Authors: Debra Cowan
Something big and hot unfolded in his chest. There was real concern in her eyes, something more than a doctor's concern.
He gave her a slow grin and winked. “You bet.”
As he kicked Dove into a canter, he heard her door shut. For the first time since her return, she had looked at Matt without censure or disdain. Just as she had earlier that evening after he had kissed her.
When he had followed her and Quentin back to Whirlwind, Matt hadn't thought further ahead than finding her and having his say. But now he knew what he wanted. Her.
He just had to figure out how to get her to want it, too.
ver since their return from the Eight of Hearts Ranch, Annalise's emotions had been swept this way and that. Matt admired her for her doctoring skills? He now believed she had told the truth about being unaware of her pregnancy when she'd left Whirlwind?
She had been turning his words over in her mind. They weren't the only thing that had her topsy-turvy.
The past two nights, she had noticed Quentin across the way, watching. At first, she hadn't realized he was observing the clinic specifically so she hadn't given it a second thought, but when she became aware that his attention was trained only on her, Annalise sought him out.
She had asked Quentin what he was up to and he explained that he was watching out for her at Matt's request.
Her former betrothed obviously felt more strongly about the threat of the Landis brothers than she had understood. Than she had wanted to understand, she
admitted. The sense of responsibility he felt toward her chafed. She had gone years without his attention, but how could she take exception to Matt's arrangement with Quentin? He was only concerned for her safety.
The Matt she used to know would never have spoken to, much less asked for help from, a man whom he and most of the town disliked.
Just when she thought she knew up from down, he went and did this.
About an hour after lunch, she took a lamp and went to the back of the house and down into the cellar. Her medical textbooks were stored in the dry, dusty space along with a box of her father's things, including the silver pocket watch he had intended her to give Matt after they were married.
She'd forgotten about that and thinking about it now she was swept with a fresh sense of loss over her father and what could've been with Matt. Pushing the thought aside, she reflected on her father's friendship with J.T. Baldwin, who was the reason she had come down here to start with.
After her arrival in Whirlwind, Davis Lee and Riley had helped her unload her belongings, storing the crates containing the majority of her medical textbooks down here. None of the crates on the floor along the wall held her surgical or anatomy textbooks. With a grimace, she eyed the two wooden boxes sitting atop a high shelf that ran the length of the wall.
Of course the books she needed would be in one of those two crates.
Pulling the wooden ladder from the corner, she leaned it against the wall and climbed up. She reached for the first box and tentatively tested its weight. Heavy, but not
too heavy for her to move. If she balanced just right, she could manage.
After carefully lifting the crate, she slowly made her way down the ladder. Once on the floor, she pried the lid off, but didn't find the books she sought.
She positioned the ladder closer to the remaining crate and climbed up again. She wanted as much information on J.T.'s condition as possible; she also needed to make sure she had done everything she could for Mr. Julius's young guest.
The lamplight flickered as she moved, stretching her shadow across the wall. She wiped her grimy hands on her skirt then dragged an arm across her sweat-dampened forehead. She cautiously pulled the second crate toward her then lifted it into her arms, making sure she had her balance before starting down the ladder.
Three rungs from the bottom, the base of the crate gave. She caught at it and the abrupt motion jarred the ladder. Unable to grab for support, she fell.
She cried out, wood splintering and cracking as she landed on her back. Her head hit the dirt floor and her vision went black for several seconds.
“Annalise! Talk to me!”
Fuzzy-headed, she came to. Had she heard Matt? She opened her eyes and found him leaning over her.
In the dusky light, she could see the alarm on his face.
“Can you hear me? Talk to me.”
She lay there winded and trying to breathe. “Justâ¦aâ¦minute.”
As he lightly brushed pieces of wood from her skirts, she mentally catalogued her injuries. Her right shoulder and the back of her head throbbed. She would have bruises and a knot on her head, but no bones were broken.
Finally able to get a full breath, she started to sit up.
“Wait,” Matt ordered impatiently. He slipped one strong arm beneath her shoulders and she gripped his other one, bringing it across her torso to help lever herself up.
A sharp ache pierced her skull. Drawing in a shaky breath, her fingers tightened on his rock-hard forearm. “I think I can stand now.”
“I don't know.” He looked her over critically.
“Nothing's broken.” Her nausea was already passing. “There's a bump on my head and I'll probably have a bruised shoulder.”
Still looking uncertain, he slowly got to his feet, helping her as well. Her head felt as if it were being split open.
“Ah, there,” she said, satisfied at her progress. “See.”
She promptly swayed and would've fallen if Matt hadn't still been holding on to her.
“Whoa.” He carefully lifted her into his arms.
“Oh!” She clutched his shirt, inhaling his warm masculine scent. “What are you doing?”
“Getting you out of here. You need to lie down for a minute.”
“You don't need to carry me. The dizziness is passing.” Even as she spoke, a wave of skull-crushing pain had her squeezing her eyes shut.
He just held her closer and walked up the cellar stairs.
“Matt, really. You don't need to carry me. I'm sure I can make it on my own.”
He snorted. “You can't even stand up.”
“I can now. I think,” she said faintly. “I certainly don't expect you to carry me.”
“Well, this is your lucky day. I'm totin' all crazy women without being asked.”
He cradled her against his chest. To avoid her arms bending at an awkward angle, she slid them loosely around his shoulders.
Nausea rushed through her and she turned her face into him, trying to stop the world from spinning.
Cushioned against his broad hard chest, she felt his arms warm and solid around her. The scent of man and leather slid into her lungs. Her nose brushed the strip of skin on his neck where whiskers gave way to smooth skin and his breathing hitched slightly.
She let her head rest on his shoulder. His steps were steady and sure as he carried her into the front room then back into her exam room.
He carefully laid her on the narrow cot, nuzzling her cheek before letting go of her and easing down onto the side of the bed.
“Are you hurt anywhere else?” Blue eyes dark with concern, he gently brushed her hair from her face.
She found herself wanting to do the same to his coffee-dark hair. “No. I'm really fine. I was just dizzy for a moment.”
She raised up on one elbow and he laid a hand on her shoulder, barely using any pressure but firmly keeping her in place. “You need to stay still until the inside of your head stops pounding. You're pale as milk, too.”
At the moment, she didn't have the energy to prove him wrong so she eased back onto the pillow. “What are you doing here?”
He looked slightly reassured. “Rescuing crazy women from ladders.”
She smiled then winced at the throb in her head.
His gaze ran over every inch of her green-and-blue
calico dress to the tips of her boots then returned to her face. “I just got back from scouting for the Landis brothers and I came to tell you we lost them again. We picked up their trail between Julius's ranch and Fort Greer.”
“So they headed west?”
“For a bit, then they turned back this way. It's the damnedest thing.” Bracing his hands on either side of her, he leaned over, gaze narrowed thoughtfully on her face. “We tracked their mounts another couple of miles, then lost them. They were there, then gone. Just disappeared. We couldn't even pick up their horses' tracks, only the hoofprints of cattle.”
Repressing a little shiver at his news, she said quietly, “I can sit up now.”
Matt slid one steadying hand under her elbow, his work-roughened palm gentle on her softer skin as he helped her.
“Those outlaws never showed up here.”
“Good,” he said.
Just as she started to tell him she knew about his arrangement with Quentin, she spotted something behind him in a wedge of sunlight on the wooden floor. It looked likeâ¦flowers? “Where did those come from?”
He glanced over his shoulder, then rose to go over and pick them up.
Bluebonnets, Annalise realized as he walked toward her.
“I picked them for you.” He curled her hand around the bunch of stems as she admired the purplish-blue blooms. “At the time, I didn't know they would turn out to be a get-better bouquet.”
He had brought her flowers. She searched his face, intense and sober. “Thank you. They're beautiful.”
“Glad you like them,” he said gruffly.
Her chest tightened. Gestures like this chipped away at the wall she'd built against him. “You shouldn't have.”
“I wanted to.” He stared straight into her eyes and she knew he was remembering that he had brought bluebonnets the first time he had called on her.
The flowers set off a longing inside her. It was getting more difficult to stay on her guard around him. To remember to keep her distance.
Her gaze drifted to his mouth and she recalled the kisses they had shared the other night in her front room. How she had wanted more.
She'd told herself she had responded because he had taken her off guard, but it wasn't true. She had responded because she had been just as swept away by him as she always had. There was no dodging that fact.
Fingering the blooms, she slanted him a look. “Quentin told me what you worked out with him.”
“He did, huh?” Matt's gaze went soft on her face.
“There was no need.” Instead of sounding firm, she sounded breathless. “There wasn't even a hint of trouble.”
“Maybe that's why,” he said pointedly. “What were you doing in the cellar?”
“Looking for some of my medical books.”
He eased back down onto the edge of the mattress, close enough that she could feel the hard hot line of his thigh through her skirts. One of his large hands rested next to her hip, setting off a low vibration inside her.
“How's your head?”
“Your shoulder getting sore?”
“Why didn't you ask someone to help you?”
“If that crate hadn't broken, I would've handled everything fine.”
“It was full of heavy books, Annalise.”
“Well, you can't take your eyes off me for one second,” she quipped. “There's no telling what I might get up to.”
“Evidently,” he murmured, heat flaring in his eyes.
She swallowed hard and redirected the conversation. “I'm not sure I like you getting someone to watch me while you were gone.”
“Not to watch
To watch your back. There's a difference, and if you think I'm going to apologize, you can think again.”
She couldn't seem to stop looking at his mouth.
His gaze moved slowly over her, striking sparks under her skin. “Those outlaws were too close for comfort. Damn sure too close for
comfort and it didn't inconvenience you one bit.”
“No, it didn't.” She wasn't vexed about it. Like other things that had happened in the past couple of days, it confused her.
“It made me feel a lot better knowing you had someone here,” he said gruffly.
Before she could tell him she understood, he said, “The only time I've ever seen Jericho Blue rattled was when his wife was taken by outlaws, and that isn't going to happen to you if I can help it.”
Annalise melted inside. Oh, how could he slip under her guard so easily? He plainly felt a responsibility toward her because he hadn't been there when she needed him all those years ago.
“It's all right,” she said.
“I don't care if you think I'm paranoid. I'm not apologizing for having your best interests at heart.”
It wasn't the fierceness in his voice that had her pulse jumping. It was the frankly possessive look in his eyes.
“I don't expect you to apologize, Matt.”
“You're wastin' your breath if you thinkâwhat?” He broke off, looking nonplused.
“I know you had my safety in mind.”
A frown gathered on his brow. “So, you're not mad?”
“Mad? No.” But she was quickly being overcome by the desire to lean into him, rest against his chest the way she had a few minutes ago.
Their new tentative truce tempted her to believe things could be different for them, but they couldn't. Could they?
She told herself she could stay away from him if she wanted. It wasn't true. His apologies and thoughtful gestures didn't make the past hurt any less, but because of them, she was afraid keeping her distance was going to be downright impossible.
Matt had thought a lot about Annalise last night. About her fall, about the way she kept looking at him, how she'd accepted the arrangement he had made with Quentin.
As aggravated as she'd been before he rode out to search for the Landis brothers, Matt hadn't been sure what kind of welcome he would get when he returned. It was a good thing he'd gone to her clinic anyway. He didn't want to think about what might have happened if he hadn't been there after her fall.
He had stayed in town last night, in Russ's old room at the Fontaine so that Pa and Cora could be alone a
little longer. And because, after Annalise's accident, he wanted to be close.
She kept insisting she was fine and she probably was. All Matt knew was that when he'd seen her on the floor like a broken doll, his gut had snarled into a big knot, and it had eased only after a few hours.
Once he was convinced she would be all right, he made sure she didn't move while he carried the books from the cellar. Thick heavy volumes with headache-inducing titles like
Ashhurst's International Encyclopedia of Surgery
. After he finished shelving the textbooks, he had asked her to dinner, but she had declined, saying she had accepted an invitation from Quentin.