And never known Charlie’s Sparrowhawk? The thought pierced him with dreadful accuracy and he shook his head.
He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he left her with things so unsettled. He cast another look at the sky, shaking his head glumly. “It’ll be full dark before we get there,” he said to the mare, his hand stroking her neck with a gentle touch. “Guess we’d better make tracks.”
“I know you’re not gonna shoot me, Katherine,” Evan said cajolingly, sidling toward the porch. The setting sun cast his face in shadow beneath the wide brim of his hat, but she knew exactly how he looked. She knew the greedy expression his face wore as he considered her. For too long, she’d known he was only biding his time.
“Should have realized you’d be back here as soon as Roan Devereaux left town,” she taunted him, leveling the barrel of her shotgun in his direction. “Too much of a coward to hang around while a man was staying here, weren’t you?”
“I don’t take kindly to bein’ called a coward. I’m facin’ you down, ain’t I? And you with a gun aimed at my belly.” He reached the foot of the steps and tilted his head back to look up at her. “Let me come in and we’ll just talk, Katherine,” he wheedled softly, a smile turning his expression into a parody of friendly persuasion.
“Get out of here, Evan,” she told him wearily. “I don’t have time to argue with you.” The barrel of the shotgun sagged just a bit, its weight heavy.
He halted and peered at her. “I can wait, Katherine. I’m a patient man.” With little grace and much muttering, he made his way to where he’d tied his horse, mounting and riding from the yard.
It was only a whisper of sound, there outside her bedroom window. Almost asleep, she wakened with a start, her heart pounding with a breathtaking cadence. Framed against the opening, his shoulders already inside, was a shadowed figure. Katherine’s mind was muddled, the edges of sleep making her movements slow as she swung her feet to the floor.
“Who is it?” she whispered into the darkness, aware even as she spoke the query that the familiar bulk belonged to Evan Gardner.
“I told you I was patient,” he said with a chuckle. “I been waitin’ out yonder for better than two hours, Katherine. Thought you’d be asleep by now, though.”
“What do you want?” she said, her voice raspy as she struggled to her feet, dread clutching at her throat. Without a gun as an equalizer, she was no match for Evan’s weight and she knew it. The thought of those thick fingers against her flesh made her shudder, and she feinted to evade his touch. To no avail. He was upon her before she could take a step, his body slamming into her with no regard for her woman’s vulnerabilities.
She lost her breath as he bore her down into the feather tick, his heavy torso solid against her slender form. One hand found its way into her hair and he twisted a handful about his fist, anchoring her against the sheet while he sought to rub his mouth over her face. His lips were open, loose and wet, and she shuddered, reaching with both hands to pound against him.
It was futile. Before she regained her breath, gasping for air to fill her lungs, she knew she was in way over her head. Her gun was beside the bed, too far for her to reach, and the nearest help was down the road, almost a mile away. Tears flooded her eyes. Tears of resentment that because she was a woman, smaller and more easily bested, he could come into her home and wrestle from her what she was unwilling to give.
“Evan, no…” Her voice was muffled beneath his weight. His free hand was busy at the front of her nightgown, tugging at the buttons, his mouth vainly attempting to capture hers as she endured the pain of his fist clenched in her hair.
“You wouldn’t be nice about it, would you,” he snarled against her cheek. “I wanted to do this nice and easy, Katherine, but you wouldn’t let me.” His fingers grew impatient; he tore at the worn fabric of her gown, the material ripping with a ragged sound.
“Please, no. Don’t do this, Evan,” she sobbed, aghast as she felt the helpless tears flood her eyes and overflow.
“Aw, come on, Katherine. I’ll make you happy,” he wheezed, his hand fumbling beneath her bodice, fingers grasping for a hold against her flesh.
She felt the brush of a fingernail across the crest of her breast and gasped for air, only to release it in a scream of sheer terror. And once started, she could not be silenced.
“Listen to me, you stupid woman,” he growled, both hands on her shoulders now as he sought to hold her firmly, aware only of her thrashing body beneath him. “Damn it, Katherine, I’m willing to marry you!”
“Nooo…” It was a cry of anguish, followed by a sobbing, mournful wail that reached the ears of the lone rider who approached over the rise east of the garden patch.
“I’ll show you what a good husband I’ll be, Katherine,” Evan told her loudly, attempting to make himself heard over her muffled cries. He fought for a space between her flailing legs, his hands shifting to grasp wherever he could, ducking her fists, which aimed in his direction, more often than not landing sharp jabs.
She screamed again, the sound shrill in his ear. He straightened over her, his hand open and hurting as it met the side of her face, cracking loudly in the darkness.
“Shut up and listen to me, Katherine,” he shouted angrily. “You’re gonna marry me, one way or another, and I don’t mind takin’ my wedding night a day early.”
“I wouldn’t count on that.” The voice from the window was quiet. The sound of a revolver’s hammer being cocked was unmistakable, and the form of the man who climbed silently through the window was familiar.
Evan rolled from the bed, exposing Katherine’s pale flesh to full view. Her gown was tangled about her thighs, the bodice torn and shredded, one breast exposed in the moonlight.
Roan stood to one side of the window, his eyes searching the darkness beyond her bed, narrowing as he spied movement. A form was edging across the floor, making an attempt to reach the door.
“Gardner, stand up where you are,” Roan snarled. “Don’t make me shoot you in the back.”
“Roan?” Katherine moaned beneath her breath, her hands futile in their efforts to tug her gown into place over her breast.
“I’m here, Kate,” he answered, his attention focusing on her, attuned to her distress.
It was all Evan needed, that moment of distraction Katherine had afforded him. He bolted through the open doorway and across the kitchen to the door of the house, crouching low as he leapt from the porch.
With a snarl of disgust, Roan turned back to the window and was gone, landing on the ground with one leap and moving around the house to the front.
“Gardner!” he shouted, stopping and taking aim at the fleeing figure. “Damn fool knows I won’t shoot him in the back,” he growled. Lowering his aim, he steadied his arm and pressed the trigger. The shot was true. Evan hit the ground, rolling to clutch at his leg and shouting his anger.
“Shoot me in the back, would you?”
Roan covered the ground between them rapidly, his eyes intent on the man who was attempting to struggle to his feet. “If I wanted to shoot you in the back, I’d have aimed higher,” Roan snarled in disgust.