Authors: Linda Broday
“Afraid not much anyone can do. Just thinking about these keys and remembering a time long ago.”
“When you were at the orphanage?”
He nodded and told her about the horror of being locked in the cold, dank basement. “I couldn't see my hand in front of my face.”
She laid her hand on his arm. “I'm sorry. I thought I had it bad after my mother died. I can't imagine what you had to endure. No wonder you're so angry at Abigail.”
“I'd rather not talk about her.” He propped his elbows on the table and released a long sigh. “That night I vowed to never be so powerless again. So I started collecting keys.” His eyes met hers as he reached for her small hand. He began to caress her fingers, drawing little circles on each digit.
“You mentioned your mother, Callie. From what you said, I assume she died when you were very young. I'm not asking you to confirm or deny it. I can figure it out just like I put two and two together about that grave in the woods. I know she's buried there.”
Callie sighed. “You might think this is a game of some sort, but I assure you it's not. I have reasons for keeping secrets, even if you don't happen to agree.”
His eyes searched hers. “Secrets are fair pickings. I won't break my promise. I won't ask any questions. I only wanted to ease your mind a bit. I built a fence around the grave. Right now, it's only a makeshift one out of what I could scrounge at the time. Eventually, I'll put up a sturdy wrought iron fence around it. I won't have my cows trampling it.”
Sudden tears shimmered in her eyes. “Thank you. As long as we're confessing to thingsâ¦I apologize for yelling and slinging accusations at you today. I probably sounded like some crazy woman. I won't let it happen again.”
“I can take care of myself. It was Toby I was worried about,” he said quietly.
“That stings worse than anything. I know what it's like to have voices raised at you when you're nothing but a kid. I'll never do that again to Toby.”
“Good.” He drained the last swallow from his cup and grinned. “The boy is quite a conniver, though, I must say.”
Callie colored a becoming rosy hue. “Yes, he is. About that kissâ¦”
“I don't regret it. It's something I'll remember for a long time.” Like for an eternity. “It meant a lot to Toby that we make up.”
“It wasn't seemly. You're my employer. I'm nothing but a cook here. Don't forget that.”
Nothing but a cook? She was so much more than that. She'd never be a
“You appear to be worrying about that enough for both of us.”
“Someone has to remind you. You keep forgetting. Cooks don't go around kissing the men they work for.”
“So you have experience in this matter, do you?” he teased, just to watch the color flood back into her face.
“You know what I mean, mister,” she said sternly.
She rose. Walking to the door, she crossed her arms as though protecting herself from something, looking out into the gathering shadows. Biscuit padded into the room to her side and whined to go out. She opened the door and stood on the top step. He wondered what she was thinking. He might never know.
Rand separated the fancy scrolled key from the others, wondering what it had once gone to. He was still pondering that when Callie returned and sat at the table. She was like that key in a lot of ways. It didn't belong with the others and neither did she. The beautiful woman with eyes like warm whiskey was definitely special.
When she glanced at the key, her eyes suddenly widened and she got very still. “Where did you get that one?”
“Found it lying outside the day I came to look the property over. Kinda pretty, don't you think?” It crossed his mind from the look on her face that the key might possibly belong to her.
“Maybe you have an idea what it goes to, Callie.”
“It reminds me of one I used to have a long time ago.”
“What did your key unlock?”
“I'm not sure,” she hedged. “My mother gave it to me.”
He could tell she knew more than she was saying. “Do you still have it?”
Her eyes were riveted on the key. “I lost it. Why all the questions about one old key?”
“Reckon I want to figure out what it went to. Puzzles interest me.”
“Do you mind if I look at it? Just for a minute.”
Rand handed the keys to her and watched her instantly pick out the scrolled one. Sadness crossed her face as she ran her fingers over the metal, feeling each groove. A distant light came into her eyes.
“You seem to know something about this key.”
Callie jerked and dropped the keys as though they'd singed her. “No. I've never seen it.”
Refusing to meet his gaze, she picked them up and handed them back.
Rand sighed and rose, sticking the metal ring back in his pocket. Wouldn't serve any purpose to keep insisting. She'd talk about it when she got ready. He changed the subject. “Will you sit with me in the parlor?”
“You haven't slept in three days. Don't you want to find your pillow?”
“In a bit. First, I want to rest and let this house calm my hungry spirit.” And to spend some quiet moments with the woman who could steal his good sense. But he didn't tell her that.
His thoughts flew to their kiss in the barn. He'd aimed for a light one to satisfy Toby, not a kiss so long and deep. But when his lips pressed against hers with such longing, he'd lost his head. He'd been a prisoner of a body that demanded more.
Callie shook her head. “I really shouldn't. It's not proper. I'll just get my knitting and sit in here.”
“I suppose this is all about reminding me that you're a hired hand and I'm your employer, and never the twain shall meet.”
When her amber eyes met his, her tone became hard. “Like I said, nothing can come of pretending. It doesn't change the facts.”
Rand frowned. “Not even if I request your company? I don't wish to be alone.” Indecision marred her pretty face. He watched the play of emotions and at last the tiny smile of surrender coupled with her soft sigh.
“In that case, I will keep you company.”
He held out his hand and they moved into the cozy room, where he could admire the woman whose kisses were like honey and dream about all the things that made his heartbeat race.
He didn't exactly know how it happened, but she moved her rocker in front of him so that her knees touched his and had yarn strung between his hands before he could turn around. He watched her roll it up into a neat ball.
“What kind of wallpaper would you like for this room, Callie?”
“I think a light gold color, since the cowhide furniture is a rich brown. Not a floral. Just a pretty, understated, elegant design. Like a diamond pattern. The St. James Hotel in Kansas City has a very lovely wallpaper that I always admired.”
“Then that's what we'll have. Anything else?”
“Maybe a picture or two. I used to paint a long time ago. I wish I had some of the prettier ones I did.”
“So do I.” Rand watched her make a ball with the skein of yarn. He loved the comfortable silence. When Callie took the last strand, he leaned back. “You can paint some more pictures. Give me a list of the supplies you need and I'll fix you right up.”
When Callie dragged the chair back into its spot, it felt as though she'd moved to the next county. So close, yet so far. He longed to have her next to him, to feel her warmth.
“That was a long time ago, Rand. I doubt I'd remember how.”
“Doesn't hurt to try.”
“I admire some of the views of this land. If I could get them down on canvas, it would be my gift to you for letting Toby and me stay.”
“I will cherish anything you paint.”
The sound of her laugh made him smile. “Better wait until you see my fumbling attempts.”
In the quiet that followed, Callie's knitting needles clinked softly together. Rand couldn't take his eyes off her.
She was the woman he hadn't let himself look for his whole life. And she was right here in his house, sitting by his fire, filling him with a fierce longing that he'd never experienced before.
By some silent agreement, they didn't talk about all the things they wanted to discuss. That was okay with Rand. They had time for that.
Toby had fallen asleep again with his arm around his dog.
Rand rose and lifted him. “I'll tuck this tired boy in bed and then I'll turn in myself. You coming?”
Callie glanced up and gave him a tiny smile. “I think I'll knit just a bit longer. Thank you for taking care of Toby.”
When he passed her, he lightly touched the top of her head, then let his hand drift to her shoulder. “Good night, then.”
“Good night, Rand.”
He turned and glanced back, sealing the memory forever in his mind. The creak of the rocker. The fire casting off a warm glow. His lady knitting with a look of contentment on her beautiful features.
This was like a dream. And he didn't want to wake up.
This could all be his. If he only knew she'd stay.
Since first his mother, then the mountain lion, had interrupted Rand's plans, he didn't go into town after the load of cut lumber until Saturday.
He'd had to do some tall talking, but Callie and Toby went along.
With his heart hammering, he helped her up onto the bench of the wagon. She put Toby between them. Rand didn't get a chance to say much on the ride; Toby did all the talking, while Callie took in the countryside.
It appeared everyone had come into Battle Creek that Saturday. Traffic crawled through the crowded streets. That was fine with him, though. Each driver had to maneuver around a small burial plot right smack in the middle of the street. He'd known many a person who clipped the wrought iron fence that surrounded it.
“Mr. Rand, why did they bury those people in the middle of the street?” Toby asked.
“Those graves were there long before the town. They say the men were government surveyors who were massacred by the Indians. We'll probably never know for sure.”
“Mr. Brett's an Indian. Does he kill people?”
“Toby, that's not polite,” Callie gently scolded.
“Nope, he doesn't kill people,” Rand answered, pulling up to the busy mercantile. He turned to Callie. “I'll let you out here so you can do your shopping while I load the lumber. Get whatever you need and have John Abercrombie put it on my bill. All right?”
“I can do that.”
“Oh, don't forget to stock up on canned peaches. I want plenty.”
Setting the brake, he jumped down to help Callie and Toby to the ground. When he put his hands around Callie's waist, tingles ran the length of his arms. “Get something for you and the boy too,” he said gruffly, “not just stuff for cooking. See if he has those paints and whatnot that you need to begin painting those pictures.”
She nodded without saying anything.
After making sure they were safely inside the store, he followed the pig trail to the new lumber mill. When he, Cooper, and Brett had moved here almost eight years ago, only a handful of businesses lined the main street. Now, thanks to Cooper's wife's efforts, the town was thriving. Delta Dandridge Thorne had made such a huge difference after she arrived last March. They proudly sported a church, a schoolhouse, the lumber mill, and a seed library that had been Delta's personal idea. A second hotel would open in a matter of weeks. Rumor had it they were getting an opera house and a small clinic.
But the single thing that had attracted more people and businesses was Delta and her women's club called the Women of Vision. Soon after they had set to work painting and hammering and fixing the run-down buildings, the rest of the town began to pitch in. Now, everyone reaped the fruits of their labor.
All except one holdoutâthe Lexington Arms Hotel. George Lexington had dug in his heels and refused to refurbish his hotel or fix up the exterior.
But after Rand's mother, Abigail, had struck Lexington's fancy, the man had recently begun making repairs. Rand suspected Abigail had laid down the law. Or maybe it was because a second hotel was slated to throw open its doors soon. Whatever the reason, Lexington had been working feverishly to get his establishment in better shape. He'd seen the writing on the wall.
Rand pulled up to the lumber mill and hopped down. A few minutes later, he began loading his order. He didn't want to leave Callie in town alone longer than he had to.
* * *
Callie gave her order to Mr. Abercrombie, who resembled a scarecrow. He was reed-thin and his skin stretched so tightly over his face, the bones seemed on the verge of breaking through. But his twinkling eyes held a kindness that put her at ease.
While she waited for her purchases, she strolled around the store looking at everything. She was surprised to find some paints and brushes, even canvas. Excitement swept over her. She'd always loved the peace and fulfillment painting gave her. Selecting what she needed, she laid them on the counter with her other things.
Over a dozen other women were also browsing. Some spoke to her. She answered back very politely without encouraging conversation. Callie glanced down at her bare hands, embarrassed. No decent woman wanted to be caught without gloves. Rand had said to get something for her and Toby. The glove display was at the front of the store by the window. She picked up a pair that fit and happened to glance out the window at the people walking past.
The saliva dried in her mouth and her heart pounded in her chest.
Nate Fleming strolled down the street without a care in the world. No mistaking the black hair that glistened under the sun's rays or the way he walked. That swagger belonged to no one else. He'd always acted as though he owned the whole world and everyone in it, but now he seemed even more arrogant and ruthless.
As though sensing someone watching, he spun around. She ducked into the shadows, praying she was quick enough. A few minutes later, he moved toward the mercantile door.
Her stomach churned. She couldn't let him find her and Toby. She got her nephew and moved to the back corner of the store, where she hid behind a tower of feather mattresses.
“Toby, don't make a sound. I beg you.”
“I won't, Aunt Callie. When we get through playing hide-an'-seek, can I have a peppermint stick?”
“Yes, darling.” She kissed his forehead. “Remember, not a peep.”
How long they huddled there, she didn't know. It seemed like a year or more. Finally, she peeked around the mattresses.
Walking by, Mr. Abercrombie noticed her and came over. “Can I be of assistance, ma'am?”
Callie kept her voice low. “Is there a tall, dark-haired man still in the store? He wears a pearl-handled Colt strapped low.”
“Is he bothering you? I'll send someone for the sheriff.”
Vivid recollections sent chills up her spine. Nate had gunned down one lawman in cold blood for daring to try to arrest him. Callie had watched it all, then she had run behind the nearest tree and relieved her stomach. She refused to put the sheriff of Battle Creek, who happened to be Rand's brother, in Nate's sights.
“Please, don't involve the sheriff. If you could be so kind as toâ¦ Do you have a back door?”
“Yes, but really, Sheriff Thorne needs to know the man is a threat. He can protect you.”
Nate's callous voice echoed in the store as he spoke to a clerk, demanding she wait on him immediately. He could be extremely cruel when he didn't get his way. She prayed for the clerk's safety.
“Thank you all the same, Mr. Abercrombie. If you could show me the back door, I'd be forever in your debt. Mr. Sinclair will return for the packages soon.”
Toby jerked on her skirt, whispering, “The peppermint stick.”
“Oh, and can you please add a peppermint stick and these gloves to the purchases?”
“My pleasure. Please be safe, ma'am.”
“You also. Be on your guard against him, Mr. Abercrombie. He's very dangerous.”
The minute Nate turned his back to them, she took Toby's hand and slipped out the rear exit. Callie didn't take a deep breath until they were in the alley.
Ignoring the chill in the air, she carefully made her way across the street. Three barrels stood against the side of the building. She made a space for Toby amongst them. “You stay here out of sight. I'm going to find Rand.”
Toby trembled beneath her hand. “I'm scared.”
She kissed his cheek. “You'll be fine, sweetheart. I promise. I'm not going to be very far away.”
Nate emerged from the mercantile. He stood on the wooden boardwalk, his piercing evil eyes scanning the street. Callie sucked in a breath, pressing against the side of the building. When he turned in the direction of the saloon, she left the hiding place and went to seek Rand.
Nate Fleming had destroyed her sister, and he would do the same to Toby if he had a chance. Dear God, she'd keep his innocent son out of his clutches no matter what she had to do. Toby would have an opportunity to grow up into a sensitive, honorable man.
Now that she knew with certainty the outlaw was here, she'd have to leave the ranch and find another sanctuary.
Tears pricked her eyes. She wished God would tell her how she'd be able to leave Rand.
* * *
After loading the lumber, Rand swung by the sheriff's office.
Cooper glanced up from behind his desk when Rand strolled through the door. “Looks like you could use a strong cup of coffee, little brother.”
“I can use more than that, but coffee would hit the spot.” Rand plunked down in the chair opposite the desk. “Need help with something.”
“Let me get the coffee on and we'll parlay.”
A few minutes later, Rand relayed what he'd learned and his hunch that the desperado would most likely have some of Toby's features. They were poring over the wanted posters when John Abercrombie stormed in.
“Have a problem at the mercantile,” Abercrombie said.
“What kind of problem?”
The store owner told them about the hardened, dark-haired man and the woman and little boy who were hiding from him. “You must know her, Rand, because she said to put her purchases on your bill. She was desperate and afraid. When I told her I'd send for you, Cooper, she begged me not to. I helped them escape out the back door.”
Cold foreboding came over Rand. He jumped to his feet. “It has to be Callie. He's here.”
Long strides took him to the door. Grabbing his hat, Cooper was right behind him. They left Abercrombie standing there with his mouth gaping.
A few women milled around the store, but no men. Where had Callie gone? Had the outlaw gotten her? With his heart pounding, Rand went outside and surveyed the street.
“Any sign of her?” Cooper asked, joining him.
Just then, a boy darted from the building across the way and threw himself at Rand. Rand hugged Toby close. “Where's your Aunt Callie?”
Toby dragged his sleeve across his nose and shrugged. “Don't know. She made me hide an' went to find you.”
“Is she hurt?”
“I don't think so, but she's real scared.”
“Okay, let's you and me go get her.”
Before they stepped off the boardwalk, a stranger ambled by on a tall midnight horse. He wore all black, even his hair. The rider stared at them with the coldest, deadest eyes Rand had ever seen. Toby ducked behind him, clutching Rand's jacket with trembling fingers.
The boy had recognized the man. This had to be the outlaw who terrified Callie. From the corner of his eye, Rand watched Cooper's hand steal to the Colt on his hip and slide it out.
If the outlaw so much as blinked, he'd be dead before he ever left the saddle.
Rand hid Toby from view until the stranger rode on. “It's okay to come out now.”
Cooper knelt in front of the boy. “Do you know who that was?”
Toby nodded. “He's real mean. He hit Mama lotsa times an' made her cry.”
“Is that your father?” Rand asked tightly.
Again Toby nodded with big tears in his eyes.
Rising, Cooper turned to Rand. “You find Callie. I'll take care of this. I won't have him terrorizing my town.”
“Maybe I should come along,” Rand suggested.
“Nope.” Cooper pulled his hat low on his forehead. “If I can't take care of one measly stranger, I don't need to be sheriff. Go find Callie.”
“Maybe she's over here.” Toby tugged on Rand's hand.
Rand and Toby went up and down the street and they finally found Callie hunched down next to the side of the Three Roses CafÃ©, shaking like a leaf in a stiff gale.
She flew into his arms. “I didn't know how to find you, and Toby was gone when I came back.”
“You're all right now.” Rand held her tight. “I'm here. Anyone harms you, they're going through me.”
“Can we go home now? I need the safety of the ranch.”
Rand's heart lurched when she said “home.” That she thought of the Last Hope Ranch that way meant so much to him.
“About to suggest that very thing.” He needed to find out more about Toby's outlaw father, but it probably would be better to wait until he got her to a safe place. “You wait here. I'll pick up our purchases from the mercantile and we'll head home.”
Inside the store, Rand collected the things Callie had bought. He went out to find Cooper standing beside the wagon.
“I need to talk to Miss Callie,” Cooper said. “Where is she?”
“Waiting where it's safe. Good luck getting her to talk. Damn, Cooper, she's scared really bad.”
Battle Creek's sheriff blew out a frustrated breath. “All the more reason to find out who this outlaw is. I sympathize with your cook, but I can't very well protect her or the town either until I know his name.”
“I take it you didn't have that little
“Nope. Couldn't find the rotten cayuse. Don't know where the hell he went.”
“Hop in. We'll drive the wagon around to her. Just be gentle. Have a care for what she's going through.”
“Yes, Mother.” Cooper climbed up. “Believe it or not, I've never browbeat a woman in my life or locked her in a dungeon.”
* * *
A few minutes later, Rand took Callie's hand and squeezed. “Give Cooper the man's name and we'll get out of town.”
“I can't. I don't wantâ”
Cooper put his arm around her shoulders. “Miss Callie, this is important. You know better than any of us how vital it is. I have to keep my town safe. It's what I get paid to do.”
“He'll kill you,” she whispered. “I can't let that happen. I won't do that to your wife or to Rand.”
“Miss Callie, I assure you I can take care of myself.”
“You don't know him.”
“I've known men like him my whole life,” Cooper said quietly. “Now how about it?”
“Please, Callie, so I can take you home,” Rand said.