Bradyn started to come around. The little boy’s shouts had roused him momentarily but the cold water woke him right up. Opening his eyes, he watched her. She was so busy wiping his chest that she failed to see he was awake.
She had amber eyes. Wide-set and lined with thick black lashes, they glowed as streaks of sunlight came through the window and refracted from their fiery depths. They reminded him of the deep color of canyon walls reflecting a sunset.
How do you like that? I managed to stumble across a pretty woman even though I was knocked out. Bradyn winced as she wiped a laceration on his abdomen.
Her lips were pursed in concentration. Creamy, golden skin covered flawless cheekbones and a slender neck. Her hair was twisted into a thick, dark brown knot at the back of her head, save for a few frazzled strands that hung in wavy curls around her forehead and neck. He smiled, imagining that they had come free during her frantic efforts to get him back into bed.
“What’s your name?” he asked. His words came out low and raspy. My throat feels as dry as the desert in July. Damn, I’m dying of thirst.
She jerked and her eyes grew wide. Then her startled expression disappeared behind a mask of indifference. “Rian Keene,” she replied, giving him a cool appraisal. “I didn’t know you were awake,” she mumbled as she went back washing his chest.
“Rian,” he murmured thoughtfully as he watched her. She shifted uncomfortably under his gaze and kept her head low as she focused on cleaning his chest wounds. He supposed that his earlier comment had frightened her. He wished he’d kept his mouth shut. It wasn’t very smart to offend the person who’d saved his life. From the look of her, she undoubtedly had a man about who would be more than happy to shoot him for insulting her.
He watched her pour some alcohol onto a wad of cotton. She dabbed at the cut on his cheek, her face void of emotion. Bradyn gritted his teeth together as the alcohol stung the wound.
The hair on his face itched. “Feels like I could use a shave,” he said, trying to get her to make eye contact.
“You were delirious,” she said. “The way you kicked and shouted, I wasn’t about to try and shave you. The Lord knows you don’t need another cut to add to your current repertoire.”
“Delirious?” Bradyn looked around the room. He brought his eyes back to rest on her face. “Tell me, how long have I been here?”
Placing the cotton and the alcohol on the table, she wiped her hands on her apron. “Nearly four days.”
“Four days…I’ve been unconscious that long?”
“Yes. Well, longer I’m sure. You were unconscious when your horse brought you in.” She commenced to assist him into a reclining position and fluff his pillows.
His quiet groan was the only hint he gave to the pain that movement evoked. But on the inside, he was screaming. Bradyn couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in this much hurt. He took a deep breath and settled back against the soft pillows.
“So you’ve been looking after me then,” he said as he ran a finger slowly along the cut on his cheek. “I’m obliged to you.”
Rian stirred the cereal that had cooled down since she had first brought it into the room. “Think nothing of it,” she said. Her tone was indifferent. She scooped some cereal into the spoon and gestured to him, “I think you should eat this. Then I’ll give you some medicine that will take the edge off your pain.”
“I’m thirsty,” Bradyn remarked as he took the bowl from her. “Might I trouble you for some water?”
Rian nodded and filled the dipper from the bucket. He guzzled the water greedily. It tasted wonderful. Cold dribbles of it ran down his chin and his chest. He drank three dippers full before he started eating his breakfast.
“You here alone?” he asked amid unhurried bites.
Rian frowned at him. Her unease at his question was obvious. “Of course not. My nephew lives here with me.”
“Your nephew? How old is he?” Bradyn stopped eating and cast a side-long glance in her direction. “He’s not that scrawny little kid that was in here before, is he?” He took a slow sip of the coffee.
“You certainly are very nosy,” she deflected. “I don’t see how that is any of your business, Mr. Preston.”
He stifled a grin as she took a seat on the bedside chair and folded her hands in her lap as primly as any school marm. “You’re absolutely right,” he said as he lifted another spoonful of cornmeal to his mouth. “I would just assume that a woman of your fine appearance would have the good sense not to live in the middle of the wilderness alone. And, if you don’t mind my saying so, having a kid ain’t much better than being alone. In fact, it’s probably quite a lot worse.”
“My safety is clearly the least of your worries in my opinion, sir,” she retorted. Bradyn admired the fire that leapt into her eyes. “I would be concerned with the preservation of my own neck if I were you. You seem to have some pretty vicious enemies, Mr. Preston. Perhaps justly so. Besides, any man who is foolish enough to endanger his own well-being by involving himself in brawling and Lord-knows-what-else, has no business questioning the choices of another,” she finished sternly.
“What makes you think I am concerned with your safety?” he asked. He flexed the muscles in his jaw as he assessed her. “What if I just want to know how easy it would be to take advantage of you?”
He expected his words to frighten the living day right out of her, so when she laughed out loud, it startled him. “No offense, Mr. Preston, but I don’t think you are in any condition to take advantage of anyone.”
“And when I am well enough to try?” He knew he should’ve put a clamp on his tongue, but, the urge to ruffle her feathers was appealing and irresistible. She was so darn beautiful.
“I met you with a rifle the day you first came here.” She sat up tall in her chair, her eyes flashing with amber challenge. “If you hadn’t been hurt, I would have shot you square on the spot.”
Bradyn raised his eyebrow. “Is that so?” he asked, resisting a smile.
“Damn right,” she replied. “And if you don’t be quiet and finish your breakfast, I’m liable to shoot you still.”
He couldn’t stop the chuckle that rumbled deep within his chest. “You’ve got a sharp tongue behind your pretty mouth, that’s for sure. Tell me, how did such a lovely woman come to live in this God-forsaken country thirty miles from the nearest town anyway?”
Garnering a chuckle and a compliment from him seemed to give her a small sense of ease. However, her voice was full of sarcasm as she asked, “Would you prefer to hear the long or the short version of the particular story, Mr. Preston?”
“The long. I’ve got time it seems,” he replied with enthusiasm.
Rian narrowed her eyes when he offered a dazzling smile. He wondered if his superfluous facial hair and injuries made him look repulsive to her.
“The short it is,” she answered. There was a faint glimmer of mirth in her eyes. “My brother moved out here with his wife nearly seven years ago and I came along for the ride. Does that answer your question?”
Bradyn blew out a sigh of forced resignation. “Guess it does. Or at least, it has to for now.”
Rian stood up. She looked anxious to leave the room. “Good, now that the only conversation we’ll need to make is out of the way, and since you’ve finished your breakfast, you should drink this medicine. It will help with the pain and swelling.” She handed him the tin cup and watched him swallow it in one gulp.
“That’s awful!” He coughed while choking down the nasty mixture. “What is it?”
“Willow bark powder and brandy. It’s a pain reliever,” she explained, gathering the bowl, spoon, and cup and placing them back on the tray.
“Let me get this straight. You nearly choked me to death on some silly powder to help me feel better?” he asked.
He noticed the smile that tugged at her mouth when he gave her a dubious expression. “Medicine is not intended to taste good, Mr. Preston. That’s why they call it medicine and not candy.” There was a touch of pride in her eyes and a condescending, motherly tone in her voice.
“Well, thanks just the same, honey, but I’d rather not have that marvelous little treat again. Just give me a straight shot of whiskey next time,” he snorted.
She rolled her eyes in a manner suggesting that she supposed his kind would always prefer straight whiskey, and made no comment. As he watched her pick up the tray and leave the room, Bradyn decided she was going to take some careful handling. She wasn’t the type of woman who cottoned to his methods of teasing, that much was clear. Rian Keene was a skittish one, not the usual sort of woman he would be interested in, and yet Bradyn found himself looking forward to the next time she set foot in the room. I’ll watch my big mouth next time, he vowed.