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Valentine angel, p.3

Valentine Angel, page 3

 

Valentine Angel
 


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  “Oh, no,” he returned. “They’ll do me just fine.” He fingered the shirt. “Your generosity has been—”

  “Please,” snapped Mary, “no more. We are happy to help.”

  Jake nodded. He glanced around. “Where is your sister?”

  “She’s tending the chickens. That’s one of her chores.”

  He slid his hands under the stack of clothing and began to stand. Immediately he lost his balance, but Mary was there—her body against his, her arm around his waist—before he had a chance to actually fall. He turned his eyes on hers, searching the dark pools of color that had been transformed by the light coming in through the window. “Th—thank you,” he whispered huskily.

  Mary blushed then, fully aware, no doubt, that their bodies were pressed against one another and he could feel the curve of her bosom and the soft thu-thumping of her heart against his own.

  “It’s okay,” she said breathlessly.

  He smiled. “Don’t let me take you down with me,” he returned with a smile, planting his left hand against the back of the chair. “I’d never forgive myself if I hurt you.”

  She blushed again.

  This woman, he mused, was decidedly not accustomed to men flattering or flirting with her.

  Just then, the back door opened and Sarah, carrying a basket of eggs, entered. She looked from Jake to Mary, who was still enclosed within the circle of his arm. She smiled.

  He smiled in return.

  Mary stammered, “He was about to fall—”

  Sarah placed the eggs on the sideboard. “Well, I’m glad you were close enough to catch him.”

  Mary grumbled something unintelligible then cleared her throat. “For crying out loud, help me get him back to bed.”

  Sarah rushed to the far side of Jake.

  “Thank you, Ladies. I’m determined to get out of your hair as soon as I’m able.”

  ****

  It was well past midnight when Jake stirred. His leg throbbed mercilessly. Trying to get comfortable enough to go back to sleep, he found himself listening to the night noises that permeated the darkness. He knew there was a full moon and for whatever strange reason, he had discovered that he was often restless on nights when the moon was full.

  He wondered, not for the first time, if he were part wolf—or coyote. Born to walk the world in the dark. Is that why he had chosen to become a sheriff? Was it the hunt he sought? Living his life stalking men who also lived dark lives?

  He had embarked on this last hunt with ruthless determination. Billy Sykes was a killer of the worst sort and didn’t think twice about killing anyone who got in his way. He’d already killed two men and assaulted a woman and her daughter, leaving them near dead. If he hadn’t happened upon them, no doubt they would have both died. Thankfully, he had gotten them back to Paradise Flat in time.

  Jake pulled himself to a sitting position. He simply had to get back on his feet and out the door soon. The nagging thought that Sykes might well follow him to this house filled him with a bitter fear. He couldn’t bring harm to Mary or her sister. Sykes would have no mercy on the two women who had rescued him.

  He planted his feet on the floor and stood, slowly finding his strength as he took several steps. His heart pounded as perspiration collected on his upper lip and tickled his spine.

  Looking around, he found the oil lamp and matches Mary had left near the cot; he lit the lamp and turned it down as low as he could. He didn’t want to disturb the women upstairs.

  Slowly he moved to the kitchen, lamp in hand. He had no idea what time it was but he knew it was nearing daybreak. The eerie silence seemed to fill his ears with a strange hollowness. He placed the lamp on the table and eased himself into a chair.

  Getting himself back on the trail was going to be harder than he thought, he realized, cursing himself for having failed to take down Sykes when he had the chance. It would be tougher this time around, to be sure, and he didn’t want to endanger anyone else in the hunt to locate the killer. He was no better than a rabid dog. Even worse, since he had no conscience when it came to hurting innocent bystanders.

  Jake looked around. Seeing that Mary had left a small stack of kindling, he got up again, and, with shaky hands and weak legs, built a small fire in the woodstove. Damn, but he wanted a cup of coffee. He moved through the shadowy darkness until he found a small tin of coffee, freshly ground, and a kettle that was already half-filled with water.

  He thanked Mary again for her ability to rescue him, even in such a small way. She really was an angel, he thought, smiling to himself. His angel.

  The aroma of brewed coffee calmed his anxiety.

  “Mr. Morris—Jake?”

  Jake jumped at the sound of Mary’s voice. He turned, nearly falling over. “Damn,” he mumbled before righting himself.

  “What are you doing?” Mary snapped.

  “Coffee,” returned Jake. “I’ve got to get myself on the move again,” he said. “It does me no good to stay down any longer. And I’ve got unfinished business—”

  “Sykes?”

  “Yes. He’s a killer, Mary. You and Sarah don’t want to meet up with this man. He’s as wicked as they come, and I’m concerned that I’ve spent way too long here. The danger is not going away—not as long as I’m here.”

  Mary frowned. “That may be, but he’s got no gripe with us, and he doesn’t even know you’re here. How could he?” she added, pulling her shawl more tightly around her shoulders.

  She wore only a nightgown, Jake realized suddenly, and it made him uncomfortably aware of her. His gaze traveled the length of the heavy fabric, but it couldn’t hide her shapely body.

  He hid his smile. What would Mary think of his mischievous thoughts? Obviously well bred, she might run as fast as she could from the sight of him.

  His gaze was drawn up to her face, where a frown brought him back to the moment.

  She seemed to collect herself. “All right, then, sit down,” she ordered. “If you’re bound and determined to get back on your feet, let’s start with breakfast.”

  ****

  Sunrise came with a brilliant flash of color as Jake and Mary sat down to eat. She had changed into a simple brown dress, but its fitted bodice only accentuated the curves of her breasts and her appeal. Jake ate slowly, taking his time, hoping that she wouldn’t jump up and disappear.

  He wondered at his attraction to this hardworking and independent woman. He’d known her for only three days, yet he felt he knew so much about her. He knew the way she moved through a room and the way she pushed her auburn hair off her face, even the way she became distracted at moments, a frown creasing the lovely lines of her mouth and eyes…

  She cleared her throat. “So, how do we manage to get you up on your horse—that is, after we secure a horse?”

  He put his fork down. “You said there was a doc in town? I figured you could get word to him. I hate to put that on you…you’ve already done so much—”

  “Sarah and I already decided that one of us will have to walk to town and either purchase a mount or borrow one. But you’re going nowhere until you see the doctor.”

  “I have money,” Jake said. “Enough for a good horse and a doctor’s fee.”

  “Well, then,” Mary said, pushing away from the table. “I will clear up this mess and start out. The sooner I get to town, the better.”

  Jake thanked her. “You have been—”

  Mary flushed. “Again, we have only done what any decent human being would do.”

  Jake shook his head. “I guess I’m not accustomed to such decent behavior,” he said. “I’m used to scoundrels and thieves and liars, Mary. I’ve lost touch with real gentility and kindness.” He held her gaze for a long moment, wishing he could say more, wishing he could tell her that she had become an angel in his sight—his angel—and that he knew Providence had brought her into his life.

  Mary reached over to pick up his plate and, without thinking, he placed a hand over hers. The effect was immediate
and a flood of emotion raced through him. He looked up at her. So close was her face, he could see the glint of amber in her coffee-colored eyes. His heart raced as he waited for her to pull her hand away.

  Only she didn’t, and he could see the tiny pulse beating at the base of her throat and the rush of pink in her cheeks.

  “Mary?”

  She bit her lip and suddenly, he wished he could kiss the place where her teeth pulled at the pale pink of her lower lip. Was this what falling in love felt like, he wondered. A wound that was deeper than the burn he felt in his shoulder or leg, an ache that lodged deep in his gut?

  She finally withdrew her hand, but gently. He could hear her heavy breathing, and he knew he needed to say something more, something that would let her know this was not some passing fancy. That there was something here, between them. He wasn’t some rake who would run out and hurt her.

  He wondered if she’d been in love before, and if she’d been hurt by love.

  He stumbled to his feet, knocking his chair to the floor.

  ****

  The gunshot shattered the window of the front room.

  Mary shrieked. “Oh, dear Lord!”

  Jake looked at her and she felt the flood of fear fill her. Was it Sykes? How could it be, unless he had tracked Jake here, perhaps followed his trail of blood?

  Without saying anything, she rushed into Papa’s room and gathered up the guns Sarah had brought down that first evening. She returned, and Jake took the shotgun out of her hands.

  Sarah raced into the kitchen, her face contorted with fear. “Mary?” she cried, tears already filling her eyes. “Oh, why isn’t Samuel here?”

  “You two,” broke in Jake, “find someplace away from the windows. And get down.” His voice was sharp, even as he half-dragged his bad leg and pushed past the table and chairs on his way to the parlor. “Don’t come out. But keep that pistol loaded and ready to fire. You hear me?” he added. His gaze fell on Mary, and she nodded.

  Instinctively, she grabbed her sister by one hand and pulled her into Papa’s room. Sarah had begun whimpering, but Mary refused to let fear overrule her good sense. They had to steel themselves. They had to listen to Jake and do exactly as he said. She knew she could trust this man, this almost-stranger, as much as she would’ve trusted Papa.

  That thought filled her with a sense of confidence. Jake Morris was not a coward. He was going to do whatever it took to protect her and Sarah.

  They sat down on the cot, Sarah squeezing into the corner and hiding her face. Mary perched on the edge of the bed, gun in hand. Thankfully, Papa had taught her some about loading and handling a gun, if only to deal with rattlesnakes and possums. She’d killed her share of possum and coons, too, when they’d ravaged her chicken pen over the years, so she knew the feel of a gun, the weight of it in her hands, the blast that set her back for a moment, and the resounding boom.

  If only Papa were here, she thought. Or Samuel. What in blazes had happened to Sarah’s beau? Why had he not yet arrived? His arrival would have given them the upper hand over this mad man.

  Sarah’s whimpering had ceased, but Mary, seeing her terror, put a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s pray,” she whispered. “I know God will bring Samuel safely to us. And this will all be over soon—” To herself, she added, “I hope.”

  Sarah raised her eyes and sniffed. “Praying is all I’ve been doing,” she said. “I’m so afraid that Samuel has met with some terrible disaster.”

  “Oh, Sarah,” Mary said. “I’m sure he’s on his way.” Yet, the niggling thought that Samuel might have met up with Sykes had also begun to take shape in her brain.

  ****

  The ensuing silence was as frightening as the gunshot had been. Mary had no idea where Jake had gone or if he’d been killed, even without a fight. He was so weak, how could he protect them in his present state?

  Suddenly, Mary knew what she had to do. “Sarah, whatever happens, you keep yourself hidden. You hear me? I have to go and find Jake. What if he’s passed out again?”

  Sarah grabbed her by the arm. “Oh, Mary, no—”

  Mary gritted her teeth. “This is no time to be a coward. I have to go and find him.”

  She pulled herself from Sarah’s shaky grip and headed back to the kitchen. She didn’t look back. She didn’t dare note the look of fear in Sarah’s face, else she might not have the guts to keep moving.

  The house was eerily quiet. As she reached the doorway, she dropped to her knees, cursing her skirt’s length and its impediment to movement. The pistol was still in her right hand, but it was heavier than ever, and she wished she could leave it behind.

  She made her way into the parlor and saw, in an instant, that Jake was leaning against the shattered front window, his gaze strangely blank, the shotgun on the floor beside him. Her heart sank!

  “Jake! Jake?”

  He stirred and turned his head. “Mary, get—get back,” he mumbled.

  She reached his side and, placing the pistol on the floor, picked up the shotgun. “Are you okay?”

  Jake shook his head. “Yes, okay…okay.”

  Mary exhaled. “You’re too weak to stand watch, and what good are you if you can’t handle a gun?”

  He cocked a half-smile. “My angel,” he whispered.

  Her heart skipped a beat at the soft caress in his voice, but this was no time to consider what was not being said. She prayed there would be time enough later.

  She sneaked up to the edge of the window. “Have you seen him?”

  “No,” returned Jake. “I wish the snake would show himself. He’s a patient fellow. That’s how he got me the first time.”

  “Well,” Mary countered, “he is not going to get you—or us—this time.”

  Her focus was on the yard and woodshed just beyond the house. It was the only place he could hide, she thought. They’d never gotten ’round to planting trees and the semi-arid landscape left little room for escape…unless he had already circled the house. “Did you see him?”

  Jake shook his head. “But I can smell him. He’s out there, Mary.”

  Mary rose up a little more, trying to angle herself to see around the corner of the house. She frowned. If Sykes had already made it to the back of the house, that meant Sarah could be in danger. She glanced down at Jake who was trying to pull himself up. The pistol shook in his hands. “Sarah—” she said and stood up. “I’ve got to go check the back of the house.” The sudden fear that Sarah was in peril was growing by the second.

  “You go,” Jake whispered. He cocked the pistol. “If he comes through the front door, I can get him before he sees me.”

  She hesitated for only a second. The need to protect her sister was greater than her reasons for remaining here. She glanced at Jake and his encouraging nod told her what she had begun to suspect. She loved him.

  She loved him! A stranger, but not a stranger—

  Immediately, she pushed the naked truth from her troubled mind. This was no time to become sentimental, she thought.

  After picking up the shotgun, she returned to the kitchen and checked the back door. The small window to the left was shuttered and the door was locked, but it was not strong enough to resist someone who truly wanted to break in.

  Then, she heard the sound of hoof beats riding hard and fast toward the house and she leaped up. Samuel? Or Sykes?

  She held her breath and said a prayer…Oh, Lord, let it be Samuel!

  She rose up and opened the shutter.

  A horse and rider were dragging something behind them, and as they wheeled around the corner of the woodshed, the lathered horse reared up, giving Mary a clear view of the rider’s face. It was long, thin and heavily scarred—as if someone had raked it with razor-sharp blades. The man’s black hair reminded her of a wild horse’s mane as it swept across his face in long tangled ribbons.

  She didn’t know him, had never seen him, but his long, lean frame was taut in the saddle, stretched forward as he pummeled his horse’s flanks
with his boots, and it frightened her. This had to be Sykes. No doubt about it.

  But what had he dragged across the farmyard?

  Just then Sarah dashed into the kitchen, and she met her sister’s wild-eyed glance with her own. “Stay out of the way!” she hissed. She didn’t want her sister to get a glimpse of the terrifying man on horseback.

  Sarah dropped to her knees, panting. “Is it him?”

  Mary’s own breath was ragged as she nodded. Pressing her finger to her lips to silence Sarah, she moved to the back door. She slid the lock and pulled the door open, just enough to peer through. Light spilled in from the outside, but the hoof beats were already drumming out past the barn. She raised the shotgun and scanned the yard.

  Suddenly her heart leaped to her throat and she swallowed her gasp.

  “Where is Samuel?” sobbed Sarah. “Why hasn’t he come?”

  Mary hushed her. How could she tell her what she’d only just realized?

  It was Samuel lying in the dirt. She couldn’t see his face because he lay twisted, lifeless, and he’d been hog-tied and dragged till there was little left of his clothing, but clearly he’d been dressed in his uniform. Even now shreds of the pale yellow stripe that ran the length of his trousers was identifiable under the layers of dirt and mud.

  The acrid taste of bile rose up in her throat. Oh, dear God, she prayed, let him be alive! For Sarah’s sake, let him be alive!

  They would have to get to him—but how? And how would she tell Sarah? Her next thought stilled her fear: where was Sykes now? Had he left?

  No, of course not.

  She raised the shotgun and inched forward. Again she scanned the yard, and finally she spotted something moving.

  A horse. Samuel’s or Sykes’s?

  The bewildered animal ambled aimlessly out past the barn, dragging a rein.

  That’s when she spotted Sykes. The glint of the bright morning sunshine against the barrel of his rifle had revealed his hiding place. He was positioned alongside the chicken coop, his black hair hanging like strands of rope along the exposed edge of his left cheek.

  She glanced down at Sarah, still hesitant to reveal that Samuel lay only feet from them, perhaps dead. Or near dead.

 
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