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Steveville, Dakota Territory May 1876
The pounding on the door threatened to bring down the roof. Twenty-year-old Anna Caldwell resisted an urge to call for patience as she raced to answer the summons before the racket woke the baby. Nothing made eighteen-month-old Dorrie crankier than having her afternoon nap cut short. Anna paused long enough to take in a deep breath, lift her head and compose her expression to reveal none of her annoyance. After all, as the preacher's daughter and his housekeeper, she was expected to maintain a high standard of conduct. She pulled open the door and fell back half a step, gasping as her lungs spasmed so tight her chest hurt. "You. What are you doing here?"
Colby Bloxham stood before her, as handsome as ever. No. Even more handsome if that were possible. His dark blond hair fell past his ears, the ends faded by the sun. His blue eyes shone as bright as the sky behind him.
Her eyes stung and her throat burned as she recognized similar features she saw every day in the sweet face of Dorrie—his daughter. He'd left her—abandoned her—to Anna's care. Surely he didn't intend to upset the pleasant arrangement. He wouldn't dare.
He tipped the brim of his hat back with the barest flick of one finger. "Hello."
Anna stiffened her spine. "What do you want?" She kept her voice calm.
Colby's grin widened with confidence that she would welcome him again. His eyes smiled even more beguilingly than his mouth.
She didn't welcome him. She wouldn't. With a coolness she didn't feel, she ran her gaze up and down his length, hoping to convey how unwelcome he was. His grayish-brown trousers and tan shirt were faded in the areas that took more wear but surprisingly clean.
"I've come back."
"Didn't I tell you I never wanted to see you again?" It had been a year since he'd last entered this house, roaring with the effects of the contents of a bottle he still held, frightening Dorrie into hysterical screaming. It was the last straw as far as Anna was concerned. She'd had her fill of his carousing and having to listen to reports of his drunken behavior. She wanted nothing more than to protect Dorrie from such things. And perhaps shelter her own feelings, as well.
She sniffed air surprisingly void of the repulsive smell of alcohol. "I can tell you haven't."
"You can help me."
"I've already tried. Several times." Each time her life had ended up more tattered than the last, her emotions shredded. She would not let history be repeated. "Not again."
The words were bravely spoken but forced with difficulty from her mouth. Her heart felt as if it had been rung hard by a strong washerwoman. She shuddered. Could she prevent him causing trouble over Dorrie? She should have gone to the judge and asked for legal adoption but as an unmarried woman, even with evidence of Colby abandoning his child…Well, she likely didn't have much chance of obtaining the necessary documents and she thought she'd never have to worry.
"You always help me."
She closed her eyes to his pleading tones.
"Anna, don't you give up on me. I've got nothing, no one else if you do." His voice rose with every word.
The commotion woke Dorrie and she cried.
"Is that my baby girl?"
"Colby." The feel of his name on her lips filled her with such sweet sorrow.
She swallowed hard and forced herself to speak his name again. "Colby, go away and leave us alone. I don't want to see you." She managed to slam the door and press her back to it. Her knees buckled. She slipped down the length of wood. Delving into her willpower, she stopped her descent and forced determination to her legs. Was he gone? She heard the thud of her heartbeat against her eardrums but no sound of boots marching away.
Go away, Colby. Leave us alone. Leave us in peace.
Dorrie continued to cry and call, "Mama." Anna had taught Dorrie to call her such, thought there would never be any question that she'd be the one to raise Dorrie, be the only mother the baby ever knew.
She never expected Colby to show his face in Steveville again.
For the space of several breaths, Anna could not move. Only when she heard Colby stomp away did she draw in a full-size breath, sending resolve clear to her toes.
"Mama." What a delightful sound that single word from Dorrie's mouth.
But knowing Colby was back forced Anna to face the truth. She was not Dorrie's mama and could lose the baby at the whim of a man who found courage and comfort from a bottle.
But he wouldn't take the baby without a fight. Anna wasn't much good at dealing with conflict. She'd sooner people just got along. But anyone trying to take Dorrie from her would discover the fury she was capable of.
Colby paused at the bottom of the steps and turned to face the door. "I ain't drunk." He'd made up his mind he wasn't going to be like his old man and drown in his drink. He'd tried that direction and finally got sick of it. Surprised him some, it had taken so long. He got sick of a few other things he'd been and done in the recent months of his life, as well.
He sniffed at his arms. Couldn't smell anything amiss but if Anna did maybe he should have spent more time soaking in the river before he came here.
The baby continued to cry. With a start, he realized she interspersed her cries with words. She could talk. Of course she wouldn't still be a baby. Wonder how big she was now. He couldn't get a picture in his mind of what this child of his would now look like. He had a hard time thinking of her as his child. He'd thrust the infant into Anna's arms shortly after birth and seen little of her since. He had only one memory of Dorrie, two if he counted clutching the newborn and rushing to Anna with her. The one time he recalled through an alcohol-induced haze was of the wide-eyed fear in the baby's face and her piercing screams of terror before Anna managed to shove him out the door ordering him to leave and never return. In hindsight he couldn't say he blamed her, though at the time he'd been plenty angry.
"I'm not going away." His voice echoed in his ears. He intended to be the kind of father to Dorrie he'd always wanted.
And never had.
He refused to believe Anna didn't want to see him. From the day he wandered into Steveville on the tail end of a cattle drive, only sixteen years old and already on his own for two years, he'd found a welcome with Anna that he'd found nowhere else. Not even with his deceased wife. He had married Nora for all the wrong reasons just as she'd married him for equally wrong ones.
He stared at the church to the right of the house, recalling in brilliant detail how he'd passed the building six years ago and seen fourteen-year-old Anna coming from the interior, beautiful as a western songbird and singing just as sweetly. Right then and there he'd decided he might give church a try.
From the beginning, he felt something special for Anna and she, he was certain, for him. She'd understood him, listened to him, encouraged his dreams and hopes just as he'd listened to hers. Mostly their dreams had been of a good solid home with a loving father and mother and several children. Funny how they shared similar dreams coming from such different backgrounds.
He wondered if she had the same hopes and dreams she'd once had. Or had they died along with the welcome he'd expected?
He continued to stare at the church. He kind of thought God would welcome him back, too. But maybe He didn't want to see Colby Bloxham any more than Anna did. Go away. I don't want to see you. The words banged against the inside of his head, filling his thoughts with old familiar feelings of being something from the slop bucket.
He swung up on his horse, his first instinct to ride the animal into a lather, straight down the road and away from all this. But Dorrie's cries continued. His child.
Somehow he would prove to Anna he had changed and could be a father to Dorrie. It was time. 'Course he could try and take Dorrie without her consent. After all, the little girl was his. But he suspected Anna might fight him and no doubt everyone would take her side. Besides, for some reason, it was important to him to win Anna's approval. A large ache carved itself into his heart by the words echoing through his mind. Go away. I don't want to see you.
But he was not going anywhere.
He turned to the left, and rode into the main part of town, glancing about as he passed the houses on each side of the dusty street. Things looked much as they had when he left. Somehow he'd expected them to be different. As if his own decision to be different would have changed everything else in his world.
The houses gave way to businesses—the blacksmith and livery barn set back from the street, the sounds of metal on metal ringing through the air, the smell of horses and hay filling his nostrils. The signs on each store were familiar—Mack's Mercantile, the feed store, the milliner, the lawyer. He stopped at the Lucky Lady Saloon and dismounted. His hands on the swinging doors, he hesitated. He'd had enough of drinking and so much more but he had friends he wanted to see.
He pushed the doors aside and strode in.
He avoided looking at the bright patch where the sun filtered through the dirty window as he gave his eyes three seconds to adjust to the dim light. A familiar figure nursed a bottle at the nearest table and he sauntered over. "Hey, Arty." The old codger had wandered into town a year or so after Colby had arrived. Arty had known both Colby and his old man way back when. Colby always wondered that they'd landed in the same place but guess all Arty had to do was follow any road long enough and he was bound to get somewhere even if only Steve-ville. At first he had resented the old man's presence, reminding him as it did of Pa, but Arty was harmless. He got sloppy drunk not fighting drunk.
"Colby? When did you get back in town? What are you doing with yourself?" Arty jerked toward the bar. "Sol, get us another glass. Colby here is going to share my bottle."
"Don't use that stuff anymore."
Poor old Arty almost jolted off his chair. "You're joshing. A Bloxham that don't drink. Ain't possible."
An old familiar anger at his upbringing seared through Colby like a struck match then died as quickly and harmlessly. "I decided I didn't want to turn out like my old man."
Arty studied the bottle regretfully and yet affectionately. "Wise move, my boy. So watcha been doing?"
He wasn't about to tell anyone the truth about where he'd been and what he'd done since he'd last wandered the streets of Steveville. Hopefully news of his doings hadn't trickled back this far and never would. But Arty waited, clutching his glass with both hands and studying Colby with the unblinking stare of a man whose thought processes had been dulled by drink.
"Arty, I been wandering around a bit."
"Looking for anything in particular?"
Colby laughed. "Yup. Me."
Arty blinked, drained his glass, wiped his mouth and tried to decide whether to laugh or sob.
Colby patted the older man's shoulder. "Never mind. It don't make sense to me, either." He'd glanced around the room when he first entered, noted several men but paid them scant attention. Now he looked around again, hoping to see a familiar face or two. He specially wished to see Hugh, the only man who'd felt like a friend. He used to come over and play cards with Colby and Nora in the evenings and often stayed the night. Hugh had been with him after Nora's death. Colby didn't know how many times Hugh had dragged him from the bar and made sure he got home before he got arrested.