Authors: Debra Cowan
Matt had tried not to give it any thought.
“Did you talk to her?”
“Oh, she did all the talking,” he bit out. He felt as though he could explode any second. “Don't you have a bride waiting?”
“What did she say?”
“Leave off.” Matt shoved a hand through his hair. “There's no reason to ruin your night. You've got a good woman. You should be in there enjoying her.”
“Tell me.” Moonlight slanted across Russ's face as he braced one shoulder against the hotel wall.
Matt knew that patient stance, the expectant tone. His brother wouldn't leave until he knew. “She made some smart-mouthed comment when I started walking away. Something about how she recognized my back since I was so good at turning away from her.”
His brother cursed.
Matt gave a harsh laugh. “You and I both know who turned their back on whom. The minute her pa died, she planned to leave even though sheâ” He broke off as he wrestled with another savage urge to hit something. To ride the hell out of Whirlwind.
“Even though she had agreed to marry you,” his brother finished quietly. “What else did she say?”
“That's it.” Which was one reason Matt couldn't figure out why seeing her had hit him so hard. Had torn into the deep hole inside him he thought had healed. They had been inches apart for less than one minute. He'd seen the hurt in her eyes, but he didn't care. He wouldn't let himself. “It was no secret she had always wanted to be a doctor. I didn't like her decision to go back east by herself, but I understood. Not the other though.”
His eyes stung. “If she hadn't been so damn deter-
mined to go to medical school right then, our baby would be alive.”
Even now, after all these years, Matt's throat closed up when he thought about his child.
“She swore she didn't know about the baby until after she arrived in Philadelphia,” Russ reminded. “That she lost the baby before she could write to tell you she was expecting.”
Matt had burned her letter, but it didn't matter. The words she'd written weeks after leaving him were carved into his brain forever. “How could she not be aware that there was a life growing inside her? Her pa was a doctor and she helped him with patients often. She had to have known she was expecting.”
“Why would she lie?”
“She wanted what she wanted. She didn't need anything here.” Even him, Matt thought.
“She'd been caring for Hardy for over a year.”
“And we helped her.” Them and Pa. That was when Matt had fallen in love with her. “So?”
“She left so soon after he died. Maybe she was grieving so hard she couldn't think clear. Remember how I was after Amy ran off with that married man she'd been seeing while engaged to me?”
When he had lost his first fiancÃ©e, Russ had been negligent, withdrawn and as cantankerous as a bear with a thorn in his paw. Maybe Annalise had been a couple of those things, too. And if she had stayed in Whirlwind, Matt thought angrily, he could have helped her through it.
His brother shifted, disrupting the shadows. “Maybe she made a mistake by leaving then.”
“A mistake to go when she did, maybe, but claiming
not to know about the baby? That was no mistake. That was a flat-out lie.”
It had been some years since he and Russ had talked about this in detail and his brother's calm suggestion still angered him. And solved nothing. She was back, but for how long?
At the thought, hope rose. She had left once; it was entirely possible she might leave again. He jerked a thumb toward the hotel door. “Get back in there. I don't want Lydia taking a strip off my hide because she can't find you. You're the groom, remember?”
There was an innate contentment about his brother these days, a sense of calm. Despite the somber expression on his face just now, Russ was happy. Settled. Matt had once thought he wanted that with Annalise. But he didn't. Not with her, not with any woman.
Seeing his first love had left him feeling raw, cornered.
“You'll be in for the toast?”
Matt nodded. “Get me a glass of champagne, okay?”
“If you'd rather, I can ask Pa to give it.”
“I'll do it.” Annalise Fine wasn't going to ruin this night more than she already had. Matt had moved onâmany timesâfrom her. He could do it again.
As his brother opened the door, he said, “I'll be clear-headed when I make the toast, Russ. I won't let you down.”
The other man squeezed his shoulder. “I know that.”
Matt stayed outside a few more minutes, trying to calm the fury pulsing through him.
After finally catching the band of rustlers who had been stealing cattle from the Triple B and surrounding ranches in several counties, he had anticipated things going back to normal, looked forward to a rest. The
Landis brothers, all seven of them, were awaiting trial in Abilene's jail because Taylor County was where they had done the majority of their rustling. Callahan and Nolan counties planned to extradite the gang to their respective counties once the Taylor County trial ended.
The capture of the seven bastards had been a long time coming and the result of more than just Matt's efforts. He had every right to feel victorious. And Annalise had leeched it right out of him.
He had a Stockraisers' Association meeting to attend in two days. Exhausted after months of spending intense effort on the rustlers, he didn't look forward to the trip, but he was glad to have it. Come tomorrow morning, he would be on his way to Graham and away from Dr. Annalise Fine. And when he returned to Whirlwind, he intended to stay away.
In the days after seeing Matt, Annalise stayed busy. She treated a case of pneumonia, several sore throats, an earache and accepted an invitation out to Riley Holt's for supper. She had known him and his brother, Davis Lee, her entire life and welcomed the chance to meet their wives, Susannah and Josie.
She had also examined J. T. Baldwin's injured leg. She wanted to examine him more thoroughly before saying she agreed with the doctor from Fort Greer that he would walk again. At the end of their visit, Matt's pa had mentionedâtwiceâthat her former beau had been gone all week to Graham for a Stockraisers' Association meeting.
She had murmured some unintelligible comment. She didn't want to know where he was or what he was doing. She didn't want to think about him at all.
Five nights after Russ and Lydia's wedding celebration,
she responded to a frantic plea from Davis Lee Holt, Whirlwind's sheriff, to examine his pregnant wife, who had begun to bleed.
It was well after dark when Annalise stood at the foot of Davis Lee's and Josie's bed, asking questions. It was difficult enough to see her lifelong friend terrified, but the fear of miscarrying their baby on both his and his wife's faces wrapped around Annalise like a coil of barbed wire.
For a heartbeat, the pain of her own miscarriage was so sharp she couldn't breathe. She forced away the memories, struggling to keep all her focus on her patient.
Seven months along, Josie lay in the big bed. The lamp on a table beside her was turned as high as it would go and the soft amber light showed she was as pale as chalk. Annalise could see the sheen of sweat on both their faces.
“This has happened before,” Davis Lee offered hoarsely.
Annalise frowned. “Miscarriage?”
“Two.” The bleakness in his eyes cut her to the bone.
Two? Her heart twisted. Going through one had nearly destroyed her will to live. “You said the bleeding just started?”
“Yes.” Josie pushed a strand of brown hair out of her eyes. “I realized it was happening about ten minutes ago and sent Davis Lee for you.”
“That's good.” Annalise was glad she lived only a hundred yards from the couple. She started to lift the sheets at Josie's feet, expecting the lawman to step out of the room as other men did. When he didn't, she glanced up.
Josie took her husband's hand. “Is it all right if he stays?”
Annalise was surprised. In her experience, men didn't want to be anywhere around female issues. “If that's what you want.”
As Davis Lee eased down on the edge of the bed, Annalise raised the linens, noting the crimson stain was in only one spot.
Davis Lee spoke softly to his wife. “Just keep your eyes on me, honey. It's going to be okay.”
Josie gave him a small smile.
The man's tenderness put a lump in Annalise's throat.
The blood didn't appear to be spreading and there were no clots. That was promising.
She lowered the sheet to cover Josie's feet. “The bleeding isn't heavy. That's a good sign. Have you had any cramping?”
“Only at the beginning tonight.”
“Do you have any pain now?”
“Some, but it isn't sharp. It's the baby, isn't it?” Josie asked fearfully.
“Yes,” Annalise said gently.
Tears welled in the woman's green eyes. Davis Lee stroked his wife's hair, his eyes closing briefly as agony streaked across his handsome features.
Annalise's chest ached. “You've done everything right so farâstayed in bed, sent Davis Lee for me.”
“So now what?” he asked quietly.
“More of the same. Josie, I'm afraid you'll be confined to bed for the duration of the pregnancy.” The other woman's history made the outlook even more grim, but Annalise had no intention of saying so. “You must take extra care. Especially considering your two previous
losses. You have less than two months to go. Right now, complete bed rest is your best chance of keeping this baby.”
Davis Lee squeezed his wife's hand. “You heard the doc, Josie. You aren't going to lift so much as a needle.”
She started to argue, but quieted when her husband gave her a look. “Yes, all right.”
Annalise bit back a smile. “Davis Lee, if you'll pick her up, I'll change the sheets.”
“Oh, no!” Josie protested. “You don't need to clean up!”
Annalise smiled. “Putting down clean sheets will allow me to judge better tomorrow if the bleeding has slowed.”
He scooped up his wife. In short order, Annalise had the bed stripped and a clean sheet on the moss-stuffed mattress.
Once her patient was settled, she took her leave. Davis Lee walked out with her.
“You don't need to see me home,” she said when they paused on his porch. “Not since I live so close to you.”
He nodded, glancing over his shoulder then pulling the door shut quietly. He shoved a hand through his dark hair and she could see his hand was shaking. “This can't be any better for her than it is for the baby. Is she gonna be okay, Annalise? Even if she loses the baby?”
Annalise didn't need the wash of moonlight over his rugged features to see the man was terrified of losing his wife.
“I told herâ” He broke off hoarsely. “It was too soon to try after the last one.”
Annalise's throat tightened painfully. She laid a hand
on her friend's arm. “I'm going to do everything I can to make sure she is fine and I know you are, too. You're taking good care of her, Davis Lee.”
He searched her face then a resolve came over him. “She won't be getting out of that bed. You can count on it.”
She smiled. “Any more questions?”
“Not right now.”
“If she has further pain or thinks she's bleeding more profusely, send for me right away.”
“Count on seeing me tomorrow.”
He hugged her. “Thanks again. I'm glad you're back.”
“Me, too.” She stepped off his porch, angling toward her house. Josie was lucky to have a husband like Davis Lee. To have
Except for a midwife she had only just met, Annalise had been alone when she'd suffered her miscarriage seven years ago.
Once inside her house, she removed her blood-streaked apron, unable to dodge the memories any longer. She had known she would have to relive them at some point and they flew at her like arrows. If her loss hadn't been raked up by a possible miscarriage, it would've been triggered by a troubled pregnancy or stillbirth.
Moving as though in a daze, she washed her hands, then the dishes she'd left in a hurry when Davis Lee had fetched her.
With tears blurring her vision, she changed into her night clothes, brushed out her hair and plaited it then lay down. The images wouldn't stop. Neither would the guilt. Memories of the pain, the blood, the resulting infection. She'd been lucky to survive.
She finally dozed off, waking with a start when someone pounded heavily on her front door.
Afraid it was Davis Lee again, she sprang out of bed. She grabbed her cotton wrapper from the back of her vanity chair and pulled it on, tying it snugly as she rushed down the stairs. She snatched up her medical bag then opened the door. And froze. “Russ?”
The big man's back was to her and he was carrying someone. He looked over his shoulder, features taut. Urgent. “He needs help.”
Ef Gerard, Whirlwind's blacksmith, stood in the darker shadows holding the man's feet.
She flung the door wide. “Bring him in. Follow me.”
Hurrying, she led them to the back room and the patient cot in the near corner. After placing her bag on the floor, she lit an oil lamp while Russ and Ef carefully laid the man face-down on the mattress then stepped away.
“His back's the worst of it,” Russ said.
Holding the light high, she walked over to the patient. She searched for injuries, her gaze skimming over sock feet and powerful thighs in denims filmed with red dust. Blood caked the back of his white shirt. It had splattered on the sleeves, too. His face was also bloody. Swollen andâ
Her heart stopped. It was Matt!
nnalise froze for a second.
He needed help. Though stunned, she remembered her training and managed to gather her wits. Pushing the lamp into his brother's hand, she bent down to feel for her patient's carotid pulse. It was strong.
A closer look in the wavering light showed his ripped and bloodied shirt was stuck to his back. Rising, she pushed aside the curtain separating the clinic's two beds and went to the glass-fronted cabinet for a pair of scissors.
“What happened?” she asked Russ. “Who did this?”
“I don't know. Matt hasn't been conscious for us to ask.” He shoved a hand through his hair. “I hope he can tell us when he wakes up. Why won't he wake up?”
“Maybe because he's lost a lot of blood.” Annalise eased down onto the edge of the bed, snipping the hem of the shirt then ripping it up the middle. “Or maybe he was knocked out.”
Russ shifted behind her, throwing shadows against the wall. “How bad is it?”
“The wounds need to be cleaned before I can tell.” She carefully peeled back Matt's shirt and swallowed hard at the sight of his torn, mangled flesh.
Russ and Ef both made a sound of shock. Annalise folded the fabric out of her way, revealing the strong broad lines of his back, the fluid muscles of his shoulders and upper arms. His smooth bronze skin was now ripped and gaping. The wounds didn't extend past his lean waist, the worst of them on and between his shoulder blades.
had done this?
Emotion surged inside her, a mix of compassion and regret. She realized her hands were shaking.
Steeling herself, she managed to control the tremor in her voice. “Where did you find him?”
“A couple of miles east of Whirlwind.” Russ handed the lamp to Ef and moved to the foot of the cot. “His mare was nearby.”
She returned to the cabinet which also held bandages, powders, instruments, various salves and antiseptic treatments, including carbolic acid. “Can one of you fetch me a bowl of water?”
While the blacksmith did that, Annalise took the carbolic acid and a couple of clean squares of linen from the cabinet. The rush of footsteps had her looking over her shoulder.
Lydia Baldwin hurried through the door. “Russ?”
“Sugar.” He pulled his beautiful raven-haired wife into his side as her gaze went to the man on the cot.
“Oh no,” she breathed. “How is he?”
“He's alive.” In the smoky amber light, Russ looked pale, bleak. “Don't know much else yet.”
The brunette placed a soothing hand on his chest. “I saw you and Ef ride in so I came on over.”
He brushed a kiss across her hair.
Swallowing past a lump in her throat, Annalise moved back across the room. “What made you go look for him?” she asked Russ.
“He was late getting home from his trip to Graham. He made half the trip yesterday and stayed the night in Albany. He said he'd be back in Whirlwind by supper tonight. When he wasn't, and when there was no telegram saying he'd be delayed, I knew something had happened to him.”
Ef returned with a basin of cool water and, at her direction, placed it on the small table beside the bed.
Russ said tightly, “I'm afraid I know who did it, too.”
Annalise recalled part of the conversation she'd had with Cora the night of Russ's wedding celebration. “An angry husband?”
She felt Ef's gaze slice to her.
Russ glared at her. “An angry husband? Hell, no. You shouldn't listen to gossip.”
His wife said quietly, “She's not accusing him, Russ.”
“I don't care.”
Annalise wasn't convinced, but it wasn't her business who had hurt him; it was her business to treat him.
Patch him up and send him on his way.
“Who do you think would've done something like this?”
“The rustlers he's been chasing for months, the Landis brothers. About two months ago, he caught up to them and they beat him up.”
“We think they decided to try again,” the blacksmith put in.
“And kill him this time.”
Annalise had overheard some talk during her supper at the Pearl. “I thought they were in jail in Abilene.”
“Five of them are,” Russ said flatly. “Two escaped. Davis Lee told me late this afternoon.”
She wet the cloth with carbolic acid and began gently cleaning the caked blood from Matt's back. For a long moment, there was only the sound of the combined breathing of those in the room, the occasional push of the wind outside. The scents of dried blood and dirt hid the clean, masculine smell she remembered from the other night. Tension pulsed in the quietness.
Russ stood to her left, looking down at his brother. “They stole his boots. That's gonna make him madder than hell.”
After a few moments, Annalise was able to discern the actual wounds and she winced. His back was flayed by what at first looked like shallow cuts. She leaned closer, motioning for Ef to bring the lamp lower.
The lacerations were ragged, uneven, as though someone had dragged a jagged blade down his back. Bile rose in her throat.
Behind her, Russ cursed. “It looks like he's been whipped.”
“No,” the blacksmith said quietly. “I've been whipped and the marks are different than that.”
“Well, what is it then?” Russ asked in frustrationâthe same frustration Annalise felt as she scrutinized Matt's back.
“The wounds are shallow, most of them no more than an eighth of an inch. A few, like these in the middle of his back, are almost a quarter-inch deep. And they're all long, three and four inches.”
“Like someone bore down on the weapon as they slashed him?” Ef asked.
“Do you think a knife did this?” Russ asked with quiet anger.
“The gashes aren't clean like they would be from a knife blade. The edges of the wounds are ragged.”
“Then what the hell did that to him?”
“I don't know yet.” After further examination, she straightened.
“Can you tell how bad it is?”
“The bleeding seems to have stopped and that's good, but I don't know how much blood he lost before you got him here.” She felt her way up his strong denim-covered calves, the backs of his powerful legs and then his sides. “I don't feel more injuries.”
“So, we can take him to the hotel now?”
Her gaze caught his. “No. He shouldn't be moved. Not now anyway.”
“Well, what are we supposed to do?”
“What do you mean? He can stay here, just like any other patient.”
“He'll kill me if I leave him here.”
Russ's wife started, pinching his arm.
Even though Annalise knew the man's words were said out of worry for his brother, she couldn't keep the sharpness from her voice. “Well, we certainly can't do something he might not like. You go ahead and move him. When he starts bleeding again, send for me. Or don't.”
Lydia tugged her husband's head down to hers and said in a half whisper, “For goodness' sake, Russ, she isn't going to hurt him. Especially since he was the father of her baby.”
Anger shot through her. How many people knew about that? She had foolishly believedâ
his brother would be the only one privy to the information.
Matt stirred, his big hand clamping hard onto her knee. His heat reached through her skirts and skimmed along her nerve endings.
“Matt?” Russ stepped forward.
Blue eyes opened, clouded with pain as they focused on Annalise. “Angel?” he whispered.
At the endearment, an unexpected knot of longing tangled in her chest, but it was quickly gone. His calling her that surely meant he was out of his head with pain.
His brother leaned over the bed. “Matt?”
Matt's eyes closed and his hand slid from Annalise's leg.
Reading the look of concern on the other man's face, she said, “It may take him a while to come to.”
Russ nodded. “I want to stay with him tonight so I can be here when he wakes up.”
After Ef was convinced he'd done all he could for now, he handed the lamp over to Russ and said good-night. Russ assured the blacksmith he would send for him if anything changed and told Lydia the same when she offered to stay with him.
When he returned from walking his wife out, Annalise had retrieved a crock of honey from her cabinet and was carefully applying it to Matt's back.
“Why are you putting honey on him?” Russ asked sharply.
“It will form a barrier to keep the dirt from getting into his body. It may also help dull his pain.”
“I've heard of that, but I didn't know if it really worked.”
“I've had good results in the past.”
Russ nodded, a brief glint of respect in his eyes.
She pointed to the second cot. “Feel free to sleep there if you want.”
“Thanks, I might do that later.” He pulled over a chair from beside the door and sat down at the foot of the bed.
She worked in silence for a few moments. As she finished treating the wounds, Russ spoke, “Sorry about what I said earlier.”
“It's all right.” She gave him a small smile. What had hurt more than that was what Matt had said.
Her throat closed up. Feeling suffocated, she rose and walked to the sink across the room to wash her hands.
Between this and Josie's threat of miscarriage, Annalise felt trapped. The best thing for her would be to send Matt to the hotel with his brother, get him out of her clinic. That was what she wanted. But seeing the extent of his injuries had changed her mind about getting him out of here. He could start bleeding again and he might get a fever.
She stared at the medical certificate hanging above the supply cabinet. It didn't matter how uncomfortable she found this situation, Annalise knew she couldn't, wouldn't turn her back on him the way he had on her.
Feeling as though he'd been beaten with a fence post, Matt forced his eyes open, squinting against the sunlight streaming through the window a few feet to his left. He sorted through his fuzzy brain, trying to get his bearings. Buttery-yellow light slanted in a wide band across a clean pine floor. He was on his belly in a narrow bed that smelled of fresh air and lye soap. And something sugary-sweet.
He wore trousers, socks, but no shirt. His bare back
burned like fire as his gaze tracked what he could see of the room. Another cot, also narrow, sat several feet away behind a half-drawn curtain. Between the two beds was a small table holding a lamp and a pint-sized brown crock. A glass-fronted cabinet filled with things he couldn't identify from this angle was against the far wall.
A vague memory of a woman's voice and gentle touch floated through his mind. He had thought it was Annalise. Real or a dream? He remembered the Stockraisers' Association meeting in Graham, recalled stopping overnight in Albany on his way home, then being close to Whirlwind when he'd been ambushed.
He tried to turn on his side and agony seared his back. Hissing out a breath, he went still.
“Matt?” Russ moved next to the bed, going to his haunches so Matt could see him.
The rattle of a wheelchair affirmed that Pa was there, too. The older man rolled to Russ's side. “Son?”
Matt's mouth was dry, his head throbbing. “Where am I?”
“In Whirlwind,” his brother answered. “At Annalise's clinic.”
Annalise? Hell. So, he hadn't dreamed her. She really was here. “Why didn't you take me to Catherine's?” he rasped.
“Annalise was closer.”
A hell of a lot closer than he wanted her, that was for sure. He was surprised she hadn't turned him away. “What time is it?”
“Late afternoon,” Russ answered. “You've been out since we brought you here about two this morning.”
His back felt raw, torn. “What happened to me?”
“We're hoping you can tell us.” J.T. angled his chair out of the way so Russ could help Matt sit up.
He bit off a curse at the pain arrowing through him. Sweat broke across his forehead as he braced his hands on his knees and panted with the effort to breathe through the misery. “Thanks.”
His brother sat beside him in case he needed support, for which Matt was grateful.
“Ah, you're awake,” said a smoky feminine voice.
As Annalise walked into the room, his muscles tightened, sending a lash of agony through him. He looked up, taking in her practical gray daydress and the thick mahogany braid hanging down her back.
Her skirts made a soft swishing noise against the wood floor. “I brought you some water and something to eat.”
“Water's better for you right now.”
Maybe so, but it wouldn't take the edge off.
She eased around J.T. and his wheelchair then set a real glass and a china plate on the small bedside table. After she removed the lamp and the crock, Russ moved the table within easy reach for Matt.
He hoped he could manage to eat under his own steam because he didn't plan on staying here.
Annalise stepped to the head of the bed. “I sent Andrew Donnelly for Davis Lee.”
Evidently, Annalise had renewed her acquaintance with Catherine Blue's kid brother in the two months she'd been here.
Russ glanced at Matt. “Are you up for some questions?”
“Yeah.” He took another bite of the bread and ham Annalise had brought, realizing how hungry he was. And how weak. “I was ambushed.”
“By Reuben and Pat Landis?” his brother asked.
“I don't know. Couldn't see their faces.” Mindful of the pain in his back, he carefully lifted his glass for a drink. “Why'd you ask about those two?”
“Davis Lee got word yesterday that they had escaped from the jail in Abilene.”
As Matt talked with his brother and father, Annalise moved behind him into the space between the bed and the wall. When she touched his shoulder, he flinched.