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Jenny stood in the shadows of the hallway adjoining her father's office and watched the sunlight behind the desk shine directly into the stranger's eyes. He didn't blink.
Jenny thought maybe he was blind and then quickly discarded the notion. Blind men couldn't be cowboys, and Marcus was hiring extra help for roundup.
Jennifer Ann Tyler was small and delicate, an unlikely heir to Marcus Tyler's vast ranching operation. Thick dark curls and wide, china blue eyes enhanced her doll-like appearance. That deception was her greatest asset. Although she was only eleven years old, she was as tough as the leather on her scuffed cowboy boots.
She was such a fixture on the Triple T Ranch that her father, Marcus Tyler, didn't even acknowledge her presence as she sidled quietly into the office and listened to him hiring the temporary ranch hand.
"That's the way we'll leave it for now, McCall; part-time until roundup is over. After that, we'll see. Understood?"
The young man nodded silently as he continued to stare into the light.
Jenny wondered if he was "touched" in the head. Everyone knew you weren't supposed to look directly into sunlight. When you turned away, it made you see fairies that weren't really there. She continued to stare at the man's profile and waited, watching with interest as her father moved around his desk.
Marcus Tyler was a self-centered, domineering man. Years ago, he'd become a father and buried his wife within the same month. The thing uppermost on his mind at the time had been making the next payment on his bank loan.
With the passing of each year, he'd packed an extra pound onto his once wiry frame. And each year that passed, he'd become more and more of a stranger to his only child. Close-cropped, graying hair and cold, blue eyes only added to his commanding demeanor. Jenny was a feminine reflection of her father's stubbornness and bore the same mutinous expression when crossed.
On the Triple T, Marcus's word was rarely questioned and, when it was, jenny was the only one who ever got away with it. She was also the only one who saw the young man who was applying for the job silently nod his acceptance to the terms of his employment.
"I can't find the payroll sheet you need to sign," Marcus muttered. "Wait here. I'll be right back." He marched out of the room, absently noting Jenny's presence but choosing to ignore it. Unfortunately for Jenny, he did a lot of that.
Jenny took this as her opportunity to check out the new employee. She shoved her hands into the hip pockets of her faded blue jeans and approached the silent young man seated in front of her father's desk, still staring into the light.
"Hi!" she said, as she walked up behind him.
The sound of the child's voice was so close and unexpected, it startled him. He turned, blinking rapidly as he tried to clear his vision.
She chewed the inside of her lip and rocked back and forth on the heels of her boots as she stared at the cuts, discoloration, and subsiding swelling on his face. Her eyes widened perceptibly. It was the only reaction she allowed herself at the sight of him.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"What's yours?" he countered.
"Jennifer Ann Tyler."
"Hello, Jennifer Ann," he said softly, letting his gaze sweep across the doll-like face of the little tomboy. He noted the grass stains on the knees of her jeans, the three-corned tear in the sleeve of her plaid shirt, the wind-blown curls and scuffed boots, and wondered if her mother would have a fit. It would be much later before be discovered she'd never known a mother's love.
Jenny permitted herself a deceptively sweet smile. She raised an eyebrow and rocked a bit more on already rounded boot heels. Finally the young man allowed himself a smile that didn't get past his eyes.
"My name is Chance ... Chance McCall. Am I to assume you rule the roost around here, Jennifer Ann?"
Satisfied with his capitulation, she ignored the last part of his remark and concentrated on the next point in question. Fixing a hard stare on the left side of his face, where fading bruises and healing cuts drew her attention, she asked, "Does it hurt?"
Chance knew what she meant, but his answer was deceptive. The injuries to his face were healing fine. It was what was inside of him that was still sore and festering.
"Yes, it hurts," he said, his voice quiet and low.
"I'll fix it," she announced, and charged from the room. Before he could think, Jenny was back clutching something tightly in a grubby fist.
Chance watched, mesmerized by the lightning quick movements of her tiny fingers as she peeled the sterile coverings from two adhesive bandages decorated with stars and stripes. She stuffed the wrappers in her pocket and carefully peeled back the covering from the first bandaid. Satisfied that she was now ready to proceed, Jenny stepped close to Chance and peered at the cuts and bruises, squinting one eye just a bit to judge the best place to administer her first aid.
Chance sat spellbound, touched beyond words as the little girl gently placed the strips of sticky bandage across his cuts and bruises. The tip of her tongue worked out of the corner of her mouth as she pulled the last bit of cover from the sticky plastic.
"There!" she said, patting her work with a butterflylight touch, "that will help."
"It already has, Jennifer Ann," Chance said, as be swallowed a huge lump in his throat.
Footsteps announced Marcus's return and sent the child scurrying out of the room. Chance blinked and she was gone ...Chance McCall. Copyright © by Sharon Sala. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.