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She saw him coming up Creek Road and for a moment her heart stopped beating. Clutching the pitted garden trowel in one hand, she tucked a wayward strand of hair back under her blue sunbonnet and squinted into the late afternoon sun until her vision blurred.
But it wasn't Dan. She released the breath she'd been holding and studied the man. A worn-looking leather saddle weighed down one shoulder, and a dark hat slanted over his eyes. He walked with a slight hesitation in his gait, as if one knee was stiff. Just another saddle tramp looking for a meal.
Ellen watched for a minute, then bent to the row of leafy vegetables and pulled up an extra half-dozen carrots for supper. She couldn't bear the thought of someone, even a saddle tramp, going hungry.
Drawing in a slow lungful of the hot, earth-scented summer air, she resumed weeding. Probably lost his horse in a poker game. She sniffed at the thought and yanked a clump of chickweed out of the ground. What was it about gambling that men found so irresistible?
Getting something for nothing, Dan had told her once with a cocky grin. Ellen knew better. Most often he started with Something and ended up with Nothing.
Pulling the kitchen knife from her apron pocket, she sliced off a dozen yellow squash and two shiny green peppers. At least her simple meal would be colorful.
She straightened again as the man turned in at her gate. It took him a long time to push open the rickety contraption she had cobbled together out of used nails and crooked sugar pine limbs. It sagged badly, the rusted hinge held in place by a single screw. Another of the thousand and one things she hadn't had time to fix.
Ellen stepped out of the vegetable patch toward him.
"Yes? I am Mrs. O'Brian."
Jess dropped the saddle where he stood. "My name's Jason Flint, ma'am." From beneath the brim of his hat he studied her face for a flicker of recognition. Nothing. Under her own floppy gingham bonnet, the woman's blue eyes drilled into him like two steel bolts.
"Most folks call me Jess." Again he waited for a reaction, but her sun-reddened features betrayed not a hint of feeling. Damn and then some. How lucky could he get?
She stuck out a dirt-stained hand. "Mr. Flint." She had a strong handshake for a small woman, but quicker than he could wink she tucked her hand back into her apron pocket.
"Guess you'd like to know what I'm doing out here on your farm?"
Those blue eyes widened slightly, but she kept her face impassive. She'd make a good poker player, Jess thought. Or maybe she was just a careful farm wife who'd seen a good number of strays in her time.
"Truth is..." he began.
"You're hungry," she stated.
Her hands went to her hips. "And broke."
Jess hesitated. "Well..." He'd sold his horse and most of his possessions three days ago so he could eat. Hell yes, he was broke.
"Out-of-work-down-on-your-luck-and-lost-your-horse," she said. It wasn't a question. She ran the words together as if she was reciting a poem.
"Yes, ma'am." He expected her to frown or purse her lips and tsk-tsk at him, but she did neither. Instead, she gave him a long look and headed for the back porch of the farmhouse.
Jess let his gaze follow her, hoping she'd say something with the word supper in it. He noted the peeling white paint on the house and the lopsided angle of the screen door. A hole as big as his fist gaped in the mesh. He'd bet she had a kitchen full of fat black flies.
The back door wheezed open and slapped shut and her voice floated to him through the screen. "Supper's in half an hour. Wash up at the pump."
Jess swiped off his hat, bent over the pump and splashed cool water on his face, then smoothed a handful of water through his hair. Glancing at the back door to make sure she wasn't watching, he stripped off his shirt and rubbed water over his chest and neck.
Using his shirt, he dried off and shrugged the damp linen back on. The wrinkled garment smelled sweaty as a lathered horse, but at the moment it was the only shirt he owned.
With time to spare before supper, Jess carted his saddle out to the barn, then made a slow circuit of the farmhouse. The weathered paint on the north side looked more gray than white, but crisp white curtains hung at the parlor windows. A single wicker rocking chair sat on the wide front porch.
When he reached the back of the house, the screen door scraped open and he heard her voice again. "Suppertime!" Jess clomped up the back steps, hoping she wouldn't hear his stomach growling.
The first thing he smelled was fresh coffee. The second was hot biscuits, and beyond that he didn't care. This was as close to heaven as he was going to get for a while.
She'd set two places at the battered kitchen table. Painted a fiery red, the finish looked speckled where the original green showed through. Years of hard use had dulled the finish on the white china plates; the only piece that wasn't cracked was the cream pitcher.
She gestured for him to sit, then turned to the stove and scooped fluffy-looking biscuits into a basket. Jess used the opportunity to take a closer look at her.
Not bad. Maybe twenty-five or -six. Trim waist, nicely rounded backside. Suntanned arms, and long, long legs, judging from the length of her blue work skirt. A ribbon tied at the back of her neck kept a tumble of brown curls in check.
Her shirt — a man's work shirt, he noticed — looked mighty incongruous under the ruffled apron.
She turned toward him. "Coffee?"
Her gaze narrowed. "Straight' applies to whiskey."
"I meant no cream," he said.
When she spun back to the stove, he glanced at her shoes. Work boots. He should have guessed. She farmed the place by herself. That would explain the dilapidated state of the barn and the henhouse, the peeling paint, the worn planks in the kitchen floor.
She sure didn't talk much. He wondered how long she'd been without a man.
She dished up a platter of sweet corn and a bowl of carrots and squash with something green mixed in. No meat, but he wasn't complaining. She untied her apron, hung it on a nail by the back door and set the basket of biscuits on the table.
Jess waited. After an awkward pause, she passed him the platter of corn. "What are you waiting for? I thought you'd be hungry."
"I am hungry. Just wanted to see if you were the type that said grace."
"Grace!" She snapped out the word like a pistol shot.
"The good Lord had little enough to do with putting food on this table."
Jess said nothing. Guess he'd hit a nerve.
Her shoulders relaxed. "I apologize, Mr. Flint. Sometimes it seems like the Lord doesn't even notice how hard I'm working down here."
"You run this place on your own?" He knew the answer, but he wanted to ask anyway.
"Yes." With jerky movements she split open a biscuit and dunked half into the soggy vegetables on her plate.
"Two years and eight months." The sharp edge in her tone said it all. He wondered how she felt about that two years. How much she knew.
Ellen watched him down a gulp of water from the glass at his elbow, and laid her fork beside the plate. "I don't know. He went off to town one day and never came back."
"Yes. No use varnishing the truth."
Her guest looked up. "Mind telling me his name?"
"Daniel. Daniel Reardon O'Brian."
An odd expression crossed the man's sun-darkened face. "Irish, I'd guess," he said in a quiet voice.
She nodded. "The worst part is..." She didn't let herself finish the thought.
Mr. Flint slathered butter onto an ear of pale gold corn. "Got a hired man to help out?"
She leveled a long look at him. "I had one until four months ago. He came back from town smelling of spirits and tried to — No, I don't have a hired man." She leaned forward and skewered him with those eyes again. "And no, I do not want one."
He bit into the corn and chewed in silence. "It's only a small farm," she explained. "I can keep up the housework and the garden. Planting corn and potatoes and alfalfa keeps me pretty busy. And of course there's the stock."
"My milk cow, Florence. And the chickens. And one horse."
His eyes flicked to hers and immediately dropped to the biscuit on his plate. "What kind of horse?"
Ellen sniffed. "He's not worth stealing, Mr. Flint. He's a plow horse."
"Wasn't thinking of stealing it, ma'am. I was thinking of riding it."
"Where on earth to?"
"Town. And back."
Ellen regarded him with as much calm as she could muster. He had longish black hair and skin so sundarkened he could be Indian. After a good minute she trusted herself to speak in a civil tone. "For a poker game? For loose women and liquor? For — ?"
"For supplies." He growled the words without looking at her.
"Whose supplies?" she snapped. Why were her nerves on edge around this man? She'd fed plenty of wandering cowboys; not one of them had ever riled her like this.
"Yours. How do you tote things from town?"
"I walk.And once a week Mr. Svensen drives a wagon out from the mercantile to collect my butter and eggs. He brings the flour and molasses and other heavy items."
"You don't have a wagon?"
"No, I don't have a wagon. Dan took it." Ellen pressed her mouth into an unsmiling line. He'd taken a few other things as well. Her faith in the silky-voiced Irishman with the dancing eyes. Her trust. Her hope for a child.
Again that puzzling expression came over Mr. Flint's face. Part disbelief, part...anger? She guessed he didn't believe her.
"Surely you don't think I would lie about such a thing?"
Jess wished she had, though. He didn't want to think about the fix husband Dan had left her in. He needed to think about how he was going to do what he'd come here for.
They ate their supper in silence except for the faint burble of coffee on the stove. All at once she seemed to hear it, and flew across the room to shove the blue spec-kleware pot to one side. "I've overboiled it again! It must taste pretty awful."
"I've had worse. I've made worse myself."
Ellen sighed. "I guess overboiled coffee isn't that important. Farm life has a way of paring things down to essentials. Survival is what's important."
"Yes, ma'am. It surely is. Makes a person wonder just how far they'll go with survival in mind."
He gave her a long look. His eyes were a dark, dark blue, almost black, and the way he scrutinized her started uneasy flutters in her stomach. This man didn't miss much. Did he see how weary she was? How her back ached and her heart was shriveling up? She knew being a good wife meant sticking it out, for better or worse, but oh, how she smarted under the load.