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Golden Prairie, Alberta, Canada
She needed eyes in six places at once to keep track of that child.
"Robbie!" An edge of annoyance worked itself into Sally Morgan's voice. Yes, she understood how a boy who was about to turn six might be upset by so many changes in his life. His mother had passed away just after Christmas. His maternal grandmother had stayed until spring and then Sally started coming during the day. But the child needed to realize life was easier if he didn't fight every person and every rule.
Sally found Carol playing with her doll in the patch of grass next to the big tree at the front of the lot, her plain brown hair as tidy as when she'd left for school. Even her clothes were still neat and clean. The girl was only eight but had adjusted much better than her brother. "Have you seen Robbie?"
Carol didn't even glance up from her play. Simply shook her head.
"Where can he be this time?" As soon as she'd realized he was missing she'd searched the house. She'd looked in the shed in the back of the lot where he often hid. Now she marched toward the barn. The children's father would be home shortly and expecting his meal. She'd left the food cooking on the stove. If she found Robbie soon she could hope to keep supper from burning.
She stepped into the cool, dark interior of the barn, now unused. Mr. Finley didn't own a horse. He drove a fine car instead. "Robbie!" she yelled, then cocked her head to listen. She heard nothing but the echo of her voice, the flap and coo of pigeons disturbed by her noisy presence and the scurry of mice heading for safety.
She left the barn and turned her gaze to the narrow alley separating the fine big yard on the edge of town from the farm on the other side. Would Robbie have ventured into forbidden territory? Most certainly he would if the notion struck.
Sparing a brief glance at the house where the meal needed attention, she headed for the gate, pausing only long enough to call to Carol, "You stay there while I find Robbie."
Her steps firm with determination and mounting frustration, she strode across the dusty track to the sagging wire fence. From where she stood she saw nothing but the board fence around the back of the barn. Sighing loudly, she stuck her foot on the wobbly wire to clamber awkwardly over the fence. She landed safely on the far side and hurried forward. Three steps later she skidded to a halt.
A man leaned against the fence. A man with an Iown-the-world stance, a cowboy hat pushed back to reveal a tangle of dark blond curls, and a wide grin wreathing his face. She spared him a quick study. Faded brown shirt, tied at the neck like a frontier man of years ago. Creased denim trousers. He dressed like he'd very recently come off a working ranch.
Sally's worry about Robbie collided with surprise at seeing a man in Mrs. Shaw's yard. A sight, she added, that made her feel a pinch in the back of her heart. It had to be the way she'd hurried about searching for Robbie that made her lungs struggle for air.
Robbie. She'd almost forgotten she was looking for him. Her gaze lingered on the man two more seconds. Then she forced herself forward another step, following the direction the man looked.
Her heart headed for runaway speed.
Robbie stood within reach of the hooves of a big horse.
She choked back a warning. If anything startled the animal he could trample Robbie, which would certainly reinforce some of the things the boy had been told, like don't go near a horse that doesn't know you. Stay out of people's yards unless invitedbut she had no desire to see him learn in such a harsh fashion.
"That's it. No sudden moves."
She didn't need to turn to know the deep voice came from the man leaning against the fence. He sounded every bit as relaxed as he looked. Her gaze darted back to him. Yes. Still angled back as if he didn't have a worry in the world. He was a stranger to her. She knew nothing about him except what she saw, but it was enough to convince her it took a lot to upset his world.
She envied him his serenity.
"His name is Big Red. I just call him Red."
"Can I touch him?" Robbie's childish voice quivered with eagerness.
She shifted her attention back to him. Normally the boy didn't ask permission and if he did, he paid no mind if it was refused, but he stood stock still waiting for the man to answer.
"Sure. He's as tame as a house kitty. But speak to him first. Maybe tell him your name and say his, like you want to be friends."
Sally watched in complete fascination as Robbie obeyed.
"Hi, Big Red. My name is Robbie Finley. Can I be your friend?" Slowly, cautiously, perhaps a bit fearfully, the boy reached out and touched the horse's muzzle. The horse whinnied as if answering the boy.
Robbie laughed out loud.
The horse lifted his head, rolled back his lips and gave an unmistakable horse laugh.
Sally chuckled softly. It was all so calm. Sweet even. Not at all the way Robbie usually behaved.
"I suppose you've come for the boy?" The man peeled himself from the fence and headed in her direction.
Her amusement fled. Feeling exposed and guilty, she glanced about. She was trespassing, along with Robbie. But that didn't bother her as much as the foolish reaction of her heart and lungs, her thoughts and skinshe'd never known her skin to tingle so that it made her cheeks burn. It was how the man grinned that filled her with a need to run and hide.
"Allow me to introduce myself. Linc McCoy."
She nodded, unable to push a word to her brain let alone her mouth. The name had a familiar ring to it. Or was it only her stupid reaction making her think she'd heard it before?
"Are you Robbie's mother?"
Words jolted from her mouth. "Oh, no." A rush of them followed. "His mother is dead. I'm only the housekeeper. I take care of them. Every day. I make meals and" Then a blank mind.
"Oh. I don't believe I've had the pleasure."
Pleasure? Yes, it was a word that fit this man. He seemed to embrace life with his smile, his relaxed stance. Even his dark eyesbrown as mink fursaid life was good. Fun. To be enjoyed. Ah. That would explain why Robbie had responded so well to him. Robbie didn't have much use for rules or anything interfering with his idea of fun. She tried to think how unnatural it was in a grown man but instead she smiled back, as bemused as Robbie was with the horse. Suddenly she realized he grinned because she hadn't given her name. When had she ever been so foolish? So slow thinking? "I'm Sally Morgan."
"Looks like we'll be neighbors."
Another burst of words shot from her mouth. "Oh, no. I don't live here. I only come in the daytime. I live out of town." She waved in vaguely the direction of the Morgan home. "Not very far from town. Just a nice walk. I come to take care of the house and the children."
How could she have forgotten her responsibility? "Come along, Robbie. Your father will be home shortly."
Robbie stuck out his lip in an all-too-familiar gesture.
Linc McCoy strode to the boy's side with a rolling gait. "Nice meeting you, Robbie. Red says so, too, don't you, Boy?"
The horse whinnied and nodded his head.
"See. He agrees."
Robbie giggled, but when he turned back to Sally his look overflowed with rebellion. He had the same coloring as his sister, brown hair, brown eyes. On Carol it was sweet. Not a word she would use to describe Robbie.
Mr. McCoy planted a hand on Robbie's shoulder and turned him toward Sally. "You run along now. Perhaps you can visit again."
"Only with permission," Sally warned.
"That's right. You have to ask before you come over. Wouldn't want to worry Miss Morgan, would you?" He shifted his warm, steady gaze to Sally, and her breath stuck halfway up her windpipe. "It is Miss, isn't it?"
She nodded. It was an innocent enough question. It was only her befuddled brain making her think it brimmed with interest. "Yes." If she didn't get back in a matter of minutes, not only would supper be ruined but she was bound to say something really and truly stupid.
Robbie didn't protest when she grabbed his hand and hustled him to the fence. He scampered over, but she hesitated. There was no graceful way to climb over and land on her feet.
Mr. McCoy followed her. "Allow me." He pushed the wire down with his foot and extended his hand to help her over.
What a predicament. Place her hand in his and most certainly stumble over her tongue, or climb over on her own and most certainly stumble to the ground.
She chose dignity over wisdom, placed her fingers in his cool firm palm and wobbled her way over the swaying wire. "Thank you," she murmured, managing to make her thick tongue say the two syllables without tangling them.
Abe's car pulled into the narrow driveway.
Oh, no. She couldn't possibly make it back before he discovered her absence. "Run, Robbie." She grabbed his hand and fled for the back door.
They burst into the house. Sally choked on the burnt smell. Abe held a smoking pot in his tea-towel-protected hand.
"I'm sorry," Sally gasped and rushed to take the pot. The potatoes were ruined. She dumped the pot in the sink and quickly checked the rest of the meal. The green beans she'd shoved to the back of the stove looked a little limp but were edible. The meat simmered in now glutinous gravy, but it could be salvaged with the addition of hot water. "Everything will be ready in a minute or two. I'll call Carol." But when she turned to do so, Abe blocked her way.
"Where were you? I come home expecting supper and discover my daughter home alone, you and my son missing. Did you let him run away again?"
Her tongue seemed to stick to the roof of her mouth. She sucked saliva to moisten it. Why did he blame her when Robbie was so difficult?
"I need someone who can handle my home and children."