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Indian Territory, 1873
The next person who set foot on her property would meet the bad end of a bullet. Tightening her grip on the pistol, Ivy Jennings Powell paced from one side of her large front room to the other. She had been waiting, watching since she'd found one of her horses dead three days ago.
Lightning cracked the March air like a whip. Thunder rumbled. Outside her snug frame home that served as a stage stop, the storm howled.
When lightning struck again, it illuminated the massive oaks and pines swaying in the wind. After a short drumroll of thunder, the weather calmed somewhat. A steady rain drove against her roof and the rush of the wind quieted, though she could still hear the lashing of trees. A thud sounded on her front porch and her gaze shot to the window, its isinglass shade pulled down. She tried to identify the noise. An animal?
If so, it wasn't one of hers. They were all shut up tight in the barn or the chicken coop. From the center of the long table against the opposite wall, a lamp spread soft amber light through the room.
Since the death of her husband a year and a half ago, Ivy had been alone in this southeastern corner of Indian Territory. She and the neighbors scattered miles apart lived just over the border from Texas and Arkansas.
A movement at the window had her going still in the middle of the room. Was that indistinct shape the silhouette of a man? After the past three and a half months, Ivy half expected it. She had wired her brother, Smith, about her troubles, but he hadn't replied yet, and she didn't think he would arrive unannounced. His home, Mimosa Springs, was a two-day ride west.
Today's stagecoach and its passengers had come and gone. The Choctaw people who lived around her were a peaceful lot, and there had never been any trouble between them and whites.
The doorknob rattled, and Ivy's mouth went dry. Even so, she marched to the locked door and yelled, "Who's there?"
A muffled masculine voice answered. With the crashing of the storm, Ivy couldn't understand a word.
Thumbing down the hammer on her revolver, she unlatched the door. Before she could swing it open, the wind nearly jerked it out of her hand. She aimed her gun at the visitor, barely aware of the door slamming against the wall.
A giant of a man stood there, hands in the air. In the wind-whipped shadows, she could see only the impression of a hard jaw and glittering eyes beneath the hat pulled low on his head.
Lightning slashed across the sky of churning gun-metal clouds, illuminating a scar on the man's neck.
"Are you going to pull a gun on me every time we meet up?"
Ivy tensed. She knew that voice. It was deep and gravelly and put a flutter in her stomach. Just like it had the first time she'd seen him in her brother's barn three months ago. That meeting had been at gunpoint, too.
The man towered over her, water dribbling from the brim of his hat onto the porch. The clouds moved, and she peered through the shadows. "Gideon Black?"
"Yes, ma'am." He slowly lowered his hands.
"What are you doing here?"
"Smith sent me." He had done prison time with Ivy's brother. And after his release, he had accepted Smith's offer of work and arrived at the Diamond J just before Christmas. Ivy had met him when she returned home after learning her presumed-dead brother was alive and back in Mimosa Springs.
Gideon Black had sparked an unwelcome response in her back then. He still did.
The rain ebbed to a steady shower, though the wind still tangled her skirts around her legs. He had to be soaked to the bone. Releasing the hammer, she stepped back so he could enter. "Come inside."
"Miz Powell, I've been riding for two days and I ain't-" He stopped, then started again. "I haven't washed up."
"I'd say you just had a pretty good washing," she said wryly, pushing some loose strands of hair out of her face. "I'll get some toweling."
She was halfway across the front room before she realized Gideon Black hadn't followed her inside. She turned, noticing that his frame took up the entire doorway. Hat in hand, he frowned down at his mud-caked boots with a helpless look on his face. Was he worried about making a mess?
"Mr. Black, it's all right."
His gaze flicked over her. For a brief moment, his expression was hungry. Then his features were unreadable.
She gave an encouraging smile. "Come in. The mud will dry, and when it does, I'll sweep it up."
"Yes, ma'am." He finally stepped inside.
She went to the spare room reserved for stage passengers to rest or wash up. Why hadn't Smith come? Or their father? At Christmas, her brother had demanded that Ivy notify him if the anonymous poems and drawings she'd been receiving became suspicious or more frequent. They had. They had also turned threatening. At least to her way of thinking. Other things had happened, too. One of the horses had been killed, and her dog was missing.
From the wardrobe, she grabbed several towels, returning to find that Gideon had removed his poncho. He leaned against the door frame, taking off his boots. He put them upside down on the boot tree, just inside the door.
Something about this big man in his stocking feet put a funny ache in her chest.
He shook the rain off his hat then backed inside and shut the door. His shoulders were as wide as a wagon brace. He hung his hat on a peg near the door.
Ivy's gaze trailed over him. Short dark hair sleeked against his head, a few strands curling against his bronzed nape. His shirt was damp and the fabric clung to his muscular back and arms, revealing clearly defined shoulders and biceps. Buff-colored trousers molded a tight backside and powerful thighs. The pants were mostly dry, probably coated with tallow for weather like this.
He turned to face her, and her gaze snapped to his and held. There was a heat in his blue eyes that burned right through her.
Then his attention shifted, moving down her body.
She tensed. What was he looking at?
"Miz Powell, do you think you could put that Colt down?"
"Oh. Yes." She wished he wouldn't call her by her married name. She slid the gun into her skirt pocket.
She handed over two towels because of his size. He stayed near the door, rubbing his hair and face with the cloth. Biceps knotted at the motion, hinting at a raw, leashed power. She'd forgotten just how big he was.
With her own towel, she patted at her damp hair. She'd forgotten about his scars, too. The whisker stubble couldn't hide the long, thin mark that ran along his left jawline or the thicker one that appeared to completely circle his strong, corded neck. She wondered if he had others.
When they had first met, she had noticed the scars right off, but they weren't what held her attention. It was his eyes. A clear piercing blue. And hard. He had a hard mouth, too. The man appeared to be hard all over. A flush warmed her cheeks.
The storm settled into a steady rain, pinging against the side windows. The damp heat of their bodies filled the room. She caught a heady draft of man and leather. Gideon's broad chest rose and fell in a regular rhythm, but Ivy's pulse was still haywire.
Through his near-transparent shirt, she could see the dark hair on his chest, the way it veed down the center of his abdomen. Suddenly, she was aware of her breathing. And his. It was unnerving. Unwelcome.
She frowned as he reached into his back pocket and took out a square of leather.
He opened the pouch and withdrew a piece of paper, holding it out to her. "From your brother."
She took it, trying to ignore the jolt that traveled up her arm when their fingers brushed. A muscle flexed hard in his jaw.
The paper was dry, and she realized the pouch was deer hide. She quickly scanned the note. "This is the wire I sent to Smith after finding my horse dead."
"Yes. I brought it so you'd know he really sent me."
The thought that he would lie had never crossed her mind, but it should have. Ivy knew better than anyone that people lied.
Her heart rate finally leveled out. "So my brother isn't coming."
"No, ma'am." Gideon frowned. "Didn't he say so when he wired you back?"
"I haven't gotten anything from him."
"He sent you a telegram. I was there when he did."
The missing telegram was just the latest in a sequence of odd happenings. In the past three months, a telegraph office, a hotel and a lumber mill had opened in her growing town. "I'll check with the telegraph office the next time I'm in Paladin or ask the stage driver when he returns. He might know what happened to it."
Refolding the paper, she handed it back to Gideon, mindful not to touch him this time.
He seemed to move just as carefully. "When Smith found out about the horse, he wanted to come, but he couldn't."
"Because of spring calving?"
"Partly." Gideon returned the message to his leather pouch and slid it into his back pocket. "And he just had surgery on his leg. He isn't getting around too well yet."
"Doc Miller reset his leg. He straightened it out some."
While in prison, Smith's leg had been badly broken in several places. Ivy was glad to hear her brother might be getting some relief from the pain he endured daily. She understood about her brother, but it wasn't like Em-mett Jennings to stay behind. "What about my father?"
"He wanted to come."
Alarm flickered. "He's not ill?"
"No, ma'am, but he is getting up in years. Smith feels your pa's reflexes aren't what they used to be. His hearing is going, too."
From her trip home at Christmas, Ivy knew that to be true.
The large man in front of her shifted from one foot to the other. "Smith doesn't feel either of them are able-bodied enough to protect you."
Judging by the deepness of Gideon's chest and the ridges of muscle that corded his abdomen, her visitor looked able-bodied enough for all kinds of things. She wondered if his arms were as steely and strong as they looked.
Irritated at herself for noticing so much about him, she cleared her throat.
"Knowing my brother, I don't imagine he sent you all this way just to tell me something he could've put in a wire."
"No, ma'am. He wants me to stay and find out who's behind your trouble."
She could figure that out for herself, but she knew her brother wanted to protect her, whether she liked the idea or not. "I'm not being threatened. Just my animals."
"Even so, I'll be stayin', ma'am." He took a step toward her, his features stony, forbidding in the amber light. "Till your brother says different."
Ivy had done just fine on her own since Tom's death, and she didn't need a man around. She'd only sent word to Smith about this latest incident because she had promised she would.
She licked her lips, ignoring the way her visitor's gaze went to her mouth. "Nothing has happened since I sent the wire."
"But you're spooked."
His eyes narrowed. "You thought I was here to harm you."
"Maybe I overreacted."
"You said your horse was dead, ma'am."
"That's a message of some kind." She agreed, but the thought of him staying rattled her.
"It can't hurt to have another person here," he said.
While that was true, he wasn't just another person. The idea of his being so close made her shiver, and if she were honest, part of that was due to excitement, not dread.
She needed some space from him right now.
"You'd probably like to change out of that wet shirt. And I'm sure you'd like to get some rest."
He studied her as if trying to determine if she were attempting to get rid of him. Which she was.
He nodded. "In the morning, you can tell me everything that's happened."
She could protest, or she could graciously accept the protection her brother had sent. "All right. You can stay in one of the guest rooms."
"The barn will be better. That way, I'll be in a good position to see or hear anything suspicious."
She hoped relief didn't show on her face. "There's a bunk out there, and the roof is sound. Let me get you some bedding."
A few moments later, she returned with a sheet and quilt. It was likely cool outside now. He could use whichever covering he wanted.
As badly as Ivy wanted him to go on, her mother had drummed manners into her. "Have you eaten supper?"
"Your ma sent plenty of food along with me."
"That's good. Breakfast will be at six, dinner at noon and supper at six."
"Are you expecting the stage?"
"It came today. It won't be back for a few days."
He nodded, then after an awkward pause, turned for the door. "Good night, Miz Powell-"
"Please!" she burst out. "Just call me Ivy."
"All right," he said slowly, a curious look on his face.
Well, he could wonder all he liked. "Thank you."
Who knew how long he would stay? The man was clearly doggedly loyal to Smith.
Gideon stopped to tug on his boots.
She opened the door, glad to see the rain had let up a bit. "I know you saved Smith's life and I know he's grateful, as am I. But why do you feel you owe him so much?"
"He gave me a chance." Boots on, he straightened, his voice raspy. "A lot of folks wouldn't."
"Still, he's asking a lot of you. A two-day ride for an unknown length of time." She gave a light laugh. "You're going to be very busy helping your friends if you have a lot of them."
The hollowness in his blue eyes told her he wasn't being flippant. She felt a sharp tug on her heart.
He paused in the doorway, looking down at her with an inscrutable expression. "I won't cause you any extra work and I'll help around here with whatever you need, but I ain't-" He broke off, looking self-conscious. "I'm not leaving, either."
"As long as you're here, no liquor. I don't hold with drinking."
"That won't be a problem, Miz Pow- Ma'am."
She barely had time to nod before he put his hat on his head then jogged toward the barn. She stared through the haze of rain until he opened the door and drew his big black horse inside. Lifting a hand toward her, he shut them both inside.
Ivy closed the door, her chest tight, her nerves tingling.
Her visitor wasn't bent on harming her or her animals, but he made her feel things she hadn't wanted to ever feel again. Man-woman things.
She would figure out who was causing problems on her farm. The sooner she did, the sooner she could send Gideon Black packing.