Authors: Linda Broday
Maybe, just maybe, the fear would be gone soon.
And then he intended to kiss the daylights out of her.
Of course he'd go slow. He closed his eyes and watched it play out in his head.
He'd start by kissing each eyelid, then move to her shell-like ears and trail kisses down her long slender throat.
Tiny nibbles at the corners of her mouth.
Trace the seam with his tongue.
Breathe her fragrance.
Whisper tender words.
Only then would he press his lips fully against hers and take all that she wanted to give.
It took a minute to sink in that someone was trying to get his attention. “What?”
“Where did you go?” Brett asked. “I need you to help me get these sewn buffalo hides around this tripod and cone I've made. Of course, if you'd rather take a napâ”
“Just show me what to do,” Rand snapped.
As they worked, Rand's gaze kept straying to Callie's soft, round curves. The woman was going to be the death of him yet.
Even so, he was realizing he'd die a happy man if he could only get a taste of her lips.
Callie paused in the supper preparations to gaze through the kitchen window. This was the part of day her grandfather used to call half-light or in the gloaming.
Strange disquiet grated along her nerve endings. Like the sky, her life was in the gloaming and had been since that fateful night she lost her reason for living, stuck between moving forward and the dark shadows of pain and fear strangling her.
Last year, she'd attended a reading of “In the Gloaming” by Meta Orred, a well-known Scottish poet, and two short lines came to her now:
/ With a gentle unknown woe
The words had brought foreboding then as they did again now. Even through the thick windowpane, she could hear the breeze brushing the naked limbs of the trees, wailing, warning, wishing.
Lost in her thoughts, she was startled when Brett entered with his hat in his hands. He'd left Rand and Toby outside. This was the first time she'd been alone with Rand's brother, and she didn't quite know what to say.
She stuck with a safe subject. “Will you take supper with us, Brett?”
“I'm sorry, Miss Callie, but I need to start heading back, since I walked over. Have chores to do. Didn't mean to be here this long. I just wanted to thank you for your hospitality.”
“You should be thanking Rand, not me. I only work here.”
“All the same, even a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor who lives in a tepee knows who rules the roost. Rand is a lucky man.”
“I wouldn't know.”
“I would.” Brett stood with his feet braced apart. He seemed a little uncomfortable. “I want you to understand that I never meant to push the tepee on you. I'm sure you could've wrung my neck.”
“True, I wasn't thrilled. But I can see how much it means to Toby. He can use more reasons to smile and laugh and be a boy. Thank you for giving him that.”
“Ma'am, I hope you don't take this the wrong way. I know you're running from something, something that terrifies you.”
When she opened her mouth to speak, he held up his hand. “No, please let me finish. I recognize the signs. Just know that you can tell me anything, and it'll stay between us if that's the way you want it. You can trust me. I'll also never let anything or anyone hurt you or Toby. That is my solemn promise.”
Sudden tears sprang into Callie's eyes and her bottom lip quivered. “You don't know how much I thank you,” she whispered.
The big Indian covered the few steps between them and engulfed her in a stiff hug, the kind between new friends. Then he nodded and left as quietly as he'd entered. She knew he'd meant every word. Brett Liberty would fight for her if she gave the signal.
Though Rand hadn't voiced it, she knew he would also. She'd seen quiet commitment in his eyes and in the little things he did. No one had cared about her welfare in such a long time.
She regretted that he'd caught her at the grave. How much had he overheard? If she stayed, she'd have to tell him about Nate and the fact that she once lived here. Very possibly she'd have to face his anger for not trusting him enough.
Also, if she stayed, she would only bring trouble to Rand's door. Nate would surely kill him when he came. She wouldn't let that happen. The price for his generosity and kindness would not be death.
But if she left, which seemed more likely each day that passed, where would she go? Who would take them in? Would anyone?
She cursed Edmund Powers, who'd turned her out and left her without funds.
Unshed tears blurred her vision. Having to leave this quiet sanctuary would kill her. Having to leave the man whose laughing blue eyes buckled her knees would rip her heart to shreds.
How had she come to care so deeply for him?
* * *
Over the next few days, Callie devoted her time to searching for her mother's box. When the weather permitted, Toby spent nearly every second that she allowed him out in his tepee with Biscuit. That boy loved both the tepee and the retriever dearly.
She and Rand had come up with a list of simple chores for Toby before he could play. Gathering the eggs, sweeping the porch, feeding and watering his dog, and hauling in one bucket of water a day provided valuable structure for him. On a ranch, everyone had to contribute to the running of it. She and Claire had had chores. Sure, they'd griped and complained, but having tasks to do had shaped them into the women they became.
She had moved upstairs to begin searching the upper rooms when she saw two heavily laden wagons pulling up to the house. Immediately, her muscles clenched in alarm. Rand came from the barn to meet them.
Only when she saw his wide grin did she relax. He evidently knew these men. She hurried downstairs.
Rand opened the door as she came into the kitchen. “The furniture is here. I would count it as a favor if you would help supervise the placement. Women seem to have a gift about these things.”
“I'd be happy to. But surely you have an idea where you want some of it.”
“Nope. Wherever you decide will suit me fine.”
Callie quickly glanced out the door for Toby, making sure he wasn't in the way, then busied herself. Pretending she was lady of the manor, she told the men where to put the sofa, settee, and sideboard. A tall chest with a mirror, a wardrobe, an oak washstand, and one of the largest beds she'd ever seen went upstairs into the room that would be Rand's.
Rand carried in a rocking chair. “I don't know where this came from, as well as some of the other pieces. I certainly didn't order this rocker or sideboard, but Homer flat refuses to lug them back into town. I guess this chair belongs to you now, Callie.”
It was odd how he kept forgetting she didn't plan on being there long. Or maybe he deliberately refused to think of her as temporary. It seemed to be some sort of crazy dance they silently did.
He couldn't remember.
She couldn't let herself forget.
* * *
Rand stared at Callie during supper that evening. She was a mystery. For someone who kept herself and her feelings sternly in check, why had she let his brother Brett hug her? He'd watched the brief display of affection and wondered at Brett's ability to break through her granite resolve. Rand certainly hadn't gotten anywhere, and he wished he knew his brother's secret. Frankly, it stuck in his craw.
Maybe the fact that they were both quiet people had something to do with it. He intended to find out next time he saw Brett.
They finished eating and Rand helped Callie with the dishes. “Sit with me in the parlor, Callie. Try out your new rocking chair.”
“I suppose I can do that.”
A short time later, Rand added more wood to the fire and sat down on the cowhide sofa. He ran his hand across the buttery soft leather. This didn't fit in with the peeling wallpaper and rough planks on the floor. Nowhere in his memory could he recall buying anything this fine. It and the matching settee were beyond his means.
An uneasiness drifted over him.
Of course. His mother.
Abigail had interfered again. He'd bet his last dollar.
Tomorrow, he meant to straighten her out. But tonight he was going to enjoy his makeshift family. Rand closed his eyes and let contentment wash over him in waves. He'd never had a real home before, and though it was a bit strange, it was definitely nice.
Toby and Biscuit sprawled on the floor in front of the fire that crackled and popped. Both appeared to be tuckered out.
Callie's rocker creaked softly with each back-and-forth movement. “Rand, please feel free to rearrange the furniture if I didn't put it where you wanted.”
“I'm one hundred percent satisfied. You did a great job. Like I said, women seem to have a knack for this.”
“Since you have a bed now, you'll probably want to sleep upstairs.”
Was that a hint she preferred him up there? Maybe she'd feel safer. “I reckon so.”
“Good. I'm sure the bed will be far more comfortable than the hard floor. And warmer also. I took the liberty of spreading your quilts on it.”
“Thank you. I intended to put the tall chest and mirror in your room. You need it far more. I'll move it.”
The stubborn tilt of her chin appeared. “You will not. I manage just fine.”
“You're a stubborn woman, Callie.” But, oh, such a pretty one. Those eyes the color of warm whiskey could do things to a man. Right now, they were heating his blood and making his heart pound like hundreds of stampeding horses.
“I daresay you're equally bent on getting your way.”
“You never let me have the last word, do you?” he growled.
Her mouth spread in a smile. “Not if I can help it.”
Rand leaned forward, propping his elbows on his thighs. “Callie, are you happy here?”
“Yes. It's nice. How about you? Do you miss the lively atmosphere of the saloon? The most excitement you have here is watching the logs turn to ash in the fireplace.”
“I wouldn't trade this for anything. I have no regrets. I found everything I ever wanted.” He hoped she couldn't read between the lines or else he'd scare her into leaving. That would devastate him.
He couldn't imagine how lonely it would be without her.
On some gut level, he realized Callie could be the woman for him if, or when, he ever got over his fear. His mind knew it and his heart for damn sure knew it. But he couldn't get past his vow to keep his heart walled off against the pain. He couldn't risk it.
One day his worst nightmare would happen. He didn't delude himself. She would leave.
The thought that kept plunging icy, paralyzing fear into him was the thought of waking up one morning and finding that Callie had taken Toby and vanished.
If that happened, he knew the loneliness would descend like a flock of vultures.
“Rand,” Callie said softly. “Toby's fallen asleep.”
“I'll carry him to bed.” He rose and lifted the sleeping boy. Biscuit looked up and chuffed, then went back to sleep.
Callie went ahead and turned down the bed. Rand laid him down and pulled the covers over him, then Callie leaned to kiss Toby's forehead. They both stood in the doorway watching the youngster sleep.
Her scent wrapped around Rand like a warm blanket.
“Between that tepee and Biscuit, Toby is in pure heaven,” she murmured. “Thank you.”
Emboldened, Rand slipped his arm around her waist. Having her so near, touching her, was pure torture. He took the fact that she didn't slap him senseless as a sign she didn't object.
When she glanced up into his eyes, he brushed a light kiss across the warm lips that drove him wild with desire.
She melted against him as he drew her closer. For a brief moment, she rested her head on his chest. Rand kissed the top of her silky head, breathing in her fragrance. He'd found out what heaven was like.
But Callie quickly stepped back as though remembering where she was. “We can't do this, Rand. I can't.”
“Sorry. Got carried away.” He raked his fingers through his hair, calling himself every name he could think of. His impatience had ruined his chances.
She moved into the kitchen and pulled out a chair. “I made it clear this arrangement is only temporary.”
Finding a cup, Rand poured the last of the coffee and sat down. “I hoped you'd reconsider.”
“I'm still going to leave. I can't stay.”
“Promise me one thing.”
“If I can.”
“All I ask is that you won't slip out without saying good-bye.” He struggled to keep the thickness that was strangling him out of his voice. “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?”
“I may not have timeâ”
“Let me help you. I can fix whatever the problem is.”
“No one can fix it,” she said sharply. “No one.”
“If you'll just tell me, we can work it out together. Cooper is the law in Battle Creek, and Brett is an excellent tracker. Let us help.” He knew he was begging, but it didn't matter.
Nothing mattered except making sure he kept this complicated, maddening woman in his life. Dear God, he had to unlock her secret before it was too late, before she walked out.
Callie made him feel he deserved to be loved, that he wasn't a failure, that he could measure up to the man he wanted to be likeâIsaac Daffern, his mentor and friend.
“I know what it's like to run.” Rand covered Callie's hand with his. “When I was eleven years old, the orphanage put some of us on an orphan train bound for Nebraska. Cooper and Brett were on it too. Right outside a little town in Illinois, we jumped off the train. Keeping one step ahead of the people who were searching for us, we walked for weeks to Hannibal, Missouri. There we got jobs in a bathhouse.”
Rand paused, remembering the events. “A man, Tolbert Early, attacked Brett, who was only eight, for taking his watch. Which he didn't, of course. Cooper shot Early and we ran for our lives. That sheriff was out for blood. We were lucky to have escaped his clutches. Sometimes in the dead of night, I still recall the fear and terror. Until Early showed up back in the spring, Cooper swore he'd killed him. A rancher by the name of Isaac Daffern saved us back then. Took us in and gave us a home. He taught us how to be men and how it felt to have a father. We worshipped Isaac.”
“What happened to Isaac?”
“He got sick. Doctors called it influenza. When he died, he left each of us four hundred dollars in his will. Cooper and Brett bought their ranches. I bought the saloon.”
“And Tolbert Early, the man who attacked Brett?”
“Brett killed him after he kidnapped Delta Dandridge.”
“Yes, only they weren't married at the time. We were lucky to have saved her. If ever evil saturated every nook and cranny of a person's heart, it did Tolbert Early's.”