Elizabeth took several deep breaths but her heart still hammered like it was building a fence inside her rib cage. The experience with Vaughn getting dressed had set her off balance. She hadn’t remembered being so aware of a man before. And she had four brothers, plus various neighbors, brothers-in-law and Lorenzo and Javier.
Yet it took a naked swindler to awaken the sleeping woman inside her. It wasn’t logical yet it had happening, was still happening. Her palms sweated, her skin was sensitized to the point her clothes were giving her goosebumps, her pulse thundered and damned if she didn’t feel decidedly warm between her legs.
It was embarrassing and frustrating. She had no way to stop it or control it. Being in the same room with him set her teeth on edge. Elizabeth had always relied on facts and numbers, information to guide her. This whole business of physical reactions confused her and she didn’t know what to do.
So she ran.
It galled her to do so. Elizabeth didn’t run from anything. Except apparently from men who made her remember she was a woman. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t had a beau now and then, but many of them thought her too serious. One even accused her being an old woman in disguise. Those accusations stung but she couldn’t change who she was to suit a man’s sensibilities. She wouldn’t either.
All that left her in a bit of a sticky situation. It would be another few days before Mr. Montgomery was physically able to leave. Even that might be a stretch. The man had been injured and fevered. He had no other form of transportation besides his own two feet. Although Matt would berate her for weeks, possibly months, if she gave the stranger one of their horses, he could leave sooner. Selfish of her, but she would endure the yelling to save herself discomfiture.
“Ellie?” His voice echoed across the great room.
She stiffened, her nerve endings zinging with awareness. “Mr. Montgomery, I don’t believe I gave you permission to call me that.”
“I believe our experiences, the intimacies shared, preclude not calling each other by our Christian names.” He moved closer with his shuffling step.
She told herself not to move, that he would walk back to the room he stayed in. Yet he moved closer, standing directly behind her. His body heat encircled her, his scent invaded her nose.
He chuckled. “I have no doubt of that. I haven’t bathed since I’ve been here.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I’ll get the water heating.” As she stepped to the sink, she grabbed an empty bucket from the floor.
“You don’t need to do this now.”
“I won’t be able to sleep knowing you smell like that.”
He chuckled. “You surprise me with that sense of humor.”
She pumped the handle and turned to look at him. The very sight of the man was enough to make her physical situation worse.
“You’re funny, Ellie. It’s definitely dry but you are quite funny.” He smiled and her hand slipped off the pump, plunging into the cold water.
He handed her the towel from the counter. “Are you all right?”
She wiped her hand and continued to pump the water.
“Should we do something with the stove to heat the water?” He gestured to the large stove, currently not doing a thing.
She was a complete fool. There was no way to get hot water without actual heat. She should have tended to the stove first.
“Um, yes, I’ll do that. Why don’t you go rest?” The sooner he left, the better she would feel.
“I just need to sit.” He sat down at the large table. It held at least ten people, sometimes fifteen or more. However it didn’t look odd with a single man sitting alone. He rested his chin in one hand, elbow on the table. Large bags hung below his dark eyes. Exhaustion was in his expression and his posture.
Genuine concern pushed aside her discomfort. She set the full bucket on the stove then stoked the embers. She filled a second bucket and placed it on the stove as well. Satisfied the water would boil, she poured two cups of coffee from the still warm pot.
With a bit of trepidation, she set them down on the table and sat across from him. He picked up the cup and slurped at the brew.
“That’s good. Real good.” He blew out a breath. “Never thought walking five feet would sap my strength.”
“You were injured and had a fever, Mr. Mont—Vaughn.” She tasted his name and found it delicious. “It will take time to heal up. If Eva were here, she’d probably give you better care. I’m a poor substitute.”
“I don’t believe that. I owe you my life. You’ve been nothing but kind to me.”
Not entirely true. She hadn’t been kind in her thoughts and had been short with him. He was the one being polite.
“I’ve done what my mother taught me. I’m not a good nurse though. I spent all my time in books instead of learning how to be a proper female.” She hadn’t meant to let that slip and brought the coffee to her lips to stop the words from continuing.
“Books, hm? I can’t say I’m surprised. You are very well spoken.”
“Not as good as you speak though. I think you went to college or had tutors or something. I’ve never met anyone who spoke so fancy.” She wasn’t able to stop herself from spilling out all her thoughts.
“Anyone can speak properly. It just takes practice. I never went to school.” His confession startled her.
“I didn’t either. My mother taught us until I was twelve and then my older sister Olivia took over.” It was strange to have something in common with him. But good.
“What happened when you were twelve?” He sipped his coffee, unaware he tread on sensitive territory.
She contemplated whether to tell him. It had been nine years but the pain of losing her parents was a part of her, or who she was. “My parents were murdered. My oldest brother Matt took over the ranch and parenting the rest of us.”
He looked startled. “Murdered. That’s, well, awful. Did you catch who did it?”
“Yes, my brother-in-law Brody was a Texas Ranger. He found them and saw the culprit duly punished.” There was so much more to the story but that was Brody and Olivia’s story to tell.
“I’m glad to hear it. Texas is a rough place. Many folks are killed for nothing more than scraps.” His voice had dropped to a rough whisper. “Sometimes for less than that.”
Experience vibrated in his words. Someone he knew or loved had been murdered, too. Another thing they had in common.
“Who was it?” she asked quietly. Her coffee was only warm but she drank it, eager for something to do besides have such a serious conversation. Yet it was one of the defining moments in her life, and she couldn’t explain why.
“No one of consequence.”
This was the first time she’d heard a lie in his voice. She didn’t push him about it. Murder was a very personal, dark memory for anyone who had lived through it. Whatever secret he held in his heart was his to keep. She would not pry any further.
They sipped the rest of their coffee in silence. The water bubbled on the stove and she rose. “I’ll put the tub in your, er, in the room you’ve sleeping in.” She went to the back porch and pulled the wooden tub in.
It scraped as she pulled it across the floor, its weight heavy but not unmanageable.
“Let me help you.” He tried to rise, but tottered before he dropped back on the bench.
“Don’t be foolish. I can manage it. I’ve done it a thousand times without a man’s help.” Elizabeth had fought against her brothers’ idea of what was appropriate for a girl and what wasn’t. She could do anything she put her mind or heart to.
“I can see that. You make it hard to be a gentleman.”
“There ain’t much call for gentlemen in Texas. We need real men.” She dragged the tub down the hallway and into the room. She straightened and pressed her fists into her lower back to ease the stiffness. Elizabeth turned to find Vaughn at the door, watching her. More specifically, watching her breasts.
For a moment, she was too stunned to speak. Her heart fluttered and darned if her nipples didn’t pop like buttons.
“I, uh, came to see if I could help,” he offered weakly.
“As you can see I’ve already got the tub set.” She needed to get out of the room. He was too big, too tall, too there. It wasn’t very ladylike, but she hurried from the room.
The water bubbled merrily in the buckets. She picked up a rag and lifted the first bucket. Her return trip to his room was at a more sedate pace. The last thing she needed was to burn herself on the boiling water.
Vaughn sat on the edge of the bed, his face drawn. She tipped the water into the tub with care. The steam billowed up around her and she closed her eyes for a moment to let it pass. When she opened them, he was watching her face. His study was unexpected and foreign. It made her uncomfortable. In all her life, no young man had looked at her like this stranger did.
What did he see?