Authors: Linda Broday
“Yes. My word is my bond.”
“You're not to ask any questions.”
“Understood. Do we have a bargain, Miss Callie?”
The lines in her face relaxed a bit. “Toby and I will stay. Just for a while.”
Why it meant so much to help them, Rand couldn't say. Maybe he simply wanted to pay forward Daffern's kindness to him. Yet when he and Callie struck the deal, it seemed to lift the dreariness of the gray gloom that had closed around him.
What had seemed overwhelming before now appeared manageable. He would succeed. He had a strong back and hands that itched to carve out something he could be proud for others to see, even if those “others” were just the pair of strays he'd found.
Rand allowed himself a slight smile for the first time that day. “Excellent. I'll go into town to round up a bed for you and anything else you think we might need.”
Though God only knew where he'd get the money. The thought of accepting help from the mother who'd recently come back into his life after twenty-some-odd years stuck in his craw. His relationship with her wasâ¦well, complicated. He didn't know yet if he could forgive her for leaving him in an orphanage.
Still, the simple fact was, except for putting some money by for repairs and to buy cattle in the spring, he'd thrown everything he'd gotten from the sale of the saloon into this piece of ground. That left his brothers. Cooper and Brett would give him anything he needed. They'd always been there for each other and always would be.
Whatever help he had to ask for, he'd make it crystal clear it was only temporary. A loan, not charity.
“We're not used to much,” Callie insisted. “Like you, some blankets on the floor will do just fine.”
“All the same, I planned to buy more furniture and a cow anyway, so I'm not doing anything special.” Or was he? Rand only knew he saw their need and related to their plight. Didn't mean anything. “Meanwhile, look over the supplies I brought. Whatever's missing, I'll get from the mercantile. I'll bring in more wood before I go. Enough to keep you until I get back.”
Her curt nod indicated the discussion was over. She rose, picked up their plates, and carried them to the wash pan.
Rand buttoned his coat and put on his hat and gloves. He intended to bring in some water so she wouldn't have to go out.
The north wind sent a chill through his bones when he stalked to the woodpile he'd cut only yesterday. He'd done that first thing, knowing how fast a person could die during a norther. After he carried in several armloads, he filled a couple of pails with water.
Once he had his new cook and her son taken care of, and her list in his pocket, he hitched his horses to the wagon. It would be a miserable ride into town, but he didn't have much choice. Callie and Toby would have a bed before nightfall.
He didn't know from what or whom they were running. Memories of a womanâa friend from town, Jenny Barclay, whose husband had beaten her to within an inch of her life a year agoâswept through his mind. He recalled her dark bruises and the injuries that had laid her up for weeks. He had vowed then that he'd never let that happen to any woman again.
The next bottom-feeder who thought he could thrash his wife and get away with it had better run, because Rand would kill him.
Was Callie married? Seemed likely, since she had a son.
Despite the absence of any visible sign of abuse, he didn't discount that often scars lay buried deep inside, where no one could see. He knew more than a little about scars, how they puckered and left welts long after the wound closed. He sighed, shoving the painful darkness of that particular part of his life back into its hole. With some effort, he corralled his thoughts, bringing them back to Callie.
For sure, something had happened to send her and Toby out into the cold. Though he'd promised not to ask any questions, he cursed his damnable need to know. She aroused a strong curiosity, and he probably wouldn't rest until he figured out her story.
Besides, he couldn't effectively protect her if he didn't have any idea what had caused her life to intersect with his on this cold, wintry morning.
Rand set his jaw.
No matter what he had to do.
No matter the secret Callie kept.
No matter the circumstances that led her to his door, he'd keep her safe.
He'd stake his life on keeping that promise.
Though Callie Quinn appreciated Rand's kindness more than he knew, she didn't trust him. She couldn't. Too often generosity had invisible strings attached.
He'd show his true colors eventually.
All men did.
They all betrayed. They wounded. They lied.
But for now, she'd take the shelter and food he offered. She had little choice. Toby was sick. Still, she intended to keep her eyes open. At the first sign of Sinclair going back on his word, she'd run. She would never forget the crucial mistake she'd once made. She could never make up for that, but she could make sure she didn't repeat the lack of judgment that had cost her everything.
She swallowed hard, forcing back a sob. Though seven years had passed, the gaping hole was still in her heart. Her hands shook when she smoothed back her hair and forced her thoughts away from that horrible night when her world ended.
As soon as Rand set out for town, Callie gathered the ingredients to make a mustard plaster. Toby's cough worried her. The boy was sicker than she'd let on to the rancher. But she wouldn't let sickness or disease, or even a thief in the night, take the only good thing in her life.
And God help her, she'd protect him from the man who vowed to snatch him out of her arms and see her dead.
She mixed together the flour, mustard, and water, her glance going to the pile of blankets where he lay in front of the fire. His forehead was burning up as fever raged in his small body.
When she had the concoction ready, she spread it on a clean flour sack and applied the poultice to Toby's chest. Remembering her mother's admonition from too many years ago to count, she watched closely for signs of blistering. After fifteen minutes, she removed the plaster and applied the same to his back. She planned to reapply it through the day.
After covering him with a blanket, she put a hearty soup on to cook, made with a few potatoes, carrots, and onions she found in a little root cellar below the kitchen. Once that was done, she strolled through the house.
Each room brought back memories of the time she'd lived there with her family. The bedrooms upstairs that had belonged to her, her twin sister, and her older stepbrother were in great need of care, with their peeling wallpaper and warped floors. She moved to where a window seat had stood and glanced out the window at the tall tree they'd climbed down one night to dance in the moonlight.
They'd felt loved and happy here, giggling and planning for when they grew up.
Turning away, she went down the hall.
The room where her mother had died was filled with ghosts. Sadness and gloom hung onto her like gray, clinging spiderwebs, resisting all her efforts to brush them off.
She didn't tarry there. The pain was too great. Returning to the first floor, Callie went around to a hidden closet under the stairs and opened the door. She and Claire had played in there on rainy days. The room had been their own private sanctuary where they could tell each other secrets and promise to spend the rest of their lives together as best friends.
Pulling a gold locket from beneath her bodice, she opened it and gazed at Claire's likeness. This was the only prized possession she'd been able to grab in her hurry to leave.
A sob rose up, strangling her.
Why hadn't she stayed away? She'd known it would be hard.
But she had things to do here before she moved on.
She mustn't forget she had secrets to dig up.
* * *
The sky had turned pitch black by the time Rand Sinclair returned. Callie was at the stove, sliding a pan of corn bread into the oven when the back door opened.
The tall rancher filled the small kitchen even before he stepped inside. His windburned cheeks told of his misery. Guilt washed over her. If not for her and Toby, he wouldn't have faced that long ride to town.
When he removed his hat, his startling eyesâso clear and bluer than a wild Texas skyâstole her breath.
“You must be frozen,” she said, hurriedly pouring a cup of hot coffee she'd made earlier.
“Smells good in here.” He removed his coat and gloves and hung his hat on a hook by the door. He took the cup she handed him and curled his fingers around it as though desperate for the warmth.
“I made soup. Let it simmer all day. Nothing fancy.”
“It'll hit the spot.” He sniffed the air. “Was that corn bread you just put in the oven?”
“Yes, I hope you don't mind.”
“What a crazy question. I'd kill for a slice of hot corn bread.” He sat down at the table. “Like I told you, I don't know how to do much more than boil water. Do you know how to make biscuits?”
Callie allowed a slight smile. He sounded like a wistful little boy, afraid to ask for too many favors. “I do. We'll have some for breakfast.”
A wide grin covered his face. “You don't know how much I'm looking forward to morning.”
“It'll come soon enough.”
He took a sip of coffee. “How long until supper? I need to unload the wagon and put my horses in the barn as soon as possible.”
“Probably twenty minutes or so. I'll help you and it'll go faster.”
“I appreciate the offer, but it's too cold for you out there.” He emptied his cup and set it down, then got his coat, hat, and gloves. “Better get to it. The prospect of hot corn bread will make me hurry.”
She watched him go back outside, shivering from a sudden onslaught of frigid air that swept in through the open door. No one had cared about her in such a long time. Maybe, just maybe, he was an honorable man and truly what he seemed.
Was it possible?
He came back a few minutes later with packages and bundles teetering precariously in his arms. She flew to take some from him.
“I may need a little help getting the mattress inside if you don't mind.” He laid the packages down on the floor.
“I'll be happy to.”
“You stay inside. Keep the door shut until I bang on it. Don't want to lose all this wonderful heat.”
Over the next twenty minutes she assisted, taking some of the load after he got the bedstead and mattress to the door. By then, the corn bread was done, golden and delicious. She set it in the warming oven while he took the horse to the barn.
Checking on Toby, she was relieved to find his fever had broken.
“I'm hungry, ma'am.”
“I have some nice hot soup for supper. Do you think you can wait for Mr. Sinclair to come back in?”
He nodded. She smoothed back his sweat-drenched hair, giving thanks for the improvement. Overcome with emotion, she kissed his cheek. “I love you, little man. We're going to be all right. I'll make sure of it. I'm going to keep you safe.”
“Love you too,” he said quietly.
When Rand returned from the barn, she had the table set and the pot of soup and the corn bread sitting in the middle.
“Horses are cared for, and now I can hardly wait for supper.” He removed his outerwear and blew on his hands to warm them, taking the fresh cup of coffee she offered.
“We can spare a few minutes for you to thaw out by the fire. We don't have to eat right this instant.”
“Oh no you don't, lady,” he growled. “I'll not take a chance on eating cold corn bread. I'll warm up when that home cooking hits my belly. Won't talk me out of that pleasure.”
Callie called Toby and they all took their places. She'd barely said “Amen” before Rand dove in. She watched in amusement, wondering at his enormous appetite. One would think he hadn't eaten in a month of Sundays.
With the rancher occupied, her gaze wandered over his hair, which was the color of worn saddle leather. The lamplight brought out golden glints that danced amongst the brown strands touching his collar. Dark stubble on his jaw lent toughness to his handsome face. The long fingers lifting a slice of corn bread to his generous mouth appeared far more suited to a banker or lawyer.
Like it or not, she was curious about him.
As though sensing the direction of her thoughts, he leveled his vivid blue eyes on her. Her mouth dried. To hide her discomfort, she quickly turned to Toby. “Do you like the soup?”
“Yes, ma'am. It's good.”
“More corn bread, young man?” Rand asked.
“You're still looking kinda peaked.”
“He's better,” Callie said. “I kept a mustard plaster on him all day. It helped break his fever. He's not coughing as much. I'm sure tomorrow will see more improvement.”
“Thank goodness I found you when I did, even though you were ready to break both my legs with that big stick.”
“You scared me.” She felt heat creeping into her face. “You looked eight feet tall, standing there with your gun drawn. What did you expect?”
“Thought it was poachers. The Colt was a precaution. Never thought I'd find you and Toby in the shadows.”
Callie laid down her spoon. “I'm grateful for this warm house and hot food. I'll try not to make you regret taking us in. Toby and I will stay out of your way.”
“Now hold on a minute. My house is yours and you'll consider it that way. You're doing this old bachelor a huge favor. Most likely I'd have died from starvation if you hadn't taken pity on me.”
The sincerity of his words wrapped around her. She could almost let hope into her heart. But that would be dangerous. Nibbling on her corn bread, she turned to the question she'd been dying to ask. “What did you do before you bought this parcel of land, Mr. Sinclair?”
“Owned a saloon in Battle Creek. The Lily of the West.”
Laughter quickly rose, refusing to let her squash it. “You were a saloon owner? You've never operated a ranch before, have you?”
A wry grin flirted along the corners of his mouth. “Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?”
“Pretty strange. So you don't know anything about cows?”
“Not much, although I used to live on a ranch when I was a boy.” He slathered butter on another piece of corn bread and took a big bite. “Figure my brothers can teach me what I don't know.” Rand explained that his brothers Cooper and Brett were in the ranching business and that the best rancher ever born raised them. “What about you? Where did you live?”
Icy panic brought a chill to the warm room. Callie drew herself up. “You agreed that you wouldn't ask any questions. Not even a day has passed, and you're going back on your word.”
“Let me get this straight. You can ask me anything you want, but I'm not allowed to find out even the most basic things about my new cook?”
“It'll be this way or we'll head out the door.”
Rand gave a heavy sigh. “All right. I apologize, Callie. Didn't mean to pry. Just wanted to get to know you a little. I promise to watch it from now on.”
Toby pushed back his bowl and asked to be excused. Callie's gaze followed him as he headed back to the pile of blankets.
“I accept your apology. This time. But I meant what I said.” She rose and collected her and Toby's bowls. Then to dispel the tension, she said, “If you brought apples from the mercantile, I'll make a pie tomorrow.”
“I certainly did. A pie would be most welcome.”
Refusing to let her take his bowl, Rand rose and carried it to the wash pan himself. Callie watched him refill his coffee cup and return to his seat, stretching out his long legs in front of him. It was clear that this bachelor was accustomed to doing things himself. He didn't expect her to wait on him. She found that a relief as she set about washing the dishes.
“I'll finish this coffee, then set up the bed, but firstâI brought you and the boy some things from town. Open the packages, Callie.”
When she turned, she found herself staring into his blue eyes. “We don't needâ”
“You darn well do, and I won't hear you arguing about it. Now, let those dishes go and find out what's in these packages. I'll help you with them later.”
The man was awfully bossy. She was about to tell him what he could do with those packages when the sight of Toby lying listless in front of the stone fireplace stopped her. To survive the winter, the child needed a coat and warm clothes. Maybe that's what Rand had brought from town. She couldn't refuse those no matter how much she wanted to.
Drying her hands on the flour sack that she'd made into a dish towel, she sat on the floor and tore off the brown paper wrapping on one of the packages. The fleece-lined coat for Toby made her breath catch in her throat. An answered prayer.
Sudden memories of her mother popped into her head. Before her death, Nora Quinn Powers regularly bought and took things to the needy in town. One year in particular, she purchased the most beautiful coat for a little girl who had next to nothing. It had a white fur collar and a muff. Callie, eight at the time, desperately wanted that coat. She'd caught her mother not looking and hid it in her room. A day or two later, she overheard her mother talking about how the sheriff had found the girl half-frozen. She never forgot the painful stillness that came over her. She'd raced upstairs and retrieved the coat, and from then on, she never begrudged anyone the help they needed. For years, she always added the girl to her nightly prayers and asked for forgiveness.
Now, as she clutched the new coat, she thanked her mother's ghost and the saloon-owner-turned-rancher for looking out for Toby when she couldn't.
Rand had also bought a soft wool dress in a pretty shade of nutmeg for her, and a coat as well. She unwrapped a woman's warm flannel nightgown, then shirts, pants, gloves, and a knit cap for Toby. Rand had even thought to add two bars of fragrant soap. The last package held a comb, brush, and mirror.
A pile of quilts, sheets, and pillows lay in a neat stack. Rand's generosity brought tears to her eyes. She thought of the miserable nights she and Toby had spent in the elements, too cold to sleep. This was a far cry from that.
Maybe, for such generosity of spirit, she could possibly endure a very bossy man with beautiful eyes.