Lauren's heart fell to some unknown place beyond her navel when someone knocked on the door. Sage gave her a reassuring smile, walked toward it and turned the latch. "Come in, Creed. I just tucked her back into bed, and now, I'm off to see to our guests."
He nodded and when the door closed, pulled a chair up to the bed. "How's the head?"
"I'm fine. Aunt Estelle is fussing over me as if I'm about to pass into the hereafter. I banged my head on a small rock, didn't crush my skull."
A scowl furrowed his brow. "A big rock."
"I hear you went back to investigate and found tracks." Her lip came out. "Maybe everyone will believe me now."
"Oh, I believe you. I saw moccasin prints in the snow and a cold camp not far from where I found you."
"What was he doing out there in the woods?"
"I don't give a damn about him. The question is; what were you?"
"Going for a ride, I needed to think."
"Don't venture out again alone."
She studied him, drank in his beauty. She wouldn't answer to Creed or any man, wasn't about to relinquish her freedom. Did he even care about her? "No, I won't make that promise."
Anger edged his words. "Stupid woman. If something happens to you, Finn is without a father and a mother."
"So that's it?"
"Partly, yes. And..."
Time slipped into a chasm while they locked eyes. Damnation, he'll be my ruination one day. The silence had reached an uncomfortable state. "And..."
"We need to talk, Lauren."
Her hands broke into a cold sweat and she hated herself for it. "That's why you told Aunt Estelle you wanted to see me?"
Undercurrents suffused the air between them. He nodded. "I'm leaving."
"But you just arrived. Stay awhile for Finn's sake."
"No." He shook his head. "I mean I'm leaving."
Her clammy hands trembled. "What are you about now, Creed Gatlin?" A scene from long ago flashed behind her eyes. Lying in the tall grass surrounding the pond, he said he was going off to war. She didn't know it at the time, but she'd conceived their son that day. Nausea swirled in her belly. "Leaving Minnesota?"
He nodded and puffed a long breath.
"Leaving won't change things. This is your home." She bit her bottom lip to keep from crying. "I should have stayed in the Carolinas. None of this would have happened."
"It has happened and we have to face it. My way of facing it is to get away from you, far away."
"You hate me."
Another long pause ensued while he took in her face. "That's the second time you've said that."
"I never said that before."
"Wrong," the gorgeous man said. "When I found you in the woods, you said, 'He hates me, hates everything about me.'"
"Oh," she whispered.
"Were you talking about me?"
"Look at me, Lauren. Is that what you see? What I hate is the thought of leaving you and Finn, but you're waiting on a ghost, honoring vows to a dead man." He drew a deep breath. "I can't-can't quit you if I stay."
I can't quit you if I stay...can't quit you. Oh, Creed, I don't want you to. "I'm nothing without honor and loyalty. I swore before God till death do us part."
He shook his head. "He's dead, Brand is dead. If not, he'd have returned by—"
She covered her ears with her hands. "Stop it, stop! You don't know for sure."
"Have it your way, sweetheart, but I'm not hanging around while this charade plays out. Finn is my son, my son, and you married my brother, pretended to the whole world the child belonged to him."
"I didn't know where to turn when I realized I was with child." The tears she'd tried to stifle fell down her cheeks. "You left, ran off to fight in that godforsaken war."
His eyes darkened. "And I'm running again."
"Don't, please. I can't bear the thought of losing you—"
"I can't bear standing on the sidelines, loving you from afar because you think you're still married, albeit to a dead man."
Creed was right. What if Brand didn't return and they never found his remains? Yet, she couldn't, wouldn't, betray the man who stood by her in her darkest hour.
She brushed the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hands. "Where will you go?"
Her head came up. "Arizona? Why so far away?"
"I found a job scouting for the army."
"You hate the army, the government." The wheels turned in her head. "You took a job as a mercenary, a killer, didn't you?"
"That's harsh." He blew air through his lips. "I'll be scouting for Kit Carson, rounding up the Navajo. The pay is good, and..."
"Stop saying 'and', finish your sentences."
His voice held resignation. "I need to forget this madness."
She closed her eyes and braced for his answer. "When are you leaving?"
"In the spring when the cold weather breaks. Open your eyes; look at me."
She did his bidding and searched his face. If she lived to one hundred, she'd never see a man as handsome as Creed Gatlin.
"I have to know before I leave: Do you love my brother?"
She gripped the edge of the sheet. How could she answer such a question? Love came in many forms—love for a child, love for friend, and the wild, crazy love she felt for Creed.
"Brand was there for me when—"
"That's not what I meant. He married me knowing the babe I carried didn't belong to him. Imagine the humiliation Aunt Estelle and Uncle Mason would have experienced if he hadn't stepped up."
"So you married him to save your reputation, spare Estelle and Mason the shame." He snapped his fingers. "Just like that?"
His jaw twitched. "I'm still waiting."
"An answer, goddamn it."
"You left me as if I meant nothing to you."
"I didn't know you were with child and you know it!"
She looked down at her lap. "It happened so fast and I had nowhere to turn." During the silence between them again, she lifted her chin and met his gaze.
"Do you love him, Lauren?"
She sliced him a glare. How could he corner her like this? "Here's my answer, Creed Gatlin. I cannot, will not come to you until I know what happened to Brand. If you can't live with that then-then leave."
Creed rose from the chair, his face hard, his eyes cold. "I guess I have my answer."
When the door slammed, Lauren buried her face in her hands and wept.