Authors: Linda Broday
Tears pricked her eyes.
The key that might have meant her future was gone.
Two hours after Rand rode off to fetch the milk cow, a sudden clip-clop of hooves coming toward them raised the hair on the back of Callie's neck.
They didn't have time to make it inside the house.
Her panicked gaze swept the yard for a hiding place.
Behind the woodpile. Trembling, she hurried Toby around the stack of wood and whispered for him not to make a sound. They knelt down and Callie grabbed a stick of wood. She'd defend them with all she had. If Nate wanted a fight, she'd give it to him. She had no qualms about bashing his head in.
The horse stopped a few feet away, and she heard the creak of leather as a rider dismounted.
“Rand? You here?” a man asked in a deep voice.
“Where you at, Rand?” There were two of them.
Toby tried to rise and Callie jerked him back down, holding her hand over the boy's mouth. It wasn't Nate, but whoever they were might go away if they got no reply.
“Maybe he went after that cow he said he bought. Reckon we'll make ourselves comfortable until he shows up.” The rumbling voice belonged to the first speaker. “It's too far back into town. Besides, I don't think he'll be gone long.”
Callie's heart sank. They were stuck where they were. No way would she make her presence known. The fewer who knew she lived on the ranch, the better.
At that moment, the faint mooing of a cow reached her ears. The sound became louder and louder.
Finally she heard Rand call to the two men, “What're you doing here today?”
“Came to work, little brother. Looks like you could use the help of an army. But maybe we were wrong.”
“Don't you dare leave. I'm not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. I ain't no fool,” Rand said. “Have you met my help and her son, Toby?”
“Nope. The place appears deserted,” answered the one with the deep voice. “I'd wondered why you came to me for a bed and a loan yesterday. Now it makes sense.”
“Yep. Callie?” Rand hollered.
Lord, help. What should she do now? She couldn't pop up and say that she and Toby were huddling like a couple of frightened prairie dogs too scared of their own shadows. She chewed her lip and waited.
“She's probably out getting some fresh air,” Rand said. “Let me put this cow in the barn and I'll show you what I have in mind, Coop. Brett, I especially want your ideas.”
The voices moved away. Seizing her chance, Callie grabbed Toby's hand and made a beeline for the house.
Once inside, Callie's nerves settled. A short time later, she glanced out the window at the men as they came from the barn. These must be the brothers Rand told her about. All three were tall, but the one wearing the sheriff's badge stood about two inches taller than Rand, and the other one wore knee-high moccasins and a long feather in his hat. She searched her memory for what Rand had told her. Cooper Thorne was the sheriff in Battle Creek in addition to owning the Long Odds Ranch, and Brett Liberty owned the Wild Horse Ranch.
Besides having different last names, the brothers bore no resemblance to each other at all. Brett, with his dark coloring and manner of dress, was an Indian. Clearly they were not natural-born brothers.
Had they simply met up, desperate for someone to belong to, and claimed that distinction for themselves? She glanced at Toby. She could understand that impulse all too well.
* * *
Rand laid out the plans for his Last Hope Ranch and its 350 acres, but his mind was on Callie. He knew she had cloaked herself and Toby in dark shadows somewhere. But then again, maybe she'd decided to light out the minute he'd turned his back. He prayed that was not the case. Whether she knew it or not yet, she needed someone to care about her. She might not be aware of it, but he'd already taken that job.
“I'll get rid of these weeds and trash littering the yard,” he continued, jerking his attention back to repairs. “Fix up the barn and corral, patch the barn roof. Then I'll make the house and bunk quarters more livable. After that, I'll work on the fences.”
“It'll take a heap of work for sure. A man will have to be awfully dedicated to his vision.” Cooper pushed back his hat with a forefinger. “Is this really what you want? Are you happy here?”
“After all, you have to admit it's a far cry from living in town and owning a saloon,” Brett added. “Sleeping till noon. Whiskey fumes seeping into your skin and pretty ladies coming out of the woodwork.”
Rand ignored the bait. He refused to bite. But he did think it odd that his baby brother kept staring at the house with a strange grin on his face. With Brett's keen hearing, Rand wondered if he'd detected a noise.
“What's the matter, Brett? You hear war drums or something?”
“Nope.” Brett dragged his attention back to the subject. “Go ahead with your big picture.”
Leaning against a broken corral post, Rand studied his brothers and said quietly, “I know it doesn't look like much, but this is my chance, maybe the last one, to prove some things to myself. Yes, I can be happy here. It's peaceful. And it's away from my mother.”
“Now we get to the heart of the matter. This is an escape,” Cooper drawled. “We really can't fault you. You can't be in the same room with Abigailâor Clara, or whatever she's calling herself these daysâfor five minutes without wanting to kill her.”
“The thing is, she let me rot in that orphanage. Then she waltzes back into my life almost twenty-five years later and acts all motherly and full of concern, like I can't possibly exist without her and her considerable money. Well, I don't need it and I don't need her.”
“She thought you died with your father,” Cooper pointed out.
“Her story, not mine,” Rand snapped. “She could've tried to make sure.
should've been a hint.”
To his way of thinking, Abigail Winehouse, famous opera singer that she was, never wanted to be saddled with a kid. So when she had a chance to tour the West, she'd jumped at it. Said good-bye to her five-year-old son, kissed her husband as if she hadn't been in too much of a rush, and taken off, never glancing back.
“I'd give anything to have a mother,” Brett said softly.
“You can have mine and welcome to her.”
Lost in his thoughts, the silence stretched. When Rand glanced up, he caught his brothers' wide grins. “What?”
“We'd like to know about this Callie woman now,” Cooper said. “Did you get tired of being a crotchety old bachelor and tie the knot without telling your two brothers?”
“You don't have to hide her.” Brett stuck a matchstick in the corner of his mouth.
Irritation that he wouldn't have felt a week ago climbed into Rand's chest. He thought back to over eight months ago when a mail-order bride, Delta Dandridge, had arrived on the stage announcing she'd come to wed Cooper. But his brother had been bound and determined to evade matrimony by whatever means.
Rand had teased him unmercifully. Somehow he failed to see the humor now.
“She works for me.” He explained how he'd found her and her son hiding in one of the old buildings half-frozen and hungry. “I gave her a job, nothing more. So put all your comments and suggestions away and let her be, or you'll answer to me.”
Cooper's grin vanished as he quirked a dark eyebrow. “You know we're just giving you some brotherly love, don't you?”
“No need to get so defensive.” Brett clapped him on the shoulder. “I'd like to meet her. She sounds real special.”
She was, but Rand didn't share just how much with his brothers.
“What's her last name? She may be from around here. Part of my sheriff duties is knowing everyone who lives in these parts.”
“Told me to call her Callie, just Callie, and made me promise not to ask any questions,” Rand said quietly. “Clearly she's running from something.” Most likely
All that stuff Toby spouted about an outlaw's gun holding six bullets had been stuck in his brain since breakfast. Maybe Callie was married to an outlaw?
The possibility was like molten lead in his stomach, the strong feeling nearly knocking him to his knees.
“Well, things have a way of changing,” Cooper said. “Give her some room and let her see that you have her best interests in mind. Once she realizes you're not going to hurt her, she'll come to trust you and share whatever fear drove her here.”
Brett squinted off into the distance. “Scared people have trouble believing in the good in the world and think they're not worthy of all they're entitled to. Just go slow and easy.”
It didn't take a genius to know his baby brother was thinking about himself and Tolbert Early, a man who'd beaten Brett half to death when he was only eight years old. Justice had come last April when Brett finally killed the low-down varmint. Rand was glad he'd been there to witness it.
Cooper bent and picked up a small rock. After turning it over in his hand, he let it sail into the trees. “Everything will work itself out. Took Delta and me some time to trust each other with our secrets. But we finally did. I never thought in a million years that I'd be married to her, but look at me now. We're as happy as two bullfrogs sunning on a log.”
“You say that now, but you went kicking and screaming all the way,” Rand pointed out. “It wasn't until faced with the fear of losing her that the facts became crystal clear.”
“Amen, brother.” Brett grinned. “I think it's time to meet this mysterious woman of yours.”
“Lord, I don't know if I'm ready for this.” Rand cast a glance toward the house. Callie's fear swirled around him like dark swamp water where he stood. “Don't ask a bunch of questions and don't make her feel threatened. Don't embarrass me, either.”
“Yes, Mother,” Cooper growled. “We're grown men, for God's sake. I think we know how to behave by now. Delta even lets me out of the house occasionally without supervision.”
“Any other instructions, Rand?” Brett asked quietly. “Just relax. We want what you want.”
With a short jerk of his head, Rand led the way to the house. He opened the back door and called softly, “Callie?”
Toby came running, holding a bent stick that served as a gun. “Mr. Rand, I saw you with the cow. We were hiding.”
“Well, I'm glad you came out.” He picked the boy up and swung him around. “I'd have hated to lose you.”
Callie hurried from the little bedroom. “Young man, do you always have toâ¦” Her voice trailed when she drew up short. “I apologize.”
Rand set the youngster down and moved aside to let Cooper and Brett inside. Toby stared at Cooper's badge, his eyes growing wide. The boy seemed to have trouble swallowing.
“These are my brothers I told you about, Callie,” Rand said. “The ornery cuss with the badge pinned to his chest is Cooper Thorne. Brett Liberty is the other. He can skin a rabbit before you can even get the fire started.”
Callie's face flamed. Rand thought she'd never looked more mortified. Or prettier, for that matter.
Cooper and Brett tipped their hats and said, “Ma'am.”
Rand wouldn't have bet money on her accepting their token of politeness, but though she hesitated, she finally managed, “I'm pleased to meet you.”
“Ma'am,” Cooper said. “My wife Delta would love to have you come visit. She gets lonely out on the ranch and misses her friends from town. The Long Odds is only a mile north of here. We also own the Four Promises outside of town, dividing our time between the two. I know how women band together against the loneliness.”
Callie nodded but kept silent.
Toby crept up to Brett and touched the fringe of his moccasins. “Are you a real Indian?”
“Toby! That's rude. Now apologize to Mr. Liberty.”
“But I just want to know.” Toby ducked his head, the words expressing his remorse apparently getting stuck in his throat.
Brett knelt to study the six-year-old. “When I was your age, I had such a burning curiosity of the world too. It's okay to ask questions. Yes, I'm an Indian. And you know what?”
Toby stared solemnly into Brett's eyes. “What?”
“I live in a real, honest-to-goodness tepee on my land called the Wild Horse Ranch. I raise horses.”
“Yes. I'd like for you to come see for yourself, if it's all right with your mother.”
“Could I sleep in it?”
“Don't see why not.” Brett winked and dropped his hat onto Toby's head.
The boy struggled to look up at his mother from beneath the huge brim. “Can I, ma'am? I really want to.”
“That's âmay I,' young man. And we'll see.”
“Aw shoot! That means no.”
Rand stepped in. “Don't look all down-in-the-mouth, little man. It just means your mama is thinking about if it's warm enough, that's all.” He caught the look of gratitude Callie shot him and turned to his brothers. “Want some coffee?”
They agreed, and over the next two hours sat at the kitchen table neck-deep in plans. Rand made a list of how much lumber, nails, fence posts, shingles, and other materials they'd need. He deeply appreciated his brothers sharing their knowledge. They went out of their way not to appear bossy or speak over his head, presenting their comments as only suggestions. That they ultimately left it up to Rand to make his own decisions about things meant more than they knew.
This was what family did. Or should do. He thought of his mother, who tried to cram her wishes down his throat.
In the midst of it all, Toby climbed into his lap. A short while later, the boy yawned and fell asleep with his head resting against Rand's chest.
He had a vague awareness of movement in the kitchen and the quiet clink of pans, but he'd been engrossed in getting his dream down on paper before it faded to pay much attention.