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Bliss, Texas Spring, 1888
The wrong man showed up to collect Hannah Parrish at the train station. And he was late. Matt Walker.
Hannah bit back a groan. Of all the people in Bliss, why him? Matt never saw her as grown-up and capable. Instead he still treated her like a child, like the young girl he'd teased.
The man was too sure of himself. Tall, broad-shouldered, long legs encased in denim, his suntanned face hidden by the wide brim of a black Stetson, Matt's every inch oozed cowboy. And every one of those inches oozed irksome.
He came to a halt in front of her, boots planted in a wide stance as if buffeted by the winds that blew across the open range. With a smile, Matt doffed his hat, the late afternoon sun gleaming in his dark wavy hair. The man was good-looking, she'd give him that, but the only man she ached to see was Papa.
"Welcome back," he said. His Texas drawl was polite, yet the pucker between his brows was far from friendly.
"Good to be back." She scanned the crowd milling about the depot platform, retrieving baggage and greeting family. "Have you seen my father?"
Matt plopped his hat in place, throwing his chocolate-brown eyes in shadow. "Martin asked me to pick you up."
Surely after being apart for a year, Papa wouldn't miss meeting her train unless
Was something wrong? She swallowed against the sudden knot in her throat. "Why didn't he come himself?"
"Didn't say. Better not keep him waiting."
Before she could question him further, Matt took her by the elbow and guided her across the wooden platform, dodging two rambunctious youngsters running through the throng.
Was it only four years ago she'd tagged after Zack, Matt's youngest brother? At the time, Matt had been married to Amy, his high school sweetheart, and had reveled in teasing Hannah at every opportunity. That had been before Amy's horse threw her and she died from a broken neck, when Matt's laugh came easy.
Now, he looked tense. Did he resent picking her up? Well, she wasn't any happier about the switch.
Still, to be fair, she should ease her attitude toward the man, give him the benefit of the doubt. From what Papa had told her, he'd closed himself off after his wife's death.
They stopped before the baggage cart's perspiring attendant. Hannah pointed out her bags and large camel back trunk.
The porter surveyed her luggage, mumbling an oath under his breath.
Heat flushed her cheeks. If she'd had a choice, she would've left every dress behind in Charleston. But, Papa had tired of seeing her in denim and had insisted she return with a new wardrobe. Aunt Mary Esther had made his wishes her mission.
Matt slipped the attendant a tip. "I'll take it from here."
With a snaggletooth smile, the porter doffed his hat, then turned to the next traveler.
Matt hefted the trunk onto his shoulder, letting out a grunt. "A man could bust a gut toting this load. Must've brought the entire state of South Carolina back with you."
"That's not my fault, I"
"If you packed them, I'd say that makes them yours," he said before she could explain the large number of cases weren't her idea.
He balanced the trunk then grabbed a valise's leather handle, straining muscles that pulled his shirt tight over powerful shoulders and arms, producing an odd flutter in the pit of her stomach.
"Stay put," he said. "I'll only be a minute."
"I'm perfectly capable of carrying.. " Her voice faded as he swaggered off. How dare he treat her like a hothouse flower.
She grabbed the three remaining cases and marched after him, the sun glaring on her back, her lungs heaving against her cast-iron corset. The ostrich plume on her gray felt hat drooped into view, tickling her nose. Her aunt would say the hat made fashion sense. More like fashion insanity.
Papa had sent her away to gain grace and style and all those put-on manners the finishing school had drummed into her. Now she supposed she was indeed finished.
But not as Papa intended.
Her aunt's aimless life had made Hannah all the more determined to remain a rancher. What she did on the Lazy P had significance, and gave her satisfaction.
Without a free hand to swat at the tormenting feather, she blew a puff of air. The feather fluttered, then came to rest against her nose.
Matt stopped, turned back. His gaze settled on the feather. He gave a smirk. "I'd prefer you'd wait until I can return for the rest."
"I prefer doing my part."
Surly eyes gave her a cursory glance. "In that?"
Hannah's gaze swept her traveling dress, all flounce and ruffle, as uncomfortable as armor thanks to the torturous corset. "Don't judge me on my attire."
He harrumphed. "Like Charleston hasn't changed you."
She jerked up her chin. "It hasn't. At all." Another breath lifted up the feather. This time it stayed put.
"Whatever you say, Miss Parrish."
He headed down the boardwalk. She followed, perspiration beading on her forehead. At the wagon, she dropped the load with a clatter at Matt's feetfeet clad in cowboy boots, high quality, Texas made. And he accused her of being a clotheshorse.
Matt leaned against the wagon, apparently untouched by the heat. "Didn't that fancy finishing school teach you to allow a man to give you a hand?" he drawled.
"It taught me to take care of myself."
Not exactly the truth. The headmistress's main message was a proper lady relies on a man for everything, not merely heavy lifting. Well, Hannah tried to never rely on anyone for anything.
His amused expression disputed her claim. "Course you can."
She slapped her arms across her chest, arms that ached from carrying that load, but she'd never admit as much by rubbing them. "Are you questioning that?"
"All right, then. Go ahead. Take care of yourself." He gestured toward the trunk.
On the ground. Six feet below the bed of the wagon.
"You mean put that in there?"
"You said you could take care of yourself."
To admit she needed help would mean admitting defeat. She bent, the feather quivering in front of her eyes, then gripped the leather handles and heaved with all her might, releasing a decidedly unladylike grunt. And managed to budge the trunk three whole inches before she let it drop. A year in Charleston had made her soft.
"Give up?" Matt asked.
"Never." Heat flooding her cheeks, she gritted her teeth and tried again.
"We'll be here all day while you try to prove your point." He bent down, grabbed the trunk as if it weighed less than the obnoxious feather on her hat and shoved it into the wagon, then stowed the rest of her bags.
"I could have done that." She met his amused gaze.
"Next time the trunk is all yours." With a chuckle, he rounded the wagon and gave her a hand up.
His touch trapped the air in her lungs. Since when did Matt Walker affect her this way? Exhaustion had muddled her mind into mush.
He climbed up beside her. His fluid movements revealed how comfortable he was, how completely at ease. Whereas she felt thrown off balance, as if she'd stepped into somebody else's skin with a whole set of reactions she didn't understand. Or appreciate.
She wanted to go home, to see her father, to soak in the tub until not one speck of travel dust remained.
Home. To the cattle, to the land she loved, the limitless expanse under the Texas sky. Home. Where she'd shuck her frills and finery and don her usual garb and favorite Stetson, clothes she could move and breathe in. Home. To Papa.
With large, capable hands, Matt took the reins, then clicked to the horses. The wagon jerked forward as the horses pulled away.
Beyond the depot lay the bustling town with wagons, buggies and horses jamming the streets. After a year in Charleston, returning home was like easing into comfy boots.
Hannah removed her hat, her gaze caressing each edifice they passed. The courthouse dominated Main Street, teeming with storefronts, saloons, Bliss State Bank, Bailey's Dry Goods, The James Hotel, the post office, the office of The Banner Weekly newspaper and two groceries. They passed the blacksmith shop, O'Hara's livery stable, the sheriff's office and the Calico Cafe, owned by the widow Shields with two rooms to let upstairs if boarders met her strict standards.
At the outskirts of town, they headed toward the ranch. No longer distracted by the racket and dust of Bliss, she turned to Matt. "Is my father well?"
Matt glanced at her, then away, staring at the horses' rumps. Just as she decided he wouldn't speak, he cleared his throat. "Martin's had a rough few months. When I stopped in last night to check on him, he asked me to meet your train."
"Check on him? Why? Isn't Rosa there?"
"Yes, of course." Matt shifted on the seat. "Wait to talk to him."
"I need to know what's wrong before I arrive."
"He's facing some challenges." He met her gaze. "Having you home will lift his spirits."
And lift a load from Papa's shoulders. If he was sick, she could run the ranch. Oversee the foreman while Papa recovered. If only she'd known he needed help. "Why didn't he send for me?" A rut in the road sent Hannah's hat tumbling to the floorboards. She retrieved it, then whacked the crown against her knee, raising a puff of dust. "I didn't want to go to Charleston in the first place."
He shot an amused glance at the mound of baggage in the wagon bed. Proof he didn't believe a word. What did she care?
She'd take the focus off her. "How's Zack? Is he out of school?"
"My little brother graduated and joined a law firm in Dallas." He arched an eyebrow. "He's still single."
"I'm surprised he hasn't met someone."
"Figured he was waiting on you. Or you on him."
"You figured wrong. I'm in no hurry to get married."
Dark eyes bored into hers with the force of an auger. "From what I've seen, most women are downright desperate to get hitched."
Desperate to get hitched, my eye.
The claim didn't deserve a retort. From what Hannah had seen, a wife was either a household drudge or an ornamental knickknack. Determined to ignore him, Hannah kept her gaze on the road, away from the vexing man at her side.
At last they drove onto Parrish land, passing a field of bluebonnets carpeting the earth to the horizon. A sense of serenity absent in Charleston seeped into her spirit. But then her mind niggled, filling her with troubling disquiet.
Matt had danced around her questions about Papa. What wasn't he telling her?
Matt eased back on the reins, slowing the horses to pass through the Lazy P gate. At his side, Hannah soaked up the terrain. Barely nineteen, yet certain she had her future mapped out. The set of her shoulders, her ramrod back, the tilt of her jaw, all pointed to one determined woman.
He swallowed hard. One determined, beautiful woman.
The skinny tomboy in baggy clothes, who sometimes could outride, outshoot and outrope Zack, had grown up. He forced his eyes away from the pretty woman at his side and onto the Parrish house up ahead.
The past year, he'd fallen into the habit of spending evenings here with Martin, discussing politics or cattle business over a game of checkers. With Hannah away, this ranch had become his refuge, his second home. Here he could unwind, away from haunting memories of Amy in his parents' house, away from the watchful eyes of his loved ones, away from his father's tight control.
As he'd gotten close to Martin, he hadn't seen the signs of his friend's waning health, but when he grew weak, pale, Matt could no longer deny Martin was sicktoo sick to run the ranch. Without shirking his responsibilities at the Circle W, Matt had overseen operations of the Lazy P. The additional work pushed him to his limits, but nothing compared to the agony of watching a friend's body deteriorate.
Like a crouching lion, a sense of helplessness, sorrow and anger had sprung up inside him, awakening feelings he'd had when he lost Amy. Feelings he'd tried to bury with endless work, collapsing into bed at night, too drained to feel anything.
He'd seen the flash of fear in Hannah's eyes as he'd spoken of Martin's health. Unless God wrought a miracle for Martin, she'd have her heart broken.
This spitfire in a skirt, about as competent as a man with his hands tied behind his back, could no more handle this ranch than a cowpoke could handle city life. No matter what she said, she'd need to sell the land. Go back to Charleston where she fit, where she could find herself a husband.
The thought of the anguish awaiting her stung the backs of his eyes. He blinked, clearing the mist, and strengthened his resolve to stay clear of entanglements. He'd do all he could for Martin. But, the debutante's future wasn't his problem. He'd hold himself apart, keep that armor in place. The only way he could be of use to anyone.
He halted the horses in front of the Parrish house, a low-slung solid structure with an inviting shady porch sheltering a cluster of twig furniture. A quiet spot where a man could catch a sunset. Catch his breath. Catch a moment with God.
He climbed down and headed toward Hannah. Before he reached her, she'd grabbed a fistful of skirts, jumped down and dashed up the steps. No doubt impatient to see her father.
The door swung open. Rosa, the Parrish housekeeper, stepped out, plump arms thrown as wide as the welcoming smile on her face. "Hannah!"
Rosa had to be around Matt's parents' age, yet her dark hair held only an occasional strand of silver and not a single wrinkle creased her round face. With one eye on the happy reunion, Matt unloaded and lugged the baggage to the porch.
Before he toted them to Hannah's room, he'd check on Martin, see that he was prepared to greet his daughter. The man couldn't stomach appearing weak, looking like an invalid.
Across the way, Rosa cradled Hannah's face in work-worn hands and kissed her on both cheeks. "You left a girl and came back a woman. You favor your mama more and more."
Tears running down her cheeks, Hannah hugged the older woman. "I've missed you, Rosa."
Why women cried at happy occasions baffled Matt. At least they weren't weeping in his arms.
Rosa smiled at him. "Hello, Senor Matt."
"How's the finest cook in the county?"
Rosy-cheeked and beaming, the housekeeper giggled. "You try for cookie. They cool in kitchen." She tucked an arm around Hannah. "Come. I help you unpack."
"I want to see Papa first."
"Hannah, I'd like a minute with Martin. Why don't you take a second to." He glanced at Rosa for help.
"Si, wash face, hands." The housekeeper led the way inside.
"I'll only be a few minutes," Hannah said, pleasant enough, but her pointed stare warned him not overstay his welcome.
With a nod, Matt rounded the corner and strode down the hall to Martin's room. He rapped on his door then poked his head in. As he suspected, Martin was stretched out on the bed fully dressed, but from his bleary eyes, he'd been dozing.
A smile lit his face as he struggled to rise. "She's home."
"Yes, freshening up." Matt helped Martin stand. Once he was steady on his feet, they walked the short distance to the office. Martin dropped into his chair behind his desk, his back to the window.
Matt sat in a chair across from him. "You sure you're up to dinner guests tonight?"