Authors: Catherine Anderson
"I'm mending them."
"Mending them? They're almost brand new."
"Not anymore. I cut them straight up the front crease." She broke off and tightened her grip on the water glass.
"I'll have them finished this afternoon."
Zach wanted his pants now. If he couldn't get up and out of here, he wanted to be decently covered, at least. The first time he had seen Kate Blakely, he'd wanted to get acquainted with her. But this wasn't the way he'd had in mind. He glanced around. "What about my drawers?"
She slid a perplexed look at the bureau.
"No, my drawers." Zach gestured at his body, which was outlined a little too clearly for comfort beneath the sheet. "You know? My long underwear."
"Oh." Her mouth, so like her daughter's except for the hairline scar at the corner of her bottom lip, pursed in surprise. Then she blinked. "Those, too."
"Those, too, what?"
"I cut them. It was the only way I could get your pants off." Color flooded her cheeks. "To get to the snakebites."
Of course. The snakebites. Zach ran a hand over his right thigh and felt the swelling. With a light caress of his fingertips, he sought out one wound, then another. Suddenly weary, he closed his eyes.
"Who's been shaving me?" he asked raggedly.
His worst suspicions confirmed, Zach nearly groaned. To wake up and find out that any woman had been nursing him would have been humiliating. That the woman had been a lady like her made it doubly so. Presuming that his body had continued with its daily functions, as it undoubtedly must have—Zach almost wished the snakebites had killed him. Embarrassment welled within him, but after the first rush, he didn't have the strength to concentrate on it.
"Here," she said softly.
He felt her arm slip under his neck, and with surprising strength, she lifted his head. The rim of the glass touched his lips, and he opened his eyes. The first of the water trickled down the crevices that bracketed his chin.
Swallowing quickly, he managed to down the rest. As she drew the glass away, he saw that her hand was trembling. For several long seconds, they stared at each other, their faces a few scant inches apart.
She grabbed a cloth from the bedside table and dabbed at his neck. "I didn't mean to drown you."
Zach cleared his throat. In a stronger voice, he said, "I'll dry."
He watched as she set the glass down by the pitcher. The shakiness of her hand told him that she didn't find this situation any more palatable than he did. Since he was probably the reason she had circles of exhaustion under her eyes, he felt bad about that. If he had been unconscious for over a week, she must have half killed herself taking care of him. It was a poor show of gratitude to start grumbling for his pants the minute he woke up.
That was a problem easily rectified. "I haven't thanked you for saving my life."
She looked genuinely startled. "You, thank me?"
"Yes. I have a feeling I wouldn't still be here, if not for you."
A smile touched her mouth. It was just about the sweetest smile Zach had ever seen, flashing a dimple in her cheek and transforming her face. Her eyes took on a sparkle that he realized were unshed tears.
"Mr. McGovern, if not for your quick thinking and courageous disregard for your own safety, my daughter would be dead. No thanks from you are necessary, believe me. It's I who should be thanking you."
The unmistakable adulation that he saw in her expression went a long way toward restoring his dignity. Bare-assed naked and helpless as he had been this last week, he had somehow emerged a hero, at least in her estimation. All wasn't lost.
Only he wasn't a hero. There had been an instant down inside that well when he had nearly left Miranda to her fate. It didn't sit well being touted for his courage when he knew he had a yellow streak a mile wide.
"I didn't know before I went into the well that it was full of snakes. And once I realized it, I almost skedaddled, the devil take your kid."
Though Kate was still smiling, his admission set the corners of her mouth to quivering. She lifted her gaze to the ceiling, the gesture conveying that she'd never seen his like. With a lift of her hands that spoke volumes, she said,
"Don't try to make light of it, Mr. McGovern. With others, perhaps, but not with me. Miranda told me you heard the snakes before you reached them. Yet you kept going." She brushed her sleeve across one cheek. "As small as Miranda is, one bite would have killed her. If I try for the remainder of my days, I'll never find a way to repay you."
Gazing up at Kate Blakely's delicately shaped face, Zach could think of several ways. All of which made him feel ashamed of himself, and none of which were worthy of a hero. Not that he was. But if she wanted to persist in thinking so, who was he to argue?
Even in her somber clothes and with circles under her eyes, Kate Blakely was one of the loveliest women he had ever seen, and from all indications thus far, as sweet within as she was without. After getting off to such a bad start with her, he was appreciative of just about anything that would improve her opinion of him, even a den of rattlers. It wasn't as if he could count on his good looks to help him out.
The thought no sooner settled into Zach's mind than he had cause to question his sanity. There wasn't a woman alive so pretty or so desirable that she was worth getting snake bitten for. And from the feel of his legs, his suffering had just begun.
"You just have," he said in a low voice.
"I've just what?"
"I suppose that depends on who's keeping track. You may feel we're even. I never will. If there's anything I can do for you—anything at all—just say so and consider it done."
Anything? Most widow women weren't so naive as to make an open-ended statement like that, at least not to a man. Kate's doing so told Zach a great deal about her, probably far more than she thought to reveal. He accepted the offer as he knew it was intended. "I'll bear that in mind. You can never tell when I might need a helping hand."
She took a deep breath, as though relieved, which gave Zach the impression she had been trying to think of a way to thank him and was glad it was over. "Well…" She pressed a hand to her waist and smiled down at him. "I'll bet you're starving. I made chicken soup for the noon meal yesterday. Would you like some of the broth?"
What Zach really wanted was to close his eyes, but he couldn't, not as long as Kate Blakely was standing there.
"That'd be real nice."
She hurried from the room, her gray skirt aswirl around her ankles. Zach gazed after her for a moment. His eyelids felt heavy, but he fought to keep them open because he knew she would return in a few minutes with the broth. It was a losing battle.
* * *
The sound of his name dragged Zach up from the dark mists of sleep. He squinted to see. Kate Blakely's face hovered over him, so close he felt her breath on his cheek as she spoke. Her nearness brought him instantly awake.
"I've got your broth." She leaned across him to get the spare pillow. As she strained to lift his shoulders, her bodice brushed against his jaw. "There," she said, once she had him propped up. "Now perhaps you can eat a bite."
Her uneasiness painfully evident, she perched on the bed beside him and reached for a mug that sat on the table.
Giving him a smile, she spooned some broth into his mouth. Zach swallowed. He didn't have much choice.
Before she could go for another spoonful, he said, "I think I can do it."
"Mr. McGovern, I doubt you can even sit up."
Zach doubted it as well, but he felt like a fool. "I'm not used to a woman feeding me."
"You're in good company. I'm not used to feeding someone." She spooned more broth into his mouth. "Except for when Miranda was a baby, of course."
He could tell by the quick, almost breathless way she spoke that she was horribly nervous and trying to hide it.
The dimple in her cheek flashed again, appearing so briefly that Zach wanted to place his fingertip on the spot to see if he had imagined it.
As if she couldn't tolerate the silence, she added, "As long as you don't do like she did and spit it on me if you don't like it, we'll manage fine."
The spoon darted in for another attack. Zach managed to grin after he swallowed. "It's delicious."
Barely giving him a chance to breathe, she came at him with the spoon again. Zach nearly told her she didn't have to go at feeding him like she was killing snakes, but given his recent experience, the saying died on his tongue.
Before he could think of another comment, she shoved the spoon in his mouth again.
"How are you feeling? Marcus and I have been very worried about you, you know."
All Zach managed to get out between mouthfuls was an inarticulate grunt. He knew it was probably only because she was tense, but if she shoved much more broth at him, he was going to strangle. He thought about grabbing her hand before she dipped up more, but doubted he would be quick enough. His body felt oddly disconnected from his brain.
"For a while, I had begun to think you'd stay unconscious forever."
The spoon filled his mouth again. Amazingly enough, Zach was starting to feel full. To ward off another attack, he clamped his lips closed and let his eyes drift shut. The spoon didn't touch his lips again, so he guessed she got the hint. After a moment, he tested the water by unclenching his teeth enough to say, "Marcus? He was here?"
"From the first. He insisted he be here to—"
Her hesitation made him curious, and he lifted his lashes. "To what?"
"To care for your personal needs."
Zach let his eyes drift closed again. "I'll have to give that man a raise."
He heard her set the mug back on the table. The shift of her bottom tugged on the sheet, and he winced. When she sat back, her hip pressed against him. She grew still. Zach felt her warmth, and her sudden awareness of him.
So weak he doubted he could stand, he was more than a little amazed that he was equally aware of her. Of her slightness. Of her softness. And of her scent. This morning she smelled of roses, freshly baked bread, and just a trace of vanilla. The kind of woman a man longed to taste, and savor.
He lifted his lashes again and looked into her startled brown eyes. The touch of her hip against his side seemed to burn through the sheet.
She shot to her feet. "You didn't eat much."
And not any of what he really wanted to taste. "I feel like I overdid."
She bent to retrieve the mug. "I'll bring more in a couple of hours," she said nervously. "Your stomach has probably shrunk."
The distaste she felt for him was so obvious that Zach felt heat rise up his neck. More the fool he for thinking an attractive woman like Kate Blakely might give a man like him a passing glance. He splayed his hand over his chest and forced a smile, determined not to show how that hurt.
So painfully reminded of his own scars, he suddenly recalled Miranda's. Because he needed to say something, anything, to smooth over the moment, he asked, "How did your daughter get her hand so badly burned?"
At the question, Kate gave a start. Her slender fingers lost their grip on the mug. Before either of them could react, the porcelain hit the plank floor with a resounding crash and shattered in a dozen different directions. Kate gasped and stepped back, brushing ineffectually at the splatters on her skirt.
"Damn." Afraid that the shards might have cut her, Zach forgot all about his legs and shoved up on an elbow.
"Are you all right?"
The room went into a spin. Zach grabbed a handful of sheet to steady himself, afraid he might pitch headfirst onto the floor. Kate caught his arm.
"Mr. McGovern, please…"
Zach fell back against the pillow, panting as though he had run a race. "Shit." He closed his eyes to make the spinning stop. "I've never been this weak in my entire life."
"You nearly died. It's going to take a few days."
"Are you cut?"
"No, I'm fine." She made an exasperated little sound. "Lands, what a mess. Can I trust you to lie still while I clean it up?"
Zach sighed. "I don't think I'll be going anywhere for a few minutes."
He heard her bustle from the room. Seconds later, she returned, broom in hand. He was too exhausted to keep his eyes open once she began sweeping.
"This broom is useless." Porcelain chinked. "I suppose I'll have to buy another. I ruined my good one."
Zach was too weary to ask how. A few minutes later, even though he didn't hear her leave the room, he noticed the absence of her scent and knew she was gone. As he drifted off to sleep, his last thought was that she had never explained how Miranda had burned her hand.
* * *
After leaving the sickroom, Kate leaned against the hallway wall, broom in one hand, dustpan and rag clutched in the other, her heart pounding like a kettledrum. She had been caring for Zachariah McGovern for days and had grown accustomed to seeing his large, sheet-draped frame lying motionless on the bed. There had even been times, while away from the sickroom, that she had forgotten his presence in the house. But now he was awake.
Her arm still tingled where she had touched his massive shoulders to lift him. She recalled the intense regard of his eyes, which seemed to change with his emotions, a twinkling hazel when he smiled, an arresting green when he asked a question, and then the color of flint when he thought she might have been cut by flying porcelain.
Kate had the unnerving sensation that those eyes of his saw far more than she wanted them to.
She felt unsettled. Even now that she was out of the room, her legs still quivered. Knowing he was in there, that he would frequently awaken, that she would have to care for him, all the while suffering his intent scrutiny, made her stomach knot.
Kate closed her eyes, disgusted with herself.
Admit it, Kate. You find him attractive. That's why he makes you so
To admit that, even in the farthest reaches of her mind, made Kate want to give herself a good kick. Was she out of her blooming mind? Zachariah McGovern stood a head taller than Joseph had and was half again as broad at the shoulders. Talk about jumping from the skillet into the fire.
She was grateful to him, that was all. Grateful and beholden. He had saved her daughter's life, and her maternal instincts were all in a stir. In a few days, those feelings would diminish. Once she was her old self again, she wouldn't be affected when he looked at her with that speculative twinkle in his eyes. She wouldn't.