Authors: Catherine Anderson
ver the next three days, Kate learned the true meaning of exhaustion. With scarcely a wink of sleep and very little to eat, she drove herself to set one foot before the other, to do whatever had to be done to keep Zachariah McGovern alive.
It wasn't easy to cheat death.
As reluctant as she had been to let Marcus Stone stay over, Kate didn't know what she would have done without his help. He not only spelled her at Zachariah McGovern's bedside, but also kept the chores done, which included milking Henrietta, who had wandered home the second night.
As the endless vigil wore on, Kate stopped feeling nervous while Stone was in the house. She couldn't say exactly why. Maybe because he seemed as ill at ease in her presence as she did in his. It was a little difficult to feel threatened by a man who nearly tripped over his own feet when he was around her.
On the fourth afternoon, Doc Willowby came by to check on Kate's patient and finally said the words she had been praying to hear. "I don't believe it, but I'll be danged if I don't think he might pull through."
Kate stared down at her still-unconscious patient through a blur of relieved tears.
Doc smiled and sighed. "I think it's time for you and Mr. Stone here to get some well-deserved rest." He drew the sheet higher on McGovern's chest. "He's resting easy. The initial danger has passed. All we can do now is force fluids down him and pray infection doesn't set in. In his weakened condition, that would kill him for sure."
Kate turned to the doctor. "Is there any way that I can stave off infection?"
Doc pursed his lips. "Hot poultices, maybe. As hot as the skin can stand and applied for thirty minutes every four hours. Other than that, there's nothing."
Kate exchanged glances with Marcus Stone. "We can do that."
Doc clamped a hand over Kate's shoulder. "First, you get some sleep, young woman."
Marcus seconded that. "He's right, Miz Blakely. You're beginnin' to look like you was rode hard and put away wet." Glancing back at Doc Willowby, he added, "She ain't hardly let her head touch a pillow once. I offered to spell her so she could sleep, but she wouldn't have none of it."
"You see that she does now," the doctor ordered. He gave Kate a fatherly pat. "I'll come back out at the end of the week. If you need me before then, Mr. Stone can ride in and fetch me."
Kate followed the doctor from the bedroom. "You truly think he'll make it, Doc?"
Doc Willowby opened the front door and then paused. "God willing, yes. You've worked a miracle, young woman. In my line of work, I don't see many."
"Only God works miracles."
"Sometimes through good people like you," the doctor retorted. "Mind you, now, he won't be doing a jig any time soon. That poison has played heck with his system, and it'll take a spell to work its way out. He's liable to suffer more fever. And he'll be as weak as a scoured calf for weeks. Start him off on broth, then slowly add solids into his diet."
Kate leaned an arm against the door as she watched the doctor go down the porch steps. The relief she felt weighed on her body like a thousand pounds of lead. Now that the worst was over, she couldn't muster the will to move or even think why she should. She felt Marcus Stone step up behind her.
"Why don't you feed that girl of yours her supper early and git yourself some sleep? After I git the chores done, I'll stay handy this evenin' to take care of the boss."
Kate blinked and straightened. Miranda. Her mind was so numb, she had nearly forgotten her daughter.
"I'd feed her," Marcus added. "But she's as skittish around me as a preacher in a whorehouse."
Startled by the analogy, Kate glanced over her shoulder.
A flush spread up Stone's swarthy neck, and he cleared his throat. "Pardon the talk. I ain't much for parlor manners." He buried his hands in his pant pockets. "She is a nervous little thing. Even if I could catch her, I doubt she'd eat what I put before her."
Kate touched Marcus's sleeve and forced herself to move past him back into the foyer. Supper for Miranda, and then bed. She could keep going for a few more minutes.
* * *
Along about dusk, Kate clawed her way up from a fog of sleep and lay rigid in the bed listening. Something had startled her awake, but what? The house was silent. Then she heard a door slam shut downstairs. Heavy footfalls echoed across the plank flooring. Marcus? Kate heard a voice and strained her ears.
"You answer me, girl. I asked you where your ma is."
Kate bolted upright. Not Marcus. She threw the quilts back and leaped to her feet, not taking time to grab her wrapper. Ryan Blakely was downstairs, and from the sound of it, he had cornered Miranda.
Kate dashed from the bedroom and along the hall to the landing. Leaning over the rail, she looked down upon Ryan's dark head and bent shoulders and glimpsed Miranda's gray pinafore when he moved. He had her daughter by the shoulder and was giving her a shake. Anger broke over Kate in a hot wave, washing away all trace of sleepiness. Using the banister to swing her weight, she cleared three steps in a leap.
"Let go of her!"
At the sound of Kate's voice, Ryan snapped erect but didn't loosen his hold on Miranda. "Somebody has to teach her manners."
Kate descended the reminder of the stairs and squared off with her brother-in-law, refusing to be intimidated by his much greater height and the broad span of his shoulders. With a cry of fury, she wrested her daughter away from him. "Her manners are fine, and even if they weren't, you have no right—"
Ryan jutted his chin. "No right? No right to discipline my brother's child? The child he asked me to look after if something ever happened to him?"
Kate gave Miranda a little push to get her feet moving. "Go out to the kitchen, sweetness."
Miranda didn't need to be told twice. With a wide-eyed glance back at her uncle, she tore down the hall. She hesitated outside the door of the sickroom. For a moment, Kate thought she meant to enter. But then the child continued toward the kitchen, in such a hurry that she thumped into the door before she got it fully open. Kate waited for Miranda to disappear into the room beyond before she turned back to confront Ryan Blakely.
"How dare you come into this house and raise your voice at my daughter?"
Ryan's handsome features went taut with outrage. "This is a Blakely roof, Kate, bought and paid for with Blakely sweat."
"And I am a Blakely," Kate cut in. "Joseph's widow. By law, this house belongs to me now. You've no authority here."
Ryan drew his lips back in a sneer. "Oh, so now we're quoting the law, are we? Interesting, very interesting.
Maybe I'll just pay a little call on the sheriff and remind him that my brother disappeared under mighty peculiar circumstances."
The threat snapped Kate's mouth closed. She stared into Ryan's blue eyes and read the madness there. He truly would stop at nothing, and in that, if for no other reason, Kate found cause to fear him. Not for her own sake, but for Miranda's. Like Joseph, Ryan could lose all sense of reason in the blink of an eye. He wasn't above making outlandish accusations to stir up trouble so he could have his way.
She took a steadying breath, wanting to kick herself for losing her temper. That wasn't and never would be the way to handle this man. In a cajoling voice, she said, "Ryan, please. Why do you come here and do this? Joseph's been gone nearly six months. As you can see, we're fine. You've done your duty to Miranda and me. It's time you went back to Seattle and your own life."
Kate's gentler tone had the desired effect. The tension slowly eased from Ryan's shoulders, and the mindless anger faded from his eyes. The apparent effortlessness with which he changed moods frightened Kate more than anything. His lazy smile made her nerves prickle as he ran his gaze over her rumpled flannel gown. "You and Miranda have become my life, Kate. You know that. Joseph asked me to step into his shoes if anything ever happened to him. What kind of brother would I be if I went back on my word?"
Into Joseph's shoes? Revulsion constricted Kate's throat. With his blue eyes and ebony hair, Ryan cut a fine figure, and when he chose, he could hide his true nature behind a facade of charm. Women who didn't really know him probably found him attractive. But not her. She knew how quickly that smile of his could turn to a snarl.
"Why are you abed so early?" he asked with what seemed like genuine concern. "Are you ill?"
Kate struggled to follow his change of subject. She had done the same many a time with Joseph, caught up and pulled this way and that by his mood swings, like a leaf in a whirlwind. " Ill ?" She swept a hank of dark hair from her eyes. "No. I've just had very little rest these last few days."
"Why? I've offered to lend a hand any time you need it. If something's wrong, why didn't you come into town and get me?"
Ryan would be the last person Kate would ever go to for help. The less he came around her farm, the better. She glanced uneasily down the hall at the sickroom door. "Our neighbor, Mr. McGovern. He—um—" She fixed her gaze on Ryan's burnished face. His chiseled features were very like her dead husband's, unnervingly so. "He was bitten by rattlers and nearly died. I've been caring for him. This evening is the first—"
"You've what?" Ryan followed her gaze to the closed bedroom door. "You have a man in this house?"
Before Kate could reply, Ryan started toward the sickroom. She stepped into his path to bar his way. "Don't. He's far too ill to be distur—"
Ryan seized Kate by her upper arm and jerked her toward him. "As God is my witness, I should beat you," he said with a hiss. "How dare you bring a man into this house? What of the child? Have you no decency at all? My brother barely six months dead!"
"It isn't like that." Kate tried to keep the cajoling note in her voice, but this time it wasn't going to work. She knew that by the glint that had come into Ryan's eyes. "Truly, Ryan, it isn't at all like that."
He glanced at her nightgown again, then lifted his gaze to her hair. "Lewd is woman."
Coming from anyone else, the comment would have seemed absurd. But Ryan meant it. Kate could almost feel the anger welling up from within him. Despite her effort to speak calmly, her voice turned tremulous. "I tell you, it isn't like that. He saved Miranda's life! She fell into a well, and there was a den of snakes down there.
McGovern went after her. He was bitten four times. How could I let him die? I had no choice but to—"
"No choice? You had a choice, Kate. If you had let me move in and take care of you, this circumstance never would have arisen." He gave her a shake. "But no. You turned me away. And now look what I've walked in to find. You in your nightdress before it's even fully dark, with a strange man in the house."
Kate tried to speak, but again he cut her off.
"Didn't I tell you that you needed me here? Didn't I? If I had been in charge, Miranda wouldn't have been whiling away time unsupervised and fallen into a well in the first place. And if by chance she had, I would have been here to fetch her out."
"She wasn't unsuper—"
"What more must happen to convince you that you should abide by your dead husband's wishes and marry me?"
Just the thought made Kate shudder. Ryan drew her closer and pressed his face near hers. "You hated him, didn't you?"
"No. Ryan, please—"
His fingers dug more deeply into her flesh. "That's the truth. From the first, he sensed your waywardness and tried to save you. Instead of thanking him, you hated him for it."
"I wouldn't be surprised to learn you killed him."
Kate drew in a sharp breath. "That's madness."
"Is it? I know what a harsh disciplinarian he was. Joseph made no secret of the trouble he had keeping you and that child in line. I can't count the times he and I joined in prayer that God would give him the wisdom to save you from yourself, not to mention the strength he needed to resist your seductive ways."
Kate tried to pry his fingers from her arm. "I was a good wife, and Miranda has always been an obedient little girl."
Ryan leaned closer. "He told me about the scissors, Kate. You killed him, didn't you? All that remains is for me to find out how." Still holding onto her arm, Ryan flung her against the wall so hard that the back of her head cracked against the planks. "Where did you hide his body?"
Kate blinked away spots. Frantically, she tried to sort out her thoughts so she could reason with him. But how could she respond to such insanity?
With a sneer of disgust. Ryan finally let go of her. "God help you, because no one else can, not if you insist on living out here alone." He glanced toward the kitchen. "At least let me remove Miranda from this near occasion of sin."
Those words pushed Kate beyond caring if she lost her temper. "How could I possibly be sinning with an unconscious man? How, Ryan? The evil way your mind works makes me sick. God forbid you should take Miranda, or even be around her."
"God forbid that she should grow up seeing her mother's harlot ways," he retorted. "You ask how you could sin with an unconscious man? In your thoughts, that's how. Read the Bible, woman! Your body is probably weeping with lust even as you stand there. You need a God-fearing man to discipline you. I'm your only hope of salvation.
The day will come when you'll regret that you refused to marry me."
Kate pressed her palms against the rough wood behind her. "Get out," she rasped. "Get out of my house."
Ryan stood there, fists clenched at his sides. For a moment, Kate feared he might strike her and she braced herself for the blow. Then, as if the wildness relinquished its hold on him, he flexed his shoulders and made a visible effort to relax. "I'll leave," he said raggedly. "But you haven't seen the last of me. I'll be out of town this next week to move my things down here from Seattle . Once that's done, I'll be back. Mark my words!"
With that, he strode across the foyer and opened the door. After he'd stepped out onto the porch, Kate ran and shammed the door closed, then pressed her trembling body against it.
"Do you hear me, Kate? I'll be back!" he called from outside. "There's nothing I can do to prevent you from burning in hell, but I won't stand by and allow Miranda to become a victim. Do you understand me? Your shadow, that's what I'll be. You won't take a breath that I won't know about!"
Her mind beset by the echo of Joseph's voice and memories she tried constantly to keep at bay, Kate pressed her hands over her ears.