Hallie McIntyre intended to take her vows and live a cloistered life until she found a wounded stranger lying in Sister Dominica’s garden. The man was tall and strong, his skin the color of old copper. Against her better judgment, Hallie agreed to hide him from her Sisters and nurse him back to health.
John Walking Hawk was a half-breed determined to find justice. When the law refused to hunt down the men who had slaughtered his family, John took the law into his own hands. Now he was on the run, wanted for exacting the justice that had been denied him.
They were two people who never should have met. Now, because of a twist of fate, Hallie found herself trading the serenity of the convent for a different and far more dangerous life, risking solitude and freedom to follow her heart.
Convent of Mary Magdala
He looked dead. Surely no one could lay so still and look so horribly pale and still be alive.
Hallie McIntyre felt her stomach clench as she stared at the man's shirtfront, at the dark splotch of dried blood that made an ugly brown streak on the light blue wool, at the fresh stain that gleamed wetly in the twilight. She sighed, regretting that she had found him too late to be of any help.
Rising slowly to her feet, she straightened her skirts. Men were a rarity in her life and she couldn't help wondering who this man was, and where he had come from, and how he had come to be laying there in the mud in the middle of Sister Dominica's vegetable garden.
She offered a quick prayer, then removed her heavy black shawl and draped it over the body, automatically making the sign of the cross as she did so. Whoever the stranger was, his soul was in the hands of Almighty God now.
She was turning away when she heard a low groan.
The sound sent a shiver down her spine. She glanced over her shoulder, certain she had imagined it. He couldn't possibly be alive. But dead men didn't move, didn't groan with pain, the sound filled with such raw agony it made her ache inside.
She heard him swear under his breath. And then she heard him whisper a name. A woman's name....Anna.
She was wondering if it was his wife's name when he flung out one arm, dragging her shawl away from his face, and she saw that he was indeed conscious, and staring up at her.
"Oh, my." Startled, she would have fled had his right hand not snaked out to imprison her ankle.
"Where am I?" The words were harsh, as though they had been torn from his throat.
Stark unreasoning fear flooded through Hallie as she stared down at the long-fingered hand clasped tightly around her ankle. "Let me go." She tried to pull her foot away. "Let me go!" She tugged again, harder, and then, as panic overwhelmed her, she began to struggle in earnest.
He swore a vile oath when the toe of her heavy black shoe smashed into his side, but he didn't let go of her foot.
"Please," Hallie begged. "Please let me go."
He shook his head weakly, his grip tightening around her foot. "Where am I?"
"If I tell you, will you let me go?"
"You're at the Convent of Mary Magdala about five miles south of Bitter River," Hallie replied, her words coming in a rush. She tried to draw her foot from his hand again, but to no avail. How could he be so badly hurt, and yet so strong? "I told you what you wanted to know, now let go of me."
He grunted softly. "Need...water."
Hallie pasted what she hoped was a reassuring smile on her face. "I'll get you some, I promise," she said, speaking each word slowly and distinctly, "but first you'll have to let me go."
"Don't tell anyone...I'm...here."
"I won't," she said quickly. Too quickly.
He focused his hooded gaze on the intricately carved wooden crucifix that hung from a braided cord around her waist. "Swear it."
Hallie's gaze slid away from his. "I swear."
She was lying, and he knew it. As soon as he let her go, she'd take off as fast as her feet could carry her to tell whoever was in charge that there was a gun-shot stranger lying out in the dirt.
"I don't mean you any harm, girl." He took several slow deep breaths. "Just keep your mouth shut and let me...let me rest here awhile....and I'll be on my way."
She tilted her head to one side. "You're in trouble, aren't you?"
A long sigh escaped his lips. "More than you can imagine."
Hallie stared at the big sun-bronzed hand that imprisoned her ankle. In spite of the stranger's weakened state, he had a grip like iron. It frightened her, until she gazed into his eyes, dark brown eyes that were filled with anguish and quiet desperation.
He eased his hold on her ankle, though he didn't release her. "Please," he begged softly, "just keep quiet until I'm gone."
The faint note of pleading in his voice tugged at her heart. She had the feeling that he hadn't asked for, or been granted, many favors in his life, and that he didn't really expect one now.
"All right," she said, meaning it this time. "I won't say anything to anyone."
His hand fell away from her ankle and he went suddenly limp.
Hallie gazed down at him, certain he was really dead this time, and glad, way down deep inside, that she would never have to look into those eyes again. Such haunted eyes, filled with pain and bitterness; eyes filled with torment and the shadow of death. Perhaps he would find peace now...
She blew out a sigh when she saw the shallow rise and fall of his chest. A trickle of fresh blood oozed from the wound low in his right side. He wasn't dead, after all. No doubt she would have to do a penance for wishing him so.
She chewed on her lower lip a moment, then lifted the edge of his shirt. Picking up a handful of rain-damp earth, she pressed it over the wound to curb the bleeding.
When that was done, she made her way to the well and lowered the big old wooden bucket. She should find Reverend Mother, Hallie thought as she drew the bucket from the well and made her way back to the stranger. Promise or no promise, the man needed more help than she was capable of giving.
She wondered again who he was, and how he had come to be at the convent. They were a good distance from town, and she hadn't seen a horse. Surely he hadn't walked all the way from Bitter River in his present condition. She had never seen anyone who was badly injured before, never seen so much blood. Never been alone with a man...especially a man like this one. To her knowledge, only two kinds of men carried guns: lawmen and outlaws. And this man didn't look like a lawman.
He was lying as she had left him, his eyes closed, one hand pressed over his wound, the other tightly clenched at his side. It wouldn't have surprised her to discover he had passed into the next world, considering how much blood he had lost.
But he wasn't dead. His face was damp with perspiration; his shirt was soaked with rain and sweat and blood.
"Mister?" She knelt beside him. "Mister?"
His eyelids fluttered open and he stared up at her as if he had never seen her before.
"I brought you some water." Slipping one hand under his head, Hallie lifted him up a little, then held the dipper to his lips.
He drank greedily and asked for more.
"I don't think you should drink it so fast," Hallie admonished, and even as she spoke the words, he turned his head to the side and retched so hard, it made her own stomach ache.
He didn't look dangerous now, only weak and sick. She wiped his mouth with a corner of her shawl, then offered him the dipper again.
He drank more slowly this time, emptying the dipper twice before his head fell back and his eyelids closed again.
Hallie blew out a sigh. What was she going to do with him? She couldn't leave him out here. It would be full dark soon. A rumble of thunder heralded another storm coming. What should she do with him?
She glanced at the small white-washed chapel located beside the main house, then shook her head. If she put him in there, she would just have to move him again before Sunday worship service.
The shed? No, Sister Dominica kept her gardening tools in there.
The barn! That was the answer, Hallie decided. It was her job to feed the horses and milk the cows. None of the other sisters ever went into the barn, except for Sister Ayanna, but that good sister had slipped on the back step and broken her leg the week before and was confined to her bed. Sister Dominica was allergic to hay. Sister Marguerite was afraid of the cattle. Sister Ruth, Sister Paul, and Sister Monique were too old and feeble to do more than say their prayers. Sister Barbour rarely left the kitchen. The other sisters had been summoned to the Mother House in New Mexico to await new assignments.
Yes, she thought, he would be safe in the barn.
"Mister?" She shook his shoulder gently. "Mister, wake up."
He grunted softly, then stared up at her through eyes glazed with pain and weariness.
"I can't carry you. You have to get up."
He stared at her blankly for a moment, then nodded.
Hallie slung her shawl over her shoulder, then eased him into a sitting position. It took him a minute to catch his breath.
With her help, he managed to gain his feet. She hadn't realized how tall and broad he was. Standing, he loomed over her like a dark cloud. It wasn't easy, getting him to the barn. He leaned heavily upon her, his footsteps unsteady, his breath coming in labored gasps. She had to stop several times so he could rest. Each time they paused, she glanced anxiously over her shoulder, afraid someone from the house would see them.
She looked up at him as she guided him the last few feet. Sweat poured down his face, his skin was the color of the old parchment scrolls in the library. His arm was heavy where it rested across her shoulders. His fingers bit into her arm as he endeavored to keep his balance.
There was a sharp crack of lightning, followed by a low rumble of thunder, and then it began to rain.
Hallie was more than a little out of breath by the time they stumbled into the barn. As gently as she could, she lowered him onto a pile of straw in one of the empty stalls.
In spite of her best effort, he landed heavily on his right side, the air whooshing out of his lungs along with a string of the most vile curse words Hallie had ever heard.
By the time she had him settled, she was ready to utter a few curse words of her own.
Moments later, she heard the sound of the convent bell calling the sisters to the evening meal.
"Mister? I've got to go. I'll be back as soon as I can. Mister?"
Bending down, she placed her hand on his chest, reassured by the slight rise and fall of his chest. She didn't know whether he was asleep or unconscious, but there was nothing she could do for him now. If she didn't get back to the house right quick, Reverend Mother was sure to send someone looking for her, or, worse yet, come herself.
Rising, Hallie glanced down at the bloodstains on her apron and skirt. Changing clothes would make her late to dinner for sure, but there was no help for it. She couldn't go in looking like this.
Covering the man with her shawl, Hallie offered a quick, fervent prayer for his recovery, then ran across the fields to the convent, the presence of the stranger in the barn weighing heavily on her conscience.
Clay groaned softly as he opened his eyes and looked around. Where the hell was he, and how had he gotten there? He searched his memory. He remembered escaping from jail, being chased, getting shot, but that was all.
He frowned. There'd been a woman. A girl, actually, with dark brown hair, and light green eyes. Or had they been brown? She had worn a shapeless gray dress and a big white apron and some kind of covering over her hair. He shook his head, wondering if he had imagined her.
He shifted his position on the straw and pain jolted through him, the force of it making him sick to his stomach. He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat, cursing the man who had shot him as he did so.
Staring into the darkness that surrounded him, listening to the sounds of his own labored breathing, he wondered if he was going to die.
Minutes passed. Chills wracked his body and he drew the heavy wool shawl more closely around him, grateful for the warmth it provided. He was plagued by a relentless thirst. The ache in his side throbbed continuously, monotonously.
Closing his eyes, he prayed for an end to the pain that wracked his body, for relief from the relentless need for vengeance that gnawed at the very depths of his soul.
It was after nine before Hallie managed to sneak out of the house.
She had spent the last hour in the chapel with her sisters. Each evening, after dinner, the nuns gathered to say the rosary and meditate before bedtime. It was the time of the Grand Silence, a silence that was not to be broken until after refectory in the morning.
Instead of saying her prayers, Hallie had spent the time thinking about the man in the barn. His presence weighed heavily on her conscience. Twice, she had contemplated going to see Reverend Mother to confess, but she had promised the stranger she wouldn't tell anyone he was there.
Now, clutching a small burlap bag filled with food and medicine in one hand and a small oil lamp in the other, she ran across the muddy ground toward the barn, taking care not to step on the edge of the blanket dangling over her arm. Was he still alive? She should have told Mother Matilda about the stranger as soon as she returned to the house, yet every time she had started to say something, she had remembered the haunted expression in the stranger's dark brown eyes when he had begged her not to tell anyone he was there. She wondered ruefully what her punishment would be when Reverend Mother found out about the man in the barn. Months, perhaps years, of scrubbing floors and emptying chamber pots rose in her mind, but she couldn't worry about that now.
She closed the door behind her, then placed her oil lamp on an over-turned crate beside the stall door and turned up the wick.
For the third time that day, she looked at the man and wondered if he was dead.
Dropping the blanket on the floor, she rummaged in her bag, withdrawing a small jar of water, several clean cloths, a bottle of carbolic, a pair of scissors. Moving carefully, she began to lift his shirt so she could examine his side.
She gasped in alarm as his hand closed over her wrist.
"Who are you?"
"My...my name's Hallie," she stuttered, her heart pounding with trepidation. "I found you. In...in the garden. Don't you remember?"
He stared at her. "Hazel eyes," he murmured, and releasing her hand, he fell back on the straw.
Mouthing a silent prayer, Hallie peeled the shirt away from the wound. Doing so caused it to start bleeding again and she pressed a piece of toweling over the ragged gash to absorb the blood. The scent of the blood, the sight of it, made her stomach churn. She swallowed the bile rising in her throat.
When the bleeding stopped, she washed the wound and the surrounding area with strong soap and water, then daubed it with carbolic. After covering the ugly hole with a compress of soft cloth, she wrapped a wide strip of material around his middle to hold it in place. Next, she opened one of the packets the doctor had prescribed to ease the pain of Sister Ayanna's broken leg. She emptied the packet into a cup of warm water and held it to the man's lips. He drank the bitter concoction without complaint.
With his wound taken care of, she removed his boots and socks. For a moment, she contemplated his trousers. They were filthy, torn in several places, and stained with blood. For modesty's sake, hers if not his, she was reluctant to remove them; for the sake of cleanliness, she was just as reluctant to leave them on.
In the end, she took a deep breath, turned her head to the side, and yanked them off, then quickly covered him with the blanket. She caught a quick unintentional glimpse of a pair of long hairy legs and noted, with a blush that singed her cheeks, that he didn't wear anything underneath the trousers.
When she had made him as comfortable as possible, she stood up. She regarded him for a moment and then, with a weary sigh, she offered a quick, heartfelt prayer for his recovery and hurried back to the house, thinking that all this sneaking around was certainly wearing on a body, both physically and spiritually.
It was late by the time Hallie managed to sneak out to the barn again. She had not planned on going back to the barn before morning. No one would question her leaving the house then, as it was her duty to tend the animals, but something, a premonition, perhaps, had urged her to check on the stranger one more time.
Setting her lamp on the over-turned crate, she studied the man lying in the stall. Since she had come to the convent almost five years ago, she had seen very few men who weren't priests. Curious, she studied the stranger for a moment. His hair was long, black as the wings of the ravens who sometimes raided Sister Dominica's gardens. A long white scar puckered the left side of his neck, running in a jagged line from just behind his ear to his collar bone.
He seemed to be resting comfortably, and she was about to leave when she noticed the fine sheen of perspiration on his face and neck and shoulders. His breathing was shallow and uneven.
Kneeling beside him, she placed her hand on his brow. His skin felt hot and damp beneath her palm. Fever. She had snuck into the infirmary after dinner and thumbed through one of Sister Mary Teresa's books on healing, hoping to find some wondrous remedy, but it hadn't told her anything she didn't already know: a fever was to be expected after serious trauma; the patient should be given plenty of liquids and periodically sponged with cool water.
"You're a lot of trouble, you know that?" Hallie muttered, and immediately felt a rush of guilt as the words from the Gospel of Saint Matthew rose up in her mind: Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me...
Chiding herself for her uncharitable feelings, she walked out to the well, filled the big old oaken bucket, then returned to the barn.
One of the least of these, she thought, and sitting down on the straw, she dipped a rag into the cold water. After wringing it out, she dragged the damp cloth over his chest and belly, over his shoulders and down his arms.
She had never seen a man's bare chest before. Or bare arms, or shoulders or legs, either. She had never dreamed a man's body could be beautiful, and she couldn't help staring, couldn't help admiring the naked expanse of so much male flesh. She held out her arm, comparing it to his. They were both arms, with hands and fingers, yet vastly different. Her arm was smooth, softly rounded, the skin pale and unblemished. His arm was much larger, corded with muscle, the skin dark bronze and bearing several small scars.
Her gaze moved over him again, noting his skin was dark all over. He had a broad chest, lightly covered with dark curly hair. A flat belly ridged with muscle. Impossibly wide shoulders.
She tried not to stare, but she knew those images, sinful as they were, had been forever imprinted on her mind, waiting to haunt her the moment she closed her eyes. But she didn't have to close her eyes. He was there, before her, long and lean and bronze. And helpless. And yet, even at rest, he looked dangerous. He had big, capable looking hands. Strong hands, she thought, remembering how his fingers had wrapped around her ankle, holding her fast.
She dipped the rag in the bucket again and gently wiped his face. It was a hard face made up of sharp planes and angles. His brows were slightly arched, his nose was a little crooked, making her wonder if it had been broken, and how. Thick black bristles sprouted from his jaw and upper lip, giving him the look of a Barbary pirate whose picture she had once seen in a book. She wondered how he had gotten the scar on his neck.
Lifting the edge of the blanket, she sponged his legs. Long legs covered with fine black hairs.
He was going to die. The thought grieved her for some reason she couldn't name. He was going to die because he was badly hurt, because she didn't know how to help him, because she had promised not to tell anyone he was here.
A cold wind kicked up outside, rattling the barn doors. Thunder rolled across the skies like the sound of angry drums, and then the storm broke. Rain pummeled the roof. She could hear it striking the ground in the stall across the way. Reverend Mother kept talking about getting the hole in the roof fixed, but it never got done.
Hallie lost track of the time as she sat there, repeatedly drawing the cool cloth over the man's body in an effort to lower his fever, listening to the sound of the rain pummeling the barn, dripping through the hole in the roof. The man babbled incoherently. Her cheeks burned at some of the words he used. He spoke in English and sometimes in a harsh guttural language she didn't understand.
Once he cried out the woman's name, sobbing "Anna, I'm sorry, Anna, so damn sorry" and then, to her utter amazement, he began to cry.
Hallie stared at him in utter astonishment. Never before had she seen a grown man weep, or heard such heart-rending sorrow. It brought a lump to her throat, made her wish she could comfort him somehow. He must have loved the woman very much, she thought, and wondered what it would be like to love a man and have him love her so desperately in return.
Just before dawn, he lapsed into a restful sleep.
With a weary sigh, Hallie stood up and left the barn, thinking it was a good thing Reverend Mother didn't make bed checks during the night. With any luck, she would be able to sneak into her room with no one being the wiser.
Pausing outside, Hallie drew in a deep breath. The storm had passed. The sky was blue and clear, the earth smelled fresh and clean. It was going to be a beautiful day.
With a sigh, she stretched the kinks out of her back and shoulders, then lifted her skirts and picked her way across the muddy ground. She had just enough time to clean her shoes and change her clothes before morning prayers.
Originally published by Signet Books