, without his help.
Kate snuggled deeper into the quilt and made a slightly satisfied mewling sound. Cole smiled again. He’d let her sleep.
Wasn’t much he could do about her reputation if anyone saw her leaving his house at this hour anyway.
Except maybe marry her.
Wouldn’t that set the town on its ear? The sheriff and Miss Kate, the saloon gal.
Cole ran a hand down his face. It was an impossible dream, he and Kate. She wasn’t backing down from building the saloon, and darn if Cole couldn’t shuffle aside the notions in his head of what a wife and mother should be. What a real family should be. And he surely wouldn’t break his promise to Jeb. Meggie’s needs came first. Cole would never forget that.
He glanced once more at Kate, this time with regret. He left the room to check on his daughter, knowing full well he wasn’t going to get a lick of sleep tonight in that chair beside Meggie’s bed.
Perhaps he’d be better off not sleeping. Because he’d surely dream of Kate, in his bed, warming his lonely heart and flaming his needy body.
Yes sir, dreams would only cause him more regret. Cole sank down into the chair, propped his feet and watched his daughter take the first restful breaths she had all night.