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Loving Katherine
Carolyn Davidson


She’d offered the shelter of the barn without much prompting. In fact, her brisk words had come as a bit of a surprise as he’d leaned back in his chair, his appetite eased by the rabbit stew.

“You’re welcome to stay out back if you need a place for the night.” Busy at the sink, scrubbing at the empty stew kettle, she’d spoken over her shoulder offhandedly, then swung back to her task.

Hesitating only a few seconds, he’d answered, “That’s kind of you, ma’am. I’d be obliged to take you up on the offer.” His elbows rested on the table, and leaning forward, he watched her. “Maybe we can talk about those horses out in the corral, come morning.”

She was silent, but her movements slowed as she appeared to consider his words. Then she lifted the clean kettle from the soapy water and rinsed it with a small dipper. With deliberate motions, she wiped the inside dry with the towel she’d flung over her shoulder earlier.

“I’ve got nothing to sell right now.” She put the pan on the stove with a resounding clang, and its moist surface sizzled on the hot metal.

“Noticed a nice-looking mare that was a good size,” he observed idly, his eyes narrowing as he caught a glimpse of slender ankles beneath her swaying skirt.

“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” she’d said dismissively.

“Well, it’s morning now,” he muttered. “Pret’ near, anyway.” With one last turn, he kicked at the blanket that covered him and rose from the narrow cot. In the depths of the barn, he heard the rustling of straw as an animal stirred.

Probably the cow, he decided, getting anxious the way cows usually do about dawn. Time for milking soon. He wondered if Katherine was up yet, if that rope of hair was loose or already braided up and hanging down her back. Shoving long legs into his pants, he reached for the shirt that lay over his saddle, next to where he’d spent the night.

He shook the image of her from his mind as he buttoned and tucked his shirt, tightening his leather belt above his hips before he pushed open the barn door. The sky was pink, there on the eastern horizon, and an owl swooped low in a final flight before the sun sent him to his perch. From the corral, he heard the soft nicker of a horse and the answering call from within the barn. His stallion hadn’t taken to being put in a stall when three fillies were just outside the upright slats of the wall next to him.

Roan Devereaux knew the feeling He’d sensed the same yearning last night, just for a moment, when Katherine Cassidy had risen on tiptoe to light the lantern hanging over her table. The movement had drawn the fabric of her dress tautly against her form, and he’d felt a twinge of response as he watched her. Beneath the shapeless dress was a woman’s body, and his own, needy as it was, had answered in a predictable manner. Something about the sun-ripened skin of her cheeks and the length of her slender neck appealed to him. Or maybe it was the intelligence that dwelt in the depths of her gaze as she glanced in his direction, silently weighing him and his purpose here. At any rate, the little brown mud hen was a complex female, he’d decided reluctantly.

“One thing’s for sure, she’s off limits to you, bucko,” he said between gritted teeth, shoving a hand into his back pocket.

The memory of Charlie Cassidy was fresh in his mind and the respect he’d felt for the man spilled over onto the woman who was his daughter. Seeking out an old friend, more for the sake of friendship than the hope of buying a horse, he’d allotted only two days for this detour.

Louisiana was due south, and that was the general direction he’d be heading come tomorrow, if all went well. Katherine Cassidy might be a mite richer when she sold him a mare, but if she ever thought of him again, once she’d seen the last of him, he’d be remembered as a gentleman from the word go. He’d leave the lady as chaste as he’d found her, that was for sure.

Chapter Two (#ulink_185f5913-9b2d-5169-98fb-59fcb354b3e1)

Katherine’s eyes widened in disbelief, and a mocking smile curled the corners of her mouth. The sight of Roan Devereaux milking her cow was not what she’d expected to see this morning. But she’d been properly set back on her heels as she halted in surprise just inside the barn.

“Good morning, Katherine.” His voice was low and husky.

“Eyes in the back of your head, Mr. Devereaux?” she asked dryly, leaning one arm against the doorjamb.

“No, ma’am. Just recognized your step, the way your skirt swished.”

She looked down quickly at the telltale garment and frowned. “Could have been someone else,” she argued idly.

He turned his head from the task he’d assumed and his eyes flashed a humorless message. “No. If it’d been someone else, I wouldn’t have been sittin’ with my back to the door, waitin’ to be ambushed.”

She nodded, accepting the mild rebuke, and stepped closer. “About done there?”

“About.” His hands efficiently stripped the udder of its last drops of milk, and he lifted the bucket to one side before rising from the three-legged stool.

“Where do you want this?” he asked, inclining his head toward the results of his early morning chore.

She shook her head. “It’s enough that you beat me to the chores. I’ll take care of the rest of the job,” she told him briskly, bending to pick up the pail of foaming milk.

His big hand halted her, his fingers grasping her wrist, circling it easily. “I always finish what I begin, Katherine. Just tell me where it goes.”

The warmth of that callused hand was a revelation, she decided, her eyes riveted on the place where his flesh met hers. She almost flinched, felt her muscles flex beneath his palm as his touch transmitted a strange, pulsing heat to her skin. Then his hand slid up to grasp her elbow and her eyes rose to meet his, apprehension tightening her jaw and flashing momentarily in her gaze.

“I don’t need your help,” she said firmly, her chin lifting proudly.

His grin was one-sided, tilting the corner of his mouth in a suggestion of mirth that was gone before the smile could be fully formed. “Didn’t say you did.” His nod just escaped mockery. “Let’s say I’m a little late earnin’ my supper from last night.”

Turning her by the hold he kept on her elbow, he effortlessly lifted the bucket, careful to keep the warm milk from sloshing over the sides. “Now, tell me where this goes, Katherine.”

It was worth more to keep her dignity intact, she decided as she walked through the wide doorway. Arguing with the man would only be practical if it involved something of greater importance than a bucket of milk. She bowed her head in acquiescence and waved her free hand toward the milk house, a small wooden shed, one of several outbuildings.

“There. You’ll find a fresh cloth to cover it with. I’ll take care of it after breakfast.”

“You’re cookin’ breakfast already?” His words were hopeful.

“I’ll feed you before you leave,” she said flatly, pulling from his grasp and heading for the house.

Behind her, he halted, the half grin in residence for a fleeting moment. “We haven’t talked about a horse yet, ma’am,” he reminded her.

Her gait was brisk, and only a man with a quick eye would have noticed the hesitation his words inspired. Roan Devereaux had always prided himself on the accuracy of his eyesight, and he allowed the smile to widen his mouth just a bit. Beneath the brush of his dark mustache, his teeth gleamed for a moment.

“Ma’am?”

Her stride lengthened as she left him behind. Her back was rigid, and chestnut-hued hair hung between her shoulder blades, barely moving against the dark fabric of her dress. Tied with a leather thong at her nape, it reached to her waist. It looked like the silky tail of a Thoroughbred, he noted with absurd pleasure.

Her hand grasped the railing as she stalked up the three steps to the porch. Then, turning to face him, there where he waited, watching her, she spoke, her voice low, her enunciation precise.

“I already told you, Mr. Devereaux. I don’t have any horses ready for sale right now. I don’t mean to be rude, but after breakfast, I’ll expect you to be on your way. I’m sure you’ll be able to find an animal suitable for your purposes in town. The livery stable has a good selection. Thurston Wellman will be most happy to sell you a horse.”

She lifted one hand to shield her eyes from the rays of sunlight shining from above the horizon in the east. He watched her silently, with a measuring look that gave little indication of his thoughts, and she responded with a calm appraisal of her own.

Her eyes swept his form, lingering briefly here and there as she measured his considerable length. His clothing was well-worn but sturdy, she decided, his denim pants clinging to the strength of his thighs like paper on the wall. His shirt was faded to a nondescript color, but intact, neatly tucked into place, hugging the breadth of his wide shoulders, then tapering to the narrow measure of his waist. Long-legged, his stance casual and relaxed as he watched her, he bore her scrutiny well. The mouth that had twice twitched with amusement at her expense was almost hidden now, his lips pressed together beneath the brush of his mustache. His eyes were narrowed and dark. High cheekbones made her think of an Indian brave, and the straight blade that formed his nose was centered in a face too strong and rugged to be considered handsome.

“You can wash up at the well,” she offered finally. “Breakfast will be ready in ten minutes.” Briskly, she turned to open the door, and her skirts swayed as she disappeared into the house.

He ate four biscuits, smothered with pale gravy and flanked by several eggs. She’d risen twice to fill his mug with coffee and was surprised to see him add a generous dollop of cream to the dark brew. It was a crack in his spare demeanor, this small luxury, she thought, watching his fingers move the spoon about in the heavy white coffee mug. Katherine silenced the admiration that surged within her as she acknowledged the raw, dark beauty of the man across the table. Roan Devereaux, her father’s friend, was not what she had expected.

She ate sparingly, aware of his presence in her kitchen, of each movement of those lean hands as he ate, only the small sounds of their silverware against the thick china plates marring the quiet of early morning. And then she nodded at the murmur of his appreciation as he finished the meal she’d prepared.

Pushing his chair back, he lifted his coffee to drink the last of it, savoring it slowly, watching her over the rim of his mug. “Fine food, ma’am. I’m much obliged,” he said, replacing the empty vessel on the checkered tablecloth.

She rose briskly and was up and about, clearing the dishes and removing herself from his presence. He’d been the soul of good manners, she decided, eating the food she prepared and using his utensils with skill and ease. Sometime in his life, someone had taught him well, she thought, wiping up crumbs from the red-and-white oilcloth. Aware of his gaze upon her, she moved quickly, uneasy beneath the cool, measuring eyes that paced her movements.

She rinsed the dishrag and hung it to dry over the edge of the sink, then she set the dishes to soak in soapy water. Closing her eyes, just for a moment, she took a breath and, turning toward him, motioned to the door.

“I’ve got a heap of work to do, Mr. Devereaux. I need to be up and at it.” She’d given him a bed and meals to boot. Roan Devereaux or not, Charlie’s friend notwithstanding, she didn’t need the strangely disturbing presence of this stranger here. Now to move him on his way, out of her house and on down the road.

“Katherine.” His voice reproved her gently.
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