Authors: Linda Broday
All the color drained from Callie's face, leaving it a sickly hue.
“I've frightened you,” he said. “You don't have to worry though; he can't hurt you. He can't hurt anyone. His vile, worm-eaten bones lie under six feet of dirt.”
“I do have to worry. Early wasn't the only evil person.”
Her whispered words drove a chunk of ice into Rand's heart, cutting off the ability to breathe. “What do you mean?”
She wearily brushed her hand over her eyes. “Sometimes discipline turns to abuse. I've said too much.”
No, she hadn't said nearly enough.
Who was this villainous person and why was she so terrified of him? What had he done?
Rand fought with the need to pull her against his chest and wrap his arms around her. He would protect her until blood no longer ran in his veins.
Whoever wanted to harm her would have to go through him.
And he'd go through hell for her.
Callie tossed and turned all night. The feathery kiss Rand had pressed to her lips had somehow seared into her brain. She didn't seem able to get it out.
One would think she'd never been kissed before, never known the scent of a man, never felt a man's hand on hers. Though certainly nothing comparable to Rand, she'd once had all that. But Richard Farrington had left her high and dry, as had Marcus Wolfforth, off to see the world, he'd claimed. She'd once thought she might have a future with one of them. Recently she learned that her stepfather had paid to make both men vanish.
Her thoughts turned to Claire. Her twin had been the wild one, attracted to the wrong kind of man. Claire had yearned for excitement and danger, and Nate Fleming certainly supplied a steady diet of that. By the time Claire saw through the outlaw, it was too late. She was in his clutches. At least she'd done what she could to save Toby.
Forget danger and thrills. Callie would take someone steady like Rand any day. This tall rancher was different from anyone she'd ever met.
And his kiss, little more than a brush of his lips, had ignited a fire inside her. She couldn't imagine what a full-fledged kiss would do, though she longed to find out.
Only she couldn't, wouldn't, let that happen again. She had to keep these dangerous desires from rising to the surface. They were employee and employer. She'd do well to brand that on her memory. He was her boss. She was his cook. Nothing more. Period.
But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't forget the warmth of his lips and the heat of his body that had banished the chill from hers.
There was no getting around the fact that she enjoyed being with Rand. She'd never known anyone who appreciated the smallest things, like hot biscuits and apple pie and putting a smile on Toby's face. She didn't like just one thing about him; it was the hundreds of small things that someone else might not notice.
With a smile on her face, she finally drifted to sleep.
* * *
Around midmorning the following day, Callie heard a knock on the front door. For a minute, she stood frozen. Not once since she'd started living in Rand's house had anyone ever come to the front door.
Rand had left early, saying he probably wouldn't be back until suppertime. He'd taken the wagon, so she assumed he'd gone after the lumber he'd ordered, although he hadn't said as much.
Twisting her hands, she hesitated, torn between running out to get Toby from the tepee and hiding or seeing who the person was.
But Nate wouldn't waste time knocking; he'd simply kick the door in and take whatever he came for. She forced herself to relax. Finally, smoothing her hair, she went to see who it was. A regal, dark-haired woman dressed in finery stood there.
“I'm sorry,” the caller said in a throaty voice. “I'm wondering if I have the right place. Is this where Rand Sinclair lives?”
“This is his ranch, but he's not here at the moment.”
“Oh dear. I'd known it was a long shot, but I really wanted to speak to him. I'm his mother, Abigail Sinclair.”
“Won't you come in, Mrs. Sinclair?”
“Abigail. Please. I haven't been Mrs. Anyone for a very long time. I'll only stay a moment to let my horse rest before I head back to town.”
Callie led Abigail into the parlor and motioned her toward the cowhide settee. Callie took the rocker, letting her gaze rest on the mother who created such conflicting emotions in Rand.
Even though more than a few streaks of gray ran through her dark hair, Abigail Sinclair was stunningly beautiful. Callie put her age somewhere around mid-forties. Her visitor's long, slender fingers removed her leather gloves while her sweeping glance took in the squalor of the peeling wallpaper and warped floor.
“I'm sure you're wondering who I am and why I answered Rand'sâMr. Sinclair'sâdoor. I'm Callie. I cook for him and keep his house.”
Finally, Abigail gave Callie her attention. “I see. I'm sure he'll need a housekeeper when he gets this ranch going. I didn't realize it was in such poor shape. But the furniture is nice, real nice.”
Callie's dander rose. She wanted to show the disapproving woman the door and tell her Rand was doing the best he could. About everything. “He understands he has a lot of work in front of him, Abigail. It'll take time to fix it up. You should see how hard he works. From daylight until dark every day.”
“My dear, you certainly don't need to sell me on my son. He takes after his father. I hate to say that stubbornness is a Sinclair trait. Jack has been gone for twenty-three years now, but I'll never forget that man. Rand was only five when Jack passed.” Abigail ran her fingers over the smooth leather of the settee and sighed. “I can make things so much easier for Rand, if he'd only let me.”
“A man has to have his pride, even if he has little else,” Callie said softly.
“Pride has its limits. It can't repair a roof or put up a fence.” Deep sadness seeped into Abigail's voice. “And it sure can't mend the past.”
Callie opened her mouth to comfort the woman when Toby ran into the house, not stopping until he reached the parlor. “Ma'am, come quick!”
“What is it?” Shards of fear pierced Callie's heart. She jumped to her feet and hurried after Toby.
“A big kitty. The biggest I ever saw.” Tears rolled down his cheeks. “It'll kill Biscuit. Please don't let it.”
She slowly opened the back door. The hackles on Biscuit's neck stood up straight as deep growls rumbled from her throat. She'd faced off against the mountain lion Rand had warned them about, positioning herself between the cat and the door to the kitchen. No one had to tell Callie the dog would give her life protecting Toby.
God, don't let it come to that.
“Get out of here right now,” Callie yelled. “Scat!”
The lion barely spared her a glance. Callie looked around for something to throw. Spying the firewood stacked beside the cookstove, she grabbed the largest piece and threw it at the beast as hard as she could.
The missile fell off to the side, but the lion took off running, with Biscuit giving chase. Toby pushed by her and ran after the dog before she could stop him.
“Toby, stop! Come back here.” Callie's skirt got tangled up in her legs and she nearly fell down the back steps. In her frustration, she came near to ripping the garment off. If Toby were to dieâ¦no, he wouldn't. She wouldn't let him.
Suddenly she was aware of Abigail Sinclair beside her, pressing a small palm pistol into her hand and apologizing. “It's not much more than a peashooter, but it's better than nothing.”
Callie gripped the weapon and charged after Toby. She'd gone only three hundred yards when she saw Toby and Biscuit heading back. Her knees buckled now that the danger had passed. Hugging her nephew, she ushered him into the house along with Biscuit and Abigail Sinclair.
Handing the derringer back to Abigail and thanking her, Callie herded them back into the parlor. Toby gave Callie no argument when she ordered him to stay inside. She should have her head examined for letting him outdoors without anyone to watch him.
That was too close a call.
She stood with her arm around Toby. “Abigail, this myâ¦son, Toby. Son, say hello to Mrs. Sinclair.”
Toby's shy grin broke through his dirt-streaked face. A feather drooped from behind his ear. “Howdy, ma'am.”
“I'm very happy to meet you, Toby,” Abigail said. “You're a very fortunate little boy.”
“I'm Indian,” he announced proudly.
“I see. I suppose that explains the feather and the tepee out back.” Abigail's eyebrows rose as her glance shifted to Callie.
“Toby likes to pretend. And Rand's brother, Brett, bears responsibility for the tepee.” She didn't miss Abigail's frown of disapproval.
“I might've known.” Abigail's eyes darkened.
Callie finally remembered her manners. No reason why she couldn't be civil. “In all the excitement, I completely forgotâ¦would you like a cup of hot tea?”
“As a matter of fact, that would be nice.”
Excusing herself, Callie filled the teakettle and got two cups from a shelf that was nothing but a painted board stuck on the wall. She checked the cups for chips or cracks. When she reached for the tea, she realized that Abigail stood in the doorway. Rand's mother took in the small room.
“I'll have it ready in a moment,” Callie murmured. She was glad she'd cleaned the house that morning, especially the kitchen.
“You don't have a pump inside?” Abigail asked sharply.
“RandâMr. Sinclairâhauls in water.”
“I'll have to speak to my son about that.”
“Really, we get along just fine the way things are.”
The water seemed to take a blessed hour to boil. Abigail moved on, wandering through the house, muttering to herself and shaking her dark head. Finally, with the tea in hand, Callie shepherded the woman back to the parlor, where Toby and Biscuit played in front of the fire.
Abigail took a cautious sip. “This certainly hits the spot. I became quite chilled on the ride out.”
Callie couldn't say the same. She was sweating. For some reason she wanted Abigail to be proud of her son and not so critical about everything, choosing to see only the house's shabby appearance. She yearned to grab Abigail and shake her good, tell her that love was a thousand times more important than the way something looked.
Before she could form a response about the weather, the front door banged when it hit the wall.
Rand glared. “Mother, what are you doing here?”
His hard, brittle voice could've stripped whitewash off ten miles of fencerow.
Callie had leaped to her feet when the door flew open and now stood in indecision between mother and son. “I'll just go about my business. You two need to talk.” She started toward the kitchen and turned. “Shall I fix lunch?”
“No,” Rand said without taking his eyes off his mother. “She won't be staying.”
Minutes later, Callie heard them move outside. Her heart broke for Rand. He'd been through so much and deserved a mother's love.
But was Abigail Sinclair capable of giving that?
* * *
Rand firmly took his manipulative mother's arm and propelled her outside where their voices wouldn't carry. He had things to say that called for privacy.
He hated that she always made him so angry he could spit nails. Frankly, he didn't know how to cope with her. At times she was the loving mother he'd always yearned for. But those periods were short. It was never long before her self-centeredness came out again and she'd make everything about her.
The jealousy she had toward Cooper and Brett irked Rand more than anything. His brothers had been with him through thick and thin. It was a sight more than she'd done. He knew he could count on them. With Abigail, he'd learned she'd first have to determine how it might affect her before she committed.
Abigail pulled away, straightened her wool herringbone jacket, and jerked on her kid-leather gloves. “I'm happy to see you also. You don't have to manhandle me.”
“Why did you come, Mother?”
“Is there any law against seeing where my son is living?” Abigail patted her hair.
“You know there isn't. It's all well and good, I suppose. I was on my way into town to talk to you anyway, but I happened to remember something and turned around. It's time we had a chat.”
“I can't imagine what about.”
“Men delivered my furniture yesterday, and lo and behold, it wasn't what I ordered. I know you switched it out. Don't bother denying it,” he ground out.
“What is so wrong about a mother wanting the best for her son?” Abigail huffed.
“I'm done with your constant interference. Nothing I do is good enough to suit you.” Why couldn't she spend her days telling George Lexington how to run his establishment? She'd started stepping out with the hotel owner six months ago. Rand had thought overseeing the extensive hotel renovations would keep Abigail busy and out of his affairs. He was wrong.
“I simply want to make up for all those years whenâ”
“When you let me rot in an orphanage because your career meant more to you than your son,” he finished. “You can't make up for that. It's too late.”
Though an opera singer by profession, the fledgling actress in Abigail came out. One thing about his mother was that she never did anything in half measures. She flung her outstretched arms toward the heavens as if she were taking a curtain call. “I only had one shot to get what I wanted. If I hadn't done what I had, I would've ended up a nobody, working as some common saloon girl. I left you with a friend who was supposed to look after you. How was I supposed to know Margaret would let your father have you the minute I turned my back? I couldn't very well leave you with him, considering his addiction to gambling. He was always chasing the next big win that would put him in a bracket with all the rich blue bloods he sought to be like. He was gone for days or weeks at a time, forgetting he had a wife and child. My friend Margaret promised to watch after you.”
Rand hauled her hands down and held them so they couldn't fly up again. “We've gone over this until I'm sick of it. Excuses can't undo mistakes. Drop it. I'll run my life the way I see fit. I'm capable of making my own decisions.”
Tears trickled down Abigail's cheeks. “You're living in squalor. I can make things so much easier for you.”
“Here's the thing, Mother.” His voice softened. “I don't want it easy. I want nothing more than to find satisfaction at the end of the day, knowing I did the best I could. Everything doesn't have to be done all at once. I want to be a man, a strong one that won't fold when the going gets rough. The only way I can do these things is if you quit this infernal interfering. It has to stop. Now. Today. If not, then I can't let you be a part of my life.”