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Authors: Debra Cowan

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BOOK: Whirlwind Reunion
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Chapter Thirteen

A
nnalise didn't like how she and Matt had left things. She didn't like how he had accused her of breaking her word either. It had been two days and she hadn't seen hide nor stubborn hair of him. She'd had about all of his silence she wanted.

She had racked her brain, thinking back over the conversations they'd had during the time they spent together at the Founder's Day celebration, particularly over lunch. He believed she had told him she wouldn't give her opinion about the surgery to J.T., but she hadn't said anything of the kind.

I want you to convince him not to do it.

I can't do that. I can only tell him the options and risks…

If you tell him it's too dangerous, he won't do it.

Not once had she said she wouldn't give her opinion if asked.

She knew he had spoken to his brother about the disagreement they'd had over J.T.'s surgery because Russ
and Lydia had come over that same night asking questions. Annalise answered all of them, had even gotten out her
Ashhurst's International Encyclopedia of Surgery
and
Leidy's Anatomy
to show them what the operation would be like if she did it. Russ had been as opposed to the surgery as his brother and, even after quizzing Annalise, he hadn't come around.

Still, she would offer the same to Matt. If she ever saw him again, she thought in exasperation staring out the clinic window as dusky light settled over Whirlwind.

Tucking in the bottom of the sheet she had just put on one of the cots in the examination room, she heard a knock on the door.

She turned at the same time it opened.

“Hi, Annalise.” Lydia Baldwin stepped inside and closed the door, carefully handling a stiff-looking piece of cloth.

Was that what Annalise thought it was? She hurried toward the tall raven-haired woman who carefully laid the piece on the table in front of the window. Smoothing her pale-blue skirts, she turned to Annalise.

“Is that the impression Matt and I made of those hoofprints?”

“Yes.” The other woman fanned her face, color flushing her pearly skin. Her black eyes flashed with humor. “I was threatened to within an inch of my life if I let something happen to that.”

“What are you doing with it?”

“Matt wanted J.T. and Russ to look at it and see if they had any ideas as to why the prints are so uniform, but neither of them did. Matt wondered if you would show it to Ef and Davis Lee. Maybe one of them will come up with something.”

Annalise's heart sank. Was that Matt's only message?
Show the impression around? Why couldn't he have brought it himself? “I'll do that tomorrow.”

“Thank you again for taking the time to answer all of Russ's and my questions last night.”

“Of course. It didn't seem to settle your husband's mind. Matt's certainly isn't settled either.”

“They are two stubborn men, but I've found them to be reasonable.” A mischievous light flared in her dark eyes. “Most of the time.”

“Russ seemed as opposed to the surgery as Matt.”

“Russ doesn't want to take the chance because he feels it's his fault J.T. is in the wheelchair to start with.”

Annalise nodded. Matt had told her the same thing.

“If he had this surgery and died, Russ would feel responsible for that, too.”

Annalise didn't know what to say to that. She couldn't promise the man wouldn't die or be paralyzed.

“We went out yesterday evening and spoke to J.T. about it. Russ hasn't changed his mind completely, but because of what you told us, he was able to give some good information to J.T. and Matt.”

“I'm glad.” What bothered Annalise wasn't that Matt didn't agree with her, it was that he thought she had broken her word.

“You might want to send the impression out to the ranch with Miguel or someone. I don't know when Matt will be back here, if ever.”

Lydia tucked a stray strand of black hair behind her ear, smiling. “He'll be back. In fact, he started into town yesterday with us to see you, but then he came upon a long section of downed fence in the pasture where the cattle were just moved to. That's like giving the rustlers an invitation. Russ stayed to help him and the other hands fix it.”

Annalise was encouraged that Matt had started into town to see her yesterday. Maybe he didn't like this silence any better than she did.

Lydia reached into her reticule and pulled out a piece of paper. “J.T. also wanted me to give you this note.”

“What does it say?”

“I don't know. He folded it in half twice so I don't think he meant for me to read it.”

Annalise nodded as she took the paper and slipped it into her skirt pocket.

“I'd better get over to the hotel now.”

Annalise smiled and walked the woman out. “Thanks, Lydia.”

“You're welcome.” She stepped into the street and angled the short distance to the Fontaine.

Once back inside, Annalise locked the door and finished putting clean sheets on the other cot in her examination room. Then she took the lamp and went upstairs, waiting until she reached her bedroom before reading J.T.'s note.

She frowned down at the masculine scrawl and eased onto the mattress. He wanted to do the surgery. He wanted her to do it at the ranch in two days when Matt and Russ would be finished repairing fence, and could be there with him.

It sounded as though J.T. had discussed it with the boys. Did that mean they had come to agree with his decision? Part of Annalise was relieved; she really did believe this was best. She hoped Matt would feel that way when all was said and done.

The next morning when she woke, she was still thinking about him. She moved the impression out of the sun, placing it on the kitchen table that sat away from the window and out of the light. She would take it to
the sheriff and blacksmith this morning and get their thoughts.

After fastening her cotton wrapper, she set about making coffee and eggs, then sat down to eat. She wondered if Matt would make it to town today. It was past time to discuss the fact that he believed she had broken her word.

Her gaze landed on the cheesecloth and she rose to go look at it. Why couldn't anyone figure out what was so strange about it? Sipping her coffee, she stared absently at the pattern imprinted on the cornstarch-stiffened cloth.

She had looked at this thing a dozen times and she still hadn't found any new answers. Noticing what she thought was a mark, she leaned closer. Had Matt or someone gotten something on it? Was that dirt?

It took a moment for her brain to register what she saw on the fabric. It looked like the impression of…a nailhead.

Placing her coffee on the opposite end of the table, Annalise sat down and pulled the cloth toward her. It
was
a nailhead! She hadn't noticed it before and she knew Matt hadn't either or he would've said something.

Why would a cow have a nail in its hoof? And if a cow did have a nail there, wouldn't the animal be limping? That would make the pattern irregular, not uniform.

Did it mean anything? She couldn't quite put together exactly what, but she was sure it was important. She had to tell Matt, whether he wanted to see her yet or not.

Even if he wasn't willing to discuss his father's surgery, he would discuss this.

She opened the window and poured out the remainder of her coffee, then hurried upstairs to dress. After stepping into a lilac-and-white-checked daydress, she pulled
her hair back and twisted it into a low chignon. A heavy knock rattled the front door. “Coming!”

As she rushed downstairs, she hoped whoever was here wasn't anyone who had a serious problem. She was anxious to get out to the ranch. Before she could do that, she would have to find someone to drive out with her. Going by herself wouldn't be prudent, what with the rustlers still on the loose. And Matt would be even madder at her if she traveled alone.

Sunlight glittered through the front window and when the visitor peered inside, she saw it was Matt.

She hurried to the door and unlocked it. “Hi,” she said breathlessly. “I was planning to come find you.”

“You were? So you're still talking to me?”

“Yes.”

“Can I come in?”

“Of course.”

He stepped inside, hanging his hat beside the door and adjusting the Peacemaker he carried on the gunbelt slung low on his hips. He had never been one to go unarmed and since all the trouble had started with the rustlers, a lot of other men in town followed his example.

She relocked the door. “Is your father all right?”

“Yes. The medicine gives him relief.” A muscle in his jaw flexed as he met her gaze. “I didn't like how we— I—left things the other evening. I want to apologize.”

The words were so unexpected she blinked.

“For accusing you of saying something you didn't say. I've been trying to come to terms with the surgery.”

“I wanted to talk to you about something, too.”

“I know I should let you go first, but I need to say this. I need you to hear it.”

She nodded, encouraged when he took her hand. “I thought back over our conversation at the picnic.”

“So did I.”

“I know now you didn't tell me you wouldn't give your opinion. I guess that's just what I wanted to hear.”

The relief was so great her stomach dipped. “Thank goodness.”

“You been worried about this?”

She smacked his arm. “Of course I have. I don't want anything to come between us again. It hurt that you believed I broke my word to you.”

“I don't think that. I knew it yesterday, but I couldn't get to town to tell you.”

“Yes, Lydia told me about the fence that needed repairing.”

“The idea of that surgery lathered me up good. And I'm still not sure about it, Angel.”

“I understand, but I'm so relieved to hear you say you know I didn't break my word.”

“I knew better,” he admitted, caressing the line of her jaw with his thumb. “The whole thing had me out of sorts.”

“It's a very serious situation. Some things are hard to hear.”

“Why won't Pa heal up the way Edward has?”

“It's not the same type of injury. The boy cracked a vertebra. Your father has a tumor that's pressing on his spine.”

He nodded and she thought he might ask more questions about J.T.'s condition.

Instead, he pulled her into him. “So you forgive me?”

He must not want to discuss his change of heart about J.T.'s surgery. “Yes.”

“It's a good thing. I feel like I'm askin' for forgiveness every time I turn around.” He brushed a kiss across her lips. “So, why were you coming to find me?”

“I want to show you something.”

He looked her up and down, causing that familiar warmth to spread through her. “I want to show you something, too.”

She laughed. “Not
that
kind of something. Come on.”

“Is this something upstairs? Please say yes.”

“No.” Anticipating his reaction at learning some new information about the impression, she took his hand and pulled him behind her into the hall, down to the kitchen.

“Well, you're not takin' me upstairs so I guess this isn't what I was hoping for.”

“No, it isn't.” She threw him a look over her shoulder.

He tugged on her hand, pressing her back into his front and dropped a kiss on her neck. It would've been so easy to relax against him. Or take him upstairs. But this was important. At least she thought it would turn out to be.

She drew him to the kitchen table and he stopped behind her, resting his hands on her hips. His clean soap scent mixed with a hint of the outdoors and a faint whiff of leather.

Nuzzling her cheek with his rougher one, he looked over her shoulder. He stood close enough for her to feel his warmth, the powerful width of his chest.

Sliding one hand around her waist, he flattened it on her stomach and held her to him while he gently sank his teeth into the spot where her shoulder met her neck.

She shivered. “Stop that. Look at what I'm showing you.”

“I like where I'm looking just fine.”

“You'll be glad.”

“All right,” he grumbled, leaning over so that his chin rested on her shoulder. His gaze followed hers to the impression. “I've seen this. I was with you when you did it, remember?”

“Look closely.” She pointed to the spot she'd spied earlier. “Do you see it?”

“No—wait.” Using one finger, he shifted the cloth slightly to the right. “There's an impression in the hoof. It looks like a nailhead.”

“I think it is,” she said excitedly.

“I'll be.” He studied the likeness. “But a nail would make the hoof prints more irregular.”

She frowned. “I think so, too. This means something—I'm just not sure what.”

Together, they studied the cloth for a long moment.

She tilted her head. “It's almost as if someone nailed a hoof on the bottom of a shoe.”

It sounded so preposterous that Annalise laughed, but Matt bent closer, scrutinizing the cheesecloth.

He straightened, his big hands closing over her shoulders. “That's exactly what they did! That's why there haven't been any human footprints or horse tracks. Angel, you're brilliant!”

She allowed the pleasure a brief moment before asking, “How will you find something like that?”

“Just have to start looking. And now I have something to look for. I'll tell Davis Lee and all the other ranchers who've lost cattle. They need to know about this, too.”

Matt pressed against her back, obviously aroused and
murmured in her ear, “Now, take me upstairs so I can show
you
something.”

“Well, I don't know,” she said nonchalantly. “I'm pretty busy.”

BOOK: Whirlwind Reunion
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