Authors: Linda Broday
Callie looked from him to Cooper. “Nate Fleming. You'll have no trouble finding his wanted poster. He has a price on his head in four states.”
“Thank you,” Cooper said. “Leave everything to me.”
Rand swung Toby up into the wagon box, then did the same to Callie. Waving good-bye to Cooper, they left Battle Creek behind them.
A mile down the road, Toby leaned his head against Rand's shoulder and fell asleep, exhausted by the events in town. Rand put a protective arm around the boy and sighed. Nate Fleming had better not manage to track down his prey at the Last Hope. The man would find a bullet waiting for him.
Rand would die trying to keep his patchwork family safe.
The minute Callie stepped into her orderly kitchen, she took a deep, cleansing breath. She'd done lots of thinking on the ride back from town. And with Toby asleep and Rand lost in his own thoughts, she hadn't had many interruptions.
It was time to leave.
Nate Fleming had seen to it that she had no choice. He was ruthless and determined to get his son. It didn't matter to him how many people he had to kill to achieve that.
Unshed tears clogged her throat.
The reality of her intense protectiveness of Rand jarred her. She'd do anything to save him. Even if it meant standing in front of a bullet. Even if it meantâ¦
â¦abandoning him like so many others had. She was no better than his mother. The thought of bringing him more pain was unbearable. Dear God, he didn't deserve her betrayal.
Her heart ripped apart at the thought of leaving this man who'd come to mean so much to her. But she simply had no other option.
Rand's impassioned plea echoed in her mind.
Pleaseâ¦for God's sake, don't let me wake up one morning
and find no sign of you anywhere. Can you do this one thing?
She wouldn't go back on her word. Yet neither could she face him as she walked out of his life. Sweet Lord, what to do?
Shrugging out of her coat, she set about getting supper. She'd cook him something special first. Then she'd leave.
One of the purchases in town had been a smoked ham. She'd slice off nice, big chunks of that and panfry some potatoes. Biscuits, and a peach pie to finish off the meal.
Toby was outside with Biscuit in the tepee. Suddenly her throat tightened. How could he leave that dog behind? Yet they couldn't take her with them. For someone who'd arrived without anything, they sure had a lot to break free from now.
She glanced out the window. Rand stood with his head bowed, one foot propped on the broken corral fence. He seemed a million miles away. When he shifted and stared at the house, she saw tears glistening on his face. A sob broke from her mouth. She was the cause of those tears.
This kind, generous rancher had been her beginning, and now he was going to be her end.
* * *
After supper, Rand stood by her side, helping with the dishes. He'd been so quiet, and for a man whose appetite knew no bounds, he'd eaten very little.
Their hands brushed as she handed him a wet plate. Sparks of heat went through her. His long, slender fingers mesmerized her. They could wield a hammer with skill, hold a child's hand, or wipe a tear as easily as they probably had dealt a round of poker in his saloon. She loved his hands.
“Would you take a walk outside with me?” Rand's quiet voice broke and told her he knew.
“Some fresh air would be nice.” Maybe it would help her say what she had to.
They finished and she went to tell Toby where they'd be, only to find him snoring softly with his arm wound tightly around Biscuit. She kissed his forehead and returned to the kitchen.
“Toby's asleep already.”
“He's tired. Seeing his father took a toll on him.” Rand helped her with her coat and grabbed a lantern. “We won't be long in case he wakes up.”
The cold air had her clutching her coat together and a light mist fell. It seemed heaven was crying also. Her shoes crunched on the frozen ground. Rand held her arm as he directed her to a seat on a log inside Toby's tepee.
“I know you're planning to leave.” The words came out bruised and hoarse as he took her hand. “Likely as soon as I go to bed. I wish I could change your mind. But I won't try to stop you. I understand.”
Callie couldn't look at him. If she did, she'd be lost. “It's really for the best. Nate will find us here. Can't you see? I have to leave.”
“It's what he expects you to do. It's the most dangerous decision you can make. Callie, I can protect you here. I can't keep you safe if I don't know where you are. I don't think my heart can take the worry and the constant fear of not knowing.”
“So I'm supposed to twiddle my thumbs and wait for him to find us? Believe me, he
find us,” she whispered, her heart breaking. “You don't know how ruthless and cunning he can be. He's the most dangerous, deadly man I know. I can't watch him kill you and know I'm the cause.” She couldn't live with herself.
Rand caressed her cheek. “I may not know him, but I know others like him. Cooper, Brett, and I rid the world of Tolbert Early. We can rid the world of Nate Fleming. Give us a chance.”
“I haven't had anyone to stand up for me in such a long time.”
“You have me. You'll always have me, no matter what.”
Callie leaned into him, borrowing his strength. His strong, steady heart beat softly against her ear. When his arms went around her, she snuggled into the sweet haven. “I'm so tired of being scared, of jumping at shadows, of waiting for him to strike.”
“Running away from here will not change any of that. In fact, it'll only make everything worse. Tell me the rest of what you're keeping from me. Trust me with your secrets. There's no reason to hold back any longer.”
She knew he was right. It was time to come clean.
“Start with your name,” Rand gently prodded.
“Callie Quinn. My twin sister, Claire, was married to Nate Fleming. Toby is her son, and unfortunately, Nate's also. Before Claire died two months ago, she made me promise to take Toby and run, to keep Nate from getting him. The man is a natural-born killer. He views Toby as his property to do with as he sees fit. I'll not let him destroy my nephew.”
“He won't get Toby, or you, as long as I'm breathing.” Rand's declaration held gritty hardness. “Even if Fleming should get lucky, I'll rise from the depths of hell and strike him down.”
The level of Rand's protectiveness brought stinging tears.
“Answer me thisâ¦did you live on this property at one time?” Rand's breath ruffled the top of her head.
Callie moved out of his arms. “Yes, until I was nine years old. It was the only safe place I knew to come.”
“I'm glad you did. Do you think Fleming knows about this ranch?”
She chewed her lip. “I can't be sure. But even if Claire mentioned it, a person would have to know precisely where to look in order to find it.”
“Callie, I have to ask. Do you have a claim to this land?”
“No. My conniving stepfather, Edmund Powers, tricked my mother into signing over the deed to him. Edmund sold the ranch as quickly as he could. It wouldn't surprise me if he'd had a buyer lined up before she was in the ground.”
“I've known men like him. I'm sorry he hurt you.”
“Edmund won't get another chance. He's out of my life.” And good riddance. He could take his Liza and all her money and pursue his political aspirations.
“I just have one more burning question.” His fingertips softly brushed her cheek.
“May I kiss you?”
Tingles at the prospect danced up her spine. Instead of answering, she leaned close and boldly pressed her lips to his. One last kiss to take with her.
“Oh no you don't, lady,” he protested. “We won't hurry this one. If a memory is what you want, it's what you'll get.”
Rand appeared in no rush to take what he wanted. He seemed to savor each second of their private time together just as she did.
Sliding his hand behind her ear, he pressed his lips to each eyelid. Then he moved slowly downward, leaving a trail of kisses along the curve of her cheek and jaw. The sweet agony of his maddening assault released a flurry of quickenings in her stomach.
She rested her hand on the hard plane of his chest, inhaling the fresh scent of the rain and fragrant woods beyond that swept into their shelter.
Closing her eyes, Callie branded each precious second on her brain for after she left.
He'd given her more than a place to live. He'd given her a glimpse of heaven.
Every brush, every graze of his lips arose in her a yearning for more.
Just as she thought she couldn't stand another minute of the delicious torture, he got to her softly parted lips. Teasing little nibbles at the corners of her mouth, his tongue lazily inching along the seam made the heat simmer in her veins, then flood into the core of her being.
Rand put a finger under her chin and tipped her face up. When he finally captured her mouth, the pure pleasure and searing hunger stole her breath. His gentle, tender care made her breath hitch.
The very air seemed electrified. Her heart fluttered wildly as she became caught up in the storm of passion that bound her. The quiver of his muscles beneath her hand told her the kiss had affected him also.
With a moan, he slipped his tongue between her lips, and she tasted the sweetness of the peaches that lingered there.
As his mouth settled firmly on hers, he crushed her to his chest. She was safe with Rand's arms around her. Like a butterfly inside a cocoon. Shy and a bit uncertain, she let her hand stray to the soft strands of his hair. Then, breaking the kiss, she buried her face against his throat.
Why hadn't she met him sooner, before she'd made a mess of her life? She only prayed she didn't add more mistakes.
This tall bachelor made her feel things no other man had. Callie cupped Rand's strong jaw with her palm. There was nothing weak or soft about this saloon owner turned rancher.
described both his character and his body.
“You know you can't leave now,” Rand said gruffly.
“You make it very hard. I'll only agree to stay for a few more days. Beyond that, I can't promise.”
Rand nodded. “Fair enough. I'll just have to see what I can do to persuade you. I'm a fair hand at that according to my dear brothers, who aren't shy about voicing their opinions.”
“I need to get back in the house. Toby will be scared if he wakes up.”
Putting an arm around her, Rand helped her into the kitchen as though she was something to cherish.
, she repeated to herself.
But the words were weak and held little meaning.
* * *
Nate Fleming built a fire outside Battle Creek and looked up at the bright stars. He'd be comfortable in a room at the hotel if that sheriff hadn't given him the evil eye.
He'd recognized Toby standing with the sheriff and the other man. No mistaking his flesh and blood. But why Toby was with them, he didn't know. He'd seen no sign of that uppity twit, Callie, who had stolen Toby and turned the boy against him.
He thanked his lucky stars he'd remembered Claire telling him she'd once lived outside Battle Creek. He'd come to the right place.
Finding them might take a little digging, but he would ferret them out. Toby was his, and he wouldn't stop until he got him back.
His wife hadn't understood the importance of carrying on the family tradition. But then she'd been a huge disappointment all the way around. He'd thought her stronger than she turned out to be. She had no stomach for disciplining Toby. A boy needed to be taught to fear the rod. Nate didn't consider applying a firm hand as a beating. Sure, he left marks. That was the way it was done. A boy had only to look at his welts to remember not to cross his sire again.
Nate set the coffee to boiling and stretched out on his bedroll. He thought of all the things he'd do to Callie when he caught herâand catch her he would.
What he had in mind would take time. He'd haul her to the gang's hideout. First, he'd put ten lashes on that proud back. Break a few fingers. Twist her arms. Then he'd really have some fun. Maybe he'd bite her like he'd done his obstinate wife when she refused to do his bidding. It irked him that he'd never broken Claire's spirit.
He'd take his time with Callie and the results would be different.
After he got her warmed up, he'd let his brothers have their turn. They were family and they had revenge of their own to heap upon her head. And when she was a bloody mess, they'd take turns applying a piece of hot metal to her. She'd wear his brand. She'd belong to Nate for the rest of her life. They'd ruin her pretty face good. No other man would ever look at her.
She'd beg them to kill her, but he had other plans.
Once he'd broken her, he'd keep her around to cook and to pleasure him. Anytime, anywhere. Taking out the makings for a smoke, he rolled a cigarette and lit it. He blew a few smoke rings and smiled. Yes, ol' Nate was going to make Callie Quinn very, very sorry she messed with him.
Once he got her out of the way, he'd turn his attention to Toby. He would have to work hard to undo all of the Quinn sisters' bad influence. First he'd change the boy's name. He'd always hated that god-awful wimpy name. Change it to something like Bart or Black Jack. Something fitting for an outlaw.
And then he would teach the boy how to kill.
In the end, Toby would be his son. All his. No one could stop that from happening.
After a cup of hot coffee, he made a plan. He'd sneak back into town and get rid of that meddling sheriff. Then he'd look for the man who'd shielded Toby from view. Something told Nate he'd find Callie Quinn there.
His plan was foolproof.
All he had to do was be patient.