Authors: Debra Cowan
In the silver shadows, her face was pale marble. She was quiet. Too quiet.
Instinct kept him silent, too. He slid her a sideways glance. He had told Russ he would leave her be after saying his piece, but with her sweet body pressed to his and her taste still on his tongue, all Matt's good intentions went to dust. He wasn't done with her by a long shot. Leave her be?
Oh, yeah, he would. When there were rustlers in heaven.
he was no better at denying Matt now than she had been seven years ago. Who knew where they would have ended up if Cosgrove hadn't knocked on the door?
Annalise was afraid she knew where.
The buggy bumped across the prairie, the moon bright enough to guide their way. Cool night air swirled around them, but Annalise was hot. From the inside out.
She hadn't looked at Matt since he had kissed her. Seeing as how they sat close enough to share a button, it was a little difficult, but she managed.
Neither of them spoke as the horse kept a brisk pace. After the ranch manager explained that a visiting friend had fallen from the barn loft, they made the rest of the trip in silence. She was grateful Cosgrove was riding alongside the buggy because it meant she and Matt couldn't talk about what had happened.
Her irritation over his adamance about taking her to the Eight of Hearts Ranch was nothing compared to
how shaken she was. Not only because of the way she had kissed him back, but also because of his apology.
The strength of her reaction caught her unaware.
How could she still want him? True, he had apologized for his harsh words about the baby's marker. But that didn't change the fact he believed she had lied when she'd left Whirlwind years ago. Even so, when she'd been in his arms, she'd felt the way she had that day at the cemetery, as if she could share with him, lean on
Who knew better than she how deceptive such feelings were? Matt hadn't been there for her when she needed him seven years ago. He wouldn't be there at any other time either and she would do well to remember it.
His kisses had made her ache, not just physically but with memories. With regret.
She didn't want to feel regret. She didn't want to feel
Relief swamped her as they drove past the sprawling ranch house that had previously belonged to a cattleman who had moved north to Montana. Matt drew the buggy to a stop in front of the barn. Theodore Julius held a lantern, kneeling next to someone who lay unmoving in the dirt. In the circle of amber light, Annalise could tell it was a lanky, fair-haired boy who looked about the same age as Andrew Donnelly.
As she accepted Cosgrove's hand and stepped out of the buggy, she noted at least a dozen cowboys gathered around the young man just out of the circle of light.
“Thanks for coming, Doc.” Julius's voice boomed as he straightened. “Stand back, men. Let her through.”
The cluster of cowboys who smelled of sweat and cattle fell back to make a wide path for Annalise, their shadows weaving and separating. Matt was at her back,
his massive body protecting her like a wall. She didn't need his protection. Or want it.
Glad to put her focus elsewhere, she knelt next to the boy. His ruddy face was twisted in pain.
Mr. Julius stood over her with the lantern. “Edward's family and mine have been friends for years. He's here to learn the ranch business from the ground up and was assigned chores in the barn.”
“I fell out of the loft,” the boy moaned.
“I didn't think we should move him,” the ranch owner said.
“You thought right.” Careful not to jostle her patient's neck, she slipped her hands beneath his head, finding a big bump. “Is this how you landed?” she asked. “Yes.”
“Have you moved since the fall?”
“No, ma'am.” In the hazy amber light, he was pale, his skin sheened with sweat.
“Where is your pain exactly?”
“Low on my back,” he said in a labored voice. “About as far down as you can go.”
Annalise lightly patted his shoulder as she glanced up at Mr. Julius. “We need to get him into the house. Do you have a wide piece of lumber or a plank sturdy enough to hold him?”
“How about a door?”
“Yes, that would work.”
With a wave of his hand, the man sent two men to remove the door to the bunkhouse. “What do you need the piece of wood for?”
“To keep him immobile while carrying him into the house.” She had first learned that from her father then at medical college. “It should help prevent further injury to his back.”
Annalise held Edward's head in a fixed position then asked two men to support the boy's back and ease him up enough to slide the door beneath him.
Cosgrove and another cowboy followed Annalise's instructions and Matt worked the plank into place. Mr. Julius watched, his brow furrowed in concern.
A few minutes later, Edward was in one of the spacious upstairs bedrooms. The mattress was firm, stuffed with Spanish moss like those at the Fontaine.
Once the patient was settled, she moved to the head of the bed, placing her satchel on a chair near the window.
Matt and the ranch hands who had brought the boy in moved into the hall. Cosgrove went downstairs. Mr. Julius remained in the room and thankfully out of the way.
Annalise could feel Matt's gaze following her every move. Dismissing a ripple of awareness, she turned her attention to Edward. “Do you have any tingling or numbness low in your back?”
“No, just pain.”
“Any tingling or numbness in your arms, legs or feet?”
“No.” Fear darkened his eyes.
“That's a good sign,” she reassured.
After gently skimming her fingers around the painful area and feeling a slight bump on his spine, she stepped back a couple of feet so he wouldn't have to strain to see her. “You could have fractured a vertebrae or sustained a worse break.”
“Does that mean his back is broken?” Mr. Julius asked tersely.
“It's too soon for me to tell how serious the injury is. Since he's feeling pain and has no numbness or tingling,
I'm hopeful it's a fracture. Those kinds of breaks usually heal on their own.” Her gaze went to the patient. “You'll need to stay in bed for a while, flat on your back. I want to check you again in a few days.”
“Yes, ma'am.” His voice was thin, labored.
“So, he's just supposed to lay here, hurting?” Julius asked in a frustrated voice.
“I can give him some laudanum for the pain.” She opened her bag and pulled out a small brown bottle.
The ranch owner sent someone down to the kitchen for a spoon and Annalise poured out a small amount of the medicine. The boy swallowed, grimacing at the bitter taste.
She handed the bottle to Mr. Julius, who frowned at the label. “Is it all right for the boy to have this? I've heard some people start taking it then can't stop.”
“It does affect some people that way. Just be careful. You administer it. That way, you'll be able to control the amount and know exactly how much he's had.”
Mr. Julius nodded. As she retrieved another bottle of the liquid from her satchel, she glanced out the window.
In the distance, a fire burned, causing a jump in her heart rate until she realized it was a camp fire, not a wildfire.
She closed her bag, glancing at Mr. Julius. “Does anyone else need a doctor?”
“Everyone's checked in and they're fine at the moment. All the hands are here at the house because they wanted to see if Eddie was going to be all right.”
She nodded, smiling at the young man. After repeating her instructions to the patient, she followed Mr. Julius out of the room.
Matt was waiting quietly in the hallway, one shoulder
braced against the wall. He straightened and fell into line behind her as they went downstairs.
After the ranch owner paid her, Matt helped her into the buggy and they headed for Whirlwind. Sitting so close to him again had Annalise's nerves twitching. A wave of fatigue rolled over her as she pulled her shawl tighter around her.
He glanced over. “You cold?”
“No, I'm fine.”
His big hands controlled the reins easily. Hands that could be gentle, as they had been on her earlier. A quick flash of heat under her skin had her looking away. She didn't have the energy to deal with him.
Wrapped in her shawl, she wished she had been able to change out of her evening gown, but there had been no time. At least Edward's accident hadn't involved blood.
The thought of blood reminded her of the attack on Matt. “How is your back healing?”
“It's comin' along.”
“Good,” she murmured, her stomach fluttering at the hard, hot feel of him all the way down her left side.
Every breath brought his soap-and-leather scent into her lungs. He adjusted his hat, drawing her gaze to the strong planes of his face. He'd been clean-shaven when the wedding began, but now whiskers shadowed his jaw. It softened his features, had her remembering the rough velvet feel of him from long ago.
As though he knew what she was thinking, he looked at her again. She shifted her gaze. In the shadows of night, his eyes were dark, heated, putting her in mind of those moments in her clinic earlier.
It seemed like days ago rather than hours, yet she still felt off balance. The night surrounded them, cool
air rippling through the wheel-high grass. All was quiet except for the chirp of crickets and grasshoppers, the occasional squeak of the buggy. She felt his attention on her again, his gaze stripping through the layers to the heart of her, putting a quiver in her stomach and making her feel uncomfortably exposed. What was he doing? Determined to ignore him, she stared across the rolling hills of the prairie.
“You just beat all. What you did back there was amazing.”
At the admiration in his deep voice, her gaze jerked to him.
“You kept everyone calm, explained everything clearly. You were born to do that. Your pa would've been proud. I was.”
Irritation shot through her. “What happened to the man who was furious when I left for medical college?”
“I was wrong about that.” His voice softened as his gaze met hers. “I'd like to think I've learned something in the time you've been gone, and that I'm man enough to admit a mistake.”
Annalise barely kept her jaw from dropping. Had he ever apologized to her for anything? And now twice in one night.
Anticipation coiled through her then a sudden jarring instinct to protect herself. From what, she didn't know. “Thank you.”
After a long moment, he slid her a look. “When you said I thought you chose medicine over me, over us, you were right.”
The words put a pang in her chest. “I didn't choose medicine over you. I thought I could have everything I
wanted, but such a thing wasn't possible. It was silly to think so.”
“No, it wasn't. Your father was a doctor and you wanted to carry on his work. You had big ideas. There's nothing wrong with that.”
His gentle smile had her stomach tightening. Why was he being so nice?
“The miscarriage,” he said hoarsely. “I should've supported you in that, too.”
Remembering all the years she'd been alone, that he had believed the worst of her, she set her jaw. She wanted to keep her guard up against him, but the memory of that day at the cemetery flashed through her mind. The hurt in his eyes had been genuine, just as his words were now.
Before she realized what she intended to say, she spoke. “I should've told you about the baby's marker. Now I understand that it hurt you. At the time, I really didn't think you would care or even take notice.”
“I cared.” There was no denying the ragged edge of pain in his voice.
“I know that now and I'm sorry,” she said softly.
“You had cause to think it,” he admitted gruffly. “Back then, I only cared about what I wanted. And I wanted
The fierce hunger in his eyes put a flutter in her stomach. And a quick flare of panic. She wanted him to stop talking about the past. “Maybe we were both selfish.”
In the distance, she saw a few lights burning in Whirlwind. “Oh, look, we're nearly there.”
“Do you ever wonder what things would've been like if we had stayed together? We had something.” Something
She blinked back tears. Infuriating man.
What had happened earlier tonight proved they still had the physical. That was how things had started years ago and it hadn't been enough to hold them together. Their problem had beenâwasâtrust.
“I used to wonder how things would be for us.” She tried to sound firm, but her voice cracked. “I don't anymore. And you shouldn't either.”
“I can't seem to help it. I still want you,” he said quietly.
She wanted him, too, and she didn't like it. “You still believe I'm a liar.”
He pulled the buggy to a sudden stop, which had her heart kicking hard in her chest.
“No.” His gaze burned into hers. “I should've made that clear earlier, but you turn me inside out. There were things that didn't get said. I believe you told the truth about not knowing you were expecting.”
Feeling off balance again, she curled one hand around the seat. “No, you don't.”
“I do, Angel.” He put his big, callused hand over hers, holding on when she tried to pull away.
He was sincere, as earnest as he had been at her clinic earlier tonight and his words, the stark emotion in his eyes reached a place deep inside her that she had thought closed off forever, the part of her she had believed she would be able to keep locked against him.
She tried to look away, but she couldn't. The regret in his face was too raw. Too real.
“I'm more sorry about that than I can say. It tears my guts out that I brought more hurt on you at a time when you needed me.”
All those years when she had hated him,
him, circled viciously in her mind. The anger and hurt that had hardened inside her broke apart. Slightly panicked,
she tugged her hand from his. “I don't know what you want me to say.”
His gaze softened on her face. “I just wanted you to know. It needed to be said.”
He snapped the reins against the horse's rump and the buggy lurched into motion.