Home > Captivated by the Cowgirl(9)

Captivated by the Cowgirl(9)
Author: Jody Hedlund


Philip surveyed the dark corners of the homestead, the hills, and the woodland beyond the house. Was the assassin out there even now, just waiting to strike? He could only hope against hope that Gustaf had given up on trying to kill him.

If only he could simply pack up everything and return home. He was tired of running and hiding.

The truth was, Philip had never aspired to be king. In fact, while growing up, he’d played his role as the second son well, never offending his older brother, always deferring, always staying in Gustaf’s good graces.

He hadn’t sought out the conflict, still didn’t want it. But his duty to his country swelled within him stronger than his familial bond. His country needed a king who put the people first, who cared about the country’s prosperity over his own, who was willing to sacrifice his needs for them. If Gustaf wouldn’t aspire to be that kind of king, then he left Philip with no choice but to take his place and do it in his stead.

Whatever the case, he was still here in Fairplay when he should have left for a new hiding place. And now he was at the Courtney Boardinghouse, the last place he ought to be. Not only was he potentially bringing danger to Felicity’s doorstep, but he was throwing himself into a tempting situation—a beautiful red-headed temptation.

He expelled a sigh.

Yes, this was the last place he should have come.

He glanced at his stuff, at the wagon bed, then at the house.

He’d stay just one night and take the shift with Mr. Keller so that both Mrs. Keller and Felicity could catch up on their sleep. In the morning, he’d go back to town and find a hired hand for her. This time he’d do it no matter how much he didn’t want to. Then he’d leave as he’d planned. He had no other alternative.

With fresh resolve, he tended to the horse and did a few last outside tasks. By the time he’d finished, darkness had completely fallen, and he finally hauled his bags to the house. At the front door, he paused and considered knocking. But at the silence on the other side, he quietly let himself in.

His gaze went immediately to the sofa.

Felicity was still lying where he’d left her. She’d turned to her side, and the covers had come loose and hung down onto the floor, her skirt twisted around her legs. But otherwise, her eyes were closed, and her chest rose and fell in the rhythm of deep sleep.

As he set down his bags, the soft pad of Mrs. Keller’s feet resounded on the stairway. Still clutching the same robe, her gray hair as disheveled as earlier, she came halfway down and watched him warily. He supposed she had every right to question why he was there the same way he’d been questioning himself.

“I’ll take Felicity’s shift with your husband tonight.” He spoke as quietly as possible so that he didn’t disturb Felicity. Thankfully, she didn’t stir.

Mrs. Keller opened her mouth as though to protest, but he spoke first.

“If you’ll show me what to do, I’m sure I shall be an adequate substitute.” He knew nothing about nursing. But he’d also known nothing about surviving on his own before he’d run away from home. At the boarding school and university, he’d always had servants and bodyguards to assist him. He’d never had to dress himself, cook a meal, or even saddle his own horse.

During his travels, he’d grown self-sufficient and rather liked the satisfaction of not having to rely on others for everything. He and Declan had stayed in some rustic and humble places—places where he’d had to sleep on the ground, cook or go hungry, chop wood or freeze.

If he could learn all that, he could surely tend to a sick man.

Mrs. Keller’s expression held indecision.

“We need to give Felicity a break tonight.” He spoke the words firmly, having no trouble insisting on having his way, especially in this regard.

Her shoulders finally fell. “He can’t be left alone for more than a few minutes at a time.”

He waited for her to explain her husband’s condition.

Instead, she nodded toward the door that led into the dark kitchen. “Felicity usually provides warm broth and other liquid food that I can give to him.”

His own stomach chose that moment to rumble with hunger. “I’ll see what I can find and bring something up.”

“I’m not sure if Felicity—”

“Give me a few moments.” He didn’t wait for her to agree to his plan and instead gathered the lamp and crossed into the kitchen.

It was as tidy and clean as the rest of the house, with a large cast iron stove in one corner, a worktable at the center, a sink near the back door, and shelves and pantry cabinets that seemed well stocked.

After stoking the embers in the stove, he soon had a blaze and began heating a pot, which appeared to contain chicken broth. He rummaged through a cabinet to find canned beans, salt pork, and half a loaf of bread.

While he couldn’t cook anything fancy, he was able to manage warming up the few items and putting together a plate for Mrs. Keller along with a bowl of the broth. Mrs. Keller met him at the top of the steps and took the offering gratefully.

When Philip had finished his own simple fare, he set aside a plate in the warmer for Felicity before washing the dishes. As the chill of the late October night began to seep into the house, he added fuel to the stove in the front room and covered Felicity with another blanket before making his way upstairs to the Kellers’ room.

The air was warm and musty and had a lingering scent of urine. Mr. Keller lay motionless in the center of the bed. The lantern on the bedside table illuminated ashen skin, a skeletal body, and a nearly bald head, save a few thin tendrils of silver hair.

He was propped up by several pillows, high enough that Mrs. Keller, in the chair beside the bed, could spoon sips of broth between his lips. Even though Mr. Keller’s body appeared to be flaccid and useless, his eyes were bright and alive, and as they landed upon Philip, they widened.

“Good evening, Mr. Keller.” Philip tipped his head to acknowledge the older man.

He seemed to try to nod in return, but he’d obviously lost most of his bodily functions. From apoplexy or what some doctors referred to as a stroke?

The chest of drawers on the opposite wall was covered with bottles of medicines and herbal remedies. A chamber pot in the corner was overdue for emptying. And a basin of water on the floor also needed dumping. Another smaller bowl on the bedside table held a suction-like item.

Whatever ailed the man, he was clearly ill and in great need of assistance.

“I came to introduce myself.” Philip crossed to the bed so that the light shone on him more directly.

At his approach, Mr. Keller took him in, studying Philip’s face intensely before dropping to the length of him. When his sights returned to Philip’s face a moment later, there was recognition in the man’s eyes. And excitement.

Philip took a small step back. This man couldn’t possibly know anything about him or his past. No one else had during the months of traveling. Of course, Philip had grown out his hair and left his face covered in perpetual scruff. And he’d attired himself in the simple wool trousers and wool shirts of working men, hoping to blend in.

Mr. Keller stared at him with ever-widening eyes. Then he opened his mouth as though to say something, but only a gurgle came out.

Mrs. Keller paused in scooping up another spoonful of broth and turned her gaze sharply upon Philip. “My husband seems to think he knows you.”

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