Authors: Linda Broday
Callie appeared at his elbow. “If you gentlemen will wash up, I'll serve lunch.”
Cooper jumped to his feet. “I didn't intend to put you to all this trouble, ma'am. I meant to be out of your hair by now. Delta will have my hide. I promised to take her into town.”
“It's no bother, Mr. Thorne. I have to cook for us anyway, and it's no hardship putting a few more beans in the pot.”
“Thank you, Miss Callie,” Brett said, pushing back his chair. “I leap at any chance I get to eat someone else's cooking. Get tired of my own.”
Rand waited until his brothers headed out to the tank at the foot of the windmill to wash before waking up Toby. The youngster rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked around as if wondering where everyone went.
“Thank you, Callie. I didn't plan on this. I'd have warned you if I'd known they were coming.”
“I admit, they did cause concern at first. They're such big, tall men.”
“I sure didn't expect they'd stay for lunch. I created extra work for you. I'm sorry.”
“Don't be silly, Rand. You hired me to cook.”
He wanted to say that he knew her fear of strangers and regretted springing his brothers on her the way he had. But when her eyes, the color of rich warm whiskey, turned on him, his brain refused to think of anything.
Except taking away the fear lurking thereâ¦and maybe figuring out how to kiss her.
Later that evening as they ate, Rand watched Callie out of the corner of his eye. The lady was quite a distraction, sitting across the table from him with her reddish strands shimmering in the lamplight amid the darker brown of her hair. When her eyes met his, every nerve ending quivered, and it was all he could do to form a coherent thought. She did things to him no other woman had.
She'd warmed up the beans, fried potatoes, and made another pan of corn bread. His favorite meal. She'd been awfully quiet, not saying more than two words and keeping her eyes lowered to her plate.
Finally, when he managed to get his tongue to work and could stand the silence no longer, he spoke. “Whoever taught you to cook certainly did me a big favor. Everything you make is the best I've put in my mouth.”
“The woman who cooked for us took me under her wing. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, because it was the only place I could be sure my stepmother wouldn't go.”
Rand digested that. He wanted to ask why she'd avoided her stepmother, but he'd learned his lesson. No questions. “Well, I'm mighty glad your cook saw potential in you.”
An uncomfortable silence fell over them. At last Rand said, “It's getting colder outside. Wind's turned out of the north and clouds have rolled in. Probably rain. Maybe snow.”
Damn, couldn't he think of something better to say?
Callie looked up. “I'll keep Toby inside. I don't want him to have a relapse.”
“A good idea. You're deep in thought, Callie. Anything you want to talk about?”
“Just woolgathering. I like your brothers, but I'm confused.”
“They tend to boggle a person's mind, all right.”
“You call them brothers, yet you all have different last names and you couldn't be more mismatched.”
“You're right.” Rand put down his fork and propped his elbows on the table. “We're not natural born, we're blood brothers. We all come from an orphanage where deep bonds formed that are unbreakable even today. We pricked our fingers and declared ourselves family. We're all each other have. Or in my case
, because my dear mother appeared from out of the blue several months ago, after all this time.”
“I take it you're not especially pleased.”
“Let's just say it's not easy to accept. I won't pretend that all is rosy, even though Abigail Winehouse might. I have certain things to work out.”
“How would you feel if she up and left and you'd never see her again?” Callie asked quietly.
Rand frowned. He'd never considered that. How would he feel? Happy, sad, relieved, or maybe abandoned again?
Memories of how he used to lie awake in the orphanage and dream of his mother one day coming to get him created trenches in his brain. Every part of his being had cried out for someone to belong to, to be loved byâto be special, to matter.
In a lot of ways, that was why he'd opted to buy a saloon instead of a ranch. He wanted to surround himself with people, ever looking, ever hopeful he'd find what he most yearned for.
His gaze found Callie. Kind of ironic that he hadn't discovered her in town but out on the ranch, where he'd never expected it.
But why exactly hadn't he looked for his mother after escaping from that orphan train with Cooper and Brett? Even though he was only eleven at the time, he knew she was alive somewhere. He had her name.
Why hadn't he wanted to find her?
He squirmed in his chair. Maybe he'd been afraid of what he'd find? That she'd reject him again?
Maybe he'd stayed away from her because the truth would've hurt too much. Part of him didn't want to examine these questions too closely.
The uncomfortable ache in his chest made him lose his appetite. He needed some fresh air. Without a word, he pulled on his coat and disappeared into the black night.
* * *
Callie readied for bed a while later. Rand still hadn't returned. She suspected the question she posed to him about his mother had upset him. Whatever the problem was between mother and son went far deeper than even he had seemed to realize. She wished she'd kept her mouth shut and her nose out of things that didn't concern her.
But Rand intrigued her. She'd never known a more generous, caring man. It hurt her to watch him wrestle with some inner demon and not be able to help him.
What kind of mother would leave her son in an orphanage? Maybe the same conniving, spiteful kind as her stepmother, Liza. Icy fingers crept up Callie's spine.
Lord help him if this was true. She prayed that whatever was between the son and his mother could find resolution soon.
She knew what happened when it didn't come, the holes that hate and anger left. She'd said too much tonight. Except for Rand now, few had ever known why she hid in her stepmother's kitchen so often. In truth, the room had been her sanctuary. She thought of Cook and wondered about the dear lady. Lord knows, Liza made life in that house a living hell.
Callie prepared to crawl in beside a softly snoring Toby when she heard the back door open. The tension inside her eased. She'd be able to sleep now.
Rand had returned.
Blowing out the lamp beside the bed, she slid beneath the quilts. Memories of Rand's vivid blue eyes banished the cold from her body. She'd never felt this safe with any man before. It felt real nice. She'd waited a long time for someone like Rand. She didn't know what to make of it, so she forced herself to close her eyes and try to sleep.
* * *
A cold dawn came far too soon. She rose and dressed, dreading a trek outside for wood for the stove. Making coffee would be first on her list. She tiptoed into the dim kitchen and stumbled over something, nearly falling on her face.
An animal's sharp yelp sent alarm ricocheting through her heart. She grabbed for the first thing she could findâher broomâand wielded it like a club.
Rand's soft chuckle filled the room. She hadn't even seen him sitting at the table. He struck a match. When he lit the lamp, a warm glow spread over the kitchen.
“You gonna beat the poor critter to death with a broom?”
The growling way Rand had of talking sent delicious quivers along her nerve endings. Then a dog's velvety tongue licked her hand, bringing her focus back to what it
be on: the furred intruder in her kitchen. “Where did the dog come from? It wasn't here when I went to bed.”
“You called our furry friend an it. She's a female.”
Finally, Callie thought to put the broom away. “Begging your pardon. Where did
come from? If it's not too much to ask.”
“Found her last night when I went out for some fresh air. She was bleeding. Looked like she'd tangled with a wild varmint. I doctored her a little and brought her inside, since it was far too cold to leave her out in the elements.”
Callie knelt and inspected what appeared to be a scraggly golden retriever. The retriever was covered with ticks and cockleburs. She'd evidently been out in the woods for a long while, maybe her whole life. The hound touched her cold nose to Callie's hand.
Staring into the dog's expressive brown eyes, Callie stroked behind the ears and crooned. “You're such a loving girl, aren't you? We'll get you cleaned up and brushed, just wait and see. Rand, she's so sweet.”
“That she is,” Rand agreed. “Broke my heart when I saw the whimpering, bloody mess shivering by the barn door.”
“How old do you think she is?”
“Doubt if she's more than a year.”
“What's her name?”
“She hasn't told me that yet. She's pretty shy. But she did say that she likes it here.”
“Ha, ha. You're a funny man.”
Rand squatted down beside Callie, resting on the back of his heels. “Thought I'd let Toby do the naming honors.”
Only a whisper of distance separated them. With Rand so close, she could smell the fresh air that lingered on him, the faint fragrance of coffee andâ¦shaving soap? She hadn't expected that, and it caught her by surprise. A quick glance from beneath her lashes revealed that he'd indeed shaved. This was the first time she'd gotten an unobstructed view of his firm, square jaw.
The solid warmth of Rand's shoulder brushed hers, and a heated flush climbed to Callie's face. His very kissable lips were much too close.
Getting to her feet before she succumbed to temptation, she glanced around the kitchen. He'd already brought in wood, a low fire burned in the stove, the coffee was made, and a half-full cup sat on the table where she'd seen him sitting.
In the next room she noticed a fire in the fireplace and the pile of neatly folded blankets.
“You haven't been to bed, have you?”
Sighing, Rand got slowly to his feet and retrieved his coffee cup, taking a swallow. “Had too much thinking to do. I'm surprised you didn't hear me roaming around all night.”
Anger at Rand's mother rose. What she'd done, whether she meant to or not, had come near to destroying her son. What was she like? Callie couldn't help but wonder.
“You didn't have to do my chores.” She yanked a skillet off the shelf beside the stove. “Some hired help I am.”
“It wasn't any trouble. I was already up.” He refilled his cup and set the empty pot to the side. “Besides,” he said, grinning, “I left the cooking for you. Wouldn't even dare make a mess of that.”
“Good. Now sit down and stay out of my way.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Still grinning, Rand dropped back into his place at the table. Ruffling the dog's ears, he said, “You hear that, hound? We've just been given a boot to our backsides.”
Grabbing the empty coffeepot, Callie filled it with water and put more on to boil just as Toby wandered into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes.
The boy noticed the new resident right away. His eyes widened. “A dog! Oh boy! Can we keep him?”
“Her,” Callie and Rand said at the same time.
“I want you to think of a good name for her,” Rand said. “Something real good. Not like Yellow Dog or Outlaw or Bullet.”
Toby squinched up his eyes and glanced around the kitchen, thinking hard. “Biscuit!”
The dog gave a sharp bark and ran up to the youngster.
“Well, I think she knows her name.” Rand grinned. “Couldn't have thought of a better one myself.”
Callie's heart filled with love as she watched Toby. He'd needed something to get his mind off his rotten outlaw father. A son needed a father, but not one like Nate. No kid deserved a parent like that.
It suddenly occurred to her that perhaps Rand's mother had left him because she thought herself wrong to raise him. But surely she hadn't been as unworthy as Nate. No one was.
Nate Fleming had robbed every train, bank, packhorse, and stagecoach he came across, killing anyone who got in his way. He'd bragged that everyone in his family since 1764 had followed the lawless path. It all started with a pirate grandfather who plundered and murdered up and down the eastern seaboard. Even his mother and his sisters had embraced the outlaw lifestyle. His mother, Big Foot Lucy, had established quite a reputation before the law ruined her promising career.
None of them tended to live past the ripe old age of thirty-eight, either succumbing to bullet wounds or a hanging, whichever came first.
Nate had another think coming if he thought she'd let him drag Toby down with him. Her nephew would get a chance to amount to something. Callie would see to it. She would have, even if she hadn't pledged that to her sister.
Some things were just right, and this was one of them.
“Toby, don't get too close to Biscuit until we get these ticks and burrs off her,” Callie said firmly.
“I'll give her a bath after we eat and get her cleaned up real good,” Rand promised. “Until then, mind your mama.”
“Awww, yes, sir.” Toby sat down at the table. Biscuit's nails clicked on the floor as she padded over and rested her muzzle on Toby's leg, looking just as dejected as the boy.
Callie turned back to getting breakfast on the table for her hungry men. But when she realized she'd counted Rand as part of her family, a stillness came over her. She raised her gaze and fell smack into Rand's blue eyes. The seriousness with which he studied her created a warmth that didn't come from the cookstove.
What was this thing between them?
Or was she simply seeing something that wasn't there?
Lord help her if she knew.
Putting away the confusion, she turned to something she understoodâcooking up hot, nourishing food for Toby's and Rand's bellies.
Rand rose, pulled on his coat, and announced he was going out in the raw, overcast day to milk the cow.
By the time he came back in, she had plates of ham, eggs, and biscuits on the table. In short order, she had them fed and agreed that Biscuit could have her bath in the warm kitchen as soon as she finished the dishes.
A damp chill hung in the air despite the fire in the stove.
A chill that went all the way down to her bones.
A strong premonition swept over Callie, terrifying her to the marrow. Evil stalked them like some wild beast, intent on feasting upon their carcasses.
She couldn't stop it, not even if she ran as far and as fast as she could.
Death and disaster would hunt her down.
Nate was coming.
Icy edges of fear gnawing into her veins told her so.