The Paladin's Lady Partner (Part 10)
Damn, he hurt, but Elliot wasn't complaining. That would only be a waste of energy and wouldn't change anything. Mainly, though, it would only serve to upset Sadie even more about the fact that he'd taken another bullet for her. Not that she should feel guilty about it. After all, as he'd pointed out to her several times, she hadn't been the one to pull the trigger, and her fast action afterward had kept him from dying again.
However, the woman had a streak of stubborn a mile wide coupled with an unfortunate tendency to fuss over him. He might enjoy that last part more if his friend wasn't around to watch her fluff Elliott's pillow and spoon-feed him the savory soup she'd made special for him. He could only imagine the stories Jethro would share with their fellow Paladins when they reported back for duty.
He also felt bad because it was doubtful Sadie had gotten more than an hour's sleep at a stretch since she'd dug the bullet out of his chest. It was as if she were afraid that he might up and die on her again if she didn't keep a close eye on him. That despite the fact that Jethro had explained to her that if Elliott hadn't died by now, he wasn't going to.
Maybe if he got out of this bed she'd get it through her head that he was all right. Besides, no man wanted to appear weak in front of his woman. That thought brought him up short. Should he even be thinking of Sadie as his? Look how he'd turned her whole world inside out and upside down in the short time since their paths had crossed. Even if she'd had the same effect on his, did he have the right to ask her to live the rest of her life with a man whose first priority would always have to be the endless battle his kind fought against the Others?
Lying there in Sadie's bed, surrounded by her scent, he couldn't help but remember the fear in her eyes as she tried to stop the bleeding as tears streamed down her pretty face as she ordered him not to die. How could he risk ever putting her through all of that again?
Even so, he had a hard time marshalling up any arguments strong enough to make him walk away from her even if it was the right thing to do.
Enough. All of this thinking was getting him nowhere. It was time to be up and moving, especially since he could hear Sadie and Jethro talking outside his bedroom window. This might be his best chance to escape the confines of the bedroom without interference from either of them. Bracing for a new wave of pain, he maneuvered around to sit up on the side of the bed. After drawing a deep breath, he pushed himself to his feet, putting his hand on the wall to brace himself until he got his balance. He inched his way around the foot of the bed to pick up the clean shirt and pants that he'd asked Jethro to set out for him.
He was breathing hard by the time he'd washed up and was decently dressed. Tired, too, but damned if he'd give up and lie back down. This was far from the first time he'd dragged himself out of bed only half-healed because the enemy was still out there.
By the time he reached the kitchen, he was moving better even if he was pretty sure a slight breeze would knock him over. Luckily, he was seated at the table sipping a cup of coffee by the time Sadie came back into the house.
She wasted no time confronting him. "What are you doing out of bed?"
He held up his cup. "Drinking coffee."
"I swear men don't have a lick of sense." She came closer and poked his chest with her finger. "What if you tore open your stitches?"
He did his best to ignore the resulting twinge of discomfort. "I didn't. The wound is completely closed up. You can check for yourself if you don't believe me."
"Even if it is, that doesn't mean you're completely healed up on the inside, Elliott."
No, it didn't, but he had enough experience to know he was well on the way toward mending. "I won't lie and say that I'm up to splitting firewood or sitting in the saddle for hours on end, but I do get my strength back faster once I start moving around some. If it helps, I promise I won't do anything stupid if I can avoid it."
Her expression made it clear that she thought it was too late to make that promise, but at least she didn't try to force the issue. "Are you hungry?"
"I could eat a little something. More of that soup sounds good or even some bacon and eggs. Whatever is the least amount of trouble for you."
She put a big cast iron skillet on the stove to heat while she sliced up some bacon. The strips sizzled as soon as they hit the hot metal, sending a wonderful aroma wafting his way. His stomach rumbled loudly, reminding him it had been nearly a day since he'd last had solid food. Sadie smiled back over her shoulder at him. "Sounds like you could eat more than a little something."
He didn't bother to deny it. "Healing takes a lot out of a man."
Her smile faded a little. "I suppose it does."
Damn, he wished he'd kept his mouth shut. Fortunately, Jethro walked through the door right then. He paused to sniff the air. "Something smells good."
Elliott smirked at his friend. "Sadie kindly offered to fix me something to eat, but she doesn't need to wait on you hand and foot, too."
His friend settled into the chair opposite of Elliott's. "Let me get this straight. You've been laying around the house for the past twenty-four hours, not doing a damn thing. Meanwhile, I've taken care of the horses, split a bunch of firewood, and watered the vegetable garden, and yet you think I'm the one who should go hungry."
Jethro parked his elbows on the table and leaned forward. "Not to mention the lady who's doing all that cooking has also been up most of that time taking care of your lazy backside. Something about that doesn't seem right."
His friend wasn't wrong, but before Elliott had a chance to say so, Sadie tore into Jethro but good. "Leave him alone, Jethro. I know you both think you're indestructible, but he's gotten shot up twice in as many days, not to mention he died the first time. He needs time to recover."
They both heard the tears mixed with fear in her words. Jethro muttered an obscenity and stood up. "I apologize, Sadie. I didn't mean to upset you. I was just joshing with him. I'll go back outside and do another patrol."
She wasn't having it. "No, you'll sit back down and eat. I cooked enough for all of us and don't appreciate good food going to waste."
Elliott fought back a laugh. It wasn't often anyone ordered his friend around. In fact, the only other person he'd ever seen do so successfully was Jethro's wife, Patience. If he'd had any doubts about Sadie's ability to cope with the stresses of living with a Paladin, they were gone now.
She set heaping servings of eggs and bacon in front of both him and Jethro before joining them at the table with her own plate. For the next few minutes, all three of them concentrated on eating rather than conversation. It didn't take long for him and Jethro to clean their plates. As soon as Sadie finished, she started to gather up their dishes.
Elliott reached over to rest his hand on her arm. "Leave them. I'll wash them myself after you toddle off to bed. Right now, I want to hear what's happened while I was lazing around."
He grinned at her so that she knew he was teasing about the lazing part. "After that, I think you should catch up on your sleep while you can. Either Mack or that Putnam fellow could show up anytime now. Either way, we'll all need to be up to full strength."
It didn't take long for her and then Jethro to tell them everything that had happened since he'd gotten shot. Some of it he remembered or had overheard them talking about when he'd been awake.
"So no word from Mack yet?"
Jethro shook his head. "No. He planned to take the prisoner back to town and lock him up. He also needed to deal with the other shooter we killed as well as the dead lawyer. After that, he planned to see what he could find out about Putnam. He'll also need to grab some sleep at some point. I wouldn't expect to see him before tomorrow morning sometime."
That made sense. Elliott didn't want to worry Sadie any more than necessary, but it was only a matter of time before the shooting would start again. Either Putnam would bring the fight to them or they'd take it to his front doorstep. One way or the other, they would put an end to the terror Sadie had been living with the past few days.
"Speaking of getting some sleep, you should do that as well, Jethro. I might not be up to full strength yet, but I'm close enough to stand watch for a few hours."
It was a testament to how tired Jethro was that he didn't even argue. He carried his dishes over to the counter, picked up his rifle, and headed for the door. "I'll bed down in the barn. If you find yourself dozing off, come wake me."
Sadie made no move to head for bed herself. He was going to shoo her along when he saw the expression on her face. She clearly had something on her mind, something she wanted to say. Rather than rush her, he made good on his promise to wash the dishes. She remained silent and watchful right up until he dried the last plate and put it away.
"He's going to make another run at us, won't he? Putnam, I mean."
There was no use in lying to her. "A man like that isn't going to give up easily. He might have wanted that mine for financial reasons, but it's become more than that now. His pride has taken a serious blow, what with your grandfather's friend refusing to sell to him, the lawyer failing to convince you to take the deal, and now his men have failed to kill you twice. Not to mention that if Mack can find proof that he was behind the attacks, Putnam's going to prison for a long time."
"That's what I thought." She stood up and walked straight into his waiting arms. "I don't know what makes a man act like that. I hate the idea of you, Jethro, and Mack having to put yourselves in danger because of one man's selfish nature."
"Don't you worry about us, Sadie. You know Jethro and I are damn hard to kill, and Mack is as tough as they come."
She leaned in closer and tucked her head against his shoulder. "That doesn't mean you don't hurt when you bleed."
True enough. Sometimes using words didn't explain what a man was feeling well enough, so he let his actions speak for him. Using the side of his forefinger, he lifted her chin high enough so that he could stare down into her pretty eyes.
Then he kissed her with everything he had. When she smiled against his lips, it was the sexiest thing he'd ever felt. Damn, he wanted-needed-to take her to bed and stay there for a week or a month or however long she'd let him.
Now wasn't the time, though. She was tired and scared, and he wouldn't take advantage of a moment of weakness on her part. That didn't mean he wasn't going to warn her what was coming as soon as they put Putnam behind bars-or better yet, in his grave.
He gentled the kiss, slowing tamping back the heat, taking care and savoring the moment. Then once again, he met her gaze. "Sadie, you need to get some sleep."
"But I thought we…you know…I want you."
He grinned with a full measure of the heat and hunger he had raging through his veins. "I want you, too, Sadie girl. But right now, I can't afford the distraction, not when I need to keep you safe. But soon, hopefully real soon, you and I will pick up where we just left off, and nothing and nobody is going to stop us."
After another quick kiss, he added, "And once I take you to bed, I plan to keep you there for a long, long time."
Her soft cheeks flushed rosy, whether with passion or embarrassment it was impossible to tell. Regardless, she stood her ground, so at least he hadn't scared her off.
She gave him a look designed to bring a strong man to his knees. "I'll hold you to that promise, Elliott Jones, but just know that our next stop after that will be to stand before the preacher."
Then with a swish of her skirts and a sassy smile, she disappeared into her bedroom and shut the door.