Authors: Linda Broday
She sniffled, then wailed, “I'm trying. It's not easy for me, either.”
Rand reached inside his lined wool jacket, took out a handkerchief from his pocket, and handed it to her. “We're from two separate worlds, you and I. You're used to the finest of everything. I'm used to making do with whatever I can get. I'm happy with what I have. That's not to say that I don't want better. I do. I'm just content to get it a little at a time.”
“Will you please keep the furniture? It's all I ask. I promise to curb my impulsiveness. I swear I will.”
He glanced at the house. The cowhide furniture was really quite something. And that big four-poster bed was much better than the simple brass one he'd chosen that would have had his feet dangling off the end.
“Can't you consider the furnishings a housewarming gift?” she pleaded.
Rand thought of all the reasons why he should tell her to take them back. In the end, he couldn't. He saw how much it meant to her. “I suppose, but no more. I mean it. Do you understand? Hands off my life. Agreed?”
He helped her into her buggy. “I'll ride along with you into town. Just let me thank Callie for making your tea and tell her I'm leaving. I'll be right back.”
The quiet house seemed empty, and for a minute panic swept over him. Had his mother run Callie off? He had no idea what Abigail had said to her. His mother was capable of anything. Her claws might've come out along with her jealousy, which seemed to happen pretty often toward the people in Rand's life.
Then he heard the soft rattle of pans and relaxed.
Smiling, he headed for Callie's domain. “I'm off again. I want to make sure Mother gets back to Battle Creek safely. I'll bring back some knitting needles and yarn. You look like a knitter.”
“Thank you. I'd love it.” Callie's eyes met his. “Why did you come back so early?”
“Had a feeling something was up. Glad I did. Besides, I forgot to see if you needed something from the mercantile.”
“Some potatoes and carrots if they have some. I think I used the last yesterday.”
Rand twirled his hat between his hands. “I apologize for my mother. Please don't let her upset you. Sometimes she says things without realizing how it sounds.”
“The only thing that bothers me is how she affects you. I wish she could be what you need. But there is something more. You should know we had an encounter with the mountain lion a little bit ago. Biscuit chased it, and Toby, fearing for the dog's safety, ran after them. Your mother gave me a derringer. Though I didn't have to use the weapon, I was grateful to her.”
Alarm tightened in his chest. “Don't let Toby outside. And when Biscuit needs to do her business, tie a rope to her neck. It's time I took care of this cat.”
“Until you do, I'll fear for Toby every time he steps outside.”
Rand wished he could draw her into his arms and whisper comforting words. But she'd made it clear she didn't welcome his touch.
Nonetheless, he brushed her cheek with his fingers.
The contact seared him.
Dear God, in his dreams he already had her in his bed. How could he bear living in the same house, breathing the same air, and be unable to offer the slightest affection?
He'd die from sheer torture.
For the next three days, Callie sat waiting patiently for Rand to come home. She needed to know he was all right.
After his mother's visit, he'd gathered Cooper and Brett and they'd gone to hunt down the mountain lion. Said he wouldn't return until he killed the dangerous beast.
She took advantage of his absence to dive into her search. There wasn't a place she hadn't looked. Maybe someone else had found the chest her mother hid. She could come to no other conclusion. Panic rose up. She desperately needed whatever was inside.
up, open the box.
Her mother's words echoed in her head.
The chest was simply gone. Lost.
Finally, on the fourth morning, Rand rode up to the house and dismounted.
Callie breathed a sigh of relief and ran out. “You're back.”
He slid his Winchester from the scabbard and gave her a tired grin. “Got any corn bread, woman?”
“Not until supper.”
“How about coffee, then?”
“I can make some real fast.”
Rand came inside, hung his coat and hat beside the door on a nail, and sat down at the table. “You're a sight for sore eyes.”
Heat rose to her face. She could say the same about him. But she wouldn't.
They were cook and employer. Nothing more. She'd started repeating this to herself several times a day. And often in the dead of night when the house got quiet and still and thoughts of him kept her awake.
Callie got the coffee on and sat down across from him. She watched him wearily rub his eyes. “Did you kill the lion?”
“Late last night. Thought he'd outwitted us.”
“I'm glad it's over.”
“That makes two of us. We won't have to worry about him getting Toby or Biscuit anymore.”
As though hearing his name, Toby ran into the kitchen and threw his arms around Rand's neck. “Mr. Rand, you're back.”
“So my head tells me, but my body still feels like it's in the saddle.”
Biscuit whined and jumped up on Rand's leg, wanting her share of attention. He ruffled the dog's ears with affection.
By the time the coffee finished boiling, Rand had given a blow-by-blow account. The hunters had experienced too many dangerous scrapes. The scariest had been when the lion leaped from a tree onto Brett, and Rand and Cooper couldn't shoot for fear of hitting their brother.
“Is Mr. Brett okay?” Toby asked with wide eyes.
“Clawed him up pretty good, but he's fine.”
“I'm glad it didn't kilt him. Or you, Mr. Rand.”
“Me too, boy. Me too.” Rand tousled Toby's dark hair.
Callie looked up and fell into his blue eyes. He flashed her a crooked little grin that made her stomach pitch and twist as though it were a wild bronco determined not to be ridden.
Faster than a fire sweeping across a prairie, her mind leaped to the brush of his lips across hers the night before he left. To cover the uncomfortable tightness in her chest, she asked him if he was hungry.
“What I want is a bed,” he murmured low.
Dear heavens. Why would he talk about anything like that in front of a youngster? Maybe he was too tired to know how it sounded. But he was sure staring at her like he knew.
“A nap would do you good,” she said briskly. “I can take care of your roan and put him in the barn. Toby will be thrilled he can go outdoors now. I'll keep him outside for a bit. The house will be quiet.”
“I appreciate your offer, but I'll wait until bedtime, if it's all the same. Need to feed and water old Blue, and he can stand currying. I'll get to it.” He rose and went to take his roan to the barn. Toby tagged along after him, talking a mile a minute.
The boy dearly loved Rand. It showed in the way Toby tried to adopt Rand's walk and the rancher's way of talking.
With them out of the kitchen, Callie turned her attention to her job. In a quandary about supper, Callie inventoried the options and settled on chicken and dumplings. That is, if Rand would take care of the chicken part. She tapped her bottom lip with a finger. They only had eight layers and one cantankerous rooster that refused to stay in the coop. They couldn't kill one of those.
She needed to discuss the situation with Rand. Maybe he felt up to hunting. She'd seen some grouse and turkeys in the woods. If Rand was too tired to shoot one, it would be potato soup and corn bread.
When she stepped into the barn, she heard Toby say, “I'm real sad. My mama lives in heaven now. Aunt Callie said Mama's lookin' over me though. She ain't gonna let anything happen to me.”
“I'm sorry, Toby,” Rand said in a gentle tone. “It hurts when you don't have your mama's arms around you anymore. I used to want that more than anything.”
“Did you ever cry? I do sometimes. 'Course, I cain't let Aunt Callie see me. Makes her real sad on account of my mama bein' her sister.”
“It's all right to cry, boy. And, yes, I still do. Doesn't make you less of a man. No matter what anyone says.”
Callie stood out of sight in the shadows, waiting to hear more. She didn't have to wait long.
“What happened to your daddy?” Rand asked.
She sucked in her breath. That low-down, promise-breaking traitor! Callie charged toward the stall.
But not before she could keep Toby from saying, “My papa might be in the hoosegow, whatever that means, on account of he robs banks an' stuff. Sometimes he kills people. He's real mean.”
“Tobias Matthew!” Callie yelled. “I told you not to go spilling secrets. You disobeyed me. I oughtaâ¦”
She came face-to-face with Rand. This made it official. One hundred percent of the men she knew had betrayed her. She should've listened to her gut. It was always right. But, darn it, she'd so wanted him to be different. She'd desperately needed to be able to trust again.
“Hold it, Callie,” Rand said, standing in the stall door. He put up his hand. “I won't let you in here.”
“I won't let you talk to him until you simmer down. The youngster deserves understanding, not anger.”
“You're telling me how to raise him?” Callie snorted. “You promise-breaking tinhorn.”
Rand inhaled and drew himself up as though she'd struck him. Pain darkened his blue eyes. “I have not broken my word.”
“What do you call it, then? You agreed to not ask questions.”
“You never said I couldn't ask Toby,” he said stiffly. “Only you.”
Toby peered from around Rand's big body. His pinched white face and the tears trickling down his cheeks broke her heart. What had she done? She was no better than Nate Fleming. The anger left as fast as it had risen. She sagged when her knees buckled.
Gentle hands held her steady. “It's going to be all right. I promise. I'm here and I'm going to help you. We'll get through this together. You can count on me. Please trust me.”
Callie leaned against Rand's broad chest as his soothing hand ran up and down her back. It felt so good to be held. Maybe she should trust him. After all, he was right. She hadn't made him promise anything in regard to Toby.
After several minutes, she stood back. Kneeling, she reached for Toby, brushing away his tears. “I'm sorry for yelling. Sometimes grown-ups mess up real bad. Can you give me another chance? I promise to do better.”
Toby threw his arms around her neck and kissed her cheek. “You ain't mad at me?”
“Nope. Not even a tiny bit. I was wrong to order you not to talk about your mother and father.” She kissed Toby's forehead. She loved this little guy more than she'd thought possible.
“I love you, Aunt Callie.”
“I love you too, sweetheart.”
Biscuit whined and put his paw on her knee.
“Do you love Biscuit?” Toby asked.
“I sure do.”
“She wants a kiss too.”
Callie glanced up at Rand, who'd propped himself against the bars of the stall. His raised eyebrow challenged her. “All right, Toby, I can do that.” She leaned to kiss Biscuit's snout.
“I'll bet Mr. Rand wants one too,” Toby persisted. “You hollered at him just as much as me.”
For the love of Pete. Heat rose to her face. This had turned into a big, complicated mess. But she deserved it for throwing such a temper tantrum. She'd known the ball of yarn was unravelingâshe just hadn't known how fast.
She got slowly to her feet. “I'm sure Mr. Rand will be satisfied with a handshake. That's what grown-ups do.”
“Nope.” Toby shook his head. “A kiss.”
Rand's grin stretched from ear to ear. “You heard the boss, Callie.”
“Oh for heaven's sake.” She couldn't have moved if her life depended on it. That didn't matter though. Rand certainly seemed quite limber on his feet. And very eager, to boot. “I really need to see about supper.”
“It can wait,” Rand persisted softly. “You brought this on yourself. If you back out now, you'll lose credibility with Toby. Do you want that?”
Callie's mouth dried. “No,” she whispered.
One step and he stood nose to nose with her.
Good heavens. She struggled to draw air into her lungs. A niggling suspicion told her this would not be a mere brush of the lips this time. She realized a part of her would be incomplete if that was all she got.
Rand reached out. With agonizing slowness, he took her face between his big hands then crushed his lips hungrily to hers. Sizzling spirals of heat rose and spread through her body, leaving a scorched path. She couldn't breathe and she didn't care. The yearning inside overpowered everything.
The knowledge that she needed Rand more than food or air or refuge swept over her.
Immediately, her stomach did that twirl-and-dip thing that had her clutching the front of his shirt to keep from falling.
Dear God, she'd never felt so alive, so wanted, so desired.
Her pulse raced as the loud throbbing in her ears drowned out everything, including the voice of reason.
She forgot where they were and the fact that Toby looked on.
She forgot the danger.
She forgot everything in the strong need for this man that rolled over her like a midnight tide crashing to the shore.
Her hand slid around his neck and into his silky brown hair. She couldn't deny this attraction between them. The power of it shook her to the depths of her being.
Biscuit's bark and Toby's clapping brought her back to reality, and she quickly pulled away. She had to get a grip on herself.
, she sternly reminded herself.
Callie's face flamed. She whirled and sought the refuge of her kitchen, safe for the moment from temptation.
* * *
Rand watched her go, wishing for one moment longer with Callie in his arms. But he understood. It wasn't right to show such affection in front of a child.
He owed Toby a debt of thanks, for if the boy hadn't insisted, Callie's lips would never have met Rand's again.
Some day he meant it to be behind a bedroom door. He'd carry her to his bed and take his time. Little by little, he'd unleash the simmering passion that burned beneath her cool exterior. She would know what it was like to be cared for.
But did he have enough time before she left? With what Toby had spilled, Rand knew the odds were stacked against him.
Slowly, the pieces were falling into place. He'd learned they were running from an evil man. After the boy told him his father robbed banks and trains and could possibly be in the hoosegow, Rand now knew beyond a doubt the father was an outlaw.
Though Rand still had no name, chances were pretty good that Toby looked like his father. The next time he went into town, he'd ask Cooper to look at all the wanted posters for a black-haired male. Rand just might figure out this puzzle without asking Callie a single question.
He sure hoped so. If he didn't learn fast, he could lose them, either to a bullet, or they'd disappear deeper into the shadows where he couldn't find them again.
Wishing he could convince Callie that staying put on the Last Hope Ranch was the safest thing, he finished the roan's currying. He left Blue on his bed of fresh hay to rest in the stall, and he hurriedly put everything away.
The longing to be with her had been an ache in his gut for days. He couldn't wait to sit across the table from her.
About that time, Callie called them in to supper. He collected Toby and washed up.
The meal of potato soup and corn bread hit the spot. Rand ate three bowlfuls. He didn't think much when Callie disappeared into the kitchen. When she returned with bowls of hot peach cobbler, he thought he'd died and gone to heaven. As he dove into the delectable goodness, he thought it was the best pie he'd ever eaten.
Afterward, Toby wandered off with Biscuit. Rand sat at the table sipping on a cup of coffee, watching Callie set the kitchen to rights for the next day. He took out his ring of keys from a pocket and idly examined each one.
Keys gave him power. At the orphanage, one caretaker had locked him in a dark cellar with the spiders and creepy-crawlies and left him overnight to punish him. He determined then and there he'd never be without a key again. Over the years he'd collected two dozen. He figured if one didn't fit a lock, another one might.
If only he could unlock this complicated woman with one of his keys. Were it only that simple. If so, he'd have one made to fit the special lock she'd placed around her heart.
He had all kinds of keys, square ones, plain round ones, one with a fancy scroll, one with a rectangular top, but not one would fit the secrets she'd locked away.
“You seem lost in thought.” Callie folded her flour-sack dish towel and sat down at the table. “Anything I can help you with?”