Authors: Debra Cowan
Davis Lee, Russ, Jericho and Bram Ross had returned to Whirlwind frustrated and empty-handed. The men had found nothing to identify Matt's attackers or to indicate where they had gone. Matt had shown Russ and the others the impression she had made, but none of them could identify the pattern or the weapon either.
She walked past Cal Doyle's law office then stepped inside her clinic.
And found four women gathered around her patient, who was sitting up. Catherine Blue and two of her sisters-in-law, Deborah and Jordan. And a lone blonde named Willow. Annalise remembered her from the night she and Matt had run into each other outside the Fontaine. The woman worked for Russ and Lydia at the hotel.
Surrounded by females, Matt was saying something
that made them laugh. The smile on his face faded when he saw Annalise.
Even so, her heart thudded hard. She eyed him dispassionately. The last thing she wanted was for Matt Baldwin to know how much he still got under her skin. At first glance, he looked fit enough, but she saw strain around his eyes.
“Hi, Annalise.” Catherine, a trained nurse who had quickly become a friend, walked toward her.
“Hi, Doc.” The other three women chorused.
She greeted everyone, smiling at Catherine as the others took turns reading the latest edition of
The Prairie Caller
to Matt. Whirlwind's newspaper had the news about Josie being ordered to bed for the duration of her pregnancy. There was also the announcement of the arrival of a man known only as Cosgrove, the manager for the Eight of Hearts Ranch, owned by new resident, Theodore Julius.
Squashing a sudden burst of irritation, Annalise caught sight of a pie on the bedside table next to Matt's bed. She glanced at Catherine. “Cora's been here?”
The raven-haired woman nodded. “Also May Haskell as well as Chesterene Eckert and Zoe Keeler.”
No wonder Matt looked tired, she thought crossly. “How's Evie?”
At the mention of her one-month-old daughter, Catherine glowed. “She's doing well, for as little sleep as she's getting.”
“Is she colicky?” Annalise asked with a frown.
“No.” The other woman laughed. “Her father seems to think he has to hold her every minute he's with her. When Jericho finally puts her to bed, she doesn't stay asleep long.”
Despite the sharp pang of loss in her chest, Annalise
smiled at the image of the former Texas Ranger being so enamored of the infant. She used to wonder what kind of father Matt would've been to their son, but it hurt too much to consider.
Hearing his deep chuckle, she shifted her attention back to him just as Catherine asked, “Have you seen good results with the honey you've been using on his wounds?”
“Yes, and there's been no inflammation. Everything's healing nicely.”
As she and the other woman talked, Annalise's irritation with Matt grew. She had told him not to tire himself out, yet here he was, sitting up, laughing and flirting. Of course he hadn't followed her orders. What had she expected?
Though he looked as if his energy was flagging, she knew he would never admit it. He would tire easily until he was fully recovered, but if his wounds still looked as good as they had yesterday, she planned to tell him he was free to leave. He was ready and so was she.
When her conversation with Catherine lulled, Annalise turned to the other women. “Ladies, I need to examine Mr. Baldwin, so maybe you could continue your visit later?”
“Yes, of course,” Deborah Blue said.
Willow shared a look with Matt that spoke clearly of sexual knowledge between them. “I'll see you after awhile.”
Annalise knew from the blonde herself that she was a former prostitute. It appeared Matt knew the same from firsthand experience.
A few minutes later, Annalise was alone with him. “I guess you ignored my suggestion that you rest.”
“You didn't suggest.” No charming smile for her. “You ordered.”
She didn't respond, instead gathering fresh bandages and the crock of honey from the glass-fronted cabinet then moving behind his cot.
As she examined his dressing, he said, “Is this really why you ran them off?”
“I didn't run them off. You look half-spent and I need to change your dressing. Why else would I ask them to leave?”
The smug knowing look he threw over his shoulder had her bristling. Before she thought better of it, she snapped, “Yes, I wanted you all to myself. Haven't had nearly enough of that.”
“Ouch!” He flinched as she pulled at his dressing a little too hard.
“Do you want some help lying down?”
“If you're changing my bandages, I'd like to sit up.”
As she peeled off the old strips of cloth, she wrestled with her aggravation. She wasn't vexed because she was jealous, which was what Matt thought, the arrogant cuss. She just didn't like him disregarding her medical advice.
During the last few days, it had been obvious he had moved on from their past. She wasn't letting on that his actions from seven years ago still hurt her. She wanted to avoid any reference to their history. So her only conversations with him thus far had consisted of advice, treatment and asking what he might want for his meals.
After applying a fresh layer of honey, she bandaged him as quickly as possible, not wanting to feel any of those flutters she had felt the other day. A sigh eased out of her and she stepped back. “All done.”
“Good. When can I get out of here?”
It was impossible not to take that personally. “Today.”
“Did Russ or Pa bring me any clothes?”
“Yes.” She went to the other bed, fetching a gray shirt and a pair of old boots his brother had brought from the Triple B.
Matt declined her offer to help him dress, for which Annalise was glad. Gathering up the soiled linens she would later boil, she stepped around his cot and into the front room to deposit them in a burlap bag.
“Why did you come back to Whirlwind, Annalise?”
She froze at the question as much as the bleakness in the words. Turning, she looked into his blue eyes, hard with scrutiny. She had to speak around the catch in her throat. “Because this is my home.”
“You sure didn't mind leaving it seven years ago.”
He now wore the shirt and she couldn't stop her gaze from going to the tuft of dark hair visible in the unbuttoned placket of the garment.
“My plan all along was to come back and you know it,” she said.
“Did you leave a man back there, like you did here?”
She stiffened. The hurt slicing through her quickly turned to anger, but she didn't let him bait her. “You can have your bandages changed by whomever you prefer. No need to come back here unless there's a problem.”
“All you ever cared about was medical school.”
“That isn't true.”
“Well, it damn sure wasn't me. Or what we had.”
“That's what this is really about, isn't it?” Annalise wasn't reminding him that the other thing she'd cared about was their life together. She curled her hands
into fists. “Because I didn't change my plans after you proposed.”
“No.” He didn't hesitate, but she didn't believe him.
“You knew I intended to come straight back to youâback here after medical school, but after you proposed, with my father already gone, you thought I would stay in Whirlwind and give up my dream of becoming a doctor.”
“I never said anything like that.”
“You didn't have to say it. You made it abundantly clear once I was out of sight. You acted as though I didn't exist.”
A muscle flexed in his jaw as he slowly got to his feet. “I cared for you,” he ground out. “And our baby.”
baby!” She shook with outrage, disbelief. “You didn't care enough even to acknowledge my letter about the miscarriage.”
“You're a fine one to point the finger.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” she asked hotly.
“If you'd cared about me or what we had, you wouldn't have lied about the baby.”
“Lied? About what?” Incensed, she marched over to him. “You think I wasn't expecting?”
“No, I believe you were.”
“Then what?” Her heart pounded hard in her chest.
“I think you knew before you left Whirlwind that you were carrying my baby and in your letter you tried to make me believe you didn't.”
Her breath jammed painfully in her chest. “You think I knew and went to Philadelphia without telling you?”
How could he believe such a thing? “Well, I didn't know.”
“You're the daughter of a doctor.” He took an aggressive step toward her.
She moved back, not out of fear, but from sheer reflex.
“You helped your pa from the time you were ten, and you knew more than most about medical things. How could you not realize?”
“I was distracted by my grief over my father's death. If there were signs of a child at that time, I didn't catch them.”
The skeptical, scornful look on his face set off her temper.
“You are a piece of work, Matt Baldwin! Why would I lie?”
“Because if you'd admitted back then that you knew, you would've had to stay.” His voice rose, too. “You wouldn't have been able to traipse halfway across the country, putting our baby at risk.”
Pain and guilt knifed through her.
“If you hadn't been so all-fired set to get to medical school, our baby would be alive. You as good as killed him.”
Before she even realized it, her hand flew up and she slapped him. Hard.
He grabbed her wrist, his expression stunned.
Tears blurred her vision. “How dare you.”
Her hand print glowed red on his jaw. The blame was already carved into her heart, but coming from Matt, who had never even acknowledged their child? How could he have said something so cruel? Was there nothing left of the man she'd loved? If so, she couldn't see it in those steel-cold eyes, the rigid jaw.
She was shaking so hard her teeth chattered. Very quietly, she said, “Get out.”
“You bet.” He released her with a curse.
She registered the heavy thud of his boots on the floor, the slam of the door as her entire body went numb.
He'd brought up the past and she hadn't been able to keep her mouth shut. She wished she had because now she was forced to admit what she had denied for seven years. She'd never gotten over him.
If you hadn't been so all-fired set to get to medical school, our baby would be alive. You as good as killed him.
Five days later, Matt's words still razored through Annalise, a black poisonous cloud on an otherwise lovely Saturday. She wished she could push his words out of her head, push
out of her head, but she hadn't been able to. So she'd done the only thing she couldâshe'd avoided him like he was a coiled rattler.
Sunlight streamed through the front window of her clinic, warming the space of pine floor between her and the patient in his wheelchair. J.T. Baldwin had come in with Cora, wanting Annalise to examine his leg and determine why he was still unable to walk.
“How's the pain?” Annalise asked him.
“Most days, it's just an ache, but if I do too muchâ”
“Or ride in the wagon for very long,” Cora put in.
J.T. smiled at the older woman before turning to Annalise. “Then it hurts like the devil.”
“Is the pain sharp or dull after you've exerted yourself?”
“Sharp. It's a good sign that I can feel something, right?”
“It can be good, yes. In your case, I'm not sure. Because there are times when you can feel yet still aren't able to make your leg move, I think you have a mass pressing on a nerve in your lower spine.”
“Mass? Like a tumor?” he asked gruffly, apprehension on his craggy features. “Is it gonna kill me?”
Cora reached over and took his hand.
Annalise understood his concern. Matt and Russ's mother had died from a tumor in her stomach when Russ was ten and Matt was nine. “I don't believe it's a cancerous tumor. You don't exhibit other symptoms.”
“So what do I do? Can you get it out of there?”
“I can do surgery, but there are risks.”
“Your right leg might be paralyzed for good. Both sides of your body might be. There's also a chance it could kill you. Any operation is risky, especially one this tricky.” She shook her head. “And you should know that I've only assisted in this surgery, never performed it on my own.”
“I trust you.”
“I appreciate that, but you really need to think hard about having this operation. If you want, I can wire a doctor in Abilene and ask that he come to the ranch to give you another opinion.”
“You and Dr. Butler have already given your opinions. I think two doctors hovering around me is plenty.” He winked to take the sting out of his words.
“Are you advising against the surgery, Annalise?” Cora asked.
“No. I just want J.T. to think about it. Both of you. And discuss it with Matt and Russ.”
The older man frowned. “But you won't, will ya? If they find out, I think I should be the one to tell them.”
“Of course. I don't discuss my patients with anyone. You decide who you tell and who you don't, but I do think it's a good idea.”
“So what do you suggest for now?”
“Give your recovery a little more time.” At the impatient look on his face, one that reminded her too much of his youngest son, she said, “I know you're ready to walk again, but you can't rush it. You might damage a nerve permanently. If your pain becomes worse and longer lasting, you need to tell me.”
“Dr. Butler never found this lump,” he said quietly.
“He's been back east for a few months now with his wife's family, hasn't he?”
“It may not have been there when he last examined you. Or it may have grown from a non-detectable size.”
He nodded and Cora reached over to pat his arm. Annalise had been surprised to find that her friend and J.T. were courting, but they had a lot in common.
“Any more questions?” Annalise asked.
“Not right now,” J.T. answered.
Cora rose and opened the clinic's front door as the man rolled his wheelchair closer to Annalise and squeezed her hand.
“I'm glad you're home, girl,” he said gruffly.
“Me, too.” And she was, except for having to see his son. She picked up her bag and walked out with them, closing the door behind her.
At the other woman's questioning look, Annalise
explained, “I have to check on another patient. Should I fetch Russ to help you into the wagon, J.T.?”
Russ had lifted his father from the wagon to his chair when he had arrived at Annalise's. There had been no sign of Matt, which was good because she didn't want to be within ten yards of him.
“Both boys are planning to come over. The rustlers' trail has gone cold so Matt's going to ride out to the ranch with us. He's healed up enough now to come home.”
“Ah.” She gave a polite smile, which promptly faded when she saw her former fiancÃ© standing on the steps of Haskell's General Store, talking to Jake and Bram Ross.
She focused her attention on the dark-haired Ross brothers, both broad in the shoulders and tall. Jake held a little blond girl in one arm. Annalise knew the toddler, Molly, was the half-sister of the rancher's wife, Emma. Held against Jake's wide chest, the child looked tiny.
Annalise was glad to see her friend with a family. It had been horrible for him, for everyone after Delia's death. The woman had been one of Annalise's closest friends, the first one she had told of her feelings for Matt.
Try as she might, she couldn't stop herself from looking at him. Those long powerful legs, the muscled chest she had rested against too many times to count. But not when she had needed it most, she reminded herself.
Looking up, she was startled to find his intense gaze moving over her like a heavy hand, stripping her inside and out. Even from yards away, she could see the anger in his eyes. She could
it like a blistering wind.
He was still riled up? Well, so was she.
As he stepped down into the street from Haskell's porch and started for her clinic, Annalise said her good-
byes to J.T. and Cora. Rather than walking toward Matt and taking the alley between the general store and Cal Doyle's law office, she went around the other side of her building and made her way to Davis Lee's house.
There had been a time when she would've been too stubborn to let Matt Baldwin think she was avoiding him or to let on that he affected her that much. But after the horrible accusation he had made, she wanted nothing to do with him and she didn't care if he knew it. His blaming her for their child's death had caused her guilt to flare up. Of course, it was never far below the surface anyway. In the days since their set-to, that guilt had seeped through the anger and hurt. Always the guilt. But Matt wasn't innocent in this either.
She didn't want to think about him any longer. Pausing on Davis Lee's porch, she waited until her thoughts were focused solely on her patient. Several minutes later, she stood in Josie Holt's bedroom.
The woman was in bed, as Annalise had instructed and Emma Ross sat in a nearby chair, visiting. Annalise had met the petite blonde at church. “Hello, Emma.”
“Hello.” The young woman rose and squeezed Josie's hand, saying, “Let me know if you need anything.”
“I will.” Aside from her paleness, Josie looked to be otherwise all right.
As long as she stayed put, the hemorrhaging shouldn't start up again.
Emma let herself out and Annalise turned back to her patient, pleased to see Josie's bleeding had long since stopped. “This is a good sign, though you still need to stay in bed.”
The petite seamstress nodded. “If it weren't for the visitors, I'd be crazy as a Bessie bug. Catherine and
Jericho have come more than once as have Russ and Lydia. And Matt's been here several times.”
Ignoring the sharp pang in her chest at his name, Annalise moved up the side of the bed to take her patient's pulse. “And I imagine Emma has visited a few times?”
“Yes. I'm so glad she found her way to Whirlwind. She's been good for Jake.”
“From what I've seen, I think so, too. They seem very happy.”
“You've known Bram and Jake a long time.”
“All my life.”
“So, you knew Jake's first wife?”
“Delia, yes.” After her death, Annalise had wondered if Jake would ever move on.
Then last year he had found Emma. Or rather, she had found him. Annalise recalled him telling her that his wife had fled her stepfather's house with her infant sister and left the child on Jake's doorstep then hired on as the baby nurse. He was happier than Annalise had ever seen him.
She still hoped Delia's brother, Quentin, would one day stop blaming Jake for Delia's death and find happiness, too.
Annalise eased down into the chair next to the bed. “Have you had any pain?”
“Not since that first night.”
“Contractions? Lower backache?”
“Sometimes my back does ache, but I think it's because of being in bed all the time.”
Annalise gave her a sympathetic smile. “I know it's difficult, but this is best for you and your baby.”
“I'm happy to do whatever I need to. I didn't mean to sound as if I was complaining.”
“It's fine if you do. You're used to doing a lot. It's quite a change to be confined to bed.”
Josie's green eyes followed Annalise as she placed her stethoscope on the woman's belly, listening carefully for the baby's heartbeat.
She smiled at her patient. “The heartbeat is strong.”
“Thank goodness.” Relief spread across Josie's face. “Did you always want to be a doctor?”
“Yes. My father was a doctor here for years and his work always fascinated me.”
“Where did you get your training?”
“Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.”
The other woman's eyes lit up. “I've never been out of Texas. My home was in Galveston before I came to Whirlwind. Did you like Philadelphia?”
“Yes.” It had given her a place to heal, to try and get over Matt.
“Did you have a special someone up there?”
Annalise thought about Travis Hartford, her dear friend who had wanted to be more, though she hadn't. “A friend, but we weren't romantically involved.”
He was also a doctor. She had met him at the hospital where they'd both attended general clinics. Travis was one of the few males there who hadn't harassed her and the other female medical students.
Annalise packed away her stethoscope. “May I get you anything to drink or eat?”
“No, thank you. Emma brought me some lemonade.” Josie paused, then said tentatively, “Davis Lee told me you and Matt were supposed to get married.”
Annalise stiffened. She wanted to snap at the other woman, but there was no reason to take her irritation out on her. “Yes.”
“But you didn't. Because you left to go to medical school?”
“He didn't want to wait?”
“He didn't want me to go,” she said tightly.
“Matt didn't want you to be a doctor?”
At the disbelief in Josie's voice, Annalise gave her a small smile. “He thought I would change my mind after we were engaged.”
Josie's eyes grew big. “Oh.”
Annalise hoped Josie was finished discussing Matt, but she was disappointed.
“Matt says they're no closer to catching those rustlers.”
“His father said the same.” She liked Josie and they had become friends, but Annalise didn't want to stir up any more memories of Matt and their past.
After finishing her visit, she promised to check in the next day. She stepped outside, her gaze immediately going to the other end of town and the cemetery at the top of a small rise.
Talking about Matt, remembering Delia, had brought up Annalise's own dark memories. She thought about her time in Philadelphia after everything with Matt had gone so wrong. She had felt utterly alone, terrified out of her mind. Now, the memories and Matt blaming her for the miscarriage put her on the edge of erupting.
There was no sense in regrets, not now and not about this. His words shouldn't affect her as much as they had, especially since she had been saying the same thing to herself all these years. But his opinion did matter. She hated that he still had the power to hurt her like this.
Still, it wasn't his words that had her moving toward Whirlwind's cemetery. It was her own guilt.
Some minutes later, Matt sat in the Pearl with his pa, Cora and Russ. Annalise had practically run away from him. Now he was even more certain that his former betrothed had lied about knowing she was expecting when she left Whirlwind all those years ago.
And he wanted her to admit it.
Their conversation about the baby had been five days ago. Five days of solid mad for Matt. While his back had been healing, his anger had been festering.
After what she had done, it was no wonder she was avoiding him, but he wouldn't allow it. She should have to face him.
Matt drained his lemonade. He would've preferred something stronger, but this was what Pa wanted before they started for the Triple B. Matt wasn't done with Annalise by a long shot, but right now he was more concerned with his father and why the man had spent nigh on half an hour in her office. So far, J.T. hadn't said one dad-blamed thing about it.
Matt exchanged a look with Russ, urging his brother to start the conversation.
Russ settled back in his chair, dwarfing both it and the dining table. “So, Pa, what did Annalise say about your leg?”
“Does she know why you're still unable to walk?” Matt asked.
J.T. shared a look with Cora before answering, “Her opinion is that I should give my recovery a little more time. She offered to contact another doctor in Abilene and request an examination, but I don't need another one.”
Russ, who blamed himself for the accident that had
crippled their father, nodded in agreement. “I'm sure Annalise knows what she's talking about.”