Authors: Debra Cowan
“Sorry. I want to make sure your back isn't bleeding again.” Her voice was cool, detached. And close. Too close.
Matt tried not to tense up because it hurt like the devil when he did, but he couldn't help it. Trying to focus, he fixed his attention on his brother and father. “Who found me?”
“Russ and Ef.” J.T. situated his chair a few feet away. “You were a couple of miles from here. Tony Santos sent his boy, Miguel, out to the Triple B before dawn this morning and I came on to town. Russ spent last night here with you.”
Matt nodded, going still when Annalise slid a hand into the back of his hair and probed gently. Her breast grazed his shoulder.
Before he could ask what the hell she was doing, she said, “You have a knot on your head here. Do you know what you were hit with?”
“No.” He cleared his throat, sensation stirring in his belly. If he weren't in pain, he knew he'd be feeling that same slow curl of heat below his belt.
Her hand moved from his head. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”
“No,” he ground out. Did she have to touch him so much? Or stand so close? He wanted her to step away.
J.T.'s sharp blue gaze went from her to Matt and he smiled. “Annalise has been taking real good care of you.”
Matt took a drink of water so he wouldn't have to respond. The clinic's front door opened and Sheriff Davis Lee Holt strode in with young Andrew Donnelly, their boots thudding against the pine floor.
Finished eating, Matt greeted the dark-haired lawman, a longtime friend, and the stocky teen who lived with his sister and her husband past the edge of town.
After asking if Matt was going to be all right, Davis Lee turned his attention to the ambush. “Did you happen to see who jumped you?”
A dark look crossed the sheriff's face. “I was hoping you had.”
“Russ told me Reuben and Pat Landis escaped jail yesterday.” Matt's back throbbed like blue blazes, the discomfort made more intense by the occasional soft stroke of Annalise's fingers on his skin.
“They still owe you for shooting off Reuben's earlobe, I reckon.”
“Probably, though they've got more than that coming to them.” The brothers and their five siblings had been thieving from here to the Panhandle for months. “How much longer are we gonna have to chase those SOBs? I thought we'd finally stopped them.”
The lawman shook his head, looking as grim as Matt felt. “Tell me what happened.”
“Someone came straight at me on his horse, knocked us both out of our saddles.” He paused, feeling light-headed. “I punched him and another person hit me from behind with something. That's all I remember.”
“So you don't know what they did to your back?” Annalise asked in a quiet distant voice.
Matt wished he could forget she was so close, but he couldn't. Her clean, light scent had stolen into his lungs and settled there. “No, I don't know what they did.”
Davis Lee walked behind the cot to see Matt's back, and cursed. “What could've ripped you up so badly?”
“What does it look like?” Matt asked.
Russ shook his head, still propping his brother up. “Annalise, Ef and I tried to figure it out when I brought you in, but we couldn't.”
“Is my back torn to shreds? That's what it feels like.”
Davis Lee leaned closer. “These almost look like stab wounds, but they're not very deep. If they used a knife, why didn't they just stab you to death?”
“When we catch them, I'll be sure and ask,” Matt said dryly, fighting the weakness and pain that was draining the energy from him. “Somebody tell me what it looks like back there.”
“There are long lacerations,” Annalise responded. “Uneven, like someone plowed furrows down your back.”
She explained about the shallowness and pattern of the wounds. They didn't compare with the blade of any knife she'd ever seen.
“And you have no idea what they could've used, Matt?” Davis Lee moved around to the front of the bed.
“Everything's a blank after I got hit on the head.”
Except for those shadowy images of Annalise. Her touch fluttered like a butterfly against his mangled flesh. He felt the occasional wash of her breath against his neck and back, and it put him on edge.
As Davis Lee, Russ and J.T. discussed going after the men who had attacked him, Matt realized he could be stuck here with her, completely at her mercy. Like hell.
“The men who jumped Matt could've gone in any direction afterwards,” J.T. said.
“If it was the Landis brothers, maybe to Abilene?” Russ suggested. “To try and free the others?”
Davis Lee shook his head. “The guard over there has been tripled. They won't get within a hundred feet of the jail now.”
Annalise came around to feel Matt's forehead, her hand cool and soft against his skin. “Good. No fever.”
She still spoke in that detached emotionless voice and it bugged the hell out of him because he knew how she could burn beneath that prim exterior. How she could make
He cut off the thought. That was the last thing he wanted to remember.
The fatigue etching her fine-boned features didn't detract from her beauty or dull the peaches-and-cream skin that was so fine-grained it was almost translucent.
He'd known he would have to see her again, but why this soon? And why like this, when he was injured and hurting?
She again moved behind him, the warmth of her body flirting with his. Every muscle from his calves to his shoulders drew tight. Being this close to her put a knot in his chest. He had to get away from her.
“Are you dizzy?” she asked.
“A little.” Growing weaker, his frustration mounted. “Headache?”
“Yes, and my back hurts like hellfire.” So why could
he even feel how close she was? Why was he even this aware of her? He sure as hell didn't want to be.
“Russ, Jericho and I can fan out from Whirlwind, each of us in a different direction, and see if we can find any tracks leading from the spot where Matt was found,” Davis Lee was saying to J.T. and Russ. “I doubt I'll have trouble getting another volunteer to ride with us. Jake or Bram Ross would gladly help.”
Matt was sure the Ross brothers would agree, but he wanted to go. He didn't care that he was as weak as a newborn kitten. “I can do it.”
“It's not a good idea,” Annalise said firmly.
Her touch was feather-light on his back, yet he felt it like a red-hot brand. Frustration and resentment had him snapping, “Leave me be!”
Conversation abruptly stopped and the three men in front of him stared warily at Annalise.
Matt thought about apologizing until she leaned in and whispered, “I can't. I'm the doctor, you're the patient. I need to check all your wounds.”
The brush of her lips against his ear sent a shaft of heat through him and his muscles twitched in reaction, sending a wave of pain over him. Hell!
He looked at his brother. “Bring me a shirt and my horse. And my boots.”
Russ grimaced. “Uh, well, they stole your boots.”
A red haze of anger misted his vision. If there had been one ounce of energy in his body, he would have punched the wall. As it was, he could barely sit up.
J.T. frowned. “Son, Annalise is right. You're in no shape to ride out right now.”
Davis Lee and Russ nodded in agreement.
Matt didn't want to admit it, but he was about to give out just sitting here. He would be worse than useless on
a horse. It didn't help that Annalise was torturing him under the guise of doctoring him.
Andrew spoke up. “I could check that spot by the creek bed where the McDougal gang used to rendezvous. They might not be the only outlaws to use it and someone might've been there recently.”
That outlaw gang had been wiped out a couple of years earlier. Thanks to Jericho, Jake, Davis Lee and Riley, the men who had murdered Cora Wilkes's husband as well as Josie Holt's parents and former fiancÃ© were gone for good. Matt really wanted to make that happen for the Landis brothers and anyone else involved in the rustling.
Davis Lee squeezed the boy's shoulder. “That's a good idea, Andrew. Take my deputy with you. He's at the jail.”
Andrew nodded, his young face earnest as he looked at the lone woman in their midst. “I won't go until we finish for the day, Dr. Annalise.”
“You can go on, Andrew. It's important.” There was a smile in her voice.
The answering smile on the boy's face was blinding and pure adoration. He looked to be
to falling at her feet.
Hell, Matt thought. Andrew should watch out or she'd kick him in the teeth while he was down there.
It was an effort, but he said, “The longer we talk, the further they get.”
Russ gave him a flat stare. “You're not going. We've got it handled. You need to heal up 'cuz we both know this is going to start all over now that two of them have escaped.”
Matt knew Russ was right to insist he stay here and it blistered him up, but the only thing keeping him from
passing out was sheer will and his pride. He refused to let Annalise see how right she was about his being shaky.
“How about moving me out of here?” he asked his brother in a low voice. “Maybe to the Fontaine?”
“I already talked to Annalise about that and she said it wasn't a good idea.”
“She doesn't have the last say.”
“Until you're stronger, she does,” J.T. said. “I'll stay here with you.”
She helped Russ situate Matt on his side. Her movements were brisk, impersonal. Still, he felt her touch all the way through his body.
Davis Lee turned for the door. “One of us will let you know what we find, Matt. I'm going to see who can ride with us.” He nodded.
“When Andrew gets back from checking the McDougal's old rendezvous spot, I'll wire the sheriff in Abilene and those in the surrounding counties to let them know what's happened so they can keep an eye out for anyone suspicious and for the Landis brothers, too.”
“That's good.” Though what little strength he had was slipping away, Matt still chafed at being left here. He called out to his brother as Russ reached the clinic door. “Bring me some boots before you leave Whirlwind.”
Russ agreed and walked out. Annalise went to the door with Davis Lee and Matt caught her conversation with his friend.
“How's Josie doing?” she asked quietly.
“So far, she's following your orders.”
“I'm glad to hear it. I'll be over in a bit to check on her.”
“I appreciate it. Lydia offered to stay with her if Russ
and I needed to go after Matt's attackers so she won't be alone.”
“That's good.” She gave the lawman a warm smile as she closed the door behind him. A friendly smile.
A smile Matt hadn't seen in years.
She moved back into the room and gathered his dishes.
“What's wrong with Josie?” he asked. “Is it the baby?”
Surprise flashed across her face then she shook her head. “It's not for me to say.”
“Is she going to be all right?” He hated the thought that pretty, vibrant Josie Holt might lose another child or otherwise be in a bad way. “Can you tell me that?”
She hesitated, then said, “She's taking every precaution.”
Matt could tell by the stubborn slant to her jaw that he wouldn't get any more information. While he wanted to know more, he couldn't deny that he found Annalise's discretion admirable in this instance, although he sure hadn't found it admirable when she had kept information from
seven years ago. Dammit.
“You can roll to your stomach when you're tired of that position,” she said, “but don't lie on your back.”
He didn't think he would be able to anyway, not without screaming like a girl. He felt like hell, and she really had helped him. He doubted she had enjoyed it any more than he had.
As she walked out with his dishes, he said grudgingly, “I guess I should thank you for doctoring me.”
“Wait until you see my fee,” she said sweetly and stepped into the front room.
His pa chuckled and Matt clenched his teeth.
As he listened to her footsteps go up the stairs, his frustration returned in full force. So much for staying away from her.
For now, he was stuck here. He fully expected it to be pure-dee hell.
eing irritated drained the last of Matt's energy. He drifted in and out of sleep, time moving in a slow murky haze.
When he finally came fully awake, he was on his stomach and lamplight filled the dark room. The spring night was cool, making the interior of the two-story house a comfortable temperature. He vaguely remembered Pa leaving to have supper with Cora Wilkes and promising to bring a meal back for Matt.
“Mr. Matt?” Andrew Donnelly appeared in front of him. “You want some water?”
Matt gingerly rolled to his side and propped himself up on one elbow, sharp pain ripping through him. The dark-haired boy offered him a full glass and hovered as he drank a little more than half of it.
When he returned the glass to Andrew, he became aware of the stillness. “We the only two here?”
Where was Annalise? He wasn't asking.
“Dr. Annalise went to check on Miz Josie. She'll be back directly.”
Matt nodded. If he'd been able, he would've taken advantage of her absence and gotten the hell out of there, but he couldn't even pull off his own hat, much less make it to the door. All he could do was stay in this bed, in this clinic, with this woman.
Knowing he was in no shape to leave didn't stop the resentment simmering inside him. He wasn't sure if it was directed more at Annalise or the fact that he couldn't help search for his attackers.
His back still burned with a razor-edged pain as if he'd been skinned. He sure would like to know what those injuries looked like. Staring at the glass gave him an idea.
“Hey, Andrew, does the doc have a mirror anywhere?”
The boy searched the examination room where Matt lay, then the front room. “I don't see one. I could go upstairs and look in her rooms,” he said eagerly.
A little too eagerly, Matt thought. “No need for that. How about you run over to the Fontaine and ask Miz Lydia for a couple of mirrors? I want to get a look at my back and I think I can do it using those.”
“Wellâ¦” Andrew hesitated.
“If you're worried the doctor will chew on you for leaving me alone, I'll take responsibility. Besides, you won't be gone even five minutes. I promise to stay just like this until you get back.”
“Get back from where?” A whoosh of air accompanied Annalise's words as she opened the door and stepped inside.
The boy's blue eyes lit up at the sight of her. “I was
going to the Fontaine to ask Miz Lydia for a couple of mirrors.”
“For what?” She straightened her bodice, which was the same deep green as her eyes.
“Mr. Matt wants to look at his back.” Andrew's smile grew brighter, if that were possible. “Need me to do anything for you while I'm out, ma'am?”
“No, thank you. You don't need to run after those mirrors either.”
At her authoritative tone, Matt's voice sharpened. “I want to look at my injuries.”
“I can help you with that.” She glanced at Andrew. “You'd best get on home for supper.”
“Are you sure? I can stay if you need me to.”
“I'm sure.” She smiled. “You did a good job today, just as you do every day.”
The boy flushed with pleasure and Matt huffed out a breath. She had that kid wrapped around her little finger.
“Well, good night then, ma'am,” the boy said. “Mr. Matt.”
“Good night, Andrew.”
Fuming, Matt pushed up on one elbow, biting back a moan at the agony slicing through him. “Why didn't you let the kid get those mirrors? I want to see what those bastards did to my back.”
“I might have an idea,” she said coolly.
“You're going to draw me a picture?”
When she didn't explain further, he ground out, “Well, what is it?”
“You know I've been putting honey on your wounds?”
“So, that's what I smelled,” he murmured. “Why did
you do that?” He knew why he would've put honey on her, and he knew what he would've done with it.
“It protects the wounds from dirt and helps with inflammation,” she said briskly. “Back to your wounds, I think I can make an impression of them.”
“Yes, a likeness.”
“I know what an impression is,” he snapped.
“The idea is similar to tracing a pattern.”
“I'll allow my head's fuzzy, so how would that work?”
“In effect, I'll make a paste to form to the injuriesâit won't penetrate beneath the honeyâthen cover the wounds with a cloth soaked in a cornstarch solution. Once the mixture sets up, I can peel off the cloth and we'll see the pattern.”
“What the hell kind of idea is that?” Resentment threaded his words. “That something you learned back east?”
“Yes,” she said stiffly. “I learned it from one of my professors.”
“What kind of medicine is that?”
“It's not medicine. It's an experiment he tried, a way to discover things like what kind of weapon might have been used on a victim.”
“It would be easier to just get me a couple of mirrors.”
“Yes, but this impression will be permanent. You'll be able to keep it. If you do find the weapon, you can compare it to the pattern on the cloth.”
How damn smart was that? Matt was impressed in spite of himself. “And you're sure it'll be accurate?”
“If we do it now. If we wait for the wounds to start healing over, the pattern will change.”
“I've never heard of anything like this. It sounds crazy.”
“That's what people said to Professor Quackenbush, but it worked. He was always trying things like this.”
“It won't hurt you or hinder your recovery.” He noticed
didn't say she wouldn't hurt him.
She shrugged. “You can think about it. Just remember what I said about the wounds healing over and changing the pattern.”
“Do it,” he decided.
“All right, then.”
For a few minutes, she bustled around gathering supplies. He watched her through half-slitted eyes, noticing how the golden lamplight made her skin glow like polished pearl. Something hard clutched at his chest.
She glanced at him. “Is your pain any better?”
“If it is, I can't tell it.”
“I'll be careful,” she murmured.
She gathered a large piece of cloth, the pint-sized crock he'd seen earlier, some bowls, a pitcher of water and a tin of cornstarch. Walking to him, she placed all the items on the small bedside table.
“First,” she said, “I'll mix up the paste.”
As she poured a small amount of cornstarch and water into one of the bowls, he found himself staring at her slender, strong hands, remembering when they had been on him for reasons that had nothing to do with medicine or newfangled ideas. A time when he had looked at her with the same ignorant adoration as he'd seen in the Donnelly kid's eyes.
“Does Andrew work for you every day?”
“Most days after school and sometimes on Saturday if I need him.”
“The boy's smitten with you and you're encouraging him.”
“I am not,” she dismissed, mixing a different amount of water and cornstarch in another bowl.
“If you don't make it real clear that you're only his friend, he won't stop.”
Rather than reply, she dipped the cloth into one of the bowls then wrung it out.
“You say jump and he says how high.”
She sighed. “He wants to learn about medicine.”
“Maybe about anatomy.” Matt's gaze slid over her. “
“He's fourteen, Matt.”
“So was I, at one time. I know what I'm talking about. I rememberâ¦things.”
She flushed and he recalled how she had turned that pretty shade of pinky-peach all over the first time he'd gotten her naked. Despite his injury, his body tightened and he pushed the image away.
Being here with her in the shadows, teased by the scent of primroses, made it hard to remember how cold-blooded she had been.
When she moved to stand over him, he eased down to his stomach. She spread more honey on his wounds then picked up one of the bowls. “This is the paste. It may be cold.”
Her touch was gentle, but he still flinched.
As she worked, she said quietly, “Russ said you'd been beaten up a couple of months ago, maybe by these same men.
” He grunted.
“You've been chasing them for a while?”
He didn't know why she cared, but her interestâand her enticing scentâdistracted him from the pain.
“Been after them about eight months. With everything fenced now, it's harder for them to steal the cattle, but they still manage to do it and rebrand them.”
“Is the Triple B the only ranch to suffer?”
“No,” he said in a grainy voice. “The Ross place, Riley's, too. Also a new ranch started by a Mr. Julius from Chicago. And several places from here up through the Panhandle.”
“Now, I'll place the cloth over your wounds. It will need a few minutes to set up.”
He nodded. Her questions hadn't been personal, but that didn't stop Matt wanting to ask her some that were. Starting with why had she returned? Was she planning to stay? Had she left a man in Philadelphia the way she'd left Matt?
But he kept his mouth shut.
As she cleaned up the supplies, he told himself to close his eyes, but he couldn't stop looking at her. The dark sweep of her lashes, the velvet of her skin, the lush curve of her breasts. He remembered the sweet taste of her against his tongue.
Hell, he wished he could pass out. He was more aware of everything than he wanted to beâthe pain in his back, Annalise, the emptiness he felt just being in the same room with her.
“I think it's ready.” It took a few minutes for her to slowly peel off the cloth. When she finished, she laid it carefully on top of the glass-fronted cabinet, saying excitedly, “I think it's going to work.”
“Really?” He had thought the idea was half-baked. “Let me see.”
“Hold your horses. I want it to set up a bit. While it's doing that, I'll clean off any remaining paste.”
She gingerly wiped his back. As she spread a little more honey on his wounds, he turned his head away from her.
His thoughts about her were entirely too soft. He didn't want to feel anything soft for her. He wanted to ignore her, but as she began to bandage him, he knew it would be impossible.
Once his back was covered, she helped him sit up so she could secure the dressing by wrapping strips of cloth around him, under his arms and just above his hips.
The warm puff of her breath against his chest, his belly, had sweat breaking out across his face. His muscles tightened, sending a shaft of pain through him.
“There.” With her gaze averted, she appeared unaffected, but Matt knew better.
Her pulse tripped wildly in the hollow of her throat and though her breathing was controlled, he'd heard it hitch more than once. Right now, though, he was more concerned with not passing out and tumbling off this cot.
She finally looked at him, then frowned when she saw his face. “We overdid it.”
She helped him lie back down. Once she'd made sure he was comfortable, she left the room, returning a few minutes later to pick up the cloth gingerly and hold it up for his inspection. “The cornstarch mixture has set up enough now that you might be able to recognize the pattern.”
Matt concentrated, but couldn't identify the jagged streaks. “Could you hold it farther away?”
She stepped back a few feet, keeping her hands beneath the cloth to support it. Distance didn't help.
“I don't recognize the likeness. Maybe Russ or one of the other men will.”
Disappointment chased across her features.
“It was a good idea.” Matt didn't know why he was reassuring her.
Pleasure flashed in her eyes then was gone. “I can't take credit for it.”
“Don't know why not.” She had possibly given him a bonafide lead, using a technique he had never heard of. “The idea to take the impression of my wounds was your idea, not your teacher's.”
She shrugged, turning away to return the cloth to its place atop the cabinet.
It didn't escape him that Annalise had been able to help both with the weapon and with his injuries because she had left Whirlwind. Left him. And he didn't like it one damn bit.
For the last three days, the walls had been slowly closing in on her. Annalise was painfully conscious of Matt and had been since she had bandaged his wounds after making the impression.
As she walked out of Haskell's General Store after lunch, she admitted her pulse hadn't settled down since. Faced with his wide, hair-dusted chest, she wasn't sure how she had managed to keep a steady hand. His body was more tautly muscled than it had been when they had been betrothed, the plane of his stomach even more well-hewn. Looking at him, touching him, made her mouth go dry.
It was beyond vexing. It scared the daylights out of her. Why couldn't she view him as just another patient? After what he'd done, how could she feel anything for him?
Sometimes, when she was too close to him, her skin
stung with sensation. Andrew's presence helped dull the awareness as did J.T.'s and Cora's. But at night, it was just Annalise and Matt in quarters too close for her liking. She was upstairs and he was down, yet it didn't seem to matter. Nothing could stop the memory of those work-roughened hands moving slowly over her bare skin or the hot press of his mouth on her breasts.
His presence, their history, the low-thrumming tension wore on her. As she had done the last three days, she forced her thoughts to something else. Neither she nor Matt had yet been able to identify the weapon used on him.
After comparing the marks on the impression with those left by pitchforks, rakes and even a circular saw blade, she still had nothing to tell Matt, his family or the sheriff. The weapon in question also didn't match any blade pattern she'd checked on knives at Haskell's or in his Montgomery Ward catalogue.