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Love's Silver Lining

By Julie Lessman

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A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
—Ecclesiastes 4:9-12


Chapter One

Virginia City, Nevada, May 1885

Sweet chorus of angels—pinch me! Palms to the windowsill, twenty-two-year-old Maggie Mullaney leaned out the back window of St. Mary Louise Hospital’s hallway, drinking in the heady scent of freedom and pine. For the first time since she’d fled New York with Aunt Libby—and the sham marriage arranged by her stepfather—Maggie felt her ribcage expand in a sense of relief as wide and welcoming as the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Breathing in the crisp, clean air of the Virginia Mountains that towered over Virginia City, she felt almost giddy, a sense of anticipation bubbling through her like the brook that gurgled below. Imagine—to practice nursing in one of the most renowned medical facilities in the country! Unleashing a contented sigh, she scanned the cloud-dappled sky with a heart of thanksgiving and a truly grateful smile. Thank you, Lord, that I’ll be serving the needs of mankind—her smile crooked off-center—instead of the needs of one man!

“Psst … ma’am … uh, I could sure use your help.”

A gasp caught in Maggie’s throat as she lurched back inside the window, almost bumping her head at the sight of a bandaged cowboy peeking out of the stairwell. Her jaw dropped.

And not just any cowboy.
A near-naked, bandaged cowboy.

She swallowed hard, eyes circled in shock as she scanned from a well-worn Stetson down a bare, sculpted torso partially swathed in gauze.
A very muscular, handsome, near-naked cowboy.

Too stunned to avert her eyes, she was mortified to discover they had a mind of their own as they trailed past a sheet awkwardly wrapped around his hips, the bunched material revealing powerful legs attached to mammoth bare feet. Near faint, she jerked her gaze back up to a crooked smile that literally stuttered her pulse.

Cheeks pulsing with heat, she immediately slapped a hand to her eyes, quite certain that none of the patients she’d treated at the Bellvue School of Nursing ever looked like the specimen before her.

“Uh, I realize this is a shock, ma’am …,” his low voice began, the barest hint of a smile lending a husky tease to his tone.
Shock? Maggie plastered another hand to her face, unable to dispel the image of brawn now branded in her brain. For the love of Florence Nightingale, this went well beyond shock to downright indecent!

“… but I’d be much obliged if you’d retrieve my clothes, boots, and holster from the nurses’ station, so I can go home, ma’am, avoiding scaring anymore unsuspecting young ladies such as yourself.”

Maggie squeezed her eyelids shut behind her hands, pretty sure one “unsuspecting young lady” was already scarred for life.

“Uh … miss?”

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Maggie inched a finger up to peek through her hand, mentally berating herself for allowing this man to unnerve her. For pity’s sake, he was a patient and this was a hospital, and for the love of all that was compassionate and kind, she was a nurse. Or would be as soon as Sister Frederica finished her meeting with the staff and called her in for an interview.

He gave a sharp nod toward the nurses’ station down the hall, and the action tumbled several sun-streaked curls onto his forehead while two deep dimples perfectly framed a little-boy grin. “Sister Fred tucked my things under the counter for safekeeping, but as I’m sure you can understand, I’m a mite embarrassed to parade down the hall like this …” Sapphire-blue eyes held her captive, their playful twinkle all but sapping the strength from her limbs. His easy smile coaxed, joining forces with a husky whisper that seemed to slide over her like melted butter. “So, if you wouldn’t mind, pretty lady, I’d be forever in your debt …”

Maggie froze. Pretty lady? A shiver skated her spine while warning bells pealed wildly in her head, the sound of those two words severing the spell of the man before her faster than a physician’s scalpel. The last person who had called her that had been David, her so-called fiancé, a society playboy with an insatiable eye for the ladies. A rogue she couldn’t trust. Her eyes narrowed.

Not unlike the half-naked, bandaged cowboy smiling at her now.

With a forced square of shoulders, Maggie lifted her chin to focus only on the man’s face, which was difficult enough given a perfectly chiseled jaw that sported a dangerous shadow of bristle. Quivering hands clasped at her waist, she managed a strained smile. “Why, I’ll be happy to fetch your things, Mr. ….”

“Donovan—Blaze Donovan, ma’am,” he said with a flash of beautiful teeth that nearly buckled her at the knees. “The blue eyes sheathed halfway to leisurely study her, lingering on her lips long enough to parch any moisture in her throat. “And you are …?”

“M-Maggie … uh, Mullaney,” she stuttered, desperate to get this man clothed and as far away from her as he could possibly get. She struggled to project a professional air, head tipped in assessment. “I assume you are a patient, Mr. Donovan, who has yet to be discharged?”

“No, I’ve been discharged,” he said quickly, a flare of panic in those deadly blue eyes that caused her lips to twitch in a near smile. “Sister Fred said I could go home, but she has most of the nurses in a meeting right now, so I guess they plum forgot to bring me my things.”

“I see.” Nodding slowly, she pivoted to make her way down the hall. “Well, I believe I saw an elderly sister at the desk, so I’ll be happy to check …”


She screeched to a stop, her suspicions confirmed. With a slow turn of her head, she peered over her shoulder, the sheepish smile he gave her downright shameless. “I mean, no need to bother her, Miss Maggie,” he said with a casual shrug of massive shoulders, rugged hands pinched as white as the sheet at his waist, “if you’ll just discreetly snatch my clothes, boots, and gun, I’ll be on my way.”

She spun on her heel to face him with an arch of her brow. “You haven’t been discharged yet, Mr. Donovan, have you?”

“Why, of course I have, ma’am,” he said with an easy drawl she’d lay good money would have gotten him far more than his clothes from every nurse on the floor. “And I’d be fully clothed and walking out of here right now if the nurses were around, you have my word.”

A smile twitched at the edge of her lips. Oh, no doubt about that!
Offering an almost shy duck of his head, he cuffed the back of his neck with a bulge of a bicep that slackened her mouth, masculinity oozing out of every pore of the man’s half-naked body. “So, if you don’t mind, ma’am, I surely would appreciate my clothes.”
Maggie stared, in absolute awe of the raw magnetism he seemed to possess, a draw obviously detrimental to all women given the wild racing of her own pulse. Shaking off the pull, she expelled a quiet sigh, peering up with a sympathy she truly felt in her heart. “As much as I’d like to, Mr. Donovan, I’m concerned for your well-being, so I really think it’s best if you wait to talk to Sister Frederica.”

The roguish air vanished in the hard clamp of his jaw. “Look, lady, I’ve been pushed and prodded in this sick-man’s jail for over 48 hours now, and I’m going home whether you give me my things or not. So, I’m asking you to save us both a whole lot of humiliation and just give me my dad-burned clothes.”

Maggie bit hard on her lip, desperate to thwart the grin that just ached to break free. But the sight of a near-naked, bandaged rogue with a tic in his temple was too good to resist, and with a sweep of her hand toward the end of the hall, she gave him a mischievous smile. “I assure you, Mr. Donovan, the humiliation will be all yours.”

The blue eyes narrowed to slits of sapphire, and with a hard jerk of the sheet at his waist, he bolted past her, luring a giggle from her mouth when his bunched bedclothes whooshed by in a growl. “Thanks a lot, lady,” he muttered, bare feet slapping against the wood hallway.

“Mr. Donovan, wait!” Feeling a wee bit guilty, Maggie gave chase, but the damage was already done the moment he stormed into the nurses’ station. People gawked and stared in the crowded waiting room near the front door while he rifled through cabinet after cabinet, jolting a poor elderly sister out of a catnap on the counter.

“Where are my clothes?” he hissed, terrorizing the sweet old nun who darted away with far more speed than Maggie would have credited her, disappearing into the meeting room where Sister Frederica held court.

“Mr. Donovan, please!” Maggie rushed around the nurses’ station, desperate to calm the man down. “You’re making a scene.”

He paused midway through gutting a drawer, the fire in his eyes singeing her to the spot while an entire waiting room looked on. “No, Miss Mullaney, you’re the one who’s made the scene by refusing a totally innocent request.”

Her chin lashed up. “True innocence is generally fully clothed, Mr. Donovan,” she said with a jut of her brow, determined that this swaddled Lothario would not pin any blame on her. “And possesses far more patience”—a smile tickled her lips—“not to mention clothing—than you appear to own at the moment.”

Cauterizing her with a truly scorching look, he chose to ignore her while tearing through another two cabinets, linens and medical paraphernalia flying through the air.

“Brendan Zachery Donovan—halt!” Everything froze mid-air except the linens when Sister Frederica’s booming voice paralyzed Maggie and every other living thing on the first floor.

He spun around to do battle like a patched-up Roman, but the sheet flaring around his straddled legs managed to steal a bit of his thunder. “Where-are-my-clothes?” he bit out, the sound as hard as the cut of his jaw.

“Safe and sound, Mr. Donovan,” Sister Frederica said in an equally clipped tone, circling the counter with an amazing amount of grace given her wide girth. She slapped a large clipboard down on the counter to face him head-on, and Maggie stifled a grin when the sheet-clad Romeo took a step back. “Which is more than I can say for you, young man, if you don’t get your carcass back to your room this instant.”

He had the audacity to lean in, sheet cinched high. “Get this and get it good, Sister Fred. I am not going back to that cage, so unless you want me to continue making a spectacle of myself in your fine hospital here, I suggest you return my clothes to me right now.”

Maggie pursed her lips to thwart a chuckle when Sister Frederica’s intimidation ramped up with a fold of burly arms, her black habit expanding and contracting with a loud huff of air. “Don’t you threaten me, young man. I wear a cornette headdress referred to as goose flaps in this town, so ‘spectacles’ hold no sway with me.” Checking the watch pinned to her white bib, she invaded his space, the starched flaps of her white cornette jerking up along with her head to sear him with a fearsome glare. Despite merely coming to his mid-chest—or mid-gauze as it were—she poked a thick finger to his chest in obvious warning. “Now I promised your uncle you would get the rest and care you need to heal properly, so if you plan on leaving my watch, Mr. Donovan, I assure you most wholeheartedly—it will be without your clothes.”

One of the nurses tittered, and the scoundrel wasted no time in homing in on the poor girl with a perilous smile, eyes and tone softening considerably. “Do you know where my clothes are, Cassie?” he asked quietly, his tender smile assuring her she was the only woman in the room.

Honeyed curls bobbed in consent, and his smile lit up like one of those mirrored lamps used in the operating rooms of Bellvue, eyes sparkling more than the cobalt poison bottles lining its shelves. Maggie smothered a grunt.
And just as toxic.

“Well, then, I’d sure love to take you out for a steak dinner tonight, Cass, at the Gold Hill Hotel if you like. All I need is for you to tell me where my clothes are, darlin’, and I’ll even get them myself.”

Maggie watched in total fascination as the girl—a petite blonde with longing in her eyes—nearly swayed on her feet, eyes locked with Donovan’s as if he were a snake charmer instead of a snake. Maggie suppressed a second grunt.

A misnomer if ever there was.

“Cassie?” he whispered, and the sound actually fluttered Maggie’s own stomach, much to her dismay, so she knew poor Cassie had to be sucked under his spell. The girl wet her lips as if she could taste the steak in question—or the man offering it—then glanced at Sister Frederica to plead his case.

Before poor Cassie could even utter a word, Sister withered her with a scowl so potent, it eradicated every smile in the room. “Trust me, Cassandra, I am saving you a lot of heartbreak when I say …” Thunderous dark brows piled low into a threat. “The bed pans on floors three and four need attending, so I suggest you begin right now.”

Thwack! Maggie startled when Donovan’s fist bludgeoned the counter. “That is pure, unadulterated blackmail, Sister, and you know it!”

“Not at all, Mr. Donovan,” Sister said in an unwavering tone, “there is nothing ‘pure’ about it, much like the bribe you offered that poor girl, I might add.” She jutted her chins—all three of them—in challenge.

Beads of sweat glazed the man’s brow as his desperate gaze darted from face to face, the fail-proof smile appearing about to crack. “A five-dollar gold piece to anyone who delivers my clothes, boots, and gun,” he rasped, voice hoarse with desperation, “and an evening out I promise you will never forget.”

“My, what an incredibly generous offer, Mr. Donovan,” Sister said with a stony smile, one thick dark brow rising in question as she surveyed her staff. “Although I doubt a five-dollar gold piece can provide the ongoing security of a salary, despite the pleasure of your company.” Everyone flinched when she clapped her hands loudly, shooing the rest of the nurses back to their jobs. “Back to work, ladies. I assure you Mr. Donovan will soon be back in your charge.”

“The devil I will,” he muttered, retying the sheet around his waist with a hard jerk of the corners. “Out of my way, Sister.” Shoving past the perfectly calm nun, he stomped around the counter and strode straight for the front door, still ridiculously handsome in nothing more than gauze and lumpy cotton.

“And just where do you think you’re going?” Sister Frederica demanded, bustling around the counter to keep up with the cowboy’s long-legged stride. “You cannot leave here in that state of undress!”

“Watch me,” he groused over his shoulder, ignoring an elderly woman who fainted dead out as he passed.

“You come back here right this instant, young man,” she called, the loud boom of her voice apparently less effective the closer he got to the door. “Your dressings need to be changed twice daily and medication applied to avoid infection. And you need to rest.”

“I don’t have time to rest—I have work to do,” he growled. Almost knocking a man down, he slammed through the front double doors to fly down the steps like a spectre, his sheet—and any pride he may have had—blowing in the wind.

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