Micah & Mrs. Miller

Fevered Hearts #3
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“Don’t miss these men of the old west!” – For the Love of Reading

“If you love westerns AND the supernatural, you’ll want to pick up this book.” – Romancing Rakes

When the spirit fever struck a town, a village or an outpost, it left few if any survivors. The white man blamed the Indian saying they used their mojo on them.  The Indians blamed the white man for angering the spirits.  The survivors knew it didn’t matter.  The Fevered were forever changed.

A job that needs to be done…

With his older brother Sam preoccupied by the upcoming birth of his child and younger brother Kid recovering from his injuries, Micah Kane has never been so busy—too busy to go to San Antonio and escort home the new schoolteacher—but what his father wants, his father gets. Busy or not, one look at the exotic beauty with her rich European accent and he can’t think of anything else.

A woman on the run…

Josephine Miller entered an arranged marriage on good faith. One year of misery later, she discovered a horrifying secret about her husband and fled west.  Becoming a schoolteacher in a small Texas town seemed like the perfect way to disappear but Micah’s touch awakens a desperate desire that she finds herself helpless to resist.

Darkness, danger and death lurking on the horizon…

An outbreak of the spirit fever, dangerous strangers in town and wild accidents at the Flying K threatening everything they care about, Micah must convince Jo that she doesn’t have to run—together they can stand against any storm.

His code. Her secret. Their war.

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Micah & Mrs. Miller: Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE

Micah slapped the fly buzzing at his neck and stared at his father. “Pa, even a week from now would be better than tomorrow.”

“A week from now, Kid might be up to the ride and I still wouldn’t send him.” Jedidiah Kane did not like to be denied. His mind made up, he delivered the orders with all the diplomacy of a mallet. “I want the schoolteacher escorted safely and not seduced. We’re almost done with the building and Miss Annabeth says she spruced the cottage up nice.” Clapping Micah on the shoulder, he nodded to the filly about to rear up at the end of the line. “You gave her too much rope.”

Swearing, Micah pivoted and balanced his weight against the yearling trying to prove her mettle. She was a stubborn little filly, fighting the halter, fighting the lunge line, fighting even being touched. Sweat dribbled down his neck. It was early spring, but April 1851 arrived like someone opened the gates of hell.

The filly bounced forward, all four legs locking and flung herself to the right, but Micah used her weight against her, controlling how far she could go. She tried to dig her heels in. He snapped the whip in his free hand and it cracked the air. The noise was more than enough to spur her on. Her sides foamed with perspiration, but he allowed her no respite. Her temper tantrum showed brilliant spirit, but spirit needed to be tempered or she’d be a danger to herself and others.

Ten turns around the lunging pen and she began to chew, her jaw working and her head turned inward, looking at him. He switched

!the rope to his right hand and held up his left. “Whoa.” She trotted one step further and stopped, sides heaving and panting.

He murmured soothing, approving sounds as she faced in toward him, the rope going slack. Exhaling a slow breath, he clicked his tongue and tugged the rope until the filly faced him full on and took another step in his direction.

“Nicely done,” his father’s verbal pat on the bag was better than a clap on the shoulder. Jed had likely forgotten more about training horses than Micah would ever know. Micah didn’t take his attention off the filly. The chewing action of her mouth was a request and a show of accepting his dominance over her. Letting her catch her breath and rest was his acknowledgement of her obedience. He came right up to her and held a gloved hand under her nose. She tipped her head down and he rubbed up the single white strip to scratch her between the ears. “Good girl, see, not so bad when you aren’t pitching fits.” He started her into a walk, walking with her and murmuring. She needed to cool down and then he could rub her dry and brush her thoroughly before turning her back out to the paddock.

“Anyway,” Jed watched from the center of the ring, his voice quiet but authoritative. “Mrs. Miller is scheduled to arrive in San Antonio in two days. I want you to take the buckboard down and pick her and her things up. Escort her home and answer her questions.”

“Yes, sir.” He nudged his hat back and let go of the argument. His father arrived with an order, not a request, no matter how politely he phrased it. His older brother, Sam was the marshal in Dorado and his wife Scarlett was expecting their baby. He wouldn’t leave even for a two-day ride to pick up a school teacher and come back.

Their youngest brother Kid hadn’t quite been himself since coming home from his western odyssey with Cody and Cody’s new wife. He slept nearly a week on their journey back toward the Flying K, and the man who woke up wasn’t the devil-may-care boy that left. They all worried about Kid, but did their best to keep it to themselves.

Unfortunately, Jason was back east in New York. He hired the school teacher and put her on the train to Kansas, from there, she traveled south via stagecoach. But they hadn’t quite managed a coach stop in Dorado. The lack of regular passers-by suited them all well, because beyond the families and animals, the Flying K and Dorado housed a secret they preferred to keep secret.

The Fevered.

“Let me talk to Noah and see if he can handle some of the work for me so we don’t lose time with the younglings.” But his father was already gone, heading off to harass some other soul and give them more work than a body could handle.

His mouth twisting, Micah laughed low and stroked the filly’s neck when her ears flicked toward him. “He wonders why all his kids talk to themselves.” Sometimes being the second son had its advantages and on days like today, it just meant rethinking a schedule he’d been working on dawn to dusk for the last several weeks.

The filly frisked a step or two, but quieted at his light tug on the rope. Her spirit was far from broken, but at least she showed willingness to behave. As her breathing softened, he walked her to training ring’s gate and let them both out. The shadow of the barn brought relief from the steamy sunshine. One of the stable hands jogged out to greet him, slowing his pace to keep from startling the filly.

“Mr. Jed asked me to do the rub down so you could get ready for your trip.”

Micah’s grin turned wry. That flew in the face of his father’s normal orders. Everyone and everything on the Flying K served a purpose. No layabouts allowed. If a body worked a horse, that body was to take care of it.

“Thanks Phil.” He passed off the rope and stroked the filly’s neck again. “Let her continue to cool while you groom her, but give her some water in a few minutes and food in about an hour. She can go into the large paddock while I’m gone.” Despite her blazes of temper, the sorrel colored filly showed promise and he wanted to train her specifically to the hack and for the ladies on the ranch to ride.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Micah.” The older cowboy led the filly off with a gentle click and Micah waited for both to make it into the barn safely before stripping off his hat to walk over to the water pump. He stuck his face under the spout and cranked the handle. A cool spray splashed against his overheated skin and soaked his hair. Two more pumps and he used a bandana to mop at the excess.

He’d need a buckboard and two horses, likely, for the trip. The two would handle any extra luggage the school teacher carried with her. His sister-in-law, Scarlett, and Cody’s new bride aside, women liked things. Lots and lots of things. His back protested at the thought of the teacher’s trunk.

Finger combing his wet hair back, he shoved the Stetson back down on his head and looked over the horses in the surrounding pastures. A pair of imports caught his eye, but he shook his head. The Dutch crosses were strong, but they didn’t care for the heat and their oversized hooves offered too many opportunities to pick up stones. He wanted to make it to San Antonio with time to spare.

The Indian ponies in the east paddocks were still learning the basics of wagons and hitching. If it were a straight ride, he would take them. Scratching his jaw thoughtfully, he went over a mental list of the animals on the property and settled on the bays in the upper pastures. The seven and eight year old geldings were quiet, sturdy, and hard workers. They also handled hack and buggy better than any other horses he could pair up.

Whistling, he caught sight of Little Tom, the fourteen year old scrapper was the spitting image of his wrangler father, Big Tom. The kid carried buckets back from spreading feed and picked up his pace under Micah’s gaze. “Yes sir?”

Just the year before, his father was at his wits end about what to do with the rowdy child. He’d damn near set fire to a pasture, broken two fences, and stolen a gun. Jed put him to work, assuring Big Tom that the yoke of responsibility tamed a boy’s wilder impulses better than any switching.

Though Micah remembered more than his fair share of the antics he and Sam got up to in their youth. “When you finish up with the feed, saddle up and ride into the eastern pasture. Find Rolly and Bully, and bring them on in for me?”

“Yes, sir.” Taking care of the horses was one responsibility, handling them another. But Micah trained Little Tom, himself. Despite his penchant for destructive boredom, the boy possessed an easy manner with the horses and they responded to it. He’d make a fine trainer one day, if Micah had his say.

“Thank you, son.” He waved him back to his work and pivoted on a heel. Noah would likely be up in Miss Annabeth’s kitchen trying to charm Miss Lena out of her skirt. His mouth quirked. The Fevered healer’s affection for their pseudo-sister hadn’t been lost on any of the Kanes, but Miss Lena continued to play hard to get, putting the buck through his paces.

Better him than me. Micah hid another grin. In his teen years, he’d fancied himself in love with Miss Lena. She indulged him, to a point, teaching him the finer art of courting a lady and no matter how great or small the task she set him to, he did it. Fortunately, she never teased him for his crush nor treated him any the worse when he realized that his affection was more sibling than lover.

Still, he was due to hassle Noah about his intentions again. What good was a brother but to give hell to the man courting his sister? He whistled all the way up to the big house, enjoying the shade trees as he crossed between them and up to the porch. Scarlett sat in one of the big chairs, her hand rubbing her oversized belly. She’d begun showing late in winter, but now there was no mistaking her pregnancy. She’d given up her preferred pants for dresses. He doffed his hat and bent to give her a kiss on the cheek.

“Good morning, you’re back early.” Her green eyes danced with a teasing light.

“As if you didn’t already know Pa is sending me to San Antonio. I blame you.” He needed to finish washing up and changing, but instead, he leaned back against the railing.

“It’s not my fault he decided that this baby needed a proper school and even proper teacher. He or she hasn’t even arrived yet and it will be years before they need a ‘school.’“ Her mouth twisted into a hint of a grimace. Far as he knew, Scarlett never went to school. She learned from her father, the old Indian Quanto, just as all her siblings did. Their Fevered origins left them blessed—or in some cases cursed—with special abilities. Scarlett, in particular, held a power that was as strange and terrifying as it could be beautiful.

She controlled fire.

“Well, Pa believes in taking the long view. He’s expecting lots of grandbabies to spoil and bring up. Ma taught us when we were littles, but after she passed, he brought in tutors for us. But Dorado’s grown, hell—beg your pardon—” He grimaced and glanced around for his brother. Sam didn’t care for cursing around his wife, even if she could curse with the best of them.

“You’re safe.” She grinned. “He’s gone to town to settle a dispute between the Church ladies and Madame Pontfour.”

Damn, Micah would pay a week’s wages to see that.

“Indeed. Anyway, you were saying about Dorado growing?” Her hand rubbed back and forth across her stomach, he wasn’t sure if she was soothing herself or the baby. Sam told him it moved, a lot. The idea was more than a little disconcerting, even with what he knew of horses and feeling the foals move in their mother’s belly’s.

“Town’s growing, ranch is growing. Lots of kids needing a proper education. Eastern businesses keep coming west and with all the trouble back east,” he shrugged. “Makes sense to have a teacher.”

“And even if it didn’t, Jed wants one.”

One of the things he adored about his sister-in-law was her succinct way of calling a spade a spade. The boys may not argue with their father much, but Miss Scarlett had no problem with disagreeing with him. The damn thing was, the old man enjoyed it, favoring her with a gentle affection and tolerance no one else received.

“And there’s that. We seen Kid this morning?” Despite his seeming recovery, Kid still kept his distance from the rest, sleeping longer or leaving earlier than the rest of the family. He’d not hared off to Mrs. Carson’s much either. Despite his belief that none were aware of the affair, Micah had known from the start. But the Widow Carson seemed none the worse for wear and Kid never brought up marriage, so he left it alone.

“We have. He left an hour ago with Buck.” Scarlett sighed. “We’re trying to talk him into going to Quanto’s mountain. But he won’t go. I wish we’d known sooner that he was Fevered.”

“No fretting.” Micah reminded her sternly. His stomach tightened at the mention of his brother’s fevered status. None of the Kanes realized the effect a childhood illness left on their brother. He wasn’t altogether comfortable with it and the two times he’d brought it up, Kid rebuffed him hard. “He’s home. We’ll take care of him, but Kid’s a bit of a mule. You can’t force the mule to go where you want. You can only point it in the direction and give it a good reason. If he goes, it’s because that’s what he chooses.”

Jed would never allow it. To his knowledge, their father refused to discuss Kid’s status with any of them. Micah wasn’t sure if he just couldn’t acknowledge that Kid had an ability to match their new family or some other cause.

“Calling your brother an ass is not the way to encourage him. But I will try to give him some peace. Cody’s new wife said much the same thing.” Her mouth curled in distaste. Scarlett refused to call the woman by her name. If he wasn’t certain that she loved his brother, he’d worry that the flame-haired beauty was jealous of Cody’s Mariska. The gypsy princess was a handful, with a spitfire temper and the hard edge of a woman who knew how to take care of herself. She and Cody had gone deep into the ranch territory beyond the horse pastures and paddocks.

Her first change took them all by surprise, but Cody handled it better than most. It helped that the woman’s wolf listened to him and when he shifted, she followed him. He considered asking Scarlett if they were back yet, but decided against it. When Sam wasn’t home, her temper was a tricky thing.

“Don’t worry, Miss Scarlett. You need anything? Fresh drink? Food?” Changing the subject was his best course of action.

“No, I’m fine. But you could pick me up some new fabrics in San Antonio. The store here still hasn’t gotten them in. I’m starting to think Mr. Donner doesn’t like me.” Her grimace turned to a pout and Micah laughed. He’d walked right into that one.

“You make me a list and I’ll get them while I’m there. Promise.”

Her smile lit up and the tension eased from her expression.

“Take care of my niece or nephew while I’m gone.” He pushed away from the railing and dropped another kiss on her cheek.

“Be safe.”

“Always am.” He gave her a wink and tugged off his hat before heading inside in search of towel, soap and clean clothes.

It was early afternoon by the time the horses were hitched to the buckboard. He loaded his tools, his dozen item list from Scarlett and a cold supper packed by Miss Annabeth. He’d pick up more in San Antonio proper. The two day trip would put him in the city by the morning of the school teacher’s expected arrival. If he pushed the horses a little, he might be able to get all of Scarlett’s shopping done before he had to be at the station.

“Anything else?” Noah’s black face gleamed up at him. He’d pushed his hat back, his expression questioning. He’d agreed to take on Micah’s chores in addition to his own without any argument. Of all their new arrivals, he trusted Noah with his horses the most. The man’s easygoing nature gave him a natural empathy for the stubborn younglings and a trusted hand with the older herd.

“Not that I can think of at the moment, but I trust your judgment and the men will listen to you.” They had since Noah helped them rescue a foundering mare over Christmas and again with the stallion’s broken leg earlier in the spring. Both horses would have died if not for Noah’s ability to heal and his authoritative command of both situations. He’d earned the hands respect, and that’s all that was needed. “That sorrel filly is coming along nicely. As long as she behaves, let her have the break, but if she starts in on the others…”

“I’ll give her a workout and remind her of her manners.” Noah nodded. “You sure you don’t want to wait for Jimmy? He won’t mind riding down with you.”

“Nah, it’ll be fine. And he’d have to ride with the luggage once we pick up the teacher.” Micah settled himself onto the seat. It promised to numb his ass within the hour, another reason riding a pair of horses down would be better for him.

A frown flickered across Noah’s face. “Micah, I know you think we’re paranoid, but we travel together for a reason.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy or overcautious. You’ve all got your reasons and I appreciate them. But I’m good. I’ve been to San Antonio plenty of times. It’s spring, we’re after the rain, should be clear weather. I’ll be back at the end of the week, probably schooled by the teacher.” He grinned, waving off the other man’s concern.

“All right. Well, Buck will watch your dreams for trouble. You need us, we’ll come.” They clasped hands briefly.

“Not that I mind, but if it’s a good dream, tell him to keep his peace, okay?” The Fevered’s abilities took some getting used to, whether it was Noah’s healing gift, Scarlett’s fire, Cody’s shape shifting or Buck’s dream walking. As odd as it all sounded last summer when he learned these strangers were more powerful than he could imagine, he grew accustomed to the idea. They were good people, solid friends, and hard workers.

Reins in hand, he set the pair of geldings into motion, leaning back in the seat, he propped a foot against the front board and blew out a breath. Yeah, as used to their abilities as he was, he also didn’t mind the break—that taste of normalcy that existed in a world without wild powers, strange enemies and more. The Fevered were family, he respected that, but even he could use the respite from family.

The crowded streets of San Antonio pressed around him as he weaved in and out. The stage coach was due in an hour. He picked up all the supplies and fabrics Scarlett requested. If he’d realized she and Miss Annabeth were making quilts and baby items, he might have said no. As it was, the pounds of cloth he carried weighed hard on his back. The buckboard and horses were resting at Dominico’s Estable. The Tejano stable master was an old and trusted friend.

Micah nodded to the hands cleaning out the stalls as he passed through and secured his packages to the buckboard, filling almost all the space beneath the bench. Chore complete, he stretched and considered the café’s on the boulevard between the stable and the station. If he had a little more time, he’d grab a room and have them pull up a bath.

The watch in his pocket warned him that time ran short, so he decided on his hunger. Halfway to his favorite café, he hesitated. The teacher might be hungry after her long haul in the coach and it wouldn’t hurt her to get a bit of stretch before they hitched up again and started the long ride back to Dorado.

His stomach growled, but his conscience answered with a snarl. Forty minutes till the coach’s arrival. He diverted and headed to the station. Five minutes later, he was glad he did because the coach arrived early. The team of horses pounded in on a cloud of dust and dug their heels in to stop, the red and yellow coach bouncing on its wheels. The driver tied off the reins and began tossing down the bags before the station master got the steps down and the door open. A small crowd gathered, with shouts of welcome and greeting for a burly looking man with heavy jowls and a bum leg. A wife—at least Micah presumed she was a wife—hurried forward to greet him with a kiss. Three littles flocked around his legs and demanded hugs and presents. He limped away with his family.

The second one off was a diminutive Asian, his slanted eyes housing a cold look and his expression stern. He spoke to no one and caught his bag as the driver tossed it down. The third one out had a wide brimmed hat and a sweet, rosy complexion. She glanced up as her foot hovered over the first step.

“Have a care with that trunk, please.” Her brisk, exotic voice went straight to his groin and Micah blinked. The accent was beautiful. Her dress was the color of melted chocolate, with a high white collar and ruffles at the wrist. Her hair was hidden by the oversized hat, but his heart did a little fist squeezing when she turned. Warm brown eyes skimmed the crowd, and he knew she missed nothing.

He hurried forward as the trunk she chastised the driver about headed for the ground. Legs braced, he caught it and the air whooshed out of his lungs. He managed to set it down, but just barely. Did she travel with bricks?

“Thank you.” Her crisp accent cooled from the harried sound she’d used with the driver. “I didn’t want it to split open and spill the books.”

Books. Bricks. Same thing really. “Not a problem, ma’am.” Micah gave her a quick smile, and

glanced at the coach. No other passengers disembarked. He frowned briefly, where was the teacher?

“I don’t have much coin, but I could give you a nickel if you wouldn’t mind carrying that for me.” Her accent clipped the words, giving deliberate emphasis on the first syllable.

“Certainly don’t have to pay me, ma’am. Be happy to deliver this for you, but I need a word with the coach man as it seems we’re missing a passenger.”

“Oh?” She glanced up at the dusty coach, her expression puzzled. “It was just the three of us since Kansas.”

Micah frowned. “Hmm. That doesn’t bode well. My father sent me down to pick up the school teacher.”

“Oh?” She turned back, her expression gentling and the warm honey of her eyes seemed to lighten. “Well, that would be me. I’m Josephine Miller.” She extended a lace gloved hand toward him and Micah stared.

“You’re far too pretty to be a school teacher.”