Margaret brownley, p.3

Margaret Brownley, page 3

 

Margaret Brownley
 



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  “Just tell me where my clothes are.”

  “What’s left of your clothes will be of no use to you. They’re wet and muddy and bloodied from your wound.”

  The knife lowered another notch.

  Suspicion crossed her face. “What wound?”

  “The one on your shoulder. You were shot.” Her eyes rounded in disbelief and he hastened to reassure her. “It was just a graze. You were lucky. It was your left shoulder or you’d have more of disadvantage than you do now.”

  She felt her shoulder with her free hand, her fingers lingering on the square of buckskin covering her wound. Apparently satisfied that he spoke the truth, she set the knife down.

  “Who s-shot me?” she stammered.

  He shrugged. “Someone with a gun, which pretty much covers everyone in town.”

  “I-I can’t stay here,” she said. “Is there a hotel?”

  “”fraid not,” he said. “The only one we had burned down. Like it or not I’m all you got.”

  She swayed slightly but remained stubbornly in place.

  His patience spent and with one sweeping motion he lifted her in his arms.

  “Let me go…” Before she had time to spew out more than a half-dozen choice names, he whisked her across the room and laid her on the pallet.

  “You can’t hold me against my will,” she said indignantly, and he held back the urge to point out he was doing exactly that. In fact, he was on the bed, straddling her.

  “Quit moving before you stir things up. The cabin ain’t big enough for three of us.”

  She stopped fighting him.

  Biting back the pain in his leg, he grimaced and adjusted his weight. “If you promise to stay put, I’ll let you go.” He couldn’t believe it. He was bargaining with her. His only salvation was that there were no other trappers around to witness his disconcerting predicament. He’d never live this one down, that’s for sure.

  Wanting to give her every opportunity to comply with his wishes, he waited with patience foreign to him. It wasn’t altogether an unpleasant wait, despite the added discomfort to his leg. His head was so close to hers, he could feel her warm soft breath against his skin.

  He’d all but decided he was going to have to tie her to the bed for her own good when she nodded ever so slightly. Relieved that he would not have to resort to such drastic tactics, he immediately released her wrists and stood.

  He grabbed a chair and set it down next to the bed, straddling it backward. It felt good to get the weight off his leg. He laid his arms across the back.

  “I think we need to get a few things straight. Mrs. Summerfield, is it? My name is St. John. Logan St. John. You can start by telling me where Mr. Summerfield might be?”

  If her husband had a sensible bone in his body, he’d be on a foreign continent somewhere, living under an assumed name. No matter. He intended to track the man down and make him live up to his responsibilities. The sooner, the better.

  She eyed him cautiously. “My husband is waiting for me in Centreville.” She folded her arms across her chest. “And when he finds out how you manhandled me, he’ll come after you.”

  Logan considered this for a moment. “And your baby…” He hesitated. He’d never discussed such a delicate matter with a woman before.

  At mention of the baby, the hostility left her face, replaced with a look of desperation that made him ache. He didn’t want her to be afraid of him. But who could blame her? Perhaps he’d been too hard on her. It wasn’t as if they were in the northern wilds, where the ability to follow a command could make the difference between life and death.

  This was not the wilderness, nor was she his responsibility. He felt ashamed that he’d been so hard-nosed. He was also aware of how awful he must look.

  Despite the Indian blood that ran through his veins and had chiseled his strong-boned features, he’d inherited the ability to grow a beard from his trapper father. He couldn’t remember the last time he shaved.

  “When is your baby due?”

  “At the end of the month.”

  He considered this for a moment. “Now suppose you tell me what in blazes you’re doing in the likes of Deadman’s Gulch?”

  *****

  Libby lowered her lashes and tried to recall the hazy events of the previous night. She remembered running in the darkness…and then nothing.

  Clutching the blanket to her chin in an effort to ward off the cold, she stole a glance at her host.

  He stared back from a rugged face framed by dark straight hair and anchored by a dark, bushy beard. Now that she could study him more closely she realized that beneath his scruffy appearance and scowling expression he wasn’t bad looking.

  Oddly enough she was no longer afraid of him, and whether it was the gentle way he regarded her generous waistline or the worried frown that touched his brow as he considered her predicament, she didn’t know. All she knew was that contrary to her earlier beliefs this man was not going to bring her harm.

  Encouraged by the thought, she told him how her driver had abandoned her outside of town. “If I ever get my hands on that man, I won’t be responsible for my actions!” she declared, sniffing in contempt.

  He rubbed his cheek and chuckled. “If indeed you and this driver do have occasion to meet again, my only hope is that I am there to see it.” He stood. “I think it would be a good idea for you to get some rest while I rustle up something to eat.”

  Nodding, she settled her head on the straw-filled pillow. She realized suddenly how hungry she was, but exhaustion took precedence and she soon grew drowsy. Through the haziness of her vision, she imagined a softening of the hard lines that fanned from his eyes as he leaned over and drew the covers up to her shoulders.

  She stilled his hand with her own. “My valise,” she whispered, knowing she had no right to ask him for further assistance. “I left it by the side of the road…Please…”

  Chapter 4

  The light between the narrow cracks of the cabin had turned from silver to gray by the time she woke. She lay on her side, waiting for her eyes to adjust. It surprised her that she’d slept so long.

  Her valise stood on the floor next to her bed. Tears of relief sprang to her eyes. Wiping them away, she pushed herself up on her elbows. The man—Logan St. John—was nowhere in sight.

  She glanced toward the door. The problem was she needed to relieve herself. She climbed out of bed and opened her valise.

  She lifted the only other dress she owned and held it next to her. She fingered the soft blue fabric and recalled the long hours she’d sat by candlelight in her room at the miners’ boardinghouse, sewing the garment together. It was a simple dress, its only concession to fashion being a dust ruffle and a row of tiny mother-of-pearl buttons, a gift from one of the miners. She’d allowed extra room for her waist and she hoped that the generous gathers would conceal at least part of her bulky form.

  Casting an anxious glance toward the door she quickly pulled off the fringed shirt, and slipped the gown over her head. It was a tight squeeze but she finally managed to work the dress down the length of her. She breathed a sigh that quickly turned into a cry of frustration upon discovering that the front of her bodice was separated by a two-inch gap. It was impossible to fasten the buttons.

  Fiddlesticks! It wasn’t only her middle that had expanded. Now what was she going to do?

  Before a plan occurred to her, the door flew open. Gasping, she crossed her arms in front of her bared camisole and gaped at the mountain man.

  It wasn’t only his sudden appearance that startled her. He’d shaved off his beard and the results were astonishing. She realized that the bronzed color of his skin was natural and not caused by the sun as she had earlier supposed. His smooth skin stretched over high cheekbones. He was younger than she’d first thought, somewhere in his mid to late thirties. Without his beard, he certainly appeared less formidable, and this made her earlier fears seem that much more preposterous.

  “I apologize…I…” H
e looked away and nodded to where a buckskin shirt hung from a wooden peg near the bed. “Feel free to help yourself to any of my shirts.”

  His gaze dropped to the floor as he backed outside again and shut the door after him.

  Mortified to be found in such an embarrassing state, she fought her way out of the gown and slipped back into the same buckskin shirt she’d worn earlier. It was tempting to stay put, safe from his probing eyes, but nature’s call left her no choice but to swallow her humiliation and step outside.

  Mr. St. John was on the porch skinning a rabbit. At sight of her, he stood. Outlined against the distant mountains, he looked even less menacing than he had earlier in the confines of the cabin, but no less intimidating. He was taller than most men and his broad shoulders seemed to challenge the fur-lined jacket he wore. His deerskin leggings were held in place by leather garters.

  She took a deep breath. “I …I need to use the facilities.”

  “The outhouse is in back.”

  “My boots…?”

  “They’re soaking wet.” With a toss of his head, he indicated a corner of the porch where her boots were located. “I stuffed them with straw and left them to dry.”

  Shivering, she rubbed her hands up and down her arms.

  “Here,” he said, pulling off his fur-lined coat. He held it out and waited for her to slip her arms through the sleeves. The coat was far too large and its weight almost pulled her down, but she was grateful for its warmth.

  “It’s getting mighty cold. May even snow.” He glanced down at her bare feet. “Here.” He doubled over and picked up a pair of moccasins. “Wear these.”

  “Thank you.” She worked the cuff up her arm so she could take them from him. He nodded and turned back to the rabbit. Glancing at the hapless animal she shuddered and grabbed hold of the railing to fight back a sudden wave of nausea.

  As soon as her stomach settled down, she searched for a place to sit. There were only the wooden steps, but if she sat on them she might never get back on her feet.

  She tried to raise one foot to no avail. She couldn’t even see her toes. This really was the last straw. Frustrated, she burst into tears.

  Glancing over his shoulder, St. John looked positively startled. “Now what’s the matter?”

  His forehead was creased in what looked suspiciously like sympathy. This only made matters worse. When near strangers started to sympathize a person really was in a sorrowful state.

  “Everything!” she sputtered. She hated to admit it but she felt sorry for herself, and she didn’t care one iota what he thought. “I can’t fit into my clothes. I don’t bend in the middle. I can’t see my feet. My back aches and…I’m ugly.”

  “Ugly?” He straightened. “Why that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

  His astonishment was obviously genuine and this only added confusion to her dejected state of mind. “How would you feel if you were as helpless as I am?”

  He surprised her by bursting into laughter. “Helpless?’ He laughed harder. “Lady, if you’re helpless now, I’m eternally grateful for not having met you before.”

  Feeling utterly foolish, Libby struggled to compose herself. She never cried. Well, almost never. There was that one awful day when she had dug her husband’s grave with her very own hands. She’d cried that day. Oh, yes, indeed. Long and hard, she’d cried, and her prayers had been muffled by uncontrolled sobs.

  “Let me,” he said. Holding her gaze in his he took the moccasins from her trembling hands and knelt at her feet. His fingers around her ankle felt warm and firm as he lifted her leg.

  He quickly slipped a moccasin on one cold foot, then lifted her other ankle. After completing the task, he stood.

  Libby wiggled her toes in the depth of the warming softness. The moccasins were several sizes too large, but they did offer a measure of protection and at the moment she needed that.

  “I’m much obliged to you,” she murmured, brushing aside her tears with a sleeve.

  “Ready?” he asked.

  “I…” she glanced around.

  “There’s no one in town, if that’s what you’re worried about. Everyone’s at the diggings. No one will see you.’

  She sensed he was trying to allay her fears, but he only succeeded in making her more nervous. It was just the two of them. Alone.

  He didn’t look like he meant to harm her, but it could be a ploy, this concern of his, a way of making her lower her guard. Well, she had no intention of lowering her guard. Or anything else, for that matter.

  She lifted her head defiantly. “I’m ready.”

  He tilted his head as if puzzling over something, then held out his arm for her benefit.

  Feeling as if she were about to burst, she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. For now, at least physical need took precedence over modesty.

  “Careful,” he cautioned.

  The heels of the moccasins flip-flopped as she walked by his side, down the wooden steps, around to the back of the house. Gopher holes dotted the area; gullies crisscrossed it. More than once, her foot slipped on a patch of ice. Had Mr. St. John not been holding on she would have fallen.

  He held her so steadily she was surprised to see him limp. “Is something wrong with your leg?”

  “Just an old injury,” he said brusquely.

  A quick glance at the hard lines of his profile was enough to convince her not to pursue the matter.

  The outhouse was nothing more than a tiny shed that had been hastily built from weathered boards. “I’ll wait here,” he said. The last twenty feet was fairly flat and free of obstacles.

  She stepped inside the drafty structure and slid the wooden bar down to lock the door. Partly because of the cold but mostly because there was no way of escaping, she quickly answered nature’s call and rejoined him. He once again offered his arm and they walked side by side back to the welcome warmth of the cabin.

  After washing her hands in a basin of hot water, she held them in front of the fire to dry, feeling the warmth penetrate her palms while Logan made fresh coffee.

  She cleared her voice. “I can’t stay here.”

  “Don’t seem like you have a whole lot of choice.”

  She glanced nervously at the door. The door was bolted, and she couldn’t help but wonder if it was to keep others out or to keep her in. “I’ll wait at the stage stop for the next stage.”

  “That’ll be a long wait. The next stage isn’t due until the day after tomorrow.”

  Disheartened by the news she walked over to the bed where her valise gaped open. Surely there must be a boardinghouse in town.

  She picked up her gown and held it in front of her. Maybe if she wore the buckskin shirt on top of the frock… It would look strange, but at least it would offer some measure of modesty.

  “That’s a mighty pretty dress,” he said.

  She glanced back at him. If he thought flattery would make her stay he better think again. “If you’d be kind enough to leave, I wish to get dressed.”

  “No sense putting yourself through that again. If it didn’t fit you the first time, it sure ain’t gonna fit you the second time.”

  He reached over her shoulder and took the gown from her. “It’s a mighty pretty dress, though, ma’am. Mighty pretty.” He folded it as if he’d folded a woman’s dress before, and laid it in the open valise on top of her other belongings. “Since you’re not going anywhere, I suggest you sit in front of the fire.”

  “You can’t keep me against my will,” she said.

  He straightened. “It seems to me that you’re stuck here whether you want to be or not. Will has nothing to do with it.”

  She hated the feeling that she had no say in the matter. Ever since coming to California her life had followed an erratic path over which she had no control. The fact that she was stranded in this stranger’s cabin was the last straw. Something snapped inside. Fueled by an irrational need to take control once again over her life, she bolted toward the do
or with more determination than speed, not sure what she would do once she got there.

  He caught her by the wrist as she fumbled with the bolt. “You don’t want to go out there. It’s cold.”

  “Let me go!”

  “Now there.” He turned her toward him and wrapped his arms around her. Fortunately, her belly kept him somewhat at a distance, but the tender protection he offered touched the aching need inside, and she clung to him like a frightened child

  “I think you’d better get back in bed where it’s warm,” he murmured into her hair.

  Dazed by his heady masculinity she pulled away from his arms. “I don’t need you telling me what I should or should not do!”

  “Are you always this emotional?”

  “I’m not emotional!” she cried out emotionally, and to prove that she was perfectly rational and in control she stood by the door, refusing to budge.

  “Have it your way,” he said impatiently. Without another word, he walked across the room and tossed another log onto the fire.

  Feeling cold and more than a little foolish, she walked to the bed and crawled beneath the covers.

  Chapter 5

  During the next hour, she lay on the lumpy bed amid the confusion of pelts and blankets, and fought the urge to cover her head.

  For the most part, he ignored her, and for this she was grateful. For it allowed her to suffer her humiliation in private. It wasn’t like her to act so childish. Or to bounce from one crazy emotion to another.

  She stole one or two furtive glances in his direction. She finally abandoned any pretense of indifference and openly watched him work.

  The artistry of his hands mesmerized her. She marveled at his skill as he expertly cut the freshly skinned rabbit into pieces with a sharply honed knife.

  He placed the meat upon the red-hot surface of the woodstove and the grill sizzled. Soon, a tantalizing smell tickled Libby’s nose reminding her of how long it had been since she’d last eaten.

  She couldn’t recall ever having watched a man prepare a meal. Her mother and grandmother had done all the cooking while she was growing up. If her father ever stepped foot in the kitchen he had done so without her knowledge.

 

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