Douglas didn't make it back to the ranch until almost dawn. Before he unloaded the supplies and bedded down the sorrel, he hurried to the cabin to check on Isabel and the baby.
She was standing in front of the fireplace with the rifle up and ready. When he called her name and softly knocked, she ran to the door, unbolted the lock, and threw herself into his arms. She didn't mind at all that he was drenched from head to foot.
"I'm so happy you're home."
Her arms were wrapped tightly around his waist. He felt the barrel of the rifle against his back and quickly reached behind him to take it away from her. She continued to hug him while he leaned to the side and put the weapon on the table.
"I couldn't imagine what was taking you so long," she whispered. "But I never once thought you wouldn't come back."
"I'm glad to hear it," he said. "You're shaking. If you'll let go of me, I'll add another log to the fire. New mothers have to be careful. You don't want to get sick."
She didn't want to let go of him. "I'm not cold… I'm just very relieved you're back. Douglas, I was worried about you."
She was trembling almost violently now. He held on to her so she couldn't fall down.
"I was worried about you too," he admitted.
Her face was hidden against his chest. "Did you have any trouble?"
"None at all," he replied. "I got everything on your wish list and a few extras as well. Then I went over to see Dr. Simpson."
"But Boyle told me his men are watching his cottage night and day," she cried out in alarm.
"They never saw me," he assured her. "I met the doctor's wife too. She packed up a bag of food and fresh milk for you."
"Oh, that was nice of her."
"The doctor sent lots of advice."
She was patting his chest. He wondered if she realized what she was doing.
"You're very resourceful, Douglas." And reliable, she silently added. "How did you manage to get in and out of the general store and Simpson's house without being seen? Did you break the locks?"
"No, I just jimmied them open."
"Good heavens, how did you learn to do that?"
"I was a thief a long, long time ago."
For some reason, she found his admission hilarious. He didn't know what to make of her reaction. He liked her laugh though. It was filled with such joy.
He forced himself to focus on more practical matters. Pulling away from her, he took hold of her hand and led her back to her bed. "Have you been up long?"
"Most of the night," she admitted. "So was the baby. He just went back to sleep."
"Dr. Simpson wants you to try to feed him every hour or so. Is he nursing yet?"
"Yes," she answered.
"Do you think he got enough milk?"
"Yes," she answered. "He kept it down too."
She sounded proud of her accomplishment, yet also shy about it. He caught her looking up at him, shared a smile, and then told her to go to sleep.
"Couldn't I help you unload the supplies?"
"Oh, I almost forgot. I fixed your breakfast. It's on the counter."
"I'll eat after I've put everything away and taken care of Brutus."
"Did you remember to leave money for Mr. Cooper? I've never stolen anything in my life, and I'm not about to start now."
"I left exactly what he deserved."
Technically he hadn't lied to her. He hadn't told her the truth either, yet he didn't feel guilty about it. He had left Vernon Cooper what he owed him, which was nothing, not a single penny. Cooper had turned his back on Isabel and joined ranks with Boyle, and as far as Douglas was concerned, Vernon and his brother, Jasper, the disreputable telegraph man, should be run out of town. Only then would they get what they really deserved.
Isabel was too excited to sleep, but she pretended to do just that so Douglas would bring in the supplies. Her excitement increased each time she heard him come back inside. She kept count by how often the floorboard in front of the hearth squeaked. Twelve wonderful times she heard the creaking sound, and that meant six trips to the kitchen and six trips back to the buggy. Were his arms filled, or was he carrying in one bag at a time?
Waiting was blissfully excruciating. Finally, she heard the buggy being driven back to the barn, and she couldn't bear the suspense another second. She threw the covers off, put on her robe and her slippers, and tiptoed into the living room.
She let out a gasp of joy then, for the table and four chairs were stacked high with bags, and there were more on the floor as well. She ran to the table and gasped once again when she saw a large crock of butter, real butter, and another crock filled with coffee. Her fingertips caressed each and every bag, and everywhere she turned, she saw something even more wonderful to cry about. There was beef jerky and ham and bacon and four giant pickles wrapped in white paper. Pickle juice was dripping onto the tablecloth, and she thought that was a most beautiful sight, indeed.
She glanced up and saw Douglas watching her. He was standing in the door, and in his arm was yet another bag. She wondered what he was thinking. He had the strangest look on his face, as though he didn't know what to make of the sight, but there was such tenderness in his eyes, she knew she didn't need to worry that he might be angry with her for getting out of bed.
"I didn't know you were there," she said.
"I was watching you. You remind me of a little girl on Christmas morning." His voice was filled with compassion. How long had she gone without the basic necessities every man and woman were entitled to, he wondered, and did she realize she was hugging a bag of flour? Or that she was crying?
"There's more on the counter."
"More?" she cried out.
It seemed to be too much for her to take in. She stood there frozen with the flour wrapped tight in her arms and stared down at her treasures on the table.
"Come and see," he suggested.
She didn't put the flour down but carried it with her to the alcove. He reached up to push the floor-length drape further to one side on the rope and tried to step back so she could see inside. The kitchen was too narrow for both of them, but she wouldn't give him time to get out of her way. She squeezed herself past him.
Then she gasped yet again. "Salt and pepper and cinnamon and… oh, Douglas, could we afford all this?"
She was pressed against him with her face turned up to his. A man could get lost in those beautiful freckles and incredible golden brown eyes.
"Could we?" she asked again in a breathless whisper.
The question jarred him out of his fantasy. "Could we what?"
"Afford all this."
"Yeah," he drawled out. "Cooper was having a sale." He managed to tell the lie without laughing.
"Oh, that was nice."
They kept staring at each other. He reached over and slowly wiped away the tears from her cheeks with his fingers.
She surprised him by leaning up on tiptoes and kissing him.
"What was that for?"
"Being so good to me and my son. I'm sure I'll get my strength back real soon. I've never really depended on anyone before, not ever. It's very nice though. Thank you."
She turned to leave. He followed her, reached over her shoulder, and took the bag of flour away. "What about your husband? Didn't you depend on him every once in a while?"
"Parker had fine qualities. I'm sorry you didn't know him. I'm certain you would have liked him. He really was a good man, Douglas. Good night."
He watched her walk away. She hadn't answered his question, and he wasn't certain if it had been a deliberate evasion or not. He decided he was too tired to ask her again. He went back to the barn to dry down his sorrel, then used a clean bucket of rainwater to give himself a good scrubbing before he finally headed to bed.
He slept most of the day away on his bedroll in front of the hearth. Parker eventually jarred him awake with a bellow guaranteed to make his mama snap to attention. His cry wasn't at all puny, but forceful. Was the infant already getting stronger?
Isabel's laughter rang out. She was in the kitchen giving Parker his first full bath.
Douglas joined her. "He's louder today," he remarked with a yawn.
Douglas noticed the baby was shivering and remembered Dr. Simpson's advice to keep him as warm as possible. "I should have kept the fire in the hearth going."
"You needed to sleep."
"Are you about finished? I don't want the baby to get cold."
Her full attention was centered on Parker. "There, he's clean again. Hush now," she crooned to the baby. "It's all over. Douglas, will you grab that towel for me?"
He hurried to do as she asked. He spread the towel over his bare shoulder, reached for Parker, and laid him up against it. Isabel used another towel to pat him dry. A minute later she was securing his diaper when Douglas noticed Parker's lips were turning blue.
"We have to get him warm quick. Unbutton your robe and your gown."
She didn't hesitate. "He feels like ice," she whispered in alarm. "I shouldn't have bathed him. He's so cold, he can't even cry now."
"He'll be warm in a minute," he promised. He wrapped the gown and the robe around her, draped a clean diaper over Parker's fuzzy black head, and stood there frowning down at him. "Tell me when he stops shivering."
She was afraid to move. "It's all my fault. What was I thinking?"
"That your son was rank," he told her. "Next time, we'll bathe him together in front of the fire."
"Yes. I think he's asleep." She let out a happy little sigh.
Douglas lifted the diaper away from Parker's head to see his face. "Yeah, he's sleeping," he whispered.
And his face was pressed against freckles. "He's a lucky man."
"Little man," she corrected. She blushed as she looked up at Douglas. "Yes, he is lucky, and so am I to have you here."
"You aren't going to cry, are you?"
"Oh, I never cry."
He thought she was joking, but she didn't laugh.
"It's very difficult for me to show any emotions. Haven't you noticed?"
"Can't say that I have."
"Could you do a favor for me? A couple of the chairs have wobbly legs, and I'd appreciate it if you would show me how to fix them. I'm not sure if I should nail the legs to the base or if I should-"
"I'll fix them," he promised. "Anything else?"
It turned out she had quite a list of repairs she needed. Although it was foolish for him to fix furniture that she wasn't going to be able to take with her when she left, he decided to do the repairs anyway. He wouldn't discuss the future with her yet, purposely waiting until she was stronger and less emotional, for even he could see that childbirth had left her physically and mentally exhausted. Dr. Simpson had told him she shouldn't get upset. Besides, the chores would keep him busy.
"Are Boyle's men watching the cabin?" she asked.
"They weren't last night, but they could have moved closer by now. I'm not going to take the chance. The doctor suggested I stay hidden during the day and work at night, but I had already decided to do just that. As long as Boyle believes you're all alone, he'll hopefully be content to wait."
"What about the horses? They can't stay cooped inside the barn all the time."
"I'll exercise them during the night. I'll start rebuilding the corral as soon as it's dark. Stop worrying."
"What can I do to help?"
She would have argued with him if Parker hadn't demanded her attention.
Cooking wasn't one of Douglas 's talents, and so he sliced the ham and bread Trudy Simpson had sent, and opened a jar of pickled beets he'd stolen from the general store. He gave Isabel a full glass of milk. She wanted to save it and would have insisted if he hadn't told her he could easily get more.
She returned to the main room an hour later with Parker up against her shoulder and watched Douglas repair a chair while she paced with the fretful baby. Douglas noticed how exhausted she looked and decided to leave the other chairs until tomorrow night. He washed his hands and then took the baby from her.
"I'll walk with him."
"I don't know what's wrong with him. He's been fed and changed and burped, but he still won't go to sleep."
"He's just being ornery."
She started to turn away, then changed her mind. "I'll sit up with you and-"
"You don't need to," he said. "If I get into trouble, I know where to find you."
"You're certain nothing's wrong with him?"
"Good night then."
Douglas sat down in the rocker and began to gently pat the baby's back. He remembered how he used to rock his sister, and Lord, how fast time had moved. Soon now Mary Rose would be rocking her own son or daughter. Douglas used to talk things over with his sister while he rocked her, and he did the same thing now with Parker. The vibration of his voice had calmed Mary Rose, or bored her, into sleep. The reason really didn't matter; the result was always the same. Parker settled down within minutes and was snoring like an old man.
It was dark now and time for Douglas to get some work done. He braced himself for the anger he would feel the second he stepped out the door. Sure as certain, he got mad, because he was again reminded that the cabin was sitting in the center of the flood line. He couldn't seem to move past that appalling realization. It didn't matter to him that her dead husband might not have built the cabin, or that he might have moved his pregnant wife into the quarters as a temporary home while he built a cabin on higher ground. The man had still put Isabel in danger. Why in God's name had he done it? Didn't he care?
Grant's incompetence didn't stop there. He'd built a corral-at least that was what Douglas thought it was supposed to be-but apparently the first strong wind had knocked half of it down. He was pretty certain Pegasus had sustained his leg injury by accidentally brushing up against one of its exposed nails. If that was true, the risk of serious infection increased considerably. Douglas had to find out as soon as possible, so that he could change the salve he was applying to Pegasus if he needed to, but he decided to wait until morning and let Isabel get as much sleep as possible.
It was a little after dawn when she joined him at the table. She had Parker snuggled in her arms.
A fire crackled in the hearth and gave the room a nice warm glow. Douglas stood up and pulled a chair out for her.
She noticed the lumpy oatmeal and the burned toast he'd again prepared.
He noticed how her hair was shining in the light coming from the fire. She wore it in a long braid down her back. Curly red strands had escaped the binding and framed the sides of her face, and damn but she was a fine-looking woman. Motherhood agreed with her.
She realized he was staring at her and grew selfconscious in no time at all. "Parker won't burp." It was all she could think of to say to take his mind off her unkempt appearance.
He threw a clean towel up against his shoulder and took the baby from her. "Can you sit at the table?"
"Yes. I'm feeling better now."
Douglas stood over her while he gently patted the baby's back. Isabel didn't want to hurt his feelings by refusing to eat the unappealing food, and so she forced half of it down with big gulps of water. She wanted to save the rest of the milk for supper.
"You should be drinking milk with every meal. I'll bring more back next Monday."
"We did have two milking cows several months ago."
"What happened to them?"
"I'm not sure. They were here one morning, and gone the next."
"Do you think Boyle stole them?"
She shrugged. "Parker didn't seem to be overly upset about it, and he refused to talk about it much. I think he might have forgotten to close the stall doors. He was a bit absentminded."
"Are you telling me they might have wandered away?"
"The barn door might have been left open too," she said, staring down at the table. She seemed embarrassed, and for that reason, he let the topic go. He turned away from her so she wouldn't see his astonishment. Honest to God, her husband hadn't been worth the price of air.
"What about the cabin? Parker didn't build it, did he?"
"No, he didn't. How did you know that?" It was well-constructed, and that was how he knew her husband couldn't have built it. He didn't answer her question for fear of upsetting her though, and asked another one instead. "Was he building a home for you up on higher ground?"
"No. What an odd question to ask. We moved in here."
She tried to get up from the table then, but he put his hand on her shoulder to make her stay. "Finish your breakfast. You need to regain your strength. Tell me, how did Pegasus get hurt?"
"Some of Boyle's men were shooting their guns in the air, and Pegasus reared up against the barn door."
"Was it an exposed nail that cut him?"
"No, it wasn't."
The baby drew their attention with a belch worthy of an outlaw. Isabel's smile made Douglas think she believed her son had just accomplished an amazing feat.
"I really can't eat another bite," she protested. "I'll save the food for later." She stood up before he could argue with her. "I'd like to prepare supper tonight. I just love to cook," she exaggerated. "It's… soothing. Yes, it's soothing."
He wasn't buying her lie. He burst into laughter and shook his head at her. "The oatmeal's that bad?"
Her eyes sparkled with devilment. "It tastes like cement."
They stared into one another's eyes for what seemed an eternity, and neither one of them wanted to look away.
"You've really got to stop doing that."
The huskiness in his voice made her feel warm all over. "Doing what?" she asked in a breathless whisper.
"Getting prettier every day."
"Oh." She sighed the word.
He realized what was happening before she did. He was also staring at her freckles again and quickly forced himself to look out the window instead. A movement near the tree line suddenly caught his attention. He froze. There was a shadow slowly moving down the path toward the field. He was still too far away for Douglas to see his face, but Douglas knew who was coming. The lone rider had to be Boyle. Dr. Simpson had warned him that the predator liked to look in on the woman he was terrorizing. Oh, yes, it was Boyle all right.
Douglas 's first concern was that Isabel not panic. She'd wake up the baby then, and Boyle would move his men in. Douglas continued to stare at the shadow and made his voice sound as mild as Parker's snore when he spoke to her. "Isabel, will the baby sleep for a while?"
"Oh, yes. He was up most of the night. He has to catch up on his sleep today."
She took the baby away from him and headed for the bedroom. He followed her, waited until Parker was all tucked in, and then calmly told her company was coming.
Isabel didn't panic. She began to undress instead. "How much time do I have?" she asked. She threw her robe on the bed and started unbuttoning her nightgown.
"What are you doing?"
"I have to get dressed and go outside."
"The hell you do. You're staying in here."
" Douglas, be sensible. If he sees me, he'll go away. I always go out on the stoop with my rifle. I want him to see me pregnant. I'll need a belt. Will you get one of Parker's out of the box in the corner? Don't stand there. We have to hurry. He doesn't like to be kept waiting."
"You are not…"
She ran to him and put her finger over his mouth to stop his protest. "If I don't go out, he'll start shooting his gun in the air. The noise is going to wake Parker. Do you want him to hear the baby? Now, help me get dressed so I can placate the man. Please."
He pulled her hand away from his mouth and held on to her. "It's out of the question. I'm going out and kill the bastard. You got that?"
"It'll be a fair fight," he promised. "I'll make him draw."
She frantically shook her head at him. "Stop being so stubborn. Boyle won't be drawn into a fight. The man's a coward, Douglas. There isn't time to argue about this. You can protect me just fine from the front window. If he looks like he's going to hurt me, then you can come outside and make him leave. You aren't going to kill him though. Do you understand me?" The set of his jaw told her he didn't understand. "Please? Restrain yourself for my sake. All right?"
"Honest to God, I sure would like to-"
She stopped him cold by touching his cheek. "But you won't."
He wouldn't agree or disagree. "Maybe," was all he would allow.
She rolled her eyes heavenward. "The belt, please. Get the belt."
He took his own off and handed it to her. "You're not wearing anything that belonged to Parker."
The issue seemed to matter to him, and since his pants stayed put on the tilt of his hips, she didn't waste time arguing.
As soon as he went back to the window to check Boyle's progress, she got ready. She was still swollen around the middle, but not nearly enough to look as though she were drawing close to the delivery date she and Dr. Simpson had given Boyle.
She joined Douglas as Boyle was just reaching the flat at the base of the hill.
"Do I look as pregnant as I'm supposed to be?"
"I guess so."
She put her hand on his arm. "You're supposed to look at me before you decide."
He finally gave her a quick once-over. He didn't like what he saw and frowned to let her know exactly how he felt. Isabel was dressed in a white blouse and a dark blue jersey jumper that ballooned out around her middle, and in his opinion, she was too attractive for the bastard to see. Was she deliberately trying to entice him? No, of course she wasn't. She couldn't help being pretty, and unfortunately, he couldn't come up with any ideas to radically change her appearance… unless she was willing to wear a burlap bag over her head. He didn't bother to suggest it though, because he knew she wouldn't do it.
"Button up your blouse."
"It is buttoned."
"Not the top two," he said. He put his gun back in his holster and took over the chore. "He isn't going to see any more of you than he has to," he told her.
His fingers rubbed against the bottom of her chin. How in heaven's name could any woman have such silky skin?
"He won't hurt me," she whispered.
His gaze moved to hers. "I'll make certain he doesn't hurt you. If I have to kill him, I don't want to hear any argument. Agreed?"
"Come on then. He's coming up to the cabin."
She reached for the doorknob, her attention on Douglas while she waited for him to get into position by the window. She didn't wait for him to give her permission to go outside because she knew she'd stand there the rest of the day if she wanted the stubborn man to give her his approval.
"I'm going out now."
"Don't you dare smile at him."