The little woman was in trouble. Big trouble. No one, male or female, pointed a rifle at Douglas Clayborne without paying the consequences, and just as soon as he could get the weapon away from her, he would tell her so.
First, he was going to have to sweet-talk her into stepping out of the stall and into the light. He planned to keep on talking until he had edged close enough to take her by surprise. He'd rip the rifle out of her hands, unload it, and break the damned thing over his knee. Unless it was a Winchester. Then he'd keep it.
He could barely see her now. She was crouched down low behind the gate, shrouded in shadows, with the barrel of the gun resting on the top slat. A kerosene lamp was hooked to a post on the opposite side of the barn, but the light wasn't sufficient for him to see much of anything at all from where he stood, shifting from foot to foot, a few feet inside the open door.
A hard, driving rain was pelting his back. He was soaked through, and so was Brutus, his sorrel. He needed to get the saddle off the animal and dry him down as soon as possible, but what he wanted to do and what the woman would let him do were two different matters.
A bolt of lightning lit up the entrance, followed by a reverberating boom of thunder. Brutus reared up, let out a loud snort, and tossed his head. The horse obviously wanted out of the rain as much as he did.
Douglas kept his attention on the rifle while he tried to soothe the animal with a whispered promise that everything was going to be all right.
"Are you Isabel Grant?"
She answered with a low, guttural groan. He thought his harsh tone had frightened her and was about to try again in a calmer voice when he heard her panting. At first he thought he was mistaken, but the noise got louder. She was panting all right, and that didn't make a lick of sense. The woman hadn't moved a muscle since he'd come inside the barn, so she couldn't possibly be out of breath.
He waited for the panting to subside before he spoke again. "Are you Parker Grant's wife?"
"You know who I am. Go away or I'll shoot you. Leave the door open behind you. I want to watch you ride away."
"Lady, my business is with your husband. If you'll kindly tell me where he is, I'll go talk to him. Didn't he tell you I was coming here? My name is…"
She interrupted him in a shout. "I don't care what your name is. You're one of Boyle's men, and that's all I need to know. Get out."
The panic in her voice frustrated the hell out of him. "There isn't any need to get upset. I'm leaving. Will you tell your husband Douglas Clayborne is waiting in town to give him the rest of the money for the Arabian? I'm going to have to see the animal first, as he agreed. Can you remember all that?"
"He sold you a horse?"
"Yes, he did. He sold me an Arabian stallion a couple of months ago."
"You're lying to me," she cried out. "Parker would never have sold either one of my Arabians."
He wasn't in the mood to argue with her. "I've got the papers to prove it. Just tell him, all right?"
"You purchased a horse you've never seen?"
"My brother saw him," he explained. "And his judgment is as good as mine."
She burst into tears. He took a step toward her before he realized he was actually thinking about comforting the woman, and abruptly stopped.
"I'm real sorry your husband didn't tell you about the horse."
"Oh, God, please, not now."
She started panting again. What in blazes was the matter with her? He knew something was wrong, and he had a feeling her husband was responsible for her tears. The man should have told his wife about the horse. Still, her reaction was a bit extreme.
Douglas thought he should say something to help her get past her misery.
"I'm sure all married couples go through spots of trouble now and then. Your husband must have had a good reason for selling the stallion, and he was probably so busy he forgot to tell you about it. That's all."
The panting got louder before it stopped. Then she whimpered low in her throat. The sound reminded him of a wounded animal. He wanted to walk away but knew he couldn't leave her if she was in trouble… and just where was good old Parker anyway?
"This shouldn't be happening," she cried out.
"What shouldn't be happening?" he asked.
"Go away," she shouted.
He was stubborn enough to stay right where he was. "I'm not leaving until you tell me who Boyle is. Did he hurt you? You sound like you're in a lot of pain."
Isabel instinctively responded to the concern she heard in his voice. "You aren't working for Boyle?"
"Prove it to me."
"I can't prove it to you without showing you the letter from your husband and the paper he signed."
"Stay where you are."
Since he hadn't moved an inch, he couldn't understand her need to shout at him. "If you want me to help you, you'll have to tell me what's wrong."
"You're going to have to be a little more specific."
"He's coming, and it's much too early. Don't you understand? I must have done something wrong. Oh, God, please don't let him come yet."
"Who is coming?" he demanded. He nervously glanced behind him and squinted out into the night. He thought she might be talking about Boyle, whoever in tarnation he was.
He was wrong about that.
"The baby," she cried. "I can feel another contraction."
Douglas felt as though he'd just been punched hard in the stomach. "You're having a baby? Now?"
"Ah, lady, don't do that." He didn't realize how foolish his demand was until she told him so between whimpers. His head snapped back. "Are you having a pain now?"
"Yes." She said the word with a long moan.
"For the love of God, take your finger off the trigger and put the rifle down."
She couldn't understand what he was telling her.
The contraction was cresting with such agonizing intensity she could barely stand up. She squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her teeth together while she waited for the pain to stop.
She realized her mistake as soon as she opened her eyes again, but it was already too late. The stranger had vanished. He hadn't left the barn though. His horse was still standing by the door.
The rifle was suddenly snatched out of her hands. With a cry of terror, she backed further into the stall and waited for him to attack.
Everything began to happen in slow motion. The gate squeaked open, but, to her, the sound was a piercing, unending scream. The stranger, a tall, muscular man who seemed to swallow up all the space inside the stall, came toward her. His hair and eyes were dark, his expression was angry… and, oh, God, she didn't want him to kill her yet. The baby would die inside her.
Her mind simply couldn't take any more. She took a deep breath to scream, knowing that once she started, she would never be able to stop. Please, God, understand. I can't do this any longer. I can't… I can't…
He pulled her back from the edge of insanity without saying a word. He simply handed the rifle to her.
"Now, you listen to me," he ordered. "I want you to stop having this baby right now." After giving the harsh and thoroughly unreasonable command, he turned around and walked away.
"Are you leaving?"
"No, I'm not leaving. I'm moving the light so I can see what I'm doing. If you're this close to having a baby, what are you doing in a barn? Shouldn't you be in bed?"
She started panting again. The sound sent chills down his spine.
"I asked you to stop that. The baby can't come now, so just forget about it."
She waited for the contraction to end before she told him he was an idiot.
He secretly agreed. "I just don't want you to do this until I find your husband."
"I'm not doing it on purpose."
He let out an expletive. "I had a feeling you were going to tell me that. He picked a fine time to go gallivanting."
"Why are you so angry with me? I'm not going to shoot you."
He wasn't angry; he was scared. He had helped a countless number of animals with their deliveries, but he hadn't helped any women with childbirth and he didn't want to help Isabel Grant now. Oh, yes, he was scared all right, but he was smart enough not to let her know it.
"I'm not angry," he said. "You just took me by surprise. I'll help you back to the house, and then I'll go get the doctor." He hoped to God she wouldn't tell him the town didn't have a physician.
"He can't come here."
Douglas finally got the lamp hooked to the post connected to the stall. He turned around and saw Isabel clearly for the first time. She was an attractive woman, even with the frown on her face. She had freckles across the bridge of her nose, and he had always been partial to women with freckles. He'd always liked red hair too, and hers was a dark, vibrant red that glistened like fire in the light.
She was a married woman he reminded himself, and he shouldn't be noticing her appearance. Still, facts were facts. Isabel Grant was one fine-looking woman.
She was also as big as a house. Noticing that helped him regain his wits. "Why can't the doctor come here?"
"Sam Boyle won't let him. Dr. Simpson came here once when I was too far along to go into town to see him, but Boyle told him he'd kill him if he ever tried to come to me again. He'd do it too," she added in a whisper. "He's a terrible man. He owns the town and everyone in it. The people are decent, but they do whatever Boyle tells them to do because they're afraid of him. I can't blame them. I'm afraid of him too."
"What's Boyle got against you and your husband?"
"His ranch is next to ours, and he wants to expand so his cattle will have more grazing land. He offered Parker money for the deed, but it was only a pittance compared to what my husband paid for it. He wouldn't have sold it for any amount of money though. This is our home and our dream."
"Isabel, where is Parker now?" As soon as he saw the tears in her eyes, he had his answer. "He's dead, isn't he?"
"Yes. He's buried up on the hill behind the barn. Someone shot him in the back."
Douglas leaned back against the post, folded his arms across his chest, and waited for her to compose herself.
She sagged against the wall and lowered her head. She was suddenly so weary she could barely stand up.
He waited another minute before he started questioning her again. "Did the sheriff investigate?"
"Sweet Creek doesn't have a sheriff any longer. Boyle must have run him off before Parker and I moved here."
"No one wants the job, I suppose."
"Would you?" She wiped a tear from her cheek and looked up at him. "Dr. Simpson told me Sweet Creek used to be a quiet little town. He and his wife are my friends," she added. "They're both trying to help."
"They've sent wires and written letters to all the surrounding towns asking for assistance. The last time I saw the doctor, he told me he had been hearing stories about a U.S. marshal in the area. He believed the lawman was the answer to our prayers. The doctor hadn't been able to locate him yet, but he was certain he would come if he knew how many laws Boyle had broken. I try not to lose hope," she added. "Boyle has at least twenty men working for him, and I think it would take an army of marshals to defeat him."
"I'm sure there's a way to…" He stopped in the middle of his sentence, for it had just occurred to him that she had gone several minutes without panting.
"Did the pain go away?"
She looked surprised. She put her hand on her swollen middle and smiled. "Yes, it did. It's gone now."
Thank God, he thought to himself. "You're really all alone here? Don't look at me like that, Isabel. You've got to know by now I don't work for Boyle."
She slowly nodded. "I've learned to be very distrustful. I've been alone for a long time."
He tried not to let her see how appalled he was. A woman in her last months of pregnancy should have been with people who cared about her.
Anger began to simmer inside him. "Has anyone from town looked in on you?"
"Mr. Clayborne, I…"
" Douglas," he corrected.
" Douglas, I don't think you understand the severity of my situation. Boyle has the route cut off. No one gets in here without his approval."
He grinned. "I did."
The realization that he had indeed gotten through made her smile again. Odd, but she was also beginning to feel more in control too.
"Boyle's men must have gone home as soon as it started raining. I think they go back to his ranch every night when the light fades, but I can't be sure."
She straightened away from the wall to brush the dust off her skirt, and suddenly felt her legs give out. She was horrified. She leaned back again so she wouldn't fall to her knees and turned her face away from him as she explained in a whisper what had just happened.
She sounded frightened and ashamed. Douglas immediately went to her side and put his hand on her shoulder in an awkward attempt to comfort her. "It's all right. It's supposed to break." He tried to sound like an authority on the subject. In reality, he had just summed up everything he knew about childbirth with that one simple statement.
"Something's wrong. The baby's not due for at least three to four more weeks. Oh, God, it's all my fault. I shouldn't have scrubbed the floors and done the wash yesterday, but everything was so dirty and I wanted to keep busy so I wouldn't think about having the baby alone. I never should have…"
"I'm sure you didn't do anything wrong," he interrupted. "So stop blaming yourself. Some babies decide to come early. That's all."
"Do you think…"
"You didn't cause this to happen," he insisted. "The baby's got a mind of his own, and even if you'd been in bed, your water still would have broken. I'm sure of it."
He seemed to know what he was talking about, and she stopped feeling guilty. "I think my baby's going to come tonight."
"Yes," he agreed.
"It's odd. I'm not in any pain."
They were both whispering now. He was trying to be considerate of her feelings. She was trying to get over her embarrassment. The man was a complete stranger, and, oh, God, she wished he were old and ugly. He wasn't though. He was young and extremely handsome. She knew she would probably die of mortification if she let him help her bring her baby into the world, because she would have to take her clothes off and he would see…
"Isabel, you about finished hiding from me? You've got to be practical about this. Come on," he coaxed. "Look at me."
It took her a full minute to summon up enough courage to do as he asked. Her face was burning with shame.
"You're going to be practical," he repeated as he lifted her up into his arms.
"What are you doing?"
"Carrying you back to the house. Put your arms around me."
They were eye to eye now. He stared at her freckles. She stared at the ceiling.
"This is awkward," she whispered.
"I don't think the baby cares if his mother feels awkward or not."
He carried her out of the stall, paused long enough to take the rifle away from her and prop it against the post, and then continued on toward the door.
"Be careful," Isabel told him. "The rifle's loaded. It could have gone off when…"
"I unloaded it."
She was so surprised she looked him in the eye. "When?"
"Before I gave it back to you. You aren't going to start fretting again, are you?"
"No, but you're going to have to put me down for a minute. I have to take care of Pegasus first."
"Are you talking about the stallion?"
"You're in no condition to get near him."
"You don't understand. He cut his left hind leg, and I need to clean it before it becomes infected. It won't take long."
"I'll take care of him."
"Do you know what to do?"
"Oh, yes. I'm very good with horses."
He felt her relax in his arms. " Douglas?"
"You're good with women too. I was wondering…"
"About the delivery. Have you ever helped a woman give birth?"
He decided to ease her worry by hedging his answer. "I've had a little experience." With horses, he silently added.
"Will you know what to do if something goes wrong?"
"Nothing's going to go wrong." The authority in his voice didn't leave any room for doubts. "I know you're scared and feeling alone…"
"I'm not alone… Oh, God, you're not going to leave me, are you?"
"Don't get excited. I'm not going anywhere."
She let out a little sigh and tucked her head under his chin as soon as he stepped outside the barn. The rain was still coming down hard, and he was sorry he didn't have anything to wrap around her. The log cabin she called home was approximately fifty yards away, and by the time he had carried her to the door, she was as drenched as he was.
A single lantern provided the only light inside the cabin. The atmosphere was warm and inviting, but what he noticed most of all was the scent of roses that filled the air. To the right of the entrance was an oblong table covered with a yellow-and-white-checked gingham tablecloth, and in its center sat a crystal vase filled with at least a dozen white roses in full bloom. It was obvious she had tried to bring beauty and joy into the stark reality of her life, and the simple, feminine gesture made him ache for her.
The cabin was spotless. A stone fireplace faced the door, and on the mantel was a cluster of silver frames with photographs. A rocking chair with a yellow-and-white-checked cushion had been placed to the left of the hearth and a tall-backed wooden chair with spindly legs sat on the opposite side. Two knitting needles protruded from a burgundy ball of yarn on the footrest, and long strands coiled down to the colorful braided rag rug.
"You've got a real nice place," he said.
"Thank you. I wish my kitchen were larger. I put up the drape to separate it from the main room. It's always such a clutter. I was going to clean it up after I finished in the barn."
"Don't worry about it."
"Did you notice the roses? Aren't they beautiful? They grow wild near the tree line behind the field. Parker planted more on the side of the house, but they haven't taken root yet."
Douglas 's practical nature reasserted itself. "You shouldn't have gone out by yourself. You could have fallen."
"It gave me pleasure to bring them inside, and I'm certain the exercise was good for me. I hate being cooped up all day. Please let me stand. I'm feeling fine now."
He did as she requested but continued to hold on to her arm until he was sure she was steady. "What can I do to help?"
"Would you start a fire? I put the wood in the hearth, but I didn't want to light it until I got back from the barn."
"You carried wood inside?"
"It is my fault the baby's coming early, isn't it? I carried wood down from the hills early this morning. I went back up again this afternoon to collect more. It gets so cold and damp at night… I wasn't thinking, and now my baby's going to-"
He interrupted before she could get all worked up again. "Calm down, Isabel. Lots of women do chores right up to the delivery. I was just concerned about the possibility of falling. That's all."
"Then why did you say…"
"Falling," he said again. "That's all I was thinking about. You didn't fall, so no harm was done. Now, stop worrying."
She nodded and started across the room. He grabbed hold of her arm, told her to lean on him, and slowed the pace to a crawl.
"It's going to take me an hour to get to the bedroom if you keep treating me like an invalid."
He moved ahead and opened the door. It was pitch black inside.
"Don't move until I get the lantern. I don't want you to-"
"Fall? You seem terribly worried about that possibility."
"No offense, but you're so big in the middle you can't possibly see your own feet. Of course I'm worried you'll fall."
She actually laughed, and she hadn't done that in such a long time.
"You need to get out of your wet clothes," he reminded her.
"There's a pair of candles on the dresser to your right."
He was happy to have something to do. He felt awkward and totally out of his element. He didn't I realize his hands were shaking until he tried to light [the candles. It took him three attempts before he succeeded. When he turned around, she was already folding back a colorful quilt on the bed.
"You're drenched. You really need to get out of your wet clothes before you do anything else," he said.
"What about you? Do you have a change of clothes?" she asked.
"In my saddlebags. If you don't need help, I'll start the fire; then I'll go back to the barn and take care of the horses. Have yours been fed?"
"Yes," she answered. "Be careful with Pegasus. He doesn't like strangers." She stared down at the floor with her hands folded together. As Douglas turned to leave, she called out to him, "You're coming back, aren't you?"
She was fretting again. The last thing she needed to worry about now was being left alone. He had a feeling they were in for one hell of a night, and he wanted her to conserve her strength for the more important task ahead.
"You're going to have to trust me."
"Yes… I'll try."
She still looked scared. He leaned against the doorframe and tried to think of something to say that would convince her he wasn't going to abandon her.
"It's getting late," she said.
He straightened away from the door and went to her. "Will you do me a favor?"
He pulled the gold watch out of his pocket, unclipped the chain, and handed it to her. The chain dangled down between her fingers.
"This is the most valuable thing I own. My Mama Rose gave it to me, and I don't want anything to happen to it. Pegasus might get in a lucky kick, or I
might drop it while I'm drying down my sorrel. Keep it safe for me."
"Oh, yes, I'll keep it safe."
As soon as he had left the room, she pressed the watch against her heart and closed her eyes. She and her baby were safe again, and for the first time in a long while, Isabel felt calm and in control.