“Stay!” she shrieked, taking wavering aim upon the expanse of his chest. Her fingers stumbled over the trigger when he advanced toward her, as unstoppable as a locomotive. He murmured something she couldn’t decipher. Her focus blurred upon his fingers curled about that black handle, an instant away from plunging it into her throat. She should pull the trigger...now...now!
“But, Mama, the snake! The one you scared! He’s by your foot there! You’re gonna step on him, Mama!”
A mind-numbing terror engulfed her, prompted by Christian’s warning or by her inability to stop Logan Stark, she would never know. Snake or no snake, she could not tear her eyes from this man, certain that he was the more lethal of the two. She felt the heat radiating from him, the icy resolve in his eyes, and she retreated, God help her, one step. Only, her foot snagged on the exposed root, twisted, and her other foot tangled in her torn hem. Her knees buckled, and the rifle angled crazily skyward as her burning arm muscles turned traitor on her. And then Christian’s terrified howl rang out—or was that her own scream torn from her throat when sunlight flashed upon the blade, as Logan Stark flexed his wrist? The knife stood poised like a viper.
She closed her eyes and pulled the trigger. The world became a deafening roar of flame and smoke, and then she was falling through sunlight and dry, hot wind, until cool darkness pressed in around her, cradling her like the arms of the mother she’d never known.
* * *
Jessica blinked at the blue sky overhead. Waves of pain radiated from the back of her head. She closed her eyes, expecting at any moment to come to the full realization that she lay dying in the dust from a knife wound. But where? She uncurled her stiff fingers from the rifle and wiggled her toes. She shifted her shoulders and bent her knees. Nothing, save the relentless pounding in her skull.
“Mama.” Christian’s smudged face appeared a scant inch above her, framed by brilliant blue skies. He sucked in swift breaths. “Mama, you shot Mr. Stark.”
Jessica chose to overlook the marked disbelief in his voice and her resulting chagrin and pushed herself up on her elbows. She found herself staring at the soles of a pair of very long black boots. Motionless black boots.
“I shot him,” she whispered, struggling to her feet. She stared at a very still Mr. Logan Stark.
“Mama!” Christian shoved a stubby finger at the ground. “Don’t step on the snake. Look, Mr. Stark killed it. With his knife. I saw him.”
There it lay, not inches from the dirt-stained, sagging hem of her gown—a fat brown rattler, pinioned to the dust by the blade protruding from its throat. Its jaws still sagged open.
Jessica stared at the dead snake, then at the man lying in a gathering pool of blood, eyes closed, mouth slightly parted. The man who had more than likely saved her life, and her son’s. “My God, I killed him.”
Christian frowned at her. “No, ya didn’t, Mama. He fell and hit his head, just like you. An’ he’s sleepin’. But ya got him real good. He’s bleedin’, Mama. See, Mama?”
“I see,” she whispered, dropping hesitantly to her knees beside Stark. The dark cotton covering his chest expanded, stretched taut, then relaxed with his every breath. Slow, even breaths. Despite the full measure of her relief, her fingers wavered over the gaping wound oozing a warm flow of blood from his shoulder. The bullet seemed to have cut a narrow path clean through the outer curve of sinew where his shoulder met his upper arm.
Jessica forced the bile back into her parched throat. Her fingers pressed gently around the wound until the feel of rock-hard muscle prompted her to snatch her fingers back. A peculiar feeling washed through her as her gaze drifted hesitantly over him. Here he lay, silent, still, and intensely vulnerable for so fearsome a man. His mouth in repose seemed oddly prone to a pleasant curve, the creases all but vanished from his face. And his impossibly long, dark lashes rested upon his cheeks like those of a young child.
Dust billowed about her, catching at her skirts and swirling about Stark and his wound. She leaned slightly over him, wondering dimly why she still felt an odd compulsion to keep a safe distance, as if at any moment he might rear up and swallow her whole.
“Mr. Stark?” she said. No response, save his even, deep breathing. “Mr. Stark, can you hear me?” Her hands pressed against his chest, then quickly retreated. “We have to get him inside,” she said, getting to her feet.
Christian gave her a wary look, then crouched and lifted Stark’s dark head, now bereft of his hat. “I can help, Mama. See?”
“I see,” Jessica murmured distractedly. Stark was too blasted big. Bigger, wider, longer, and no doubt heavier, than any man she’d ever seen. How the devil would she and a five-year-old child move him?
She eyed the distance to the house, judging it to be no more than ten feet. Yet the space yawned like an unbreachable chasm. She should run for Doc Eagan, or at least to Willard Fry’s for help. A woman couldn’t possibly do this sort of thing
A woman couldn’t tend a farm alone, or raise a child alone, for heaven’s sake, or so the townsfolk, and Avram in particular, were wont to remind her on a daily basis. So how the devil could she move what had to be a two-hundred-pound beast of man,
She set her teeth. She’d shot him, she’d take care of him, blast it. After all, she’d tended wounds before. How difficult could a superficial gunshot wound be to clean and bandage? Stark looked more than capable of surviving it. Besides, she didn’t quite feel inclined to present a full account of her shooting abilities for the local gossips to banter about for months to come, a sure penance to pay if she summoned Doc Eagan or Willard Fry to help.
Furthermore, Avram would no doubt see this as a prime opportunity to resume his lecture on keeping herself to gentle, womanly pursuits and insist all the more vehemently that she marry him this very day, sell this bothersome farm, and come live with him in his small house within the safe limits of Twilight. Yes, best that she tend to this matter herself. She’d devise some explanation for Avram if it became necessary, of course. But how did one hide a two-hundred-pound strange man from one’s fiancé?
“No, you get his feet, Christian.”
Without hesitation, Christian let Stark’s head fall with a dull thud into the dust and scrambled to those black boots. “He’s heavy, Mama,” he said, his tongue curling out of his mouth as he managed to hoist those boots a fraction of an inch from the ground.
Jessica bent and stuffed the sagging hem of her gown into her waistband, then hooked her elbows beneath Stark’s armpits. A breath wheezed through her bared teeth when her arm muscles bunched and rebelled against the weight of him. She planted her feet and attempted to pay little attention to the dark head lolling against her breasts. The pounding in the back of her head intensified. “I’m going to drag him, Christian. Don’t stop until we get to the back door.”
Christian nodded vigorously. “I’m helpin’, aren’t I, Mama? Aren’t I?”
“You’re helping.” Jessica braced her legs wide and felt her thighs strain. “Now—
Jessica didn’t release her breath until they’d reached the back door, and then she all but collapsed against the sagging door frame. She stared at the trail of blood in the dust, at those motionless black boots, then shoved the back door open. “Hold this, Christian.”
“But I want to hold his feet.”
Her teeth ground in her ears as she again hooked her arms beneath Stark’s shoulders. A sharp pain sliced through her lower back. Breathing was a labor in itself. “Christian, do as I say.”
He blinked at her, thrust out his lower lip, and didn’t move. “But I’m not helping, then.”
“Hold the door,”
she snapped into billowing dust, feeling the burn of hot tears at the backs of her eyes. No, she would not lose control. Not now, not ever. She couldn’t. A woman alone, raising a headstrong child, trying her best...
“You don’t have to yell at me,” Christian grumbled, flattening himself against the door.
“Listen to Mama and I won’t yell at you.” She hauled Stark through the open doorway and into her immaculate kitchen, with its spotless, lye-scrubbed pine floor that she was immensely proud of. She didn’t pause, even when she crashed into a high-backed wooden chair, even when Christian let the door slam on Stark’s leg.
“You didn’t take off your shoes, Mama. Look, you’re getting the floor all dirty. You’re mad, aren’t you, Mama? See, he’s bleeding all over.”
She ignored all this, the burning in her arms, the pounding in her head, the lurking sense of doubt in the wisdom of her actions. Through a short hall and into her room she dragged him, finally dropping him beside the mahogany four-poster on the cherished hooked rug she’d beaten for hours not three days past. She didn’t even glance at the bed. No sense in attempting that. She wondered if four burly men could heave Stark from the floor.
“Take the bucket and get Mama water from the well,” she called toward the door, where she knew Christian lingered.
“He’s bleeding on your rug, Mama.”
“I know.” She bit her lip, stared at Stark, then stuffed a feather pillow beneath his head.
“You’re mad, aren’t you, Mama?”
She dropped to her knees and set her fingers to fumbling over the buttons of Stark’s shirt. “Get the bucket, Christian.”
She listened to the sound of shuffling little feet, then to the rush of her own releasing breath. Her throat seemed to close up as her fingers ventured farther down the row of buttons. A rather intimate task, it suddenly seemed, this unbuttoning of a man’s shirt while he lay in a deep sleep on the floor beside her bed. She hesitated. His hand lay upon his stomach, blocking her path, and she found herself staring at those long, thick brown fingers, at the breadth of his palm and the length of his forearm. So disturbingly masculine a forearm, corded with muscle and rope like veins beneath its furred and bronzed veneer. Fleetingly she wondered at the profound disquiet all this aroused in her, a disquiet having nothing to do with the rifle shot she’d seen fit to deliver him. Gingerly she wrapped her fingers about his and lifted his hand aside. With a peculiar hesitancy, she slipped her palms inside the cotton, against warm flesh, and spread the shirt wide.
For some reason Jessica couldn’t have explained, her breath compressed in her lungs at the sight of him. Not that she’d never seen a man’s chest before, though that had been in the dusky privacy of her bedroom, with all shades drawn. Yet she remembered her husband Frank’s chest as smooth and flat and hairless, not jutting, bulging even, and densely covered with smooth black hair that reached clear to his beard-stubbled throat. He was a beast, this man, and this had to be fear, unparalleled fear that quivered deep in her belly and weakened her limbs. And concern, yes, that was it, nothing but concern for the man who had saved her life, now bade her to press a quavery palm against his chest to seek the rapid beating of his heart.
Her lips parted. His skin radiated heat that leapt into her hand and seeped up her arm, through her torso, pooling in her belly and in the tightening peaks of her breasts.
Her fingers curled of their own accord, then splayed slowly through that dense hair. She watched her hand moving over the expanse of his chest. His flesh curved into her palm, as if seeking her touch. The smell of him was like that of leather and warm baked flesh, oddly pleasant.
“I got it!” Christian announced, suddenly materializing at her side.
Jessica snatched her fingers to her mouth as if they were suddenly ablaze. She glanced up at Christian, then felt her cheeks flame and quickly averted her gaze. “A cloth...I need a cloth,” she muttered quickly, too quickly, her eyes finding the tapering line of black hair that disappeared into Stark’s waistband. His belly was as ridged as a washboard. “A—a cloth t-to clean his belly. I—I mean...his
In the kitchen cupboard. Get me one of those.”
“But those are the cloths you use on the dishes, Mama. Remember?”
Her teeth met, and she glared at her son. Again he hesitated. Then the bucket thumped against the floorboards, sending water sloshing all over Jessica’s skirt and her precious hooked rug as Christian finally obeyed. Jessica plunged her hand into the cool water. Sunlight filtered through the lace curtains, heating her, heating the room, so that she could barely catch her breath. She pressed cool, wet fingers to her brow, to the heated length of her neck, and attempted not to look at Stark, save for his wound and the dried blood caked around it.
Again she dipped her fingers in the bucket, then drew them to her lips. The water, so cool, soothed her parched throat.
Her fingers found the water again, then quivered over Stark’s brow. Tiny droplets spilled onto his forehead and wove erratic paths into his loosely curling black hair. Those heavy black brows seemed to tighten, then ease from that permanent scowl—a softening, if there were such a thing on such a man. She dipped her fingers and smoothed the skin above his brows, her fingertips playing gently over his temples, then venturing warily where burnished skin met with thickly curling hair.
Yes, there was no denying that she soothed him. His dry lips parted and emitted a soft breath, and before she could think, she brushed her wet fingers over his lips. Still, he slept, even when she jerked her hand to her breast and listened to the hammering of her pulse.
Moments later Christian returned. “Is this the rag?”
“Yes,” she replied briskly, without the favor of a glance. She applied herself to the task of cleaning the wound as would one grateful for distraction.
The wound. Tend the wound.
You owe him your life.
No matter that simply leaning over him was proving far more unsettling than the sight of flesh ripped open, that his warm breath seemed to play through her hair, teasing her cheek, that his chest seemed to push up against her breasts far too deliberately for a man flat upon his back with a rifle wound. For some blasted reason, she couldn’t shake the feeling that at any moment those massive arms would envelop her and pinion her flat against him.
“How come ya shot him, Mama?” Christian asked, perching himself close at her side.