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Wearing a bathrobe, with a towel slung around his neck, Cade McGivern gingerly sat down on the side of the bed in his darkened bedroom. Twenty minutes under a hot-as-he-could-stand-it shower, and it had only taken the edge off his aches, the merest bite out of the chill that seemed to go bone deep. He could still feel on his face the raw sting of snow driven by straight-line winds.
Yup, from the looks of it, the new year was shaping up to be a rough ride.
Hunching forward, he finished toweling his hair dry, stifling a groan at the twinge of pain through his right shoulder, the result of trying to coax a particularly ornery steer out of a drifting-over washout.
Not that there was another soul in the house to hear him if he did let go with a holler or two. As it stood, he was completely alone, with nothing for company but the wind outside. It was howling a blue streak of its own.
No doubt about it, that was one wicked storm out there. He was glad to be out of it after nearly twelve hours of working against time to ensure the safety of his herd. At a certain point, though, it all came under the category of damage control, meaning he'd learned as a matter of course not to hold out hope for a whole lot of success.
Yet both such circumstances, he realized, might be about to change, with any amount of luck. Luck, that was, and Destiny.
Cade didn't know what he'd have done today without the chestnut gelding he'd been training up. Destiny had been a trooper, never faltering throughout the hours of gathering cattle and driving them to closer pastures.
Then there was the letter that had come just yesterday. He reached out in the dark toward the bedside table to touch the still unopened envelope. What message it contained, he didn't know. Forgiveness would be nice, although he'd done nothing wrong. Cade was ages past looking for justice, however. Simply having another chance would do.
As for no longer being alonewell, that'd be nice, too.
Yup, despite this blizzard and the prospect of losing cattle to it, Cade was aware of a certain expectancy in the air that promised better times in the new year.
In any case, he was ready for a change.
If he had the gumption, he'd see midnight in, just for the curiosity of finding out whether this hopeful impression would bear out. But he was just too dog-tired to stay up another minute, much less three hours.
Casting the towel in his hand toward the doorway and getting dressed for bed, he eased under the thick covers.
That's when he did smell something for real: the faintest waft of wood. Sandalwood, to be specific. He knew only because his brother had favored it, even if Loren had taken any amount of grief from Cade for being so city-slickered as to choose a "scent."
Lying on his back, Cade again put out a hand, finding the letter on the bed stand and bringing it to his nose. It smelled only faintly of ink and paper, nothing more.
He shook his head at such foolishness, much unlike him. What was he waiting for, anyway? He may as well open it and get it over with.
But he was waiting for something, he realized, even as he pushed himself up onto one elbow to turn on the lamp on the opposite bed stand. He was waiting for, wanting, expecting, something more
Cade's heart stopped cold. He stared, blinked, then stared some more.
For lying on her side in the bed, her back to him, was a woman, sound asleep.
He was too stunned at first to move. Had he got so chilled out in the storm he was imagining things? Except he felt in perfect command of his senses.
From his vantage leaning over her, he could see that she was fairly young, with skin as smooth and white and flawless as the snow-covered plain outside. Long lashes lay against her cheek like tiny feathers. A dark braid of hair curled over her shoulder. She'd evidently been pretty chilled herself, for she'd drawn the down comforter up to her chin, making her look like nothing so much as an ebony-haired Sleeping Beauty in the midst of the hundred-year sleep whose end would come only with the kiss of her princely hero.
But he was no hero, princely or otherwise.
Truth be told, though, the whole scene she presented, sleeping peacefully in his bed as if truly secure in the trust that a certain someone would soon ride in whose return would make everything right in her world, had a feeling of of rightness about itlike the answer to a question he hadn't even known he'd asked.
She must have heard him, for the woman stirred, brow furrowing in momentary distress, making him wonder what dream he'd disturbed her from. He couldn't tell whether it had been good or bad from the little sound she made in the back of her throat.
It occurred to Cade that it was one of the most personal things you could do, watching someone wake up. He was helpless to look away, though, even if it made him feel out of place in his own bedroom.
Her lashes fluttered, then opened. She glanced around drowsily before settling her gaze on his hand, propped on the mattress in front of her. Her eyes followed a path up from wrist to arm to neck before finally meeting his own gaze.
And Cade found himself looking into a pair of the biggest, deepest, darkest blue eyes under the sun. He'd never seen anything like them, nor the expression in them, completely, utterly trusting.
"You're home," she said simply. As if she had been waiting for him. Or someone else.
Which seemed highly unlikely, given the way she closed her eyes again.
He realized only then that he was vulnerable.
At the mercy of this woman.
It had been a long time since he'd been surprised into such a disadvantage. Seven years, in fact.
If his face hadn't already been red from windburn, it surely was now as Cade swung out of bed, preserving only a fraction of his composure.
When he turned around, it was to those singularly captivating eyes staring at him as if he were the answer to a wish.
But hadn't he been the one doing the wishing?
Without a doubt, the cold had done a number on his reason, Cade decided. He noticed the letter on the coverlet, where it must have slipped out of his hand. It had gotten crumpled, probably while he'd gotten out of bed. He snatched it up and tossed it back onto the night table, making a mental note to be sure and read it as soon as he had a private moment. Best to get back to reality with no more delay.
"If you don't mind my bein' nosy, just what're you doin' in my bed?" Cade asked, embarrassment making him short.
She pushed herself halfway up on the headboard, the thick comforter mounding around her. "There wasn't another one made up in the house," she said, as if that explained everything.
Once more, sarcasm got the better of him. "Not much reason for a man livin' out in the middle of the Texas Panhandle to keep a guest room ready on the off chance some strange woman'll want to make herself at home."
He immediately regretted his abruptness. Even with her face half in shadow, he marked the shock in her expression, as well as another emotion he couldn't make out.
"You are Cade McGivern, aren't you?" she asked.
"I am," he said, wondering how she knew his name. Of course, one had only to look on the mailbox at the end of the lane, or on any number of papers and such lying around the house.
Yet she murmured on a breath of relief, "At least I'm in the right place."
Her words sent up a flag of warning. Who was this woman? How did she get here? More important, why was she here?
Well, he was more than ready to end the mystery.
"You mind tellin' me what's going on here?" he asked, gesturing toward her and the bed.
She pushed herself the rest of the way upright with some difficulty, swinging her legs over the far side of the bed and rising. "Actually, I was hoping you could tell me."
"Tell you what?"
He took a hit of confusion when she turned and he saw what her position in the bed and the comforter had hidden from him: She was pregnant. Heavily so.
He must have stared, for her arms went protectively around the burden under her navy corduroy jumper.
"T-tell me how you know me," she said, that unnamed emotion coloring her words and sending up another flag of warning.
"Ma'am, I've never seen you before in my life," Cade said in dead earnestness.
"I see." She closed her eyes briefly, as if absorbing another shock. Her mouth trembled in fear.
That was the other emotion he'd spied a minute ago: fear. Again, the warning went off in his head, like an alarm, but at least now he understood what it was about.
For in the next moment an unmistakable shiver of pain crossed her delicate features.
"Oh no," she moaned. Her hand shot out to grab the bedpost as she bent forward, clutching her belly.
Cade didn't need a medical degree to know what was happening. In an instant he was around the foot of the bed to take her elbow.
"It's the baby, isn't it?" he said. "That's why you stopped here."
"No!" She shook him off. "It's not time yet! It's too early!" She gasped for breath, then seemed to ask of someone besides him, "Why? I did everything I could! Everything I could think of"
She doubled over. In one motion, he lifted her and laid her back on the bed.
To his dismay, she locked her arms around his neck to keep him from rising.
"P-please," she panted, obviously still in pain. "Please tell me the truth. Are you sure you don't know me?"
Bending over her, Cade could only shake his head. "Why do you think I should?"
"Because," she answered, her gaze searching his face desperately, "I've been sent to you, Cade McGivern."
"Sent to me? But.. why?"
She shifted slightly, and the scent of san-dalwood rose up to meet his nose.
"It must be for you to deliver my baby, and not why I'd thought."
The warning in his ears suddenly sounded louder than ever, like the bong-bong-bonging of a thousand clocks striking midnight.
Because she was looking up at him, hitting him again with that blue gaze as deep as the ocean. And what he now saw in her eyes was alonenesscrushing and soul deep.
It reached out to him, grabbed hold of him and drew him in as nothing else on earth could.
"What did you think you'd been sent to me for?" Cade asked through a throat gone sandpaper-dry.
"To tell me who I am," she whispered. "Because I don't know."
Cade climbed the stairs with a heavy tread, dreading what he had to tell the woman in his bedroom. He couldn't imagine what it would be like for her, finding out she'd only a ham-fisted cowboyand perfect stranger to her, to bootto depend on as doctor, midwife and partner in the delivery of her baby.
But then, she was pretty much a perfect stranger to herself, apparently.
He sure wished Virgil would get home. The old ranch hand would be useless so far as helping him with the actual delivery, but it'd be handy to have someone to sterilize whatever needed sterilizing and to keep the fresh linen coming.
But Virgil must have stopped for the night at the Oldfield Ranch next over, rather than trying to ride the six miles back on horseback in a blinding blizzard. No one in the county knew West Texas terrain and weather better than Virg, but not even the most experienced cowboy looked to have any truck with Mother Nature when she got her back up. Hopefully the hand was safe and warm at the Oldfields', but Cade had learned that, more often than not, hope bought you more trouble than it was worth.
The proof of that was upstairs in his bedroom.
Mentally bracing himself, he entered the room to find the woman walking its length, back and forth, chin against her chest and one hand on her back, the other flattened on her belly.
She glanced up when he came in the room, relief chasing the fear out of her eyes. But not the desolate aloneness that had a way of pulling him in, despite himself.
That feeling of trouble on the hoof struck him once again.
"I got through to Doc Barclay back in Sagebrush," he said a little more curtly than he meant to. He'd had a moment to put on jeans and a shirt. It made him feel a little less vulnerable, at least physically.
"He's the G.P. in these parts." Cade decided he may as well give it to her straight. "He said there's no way with this storm blowin' full force that he can get here to deliver your baby. We're lucky we've still got phone service."
"And d-driving" she pressed her fingers to her mouth for a moment, then tried again "driving to the doctor?"
"To be frank, you'd have to be related to yourself to be so simpleminded as to go out in this weather. It's a total whiteout out there. Even in my dually four-by-four, we'd like as not end up goin' off the road and get stuck in a ditch."
"I see." She bit her lip. "I guess I'm lucky to have found you."
It was a narrow opening, to be sure, but he jumped on it. "Yeah, let's talk about that a minute, if you don't mind."
He jammed his fingers into his front jeans pockets, knowing he was being contentious bringing the subject up when the woman was about to give birth, but he had the right to at least a couple of questions before then. "I didn't see a car outside when I rode in, but that's probably because it's half-buried under a drift of snow. You said you don't know who you are," he said leadingly, "but what do you know, like how or when or why you came here?"
Her stance turned wary, her arm around her swollen belly protective, which did nothing to improve his confidence in her truthfulness. "I must've gotten here oh, I guess two or three hours agoby car."
"Did you stop here at the ranch 'cause it was the first place you came to when you realized the weather was getting ugly?" he tried again.
"But I told you," she answered. "I thought I was coming to you."
Cade steeled himself against the appeal in those blue eyes. "Look, you said that before, but I'm obviously not making the connection. How on earth could you know you were comin' to me?"
"I had a a note in my coat pocket with your name and address on it," she said, glancing around. "I must have left it downstairs."
"A note?" Was it just him or was this whole situation becoming less believable by the second?
"Yes. It said 'Sara'"
"Wait a minute," Cade interrupted. "So now you do know your name? You said before you didn't remember."