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Authors: Leigh Greenwood

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BOOK: No One But You
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“Just looking.”

“I can show you around. What would you like to see?”

“I'm not sure.” She wasn't thinking. “The barn,” she said, latching onto the most obvious. “Why did George build it? I've never seen anything like it in Texas.”

Salty turned toward the rectangular structure. “George grew up in Virginia where everyone had barns. He's not comfortable without one, but it was also practical. The bull is too valuable to be left out, and a shed doesn't offer much protection. It's also where we keep the saddles, bridles, chaps, and all the equipment we need for the ranch, as well as Rose's buckboard.” Salty pushed open the door. “Take a look inside.”

A medley of aromas greeted Sarah. Leather and saddle oil competed with the odor of manure. Less prominent were the smells of new wood, moist earth, and hay. The door at the far end was open, giving a contrast of bright light, shade, and deep shadows.

“I let the bull out every morning before breakfast and bring him in before I go to bed. We're pasture breeding him.”

Sarah could see the bulk of the animal resting in the shade of a live oak. She recognized some of the cows as longhorns, but the others were unfamiliar. “What kind of cows are those?” she asked.

“They're some we got from Richard King in exchange for our bull's calves. King is experimenting with new breeds.”

She tried to concentrate on the rest of the barn rather than trying to think of a way to pay for one of this bull's calves. Even that frustrating exercise was better than allowing herself to think of the effect on her of Salty's nearness. What was it about this man that wouldn't allow her to ignore him? He wasn't devastatingly handsome. He was too tall and thin to be a grand physical specimen like George Randolph. He didn't have a commanding way about him. He wasn't so full of energy that it radiated out from him. He was just a man. You could pass him on the street and not notice him.

Well, somebody else could, but it was obvious she couldn't. Being with him in a barn talking about saddles and manure was the most exciting thing that had happened to her in years. What was wrong with her?

“Do you want to see the bunkhouse?” Salty asked.

Sarah collected her wandering thoughts. “I doubt the other men would like that.”

“They won't care.”

She allowed him to show her the bunkhouse, the corral where they kept their horses, and the shed where the bull used to stay. Even the chicken house. She probably would have followed him to the pigpen, but he said he thought it was better to skip that. The more she listened to him, the more she wanted him to keep talking. She loved his enthusiasm, his optimism, the pleasure he took in his work. Most of all, she loved his laugh. She couldn't remember the last time she or her children had laughed.

It appeared Salty could find a reason to laugh at anything. At the small pair of chaps Rose had given Zac on his last birthday. At the lazy bull showing no interest in the cows he was to impregnate. At a pullet fleeing the attentions of a rooster. The only time she'd seen him frown was when she told him he didn't fit her requirements. They ended up in a large garden where the fruit trees were beginning to bud.

“George leaves the garden to Rose and me. He says he got enough blisters digging the first one to last a lifetime.”

Salty showed her where beans, peas, squash, and a dozen other vegetables would be planted in the days ahead. “Not everything we had in Georgia likes Texas soil or the heat, but I'm determined to find a way to grow apples and peaches.”

Sarah had never seen an apple or a peach. The only fruits she had tasted were berries that grew wild.

“I expect I'll have the garden pretty much to myself until George hires someone else,” Salty said.

“Why?”

“Rose will be busy with the baby, and Walter will be with you.”

Sarah could hear the disappointment in his voice. She wanted to say something, do something, but nothing came to mind. She knew what she had to do. Despite her attraction to Salty, she had to choose Walter.

“I'd better get back up to the house,” she said. “I promised to help Rose.” Did he look disappointed? “Thanks for showing me around. I know it was time you'd probably have preferred spending doing your work.”

“My work will always be here. I haven't had a chance to spend this much time with a pretty woman since before the war.”

“I intend to tell Rose what you said.” It was a poor effort at humor, but it was the best she could do. Fortunately, it earned a smile.

Salty corrected himself. “I should have said ‘a pretty woman who wasn't married and expecting a baby.'”

“You're a very nice man. I hope you find a woman who's as nice as you,” Sarah said impulsively. Then she turned and hurried toward the house before she could see Salty's reaction. Whatever it might have been, she didn't want the burden of remembering it.

* * *

Sarah had grown increasingly nervous as the meal progressed. An afternoon spent helping Rose hadn't been able to distract her from the decision she kept making over and over again. It seemed she only had to think
I will do this
, and a dozen reasons why she should do the opposite would spring to mind.

Other than saying that Salty had shown her around the ranch, she was spared questions at the supper table about her decision because the children were so full of what they'd done that day they couldn't stop talking. While she was pleased that Ellen had been allowed to ride any horse she wanted, she was thrilled that Zac had taken Jared over what sounded like half the ranch. Jared had rarely been a hundred feet from his front door. He must have felt like he'd been given the world.

“Tyler said I could ride better than him or Zac,” Ellen told her mother.

“She hasn't seen me ride,” Zac protested.

“I have,” Tyler said.

Zac looked willful. “I don't care about horses. I'm going to New Orleans when I get big.”

“If you don't stop yapping and eat, I'll send you there,” Monty warned.

“Leave him alone,” Rose said. “The day will come when you'll wish he was still here.”

Monty laughed. “I'm not crazy.”

“Jared said he'd like to go to New Orleans, too,” Zac informed everybody. “We plan to open a gambling hall together.”

Sarah didn't know whether Jared's flushed cheeks were the result of embarrassment over Zac's obvious exaggeration, or pleasure at being included in such an undertaking, which was something that had never happened to him before. She hoped it would be possible to invite Zac to visit someday. That would be wonderful for Jared.

“What are you going to do when you grow up?” George asked Ellen.

“I'm going to own my own ranch and run it myself,” Ellen told him.

“Won't you let your husband help?”

“I'm not going to get married. Mama says men are lazy and undependable. And that's just the best ones.”

The heat that flamed in Sarah's cheeks wasn't cooled by Rose's unsuccessful efforts to hide her laughter. Even George had difficulty repressing a smile.

“She must have heard Rose talking about me,” Monty joked. “She says no woman in her right mind would have me.”


I
said no woman in her right mind would have you,” Hen corrected. “Rose said you'd drive a sane woman out of her mind.”

“Sounds like the same thing to me,” Monty said. “But I agree with Ellen. I'm not getting married either.”

“For that we can be profoundly thankful,” said Jeff.

Monty turned to Sarah. “George tells me that you want to hire one of our men.”

“That's not exactly what I mean to do, but I do hope I can convince one to come work for me on my ranch.”

“Have you decided which one?” Rose asked.

She had decided and undecided at least a hundred times. She would be relieved to be forced to state her choice. She was a sensible woman, a rational woman, one who made decisions based on facts and not emotion. She couldn't understand why this time had been so different.

“Yes, I have decided,” she said.

“Who is it?”

Six

“Salty.”

Sarah couldn't believe her own ears. She'd intended to say Walter. His name was practically on her tongue. How could she possibly have said Salty? The man himself was so surprised he nearly knocked his coffee over.

“I always thought he was the perfect choice for you,” Rose said. “I'm glad you agree.”

Sarah's gaze swung from Walter to Salty, back to Walter, then again to Salty. Both men showed surprise, but not in the same way. Walter appeared surprised but sanguine. He must have guessed she favored him, though she hadn't said anything.

Still confused, Salty asked, “Are you sure you really mean to choose me? You said I didn't fit your requirements.” He was handing her the perfect opportunity to allow her brain to correct the mistake her emotions had caused her to make.

“Don't you want to be our father?” Jared asked. “Is it because I'm a cripple?”

Sarah's gaze flew to her son, but he was turned toward Salty, a look of hopefulness on his face that she had never seen. What had Salty done to cause Jared to form such a strong attachment so quickly? How had she missed it? She held her breath waiting for Salty's answer.

“You're not a cripple,” he said. “You have some trouble getting around, but there are lots of things I could teach you to do.”

Jared turned to his mother. “Are you going to let him?” The longing in Jared's eyes would have pierced the resistance of a much more hardened soul than hers.

“Does your sister like Salty?” Sarah asked.

Ellen favored Salty with one of her rare smiles. “Tyler says he can ride a horse better than anybody except George, Monty, and Hen.” In her daughter's mind, Salty needed no further qualifications.

Sarah turned to Salty. “What do you say?”

The ranch hand's gaze rested on Jared for several moments before turning to Sarah. “I'll be happy to accept your proposal.”

Apparently unaware of the tension in the room, Monty said, “This calls for a celebration!”

Some of the tightness left Salty's face as he turned to ask, “Why? Because you're getting rid of me?”

“Damn right. Rose likes you more than me.”

The lighthearted mood that quickly enveloped the room covered Sarah's discomfort and allowed her to avoid meeting Salty's gaze.

It wasn't much of a celebration when you could toast only with coffee, water, and milk, but that didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits. Sarah was relieved to see Walter enter into the fun, yet she couldn't help but remain concerned about what Salty might be thinking. When he'd spent a long moment looking at Jared before answering her, she'd believed he was going to refuse. No doubt he'd accepted because of her son rather than her.

She wasn't prepared for how much that upset her. She put down her fork so no one would see how badly her hand was shaking. She believed she'd gotten her attraction under control, but hearing his name on her lips had forced her to realize
it
controlled
her
. Now she had promised to marry a man who wanted her land, who wanted to help her son, and who had shown no interest in her as a woman.

It was a devastating blow, but it wasn't too late. She could still change her mind until they were married.

* * *

One word—his own name—had changed the course of Salty's life. One minute he was an ordinary cowhand with little likelihood of any other future; a minute later he was a soon-to-be stepfather and landowner with the responsibility of making a bankrupt ranch profitable. Yet he could only achieve this by marrying a woman who didn't want to be married, and who didn't want to marry him because she found him attractive. This was made worse because he was attracted to her. If she found out—if she even suspected—she'd probably back out of the agreement.

He took a drink of coffee to loosen his throat, which had become dry and tight. It was difficult to smile at Sarah, to laugh at Monty's jokes and ignore his innuendo, while his brain was working feverishly to come up with a way to survive the coming months.
Years.
He wasn't particularly strong on marriage, but he was very strong on women. It was easy to avoid temptation when there were no eligible women around, but how was he to avoid falling victim to his needs when the object of his attraction was his legal wife? There would be no cold streams to dive into when the temptation grew too strong. There wouldn't always be wood to split, post holes to dig, or cows to be wrestled to the ground, either.

The sensible thing to do would be to turn down Sarah's offer. Walter would be good with the kids and kind to Sarah. He'd told Salty that marriage had taught him his need for women was counterbalanced by his need to avoid being reshaped and reformed by them, so he would have no trouble with Sarah's requirement that they live apart. But it took only one glance at the brightness of Jared's smile, the sound of his laughter, for Salty to know he couldn't go back on his promise to the boy. If any good was to come of the years spent dealing with his father's disability, it would have to be in what he could do for Jared.

“Stop looking like you've been sentenced to ten years of hard labor,” Monty said to him. “If you're having second thoughts, I could take your place.”

Jeff's voice was hard, his tone caustic. “I doubt Sarah wishes to add a third child to her household.”

The amiability drained from George's face. “I'd like to look over the ranch accounts with you later this morning, Jeff. They aren't finished yet, are they?”

Jeff's mouth tightened with anger. “I know when you're trying to get rid of me.”

“I'm sure you do. If you spent more time on your accounts and less searching for hurtful things to say, I wouldn't have to.”

Jeff pushed back his chair and got to his feet. “Adding up numbers is all a cripple is good for.”

“No one here believes that. Now before you leave, apologize to Jared for making such an insensitive remark.”

Salty was pleased to see Jeff flush with embarrassment.

“I'm sorry,” Jeff said to Sarah's son. “I have a nasty temper, which isn't improved by having a seven-year-old brother who can do things I can't.”

Jared regarded Jeff solemnly before responding. “I can't do half the things Ellen can, and she's a girl. Mama says I should look for things I can do and not spend so much time thinking about what I can't. It'll just make me unhappy.”

“I've been given the same advice, but apparently you're better at following it than I am.”

Jared's eyes glistened with unshed tears. “I don't know. It's hard sometimes.”

Salty's anger ebbed. He had gotten so used to Jeff's disability he forgot how hard it was on him to be faced with it every hour of the day. He, of all people, shouldn't have made that mistake. His father had never let him forget for as much as a day what he suffered.

“It's hard all the time,” Jeff agreed. “Now I'd better get to work. The way this family eats, we need to make a lot of money.”

“I could shoot more turkeys,” Monty offered.

“No, you can't,” George said. “You've nearly wiped out the population. Besides, Rose doesn't need any more feathers for pillows.”

They even had feather pillows in the bunkhouse. Salty doubted he'd have that comfort at Sarah's place. But no use wondering what it would be like; he'd find out in a couple of days. Better to spend his time gathering his few belongings. And he'd ask George for his wages. He expected he'd need them soon.

“When are you going to leave?” Monty asked Sarah. “I was thinking I'd take Ellen out with us tomorrow if they were going to be around that long.”

Ellen's excitement was evident, but Jared's lack of enthusiasm had an even greater impact on Salty. He said, “I'm not sure it's my place to make suggestions yet, but if it's okay with Sarah, I'd like to leave first thing tomorrow morning. It's going to take a couple of days to get home.”

Home. When was the last time he had used that word, and why had he used it now?

“I agree with Salty,” Sarah said. “We've been away too long already.” She glanced at her daughter. “I expect Ellen will have plenty of opportunity to ride with Salty.”

“You all will,” Salty promised. “It's a family ranch, isn't it?”

He didn't yet know what Jared could do, but he was determined the boy wasn't going to be left out. There was no way he could make the leg normal, but he intended to help Jared focus on what he could do and then
do it
. Jared needed a reason to be proud of himself. Salty remembered how loss of pride had destroyed his father. He was determined that would never happen to Jared.

Rose got to her feet. “Zac has some clothes he's outgrown,” she said to Sarah. “Do you think Jared or Ellen might be able to wear them?”

Salty hated the look of misery on Sarah's face. She must be feeling embarrassed to accept clothes, yet aware that her children needed them. Salty made up his mind right then that she'd never again be in that position if he could do anything about it.

“That's kind of you, but—”

“I have no one to give them to. If you don't take them, I'll have to cut them up for rags.”

“If Zac has outgrown them, they're probably rags already,” Hen said.

“They're a little worn,” Rose admitted, “but if you don't have lots of work clothes, you'll spend half your time washing the same ones over and over again.”

“Don't glare at
me
,” Monty said. “
I
don't want my clothes washed.”

Monty's inability to realize the world didn't revolve around him allowed Sarah time to get herself in hand. Salty was glad of it. When Rose turned back to her, his new bride-to-be showed no sign of emotional discomfort.

“We'd be glad of some extra work clothes. Ellen has practically worn hers through.”

Rose gestured to Zac. “You can help me decide what to keep.”

The boy shrugged. “I don't care. Give them everything.”

Rose placed her hands on her hips for emphasis. “You're not getting anything new until after the drive to Abilene, young man.”

“And then only if we get the prices we're hoping for,” George added.

“I never get anything new,” Zac complained, following Rose from the room.

Monty turned to Jared. “You'd better wash any clothes you get from Zac before you wear them. If you don't, you'll get cooties.”

“Zac cooties,” Hen teased. “They're the worst kind.”

Salty was pleased to see the twins make Jared laugh. He was sure the boy had had little reason for most of his life. Probably Sarah hadn't, either. It couldn't have been easy struggling to hold on to her ranch during the war. It must have been made worse by losing her husband. It had to affect the children as well.

The more he thought about the situation he was about to step into, the more clearly he realized he had let the vision of owning land obscure the enormity of the task he was taking on. It was more than taking a failing ranch and making it profitable; his biggest task would be trying to restore hope to a family that had very little reason to have any.

George turned to him. “Want me to give you a hand with your packing?”

“Sure.” Salty didn't know what his boss had in mind, but George never did anything without a reason.

“I'm coming, too,” Monty spoke up.

George shook his head. “With Rose and me gone, you have to stay and entertain our guests. Just try not to embarrass your family.”

“That means Hen has to stay,” Monty said.

“I hadn't considered leaving these nice people alone with you and Tyler,” Hen replied. “Tyler won't speak, and you should avoid it at all costs.”

To the amusement of Jared and Ellen, the twins kept arguing. Salty and George left them.

“Did Mrs. Winborne really tell you that she wasn't going to choose you?” George asked as they left the house.

“She sure did,” Salty replied.

“What was her objection?”

Salty gave a wry grin. “She was attracted to me.”

George laughed. “I've heard a lot of reasons for not giving a man a job, but never that for not wanting a man to be your husband.”

Their boots made scratching noises as the rocky soil compacted under the weight of their footsteps. Now that the sun had set, the air was cold and dry. The fruit trees wouldn't be budding for a while yet. Salty wondered who would take care of the garden here.

“From what she said, I gather she had a bad marriage and doesn't want to take a chance on the same thing happening again. We're to have no physical contact with each other, and I'll let her divorce me as soon as the ranch turns the corner. In return, I'll get half her land.”

“Yet you're going to get married and pretend to the rest of the world it's real.” George laughed as he opened the barn door. “I always thought you were intelligent, but I may have to reconsider.” He reached for the lantern they kept just inside. “That's a recipe for failure.”

Salty was taken aback. “What do you recommend I do?”

George shrugged. “Don't ask me. I had no intention of marrying Rose, even though I thought she was pretty as a picture the first time I saw her. I'm no better at romance than you.” He lit the lantern and held it up. “Now let's see what I want to get rid of.”

“Can we start with the bull?” Salty joked.

George enjoyed a belly laugh. “I can't do that—but I'll give you a calf as a wedding present.”

“I was kidding!”

“What's one calf between friends?” George gave him an even look. “Besides, if that woman is desperate enough to take on a husband she doesn't want, you're going to need all the help you can get.”

Salty was certain of that. Only the kind of help she needed had to come from inside of him. He didn't know that he had what it took to go from being a cowhand to being the manager of a ranch on the brink of collapse, as well as a husband to a woman who'd lost her faith in men and a father to two children who needed the man their mother didn't want. What had made him think he could handle such a challenge? He'd spent his whole life taking orders—from his father, from officers during the war, and from George. He'd never had the opportunity to do anything on his own, never had the chance to prove he could.

BOOK: No One But You
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