Katherine Cooper sank into the chair, ignoring the way the old wood creaked in protest, as she leaned over the small desk and palmed her head in her hands. She'd barely slept during the past several days, and she knew it was only a matter of time before she fell asleep on her feet. An outbreak of malaria had resulted in the quarantine of over a dozen men, and she'd spent every waking moment trying to counter the raging fevers and severe hallucinations. Luckily, she'd been able to acquire a small shipment of quinine from a clinic in Las Cruces. It'd cost her half her month's salary, but the medicine was finally relieving the worst of the symptoms, and she'd been able to allow the men to return to their homes.
"Now it's my turn," she said, leaning back in the chair before pushing to her feet.
She shuffled over to the window and stared out at the setting sun. Streaks of orange and red laced the light dusting of clouds scattered across the sky. Despite being the middle of November, the days were still warm enough for only a light overcoat while the nights brought a refreshing chill to the air. If she started for her cabin now, she'd be able to have a fire blazing in the hearth before the last of the light slipped below the distant hills.
She turned away and reached for her medicine bag when the muffled sound of gunfire echoed through the clinic. She glanced back out the window, her gaze settling on the large building at the end of the dirt road. A crowd had gathered near the swinging doors, but she couldn't see any distinct details. She sighed, hoping it was nothing more than a couple of cowboys showing off behind the saloon. Just the thought of having to deal with another patient made a cold shiver snake down her spine.
Kate waited, breath held tight, the bag rocking in her hands when footsteps clattered across the wooden platform near the clinic. A blurred figure dashed past the window a moment before the door crashed open. A tall man with graying hair and thick eyebrows stood wheezing in the doorway, one hand braced on the doorframe as the other waved frantically toward the tavern.
"Dr. Kate, you'd better come quick. There's been another gunfight."
"Another one?" Adrenaline tempered her exhaustion, and she sighed as she moved toward the door. "It's only been a week since the last one." She mumbled a curse under her breath. If she'd known she was going to spend the majority of her time stitching up boys who couldn't hold their tongues, or their liquor, she would have thought twice about taking the job. But seeing as Benevolence had been the only town willing to even consider hiring a female doctor, she hadn't had any other choice. And if nothing else, she'd earned her place at the clinic. "How many injured this time, Hank?"
Hank shuffled his feet as his face paled slightly. "Only young Billy, Doc. There's a lot of blood, and he says the pain is something fierce."
Kate scowled. "That's generally the case when bullets are involved."
She hurried back to a stack of cabinets and tossed a few extra supplies in her bag before meeting Hank at the door. She'd just pushed past him when more gunfire lit the air. She paused, glancing at Hank over her shoulder. "Are you sure it's over?"
Hank nodded, motioning her forward. "That's just the Sheriff." Hank clicked his tongue. "Woo wee, that man just up and jumped out of nowhere, shoving Billy to one side and taking out one of them there gunslingers before the man had gotten off a second round. Then the Sheriff fired a bunch more and sent those outlaws scurrying for cover. I reckon he's just finishing up with them."
"Let's just hope he keeps them out of my way."
Kate ran down the dirt road, muttering under her breath at the constant cloud of dust following her every step. Despite the rash of thunderstorms over the past month, the sun seemed determined to suck up every last drop of water, leaving nothing but caked dirt behind. While it was nice not having to wash mud off her clothes, the billowing sand played havoc on wounds, and infection seemed to run rampant in this part of the country. She'd lost more than a couple of patients to fever and hoped she wouldn't have to add Billy to the list.
The crowd by the saloon parted as she slowed to a halt, Hank close at her heels. Billy sprawled across the ground, blood seeping into the parched earth near his shoulder. One of the saloon girls knelt at his side, sobbing and wailing as she cupped his face. Kate rolled her eyes. If the boy had possessed any sense at all, he wouldn't have gotten himself into a shootout in the first place. Everyone in town knew he could barely hold a pistol, let alone hit someone with it.
The girl grabbed Kate's arm as she knelt beside Billy. "Thank goodness you're here, Dr. Kate. You gotta help him. He's bleeding like crazy."
Kate smiled at the girl, carefully pulling her arm free before setting her bag on the ground and working open the buttons on Billy's shirt. "Easy now, Mona. Let's see how bad it is before we panic."
Billy groaned as Kate eased the sides apart, exposing a large, ragged slice across the top of his shoulder. It was raw and jagged, but not nearly as bad as she'd feared. "Ah shucks, Billy. It's nothing more than a bad graze. Looks like the bullet went clean through the muscle without hitting any bones. All we need to do is stop the bleeding and stitch you back up."
Billy mumbled something she couldn't make out as she reached into her bag, gathering gauze and supplies. Though the wound wasn't that serious, she'd still have to keep him overnight at the clinic as a precaution. The thought stole some of her strength, and she didn't feel too badly when Billy grunted as she pressed the bandages against the laceration, holding them tight in order to stop the bleeding.
Billy clenched his jaw and stared up at her. "Sheesh, Doc, do you have to push so hard?"
Kate raised an eyebrow at him, but didn't let up any pressure. "That depends on whether you were fixin' to bleed out in front of the saloon, or whether you were hoping to make it back to the clinic." She tore off a strip of gauze, using it to hold the other pieces in place. "Now let's get you moving. I'll have to clean that shoulder properly before I can stitch it, but you should be good by morning."
She pushed to her feet, gathering her bag as she recruited a few men to carry Billy back down the road. The boy hollered when they picked him up, his head lolling backwards as they slowly marched down the street. Kate shook her head. The kid had more luck than sense. Another few inches lower and she'd be digging through his chest, searching for the hunk of lead.
Hank shouldered up beside her, removing his hat as he stared after the entourage of men. "Is he really going to be all right, Doc?"
Kate smiled. "He'll be good as gold all too soon." She elbowed Hank in the stomach. "Someone really needs to teach the boy how to shoot before he gets himself killed."
Hank laughed. "He's been pestering poor Sheriff Stone to show him, but the good Sheriff keeps telling him he wasn't cut out for gun fighting. Says he should find himself a decent job and settle down with Ms. Mona instead."
"Great advice, but the kid might not live long enough to figure it out if he keeps on challenging every poker-playing cowboy that stumbles into the tavern. Perhaps the Sheriff should reconsider."
Hank slapped his hat across his knee. "I don't think I've ever known the Sheriff to change his mind, though perhaps if you asked him...he tends to go out of his way to do your biddin'."
Kate felt her cheeks heat, and she waved off Hank's statement as she turned away, her mind flickering images of the good sheriff through her head--six feet of raw muscle, hair the color of rich coffee just long enough to tease the bottom of his collar and a smile that could melt snow in the middle of winter. She'd been instantly attracted to the man the moment he'd shaken her hand and welcomed her to the small, southern town. She could still remember the heat from that innocent touch and how she'd spent the last two years silently lusting after the lawman, wondering if he felt anything close to the scorching arousal she did whenever he was close. Though he seemed to find ample opportunities to join her, either at the clinic or the local canteen, he'd never insinuated that she was more than a friend to him, and as it wasn't a woman's place to take the lead in a relationship, she'd kept her feelings to herself. But what she wouldn't give to run her fingers through his thick hair, or taste those full lips...
"Doc? Would you like me to come back to the clinic with you--help out with young Billy?"
Hank's voice shattered the images, and she jumped slightly when he tapped her on the shoulder. She looked over at him, hoping the blush she knew stained her cheeks wasn't as obvious as it felt. Apparently the lack of sleep was finally getting the better of her. It was the only way to explain drifting off into the romantic daydream when she knew she had work to do.
"That'd be real nice, Hank," she said and struck off, once again kicking up a trail of dust with her boots as she left Hank still standing a few steps back. If the man ever guessed she'd been fantasizing about Jeremiah Stone, she'd never be able to live it down. Not in Benevolence, New Mexico. Gossip spread faster than wildfire down here, and if she wasn't careful, they'd have her married off to the man before he even knew she fancied him.
Kate muttered to herself as she marched down the street, working to stay ahead of Hank. The quicker she got back to the clinic, the better. Though Billy's injury was far from life threatening, the less time she had to fantasize about Jeremiah, the less time she'd spend pining for him. And there was nothing like pure exhaustion to temper foolish desires.
Hank scuffled after her, coughing at the dust. He said something that sounded like "hold on" but she didn't stop to figure it out. She'd already covered half the distance, and she could see the men carrying Billy into the clinic not far ahead.
She picked up her pace when a chorus of shouts broke out across the street. She stopped, watching as two horses reared against their reins, billowing up a thick cloud of dust. Kate covered her mouth and took a step back just as two shadowy figures emerged through the blowing dirt, mounted the horses in one, smooth movement and kicked them into motion. The animals reared again but took off, racing toward the end of town. The men sneered at her as they rode by, their faces twisted in anger. One of the men pointed something at her, but before she had time to register what it was, a set of strong arms wrapped around her waist and bowled her to the ground.
Sharp stones bit into her chest as her breath left her on a grunt, the force of the impact blacking out her vision and knocking her bag from her hands. Three loud explosions echoed over her, the vibrations ringing through her ears. She tried to roll, but the heavy weight on top of her held her captive, and she had no other choice but to lie on the ground as the beat of the horses' hooves finally drifted into silence.
Kate coughed on a lungful of dust, wondering why the buffoon pinning her down hadn't moved yet, when one large hand seized her shoulder and flipped her over. She gasped as her back hit the rough dirt, sending more black dots across the landscape. She blinked to clear the images only to feel her breath leave her chest again as she stared into a pair of gleaming amber eyes.
The name sprang from her lips before she had the chance to crush it, his unwavering stare stealing any semblance of reasonable thought. Though she'd seen her share of handsome men, there was something about his eyes that turned her insides to mush. It was like staring at the sun, wondering if you were going to get burned.
Jeremiah flashed her one of his devastating smiles but didn't move. Instead, he shifted ever so slightly until the entire length of his body pressed against hers. She could feel every long, hard inch of him, but it was the distinct ridge jabbing against her groin that held her attention. It felt like steel, and she barely held back the urge to arch against it.
Kate cringed as the words poised on her tongue morphed into a low, throaty moan that sounded even more desperate than she felt. She held Jeremiah's gaze, acutely aware of how his eyes narrowed as he inhaled deeply. The motion rubbed his chest against hers, the increased pressure beading her nipples into hard buds that raked across his shirt when he inhaled again.
Heat exploded inside her, spiraling outwards before settling uncomfortably between her legs. A spike of need rippled through her stomach, and she had to clench her teeth together to keep from taking his luscious lips with hers. They hovered mere inches from her face as he continued to stare at her.
"Goldangit, Doc, are you okay?" Hank's voice broke the tension as his feet shuffled into view beside her shoulder.
Kate clenched her teeth harder, certain her back molars would crack from the pressure as Jeremiah chuckled and flashed her another devilish smile. He eased back, giving her body a long, slow sweep before pushing to his feet and offering her his hand. She accepted, ignoring the instant jolt of desire as her fingers wrapped around his and she was pulled forcefully to her feet. The motion jerked her hard against his chest. She uttered a startled gasp, but it was instantly muffled by his smooth leather vest as her head caught in the crook of his shoulder. Her free hand went instinctively to his chest in an effort to regain her balance as she teetered on the toes of her boots. Firm, sinewy muscles bunched beneath her fingers, and she bit back another moan before she'd made a complete fool of herself.
Jeremiah's warm breath coasted over the shell of her ear, followed by a raspy "easy darlin'," just loud enough for her to hear. The soft endearment stole any words she'd been prepared to speak, and it wasn't until he'd gently eased her away and taken one step back that some of her senses returned.
Kate smoothed the front of her blouse and tugged at her riding skirt, straightening the panels so the split was less noticeable. Though most of the ladies this far west had adopted the more sensible design, she'd discovered the men out here still liked the appearance of traditional fashion. She gave Hank a sharp nod as he handed her the medical bag she'd dropped. The black leather was covered in a layer of dust, and she muttered to herself as she brushed it off, thankful the buckle hadn't given way and scattered the contents across the dirty street. She heard Jeremiah chuckle again, and she speared him with a glare.
His face sobered, and he held up his hands, firing Hank a quick smile. "Now take it easy, Dr. Kate. I was only trying to keep you safe."
"Safe?" She stomped one foot on the ground, cursing the decision when more dust billowed into the air. She waved the cloud away, her irritation mounting. "Since when is bowling me over in the middle of the street keeping me safe, Sheriff?"
He didn't miss her emphasis and his lips split into another stunning smile. Damn, but the man was breathtaking when he smiled.
Jeremiah motioned behind her. "Since one of those men decided to take a shot at you."
"Shot?" She turned, a tumbling feeling rolling through her stomach when she noticed a small hole in the water trough a few feet away. A steady trickle of liquid bubbled out of the opening, dispelling any doubt. A dizzy feeling hummed in her head, and she wasn't sure if it was fear or leftover arousal making her heart pound in her ears.
She swallowed past the dry feeling in her throat and turned back. Jeremiah's smile was gone, replaced by an emotion she didn't recognize.
"I reckon you didn't see his gun," said Jeremiah.
Kate drew herself up and held the bag tighter against her waist. "Of course not. If I'd seen the gun I wouldn't have needed you to take me to the ground, now would I? Besides, I'd been informed that you had the situation under control."
Jeremiah shook his head, shifting his gaze to Hank then back again. "I was still in the process of tying up the loose ends. I'd managed to dispose of two of them, but the odds were in their favor."
She glanced back at where the two men had disappeared. If Jeremiah had already taken care of two bandits, that meant he'd faced four by himself. Shock wove through her body and she snapped her head around, pointing a shaky finger at him. "You took on four armed men by yourself?"
He shrugged, slowly grabbing her hand and lowering it to her side. "I did have Billy's help."
"Billy?" She practically yelled the name, but she didn't care. "That boy couldn't hit a horse let alone a man. And Hank told me you pushed him aside before he'd even gotten a round off."
The smile returned, highlighting the dimples in his cheeks. "The boy tried."
"No, he got himself into trouble and had to have you bail him out." She exhaled a soothing breath. "Thankfully, his injury is fairly mild."
"Well heck, we all know there ain't much that you can't fix, Doc." He tipped his hat. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to track down a couple of wayward men."
Fear gripped her low in the belly and she lunged forward, grabbing his sleeve. "You aren't going after them alone, are you? It'll still be two against one."
Jeremiah glanced down at her hand. "Sounds like my luck's getting better." He shushed her with a gentle finger on her lips. "I'll be back as soon as I can. You be extra careful while I'm away. No telling if those Rankin brothers have any other gang members hanging around these parts."
Hank sucked in a loud breath and stepped forward. "Rankin brothers? You mean those men that just rode out of here were the Rankin boys?"
Jeremiah nodded, slowly removing his hand from Kate's face. "I recognized them from the posters the Marshalls had delivered. Seems they're wanted for the murder of several lawmen."
"All the more reason to take a few deputized men with you," she added.
He raised an eyebrow and moved closer, pushing his body against her medicine bag. She stood her ground, amazed at how his massive stature filled her field of vision. The scenery beyond him disappeared, replaced by a set of broad shoulders, tanned skin and a buckskin hat. She licked her bottom lip, her throat parched, as he tilted his head, shading her face from the setting sun. Her breathing increased, spurred on the scent of bay rum cologne and hot man. Though others wore the spicy offering, Jeremiah made it his own.
One side of his mouth twitched as he watched her through narrowed eyes, the golden color vivid against the dark shadows. His gaze dropped down to her chest as it rose and fell in rapid succession, the swell of her breasts grazing against him with every frenzied inhalation. Something flashed in his eyes, but it was gone before she could decipher it.
He returned his attention to her face. "You aren't worried for me, are you, Dr. Kate?"
She didn't miss the raspy tone of his voice. But now was hardly the time to flirt, not with Hank staring at them as if they'd been standing out in the heat for too long.
She cleared her throat and fought to calm the pounding of her heart. "I'm merely thinking of the town," she lied. "What would the good folks of Benevolence do without a Sheriff of your caliber?" She shifted restlessly on her feet, more than aware of how he watched her every move. "Besides, I've got enough to do without having to stitch you up as well. Like I told Hank. Bullets tend to do a lot of damage."
Jeremiah chuckled and stepped back, nodding at her and Hank. "I'll keep that in mind. I wouldn't want to...inconvenience you."
Kate cursed to herself at the indifferent edge to his voice. Did the man not have any sense at all? She'd all but thrown herself at him these past two years, yet he picked now to show the minutest bit of interest? Anger and frustration rolled inside her, and she had to clench her fists together to keep from hitting someone. Jeremiah's playful smile returned. Dear God, but the man seemed to enjoy riling her.
She huffed and straightened her back, brushing her skirt off again. "A truly wise man would know when to seek help."
"I got Hank to fetch you to take care of Billy, didn't I?"
He turned toward the saloon and whistled. The echo of horse hooves bled into the silence as his mount rounded the far corner and trotted to his side. It shook its head as he grabbed the reins and seemingly flowed into the saddle. Though he was an impressive man on his feet, mounted on his horse, he resembled a figure out of her childhood storybooks. Hair flowing about his face, his chin held high, he looked as immortal as he perceived himself to be.
Fear reared again and she lunged forward. "Jeremiah, please."
He bent over her, brushing a single finger down one cheek. "I'll be fine. Besides, I prefer to work alone."
Then he was gone, dust filling the empty street as his horse galloped away, the steady thunder slowly fading into a numbing silence. Kate watched until his silhouette disappeared around a bend before taking a deep breath and continuing toward the clinic, his words still ringing in her head. She could take a hint. If the man wanted to work alone, she'd stay well clear of him. Now all she had to do was get her heart, and her body, to listen.