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Wolf Creek, Arkansas, 1886
Rachel stepped inside the medical office that was situated in the rear of the house she'd shared with her father and son since receiving her medical degree.
The rush of warm air from the fireplace was welcome after a cold drive in from the country. In a capricious mood, Mother Nature had dumped more than a foot of snow the night before, something rare in the southwestern part of the state.
She'd just come from the Gentry farm, where she had given Abby Gentry and her newborn son, Eli, a thorough examination. Baby Eli had been so eager to enter the world, there had been no time for his father to fetch help, forcing Caleb to help birth his son. Thankfully, mother and baby had come through the delivery with flying colors. Father was fine, too, but still a little shaky.
Breathing a weary sigh of satisfaction, Rachel set her medical bag on a nearby table and placed the quilt she'd used for added warmth on the seat of a straight-backed chair. She unwound the scarf from around her head and neck and shrugged out of her coat. Tossing them both over the back of the chair, she headed for the kitchen, where her son, Danny, and her father sat at the table near a rip-roaring fire, playing Chinese checkers.
"How are Abby and the baby?" Edward asked, with a smile of welcome.
"Just dandy," Rachel assured him as she leaned down to give her son a welcoming hug. She was about to launch into the story of Caleb delivering the baby when a loud pounding came from the direction of her office. She gave a little groan. "I should have known better than to think I could spend the rest of the day baking cookies for Santa."
"It's part of the job," Edward called as she retraced her steps to the office.
Danny, who followed her out of curiosity, pushed aside the lace curtains and peered out the window. "It's Mr. Teasdale!" he cried, recognizing the peddler's wagon. He brushed past Rachel to the door.
No doubt Simon was making a final tour of customers before Christmas to make sure they had everything they needed for the holiday. She wondered why he had come to the office entrance instead of the front and stood back while Danny flung open the door. Simon, whose fist was raised for another round of pounding, jumped.
"Simon," she said, seeing the panic in his eyes, "what is it?"
"Oh, Doc," he squeaked, his high-pitched voice quavering with emotion, "I was coming in from Antoine when I come upon this fella by the side of the road. His wallet was a few feet away, and it was empty. Looked like he'd been beat within an inch of his life. I was afraid to move him, but I wasn't sure how long he'd been there, and I was more scared he'd freeze to death if I came to town for help, so I loaded him up." The words tripped over themselves in their hurry to get out.
With no knowledge of how badly the victim was hurt, Rachel could only hope that Simon hadn't done any additional damage by moving him.
"You did right, Simon," she said, putting on her coat and following him to the back of the cart.
"Run get Roland," she told Danny, who lost no time hurrying toward a small house down the way.
"I like to have never got him in the wagon," Simon was saying. "And it took me more than two hours to get here. My Addie Sue is plumb wore down slogging through all that snow." He unlatched the rear door and threw it open.
The man lay in the makeshift bed where Simon slept when it was impossible to make the next town at day's end. The shadowy interior made it difficult to tell anything about the stranger except that he was big and tall.
"I'll get the stretcher while we're waiting for Danny," she said.
In a matter of moments, Danny was back with Roland, the brawny teen who helped Rachel whenever and however she needed. "Let's see if we can get him inside, so I can take a look at him."
Working together, they carefully transferred the injured man onto the gurney and into the morning sunlight, where Rachel gave the stranger a quick onceover. Young. Strong. Bloody knuckles. He'd fought back. Good.
Her gaze moved to his face, and it suddenly became impossible to draw in a decent lungful of air. Every molecule of oxygen seemed to have been sucked into a vast void somewhere. Her head began to spin, and her heart began to race.
Despite the multiple bruises and the swelling and the blood still seeping from the jagged cut angling from his forehead through his left eyebrow and across his temple to just below his ear, and despite the fact that she had not seen him in more than nine years, she had no problem recognizing him.
It was none other than Gabe Gentry. Simon squeaked out his name in a shocked voice.
Gabe. As handsome as ever. She had traced those heavy brows and the bow of his top lip with her fingertips. She had felt the rasp of his whiskers against her cheek. Had
Common sense returned, and a rush of fury and self-loathing banished the beguiling memories that jeopardized her hard-won detachment. Rachel's jaw tightened and she felt the bite of her fingernails into her palms. She would have liked nothing more than to load Gabriel Gentry back into Simon's wagon and order him to take the blackguard elsewhere, but she had taken an oath to heal, and as wretched as this man was, she was bound by her promise as a physician to do her best by him.
More to the point, and her consternation, it was her God-given duty as a Christian to do so.
Once she and Roland had transferred Gabe to the examination table, Simon said his goodbyes and went to see that his horse got a generous ration of oats while he went to Ellie's café to see about getting some hot food in his belly. Roland stayed to help move Gabe to a proper bed after Rachel finished tending him.
She was alone with her patient when her father rolled his wheelchair into the room. The fact that he was using it, instead of the two canes he used to get around since the stroke, told her he'd done too much during the day.
"Good grief!" Edward murmured, rolling closer. "Unless I'm mistaken, that's Gabe Gentry."
"It is," she said, pleased that her anger was manifested by nothing but the brusque reply.
"Do you need any help?" Edward asked.
"I will in a moment," she told him.
Wielding the scissors with a rough carelessness, she cut away Gabe's expensive coat and shirt. Deep purple bruises covered his chest. Her fingers began a gentle probing.
"Ouch!" Edward said, leaning in for a better look. "That's going to be painful when he wakes up. Any broken ribs?"
"Two, at least," she said, finishing her careful examination of his torso. "And his left arm, obviously." Both of Gabe's eyes were black. His perfect, straight nose was broken. When the dirt and blood were washed away, she straightened his nose and taped it into place.
"Who would do something like this to another human?"
"From what I've heard about his escapades since he left here, I imagine he's made his share of enemies," Rachel observed, as she began to cut away his trousers to check his lower body for injuries. They were minimal, just several nasty bruises.
"Boots?" Edward asked.
"I'd say so," she concurred, thoughtfully. "That's probably how the ribs were broken. He'll spend a miserable few weeks," she stated and felt a sudden rush of shame for the jolt of satisfaction that accompanied the thought. Her father's puzzled expression told her that he, too, was wondering at the root of her animosity. Well, let him wonder. She had no intention of enlightening him. Not now. Not ever.
"Was he robbed?" Edward asked.
"Apparently. Simon said his empty wallet was lying a few feet from him."
"Wasn't there another robbery near Antoine a couple of months ago?"
"Yes," she said, pulling a sheet over his lower body. "Can you reach the bandages?"
"I'll lift him upright if you can stand long enough to wrap him up."
"I can," Edward said, and they proceeded to bind the broken ribs.
"Do you think it was the same bunch, since Sheriff Garrett never caught the culprits?" he asked, as he tied off the ends of the bandage.
"Do you need any help with the arm?"
"I can get it, thanks." She splinted the arm and then poured a basin of water and began to wash the congealed blood from the gash on his face. It would leave an ugly scar.
"He's going to need stitches," she noted, staring dispassionately at the jagged wound, possibly made with a knife.
And how will your lady friends like that? I wonder.
Her teeth clamped down on her lower lip, and shame again swept through her at her uncharacteristic spitefulness. She felt angry and sick to her stomach and oddly depleted.
"Too bad," Edward said. "He's always been such a good-looking guy."
Gabe was starting to move around by the time she finished stitching him up, so she gave him a draft of laudanum to help him sleep. Once she finished treating him, she and Roland settled Gabe in the downstairs bedroom she reserved for the occasional overnight patient.
"Do you know him?" Roland asked.
"It's Gabe Gentry," she said, pulling the quilts up to his chin.
"I sort of remember him from when I was a little kid. Didn't he take off to see the world several years ago?"
"I heard he made a name for himself with the ladies," Roland said with a sly smile. "So they say."
Not really wanting to talk about Gabe's past, whatever it might or might not include, she thanked Roland, paid him for his time and wished him a merry Christmas.
She was cleaning up the examination room when her father rolled to the doorway, where he sat watching her with an unreadable expression in his eyes. "Did I miss anything?"
"You did a splendid job, Rachel. You should know by now that you're a fine doctor, and I'm very proud of you."
Proud of her. She turned away so he wouldn't see the tears that sprang into her eyes. How could he be proud of her after the humiliation and disgrace she'd brought to him and to the family name?
"Thank you," she murmured, knowing she had to reply. With her emotions and her features under control, she said, "He should sleep for a while. If you don't mind keeping an eye on him for an hour or so, I think I'll try to do the same."
Edward nodded. "If he needs you, I'll call."
"He won't," she retorted. "People like him don't need anyone."
Lying in her tousled bed, her forearm covering her eyes in a futile attempt to block the memories sweeping over her, Rachel gave a soft groan of anguish. She hadn't expected to see Gabe in Simon's wagon.
Indeed, since he hadn't been back to Wolf Creek since leaving, she'd begun to think she'd never again set eyes on him. Being confronted with his very real presence had rekindled the feelings she'd experienced when he'd walked away from her without a second thought.
Shame suffused her. Because she'd been fool enough to discount the stories she'd heard about him, because he'd been sweet and made her laugh, and listened to her, she had made the biggest mistake of her life.
She was a self-sufficient woman who had gone alone to a big city and challenged tradition by daring to go into in a field dominated by men. She came from a loving home and had a solid Christian background. She should have known better than to let him into her heart, but she had been so lonely and homesick, and he brought back memories of easier, happier times. He made her feel smart and special and important.
She'd fallen in love with him. Believing that he loved her in return, she had indulged in her forbidden longings and given him everything his kisses demanded.
Three weeks later, he'd left her with nothing but a note for goodbye, a bleeding, aching heart and three weeks of memories that seemed sordid in light of his defection. She had faced the truth: Gabe Gentry was everything the gossips said he was and more. A liar, a cheat and a womanizer. Oh, certainly he was fun, friendly and he listened. And he used each and every one of those traits she'd been so enamored of against her. Sheltered and innocent, she hadn't stood a chance. He'd worked at breaching her defenses until she'd given up and given in.
Like Eve, she'd been lured from the straight path. Overnight, Gabe went from being funny and charming to a handsome rogue endowed with more skill and cunning than any man she'd ever met.
She'd found out the hard way the lessons her parents had tried to instill in her. Sin was so tempting because it came wrapped in such an attractive, alluring package, all tied up with the subtle lie that it was not wrong, that it was all right really.
Realizing how easily he'd deceived her set her to crying so hard and heavily she'd feared the tears would never stop. Eventually anger replaced her sorrow, anger that burned so hotly that it dried her tears. Anger at Gabe. Anger at herself.
She'd moved through the days, more alone and miserable than before, barely able to concentrate on her schooling. Unable to eat, she'd grown so thin and hollow-eyed that Mrs. Abernathy had urged her to see a physician.
"I regret to inform you that you're expecting a child, Miss Stone," the doctor had said, peering at her over the tops of his spectacles. He didn't bother hiding his disapproval.
Rachel felt her heart plummet. Her already queasy stomach churned. Having a baby? Impossible! Having a baby was supposed to be a joyous occasion, not something that just happened. And not to unmarried women. Babies were supposed to be the result of of love.
She must have spoken, because the doctor stood.
"All I can tell you, Miss Stone, is that you are not the first young lady foolish enough to believe a man's lies. I can just hope that you are not so imprudent as to make the mistake a second time."
"B-but what am I going to do? My family " She paused and swallowed hard.
"Will be devastated, I'm sure," he'd told her, offering her not one iota of help or comfort. "Now, you should try to get as much rest as possible, and eat three healthy meals a day."
She thought she might upchuck at the idea of eating three meals a day. "But I'm so sick, I can't hold anything down."
"Tut-tut!" he'd said, looking at her as if she were a strange organism under a microscope's lens. "My wife was never sick a day during her confinements. I can assure you that you will not rid yourself of this child by vomiting it up. I strongly suggest that you accept your situation and start preparing for some significant changes to your life."
She'd left his office vacillating between despair and fury. The man's bedside manner was nonexistent! He was so uncaring he had no right to hang out his shingle. He was right about one thing, though. She had been very foolish. She'd thrown away her good name, turned her back on a lifetime of teaching and jeopardized her soul. All for three weeks of feeling cherished and loved by a man who'd lied to her about his feelings. Lied to her about everything.
A baby was to be her punishment for loving him.
Ever practical, she supposed it was no more than she deserved. Well, so be it. She pushed aside the panic nibbling at the edges of her composure. Despite her lapses in judgment, she was smart and possessed plenty of grit. She was handling medical school, and she could handle this, too-somehow.
She sat down with pen and paper and considered her options. The doctor had been right when he'd said her parents would be devastated and ashamed of her actions if they found out what she'd done, so she would take measures to see that they didn't find out. That meant returning to Wolf Creek or asking for help from them was out of the question. She couldn't afford to bring up a child and continue with her studies. The small allowance her father sent for her upkeep barely stretched from one month to the next.