Doctor Jude Evans has built a safe but barren life for himself in a small western town where he pours all his passion into caring for his patients while hiding his secret yearning to love another man. Gabriel Fontenot is a drifter who is handy with a gun, prospecting for gold and trying to forget the night the letter “O” was carved into his hip. Suffering from hard living, he is cared for by Jude, but Gabriel is aroused by Jude’s gentle touch and offers to service the innocent doctor.
But Jude has other problems. A reformer in a small town reluctant to change, he is targeted by David Smith, a wealthy and dangerous landowner. Gabriel vows to protect shy Jude, becoming a reluctant guardian angel who helps to keep the doctor safe. But what will it take for Jude to finally feel free to give himself completely to his beloved gunfighter?
* * * * *
Gabriel leaned on a porch support, gripping it with a clenched hand.
“You okay, Mister?”
“Yes, it’s just...fatigue. How much farther to your friend’s home?”
“Not far to Doc Jude’s place. He leaves the lantern on all night so his patients know he’s home if they need him.”
Gabriel nodded after he looked ahead and spotted it. He straightened and put a hand on Mouse’s shoulder, trying not to quake from a bout of sudden chill. “He does indeed sound like...a good doctor.”
“You should see him. He could make you feel better, I know it!” Mouse exclaimed. “Mister, are you...?”
Gabriel fell, feeling his chest working like a trout pulled from a river.
Mouse’s face blurred from pale white to gray to darkness.
* * * * *
“Scarring,” Doc Jude said in an absent tone. He had to shove down the compassion that he felt as he examined the unconscious man who had rescued Mouse. “Very deep.”
“Looks like he was whipped,” Joanna noted. She held the lantern with a reflecting mirror affixed to it so he could examine his new patient. Joanna often filled in as a nurse when she wasn’t working at the saloon, and Jude was grateful for her help and the way she never judged him. She’d never asked, but he wondered sometimes if she’d guessed his secret.
“Thank you, Joanna,” he said. “A little to the left...”
Joanna raised the light, bending close to watch what Jude was doing. She would have made a fine doctor, and he’d told her so more than once.
“But he’s not a blind runt, so why would anyone whip his back?” Mouse asked. He’d refused to leave the examining room until Jude had taken a look at his new friend.
“Mouse! No one has the right to whip anyone, blind or not,” Joanna scolded in a raspy voice. She got upset when Mouse referred to himself as a runt, but then so did Jude. He wished there was some way they could reach the boy, show him that he was special, no matter how some unenlightened individuals in town treated him.
“It looks like it might have happened to him when he was younger, Mouse, since the scarring is old, and I think the wounds were left untreated,” Jude said, sighing. “Someone wanted to hurt this man, to humiliate him.”
Mouse patted the stranger’s limp arm no doubt catching his hoarse breathing. “But he’s safe here with us now, isn’t he, Doc Jude? We won’t let anyone hurt him.”
“No, we most certainly will not!” Jude’s jaw locked as he thought of David Smith and his men. Jude had to walk carefully around them, like everyone in town, but it was increasingly hard, especially with the way they endangered Mouse. “I want to move him on his side.” Gently he lifted and turned the limp body of the big man, heavy with muscle and yet so thin. Bones stuck out under the skin like sticks in a lady’s Chinese fan. He adjusted the pillow and heard the laboring breaths of his patient ease.
Acting on a strange impulse, Jude pushed the long brown hair, warm as fall chestnuts and shot with silver, back from the high forehead. “You’ve lived some life, Mister,” he whispered. “But you’re safe here under my roof.”
Joanna gave him a steady look, and Jude flushed. What must she be thinking? He did not show such partiality with his patients, but there was something about this man. Besides, the stranger had saved Mouse. Surely he was only experiencing such a connection because of gratitude?
“Doc!” Joanna pointed to where the white sheet placed to protect his patient’s modesty had fallen away, revealing a scar on the man’s hip shaped like an O.
Jude frowned, and he drew in a deep breath, reaching out to trace the scar. “My God. It looks like it was cut into his skin.”
Mouse’s fingers dug into the patient’s arm. “Doc, what’s wrong with him? Why’s he having so much trouble breathing?”
Seeing Mouse had become fond of the stranger, Jude led him away from the examining table and knelt beside him. “I believe he has a bad infection. He appears very run-down.”
Mouse swallowed. “You mean he’s dying, don’t you?”
“Not if we can help him, Mouse. He’s a very strong man, so with some rest and proper food and care, he has a good chance to recover. He’s unconscious now because he’s suffering from fatigue, which has aggravated his condition.”
“I want to help him,” Mouse said.
Jude’s gaze went back to his patient, and again he felt the shameful tug, the old urges he tried to bury with helping others. Well, he would help this man, this beautiful man.
“Come on; I want to check your back. He’s resting now,” Jude told Mouse.
* * * * *
Gabriel swallowed, running his tongue over cracked lips.
“Here.” A cup was placed against his mouth, and a hand raised his head gently so he could drink.
Gabriel’s eyes flared wide, and he shoved the hand away, rolling off the high bed in a supple twist. He landed on his feet, and silver instruments went flying from a cart as he groped through them. Knife in hand, he glared at the slight, bespectacled young man with tangled brown curls.
“Please put down the scalpel,” the stranger asked.
Gabriel felt the chill of air on his naked body and snatched a sheet to cover himself, flushing with embarrassment.
“I am a doctor. You’re sick, and I just want to help you,” the man continued in a soft voice.
Gabriel’s dry throat prickled, and he coughed. It brought on a spell --
The young man took him by the shoulders and guided him back to the bed. He went to a cabinet as Gabriel watched, heart pounding, opening it to pull out a bottle and cloth. He soaked the fabric with liquid from the bottle and then returned to Gabriel’s bedside. “Breathe into this; it will relax the spasms.”
Gabriel snatched the other man close by his hair, staring into wide, shocked blue eyes. “Where are my guns?” he asked.
“I...I left them in the hallway. I don’t like weapons in my clinic.”
“Take me to them!”
The stranger looked afraid of him, but Gabriel quashed the shame he felt. He wouldn’t be vulnerable again. Not ever.
Leaving the bed, he shoved the slight young man forward, keeping a hand around his slender throat so he’d know Gabriel meant business. He could easily break his neck with a sharp twist; he’d done it before as a soldier during the war.
In the hallway, Gabriel spotted his pistols.
“You won’t need them in my clinic,” the doctor insisted.
Gabriel pushed the other man aside and snatched his guns up. His body relaxed as soon as he cradled them. He leaned against the doorway, struggling to breathe and hating that he was so goddamned weak.
“May I have my knife back now that you have your weapons?” the doctor asked him coolly, raising light brown brows.
“What is...your name?” Gabriel’s vision was blurring, and he was afraid. Afraid to fall asleep, to be helpless...
“Dr. Jude Evans, but my patients call me Doc Jude.” The gentle voice was like a hand touching him.
Gabriel returned the knife. What must the doctor think -- that he was some wild, rabid wolf? “I...would not have cut you, sir,” he said.
“I hope not! I’m the only doctor, and that would inconvenience a lot of people here in town. Let me help you back to bed.”
Gabriel was amazed that the slighter man was willing to get close to him after his behavior, but there was kindness in the blue eyes that held his own. He allowed himself to be led back into the room and sat on the bed, still laboring to breathe.
“This will relax the air passages.” Doc Jude had the cloth in hand again. “Please, trust me.”
Gabriel held his guns close to his chest, staring at the young doctor.
“Why, you’re trembling!” Doc Jude said as he touched Gabriel’s shoulder. He continued in a softer voice, “Sir, I will not harm you. I took an oath to put my patient’s welfare above my own.”
“Who will keep me safe if I go to sleep?” Gabriel growled.
A child’s voice piped in, “I will!”
“Mouse,” Gabriel said, recognizing the boy he’d befriended. “Is your back --”
Gabriel started coughing and hated that the boy was seeing him like this, weak, barely able to rise from the bed.
“I’m fine. They didn’t cut me like what happened to you.”
Gabriel closed his eyes. When he could speak again, he said, “I’m very glad.” He looked at the doctor, seeing compassion burning in the blue eyes. “I will take your remedy, sir.”
“My name is Jude.” The young man blushed under Gabriel’s steady gaze. “And Mouse and I will watch over you while you rest, never fear.”
* * * * *
Gabriel woke to bright sunlight pouring like honey through the windows. He stared blankly at the shifting lace curtains and at the beautiful woman leaning against the window, looking out into the street.
Her profile was as cold and pure as a goddess, but he remembered seeing her at the saloon. She was no lady, which meant she was a more comfortable kind of companion for a man like him.
Some instinct seemed to alert her to his gaze so that she turned to face him, sober blue eyes studying him. “You’re awake.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Gabriel said. “You surely are Mouse’s mother.”
The woman’s eyes widened. “He doesn’t know.”
“Oh, I think he suspects. The man who whipped him, he resembled Mouse also.”
“David’s father is desperate for an heir, and he wants to claim Mouse, but David is ashamed of him, ashamed of me.”
Gabriel nodded. “I understand. There is nothing so dangerous to a child as a father who is...disappointed in him.”
“I am Joanna,” she said, regaining her poise. “Doc Jude had to go check on a patient, and he asked me to watch over you. Would you like a sponge bath? You have been running quite a fever.”
Gabriel grimaced, feeling sticky. He really wanted another tub bath, but he was too weak to leave the clinic. “I shall manage if you could bring me what I need,” he said. He disliked being too dependent on anyone.
Joanna nodded, and Gabriel found himself liking the way she looked at him. Straight up, with gunslinger’s eyes.
* * * * *
Jude heard the splash of water falling and knocked on his patient’s door, knowing the stranger must be awake. He’d left him sleeping previously, afraid even to wake him to eat, he seemed so worn down. Clearly he needed rest.
“Come,” a deep voice called, and Jude entered the room, rubbing his tired eyes.
“You look a little more rested.” Jude’s concern for his patient propelled him to go over and feel the man’s forehead. The sponge trickled water into a basin resting on the corner of the bed, and Jude’s eyes swept smooth muscled skin, slick with water. He cleared his throat. “Mouse will be glad you’re a little better. May I ask your name?”
“Gabriel Fontenot,” Gabriel offered. He stiffened when the young doctor took his wrist, touching him seemingly without fear.
Gabriel wasn’t used to people being unafraid of him.
Even less used to being touched.
And then, while he stared at the other man, the doctor stroked Gabriel’s wrist absently. It was meant strictly to comfort, he knew that. He knew it wasn’t... But his body responded because of tangled, soft brown hair and gentle eyes, and all Gabriel could think about was --
He yanked his wrist away, dropping his gaze. “Don’t touch me!” he growled.
“Did I hurt you?” Bewildered blue eyes. Then, “Oh.”
Gabriel lifted a knee so the erection he was sporting wasn’t so obvious. Damnation, there was no way the man could mistake him.
A hand returned to his line of sight, startling him so that he looked up and met Jude’s gaze. “I was checking your pulse. May I continue?”
“But...” Gabriel let him take his wrist again, swallowing thickly. He was comfortable touching a man like Gabriel?
“It’s all right,” Jude whispered. He was blushing, Gabriel noted. “You helped Mouse, and I’m very grateful to you.”
“No child should have his back striped.” Gabriel shook his head, sickened.
“You were whipped once. I...saw that when I examined you.” Curiosity and compassion were in the doctor’s eyes now.
“I expected you to slap my face when you saw...” Gabriel’s throat closed. He couldn’t speak of it, the moment when this man had touched him and Gabriel’s body betrayed him.
Doc Jude’s voice was hushed. “I could not help but notice the scar on your hip; it resembled the letter o.”
Gabriel gazed deeply into Jude’s eyes without hiding who he was anymore. Goddamnit, he couldn’t help it. “O stands for the word obscenity.”
Copyright © Jan Irving