Authors: Tatiana March
Jed scowled. For a moment, Rachel feared he’d haul her away by force. In the end, he released his grip on her and shrugged his broad shoulders. “Promise me that when the calf dies, you won’t blame me.”
“He is not going to die.”
Giving her an exasperated look, Jed shook his head. “I’ll come by at lunchtime. Leave me a note if you decide to return to the cabin.”
“I’ll be here.”
Rachel took the milk bottle from her bag and turned her attention to the calf. As she tried to get the animal to suckle, she was only vaguely aware of Jed watching her, and then the sound of the swinging gate and the trail of his departing footsteps.
Cold seeped into her bones, but the sense of loneliness that had accompanied her all the way from Santa Monica lifted. Georgia, the little goat, tottered over, ducking beneath the swinging door. Rachel petted the coarse hide, as one would a dog. Thrilled by the attention, the goat settled beside her, providing a welcome source of heat.
A few times, Rachel got up and went into the house to use the bathroom, or to make coffee or find a book to read. As the hours passed, she learned to accept the truth. She’d been brought up to distrust people. Since the death of her mother, she’d spent her life making rich people richer. She owned a luxury home, an expensive car and designer clothes, but she had no friends, only coworkers, and neighbors to whom she nodded in passing.
She had no one to love. No one missed her while she was gone.
The life that she had longed to return to was in fact no life at all.
* * * *
It had started to drizzle, a cold slow rain that made lumps of snow fall from the trees with muted thuds. Jed urged Montana up the track toward the barn. The dun gelding gave an eager snort and forged on through the twilight.
The house was in darkness.
He hadn’t been able to come back at lunchtime like he’d promised. Rachel must have long since returned to the cabin. She’d be angry with him. Either the calf had died quickly, and he’d left her alone to deal with her grief, or the calf had clung to life, and now she’d feel guilty for abandoning her vigil as soon as she got cold and tired.
All day, new feelings had distracted him.
He should have kept away from her. It made no sense to get involved. She’d go back to her city life soon, and he’d be left alone again. He didn’t want any unfulfilled longings, or regrets that would make the solitude even harder to bear.
Jed halted outside the barn and dismounted.
A faint glow of light shone out through the windows high up on the wall. Montana’s hooves made a heavy beat against the cement floor as Jed led the mustang through the door into the barn. Another sound mixed with the clatter—a faint drone, like the buzz of a bee. Not pausing to unsaddle the horse, Jed wrapped the reins around a corner post and strode to the end of the corridor, where he pushed open the swinging door to the last stall.
And then the rabbit ate the carrot and
He came up short.
Rachel sat on the ground, her back propped against the side of the stall, a blanket thrown over her knees. Honey and cinnamon curls poked out from beneath the knit cap she wore. Her mitten-covered hands clutched an open book. The calf huddled beside her. On her other side, Georgia lay on a piece of sacking, chewing the fraying edge.
“You’re back.” Rachel smiled up at him. “I didn’t hear the tractor.”
Jed struggled to find his voice. “I usually keep it by the lake. I rode up.”
“Vermont has taken a little milk.” She stroked one blue mitten over the matted fur.
“I named him after a state. I assume it’s a tradition. Nebraska, Georgia.”
“That’s right. My other two horses are Montana and Oregon.’ Jed stepped into the stall. ‘How’s he doing?”
“He’s no better, no worse. It’s too early to say if he’ll pull through.”
He squatted down beside her. “What are you reading?”
She held up the book. “
The Rabbit Warren.
I raided your bookcase. I really wanted
The Gunslinger’s Bride
, but I feared these two might be too young for explicit content.” Her brows arched with a hint of teasing. “You have quite an eclectic collection.”
Jed felt his face grow hot. “I didn’t buy them,” he explained. “After I left high school, I worked in a hotel in Jackson for a couple of seasons. Most people throw books away at the end of their vacation rather than carry them home. I fished my library out of trash.”
“I see.” She swept a curious glance over him.
Jed guessed she was wondering if he’d read any of those steamy romances. He straightened up and stepped back, seeking the shadows. “You’ll need to return to the cabin before it gets dark,” he said. “I’ll walk you down. I can take over in here.”
“No.” Rachel pretended to focus her attention on the book, but Jed could tell that her spine had stiffened, as if she were girding herself for a battle.
“It will get cold at night,” he warned.
“So, bring me more blankets.”
“Have you eaten anything?”
“Yes. I took a break at lunchtime. I boiled the vegetables and put them in your refrigerator. Georgia will eat anything that’s not fit for human consumption. I left the microwave dinners in the bear cabinet. I think it’s possible to heat them in the oven. They’ll be good for a few more days.”
Studiously, she avoided looking at him.
Jed moved closer and lowered to his haunches again.
“You can’t fight the laws of nature,” he said in a low voice. “The calf is likely to die, and you’ll be distraught. I’ll feel guilty for not putting him down sooner, and you’ll hate me for making you upset. Everybody loses.”
“I won’t let him die.” Rachel turned to him. Tears glinted in her eyes. “He’s so small, and he’s so scared. I can’t give up.”
Almost against his will, Jed pulled off one of his leather gloves. Leaning in, he tucked a stray curl into her knit cap. “I didn’t know that city girls had such big hearts.”
Rachel cried out and flinched away from him.
Jed froze. As he snatched back his hand, his fingers strayed to the scars on his cheek. Was he really that repulsive? Muscles rigid with tension, he began to rise. He glanced at Rachel, saw her skim a mitten across her face. The angry motion sent a flurry of droplets flying at him.
“You drenched me,” she complained. “You tipped a gallon of water from your hat over me.”
Startled, Jed crouched down again and hooked a forefinger over the edge of his Stetson. When he pulled down the brim, another trickle splashed across his knees. “It’s raining outside,” he said, lightheaded with relief that she hadn’t recoiled from him.
Slowly, carefully, he reached out and brushed the moisture from her face.
Her skin was satiny soft.
Her head tilted to one side, seeking his touch.
“Go and eat your dinner,” she told him in a low murmur. “And get some sleep.”
“Is there anything I can do?” he asked.
“Yes. Let me stay here. And bring me a cup of coffee.”
He nodded and rose to his feet. His throat seemed to close with the new emotions that soared inside him. He looked down at her, so delicate and feminine, and yet so full of spirit.
City girl, fighting to save one of his orphan calves.
“One cup of coffee coming up,” he said gruffly and left her to read on.
The warning flashed through Jed’s mind as he unsaddled Montana, wiped down the gelding and carried drink and feed into his stall.
It was too late to keep away from her.
* * * *
Jed fumbled in the darkness to silence the alarm clock. He snapped on the bedside light and squinted. Four in the morning. With a tired sigh, he got up. Rather than take the time to undress, he’d slept in his clothes. He went downstairs, made a pot of coffee and poured the strong brew into a steel flask.
Pausing to pull on his boots and sheepskin coat, he set off across the yard.
For three days now, the stubborn woman had camped out in his barn. Reading aloud to a calf and a goat, for God’s sake. Refusing to leave, only coming into the house to use the bathroom, or to select a new book when she got to the end of the current one.
He’d been appointed to act as the catering troops.
Jed accepted that he might not know much about women, but he was certainly learning to take orders from one—warming milk, heating slices of soggy pizza in the oven, bringing out extra blankets when the sky cleared and the temperature plummeted again.
He turned off the flashlight, tucked it beneath his arm and shouldered the door open.
No droning sound of a voice reading aloud broke the silence.
Jed propped the flashlight on a bale of hay and hurried to the last stall. Rachel sat on the bed of straw, looking pale in the yellow glow of the ceiling lamp. Dry-eyed, she looked up at him, cradling the inert calf in her lap.
“Oh sweetheart.” The endearment slipped from his lips.
He knelt beside her, put down the flask and reached to lift the lifeless body away from her. For an instant, fear surged inside him that like a distraught mother who’d lost her child, Rachel would cling to the dead calf. Relief eased his rigid muscles when her hands moved out of the way.
“He was so small.” She spoke in a fragile voice, like a thread about to snap. “I couldn’t keep him alive. I tried, but he died anyway.”
“Hush,” he told her. “We’ll bury him. The ground’s not frozen solid yet.”
“No.” She closed her eyes, sighed and blinked them open again. “We have to be practical. Do what you normally do. Burn the carcass, whatever you do, but don’t tell me.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes.” Her attention fell on the flask. “Is that coffee?”
He lowered the calf out of the way and picked up the flask, unscrewed the cap and poured. He passed the cup to Rachel. She tasted the temperature with a cautious sip and then drank deeply, taking greedy gulps.
Jed watched her.
No wailing protest at the unfairness of the world.
He’d observed Rachel nursing the calf, had seen her patiently trickle milk into his mouth and stroke the fragile body with a comforting touch. He knew she’d come to care about the animals. She’d lavished so much love on the calf and the goat that envy burned in his gut like an undigested meal.
“Are you all right?” he asked, feeling awkward and inadequate.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have stopped you. I expected he would die.”
“But I didn’t.” She gave a helpless shrug. “I had to try.”
Rachel attempted to rise but stumbled. Jed took the empty cup from her, put it away, and helped her up.
“My legs are numb.” She stomped one foot, then another.
Georgia, who’d been asleep, woke and made a protesting sound. The little goat got up from her bed of sackcloth and pushed around them to get to the calf. She poked the lifeless body with her long nose.
“It’s all right,” Rachel crooned, leaning down to hug the goat.
“I’ll put her in with Nebraska.” Jed reached over to grip the goat by the collar.
When Georgia fought back, he scooped her in his arms and carried her. He spent a few moments settling her in with the big quarter horse, taking the opportunity to examine his own thoughts.
Now he understood the tension that had churned inside him for three days.
He’d expected that when the calf died, Rachel would fall apart.
He’d imagined holding her against his chest, consoling her. Brushing gentle kisses on her hair. On her brow, on her cheeks. He’d had visions of her looking up at him with those clear gray eyes, her head tilted back as she invited him to cover her mouth with his.
Long slow kisses, leading to more.