Authors: Starla Kaye
Harmon and Katherine Dogwood hurried over from the hotel. Clyde Branson from the Liquor & Cigar Store across from the mercantile joined them and a gathering of a dozen or so others who stood close by looking down at her. In annoyance, Adam had watched them all approach, but he was more concerned about Faith. Crazy woman. If she didn’t get herself killed one way or another, she just might be the death of him.
“Let’s get you up off the road,” he grumbled, reaching for her. He was fairly certain nothing was broken because she could move, albeit painfully. But those ribs were no doubt badly bruised.
Her eyes widened and she wriggled out of his reach, flinching at the movement. “I can get up just fine by myself, thank you very much.” The words came out bristly, but weakly.
He raised an eyebrow in challenge. “Prove it then.”
Determined woman, she put her arms at her sides to push up, only to hiss out a breath and grow even paler.
Again he reached out his arms to lift her up.
Again she kept her distance. “Don’t you touch me, Adam Braddock.” Her eyes flashed fire at him. “Don’t you dare!”
“You are the most pigheaded woman I’ve ever crossed paths with.” He thinned his mouth, gave her a sour look, and stood up. “Pigheaded, troublesome…”
Ben stepped forward and elbowed him out of the way. “If you’re done with the sweet–talking… Honestly, you two deserve each other.” Then he ignored the way Faith bristled and scooped her up into his arms.
Adam watched Faith bite down on her lower lip, listened to her drawing in shallow breaths. Adam felt her pain as if it was his own. He’d had all he could take of this nonsense.
“She needs to lie down. Do you want to carry her up to her room? Or shall I?” He saw Daniel hurrying back with Doc Carpenter on his heels. “Good. Doc’s here.”
Contrary woman that she was, Faith tried to squirm out of Ben’s hold. “I don’t need either one of you carrying me anywhere.” She stopped for a second to frown and wave away the curious crowd that had gathered. “Go about your business.”
Angelica quickly took over that task. “Our Faith is in good hands now. You can go on about your business, just like she said.”
Faith tried a final time to squirm free, but Ben was having none of that. “Settle down or it’ll be Adam carrying you upstairs.”
The threat of that had her calming down and glaring murderously. “Fine. Since you seem to think I’m helpless–which, mind you, I am not–take me to my apartment.”
In that moment, Adam wanted nothing more than to turn her bottom up over his knee and spank the devil out of her.
* * *
Faith lay on her feather bed in her new apartment, aching emotionally and physically. Doc had insisted on wrapping her ribs tightly with strips Angelica had made from an old petticoat. Her ribs weren’t broken, thank God, but they were badly bruised. She would be in pain for a week at the least, he’d said. He wanted her to stay in bed for a couple of days, longer really. She’d agreed to one day. Then he had tried to give her some laudanum before he’d finally left, except she’d refused to take it. Yet. Maybe later she’d give in.
Angelica had wanted to stay with her, but someone needed to handle the mercantile’s business. So Faith had sent her away. Daniel had wanted to go let Jennie know and have her come sit with Faith, but she hadn’t wanted to be a bother to her friend. And she’d absolutely refused to allow any of them to go tell her parents. Her father would have carted her all the way home, even if he’d had to carry her himself. No, that would not do at all.
So instead she lay there in misery…alone. She couldn’t believe the rotten turn her day had taken. Not that it had started off well, what with Annabelle leaving first thing on the morning stage. Then she’d had a very strained talk with her parents and been stunned when her father insisted she take everything from her bedroom, plus a number of extra pieces of furniture that she really had no place for. But he’d insisted and she hadn’t wanted to fight him. Then this stupid accident.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Her head throbbed, but not any worse than her ribs. Tears slipped from her eyes but she didn’t care. She figured she deserved a good cry. After that, she would put this whole bothersome incident aside and get on with her new life.
Footsteps on the outside staircase drew her attention, but she kept her eyes closed. She knew without opening them who it would be. Adam. He, Daniel, and Ben had managed to bring up the furniture and trunks even before Doc left. Then Daniel had gone about his sheriff business and Ben had headed back to his ranch. But Adam had been checking on her every half hour or so, much to Angelica’s amusement and Faith’s consternation.
“Can’t you leave me in peace?” she grouched, refusing to look at him, even though she sensed him walking right up to her bedside. “Don’t you know it isn’t proper for you to be up here? Alone with me in my room?”
He snorted. “You, Miss Paddington, don’t know the first thing about proper.”
She heard him drag a chair next to her bed and sit down. Out of pure stubbornness, she kept her eyes firmly closed. “Why are you doing this? Hounding me? Can’t you just leave me alone?”
“Now you know how I’ve felt all this time.”
He settled into the chair and she inhaled his scent: the minty shave cream he favored, a special mix of his own, and cigars. She remembered nagging at him about giving up smoking cigars. None of his brothers smoked them, not even cigarettes. She knew that he’d cut back over the last couple of months, but he still snuck a smoke out behind his shop every now and then.
“I really don’t feel like arguing with you.” She relented and opened her eyes.
The usual hard expression he wore around her was missing. Worry creased his forehead. And she recalled how he’d badgered Ben every step of the way up the staircase, warning him to be careful with her. Such mixed signals she got from him. He didn’t want her attentions and yet he seemed to be always underfoot lately.
“I don’t want to argue, either.” He scrubbed a hand back through his dark hair, a curl falling sexily over his forehead. “Truthfully, I’d like to turn you over my knee and blister your butt. You are the most obstinate, the most aggravating…”
“And you’re such an agreeable man,” she taunted. It annoyed her that he wanted to spank her, but this certainly wasn’t the first time he’d mentioned wanting to do it. Oddly, her woman’s place quivered and felt warm. Not at the idea of him warming her bottom, but at the idea of him touching her.
He cocked an eyebrow, but one corner of his lips twitched. Then he grew serious. “If my life had been different… If I hadn’t lost…” He shook off the obviously upsetting thought. “You deserve a man far better than me. A man who can love you with his whole heart. Faith, that man will never be me.”
She studied him and saw the sadness in his eyes, the regret. Her heart broke for them both. She wanted him every bit as much as Jennie desired her Daniel, as Angelica wanted her Ben. But he refused to get over whatever had happened in his past. She was tired of fighting a ghost. It was time to give up her foolish hopes that he would change his mind.
“I hear you’ve made a pact with my father to find me a husband.” The words left a bitter taste in her mouth, both at their going behind her back to talk about her future and about giving up on Adam as a husband. “I’m ready. I’ve decided against remaining a spinster.”
He looked surprised at her boldness. And even more regretful. He nodded. “Good,” but it didn’t sound like he really meant it.
Although it cost her, she said with grim determination, “Give me a week or two to get healed up. Then I’m ready to start courting again.”
There was a chill in the air when Faith crawled gingerly out of bed. She shivered and for a second considered climbing right back under the thick covers. “You most certainly will do no such thing!”
Then she rolled her eyes at the realization that she was talking to herself now. Clearly she’d spent too much time alone up here in her rooms these last five days. Five days. She should not have stayed in bed so long pampering herself. Angelica had arrived bright and early each morning to firmly inform her that she could handle the store. Jennie, too, had shown up each morning, checked on her, and added her insistence that Faith continue recovering while she helped Angelica. If it hadn’t been all she could do to get up and use the chamber pot, which one of them had graciously emptied for her, she would never have stayed away from the store like this. Annabelle had left her in charge. She felt awful about letting all of them down.
No more! She felt the lingering pain across her tender ribs, but today it was something she could manage. Before either of her friends could arrive once more, she hurried on bare feet across the cold wooden floor. By the time she reached the small table that held a bowl with a pitcher of water and a rag, she was grimacing. Determined not to give in to weakness, she poured water into the bowl and dampened the rag to quickly wipe her face. She longed for a hot bath, but it would be a while before she could manage all the effort that would require.
She glanced at the mirror hung above the table. Good heavens! Her hair was still in the thick braid Jennie had done for her yesterday, but only barely. Perhaps she should just wear it loose. If she could manage to undo it, that is. And her face…. How could there be such dark circles under her eyes when she’d slept so much? Had she packed the precious facial powder Angelica had given her? At least a light dusting of that should help. She didn’t want to frighten customers off.
Footsteps on the outside stairs pulled her from her thoughts. Her heart raced. They were heavy footsteps, not Angelica’s or Jennie’s. Adam. She knew it without waiting for him to knock and announce himself. He hadn’t been to see her in two days. Nor had her friends talked about him. She’d been pleased that he’d left her alone, yet she’d also missed arguing with him.
She looked a final time into the mirror and inwardly groaned. There was nothing she could do about either her disheveled hair or her bruised–looking face. But he shouldn’t see her in her nightgown! She scurried back to the bed and grabbed the quilt to wrap around her at the same time he knocked on the door.
“Faith! Faith, are you in there?” He knocked loudly once more.
“Of course I’m in here,” she answered. She strode into her tiny parlor and reached for the doorknob before he could turn it himself. She pulled the door open and felt a funny little flutter in her stomach at the sight of him. So handsome he took her breath away. And there was that errant curl draping onto his worry–furrowed forehead. She so wanted to touch that curl, to tuck it back into place.
“I thought maybe you had come to your senses while I was gone and moved back home.” He appeared annoyed. Then he looked more closely at her and frowned. “You look awful.”
“So kind of you to point that out,” she huffed. She hugged the quilt tighter around her.
He seemed confused, like he wasn’t aware that he’d just insulted her. “Obviously you are still…”
“I’m much better.” She didn’t want to talk about how poorly she looked or how her ribs still hurt. She latched onto what he’d said. “While you were gone?”
He shifted his gaze to study his dusty boots. That was when she noted that he carried a layer of trail dirt, like he’d just come back from riding somewhere. “Did you leave Dry Fork? Why? No one mentioned it to me.” And that irritated her. Why hadn’t anyone told her he’d left town? They all had to have known.
He still didn’t meet her eyes and his face, badly in need of a shave, seemed to redden a bit. “I had business to take care of in Dodge City.”
Her toes were getting seriously cold, but curiosity filled her. “Barbershop business?” Maybe he’d needed to get supplies there.
Now he lifted his gaze and he snapped, “Personal business. Very personal business. Not that it’s any of your business, Miss Paddington.”
She shivered again and he heaved a sigh, stepped inside, nudged her back, and closed the door. “What…what are you doing?” she squeaked. “You can’t be alone up here with me. What if someone…”
Naturally two sets of much lighter footsteps started up the staircase.
“Good Lord!” he grumbled, looking as discomfited as she felt.
She started to push him toward her bedroom, then changed her mind and motioned at the stack of trunks in the other corner yet to be unpacked. “Behind the trunks. Quickly!”
Adam hurried across the room and managed to hide behind the trunks, feeling ridiculous. But he stood as quietly as possible while Faith went to open the door. As cool morning air swept inside once more, she greeted Angelica and Jennie–What were they doing here so damn early?–sounding a bit anxious. They were never going to pull this off. He’d be found out, found up here improperly alone with her. He’d be pressed into doing right by her…into marrying her. It didn’t matter that he’d been here alone with her many times those first few days after she’d been hurt. Nobody had thought badly of him then. He’d been showing concern for her. But now… Now that she was clearly up and able to get around. Damn, damn, damn! He’d been such a fool to come rushing up here the second he’d gotten back to town. But he’d been desperate to see her again.
“Oh, sweetie, you should still be resting,” Jennie said in a motherly tone. “You didn’t have to get up to come let us in.” She closed the door.
“I was already up.” Faith hesitated. “I’m going down to work in the store today.”
He almost shot out of his hiding place, but ground his jaw instead and didn’t move. Like hell you are!
“I can see that you’re feeling some better,” Angelica said. “But didn’t Doc advise just yesterday that you rest a few more days.”
Yesterday? Then she damn well wouldn’t be working in the store!
“Doc meant well, but I know what I can do or not do.” Stubborn woman that she was, Faith added, “I cannot keep lying about up here. I’m going stir crazy.”
“We understand, but you need to not rush things.” Jennie tried again.
“I’ll just come down for the morning then.” As if that would satisfy them all, Faith added, “I’m a bit embarrassed to ask, but can you help me get dressed? Help me brush out my hair?”