Douglas 's life was miserable. He had never experienced such acute frustration before, and needless to say, he didn't like it at all. He was also angry with Isabel most of the time. Fortunately, she didn't know how he felt, and he was certain she didn't notice how he stared at her whenever she was in the room. The doctor was right when he'd told Douglas that she was too pretty for her own good.
He tried to stay away from her as much as possible. He vowed to stop trying to get her to acknowledge the physical attraction between them. It was wrong to do so and he knew it. Besides, it was apparent that she wasn't ready to admit that her marriage had been less than satisfactory or that Parker had had a few glaring inadequacies. If she was determined to elevate the man to sainthood, that was just fine with Douglas. From now on, no matter how ignorant, incompetent, and foolish he personally believed the man had been, he would keep his opinion to himself. What right did he have to criticize the dead anyway? And why did it bother him that she was so devoted to Parker's memory?
Because she obviously still loved Parker.
Douglas recognized he wasn't being logical. The issue bothering him was loyalty. He had always liked people who proved they were loyal, especially when it wasn't easy. They were several notches above everyone else in character. Like his family… and Isabel. Yes, Isabel. She continued to be loyal to her dead husband, and the truth was, Douglas didn't expect less from her. Still, did she have to be so blindly loyal? She had given Parker her faith, her love, and her undying loyalty, and he had failed on all counts.
It wasn't going to matter to Douglas any longer. Just as soon as the baby put on a little more weight, he would get the two of them out of Sweet Creek, take care of Boyle and his hired gunslingers, and then go back home, where he belonged. Until that day arrived, he planned to be polite but distant with Isabel.
That was easier said than done.
The days were unbearable, for as soon as he fell asleep, his mind was filled with erotic dreams about her. He couldn't control his thoughts when he was at rest, and he soon got to the point where he dreaded closing his eyes.
She'd made it worse for him by demanding that he stop sleeping on his bedroll and use her bed. She had a valid argument. She was awake during the day, and if he moved little Parker's bed into the outer room, Douglas could sleep without interruption.
The problem wasn't the noise. He didn't want to be surrounded by her light, feminine scent, but he'd go to his death before he told her so. She wouldn't understand anyway, and because he didn't want to hurt her feelings, he tossed and turned, gritted his teeth, and wondered how much torture a man could take before he snapped.
The baby was the only joy in his life. Parker was slowly putting on weight and seemed to be getting stronger with each passing day. Although it didn't seem possible, he grew louder as well. Douglas didn't think infants developed personalities until they were much older, around five or six months, but Isabel's son proved to be as extraordinary as his sister, Mary Rose, when she'd been a baby.
Parker was thinner than Mary Rose, but he was still able to exert his power over both adults by simply opening his mouth and screaming for service.
Douglas had given his heart to the little tyrant. Admittedly there were times when he was pacing back and forth in the middle of the night with the baby up against his shoulder that he wanted to pack cotton in his ears just to get a moment of blissful silence. Yet there were also times when Parker had his fist wrapped around one of Douglas 's fingers, gripping it tight. Douglas would look down at the baby sleeping so peacefully in his arms and feel the tremendous bond that had formed between them. He had helped bring Parker into the world and, like a father, he longed to watch him grow.
Oh, yes, Parker was a joy to be around. His mother wasn't. The physical attraction to her kept getting stronger, and though he tried to convince himself that she was untouchable, the pretense didn't work. After living together so intimately for eight weeks, the tension and frustration had become palpable.
Isabel had a different point of view. She was certain Douglas couldn't wait to be rid of her. He could barely stomach being in the same room with her, and no matter how she tried to get his attention, he blatantly ignored her. If she accidentally touched his arm, or not so accidentally moved closer to him, he became tense and out of sorts.
His attitude upset her more than she wanted to admit. Heaven help her, she was even having indecent dreams about him, and in every single one of them, she was always the aggressor. She couldn't understand why she wasn't dreaming about her late husband. She should be, shouldn't she? Parker had been her dearest friend. Douglas was a friend too, but he was the complete opposite of her husband, for while Parker had been sweet and gentle but somewhat impractical, Douglas was passionate, sexy, incredibly virile, and practical about everything from childbirth to politics. He was filled with confidence, and for the first time in her life, she felt as though she had someone who could, and would, do his part. Until Douglas had come along, she had carried the burden alone.
She wanted him in a way she had never wanted her husband, and that was painfully difficult for her to admit. Mating with her husband had been a necessary duty to produce a child, which both Isabel and Parker wanted, but neither one of them joined together with any enthusiasm. She had been overjoyed to realize she was pregnant, but she'd also been relieved. After Dr. Simpson confirmed the diagnosis, neither she nor her husband ever again reached for the other during the night.
Isabel ached over the loss of her dear friend, but she didn't miss what she had never experienced… until Douglas came into her life.
She wanted to dislike him just to stop herself from having such inappropriate daydreams about him, yet she also dreaded their eventual separation.
She wasn't the only one filled with confusion. She was certain she was confusing God as well. She prayed that Douglas would leave. She prayed that he would stay. Hopefully, God would be able to sort it all out.
Late one afternoon Douglas caught her bathing. She had assumed he was sound asleep, since the bedroom door was closed and she'd been as quiet as a mouse while she filled the metal tub with water she'd heated over the flames in the hearth. She didn't want to awaken him, so she had eased into the water and washed every inch of her body without making a single splash or once sighing out loud. She had just retied the ribbon holding her hair atop her head, leaned back, and closed her eyes, when she heard the telltale groan of a floorboard.
She opened her eyes just as Douglas walked out of the bedroom.
They both froze. Too stunned to speak, she could only stare up at him in true astonishment. He looked thunderstruck, making it more than apparent he hadn't expected to find her stripped bare, sitting in a tub of water with her shoulders and toes peeking out at him.
He didn't have all his clothes on. She noticed right away. His legs were braced apart. He was barefoot and wore only a pair of snug buckskin pants he hadn't bothered to button. Dark curly hair covered his chest, and when her gaze began to move lower, she forced herself to close her eyes.
She finally found her voice. "You forgot to button your pants, for heaven's sake."
She had to be joking. He wasn't stark naked; she was. He didn't look at her for more than a second or two, but it was still long enough for him to see golden shoulders, pink toes, and damn near everything in between.
Ah, hell, she had a sprinkle of freckles on her breasts.
He got even with her for her inadvertent torture the only way he could. He turned around, stomped back into the bedroom, and slammed the door behind him.
The noise awakened the baby, infuriating her. She was suddenly so angry with Douglas, there wasn't room for embarrassment, and if she hadn't regained her wits in the nick of time, she would have chased after him wrapped in only a thin towel so that she could tell him she was sick and tired of being treated like a leper.
The baby had other ideas. By the time she dried herself off and put her robe on, he had worked himself into a rage. He was tearing at his mouth with his tiny fists while he screamed for his milk. The drawer was on the table, and as she lifted him into her arms, her anger intensified. Her sweet baby shouldn't have to sleep in a dresser drawer for the love of God, and just why hadn't Douglas done something about it?
After she had changed Parker's diaper and gown, she sat in the rocker and fed him. She whispered to him all about Douglas 's transgressions. Parker's eyes were open, and he stared up at her until he had taken his fill. Before she'd even moved him to her shoulder, he let out a loud belch, closed his eyes, and went back to sleep.
She held him in one arm and rocked him until she got dizzy and realized how fast she was going.
Douglas came out a minute later. She didn't dare speak to him while she was so angry. She needed to calm down first.
She handed the baby to him without bothering to look up, changed the bedding in the drawer, then reclaimed her son and put him down for the night.
Supper was almost ready. She'd made a big iron kettle of thick stew and only needed to move the drawer, set the table and warm the biscuits.
He didn't stay inside long enough to eat. He told her he had chores to do, and left. She knew he was as angry with her as she was with him, but he wouldn't lose his temper no matter how much or how often he was provoked, and if that wasn't the most frustrating trait in a man, she didn't know what was. Did he have to be so stoic all the time? Come to think of it, he never ever lost his control, and that simply wasn't human, was it?
He exhibited amazing restraint. The longer she thought about that horrible flaw, the angrier she became. Then she burned the biscuits, and, honest to heaven, that was the last straw. He was going to eat them anyway, she vowed, even if she had to force them down his throat. He was also going to eat the stew she'd spent hours preparing.
Isabel knew she wasn't being reasonable. It didn't seem to matter. It felt good to be angry and frustrated and know that she could blow up at him and still remain perfectly safe. Yes, safe. He made her feel safe, and so gloriously alive, even when he was acting like a bad-tempered boar.
She decided to behave like an adult. She would take his supper to him in the barn as a peace offering. That act of thoughtfulness would surely get him out of his contrary mood. After he'd eaten, she would demand that he tell her what was bothering him and why he'd become so impossible to live with lately. If he wanted specifics, she had plenty.
She checked on Parker one last time, tied her hair back with a white ribbon, and then carried the tray to the barn. She practiced what she would say to him on the way. "I was sure you would be hungry by now, and so I…"
No, she could do better than that. She wanted to sound blase, not timid.
"I'll leave the tray by the door, Douglas. If you get hungry, help yourself," she whispered. Yes, that was better, much better. Then she would suggest they sit down and talk when he was finished.
She straightened her shoulders and went inside. She spotted Douglas at the opposite end of the barn. He had his sleeves rolled up and was pouring a large bucket of water into a metal vat. Two empty buckets were on the floor next to him. He straightened up, rolled his shoulders to work the stiffness out, brushed his hands off on a towel he'd draped over a post, and went to Pegasus's stall.
She walked forward so she could see the stallion. She could hear Douglas whispering to the animal, but she couldn't hear what he was saying. She saw him stroke the stallion's neck, and Pegasus was letting him know how much he liked the attention by nuzzling Douglas 's shoulder.
He knew she was there watching him. He'd have to be dead and buried not to hear all the racket she was making. She'd talked herself into the barn and was now obviously having difficulty holding on to the tray. She was either nervous or making the noise on purpose to get him to notice her. The glass was banging against the plate, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see the utensils bouncing up and down. He wanted to get past his irritation before he spoke to her. If he so much as looked at her now, he knew he'd lose his temper, hurt her tender feelings, and then feel rotten about it.
" Douglas, how long are you going to ignore me?" He finally turned around. "I thought I'd try to figure out why you broke your promise to me. You remember, don't you? I'm sure I asked you to give me your word that you would stay inside at night because I can't keep watch over you and be in the barn at the same time."
She put the tray down on the seat of the buggy to her right before answering him.
"Yes, I remember, but I thought you might be hungry, and I-"
He deliberately interrupted her. "Do you also remember why we thought it might be dangerous?"
" Douglas, you don't have to treat me like a child. I know exactly what I promised. I know why you were so insistent too. I told you that once… just once, some of Boyle's men got all liquored up and rode down the hill during the night, and that was when you suggested I stay inside."
"You left something out."
He gave her a look that let her know he didn't believe she'd forgotten. "You told me they tried to break into the cabin. Remember?"
She knew he was right. She shouldn't have taken the risk. She should have stayed inside the cabin with her son. It was her duty to protect him. Oh, Lord, the Winchester! She'd left the rifle inside by the window.
"I wasn't thinking. There, are you happy? I admitted it. I've been preoccupied lately. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go back to my son."
She turned around and hurried out of the barn. "Isabel, where's the rifle?"
She didn't answer. He knew good and well where it was, since she hadn't had it in her hands when she'd come into the barn. He'd asked the question just to make her feel like an idiot. She certainly felt like one, and that made her angry with herself. If she hadn't been so distracted by Douglas, she would never have done such a foolish thing.
Douglas strode past her and checked on Parker. The baby was sleeping soundly in the drawer on the table. He would have moved him back to the bedroom, but his hands were greasy, and he decided to wait until he had washed first. Isabel stood by his side, looking down at her son. Douglas didn't say another word to her. The two of them were past due for a long discussion about her future, he decided, and just as soon as he had cleaned up, he planned to sit her down and force her to make a few decisions.
He grabbed a thick, clean towel, a bar of soap, and headed back to the barn to take a bath.
He scrubbed the dirt from his body, but the cold water didn't rid him of the fever he'd felt for weeks now, every time he thought about Isabel. Unfortunately, that was most of the days and nights. No, cold water didn't help. He could have washed in snow and still burned inside to touch her.
He needed to get away from her as soon as possible, but he couldn't do that until she told him where, in God's name, she wanted to go. She had procrastinated as long as he was going to allow. Before the night was over, she was going to make a decision. Douglas knew he needed to get a grip on himself. He knew how too. All he had to do was get the hell away from Isabel, because she was turning him into a raving animal.
Things were going to change from this moment on. He put on clean clothes, turned down the lantern light, and went to have the long overdue talk with Isabel.
She was waiting for him.
He took the tray with the untouched supper to the kitchen. "We need to talk," he whispered so he wouldn't disturb the baby. "First, I'll put Parker away."
"Back in the dresser?" Her voice was brittle.
"This isn't the time to get into one of your moods, Isabel. We need to…"
"One of my moods? I can't believe you just said… Leave the drawer on the table and come with me. I want you to see something."
She hurried into the bedroom so he wouldn't argue with her. As soon as he came inside, she shut the door and then dramatically pointed to the bedroll on the floor next to her bed.
"Would you mind explaining why you slept on the floor today when there was a perfectly good bed a foot away? I think I know why, but I want to hear you tell me anyway."
"Why do you think I slept on the floor?" he hedged.
"Because the thought of getting into my bed was so repulsive you chose the hard floor instead. I'm right, aren't I?"
"No, you aren't."
He had the gall to scowl, and that infuriated her.
She moved to the other side of the bed to put some distance between them. "You don't have to deny it. I know you don't like being here. You can barely stand to be in the same room with me. What did I do to make you feel this way, Douglas? No, don't answer that. I think the time has come for you to leave. That's what you were going to talk about, wasn't it?"
He couldn't believe a woman could be this naive. She'd twisted everything around, and, honest to God, he couldn't figure out how she had come up with such outrageous conclusions. Hadn't anyone ever told her how pretty she was?
"You really don't have any idea what I'm thinking, do you?" He was astonished by the revelation.
She took a deep breath, ordered herself to stop criticizing him, and then apologized. "I'm sorry I snapped at you. If it weren't for you, I don't know what Parker and I would have done. I felt so powerless then. I should be thanking you for your help, and my only excuse for acting like a shrew is that I haven't been feeling myself lately."
"Why is that?"
"Why? Take a look around, Douglas. My life is in shambles. I don't know how-"
"Now, Isabel, it isn't that bleak."
He was going to remind her she had a handsome son who was getting stronger every day, but she didn't give him time to get another word in.
She wasn't in the mood to be reasonable and didn't particularly like being contradicted. Her voice became shrill when she continued on.
"Of course it's bleak. My son is sleeping in a dresser drawer, for God's sake, when he should have a proper cradle, and I shouldn't have to be terrified every time it rains. Don't you think I know where Parker had the cabin built? Everyone in town tried to talk him out of it, but he was determined to prove them wrong. There, are you happy? I've admitted he wasn't perfect. Neither are you, Douglas. You're rude and cold and so horribly reasonable all the time you make me want to scream."
"You are screaming, sugar."
"Don't you dare start being sweet. Don't you ever lose your composure?"
"Is it my turn yet? You keep asking me questions, but you don't let me answer them."
He sounded cool and collected, as always. It drove her to distraction. "Don't you have any idea how much you frustrate me?"
"You want to talk about frustration?" He let out a harsh laugh and came toward her. "You're looking at it, Isabel. You've got to be blind or just plain nuts not to know what the mere sight of you does to me."
Once he got started, the words poured out and he couldn't make himself stop.
"I sleep on the floor because your scent is on the sheets, woman, and it makes me so damned hot I can't sleep. All I want to think about is making love to you. Now do you understand?"
He was suddenly pressing her up against the wall and glaring down at her. "Are you getting scared yet? Or have I stunned you speechless by shocking your sensibilities? What the hell are you smiling about, Isabel? I want to take you to bed. Got that? Now aren't you frightened?"
She slowly shook her head. "Isabel, I'm begging you. Tell me to leave."
"Do you understand…"
"Oh, yes, I understand," she whispered.
She threw her arms around his neck.
He gently cupped the sides of her face and slowly leaned down. "I tried to stay away from you…"
"You did?" she asked with a long, breathless sigh.
"I wasn't strong enough to resist you. It was those sexy…"
"Yeah, freckles. A man can only take so much temptation before he's got to take a bite out of the apple, sugar, and when I saw you bathing, I…"
" Douglas, are you ever going to kiss me?"
She had barely gotten her question out before his mouth came down on hers. It wasn't perfect; it was much, much better. Her reaction was instantaneous. Her entire body responded to his kiss, and when his tongue brushed against hers, she imitated his action and kissed him with all the pent-up passion inside her.
He kept her glued against him while he continued to try to devour her. It would be over before he'd even begun to do all the things he wanted to do if he didn't get her to slow down, yet the thought of stopping so he could explain was simply too much for him to accept.
Neither one of them remembered undressing the other or getting into bed. Douglas thought he might have thrown her there in his haste to cover her with his body. Then again, she might have thrown him down. She seemed to have acquired an amazing amount of strength in the past few minutes as she forced him to let her kiss every inch of his chest.
He didn't give her any resistance. Dear God, how he loved her. She was everything he had ever wanted in a lover.
The feel of her warm skin against his own was incredibly arousing. She was so perfect everywhere. He loved the way her breasts fell against his chest, and the way she gasped each time he moved against her drove him wild. She didn't try to conceal the fact that she was as hot for him as he was for her, and so he let go of his control and his inhibitions.
He kissed her neck, her shoulders, her breasts, and then slowly moved lower.
"What are you doing?" she whispered, her voice raw with passion.
"I'm kissing every freckle on your body."
She thought those were the most romantic words she'd ever heard. "Oh, my," she whispered, over and over again, each time he touched or kissed or stroked her.
He overwhelmed her senses until she was incapable of thought. She thought he asked her to tell him if he did anything she didn't like, and she really tried to answer him, to tell him that nothing he did could be wrong, but every time she tried to speak, he did something more wonderful to her, and she couldn't get more than a sigh or a whimper out.
If he meant to drive her crazy, he succeeded gloriously. When at last he finally came to her, she felt a twinge of pain as he slowly moved inside her, and then he was part of her and holding her so tenderly, and there wasn't any pain, only pleasure.
He savored each whisper, each movement, and when at last the need to find release became unbearable, he forced her fulfillment by increasing the rhythm and tightening his grip.
Ecstasy such as she had never experienced before began with a ripple, then increased within a heartbeat to an explosive climax. She clung to him as the world fragmented into a thousand brilliant stars, the wonder of their lovemaking filled with beauty and joy.
It took several minutes for him to recover. He held her close to him, nuzzling her neck and lazily stroking her.
"Are you all right?" he whispered.
She didn't answer him, but she did sigh against his ear, and he knew, before he found enough strength to lift his head and look at her face, that she was happy.
He was arrogantly satisfied to know that he had exhausted her. She fell asleep clinging to him, her long legs entwined with his, her face nestled in the crook of his neck, and for this moment in time, she belonged completely to him.
It would have to be enough to last a lifetime.