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Authors: Debra Cowan

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Well, Matt wasn't so accepting of his family's blind trust in her. “Maybe you
should
talk to another doctor. We don't know if she has any experience with injuries like yours or any other kind.”

“She knows enough to patch up your sorry self,” Russ noted dryly.

“You're just going to take her word for it?” Matt asked his father. J.T. was aware of her lies to Matt.

“She knows more than you or I, son. I think she's more than capable.” The older man glanced at Cora. “Ready to go?”

The hazel-eyed widow nodded.

And that, Matt knew, was the end of the discussion. For now anyway. When his pa decided he was done, then he was.

J.T. addressed his eldest son. “Russ, I want to see Cora home. You and Matt wait for me outside the clinic.”

The woman harumphed. “J.T., I'm not going home, and if I were, I'm perfectly capable of seeing myself there. I have things to do in town. You get on out to the ranch. I know your leg is paining you.”

Arguing with her was as futile as arguing with Pa. A few minutes later, J.T. was settled in the wagon with his wheelchair in the back. Matt planned to ride his mare, and if his father needed him to drive the wagon at some point, Matt would tie the gray behind the buckboard. As the wagon lurched into motion, Matt mounted up and guided Dove alongside the buckboard.

They headed down the street past Haskell's then the newspaper office. At the west end of town, the wagon rolled between the Fontaine and the livery. Matt glanced
back and noticed the clinic was still closed. He wondered where Dr. Fine was, then dismissed the thought.

Once out of town, he caught a movement from the corner of his eye and looked over.

Annalise was at the cemetery. It was at the base of a small rise, shaded in a few places by trees and fenced in front by a low stone wall. She stood under a sprawling oak which he knew was near her parents' graves.

It still rankled that she had hightailed it away from him earlier. He'd had to live with her lie for years. She could damn well deal with him.

Matt must have unknowingly tightened his legs commanding his horse to stop because Dove had already come to a halt.

Pa slowed the wagon and glanced back. “What are you doing?”

“I'll catch up.”

J.T.'s gaze went to Annalise. The older man nodded, as if Matt were doing something that pleased him. He probably thought Matt wanted to make amends with her.

He was stopping, but it had nothing to do with that. Guiding his horse up to the low stone fence, he dismounted and left Dove in the shade.

Annalise looked tiny. Frail. That was a word he had never associated with the woman he had once loved. The sun was bright and buffalo grass fluttered in the wind. In the endless stretch of prairie, she seemed so alone. So solitary.

He waited a couple of seconds for her to turn around and glare him away, but she didn't. She didn't respond at all until he walked up beside her.

Her head jerked toward him and he frowned at the
pallor of her velvety skin. The tortured look in her eyes carved a hole right through him.

“What do you want?” Fatigue etched her delicate features. “I was pretty clear a while ago that I don't want to see you.”

He bristled. “Right now, what you want doesn't matter a lot to me.”

“What a surprise,” she drawled, the words slicing like a new blade.

He hated the bright flare of pain in her eyes. It was the same pain he'd seen at the clinic when he had accused her of being responsible for the death of their child. “Go away.”

She sounded…defeated and it pricked at his conscience. Still, he refused to lose sight of the reason he had stopped. “I'm not going anywhere until you admit that you knew about the baby before you left Whirlwind, that you lied.”

She swayed. Startled, he automatically reached out for her. Jerking back, she steadied herself by grabbing hold of the grave marker in front of her.

Matt glanced down at her slender ungloved hand clutching the smoothly finished wood.

Wood? Her parents' markers were made of granite. Who was she visiting? He looked closer, read the name and date burned into the wood.

 

Hardy M. Fine. 1879.

 

It took a minute for Matt to register exactly what he was seeing, then an icy rage swept over him. “Does this belong to our baby?”

“Why are you here?”

“Answer me,” he ground out.

“There's no reason for you to be here.”

“I have as much right as you do.”

“No.” Her voice shook, the word so low he had to lean in to hear her. “You don't.”

“He was my child, too.”

“Since when!” she burst out. “You wanted nothing to do with him, couldn't even acknowledge him after he was gone.”

Matt's throat tightened. “I had a right to know you fixed him a spot here.”

“Now you do. Leave.”

Her imperious tone blistered him up even more. “You were wrong not to tell me.”

“Why would I tell you anything? I was alone for the entire pregnancy, the miscarriage, all of it.”

“If you hadn't lied—” The stricken look on her face killed his next words. “Losing him
was
my fault.”

Finally! “It's about damned time you owned up to it.”

Every bit of color drained from her face. The utter stillness of her body revealed a searing depth of agony. Her eyes were haunted.

“Annalise?” His voice was a harsh scrape on the soft air. Instead of the smug satisfaction he expected at her admission, he felt a drum of apprehension.

She clenched her fists. “Like I said, I
didn't
know about the baby when I left, but if I'd waited, maybe even just another week, I might have realized. Then I wouldn't have pushed myself to reach Philadelphia before the new term began.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks. The grief, the guilt ravaging her features brought home to him how his words had hurt her.

Five days ago, all he had cared about was ripping out her heart the way she'd ripped out his, but now it didn't feel right. Now, it felt like hell.
He
felt like hell.

He'd only ever seen such a desolate, lost look on her face after her father had passed and it rattled him to the core.

Her body trembled visibly. “I never heard from you again and I needed you.”

For a moment, his brain seized up.

Her loss of composure, the deep sobs wracking her slender frame had his entire body throbbing with agony.

Her raw emotion stripped away everything, leaving a gaping hole inside him that hurt worse than anything he'd ever known. All he cared about was stopping her tears, plugging up the emptiness inside him.

He pulled her to him, murmuring, “I'm here, Angel.”

She pushed at his chest. “I don't need you now!”

Something hot and sharp shoved up under his ribs and he wrapped his arms tight around her. She stiffened against him, her spine feeling fragile beneath his hands, but he didn't release her. He couldn't.

He hugged her closer and finally she sagged into him as though every bit of gumption had spilled out of her.

Her shoulders shook as she wept, her tears wetting his shirt. His eyes stung. He'd never seen her like this.

Her arms went around him and she clutched at him as though she needed his strength in order to stand. It scared the hell out of him. It also tore open a fierce protectiveness that had been buried deep for seven long years. “Annalise, please stop.”

Her breasts rose and fell against his chest as she tried
to catch her breath. Seeing her like this made him bleed inside.

Assaulted by the soft feel of her against him, the teasing scent of primroses set off a strange sort of panic inside him. “Please, Angel,” he begged gruffly.

She drew in a deep shuddering breath and looked at him. In that moment, all Matt cared about was erasing the devastation on her delicate features.

He framed her beautiful face in his hands, thumbing away her tears. She shook her head and curled her slender capable fingers around his wrist.

He knew she meant to throw him off; he expected her to. But she didn't. When he looked into her wet green eyes, there was no thought, only instinct as Matt lowered his head and brushed his lips across hers.

She drew in a sharp breath. For a heartbeat, he thought she might slap him again. Then her arms went around his neck. She kissed him back frantically. Her tongue touched his, searched his mouth.

The ground shifted beneath his feet and he deepened the kiss, needing to taste more of her.

She made a small sound in the back of her throat. Before Matt could do more than register her reaction, she suddenly pulled away.

“No,” she panted, color streaking her cheeks. “I don't want this.”

That damn sure wasn't how it felt. Feeling as though he'd had the wind knocked out of him, Matt tried to collect his wits.

“You aren't going to hurt me again.” She gathered up her skirts, grabbed her medical bag and ran.

Watching her race down the hill and back the way they had both come, Matt stood rooted to the spot. What the hell had just happened? He should have wanted to
punish her. Instead, he had cared only about comforting her, getting rid of the guilt and the shadows in her eyes. How had he ended up with her in his arms, his mouth on hers? Why had he done that?

He looked down at the marker,
his baby's marker,
and gripped the arched top.

What if Annalise really hadn't known she was expecting when she left him and Whirlwind? He didn't want to believe that, but seeing how she blamed herself played havoc with his anger. Could he have been wrong all these years?

Five days ago, Matt had accused her of causing their child's death. At the time, there had been a flash of doubt and he had crushed it, but he couldn't crush it now. His tiny whisper of doubt became a roar.

Chapter Five

T
wo days later Annalise's nerves were still humming from Matt's kiss. As mad as she was at him for kissing her, she was more mad at herself for kissing him back.

His mouth had touched hers and every thought in her head had scattered. For that brief moment, she had let herself give in, let herself be held and had been ambushed by the memory of the day she had left Whirlwind.

He hadn't liked her going to medical college, but he had driven her in the buggy to Abilene to catch the train. They had spent the night together for the last time and the feel of his hands and his mouth on her—all over her—was a memory she had never been able to bury. He had seen her off the next morning with the promise that they would always be together. Hah. That promise hadn't lasted three months.

She had been pregnant then. She hadn't known it, but Matt believed she had. He had cornered her in the cemetery for the sole purpose of getting her to admit it.

She still hurt over that so she understood the pain,
the betrayal in his blue eyes when he learned about the baby's marker. Even so, she refused to feel badly about not telling him. He had neither supported her nor acknowledged their baby, and his offer of comfort now didn't hold any water with her.

For the past two days she had tried to keep her thoughts from him. Besides purchasing a mare and riding to outlying ranches to check a couple of patients, she had read further about the tumor she suspected to be on his father's spine. She had also spent hours comparing the impression of Matt's wounds to different implements in Haskell's mercantile. So far, she had been unable to identify the weapon.

Now, just after noon, she went looking for and found Quentin Prescott outside
The Prairie Caller
's office. In addition to laying type for the newspaper, he also kept bees and supplied honey to all of Whirlwind and Fort Greer.

After using so much on Matt's wounds, she needed to replenish her stock.

“I'll gather fresh honey in the morning and bring it over.” The brother of her deceased best friend was crippled and in a wheelchair courtesy of a shoot-out with his former brother-in-law, Jake Ross. “Thank you.”

Though still whip-lean, Quentin had put on weight since Annalise's return. His sun-burnished features were sharp, but the cruelty she had noticed in his dark eyes when she had first returned was gone. “How are things going?”

“Very well.” When she didn't have to be in the same vicinity as Matt Baldwin.

“Seeing a lot of patients?”

“I'm keeping busy. I guess you are, too, what with both your jobs.”

Quentin nodded. Before his injury, the man had laid track for the railroad. While his job for the newspaper was quite a change from that, he still had a hard muscular torso and arms. His frame was more streamlined now, but just as strong.

He had shaved off his thin dark mustache, and his coal-black hair, while still neatly trimmed, was longer than Annalise could remember ever seeing it.

She wondered if he was still bitter about his injury. They hadn't talked about it since her return. “Have you thought any more about letting me take a look at your leg?”

Something indefinable flashed in his dark eyes. “I've thought about it, but I'm not sure I want to do it.”

“If you change your mind, you know where I am.” She smiled.

“I do.” His eyes warmed. “I saw you coming from the cemetery the other day. Matt, too.”

Annalise tensed. Had he seen them kissing? She steered the conversation away from the two of them. “Do you still ride out to Jake's to visit Delia's and the baby's graves every week?”

“No, not every week. I'm trying to move on. You're not the only one who's said I should.”

The shadow that crossed his features at the mention of his sister had Annalise reaching out to touch his shoulder. She was glad to see he allowed it. There had been a time when he wouldn't have welcomed anyone's touch or advice. “Do you still blame Jake for Delia's death?”

He was quiet for a long moment. When he answered, his voice was hoarse. “I've learned some things about Delia, things Jake should've been told, but wasn't.”

“Do you mean like her never telling him about the doctor's warning that it was too risky for her to have a child?”

Squinting against the sun, the man nodded. “Did she tell you that?”

“No. I asked her straight out and she ignored the question. That was my answer right there.”

He nodded in agreement. “As much as I hate to admit it, I know if Jake had been aware of Delia's secret, he would've done anything in his power to keep her from conceiving.”

“Do you still blame him for putting you in this wheelchair?”

“I admit I provoked him. He only returned fire because I almost put a bullet in his head. It's hard to let it go, but I'm trying.”

“That's good.”

His gaze went past her then returned. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Is there anything going on between you and Matt?”

A sudden burst of skittishness had her wanting to say goodbye. “Anything like what?”

“You seem to be avoiding him.”

“He's not in town enough for me to avoid him,” she said drolly.

Her friend just looked at her, obviously aware she was trying to dodge the subject. He took her hand. “I saw you at his brother's wedding. I thought the two of you might—”

“No.” She shoved away the memory of their kiss. “That'll happen when Sunday is the day after Wednesday.”

His dark gaze scrutinized her. “That was over a long time ago, huh?”

“Yes.” Annalise had to push the word past her suddenly tight throat. Thankfully, Quentin didn't appear to have seen what had happened between her and Matt at the cemetery.

Her friend brushed his lips across her knuckles. “I'll see you tomorrow.”

“All right.” She squeezed his hand then started back toward her clinic. Just as she passed Haskell's, Andrew Donnelly jumped down from the porch and ran to her.

“Doc!”

“Hi, Andrew.” She smiled at the boy, who was flushed with excitement.

His sister-by-marriage, Deborah Blue, walked out of the mercantile with Bram Ross. The dark-haired rancher said something to make Deborah laugh as they stepped into the street.

“What are you all doing in town today?” Annalise shaded her eyes from the sun. She hadn't expected to be out this long so she hadn't worn a bonnet.

Bram thumbed back his cowboy hat, turning serious. “More cattle were stolen from our place and the Baldwins' last night. I came to report it to Davis Lee.”

“But,” Andrew said with an impish look at the couple, “He saw Deborah in the store and got sidetracked.”

The young woman laughed, sharing a warm smile with Bram.

“Guilty.” The big man grinned. “In fact, I rode to town with Matt, but I don't see him anywhere. I don't suppose you've seen him?”

“No.” And she planned to keep it that way. “Why aren't you in school, Andrew?”

“The teacher let me take my lunch with Bram, so
he could go with me to Ef's. I just got my first pair of spurs!” The boy lifted a foot and turned it to the side so she could see the way the spur fitted his boot. “Bram said I need 'em if I'm gonna help him run cattle. He helped me tell Ef what I wanted. I paid for them with money I made doing chores for you.”

“Hmm, those are pretty fancy.” She gave a mock frown. “Maybe I'm paying you too much.”

“Oh, no, ma'am!” The look of alarm on the boy's face had the adults laughing.

Flashing a good-natured grin, he knelt and removed one spur. He rose, stepping over to Annalise. “See these buttons on the heel band here? They have my initials on them.”

She looked closer at the piece. “You say Ef made them?”

“Yeah.” The boy flicked his finger down the toothed rowel, making it spin.

“He does excellent work.” She knew he had done all the iron work for the Fontaine's balcony. Annalise smiled at Deborah. “Are you still thinking about getting your teaching certificate?”

“Oh, yes.”

“I wish you'd consider becoming a nurse or a doctor. You have a way with people. You'd make a good one.”

“I've told her the same thing.” Bram smiled warmly at the woman next to him.

Deborah gave him a look of affectionate exasperation. “You say that about anything I want to do.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Bram's blue eyes twinkled.

Annalise could tell the rancher was stupid in love with the young woman. She'd once been that stupid in love with Matt.

“We were heading over to the Fontaine for some lunch,” Bram said. “Would you like to join us?”

Andrew set his rowel to spinning again, giving her a toothy grin. “Miz Naomi's supposed to have her special chocolate cake.”

“That sounds delicious.” Ef's wife oversaw the cooking at the hotel. “But I'd better get on to my clinic.”

“I guess that means I have to go back to school now,” the boy grumbled.

She smiled down at him, her attention again caught by the sun glinting off the still-turning wheel. “Are you allowed to wear your spurs in the classroom?”

“No, ma'am. Mr. Tucker says we aren't to scratch the floor or put gouges in it. I'll take them off before I go inside.”

Gouges? Caught up short by a sudden thought, she stared at the rowel. The tips were blunted, but if enough pressure was applied, could they break the skin? Dig out someone's flesh? What kind of mark would they leave on someone? Could spurs be the weapon used on Matt?

Annalise pictured the impression she'd made of his wounds on the cheesecloth. She couldn't be sure unless she compared rowel markings side by side, but the sudden jump of her pulse said she was on to something.

“Something wrong, Annalise?” Bram asked.

She became aware then that the others were staring at her expectantly. “No, nothing's wrong. I just need to check on something. It was nice to see you all.”

“You, too.” Bram tucked Deborah's hand in his arm and clamped one hand on Andrew's shoulder, steering him toward the school at the east end of town. “Back to class for you, boy.”

Annalise bade them goodbye. Once inside the clinic,
she carefully picked up the starched cheesecloth with the impressions on it, then made her way to Ef's smithy.

Under a side awning, the blacksmith had a fire blazing in his forge. A raised brick hearth was outfitted with bellows and a hood to let the smoke escape. As she neared, a wall of heat hit her smack in the face. A hammer lay atop the anvil and Ef's leather apron hung from a nail just outside the lean-to.

Seeing no sign of him, she walked to the front door and knocked. Ef answered, his massive shoulders filling the doorway as he wiped his mouth with a napkin.

“Oh, I've caught you at lunch,” she said. “I'm sorry. I'll come back later.”

“It's all right. I've finished. Naomi has already gone back to the Fontaine. What can I do for you?”

“Andrew told me you made him a pair of spurs.”

“And you want a pair, too?” he teased. The smile he seemed to wear constantly since marrying Naomi grew broader.

She laughed. “I do want a pair, but it's so that I can compare the rowels to the impression I made of Matt's wounds.”

“Are you thinking that spurs could be what made those marks on his back?”

She nodded.

Ef's eyes lit up. “I know a way we might be able to find out.”

She waited as he went inside then returned a minute later with a clean white scrap of linen and a tin of blacking made from beeswax and lampblack. Taking down the lone pair of spurs hanging in the back of his lean-to, Ef coated them with the substance.

Annalise held the fabric taut against the side of the wall and Ef drew the blackened spur rowel down the
cloth, careful not to tear it. He held it up as she brought the cheesecloth impression up next to it. Her breath caught as she looked over at Ef.

“You're onto something, Doc.” He smiled. “It's not the same pattern, but it's similar enough to suggest you're right about the weapon being spurs.”

“Oh, my.” Excitement tightened her chest.

“How did you come up with the idea?”

“Andrew was showing me one of his new pair, spinning the rowel and I just wondered… Oh, my.”

Ef studied the marks on his sample then those on the stiff cheesecloth. “One of the rowels in your impression is sharpened.”

She stilled. “Which would explain why some of these gouges and cuts are more defined than the ones made by the blunted rowels.”

“Yes.” Ef turned solemn. “That sharpening is deliberate, probably done by the owner of the spurs. I don't know any spur makers who typically sharpen rowels like that. It ain't necessary for riding a horse. It hurts 'em. Getting spurred had to hurt Matt like the devil.”

Annalise had just realized that, too, and she inwardly winced. While it didn't dim her excitement over possibly finding the weapon used by Matt's attackers, it was sobering. “May I take this sample you marked?”

“Yes. Are you going to tell Matt?”

“I…guess so.” She didn't want to.

“I heard he was in town today, but I'm not sure where. Want me to help you look for him?”

“Oh, no,” she said quickly. When he raised a brow at the vehemence of her answer, she hurried to add, “You're busy. I'm sure I can find him.”

“All right,” he agreed thoughtfully. “It's real smart how you figured that out.”

“It wasn't due to any special effort. I hope we're right about the spurs being the weapon.”

“Let me know if I can help any more.” Ef took his apron from its peg and put it on over his head, tying the leather strings behind him.

She nodded as he got back to work. She hesitated in front of his house, debating about whether to hunt Matt down. She flat-out didn't want to. If she saw him, she would get mad and want to slap him again.

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