Authors: Linda Broday
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Just glad to help. Probably didn't get everything you needed. Never bought things for a lady before.” A curious light came into his eyes as he shifted his feet and crossed them at the ankles. “But hopefully I got enough to get you by for now.”
“That and more, Mr. Sinclair.”
He quickly held up his hand to stop her. “My name is not mister. Thought we cleared that up at the start. My rule. I'm Rand. Got it?”
“Yes. This must've cost a fortune. I'll repay what you spent as soon as I'm able.”
“Don't want paid back,” he growled. “Your thanks are more than enough.”
“Very well. You have my thanks.” But no matter what he said, she wasn't through with the subject. She would find a way to repay him. One way or another.
“I need to put more salve on your burn.”
“My hand is fine. Not much pain.”
Callie took his good hand and led him to the table. “All the same, I'm putting more ointment on the burn,” she said firmly.
“I know better than to argue with a determined woman.”
“Good.” She got the tin of thick balm and dabbed it onto the palm of his hand. It had already taken away much of the redness, though she knew it had to hurt.
Afterward, he tried to help her in the kitchen, but his fumbling presence only lengthened the task. Finally, she nudged him toward the bed he still had to set up in the room off the kitchen where she and Toby would sleep. He took the hint at last and disappeared.
In the midst of the quiet that followed came a horrendous crash. Looking in, she saw the iron bedstead lying over on the floor and Rand struggling to right it. He stood in the middle of a tangle of metal, muttering a string of cuss words and trying his best to keep her and Toby from hearing the colorful language. Callie covered her mouth to smother the laughter.
His care to keep from being heard touched her. His show of respect raised her opinion of him several notches.
Quickly she moved to offer her services. She held the headboard while he attached the rails, then switched to the foot and did the same. With that secure, she handed him lengths of rope and watched him knot them back and forth across the open space. This would serve as a base for the unwieldy feather mattress. At last she took one end and he the other and they lifted the thick mattress into place.
A little later, surprise rippled over her when he threw a rag rug onto the floor beside the made-up bed onto which they'd spread quilts. “To keep your feet from getting too cold. Keep this door open to draw heat from the stove. I'll make sure it stays lit.”
“Rand, you're a good man.” Gathering tears that she refused to let fall blurred his face. “Keep your bed where it is by the fireplace in the parlor. It's too frigid upstairs.”
His breathtaking blue eyes widened with surprise. He was silent for the space of a heartbeat, then cleared his throat. When he spoke, his voice was raspy. “As you wish.”
Breaking dawn sent pink light flooding through the windows the next morning, and Rand awoke thinking he'd died and gone to glory.
He raised his head and sniffed. The smell of ham and biscuits permeated the house. His growling belly told him time was wasting. If he didn't get busy, he'd miss out.
But he lay there a full minute, pushing aside the remnants of a recurring dream that had terrified him since he was a boy. He didn't know what the shadowy bald-headed man who seemed ten feet tall or the rocking wooden pony with the glowing red eyes meant or why they were lodged in the deep recesses of his brain. Maybe the dream meant nothing other than he was losing his mind. It instilled terror, that much he knew.
Throwing back the quilts, he pulled on his boots. Except for his gun belt, he'd slept fully dressed, so he made fast work of getting to his feet. After eating, he'd go pick up the milk cow he'd bought yesterday. A growing boy needed milk to drink.
Seconds later, he pushed through the kitchen door and stopped, drinking in the sight. Callie stood at the stove, tending to breakfast. A smile curved his mouth. She wore the wool dress he'd bought because it had reminded him of her pretty amber eyes.
He didn't know beans about ladies' sizes, so he'd relied on Emmylou, the clerk, to help with that. The mercantile's selection hadn't been all that much to brag about, but the woman seemed to know what she was doing.
Now with a critical eye, he took in Callie's curves. The dress hugged all the right places and then some. The hips, waist, andâ¦
His heart hammered in his ears worse than Brett beating on that Indian drum of his. Closing his eyes, he struggled for a long moment to push those thoughts from his head and gain control of his traitorous body. He couldn't, wouldn't, expect anything from Callie other than putting meals on the table.
When he had his thoughts firmly in hand, he opened his eyes and sighed. Being a bachelor made him miss out on a few things, not all of them physical.
A wife to wake up with.
Children to teach things.
Sharing the bounties of his life with a family. Having someone to grow old with.
But he couldn't marry, no matter how enticing finally having someone relying on him made it appear. He wasn't husband material. Never would be. Being lost and abandoned as a child had determined his lonely path. His adopted brothers, Cooper and Brett, had banded together with him and were the only family he needed. They wouldn't let him down. They wouldn't walk out on him as first his parents, then so many others, had.
He'd learned long ago that eventually, everyone walked away.
“Morning,” he said, heading into the kitchen. His gaze found Toby sitting by the warm oven.
Callie handed him a cup of coffee. “Good morning.”
When their hands touched, a bolt of something ran up his arm. He didn't want the contact to end. “Sleep well?”
“Like rocks. Both of us. Toby is not as croupy today.” She reached down to brush the boy's black hair. “Biscuits need another five minutes, then we'll eat.”
“I'll wash up.” He set his cup next to his plate. “Toby, want to come with me?”
Rand noticed some of the water he'd lugged in yesterday sitting on the back of the stove. He filled a washbowl on the counter and lifted the boy up, grinning as Toby splashed around. Give a youngster some water and he was in heaven. Though it had been Rand's observation that mothers generally had a conniption over the mess, Callie only smiled.
“How old are you, Toby?”
“This many.” The lad grinned, holding up six fingers.
Rand whistled. “That's pretty big. You're a young man.”
“Tomorrow I'm gonna be as big as you.”
He laughed. “That so? That's awful fast.”
“I know how to shoot. An outlaw's gun takes six bullets.”
“Uh, I'm sure it does, Toby.”
Callie blanched and whirled, her eyes slamming into his. “I don't know where he gets these things.”
“There's no telling.” Still, Rand filed it away. Questions buzzed inside his head like a swarm of horseflies as he calmly set Toby down and took his turn at the washbowl, but he set them aside for now. Rand mopped up the mess, keeping one eye on the oven door.
God forbid he miss the biscuits.
* * *
Callie collected the breakfast plates and took them to the wash pan. Rand had already gone out to feed the horses. He'd told her about a milk cow he'd bought and that he'd have to go after it. With the cow only a mile away, he would just walk the animal over.
Toby had tried to traipse out after him, but she'd put her foot down. The boy still had a bad cough. Besides, he appeared to be forming a bond with the tall rancher. That troubled her. If Toby became too attached, it would kill him when they had to up and leave.
Maybe at a moment's notice. She had to stay ready in case Nate Fleming found them here on this remote ranch. He was as mean and wily an outlaw as they came. He'd kept them on the run from Missouri to Texas, and it'd taken all her cunning to evade him.
She glanced out the door, thankful that it wasn't as cold today. The wind had died down, and the sun cast glorious golden rays across the landscape. Ever since she was a child, she'd hated gloomy weather, so she welcomed the warmth of the sunshine with a lighter heart.
Rand's trek after the cow would give her the perfect opportunity to look for the key she'd buried when she was only eight years old. It went to an ornate metal box that had belonged to her mother. Callie recalled the day Mama had presented her and her sister each a key and said that if their lives ever needed to look up, to open the chest. Until then, she'd put it in a safe place.
Nora Quinn Powers had died that spring, shortly after Callie and Claire turned nine.
Despite her stepfather Edmund Powers's steadfast promise to continue living on the ranch, he'd promptly moved them to Kansas City. That had been the first in a long string of broken promises, disappointments, and heartaches that pierced all the way down to her soul.
But the most unforgivable of all had come when he up and married socialite Liza Masterson mere weeks after her mother's death. Liza made no bones about the fact that she abhorred Callie and Claire, while their stepbrother David could do no wrong. Liza had taken things, smashed expensive vases, and ripped the pages from Edmund Powers's favorite books, saying the girls had done it. The woman had laughed when Edmund punished them. Often when Callie and Claire had walked near, she'd reach out and viciously pinch them, leaving deep bruises. All because they reminded her of a daughter who ran away, choosing to live with strangers rather than her mother.
Thank God, Liza no longer wielded power over them.
Lost in her memories, Callie suddenly realized she still had dishes to finish and the kitchen to clean. She put some water on the stove to heat while she swept the floor. Then she made hot, soapy dishwater. As she washed the breakfast dishes, her thoughts drifted once more.
Finding her buried key and her mother's box occupied her thoughts.
She desperately needed her life to look up now.
Not only that, but she had to locate the chest before Nate Fleming found them. Ever since Claire succumbed to a mysterious malady two months ago, Callie had suspected Nate Fleming of poisoning her sister. She had no proof, though.
No denying Claire had had a weakness for Nate. The outlaw could be quite charming, and Lord knows a more handsome man never lived. Desperate to escape Edmund Powers and Liza, it hadn't taken Claire long to fall under Nate's spell, and they'd married shortly after.
In the beginning, Nate kept his criminal activities hidden from Claire. Then Toby was born. Having a son changed things. A year ago, he began taking Toby, then five, with him on jobs and teaching him the outlaw trade.
Callie would never forget the desperation in Claire's wild eyes as she'd begged, “Please promise you'll keep Nate from taking Toby. Raise my son to be a good, honest man, not a hunted outlaw like his father. Promise me.”
“I vow on Mama's grave that I'll protect Toby with my very life. I'll keep him safe.”
The minute Claire took her final breath, Callie had gathered up Toby, and they rode out before Nate even knew they were gone. Despite getting a head start, Callie had more close calls than she cared to count. By the time they'd reached this ranch, she was mentally and physically exhausted.
Her mind went back to her mother's treasure chest. Where on earth had her mother hidden it?
If Nate should find them beforeâ¦
No, she wouldn't entertain those possibilities. She would succeed. Toby's life depended on whatever might be in that box.
While she waited for Rand to leave, she set the rest of the house to rights, putting things away and making everything neat and tidy. In the process of folding Rand's blankets and quilts, a metal ring with no fewer than two dozen keys on it clattered to the floor. It seemed a bit odd that he'd have so many things that required locking up.
a former saloon owner. Maybe he'd forgotten to turn over some of the keys when he sold the business. She shrugged and laid them next to the neat stack of bedding, where he'd find them.
When she next looked out the window, Rand had mounted up in front of the barn. He sat astride a big, handsome blue roan that sidestepped and pranced around. Though she knew very little about ranch stock, she suspected it was prime horseflesh. In a moment of idle curiosity, she wondered about its name.
The horse was a perfect match for Rand. They moved as one. Both carried themselves tall and straight, as though proud of who they were and of the blood flowing in their veins. Though she could easily picture Rand sitting at a card table in some smoky saloon, the lamplight playing on his tanned face, she knew that whether he succeeded or failed at the ranching business, he would give it all he had.
There would be no half measures with this Texan, at least when it came to work. All or nothing. He should emblazon that motto on every surface of the ranch. A hunch based on years of experience told her that.
Betrayed by her stepfather too many times to count, abandoned by her stepbrother, David, when she needed him most, and left high and dry by a man she'd trusted had taught her well. She'd stared into Rand's startling blue eyes and he hadn't ducked his head or turned away. His eyes were honest and direct. She admired that about him. And then there was the care he took of Toby, making the little boy feel like the most special thing in the world.
Still, she wouldn't let him get too close. It could all be smoke and mirrors and she could be a fool.
Toby tugged on her skirt. “I wanna go out to play.”
“First, we need to talk.” Callie knelt down to his level. “Remember how I told you not to say anything about your father?”
The youngster nodded.
“It's very important that you don't say anything else.”
“About outlaws an' stuff?”
“Yes. It wouldn't be good for Mr. Sinclair to know about your father.”
“What if my papa hurts Mr. Rand? I need to warn him. Can I tell him about putting burlap on the horse's feet so the posse can't track 'em?”
“No, don't mention anything about what went on when you were with your father. None of it. Forget you ever knew those things. Your father isn't going to hurt Mr. Sinclair. I'm not going to let him. Besides, we'll be gone before your papa gets here.”
Toby's face brightened. “I'm glad. Mr. Rand is real nice. Now, I can go play?”
Callie hugged him to her. “I suppose. You can't stay out too long, though. I don't want you to have a setback, young man.”
He patted her cheek and grinned. “I won't get sick.”
“I love you so much.” She bundled him into his coat, gloves, and knit cap. Pulling on hers, she opened the door. “You stay close, where I can keep an eye on you.”
Toby took off running as if she'd just let him out of a dungeon after years and years of captivity. She watched the silly boy for a moment, then looked around, trying to rely on the faded memories of an eight-year-old girl.
Where had she buried the key?
Under the big walnut tree beside the house, where she and Claire had spent many hours playing during the summer months?
Slowly, she moved in that direction. But it didn't feel right.
Maybe around the barn.
Eighteen years could sure blur a memory. Wrinkling her forehead, she tried to turn back the pages of time. Panic struck her. What if she never remembered? What if Nate had found her mother's box and taken what belonged to Callie? She'd put nothing past a man who'd stolen the coins off dead people's eyes.
She whirled to check on Toby's whereabouts and it hit her.
The woodpile. That was it.
It had been close to the house, and she'd been in a hurry that Saturday to go into town with her mother.
“Toby, come back this way, sweetheart. You're going too far,” she called.
When the youngster heeded her request, she strode to the stack of wood and stared at the ground. She'd buried the key somewhere around the old chopping block.
All those years ago, she hadn't had anything but a piece of kindling to dig with, so she'd buried it pretty shallow.
The image of the distinctive brass key filled her mind. Most keys were round on top and rather plain, but this one was swirled and ornate.
“Toby, want to help me dig?”
He stumbled over his feet as he ran to her. “Oh boy.”
She explained what she was looking for and handed him a sturdy piece of kindling. She grabbed another for herself. Within minutes, they'd dug several holes in the soft ground.
Empty holes popped up all around the stump. Finally she sat back on her heels. Her whole body went numb.