Second Chances Ch. 16byharemgirl©
The ride to Judge Hawthorne's house took nearly an hour. Sheriff Wilson chose to ride his horse beside the wagon, and he looked increasingly uneasy as they got closer to the judge's house. Still, he didn't try to sway the McKenzies from their purpose. He knew that would be a waste of his breath. He was just hoping he wouldn't get caught in the crossfire between them and the judge.
By the time they arrived, Brian was chilled from more than the frosty temperatures. Sarah had given him the cold shoulder during the entire trip. He wasn't sure why she was angry at him. He had done what he had to do to protect her. If anything, he should be angry with her for going into town after he had warned her against it!
Liam set the break as Aidan lifted Naomi down from the wagon bed. Brian reached to help Sarah, but she gave him a cold stare.
"No, thank you," she said tersely.
She did allow Aidan to assist her, and Brian's brows lowered into a scowl. Once they had dealt with the small matter of a murder charge hanging over her head, he was going to have a stern talk with his angel!
Aidan and Naomi led the small procession to the front door, and he knocked loudly. The house was dark, the occupants obviously retired for the night. When no one answered after a brief wait, he knocked again, rattling the door with his fist.
"Alright, alright, I'm coming," came a muffled voice from inside. "Hold your horses." The door was finally snatched open, and an elderly man in a thick robe glared down his nose, first at Aidan and then at the others. "You'd better have a damn good reason for disturbing me at this hour!" he growled. "I was just going to bed when you started pounding on my door."
"I'm sorry Judge Hawthorne. I tried to tell them that we should wait..." Sheriff Wilson began, in a whiny voice.
Aidan silenced him with one raised brow before turning back to face the judge. "I realize it's a late hour, sir, but we have a problem, and we understand you are the man who can help us solve it."
"Well, couldn't this problem wait until the morning?" the judge demanded gruffly.
"No sir," Aidan said firmly. "We need to sort this out tonight, so I can take my family home. We need a few minutes of your time, and we need it now."
The judge studied the stubborn set of Aidan's jaw and then scanned the faces of his companions. With the exception of Sheriff Wilson, who was looking decidedly uncomfortable, the others all returned his stare with the same calm but determined expression. Judge Hawthorne heaved a resigned sigh and opened the door wide, waving them inside his home.
"Alright, alright," he grumbled impatiently, "but hurry up and come inside. There's no sense letting my house get any colder while you dilly dally on my front porch." When they hesitated in the foyer, he ushered them into his study. "Come in and take a seat."
The judge lit a lamp and turned the wick high, bathing the study in soft light. He muttered under his breath as he took a seat behind his massive desk and dug for his glasses in a drawer. Naomi and Sarah perched on the two chairs in front of his desk, with Brian and Aidan standing behind them. Liam and the sheriff remained standing near the door. The judge beetled his bushy brows above a stern frown and cleared his throat.
"Now, young man," he said, piercing Aidan with a stern frown. "Tell me who you are and what this is about, and be quick about it for heaven's sake."
"Sir, I'm Aidan McKenzie, and these are my brothers, my wife and our friend, Sarah Martin," he said, indicating each of them with his hand. "We believe there's been a mistake..."
"We know there's been a mistake," Naomi corrected, cutting him off. "Why, there's no way that Sarah..."
"Sarah's not a murderer," Brian interrupted firmly. "She's simply not capable of..."
"Just a minute!" The judge roared. When everyone was silent once more, he gave a satisfied humph. "I can't understand a word you're saying if everybody talks at once. Now, one at a time."
Sarah cleared her throat to get his attention and met the judge's forbidding gaze unflinchingly. "Sir, please allow me to speak for myself. I'm Sarah Martin, and I've been arrested for the murder of my former boss, Mr. Jared Henderson. I didn't murder him, sir, but I know who did."
"Young lady..." the judge began, with a deepening frown.
Sarah was frustrated that the judge was going to brush her off, just as the sheriff had been doing all afternoon. She rushed on, anxious to convince him that she was not guilty of murder. "Sir, honestly, I'm innocent. I know how it must look, because I've been a wanted woman for nearly two months. I would have come forward sooner, but I had an accident and lost my memory. I only found out today, when Sheriff Wilson arrested me, that I was wanted for murder. As soon as I saw Mr. Henderson's name on the wanted poster, my memory came back, and I remembered what had happened. I've been trying to explain to the sheriff, but he hasn't given me the chance. If you'll just listen, I can explain what happened."
Throughout her speech, the judge had been trying to get a word in edgewise. When she finally finished, he sighed with relief. "Young lady, do you mean to tell me that Sheriff Wilson has had you locked in jail all day for the murder of Mr. Henderson?" When Sarah nodded with a puzzled frown, the judge glared at Sheriff Wilson. "Ed, you are without a doubt the sorriest excuse for a sheriff I've ever met! I can't believe you put this poor young lady through such an ordeal."
The judge's statement was met by surprised gasps. Everyone turned to the sheriff, expecting that he would know why the judge had reacted as he had.
Sheriff Wilson's eyes bulged, and he quickly came forward, hands stretched out in appeal. "What do you mean, Judge Hawthorne? I was only doing my job!"
"If you were doing your job," the judge growled, "you would know that Jared Henderson's wife was convicted for his murder two weeks ago, over in Salem!"
"What?" the sheriff squawked.
"You heard me, you idiot! Thank goodness Sheriff Dobbs was in charge of the investigation instead of you." the judge roared. He cleared his throat and looked back at Sarah. "Dobbs knew from the start that something about the family's story didn't make any sense. Turns out Mrs. Henderson murdered her own husband. She found out he had been fooling around with the maids and flew into a jealous rage." Judge Hawthorne's face looked far less harsh as he smiled apologetically at Sarah. "The Henderson's housekeeper told the sheriff what had happened to you, Miss Martin. She was convinced that you didn't murder Mr. Henderson. She said you were leaving your job at the Henderson's to return to your father's home, is that right?"
"Yes," Sarah said with an eager nod. "How did you know that?"
"She went to Sheriff Dobbs and told him everything. She found out that Mr. Henderson had tried to," Judge Hawthorne cleared his throat nervously, clearly uncomfortable talking about such things in the presence of ladies, "well, that he had tried to take advantage of you. She said she helped you pack your things the day you left."
"That's right," Sarah said, leaning forward in her excitement. "Mrs. Baker was kind enough to pay me my wages out of the household funds. I went to Mr. Henderson's study, to turn in my notice, but when I got there, his door was slightly ajar. I heard him and his wife arguing, and I could see him sitting behind his desk. Mrs. Henderson was crying and screaming at him. She found out what he had done to me. She said she was tired of turning a blind eye to his affairs, and that she wouldn't stand for it anymore. Then Mr. Henderson leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and laughed at her." Sarah shuddered, remembering that day. "His voice was so cruel and mocking. He told her that what he did was none of her business. He said he would enjoy any woman he wanted, and there was nothing she could do about it. That's when..."
Sarah clenched her eyes shut, and put a trembling hand to her throat. Brian squeezed her shoulders, leaning over to offer her comfort.
"What happened then, Sarah?" Brian asked quietly.
Sarah drew in a shaky breath and opened her eyes to meet the judge's kindly gaze. "Mrs. Henderson flew into a rage. She grabbed his letter opener off his desk and stabbed him in the chest. When I saw her do it, I must have screamed or something, because she whirled around and saw me. I was so frightened by the look in her eyes...she looked crazy, like a maniac. I ran, just as fast as I could. I didn't even think, I just ran."
Naomi clasped Sarah's shaking hand in hers, and Sarah gave her a grateful smile. She took another deep breath before continuing.
"As I was running down the stairs, I could hear Mrs. Henderson yelling for someone to stop me. She was screaming that I had murdered her husband. I panicked. I had only been working there a few days. I didn't know whether anyone would believe me. The only thing I could think about was reaching my father. I knew he would help me. I snatched my suitcase that I had left in the foyer, and I ran until I could barely breathe."
Sarah took a steadying breath. "I didn't have a horse, so I figured I would have to walk to Papa's house. I was walking along the road, and it was snowy and icy. I remember being afraid because I was already feeling tired and cold and I had a few more miles to go. I wasn't sure whether I could make it to Silverton, but there was no where to take shelter."
"Your father lives in Silverton?" Brian said with surprise.
"Yes," Sarah said with a nod, "he's a school teacher, and he had just taken a job there."
"That's only a few miles from our farm," Brian said thoughtfully.
Sarah turned back to face the judge, frowning as she remembered. "I was walking along, when I heard horses approaching from behind. I saw a coach, and I panicked again, thinking that it was someone from the Henderson's coming for me. I started running, but I must have slipped on the icy road. The last thing I remember is tumbling down the hill...then, I woke up at the McKenzie farm and my memory was gone."
The judge raised his eyebrows and blew out a breath through pursed lips. "That's some adventure you had, Miss Martin. And for the last two months, you've been hiding out at the McKenzie farm?"
"I wasn't hiding out, sir," Sarah said, sending a brief glare at Brian. "I didn't even know I was wanted for murder until today."
"Well, you're not wanted for murder any more, Miss Martin." The judge shot Sheriff Wilson an accusing frown. "Ed, you should have known that the Henderson murder had already been solved. Didn't you receive a notice from Sheriff Dobbs?"
Sheriff Wilson shuffled his feet, and his voice turned even whinier than before. "Judge Hawthorne, I didn't get any notice, least not that I'm aware of."
Aidan snorted. "It's probably among all those papers scattered on your office floor! Don't you go through your mail?"
"Well, I'm a busy man, Mr. McKenzie," the sheriff said with a shrug. "Sometimes I get a little behind in my paperwork."
"That's baloney," the judge spat. "We all know how much time you waste yacking with the folks around here. If you spent half as much time doing your job as you do sitting on your ass, this whole unfortunate situation could have been avoided! You can be guaranteed that the town council is going to hear from me about this, and if I were you, I would start thinking about your future, because you're about to be out of a job."
"But, sir..." the sheriff began.
"Not another word," said the judge, holding up a hand to halt his speech. "I don't want to spend another minute of my time listening to your lame excuses. You know the way to the door!"
Sheriff Wilson gulped and nodded, jamming his hat onto his head as he beat a hasty retreat. It was all the McKenzies could do not to laugh.
The judge gave a satisfied humph before turning back to Sarah. "Miss Martin, I hope you will accept my apologies for you being so inconvenienced. If there is ever any way I can be of service to you in the future, you have only to ask, my dear."
Brian cleared his throat and stepped forward. "Sir, as a matter of fact, you could perform a service for us." He grasped Sarah's hand and lifted her to her feet beside him. "We'd be obliged if you would marry us, sir."
The judge's eyebrows nearly disappeared into his hairline, as Sarah gaped at Brian. The others murmured with surprise and pleasure, but before anyone could say anything, Sarah closed her mouth with a snap and snatched her hand from Brian's. She shot him a glare before she turned to Judge Hawthorne.
"That won't be necessary, sir," Sarah told the judge, with a tight smile. "I have no intention of marrying this man."
It was Brian's turn to stare at her with surprise. For one brief moment, his jaw dropped before he clamped his lips into a thin line of displeasure and he faced the judge. "Sir, if you would excuse us for a moment. We'll be right back."
Without another word, he grasped Sarah's upper arm and towed her out into the foyer, closing the study door behind them. As soon as they were alone, he hauled her around to face him. The muscles in his jaw were twitching with anger, and he ground his words out through clenched teeth.
"What the hell is the matter with you? What do you mean you won't marry me?"
Sarah wrenched her arm free from his grasp and tossed her head, returning his glare. "You've been lying to me for weeks, Brian McKenzie! There's no way that I would trust you enough to marry you now, after what you've done."
"What I've done is protect you," he growled, stepping close until he was towering over her. "I had everything under control until you went gallivanting into town without even talking to me first."
Sarah refused to be intimidated, and she rose on her tiptoes until she was nose to nose with him. "What you've done is hide the truth from me! If you had only been honest with me from the beginning, I might have regained my memory weeks ago."
She went to brush past him, but Brian caught her around the waist. He pushed her backward, pinning her against the wall. He planted one strong arm on either side of her head and trapped her legs between his. His eyes were flashing green fire, and Sarah gulped from the sheer possessiveness in his gaze. His barbarian side was out in full force, and it was an effort for her not to quake. When he spoke, his voice was deep and hard, rumbling up from the depths of his chest.
"You're not leaving here until we're married," Brian said with deadly calm.
He held her gaze for a moment longer before kissing her long and thoroughly on the mouth. There was no gentleness in the kiss. It was clearly intended to demonstrate his claim over her. When he raised his head, his eyes flared with satisfaction when he saw her flushed cheeks and shallow breathing. He caught and held her wide eyed stare.
"You're going to march your little fanny right back in there and tell the judge that you are ready to become my wife," he growled. "Is that understood?"
Sarah's eyes narrowed into a stubborn glare, and they sparked with anger. "I'm not going to do any such thing!" She lowered her voice to a hissing whisper. "You may think you can make me do anything you want by seducing me." Seeing him raise a mocking brow, she blushed but continued. "That may be true in the bedroom, but it's not true everywhere else! I won't be bullied by you."
Brian ground his teeth, the muscles twitching in his cheek. "You are going to marry me," Brian averred. "You're going to marry me tonight, and that's final." He surprised her by nibbling beneath her ear, tracing her delicate skin with his fiery tongue.
"Stop it," Sarah gasped, trying to shoo him away from her neck. "That is not going to get you what you want, now let me go, or I'll scream."
"You're mine," Brian whispered, exploring the delicate line of her jaw. "Deny it as much as you like, but you and I both know you're mine." He cupped one breast in his palm and kneaded it provocatively, rasping her nipple with his thumb. His caresses became increasingly blatant as Sarah became increasingly breathless. "Do you seriously think," he growled, "that I'm ever going to let you go?"
"Brian, I want to be taken to my father's house," Sarah demanded.
Brian began exploring the other side of her neck. "I'll take you to see your father tomorrow. Tonight, we're getting married."
"Brian," she groaned, trying to push his hand away from her breast. "I mean it. This isn't going to work."
"It's already working," Brian murmured, pinching her hardened nipple between his fingers.
Sarah struggled to cling to her wits. It would be so easy to give in to his persuasion, but her future happiness depended on him acknowledging her as his equal, and in this instance, she wasn't going to back down. She drew a deep breath and pressed insistently on his chest until he finally consented to meet her eye.
"Brian," she said firmly, "you can throw me on the floor here and now if you decide to. I can't stop you, heaven knows. But then I still wouldn't marry you." Seeing that she had his full attention, she went on. "If I can't trust you to be open and honest in our relationship, then I can never be happy as your wife. By lying to me and keeping me in the dark, you really hurt me. I've been trying so hard to remember my past, and all it took was one name to make it all come back. You could have spared me weeks of uncertainty!"
Brian heaved a deep sigh, rolling his eyes in irritation before locking gazes again. "How was I supposed to know that seeing Jared Henderson's name would trigger your memory? All I knew was that you were wanted for murder and might be hanged. I couldn't let that happen!"
"That still doesn't excuse you for lying to me," Sarah insisted. "You could have at least been honest with me. For weeks now, I have been wondering why you wouldn't marry me. You gave me one lame excuse after another, when all the while you were hiding this from me! Didn't you think I had a right to know that I was wanted for murder?"
Brian raked a hand through his hair to keep from throttling her. "Not if it meant scaring the wits out of you, no! I did what I had to do to protect you."
Sarah crossed her arms and glared at him. "Well, in the process of trying to protect me, you betrayed my trust. The worst part is that I've been worried sick about you for weeks! You haven't been yourself, and I've been going out of my mind because I didn't know what was wrong or how to help you. How can I possibly marry you when you won't even let me share your worries or fears?" She blinked back the tears that were prickling the backs of her eyes. "Don't you know anything about me, Brian? I'm not some ninny without a backbone! You should have let me face this with you. You shouldn't have shut me out."
Something in her expression caused Brian to pause. Her eyes were full of pain, mixed in with her anger. The knowledge that he had betrayed her trust by not being honest with her nagged at him, prodding his conscience. He swallowed hard.
"You're right," he said quietly. "I shouldn't have lied to you. Now will you forgive me and marry me?"
Sarah blinked, surprised by his bald admission. "Of course I forgive you, Brian." She cleared her throat, trying to resist the appeal of his green eyes. "But I won't marry you unless I can be assured that you won't lie to me in the future. As your wife, I would expect to be your partner, to share in all your worries and fears, to share your life. I'm not just some weak female that you need to protect."
"You can't expect me not to protect you, Sarah. I will always do everything in my power to make sure no one hurts you." Brian cupped her jaw, running his thumb over her cheek. "But I promise never to lie to you again."