Against the rules, p.15
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       Against the Rules, p.15

           Linda Howard
 
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  They had put him in a regulation hospital gown, but that state of affairs hadn’t lasted long. The garment was in a tangled heap on the floor, and she knew that beneath the thin sheet there was only Rule. Despite herself, she began to laugh.

  He began to turn his head with the utmost care, and behind her, Cathryn heard Lewis’s stifled chuckle. Rule gave up trying to turn his head and instead only moved his eyes, which still caused him to wince noticeably. “Well, don’t just stand there gloating,” he growled at Cathryn. “Come hold my hand. I could use some sympathy.”

  Obediently she crossed to his bedside, and though she was still laughing she felt the hot sting of tears in her eyes. She took his hand in hers and lifted it to her lips for a quick kiss on the lean, powerful fingers. “You scared me half to death,” she accused him, her voice both teasing and tearful. “And now you don’t even look hurt, except for your leg. You just look grouchy!”

  “It hasn’t been a picnic,” he told her feelingly. His hand tightened on hers, and he drew her even closer to the bed; but his glance shifted to Lewis. “Lew, how badly is Redman hurt?”

  “Nothing serious,” Lewis assured him. “He was walking okay. I’ll keep an eye on him, watch for swelling.”

  Rule forgot himself and nodded, a lapse that he paid for immediately. He groaned aloud and put his hand on his head. “Damn,” he swore weakly. “I’ve got a hell of a headache. Didn’t they leave an ice pack or something?”

  Cathryn looked around and found the ice pack on the floor where it had evidently been flung along with the hospital gown. She picked it up and placed it on his forehead. He sighed with relief, then returned to Lewis.

  “Go on back to the ranch,” he instructed the foreman. “There’s too much to be done before the sale for both of us to be gone, even for a day. The dun mare should come in tomorrow or the next day. Put her with Irish Gale.”

  Lewis listened attentively as Rule outlined what had to be done during the next two days. He asked a few brief questions; then he was gone before Cathryn could quite comprehend that she had been left behind. Rule hadn’t released his grip on her hand in all that time. Now he turned his sleepy attention to her.

  “You don’t mind staying with me, do you?”

  It hadn’t occurred to her to leave, but asking her permission after she had already been stranded made her give him a wry look. “Would it have mattered if I did?”

  His dark eyes grew even darker; then his jaw hardened. “No,” he said flatly. “I need you here.” He shifted on the bed and muttered a curse when his head throbbed. “This changes things. You can’t leave the ranch now, Cat. With the sale coming up I need your help. There’s too much for Lewis to handle on his own, and when it comes down to basics, it’s your responsibility because it’s your ranch. Besides, if you’ll ever be safe from me, that time is now. I couldn’t fight a kitten, let alone a full-grown Cat.”

  She couldn’t even smile at his pun. He looked so unnaturally helpless that she wished she had never said anything. All thoughts of leaving the ranch had disappeared from her mind the minute she’d heard that Rule was hurt, but she didn’t tell him that. She merely smoothed a damp strand of dark hair back from his forehead and said quietly, “Of course I’ll stay. Did you really think I’d leave now?”

  “I didn’t know,” he muttered. “I couldn’t stop you if you wanted to go, but I hoped the ranch meant more to you than that.”

  It wasn’t the ranch that held her, it was Rule; but his accident hadn’t deprived her of her common sense, and she didn’t tell him that, either. Instead she plucked the sheet a little higher on his torso and teased, “I have to stay, if only to protect your modesty.”

  He gave her a roguish look despite the pallor of his face and the not-quite-focused expression in his eyes. “You’re too late to save my modesty. But if you’d like to protect my virtue, I could use some help in fighting off these fresh nurses.”

  “Does your virtue need protecting?” She felt almost giddy with the unusual pleasure of teasing him, of actually flirting. It was odd that he had to be flat on his back and unable to move before she felt easy enough with him to tease him, but then, she had always been wary of him. It just wasn’t good sense to turn your back on a panther.

  “Not at the moment,” he admitted, his voice fading away. “Even the spirit isn’t willing right now.”

  He slipped easily and swiftly into sleep and Cathryn tucked his hand under the sheet. The air-conditioner was on full blast and it felt cold in the room to her, so she lifted the sheet over his naked shoulders, then sat down in the chair by his bedside and drew her legs up under her.

  “What now?” she wondered aloud, her eyes never leaving the hard profile, softened somewhat as he relaxed deeply into sleep. In one morning everything had changed. Instead of fleeing to safety she was sitting by his side, and she knew that nothing could induce her to leave. He was weak and injured and he hadn’t been lying when he had said that he would need her at the ranch during the coming weeks. The horse sale alone involved a great deal of work, and regardless of how competent Lewis was, he wasn’t a superman. He couldn’t be everywhere at once. That took care of any logical arguments she had. On an emotional level she admitted that she wouldn’t leave Rule now even if there were no need for her to stay at all.

  Rather than suddenly falling in love with him, she had awakened to the realization that she had loved him for a long time. She had loved David, too, with a very real love, but it had been a shallow emotion compared to the intensity of her feelings for Rule. It was so intense that when she was younger it had frightened her and she had fled from it. It had destroyed her control and her self-confidence, prevented her from accepting its existence. She was still frightened of the furious strength of her emotions. She had been running yet again because she wasn’t certain that he returned even a fraction of that emotion. Watching him now, Cathryn made a painful decision, wondering wryly if she had reached a new level of maturity or if she were merely being foolhardy. At whatever risk, she was going to stay at the ranch. She loved him. It didn’t make sense. It was against all the rules of human behavior that she should have loved him so young and so fiercely; but she had, and the feeling had endured.

  Her glance swept blindly around the small, dim room and settled on a black object so familiar that it took her breath. How had his hat gotten here? She couldn’t remember its being on the plane, but it must have been, because here it was. Had Lewis brought it? Or had Rule unconsciously clutched it in his hand? It didn’t really matter, though she gave a wobbly smile at the thought.

  Rule’s hats were disaster areas. He was rougher on his headgear than any man she had ever seen. She had no idea what he did to his hats to get them in such shape, though she had sometimes suspected him of stomping on them. Whenever he was forced to buy a new one—something he did only reluctantly—within a week the new hat had taken on a battered, defeated shape, as if it had been run over by a herd of stampeding cattle. Tears blurred her eyes as she reached out for the dusty, shabby hat and hugged it to her breast.

  She could be risking her entire future if she were wrong in staying, but today she had been forced to realize that Rule was as human and as vulnerable as any other man. An accident could easily take him from her at any time, and she would be left with nothing but the bitter thought, what if? He had asked her to marry him. She didn’t know about that. She was far too upset and confused to plan anything concrete, but she was finished with running. It hadn’t solved anything before. She had been haunted by thoughts of him, memories that had continually surfaced until his face had been a mental veil through which she had viewed all other men. She loved him. She had to face it squarely and accept whatever that love brought her, whether pain or pleasure. If she had learned nothing else from the eight years she had spent away from him, she had learned that she could never forget him.

  CHAPTER 8

  Rule was an angel. He was a perfect patient—obedient, uncomplaining, as docile as a lamb...as l
ong as Cathryn was by his side. She had had no idea what she was letting herself in for when she had promised to stay with him, until the first time a nurse came in to wake him up and check his pulse rate and blood pressure. Rule’s eyes flared open wildly and he tried to sit up before the pain in his head made him sink back with a groan. “Cathryn?” he demanded hoarsely.

  “I’m here,” she reassured him quickly, jumping up from her chair to take his hand and twine her fingers through his.

  He glared at her with dazed intensity. “Don’t leave me.”

  “I won’t leave you. I promised, remember?”

  He sighed and relaxed, closing his eyes again. The nurse frowned and leaned closer, asking, “Mr. Jackson, do you know where you are?”

  “I’m in a damned hospital,” he snarled without opening his eyes.

  The nurse, a chubby brunette with sharp brown eyes, smiled up at Cathryn in sympathy. “We’ll be waking him every hour to make certain it’s a normal sleep and that he hasn’t gone into a coma. It’s just a precaution, but it’s always better to be safe.”

  “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here,” he grumbled.

  Again the nurse’s eyes met Cathryn’s and she rolled them expressively. Cathryn squeezed Rule’s fingers and admonished, “Behave yourself. Being grouchy won’t help.”

  Still without opening his eyes, Rule carried her hand to his face and cuddled it against his cheek. “For you,” he sighed. “But it’s hard to smile when your head is exploding.”

  He was as good as his word; for Cathryn, he was so docile that it was ludicrous. The nurses, however, quickly learned that if they asked Cathryn to step aside, he refused to cooperate with anything they wanted to do. He demanded her constant presence, and after a few abortive attempts to manage him, so did the nurses. Cathryn knew that he was shamelessly using his injuries to keep her by his side, but rather than being exasperated, she was filled with an aching tenderness for him and she fetched for him and waited on him tirelessly.

  It was late afternoon before her rumbling stomach reminded her that she was stranded without benefit of money, makeup, a change of clothes, or so much as a comb. Lewis had paid for the sandwich she’d left half-eaten that morning, and now she was in danger of starving to death, or so her stomach warned her. She carefully spoon-fed Rule the few bites of gelatin that he would eat, but he refused the split pea soup and when she tasted it she understood why. Even as hungry as she was, she couldn’t eat it. Split pea soup had never been on her personal menu, and Rule shared the same lack of interest in it.

  He wasn’t so ill that he didn’t notice what went on around him. After watching through slitted eyes as she tasted the soup and grimaced, he said gently, “Go on to the cafeteria and get something to eat. You must be hungry by now. I’ll be good while you’re gone.”

  “I’m starving,” she admitted, but added wryly, “However, I don’t think they’ll feed me on the basis of my looks. I don’t even have a comb with me, let alone money or fresh clothes. I never thought to get my purse. We just loaded you up and took off.”

  “Call Lewis and tell him what you need. He can bring it down tonight,” he instructed.

  “I couldn’t ask him—”

  “You can ask him. It’s your ranch, isn’t it?” he demanded testily. “No, I’ll call him myself. In the meantime, get my wallet out of the upper drawer in the nightstand and go feed yourself.”

  She hesitated. Then, as he tried to push himself into an upright position, his face blanching even whiter when he moved, she snapped, “Okay, okay!” as she quickly eased him back onto the pillows. When she opened the drawer the wallet was right on top and she lifted it out, then stood for a moment looking at it regretfully. She hated to spend his money, though why it should bother her, she couldn’t say.

  “Go on,” he ordered, and because she was so hungry she did.

  While she was sitting in the cafeteria, slowly chewing on stale crackers and eating potato soup, she succumbed to the temptation to go through his wallet. Looking around guiltily as she did so, she first examined the few snapshots he carried. One was obviously of his mother, whom Cathryn couldn’t remember at all, because she had died when Rule was a small boy. The faint resemblance in the shape of the brows and mouth was all that proclaimed their family ties. Another was of Rule’s father, tall and lean, with a thin ten-year-old boy standing stiffly beside him, scowling at the camera. Cathryn smiled mistily, having seen that scowl many times on the adult man’s face.

  When she flipped the plastic holders again her mouth dropped open. While she had half hoped to find a snapshot of herself, the one that she found wasn’t what she had expected. She had thought that perhaps he would carry the class portrait made in her senior year in high school, or even one of her college snapshots, but the picture that Rule carried with him was the one that had been made when she started first grade. She had been the youngest in her class, still in possession of all of her teeth, and those little teeth had been clamped down on her lower lip in painful intensity as she stared at the camera with huge, somber dark eyes. How had he gotten that snapshot? She had been at least twelve, perhaps thirteen, when he came to the ranch. She couldn’t remember exactly. He could only have gotten this particular picture by going through the family album.

  There was one other picture...of Ward Donahue. Cathryn stared at her father with blurred eyes, then returned to her prying. Rule carried only the basic means of identification: his driver’s license, pilot’s license and social security card. Except for that and forty-three dollars, his wallet was empty.

  Tears stung her eyes. Four pictures and three cards were the extent of his personal papers. There was nothing tucked in any of the slots, no notes, nothing to indicate the nature of the man who kept himself so tightly locked inside. She suddenly knew that in his whole lifetime Rule Jackson had said “I need you” to only one person, and she had almost walked out on him anyway.

  She drew a deep, shaky breath. She had nearly made the worst mistake of her life, and she was almost grateful for Rule’s accident, because it had kept her from leaving and perhaps causing an irreparable rift between them. She loved him, and she would fight for his love.

  She had decided not to say anything to him, but late that night the words tumbled out anyway. “How did you get that picture of me that you have in your wallet?”

  A wry smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. “I wondered if you’d be able to resist the temptation. Obviously you weren’t.”

  Though she flushed, Cathryn ignored his teasing. “Where did you get it?” she persisted.

  “Out of a shoebox crammed full of old snapshots. There are several stored in the attic. Why?”

  “I don’t understand. Why that particular picture?”

  “It reminds me of something,” he finally said reluctantly.

  “Such as?”

  He carefully turned his head to look at her, his eyes as dark as midnight. “Are you sure you want to know?”

  “Yes. It seems such an unlikely choice.”

  “Not really. It was the eyes that got me,” he muttered. “You had that same serious, frightened expression in your eyes when you opened them and looked up at me after we had made love that first time, by the river.”

  The memory was like a lightning bolt, stunning her, as vivid in her mind as if it had just happened. He had lifted himself to his elbows, taking his weight from her young, delicate breasts, and he had said, “Cat,” in a quietly demanding voice. Until that moment she had been wrapped in unreality, but at the sound of his voice she had become aware of many things: the searing heat of the sun overhead; the prickle of the grass beneath her bare body; the lazy drone of a bee as it searched for a tempting little wildflower; the musical calls of the birds in the tree nearby. She had also become aware of the enormity of the thing she had just done and whom she had done it with, the identity of the man who still held her in intimate possession. She had become aware of the unfamiliar aches in her body, while the echoes of pleasu
re still lingered. Terrified as she was of the tumult that had shaken her emotionally and physically, the budding desire to do it all over again had almost been more than she could bear. Her frightened eyes had flown open to stare at him, reflecting in their soft dark depths the uncertainty she had felt at having taken the first and most important step into womanhood.

  She was unable to say anything now, and after a moment he sighed wearily and closed his eyes. Anxiously her eyes wandered over his pale face. She had stood vigil beside David’s bed for the long weeks before he died, and she was painfully reminded of those endless days. Not that there was any real comparison—Rule would assuredly recover—but the surface resemblance was enough to twist her heart. It had been awful to lose David. If anything happened to Rule, she would never be able to bear it.

  It was a bad night. Cathryn never even bothered to put on the nightgown Lewis had brought her. Though she rented one of the cots that were available to people who stayed the night with the patients, she might as well have sat in the chair for all the sleep either she or Rule had that night. Between the discomfort of his leg and the nauseating headache he was suffering, Rule was restless, and it seemed that every time he managed to settle down and drift off to sleep, a nurse came in to wake him. By dawn his stated opinion of that practice had long since passed out of the realm of politeness and Cathryn would have been in a nervous fit if she hadn’t been so weary.

  Perhaps it was the pain he was enduring that caused him to dream of Vietnam, but over and over again he would awake from light, fretful sleep with his hands clenched and sweat pouring from his body. Cathryn didn’t ask him any questions, merely soothed him with her presence, talking gently to him until he relaxed. She was exhausted, but she was by his side every time his eyes flared open, her love evident in every tender touch of her fingers. He might not have been able to put a name to it, but he responded to her touch, calming down whenever she was near. He was a sick man that night, and all the next day he ran a low fever. Though the nurses assured her that it wasn’t unusual, she hovered over him anyway, keeping an ice pack on his forehead and continually cooling his torso with a damp cloth.

 
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