A Hearing Heart [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Bonnie Dee
eBook Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance
eBook Description: The heart conveys messages beyond what ears can hear. After the death of her fiancÚ, Catherine Johnson, a New York schoolteacher in 1901, travels to Nebraska to teach a one-room school and escape her sad memories. One afternoon, violence erupts in the sleepy town. Catherine saves deaf stable hand, Jim Kinney, from torture by drunken thugs. As she takes charge of his education, teaching him to read and sign, attraction grows between them. The warmth and humor in this silent man transcends the need for speech and his eyes tell her all she needs to know about his feelings for her. But the obstacles of class difference and the stigma of his handicap are almost insurmountable barriers to their growing attachment. Will Catherine flout society's rules and allow herself to love again? Can Jim make his way out of poverty as a deaf man in a hearing world? And together will they beat the corrupt robber baron who has a stranglehold on the town? Romance, love and sensuality abound in this jam-packed, old-fashioned tale with plenty of heart and some steaming hot sex.
eBook Publisher: Atlantic Bridge/Liquid Silver Books, Published: 2009
Fictionwise Release Date: November 2009
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34 Reader Ratings:
Broughton, Nebraska, 1901
Catherine Johnson stepped out of the general mercantile onto the wooden walkway, adjusting her mesh shopping bag on one wrist and the brown paper-wrapped parcels in her other arm. A stiff breeze cut through her white blouse and twisted her long, navy skirt around her legs. Grit scoured her cheeks and stung her eyes. At least the road wasn't muddy, but she faced a long walk back to the McPhersons' farm carrying all her purchases. She'd be glad when her stay there was finished and she moved in with the Albrights in town. Shuttling from home to home was one of the most unpleasant aspects of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse.
Sometimes she wished she'd never left New York to come to Nebraska. On a Saturday afternoon in White Plains she would be strolling along a brick path in the park, fountains and flowerbeds gracing the way. Here in Broughton she fought the ever-present wind and choking dust while her shoes tapped an uneven rhythm on the warped boards of the sidewalk.
The town was quiet for a Saturday, the streets nearly empty. She was nearly to the last building on Main Street, where the dusty road became prairie, when several men erupted from the saloon right in front of her. The swinging doors slammed open, crashing against the wall.
Catherine cried out and stumbled backward, dropping one of her packages. Her heart hammered in her chest.
A raw-boned man with no chin and his stocky, black-bearded partner dragged a man between them. Behind them staggered a burly fellow with heavy-lidded, sleepy eyes. He was shouting curses, using words Catherine had never heard. The only man she recognized was the one the others gripped by the arms--Jim Kinney, the deaf-mute man who worked at the livery stable.
He glared at his captors through a fringe of dark hair. The burly man moved in front of Jim and plowed a fist into his stomach. The stable hand doubled over with a whoosh of expelled air, then gasped for breath.
The black-bearded man hauled him upright and the skinny one punched his jaw, snapping his head to the side. Jim cried out, a hoarse, wordless sound. He twisted and kicked out with his feet at the man who'd hit him, landing a solid blow to his chest which knocked him backward.
"Tie him up," the droopy-eyed man slurred. "Teach him some respect."
Catherine stood rooted to the spot, horrified but too shocked to react as one of the men grabbed a rope from his horse's saddle at the hitching post. When he began tying Jim's hands, she finally found her voice. "Stop it! Stop!" She dropped her parcels and bag on the sidewalk, lifted her skirts and ran toward them. "Leave him alone!"
For a second, Jim's dark eyes met hers, registering her presence before the men dragged him out to the street, whooping in drunken glee and ignoring Catherine as if she was voiceless.
"Stop!" she yelled in helpless frustration, her hands clenching at her sides. The black-bearded man's broad shoulders blocked her view of the street. She pushed past him, the sour stench of sweat and alcohol wrinkling her nose.
The leader had mounted his horse and wrapped the end of the rope around the pommel of his saddle. Jim struggled to free his hands until the rope stretched taut and jerked him forward, forcing him to keep pace with the horse. The rider kneed his mount sharply and it accelerated from a walk to a trot. Jim ran behind, stumbling as he tried to keep on his feet.
Catherine screamed for help as loud as she could. A few men came from the saloon while others stepped out of storefronts along the street.
"Help!" she shrieked again, panic swelling in her chest and threatening to overwhelm her. "Somebody help him."
Jim couldn't keep up with the speed of the horse. He tripped, fell and was dragged along the ground. Spooked by the creature on its heels, the horse whinnied and plunged ahead. A cloud of dust from its hooves concealed the body bumping over ruts behind it. The rider pulled the horse's head up, turned and rode back toward where his companions stood laughing and shouting encouragement.
People emerging from the barbershop, the mercantile and feed store all stood watching. No one was going to interfere, risking the men's drunken anger.
The horse raced toward Catherine. Without a thought beyond stopping it, she ran into the road, waving her arms and shouting. The animal reared on its hind legs directly in front of her, dumping its rider to the ground. For a moment all she could see was hooves flailing and the chestnut body rising above her. How very tall a horse was when standing on two legs. The inane thought flashed in her mind before the animal came down on all fours. She seized the bridle and her fingers grazed its warm jaw. The horse blew hay-scented breath into her face with a soft chuffing sound.
"Shh. Easy. Easy," she crooned, stroking its neck. She moved alongside and reached for the rope tied to the pommel. Even standing on her toes with her chest pressed against the horse's heaving flank she could barely reach it, and the knot so tight she couldn't loosen it. Catherine glanced at Jim's dusty body sprawled in the road, and at the other man slowly rising to his feet, cursing as he brushed off his clothes.
Now that the crisis was past, a couple of men from the feed store came out to the street and grabbed the leader of the thugs, while someone ran to get the deputy. A few patrons of the tavern collared the other two roughnecks. Mr. Murdoch, the saloonkeeper knelt in the road beside Jim and untied his wrists, cursing under his breath.
Catherine walked over to the prone body of the stable hand and watched Murdoch feel his limbs for broken bones.
"Is he alive?" She squatted beside them, her skirt pooling around her, and stared at the dust-covered form. The man's eyes were closed and blood seeped from abrasions on his face.
"He's unconscious, but I think he'll be all right. Damn! If only he'd kept out of their way."
"He needs the doctor."
"Already sent someone to get him."
Catherine pulled her handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at the blood on Jim's face. "What happened?"
"Drunken fools called for another round. Shirley was tending another table so they shouted at Jim to get their drinks. Of course, he couldn't hear 'em. He's there to push a broom, not wait tables. They started yelling, grabbed him and dragged him outside."
Catherine bit back her question of why it had taken him so long to do something. Pushing back a lock of Jim's dark hair, she examined the wound at his temple. "I thought Mr. Kinney worked at the livery stable."
"Works there too. Has a room back of the stables. Christ! Where's the damn doc? Pardon the language."
A young woman ran up to them, her skirts held high enough to show striped stockings all the way to her knees. Her red hair straggled from the bun in back to frame her round, red-cheeked face. The neckline of her dress revealed most of her bosom, which rose and fell as she panted. "Doc's out on a call, Mr. Murdoch. Is he okay?"
"Damn! Hope to hell there ain't anything broken. Guess all we can do is carry him back to his room."
Several men had gathered around, and together three of them lifted Jim's body. He groaned, and his eyes opened, his gaze focusing on Catherine.
She smiled. "It's all right. You'll be all right."
He blinked, but she didn't know if he'd understood. She'd only seen the man once or twice since she'd moved here, and people said he was slow as well as deaf and mute.
Walking beside the men carrying him, she kept her gaze locked with his in an attempt to offer encouragement. The eyes that stared back at her were focused and intelligent. She could almost see his thoughts busily flickering in them, but with no voice to give substance those thoughts remained locked inside him. Catherine realized he wasn't mentally impaired at all.
The men carried him through the doors of the livery stable, and Catherine lost eye contact with Jim. Her stomach churned, which wasn't surprising since a rearing horse had nearly trampled her. The deputy would probably have questions for her as the main witness of the altercation, but for now she was intent on seeing what she could do to help Jim Kinney. She followed the men into the livery.
His body ached in a thousand places. Every bone hurt. Every inch of exposed skin was shredded. He felt like he'd been dragged down the street behind a horse. Jim smiled at the irony, then groaned as one of the men carrying him jarred his right side.
He looked at the three faces above him. Murdoch frowned. His mouth moved beneath his handlebar moustache as he said something to John Walker from the hardware. Jim recognized the third man from the feed store. Their faces were strained with the effort of carrying him and their fiercely gripping hands hurt like hell. He wished they'd set him down and let him get himself back to his room. Even if he had to crawl it would be less painful.
Jim glanced past Walker, who was holding his legs, and tried to catch another glimpse of the schoolteacher. She must've left.
He wondered if any of his bones were broken, wondered if someone was getting the doctor, and how he'd pay him. How soon would he be able to work again? If his body failed him, he was in trouble. That's why he always took good care of himself, careful to keep healthy and steer clear of dangerous situations. From a lifetime of practice, he'd become adept at avoiding drunks or bullies who wanted to show their manliness with their fists and found him an easy target.
But today he hadn't been alert. He'd been thinking about Shirley Mae and what she'd done for him the previous night. He'd only paid for a hand job. It was all he could afford, but he was desperate for something more than his own touch. Shirley had given him a blowjob for free. She'd pointed to the rhinestone comb in her hair, the one he'd found one day while sweeping the bar and returned to her, then she'd bent her head and taken his erection in her mouth. With that memory in mind, he hadn't been aware of the three drunken men until they grabbed him.
Now Walker and the other men were maneuvering Jim through the narrow doorway of his room. He gritted his teeth to keep from crying out as they jostled his body. When they laid him on his cot, he exhaled in relief.
His small room was crowded with bodies, but soon all of the men left except his two bosses, Murdoch and Rasmussen. They spoke together a moment. He couldn't see their lips to read them and was too tired to care. His eyes drifted closed. They opened again at the pressure of Murdoch's hand on his shoulder. He explained slowly that the doctor was out on a call, patted Jim's shoulder and left the room.
Mr. Rasmussen sat on the edge of the bed, pushed his glasses up his nose and frowned, a sure sign he didn't know what he was doing. He might be able to wrap a horse's strained leg, but what did he know about people? Jim inhaled a deep breath and pain pierced his side. Something was wrong with his ribs. He gestured to his side, letting Rasmussen know. The man nodded and began unbuttoning what was left of his shirt.
A movement in the doorway caught Jim's attention. The schoolteacher stood framed there in her blue and white-flowered dress with her daffodil-colored hair. A faint scent of lily-of-the-valley perfume wafted to him. She was like a flower garden filling the dark space.
She hesitated, glancing at Rasmussen before entering the room. Only a few paces brought her to the edge of Jim's bed.
He couldn't stop staring at her like the idiot everyone thought he was. The sight of her fresh, feminine form in his dingy room was unbelievable, besides which he was dizzy and near passing out from the pain in his head. His gaze fastened on her lips.
"Is there anything I can do?" she asked Rasmussen.
The stableman turned toward her so Jim couldn't see his reply. Miss Johnson nodded and left the room. He felt pain that had nothing to do with his injured body as she disappeared from view.
Rasmussen lifted Jim's torso, peeled off his long-sleeved shirt and undershirt, and lowered him back onto the bed. Colors and lights flashed in front of his eyes and the edges of his vision grew dark. Oh God, his worst nightmare was coming true. He would be blinded from the blow to his head and left totally helpless. His pulse fluttered wildly as panic surged through him. He gasped for breath.
"What is it?" Rasmussen frowned. "Where does it hurt?"
Jim gestured to his head.
"You took quite a blow, but you'll be all right. I'll fix you up."
How the hell do you know? You can barely tend the horses! Jim nodded, his jaw clenching.
Suddenly the teacher was back. She had a bucket of water in one hand and some clean rags from the tack room in the other. Offering them to Rasmussen, she glanced at Jim. Her eyes widened as she saw his naked torso and she quickly looked away.
Rasmussen rose, indicating she should take his seat and wash the blood and dust from Jim's face and body. He explained he was going to get liniment. The teacher looked after Rasmussen as he walked from the room, her mouth open as though to protest, then she closed it and turned back to Jim. Her smile was tense. "You. Read. Lips?" She spoke each word carefully.
"I'm going to clean you." She sat on the cot next to him, her hip pressed against his in warm intimacy. She dipped one of the rags, squeezed it out and leaned over him to sponge off the blood at his temple. It was cold.
He let his eyes drift closed and submitted to the pressure of the wet cloth dabbed against his face. She held his chin in her other hand as she bathed his forehead, cheek and neck. Her hand was soft and the scent of lilies much stronger with her so close. Beneath the flowers, he could smell her body, a secret, womanly aroma.
Jim opened his eyes, watching her bend to rinse the rag in the bucket. Her sun-colored hair was pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck. Tendrils of hair curled around her face. Two perfectly arched, light brown eyebrows were knitted in a frown of concentration over sky-blue eyes. Her tongue darted out, wetting her lips, and his heart jolted in his chest.
Turning back to him, she began patting again, this time on the bloody abrasion on his shoulder. The pink blush rising in her cheeks told him she was uncomfortable touching him. A lady didn't do such things to a strange man. He couldn't stop watching her eyes even though she wouldn't meet his gaze. He'd never seen eyes so blue.
All he knew about her was that she was the new teacher. He'd seen her around town a few times. Once, at the mercantile he'd watched as she laughed and talked with a little girl. Her smile and the sweet affection she'd shown toward the child had made him smile too. He'd also seen her walking to and from the schoolhouse, but he didn't know her name. No one had said it in front of him and he couldn't ask. There was no reason for him to know it. But now he was desperate to have a word for her, a shape of the lips that meant her, even if he couldn't imagine what the word sounded like.
Jim touched her hand and it stilled. She finally looked at him. He pointed at her and raised his eyebrows, requesting her name.
"Catherine Johnson." Her hand touched her chest and her lips moved slowly over each syllable.
Mimicking her, he felt her name with his thrusting tongue and moving lips. Without knowing the sound, he'd never forget the shapes. Memorization came easy to him. Jim nodded and smiled, accepting the gift of her name. * * * *
He was so much smarter than she'd been led to believe by the ladies in town, who'd claimed him to be a harmless simpleton. Catherine had never given the young man who worked at the livery a moment's thought. Why would she when his world and hers never crossed? Now, she'd been forcefully catapulted into his life, sitting by his bedside performing a most intimate personal act. The day had veered from the straight path of "normal" onto a twisted trail.
Catherine hadn't seen so much male flesh in her entire life. It wasn't seemly for even laborers to toil in a shirtless state in public, especially not somewhere a lady might see them. However, she had been to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City with her aunt and cousins once and there she'd seen much more than a man's naked torso. The nude statues and paintings had shocked her, although she'd hidden her reaction from her cosmopolitan relatives.
Jim's body wasn't like the smooth, white marble statues. His skin was warm and soft beneath her fingertips. The scrape on his shoulder was bleeding and other cuts and bruises marred his flesh. Washed clean of dust, his skin was tan and textured with small freckles and moles. His chest was mostly smooth with just a sprinkling of dark hair, and from his navel to the waist of his pants led a fine trail of hair. The sight of the dark nipples on his chest sent a wave of fire burning in Catherine's cheeks and a prickling feeling between her legs. This very real male body was definitely nothing like the statues in the museum.
His stomach had been scraped raw on the road. Bits of grit were embedded in the flesh, and she could hardly ignore the area simply because it made her nervous. Pushing aside her girlish hesitancy, she washed his abdomen clean as well.
Catherine's breath caught as she wiped his stomach. The muscles twitched as the rag stroked over his taut flesh. Her cheeks flamed and her sex tightened. She bent to dip the washrag in the bucket again. Luckily, by the time she'd wrung it out, Mr. Rasmussen was back in the room with bandages and liniment.
"If you could help me just a little longer, young lady, I want to wrap this around him in case there are any cracked ribs. I don't think anything's broken or he'd be in a lot more pain, but I'll have Doc Halloran check him over later."
Together they sat Jim upright. He groaned as they raised him. Catherine moved to sit behind him and support his shoulders while Mr. Rasmussen wrapped the bandage around his middle. Jim's dark head rested just above her breast, its warmth burning through the fabric of her dress and into her body. Her nipples hardened and another wave of heat burned through her.
His hair was nearly black and very glossy. Strands fell across his forehead and she wanted to stroke them back. With his dark hair and eyes and tan skin he might have Indian blood or perhaps he was from Mediterranean stock. He certainly looked nothing like the German and Czech immigrants who'd settled much of Nebraska. How had he ended up in this town? What was his story? She was desperately curious to know everything about him.
"Finished." Mr. Rasmussen's voice startled her. He fastened the end of the binding with several pins. Jim's midsection looked like the wrap on the mummy Catherine had seen at the museum. "Could you go to the store and pick up a headache powder to ease his pain?"
"Of course." Catherine slipped out from behind Jim and lowered his body back to the bed. She rose, anxious to escape the alarming feelings growing in her.
Once more her gaze met Jim's. His eyes locked on hers with the strength of a vise, communicating something she didn't understand. She hurried from the room.
Outside the livery stable, she inhaled a deep breath of fresh air, freeing her mind of the odd emotions clouding it before crossing the street toward the general store.
In front of the various businesses, clusters of people stood discussing the exciting event of the day. Where had they all been when she was screaming for help as Jim was dragged down the street? Catherine looked for her parcels and bag on the boardwalk where she'd dropped them, but they were gone.
"Miss Johnson, what happened? I heard you were nearly trampled!" Pearl Jalkanen, the barber's wife, hurried toward her. "Horrible! Tell me everything!"
Catherine gestured at the mercantile. "I have to go--"
"The deputy arrested those men. Got 'em down at the jail." Abe Jalkanen, smelling strongly of the pomade he used on his thinning hair, came up beside his wife.
"How's the boy?" Neal Hildebrandt, the feed store owner joined them. "Jed said most of his skin is scraped clean off."
"Please. Mr. Rasmussen asked me to get a headache powder from the store. Mr. Kinney is all right, although he might have broken ribs. We'll know more after the doctor has seen him." She nudged past Pearl and continued on toward the store.
Inside the mercantile were more townsfolk with questions and congratulations on her heroics. Catherine kept her answers brief as she bought the headache powder. Some kind soul had brought her purchases and handbag into the store, so she collected them then headed back to the livery.
On the way, Deputy Nathan Scott intercepted her. "Miss Johnson. Can you come to the sheriff's office? I'll need you to tell me about what happened."
"After I drop off this powder for Mr. Kinney. Have you questioned him yet?"
The deputy frowned, his fine, white-blond hair framing his broad, pink-cheeked face and making him look like a puzzled cherub. "No. He can't talk. What could he tell me?"
Catherine shifted the bundles that were slipping from her arms.
Deputy Scott took them from her. "I'm sorry, Miss Johnson. Let me carry those for you."
"Mr. Kinney might not speak, but he can communicate. Both Mr. Rasmussen and Mr. Murdoch will tell you that. He's not stupid." She fought to keep the irritation out of her voice. She didn't know why she felt so defensive on Jim's behalf. Up until today she'd assumed, like everyone else, that he was feebleminded. The deputy had no reason to think any differently, and it was true that Jim couldn't easily answer questions.
The big man escorted her to the livery where Mr. Rasmussen met them and accepted the paper packet from Catherine. "He's asleep. I'll give him this later. Boy's going to be hurting bad by later tonight."
She felt a surge of disappointment that she had no reason to see Jim again. The strength of the feeling amazed her. What was the matter with her? Perhaps it was simply that, having saved him, she felt a responsibility for him. That must be it.
Mr. Rasmussen gave the deputy his estimation of Jim's injuries. Scott took notes and thanked him before turning to Catherine again. "Miss Johnson, if you don't mind going to the office with me, I can drive you to the McPhersons' after we've talked. Save you a long walk."
"All right." Catherine suppressed a sigh, suddenly exhausted and shaky as the shock of the experience caught up with her. Jim might be dead now instead of merely injured, or she might have been trampled by the rearing horse. Her anger swelled at the drunken, dangerous men who'd perpetrated the crime, and she wanted to make sure they stayed locked up.
With a final glance past the stalls at the closed door of the back room, Catherine followed Nathan Scott from the livery stable. * * * *
Jim lay in the windowless darkness of his room and stared at the line of light around the door. He hadn't really been asleep when Rasmussen left, but wanted to be left alone to think about everything that had happened that day, including the abrupt blossoming of his ridiculous attraction to Catherine Johnson.
He mouthed her name, feeling the shape of it and seeing her in his mind's eye. Of course he'd noticed the pretty woman who was new in town. Every man in Boughton probably had. She was beautiful and carried herself with an air of elegant sophistication far different from the women of the community. Jim wished he knew more about her, but until today, she'd been no more than a fleeting glimpse of passing beauty to him.
Now that he'd had her hands touching him all over and those blue eyes focused on him, his blood was fired with an impossible longing. He could've gazed into her eyes for hours. But hankering after her was pointless. He might as well wish for the sun to come down to earth as to imagine ever having that woman in this room again. He still couldn't figure out why she'd come here at all.
His memory of the struggle with the men in the saloon was fragmented. One moment he was sweeping, the next rough hands grabbed him. The unexpectedness of the attack was almost worse than the pain. He hated being taken by surprise. But one image was clear in his mind. For a split second before they dragged him to the street, he'd seen the woman's face, eyes wide and horrified.
The dragging was a blur and he'd lost consciousness for a while. When he came back to himself, lying on the ground with faces floating over him, Catherine's eyes had been something to hold on to, an anchor for his floating mind. Pity had probably inspired her to help Mr. Rasmussen nurse him, but at least it had brought her close.
Jim couldn't relax. His body throbbed with pain. His arms felt like they'd been dislocated. He rubbed the rope burns on his wrists and stared into the darkness, afraid to close his eyes in his own room, afraid something would come for him while he slept.
Slowly, by careful inches, he sat and swung his legs off the edge of the bed. He rose and the room whirled around him. Hobbling over to the door, he slid the bolt he'd installed, locking it securely. He limped back to his cot and dropped onto it then pulled the blanket over him.
He was finally able to close his eyes, but still couldn't sleep as images of a different kind distracted him; shimmering blonde hair, a soft, rosebud mouth that smiled and spoke directly to him, eyes as blue as an August sky which looked at him and really saw him. He was a fool to dream about a woman who'd done him a simple kindness and probably wouldn't acknowledge him tomorrow if he saw her on the street.
Still, he mouthed her name over and over--Catherine Johnson. And her shining form kept the darkness of his lonely room at bay.