Noah woke suddenly as if someone had pinched him awake. Pain washed through him in a slow agonizing roll. He sucked in a breath then let it out with the least amount of effort. His ribs hurt, but he vaguely remembered the doctor telling him nothing was broken.
That in itself was a miracle. He’d lived through worse, but it had been a hell of a beating. There wasn’t much on him that didn’t ache or throb. He rubbed his eyes gently to clear away the sleep.
He smelled Rosalyn. Her natural clean scent seemed to be permanently stuck in his nose. The memory of a cat licking his face and Rosalyn standing over him in the alley made him sit upright in the bed. His breath left his body in a whoosh as every piece of him reminded him quite painfully that he couldn’t and shouldn’t move that fast.
Rosalyn had been there, in the alley. He remembered now. She’d had a calico cat with her that meowed like a little coyote. The rest of it was a bit of a blur, but she had saved him.
By his estimate it must’ve been the middle of the day, but someone had hung a blanket over the window to block out the sun. Sunlight peeked around the corners, pricking his eyes with its shine.
“Rosalyn?” he called out into the darkened room.
A scrape on the stairs told him someone was walking up. The door opened just a crack.
Relief washed through him that she was there.
She entered the room and quickly closed the door behind her. The shadows barely outlined her figure. Something, however, seemed wrong.
She cleared her throat. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I got run over by a horse, but I’m alive. I’ve got you to thank for that.” He touched his nose gingerly. “I’m thankful, Rosalyn.”
“It wasn’t nothing, really. That’s what a deputy does, right?” She stepped closer to the bed.
Noah heard something in her voice that gave him pause. “What’s the matter?”
“Um, I have something to show you. Don’t get mad.”
Noah had no idea what she was talking about, but his gut churned with anxiety. She pulled the blanket back from the window and Noah blinked at the sudden bright light.
“I just wanted to be your deputy.”
As she walked toward the bed, Noah felt completely confused. She didn’t even look like herself. He closed his eyes then opened them again, sure he’d see something different. Another place, another person rushed through his head. He swallowed back a handful of panic. Rosalyn reminded him so much of himself for a moment, he couldn’t get a word past the lump in his throat.
Rosalyn wasn’t Rosalyn anymore. She’d shed the brown dress for his clothes, which hung on her like a child playing dress up, except for her full breasts that seemed out of place. What really made his head pound wasn’t the way she was dressed. It was her hair.
Her beautiful black locks had been shorn almost completely off. She’d hacked it up above her ears until it stuck up like a blackbird’s tail feathers. Noah was absolutely speechless.
Rosalyn touched her hair. “I know I ain’t pretty but leastways folks will think I’m a man now and I can be your deputy.”
Noah couldn’t stop the tears that pricked his lids. Acceptance had been a hard battle he’d fought all his life. Until the Calhouns found him, he’d never been successful at it. Even after he’d been adopted, the little boy who hid in the shadows of the barn still felt out of place.
He patted the bed next to him and she stepped over hesitantly as if she expected him to hurt her. Noah put his hands on his lap with the fingers twined together and gave her his most innocent expression. She reached the bed then kneeled on the floor beside him.
Slowly he reached out and cupped her cheek. Stiff at first, she finally closed her eyes and leaned into his palm. Noah’s heart beat madly with the feelings that whooshed through him. Rosalyn had been a mission for him, something to accomplish, not really a person.
Now she was much more than that. She gave him the most precious gift anyone could give another.
“You didn’t have to cut your hair,” he whispered. “You were already perfect.”
Rosalyn opened her violet eyes and searched his gaze. “I’m thinking you need spectacles.”
Noah barked out a laugh, trying desperately to control the physical pain and the emotional storm that warred within him.
“Sweet, sweet, Rosalyn.” He leaned over and kissed her softly, his ribs protesting every move.
“Does that mean I shouldn’t wear your clothes either?” She glanced down at the shirt. “’Cause the britches are mighty big for me.”
“No, sweetheart. You probably shouldn’t.” He pressed his lips to her forehead, inhaling her scent and recognizing that he was falling fast and hard.
Her eyes narrowed. “What did you call me?”
This time the pain be damned, Noah couldn’t let the moment pass. He held her face in his hands and looked into her eyes.
“I called you sweetheart. My love, my sweet, my heart.” His mouth leaned down towards hers and she met him halfway.
Noah’s heart soared as it recognized his true mate, the one he’d been looking for all his life. The other half of his soul.
He’d fallen in love.
“Where in the heck is everybody?” Elsa called from downstairs.
Rosalyn’s wary gaze told him that she might trust him, but not enough. Noah wasn’t surprised, nor was he expecting more yet. He kissed her quickly.
“Up here, Elsa,” he replied.
Elsa clunked up the stairs and came into the bedroom with a frown. “You shouldn’t be up here alone, Rosie. Folks are already talking about you and the sheriff.”
“I was just talking.” Rosalyn rose to her feet.
Elsa whistled when she got close enough to see Rosalyn. “Holy Jesus, girl. What have you done?”
“I asked her to cut her hair,” Noah lied. “If she’s going to live on the streets, it’s better if it’s short.”
“That’s a whopper if I ever heard one.” Elsa glared. “She’s not living on the streets no more but I guess she didn’t tell you that yet, did she? Rosie is going to live and work at the restaurant.”
Noah hid his disappointment. Although she wasn’t the ideal deputy, Rosalyn had something others didn’t. Heart and passion, not to mention determination and the will to survive. She’d make an excellent lawman, or lawwoman, if there was such a thing.
“Get out of his clothes right quick a’fore someone sees you.” Elsa shooed Rosalyn out of the room. “I found that blue dress in the desk drawer. Put that on.”
If she had wanted to respond, Rosalyn didn’t have the chance. Elsa was a force of nature when she wanted to be, even if she didn’t stand five feet tall. She turned back to Noah.
“Don’t break that girl’s heart.”
“I wasn’t planning on it.” Noah fought the urge to slide down onto the bed as exhaustion crept over him.
“Hmph. Well, just so you know she’s under my protection now. I’ve an obligation to that girl I’ve ignored for ten years.” Elsa brought over a basket and the scent of fresh bread tickled his nose. “Here’s your dinner. You gonna be able to eat by yourself?”
Noah had a feeling Elsa would offer to feed him and he’d end up with more bruises than he started with. “Yes, ma’am. I believe I can manage it.”
“Good, ’cause I’m taking her with me, see if I can fix that hair. Jehoshaphat, that girl is a wild thing. Who put it in her head to cut her hair like that?”
Elsa set the basket down and he spotted some cold chicken, two biscuits and a jar of milk.
Noah’s stomach rumbled. “She just wants to fit in, to be accepted.”
“That’s what I figured.” Elsa lay a napkin on top of the food. “Foolish girl. Ain’t no one going to accept her if she dresses like a man.”
“What she needs to understand is that it doesn’t matter what they think.” Noah’s voice caught. “It’s what she thinks that matters.” It was a lesson he hadn’t learned until he was almost Rosalyn’s age.
Elsa looked into his eyes for a long moment before she nodded. “You’re a wise man, Noah Calhoun. I expect life hasn’t been kind to you either. Just remember that she’s like a wounded bird, apt to fly away if you hold her too tightly.”
Noah didn’t respond. He couldn’t. What was he going to say, that he loved her? Elsa probably wouldn’t believe it and would try to keep them apart. He’d just be patient and keep his arms open, waiting for his blackbird to fly to him.