Excerpt: Whirlwind Wedding
Book 2, The Whirlwind, Texas Series
A soft grunt sounded in the room next to Jericho’s, then the sigh of a rope bed. It was Andrew coming home from somewhere. Did his sister know? Perhaps she’d been with him. But if she had, why would he come in through his bedroom window?
Jericho strained to hear more, but there was no further sound. Where had the kid gone, and why? Had he returned alone?
Jericho pushed himself up with his good hand and slowly swung his legs to the floor. Pain arrowed up his right thigh, but he steadied himself by holding on to the bedside table to help him stand. Biting the inside of his cheek to keep from groaning, he gripped the wooden edge until the room stopped rocking.
This was the first time he’d been up, and his leg burned in agony. Nauseous and trembling from weakness, he limped to the wall and flattened his hand against the pine, feeling his way to the door. It opened silently and he leaned against the jamb, breathing hard from his short trip. Sweat trickled down his bare chest and beneath the waistband of his light cotton drawers.
A full, fat moon sent light slanting into the front room that also comprised the kitchen. His gaze searched the shadows to his left until he saw Catherine. She lay on a pallet beneath the front window, her hair a curtain of midnight black flowing over her shoulder. The windows in his and Andrew’s rooms had been left open, but not in here. Stuffy air clogged Jericho’s lungs and he wondered how she could even breathe. Her white, sleeveless nightdress shone in the darkness. Pale moonlight fell across one cheek, gilded her straight nose and smooth skin. One slender hand pillowed her cheek; the other lay across her waist, almost as if she were protecting herself.
As his eyes further adjusted to the dim light, he saw a sheet draped low over her hips. Her breasts were in shadow, but Jericho had a good imagination. He looked away, blinking to focus in the darkness and search the corners of the room. Everything was quiet and calm.
He shuffled closer. If Catherine had been out with the boy, she showed no signs of it. Her breathing was slow and steady. There were no hastily discarded clothes. Her dress and apron hung neatly on a wall peg next to the fireplace opposite Jericho’s side of the room. Beside, a tin bathtub stood against the wall. Her wrapper was draped over the back of a rocking chair in the corner.
Pain snaked through him and ate away his strength. He could make out the cupboard against the wall to his right, the dining table in front of him. He gripped the edge. A moment of silence passed, then another. Andrew seemed to be in for the night, and Catherine appeared to have slept through her brother’s absence and return.
Trying to gather what little strength he had, Jericho turned to go back to bed. And hit his thigh on the table’s edge. Sharp, keening pain nearly drove him to the floor. His vision hazed and he cursed.
“Who’s there? What do you want?” Catherine cried out, startling him.
“Shh.” His fingers dug into the wood as he fought to drag in a breath. “It’s . . . me.”
“What’s happened?” She rose, a hazy figure pulling on her wrapper and coming toward him.
“Didn’t mean to frighten you.” Pain was a vicious band around his thigh, and Jericho braced himself against the table. “I’m sorry.”
She stopped about a foot from him, her clean, fresh scent reaching through the thick night air. He wanted her to stay away, but it took all his energy to stay upright.
“What are you doing?”
At her accusing tone, he growled, “I’m on my way back to bed.”
“You shouldn’t be up. If you needed something, you could’ve just called out to me.”
Her voice was cool and guarded; he could feel her wary gaze. What did she think he was doing — coming out here to have his way with her?
“I heard a noise,” he snapped.
“What was it?” She looked around, alarm plain in her voice.
His lips twisted. “I’m not sure. Whatever it was, it’s gone now.”
Had Catherine really not heard her brother return? Or did she know he’d been out and was now protecting him? Jericho couldn’t stand here much longer. The floor seemed to shift beneath his feet, and the heat in his thigh made him wonder if it were bleeding.
“Let me help you.” She was once again the calm nurse who’d taken him in.
He wanted to refuse her assistance, but if he did he might fall at her feet again. Surely one time was enough for any man. “Thank you,” he said gruffly.
The agony in his leg had subsided to a dull, bone-pinching throb. Catherine moved to his uninjured side and braced her shoulder under his arm, then put an arm firmly around his bare waist.
For just a moment, he balanced there and let her cool beauty soak into him. He hadn’t allowed himself to be this close to a good woman in a long time. His arm rested on her shoulders and she gripped his wrist with her other hand. Her touch unleashed a longing he could scarcely admit. A long-denied part of himself greedily took in her clean scent, the brush of her unbound breast against his side.
“Ready?” Her body tensed to move.
He fought to keep his hand from drifting down her arm. “Yes. Ready.”
He took slow, halting steps, fresh pain tearing at his leg. She served as a crutch and let him set the pace. But the press of her body against his sparked a savage heat inside him. He tried to move faster, get back to bed so he could stop feeling it. Stop wanting to feel more.
He inched forward awkwardly, ignoring her teasing scent and the satin of her hair tickling his arm. An almost giddy relief washed through him when they shuffled through the doorway and he saw the bed. He stepped toward it, releasing her at the same time.
His leg gave out. She clutched at him as he grabbed for the wall behind her. Agony wrenched his leg, rattling his teeth.
“Damn,” he muttered raggedly. Nausea rolled through him and sweat broke out across his forehead.
After long seconds, his breathing still uneven, he leaned against the wall.
Not the wall. Catherine Donnelly.
Bracing his weight on his good arm, Jericho eased back enough to look at her. She stood motionless, her gaze trained on his bare chest. Beyond the pain of his leg, a different kind of throbbing moved into his groin. Well, he could rest easy about the question of his manhood.
He felt every inch of her, and those inches felt damn good. The reason for his being here jumbled with the quicksilver reaction of his body to hers. Hard man to soft woman. Through the light fabric of her wrapper, her breasts teased his chest while her hips and thighs pressed to his. Her breath fluttered against his throat, making his blood pound. He wanted to kiss her, peel down the straps of her nightdress and see the breasts shadowed beneath the fine lawn fabric. He wanted to run his hands through her hair, over her body.
“You are so sweet.” It took a second for him to realize he’d whispered the words. In that instant, he registered something else, too.
Though she stood rigid against him, she trembled, not fighting, but warning him off all the same.
He shifted so that moonlight fell over his shoulder. She stared straight ahead, her face ghostly pale, her lips compressed.
“Catherine?” His whisper sounded harsh in the silence.
Her gaze lifted slowly to his and Jericho drew back. Terror swam in her eyes. He recognized that fear, and it had nothing to do with what he knew about her brother and the McDougals. She didn’t fear him as a Ranger. She feared him as a man.
© 2005 by Debra Cowan
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books, S.A.