Meg arched her back to relieve her stiff muscles and bit back a groan. The Seth Thomas clock on the mantel downstairs chimed two, its tone clear in the night's quiet. She had sent Karl to bed at sundown. Now, she longed to slip across the narrow landing to her own bed. Using cool water, she rinsed the stranger's feverish face. His unshaven cheeks were flushed despite several doses of willow bark tea. He remained unconscious.
She wished the doctor could have stayed, but he had closed the wound quickly and left after a few brief instructions.
Wiping her brow with the back of her wrist, she wrung out the cloth and dipped it in fresh water. The stranger twisted away from her touch with a moan. Damnthe man, she thought with a tired groan of her own. The unbuttoned collar of the oversized nightshirt he wore gaped to reveal his muscled neck and part of hischest. The corn husk-stuffed mattress rustled under him.
The scent of his freshly washed male body, a clear mixture of soap and a male scent she already identified as distinctly his, filled her nostrils.
Meg licked her dry lips. She was entirely too fascinated by this stranger. Karl's straight-laced soul would be shocked by her thoughts. Suddenly aware her fingerswere tightly knotted around the wet cloth, she loosened them. The sleeves of her flannel robe clung damply to her wrists and she plucked at the fabric.
He moaned again and she leaned closer. The dim light from the oil lantern revealed his sweat-coated face. His fever had finally broken.
He mumbled under his breath. Her long braid fell forward to curl like a question mark on his chest.
His deep blue eyes flashed open, wild and confused. He grabbed her shoulders. His strong grasp burned hot as the devil's claws through the worn flannelsleeves of her robe.
"Let me go," Meg ordered in her best schoolm'arm voice. "I know you're confused, but you must remain calm." His fingers loosened,but he didn't let her go. She braced her hand against his chest and felt his work-honed muscles coil like steel springs.
"Who are you? And where am I?" His deep voice sounded hoarse and dry as sand. A quiver of confusion underlay the harsh words and Meg reminded herself he was head injured.
"My name is Meg Warren and you're in my home," she stated distinctly. "Your horse threw you and we brought you here. Now, let me go."
Blinking rapidly, he glanced at the darkened room behind her. Little could be seen with the lantern wick turned down except that shadows filled the twenty-foot long andfifteen wide loft. She knew he couldn't see the other two beds shoved against the wall.
This close the black line circling the deep blue iris of his eyes was clearly visible. She could almost see his brain working to process her words. A smilecurved his mouth and she relaxed. To her shock, she realized her fingers were tangled in the soft, thick hair padding his chest. She wanted to touch more.
The clock chimed the half-hour, shattering the silence.
His hands slipped away and Meg twisted sideways. My father was right, she thought with agony. I am a slut. Her blood chilled faster than water in a New England ice storm.Meg gulped in air.
"Look, Mister," she stated, biting back the sympathy she felt for him. "You're hurt or you wouldn't be here."
His troubled gaze slowly drifted down to her bare feet. He closed his eyes and eased straight his injured limb. His arms dropped to the sheet as though too heavy to manage.
"What happened?" he croaked hoarsely. "Damn, I don't remember." His hand slide over his stomach. This time when his eyes opened his gaze was calm, but questioning.
Pulling her scrambled thoughts together, Meg filled a small tumbler with water. In the dim light, he looked vaguely familiar. If she had met him before, she'dremember eventually. She offered him the dripping glass.
"You'll need to drink a good amount to replace what you sweated away in the last few hours. Take this and I'll explain." She waited until his fingers closedaround the glass. "When you fell, the wound on your leg broke open and started to bleed. We sent for the doctor and he sewed it shut. When a fever set in, I dosed you with willow bark tea. We've been taking turns keeping the fever down with cool cloths. My children always need nursing for one thing or another, so I've learned what to do fora body who's doing poorly."
His slow smile revealed even white teeth and a deep dimple in his left cheek. Meg would bet he could charm the fleas off a dog with that look. Her heart jumped like a dropof water on a hot griddle.
"You've done a great deal for a total stranger. Thank you."
He'd forgotten how his accident happened. Meg fought down the cowardly urge not to remind him. Never tell a lie, never take credit for another person's good deed,had been beaten into her along with a number of other, less rational proverbs her fanatical father had worshipped. She braced herself to tell the truth.
"My little girl startled your horse. I take responsibility for her actions and for your care."
"There's no need, Mrs. Uh..."
"You probably don't remember. My name's Warren, Meg Warren," she offered.
His eyelids drooped half-closed and he slumped against the pillows.
"Drew, " he whispered, his voice rough with fatigue. "Andrew Larkin," he amended.
She thought he gave her a long glance from under his thick lashes, then decided it was a trick of the lantern light.
"Mr. Larkin, I'll leave the water pitcher in case you get thirsty. And I'll check on you later. My room is across the landing." She took the empty glassfrom his fingers and nodded toward where the stairs, landing and massive brick chimney divided the house in half. "Get some sleep."
Drew's head moved in a tired nod on the pillow. Pulling another comforter from the blanket chest near the wall, she spread it over the bed, then turned down the lantern. She marched through the narrow door without a backward glance.
In the dim light, Drew watched Meg Warren disappear through the doorway. He cursed fluently under his breath. She was either an incredible liar or his head was more injured than he suspected.
Those first confused seconds when he'd roused to find her leaning over him, he'd responded instinctively to her nearness despite his injuries. She was small, butfeisty. Her tart reprimands still stung. He felt a smile curve his mouth when he replayed her sharp words. He pictured her fine features and pointy chin. Her wide green eyesreminded him of a forest pool's surface flecked with filtered sunlight.
He hadn't noticed a woman, any woman, in four endless years. He frowned at his wayward thoughts. His hand knotted around the quilted fabric. Bile filled his mouth asmemories of another lying woman scalded like bitter acid across his heart.
Meg Warren might be attractive, but it didn't matter. He had found her. She was the quarry he hunted.