The Paladin's Lady Partner (Part 5)
No one had ever told Sadie that a man's kiss could hold so much power, the kind that made the ground shift beneath her feet and the air feel so thin that breathing it left her dizzy. If it weren't for Elliott's iron hard arms holding her up, she would have slipped to the ground in a boneless heap.
At first, the kiss was hard and fast, but then he gentled his hold on her and his lips softened as they brushed across hers. When he pulled away, she was very much afraid that she whimpered. Her eyes fluttered open just long enough to see him smile as he swooped into pick up right where he'd left off.
This time he teased at the corners of her mouth with tip of his tongue, coaxing her into parting her lips. As soon as she did, he deepened the kiss, tasting her thoroughly and allowing her to do a little exploring of her own. But when he pulled her even closer, his desire for more obvious even through the thickness of their clothes, she froze.
What was she thinking? Despite everything they'd been through the past two days, she didn't know anything at all about Elliott Jones. Well, except that he'd rode straight into danger to save her life and that he was hard to kill. He was handsome, too, with those dark eyes that were pure temptation to a lonely woman on her own.
He didn't protest when she pushed against his chest, needing to put some breathing room between them. What he did was so much more dangerous. He caught her hand in his and raised it to his lips and pressed a gentle kiss to the center of her palm.
"I should probably apologize for that, but I won't. For one thing, I try not to lie to people I like and respect." His smile was a bit crooked when he added, "And for another, I'd have to be three kinds of crazy to regret kissing you."
She retreated another few steps while she tried to figure out how to respond. Finally, she settled for, "I'd better get started on breakfast."
"You do that."
Before walking away, he gave her one last smile. "Make plenty. I seemed to have worked up quite an appetite this morning."
Sadie watched him until he disappeared into the barn with the two horses. She might not have all that much experience with men, but somehow she knew it wasn't flapjacks and bacon that he was hungry for. Well, that was all he was going to get from her.
It wasn't long before Elliott was back. He had on different clothes, and his hair was damp. Evidently he'd washed up outside at the pump. That made her glad that she'd taken the time to change out of her own dusty clothes into a clean dress. She'd also given her hair a good brushing and left it down rather than braiding it again.
"The coffee is ready if you'd like some. I'll have breakfast ready soon."
He poured them each a cup and then sat down at the table, which she'd already set for the two of them. But before she started to ladle the first batch of batter onto the griddle, Elliott was back up and heading for the front window with his gun drawn. Fear tasted bitter as she joined him there.
"Can you tell who it is?"
As soon as she asked the question, she felt foolish. It was doubtful that Elliott would recognize anyone local, especially considering he'd only been passing through when he'd stopped to help her.
To her surprise, he nodded and holstered his weapon. "I'm guessing the man on the left is the lawman you mentioned. The one on the right is the friend who lives south of here. He must have lit out as soon as he read the telegram the sheriff sent him to get here this fast."
She'd really hoped that they have more time to figure things out. "Think the sheriff will believe the story about you being your brother and that you've already shipped his remains back home for burial?"
Elliott slipped his hand around her waist and gave her a one-armed hug. "Jethro will back my play, so the sheriff won't have much choice to believe me. Even if he has doubts, he's got no way to prove we're lying. The body is gone, and I'm here."
It wouldn't be that simple, but she didn't argue. "Guess I'd better make more batter. Maybe if I keep everybody busy eating, there won't be much time for questions. Tell them to wash up outside and come on in."
Once again, Elliott kissed her, but this time on the cheek. "Good thinking. I'll leave you to it while I go greet our guests."
She should probably insist on going out there with him, but right now she needed a moment to collect herself. Her grandparents had instilled a deep sense of honesty in her. Lying to Sheriff Robbins wasn't going to set well with her.
Of course, admitting the truth would be even harder. Elliott still hadn't explained how she could have mistaken him for dead if he really wasn't. Come to think of it, his whole reaction to the situation felt wrong, hadn't it? Most people would have been furious to find themselves buried in a makeshift grave, but Elliott had been far more worried about the effect all of this was having on her.
Once they dealt with the current situation, she was going sit that man down and demand some answers. Until then, she had flapjacks to make and eggs to fry.
Elliott stepped out on the porch and waited for the two men to draw nearer before stepping off the porch. He knew the instant that Jethro spotted him. His friend had been saying something to the sheriff when he suddenly stopped talking and leaned forward over his horse's neck as if he couldn't quite believe what his eyes were telling him. His shoulders briefly slumped in relief before he straightened up again. He gave Elliott a quick nod to signal that he would follow his lead.
The sheriff frowned when he noticed Elliott and urged his horse into moving faster. When the lawman and Jethro slowed to a stop in front of the house, his hand was resting on the grip of his gun.
"You must be Sheriff Robbins."
"I am." The man glanced toward the house. "Where is Miss Benton, and who the hell are you?"
So much for polite conversation, but Elliott took no offense at the tone of man's questions. After all, it had only been yesterday that six men had tried their damnedest to kill Sadie. If it hadn't been for Elliott, they would have succeeded.
He answered the first question, figuring once the sheriff knew Sadie was all right he'd be more approachable. "She's inside making breakfast for all of us. She said for you both get washed up before coming inside."
"As far as the other, I'm Elliott Jones. The man Miss Benton buried was my brother, James. I was supposed to meet him in the next town, but I was delayed. I was riding in that direction when I crossed paths with Miss Benton."
He dredged up a grim smile. "Seeing a dead ringer for a dead man was a bit of shock for her, but I explained that we were twins. I spent last night retrieving his body from where she'd buried him. This morning I paid Miss Benton's farmhand to drive my brother home for burial."
The lawman immediately latched onto a weak point in Elliott's explanation. "But if you're Elliott, how come your mail was in his saddlebags?"
Good question, one he didn't have a good answer for. "I gave it to him after I read it. He and Jethro here were friends, too. I thought he'd want to catch up on Jethro's news, too."
Robbins still wasn't ready to accept Elliott's explanations. He addressed his next question to Jethro. "If you knew he had a twin brother, why didn't you mention him? As I recall, you said you were the closest to family that he had."
Well, damn, this wasn't going well. The door behind him opened, and Sadie stepped out and joined him.
"Why don't you all come inside and eat while the food is still hot? We can talk about everything afterward. I know Mr. Jones here has been through quite an ordeal since learning about his brother's death." She smiled up at Jethro. "And you must have ridden all night to have gotten here this soon. I'm guessing you're exhausted and could use a few hours of sleep."
The other Paladin nodded. "That sure sounds good, Miss Benton."
"While you two wash up, Mr. Jones can help me get everything served up."
She disappeared into the house leaving the three men no choice but to do as she said. At least that had stopped the interrogation. Well, postponed it was closer to the truth. Elliott could only hope that he could come up with better answers by the time the sheriff once again started peppering him with questions again.