Parker wasn't putting on weight as rapidly as Douglas had hoped he would. The baby was almost six weeks old, but he still seemed to be as tiny as the day he was born. Isabel disagreed and insisted that her son had gained quite a bit of weight. Parker seemed healthy enough for his size, and he certainly had a good appetite. Dr. Simpson was the expert, and he had ordered that Parker be kept inside the cabin for a minimum of eight weeks. Douglas didn't know why the physician had settled on that specific length of time, but Douglas was going to adhere to the number no matter how anxious he was to leave.
If Parker continued to do well, he and his mother could travel in a little over fourteen days. Douglas hoped to God the weather improved before then. The rain had let up, but it was still cold and damp, and anyone who hadn't kept track of the seasons would have thought it was the middle of autumn. The night air was cold enough to require heavy flannel shirts, and Douglas was worried about keeping Parker warm when he was taken outside. Would the night air be too harsh for him to breathe?
The baby wasn't the only one he was worried about. Honest to Pete, he didn't know how he was going to last another two weeks without touching Isabel. Being in the same room with her was all it took to get him bothered. Her scent was so damned appealing, and her skin was so soft and smooth, all he wanted to think about was taking her into his arms and stroking her.
He was determined not to give in to his natural inclinations. He didn't want any complication in his life, and if he kept busy every waking hour, he was sure he'd be too tired to think about her.
After he finished up the chores in the barn around dawn, he went inside the cabin and found Isabel sitting at the table with her head in her hands. Her hair was tousled; her eyes were bleary, and her nose was bright red. She looked hungover. "Did Parker keep you up all night?" She sneezed before she answered. "No, I caught a little cold," she said, and promptly sneezed again. "Maybe you should go back to bed." She wouldn't hear of it. She had never coddled herself before, and she wasn't about to start now. After doing the washing and ironing, she cooked supper, but she couldn't eat any of it, so she fixed herself a pot of tea before she headed to bed.
She had changed into her nightgown and robe and had wrapped around her shoulders an old tattered blanket that dragged on the floor behind her. She tripped over the hem and would have dropped the tray if he hadn't grabbed it from her.
"I'll bring it in," he said. "You should probably eat something, shouldn't you? What about some toast?"
Didn't that man know how to fix anything else?
"Will you try not to burn it?" she said, trying not to sound surly.
He nodded. "You probably got sick because you work too hard."
"It's just a cold. I hope to heaven Parker doesn't catch it. What will we do if he gets a fever?"
He didn't want to think about the possibility. Parker couldn't afford to stop eating the way Isabel had.
"We'll deal with it," he assured her.
When he came back with the tray, she was just drifting off to sleep. She opened her eyes as he was turning to leave. "I'm awake."
He put the tray on the dresser, propped pillows behind her back, and then moved the tray to her lap.
He'd burned the toast again. He'd also put a white rose on the tray next to her mismatched teacup and saucer. The rose was such a sweet touch her mood improved, and she didn't mind eating the blackened bread at all.
"Is your throat sore?" he whispered.
"No. Please stop worrying."
"Isabel, I want to worry, all right? I'm good at it."
She patted the bed, waited for him to sit, and then picked up the rose. "You may be a worrier, but you're also a romantic at heart."
He shook his head and continued to frown at her. Still, his concern was unreasonable, given the fact that she was only suffering from a stuffy head.
She reached up and stroked his cheek, loving the feel of his rough skin. He hadn't shaved this morning, and the dark growth of whiskers made him look even more ruggedly handsome and somewhat dangerous.
She remembered how afraid she'd been that dark, rainy night when they met. Silhouetted against the lightning with the rising wind howling around him and the huge beast of a horse with wild eyes beside him, he was a terrifying sight. She had been certain he was going to kill her… until he gave the rifle back to her. She should have realized before then that he would never harm her. The gentle tone of his voice when he turned to calm the animal was one indication. The way he so carefully lifted her into his arms was certainly another. His eyes, filled with such compassion and…
"Isabel, you look like hell. Stop daydreaming and drink your tea before it gets cold."
She was jarred back to the present by his brisk order. "Has anyone ever told you how bossy you are, Douglas?"
"Then let me be the first. You're very bossy. Do you remember the night we met?"
The question was laughable. He shuddered every time he thought about it. "I'll never forget it."
The scowl on his face made her smile. "It wasn't that terrible."
"Yeah, it was."
"Was I difficult?"
"I couldn't have been any worse than any of the other women you helped. I wasn't, was I?"
"I've helped lots of… females."
He shrugged. "Yes, what?"
"Was I more difficult than the others?"
"How?" she demanded.
"The others didn't try to strangle me."
"Yes, you did."
"What else did I do? It's all right. You can tell me. I promise I won't get mad." She picked up the teacup and saucer and took a long sip. "I'm waiting."
"I remember you accused me of a lot of crimes."
The glint in his eyes made it difficult for her to tell if he was being honest or not.
"Let's see," he drawled out. "There were so many it's hard to keep them straight. Oh, yeah, I remember. You blamed me for getting you pregnant."
The teacup rattled in the saucer. "I didn't," she whispered.
"Yes, you did. You almost had me convinced too. Hell, I apologized," he added with a grin. "I wasn't responsible though. Trust me, sugar. I would have remembered taking you to bed."
Her blush was as red as her nose. She put the cup down on the tray but kept her attention centered on Douglas. He could tell she was trying hard not to laugh.
"What else did I accuse you of?"
"Being responsible for your agony."
"You already mentioned that one."
"Sorry. It's just kind of hard to get past it."
"Let's see. I was also responsible for the rain, and, oh, yeah, this one's a doozy. It was my fault you had an unhappy childhood."
"I didn't have an unhappy childhood."
"Could have fooled me. I apologized."
She burst into laughter. "You do love to exaggerate, don't you? I'm certain the other women you helped were just as difficult."
"No, they weren't."
"Who were these women? Saints?"
He moved the tray to the side table as a precautionary measure before he answered. "They weren't exactly women, at least not the way you're thinking…"
She stopped smiling. "Then what were they?"
Her mouth dropped open. Much to his relief, she didn't become angry. She laughed instead. "Oh, Lord, you must have been as terrified as I was."
"Did you have any idea what to do?"
He grinned. "Not really."
She laughed until tears came into her eyes, then realized the noise would wake Parker and quickly covered her mouth with her hand. "You were so… calm… and… reassuring about it all."
"I was scared."
"Yes, me. "You got real mean. That was even scarier."
"No, I didn't. Quit teasing me. I remember exactly what happened. I was in control at all times. I do recall raising my voice once or twice so you could hear me in the other room, but other than that, labor wasn't bad at all."
"Isabel, are we talking about childbirth or a tea party you attended?"
"I've never been to a tea party, but I have given birth, and I want you to know that my little aches and pains were insignificant compared to the beautiful gift I received. He's wonderful."
She was exasperated. "My son. Who did you think I was talking about?"
She would have laughed again if she hadn't started sneezing. He handed her a fresh handkerchief, told her to rest, and finally left her alone so she could.
Much to his relief, she got better in a couple of days, and thus far, Parker still hadn't caught her cold. By late Monday afternoon, Douglas was exhausted. He was drifting off to sleep in the rocker with Parker cradled in his arms when he heard the distinct sound of horses approaching. Isabel was fixing supper. She had spotted the unwanted visitors at the same time that he had heard them, for they met by the table on their way to alert one another. She reached for her son and hurried to get ready.
Douglas went to the window to check their progress. He muttered every blasphemy he could think of while he watched Boyle and a stranger who he assumed was one of the hired men coming across the yard. Douglas made up his mind to personally greet the two men. No way in hell was he going to let Isabel go outside. The terror tactics were going to stop. He actually smiled as he reached for the doorknob.
She watched him draw his weapon. She didn't have to be a mind reader to know what he was planning to do. There wasn't time to say a prayer for the sin she was going to commit. " Douglas, we're going to have to let Boyle wait. You need to look at Parker. I think he has a fever. Let Boyle wait," she repeated in a much more forceful voice.
She waited until Douglas had bolted the door and gone rushing past her, and then she asked for God's forgiveness as she picked up the rifle and ran to greet Boyle. She had to get outside before Douglas realized she'd tricked him. He was going to be furious.
Boyle was just raising his gun to fire in the air when she stepped outside. She kept one hand behind her back on the doorknob, holding it closed, and propped the rifle under her arm. Her finger was on the trigger.
"What do you want?" she demanded.
Boyle grinned at her. Isabel could barely stomach the sight. The stranger sitting atop a black mount sneered at her. She couldn't see his eyes because the brim of his hat was pulled down low over his brow, but she could feel his gaze boring into her. Like Boyle, the stranger apparently didn't consider the rifle much of a threat. He had both hands stacked on top of his pommel.
"You ain't being very sociable, Isabel, pointing your rifle at me."
"Get off my land, Boyle."
"I'll go when I'm ready. I came here to tell you I'm going to be away for a spell. Don't go getting your hopes up 'cause I'm coming back. I'm going to my annual family get-together, and I expect I'll be away a good six weeks, maybe even longer. Now, I don't want you feeling lonely while I'm gone, so I'm putting my right-hand man in charge of you. His name is Spear."
He turned to his cohort, told him to tip his hat to his future bride, and then turned back to Isabel.
"Spear's going to watch out for you. I've put some of my men up on the mountain yonder to watch over you too. They'll be staying day and night. Are you comforted by my thoughtfulness? I wouldn't want you to think you had to leave while I was gone. Next year you'll be going with me. You understand what I'm saying, girl?"
The mockery in his voice infuriated her. "Go away," she shouted.
He laughed. "I expect you will have had that thing by the time I get back. Your figure should be nice and curvy again by the time we get married. Are you about ready to accept your future, honey bell, and start begging me?"
She answered him by cocking her rifle. Spear's hand went to his gun, but he didn't draw.
Boyle jerked on his reins and rode away. Spear followed. "Didn't I tell you she was full of spit and vinegar?" Boyle shouted. "She'll beg me though, and she'll do it in front of the entire town. Just you wait and see."
Isabel didn't hear Spear's answer. Boyle's laughter drowned it out. She stood there on the stoop for several minutes, watching them leave… and gathering the gumption to face Douglas again.
She considered staying where she was for the rest of the day, but Douglas had other ideas. She didn't hear the door open. She did feel herself being pulled backward though, and the grip on her waist, even with the padding, felt like a vice. Fortunately, she had enough presence of mind to put the safety on the rifle before she dropped it.
He caught it before it hit the floor, kicked the door closed, and turned her around to face him before he let go of her.
The padding around her waist dropped to the floor, and she kicked it out of the way. She had already determined the strategy she would employ. From the look in his eyes, she knew he wasn't going to be reasonable, and since her only defense was to retreat or attack, she chose the latter.
She took a step forward, planted her hands on her hips, and frowned up at him.
"You listen to me, Mr. Clayborne. If you had gone outside, you would have tried to shoot both of them, and one of them might have killed you. And just where would Parker and I be then, I ask you? Boyle has friends, remember? If you'd killed him, they'd come looking for him, and we would have to fight twenty-some men off while trying to protect an infant. I'm a good shot, and I imagine you are too, but I'm also a realist, and there's no way we could get all of them before we were killed. Am I getting through to you yet?"
She guessed she wasn't when he spoke. "If he comes here again, you aren't going outside to talk to him."
"I knew you'd be stubborn about this."
"You lied to me, and I want you to promise me you'll never do it again."
"Now you've done it. You woke the baby. You go get him."
"Neither one of us is moving until I get your promise. You have any idea how scared I got when I thought Parker was sick? Damn it, Isabel, if you ever lie to me…"
"If it meant saving your hide, I'd lie again. We should be celebrating now, not bickering. Didn't you hear what Boyle said? He's finally leaving. That's wonderful news."
"Oh, all right. I promise never to lie to you again. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go to my son."
"I'll get him."
All Parker needed was a dry bottom, and as soon as Douglas changed him, the baby went back to sleep.
Douglas couldn't get Spear off his mind. From the look of him, Douglas knew he was going to be a much more dangerous threat than Boyle could ever be.
Isabel noticed how quiet he was during supper and asked him to tell her what he was thinking about.
"Spear," he answered. "Boyle doesn't worry me nearly as much as his new hired hand does."
"I disagree. Boyle's cruel and heartless."
"He's also a coward."
"How do you know that?"
"He preys on women, that's how I know. He isn't going to be a problem to get rid of now that I know what his biggest flaw is."
"He has at least a hundred flaws, but you still can't kill him. You'd spend the rest of your life in prison… or hang, God forbid."
"I won't kill him. I've thought of something worse. I'm kind of looking forward to his day of reckoning too."
"What are you going to do?"
"Wait and see."
"Is it legal?"
He shrugged, then said, "I wonder if Boyle has hired any other new men."
"Do you mean like Spear?"
He nodded. "Since Boyle was nice enough to let us know he has men watching the ranch, I'm going to ride up in the hills every night and listen in on their conversation for a little while."
"Is that necessary?
"Yes, it's necessary," he insisted. "Parker's going to be eight weeks old soon and Dr. Simpson said he would be strong enough to move."
"He also said ten weeks would be better."
"Is Parker putting on any weight?"
"Of course he is."
Douglas wasn't convinced. "Every time I pick him up, I realize how fragile and tiny he is. He doesn't feel any heavier to me."
"Do you forget how big you are? No wonder he doesn't feel heavier to you. He is getting stronger every day, but it's still too soon to take him out in the cold night air."
"We might have to chance it," he argued.
"I won't put him in jeopardy."
"And staying here isn't doing just that?"
"I really don't want to talk about this now."
"Too bad," he snapped. "We're going to talk about it. You have to listen to reason. My brothers will help protect you and Parker, and it's best if we leave while Boyle's away. I'll make sure he really left town before
She was vehemently shaking her head. "Parker's too little to be taken out."
"If the doctor thinks we should risk it, will you be reasonable then?"
She had to think about it for a long while before she finally agreed. "As long as you don't change his mind for him. Don't try to talk him into it, Douglas."
He agreed with a nod. "Do you have any idea what you want to do when you leave here?"
She still hadn't made up her mind about the future. She could either move back to Chicago and teach at the orphanage or stay in Sweet Creek and secure a teaching position in town or in nearby Liddyville.
The future didn't frighten her. It was leaving the past behind that made her ache so. She was a realist and she knew she had to leave the ranch because of the dangerous spot where her late husband had insisted their home be built. Eventually the flood waters would wash the cabin away. Yes, she knew she had to leave, yet the idea of packing up and walking away made her feel like such a failure. The land and the home were the fulfillment of Parker's dream. He had died protecting it, and, God help her, where was she going to get the strength to leave his dream behind? Douglas wouldn't understand the anguish she felt, and she didn't want to explain it. "I don't want to discuss it now."
"You're going to have to face the future sooner or later."
She got up from the table and hurried into the kitchen. "I have time to decide, now that Boyle's leaving."
"No, you don't have time, unless you've lost your mind and believe anything that bastard tells you."
"Do you like cake? I thought I'd bake one and you could have some when you get back from town."
"For the love of God, you've got to face facts, not bake."
She pushed the curtain back so she could see him. "I want to bake now." Each word was said in a slow, precise monotone. "I work problems out in my mind when I bake. Do you like cake or not?"
She looked mad enough to shoot him if he told her no. He gave up trying to make her be reasonable. "Sure."
Douglas left the ranch a few minutes later. He checked on Boyle's lookouts before he headed into town and didn't arrive at Simpson's house until midnight.
The doctor was waiting at the kitchen table with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and his pistol in the other.
"You're late tonight," he remarked. "Sit down and I'll get you some coffee, son. How's the baby doing?"
Douglas pulled out the chair, straddled it, and told the doctor not to bother with coffee.
"Parker's doing all right, but Isabel's recovering from a cold. What should we do if the baby catches it?"
"Keep him warm…"
"We've been keeping him warm. Isn't there anything else we can do? What if he gets a fever?"
" Douglas, it won't do any good to snap at me. The baby's too small for medicine. We just have to hope and pray he doesn't get sick."
"I want to get them both out of that death trap she calls home. If I'm real careful, couldn't I…"
He stopped trying to plead his case when Simpson shook his head at him.
"It's a miracle that baby's surviving, and that's a fact, coming early the way he did. Do you realize how you'd be tempting fate by taking him out at night? And where are you thinking you'll take them? Boyle will turn Sweet Creek upside down searching for them, and you don't dare risk going to Liddyville because you won't know who Boyle has in his hip pocket. I know we've been over this before. Boyle's got friends in Liddyville too, and someone will hear about your arrival. Folks gossip with one another. I'm telling you, it's too dangerous."
Douglas could feel a pounding headache coming on. "What a mess," he muttered.
"Is Isabel anxious to leave?"
He shook his head. "She knows she has to, but she won't talk about her future yet. She keeps putting it off". It's damned frustrating."
"I know it is. I've got some more bad news for you," Simpson said. "Boyle went and hired himself a new man. He goes by the name of Spear, and he's got a real mean look about him. I nosed around to find out what I could and heard that Boyle met Spear when he was on one of his annual trips back to family in the Dakotas. By the way, Boyle's leaving tomorrow morning. I heard him telling Jasper Cooper he was putting Spear in charge while he's gone." The doctor took a drink of his coffee, and then said, "No one in town suspects Isabel's gotten help. Time's on your side because you've got at least another month to fatten that baby up and get him thriving before Boyle comes back."
"You told me the baby could be moved when he was eight weeks old."
"I also told you ten would be better."
"If I could bring help in now, couldn't-"
"Think it through, son. You don't want to put Isabel and her son in the middle of a war, do you? No, of course you don't. Look on the bright side," he suggested. He ignored Douglas 's incredulous look and continued on. "You've done fine for over seven weeks now, and I'm sure you can hold out a little longer without any trouble at all. Then you can send for help and get Isabel and her son out of there. I still don't cotton to the notion of taking that baby out at night, but the more weight he has on him, the better his chances will be. With Boyle away, it should get easier. Do you see? It isn't all grim, is it?"
"Hell, yes, it is."
Simpson chuckled. "She's getting to you, isn't she, son?"
Douglas shrugged but didn't say a word.
"I can see it plain as day. Are you thinking about falling in love with our girl?"
"No." He gave the denial with passion and conviction.
It wasn't a lie because he wasn't "thinking" about it. He already was in love with her.