North Central Texas
Under a gray sky, Rand Sinclair's sweeping glance took in his newly purchased Last Hope Ranch. The outbuildings, the barn...shoot, even the fences had a permanent lean like drunken sailors after a year at sea. He pulled up the collar of his coat against the biting January wind.
What had he been thinking? What did a former saloon owner know about ranching, anyway?
The only thing he could rightly claim to understand were the drunks he'd served whiskey to at the Lily of the West in Battle Creek, Texas, three miles away. A drunk wanted his whiskey straight from the bottle, his woman warm and willing, and a soft place to lay his head. Rand had no idea how to care for the cows he'd buy come spring. All the beasts seemed to do was eat, drink, and moo.
Come to think of it...maybe cows and drunks were more alike than he thought.
Yet despite his reservations, he wanted this ranch more than anything else in the world.
This was his dream.
His chance to prove to himself that he could be the kind of man Isaac Daffern, the rancher who'd raised him and his brothers, had wanted him to be. He needed to prove that he measured up, not only in his brothers' eyes, but in his own.
If he failed, he would lose everything that mattered.
A door banged. He glanced down the ramshackle porch in the direction of the sound. Must be the wind. Every door on the place needed work, refusing to stay fastened. Tall weeds littered the yard, and the sucker rod of the old windmill groaned and complained with each rise and fall, the sound amplifying the stark emptiness around him. He was unprepared for the overwhelming loneliness of this new life he'd chosen.
Maybe diving into work would help. But not today. Making the ranch fit for living would have to wait for a warmer day.
He swung to go back inside by the fire when he caught a flash of blue disappearing into what must've been an old bunkhouse.
What in God's name?
The tall grasses whispered in the stiff breeze and he heard the unmistakable sound of a door closing. The deliberate softness of that sound raised the hair on the back of his neck. Maybe he wasn't so alone out here after all. He reached for his Colt and stole forward. Between the building's slatted wood, he glimpsed movement.
Rand took a deep breath and yanked open the door. "Whoever's in here had best come out."
Soft scurrying provided no clue.
Maybe he was mistaken and it was a small animal after all.
But no animals he ever knew wore blue.
A poacher? A thief? Most likely someone up to no good.
Cautious, he stepped inside. Thick gloom closed around him and the dank air clogged his throat. Spiderwebs hung from the ceiling like torn gossamer fabric from a dance-hall girl's dress.
And then he caught the faint whiff of some sort of scent. Flowers?
"Anybody here?" Eyes were watching him. He renewed his grip on the Colt, readying for anything. "You're trespassing on private property. Come out. I won't hurt you."
Three more steps, then four. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw two forms huddling in a far corner. When he got closer, a woman leaped to her feet, brandishing a stick that came within a hair of whacking his leg. Surprise rippled through him as he jumped back. He'd never expected a woman. She was shivering either from fear or the icy wind.
"Please, I don't mean you any harm, ma'am. My name's Rand Sinclair, and I'm the new owner here." His gaze flicked to the second person, a young boy.
The boy gave a sudden lunge, positioning himself in front of the woman with his arms extended. "Get back, mister. Leave us be. We ain't hurtin' nuthin'."
Rand finally remembered the Colt and slid it back into the holster. "I know, son, but it's dangerous out here. Let's get inside out of this weather. From the looks of you, I reckon you're cold and tired and hungry."
"We don't need you," the slip of a boy flung at him.
"Maybe not. But seeing as this is my land, like it or not, right now you have me. I have a fire going, and food. I'll share it. You don't have to be afraid."
"We always have to be afraid." The woman lowered the stick, though. "It's the only way to stay alive."
That said it all. Clearly, she had trouble trailing her. He knew all too well what that was like.
"Ma'am, can we eat?" the boy asked, his teeth chattering. He seemed to be relaxing his guard too.
Rand said softly, "Think of your son if nothing else. He needs a warm fire and food. He'll get sick. You wouldn't want that. I won't hurt you. Please, I just want to help. I think you'd do the same for me if I were in your shoes. Out here we take care of each other."
She took his measure with a hard stare. After several long seconds, she dropped the makeshift weapon and reached for her son's hand. Rand removed his coat and put it around her shoulders. He held the door, then led them toward the two-story frame house.
As they walked, he viewed their condition out of the corner of his eye. The woman's torn, dirty blue dress. The youngster's grimy face and clothes. Yet the mysterious trespasser carried herself straight and tall like someone who was accustomed to a better life and who took pride in herself.
Inside the warm kitchen, he put three sticks of wood into the cookstove and moved the skillet onto the fire. "I take it you've been traveling a ways. Where are you from?"
"That's not important," the woman replied absently, taking off his coat. She stood looking around the room for several minutes, taking everything in.
With his attention split between trying to watch her and cracking eggs, Rand discovered some had missed the bowl entirely and landed on the counter. He scooped them in with the others, then fished out several pieces of broken shell that were swimming amid the whites and yolks.
When he glanced her way again, he found her running her fingers across the faded wallpaper.
The boy sat at the table sniffling, and when he coughed, it came from deep inside. "We didn't steal nuthin', mister."
"No one's saying you did, son. I can see you're not that kind. You have kin around here?" Rand asked the woman.
She didn't answer. She stood lost in thought, staring at two sets of horizontal marks beside the door. Her spine straightened and she sucked in a breath as she touched the penciled-in measurements.
Rand guessed she was remembering something that meant a lot to her. Unexpected memories could certainly jar a person. He wished he could say something to offer comfort, but nothing came to mind.
"I'm not much of a cook," he rambled on. "This is only my second day at it. Surely I'll get better." He gave her an apologetic grin. "How long have you been in that old bunkhouse?"
Her head snapped up. "You're full of questions, mister."
"Sorry. A bad habit. My brothers always say that I should've been a census taker. I get on their nerves sometimes, especially my oldest brother's."
With a sudden swoosh, flames erupted in the skillet.
Before thinking, he grabbed the handle. The instant his hand came in contact with the heated metal, he pulled back with a yell. Searing pain radiated through his hand, every curse word he knew poised on his tongue, wanting to come out.
Only a day and a half and he was already burning down his house.
Quick as a flash, his mystery woman grabbed a flour sack as a mitt and carried the skillet of burning grease to the door, where she set it on the ground. Then she came and gently took his hand, dipping it into the pail of cold water he'd carried in that morning. The relief was welcome.
"Thank you. Like I said, I'm a stranger to this." He met her stare and saw compassion in its depth, a far cry from the brittle anger that had been there just minutes ago. She wasn't as hard as she wanted him to believe.
Her dark brown hair shot through with strands of scarlet was warm in the lamplight. But her soft amber eyes, the exact color of whiskey, revealed a deep-seated distrust and a whole lot of grit.
"Do you have some salve, by chance?"
"On the shelf above the stove. I never thought I'd need it this quick."
"Sit at the table, and I'll doctor your hand."
"You don't have to do that, but I appreciate your offer." He took a chair next to the boy, who had laid his head on his arms. The lad was clearly ill.
Before she went for the salve, she felt the boy's forehead. Her frown told Rand his suspicions were true.
"It would be best if he lies down," he said quietly. "At least until I get you something to eat. You'll find some quilts in front of the fireplace in the parlor."
A gentle shake roused her son. "Come, Toby."
Rand's gaze followed them to the parlor, which was visible through the doorway. Great love for her son shone in the way she tucked a quilt around him, then kissed his cheek. Rand was glad he'd persuaded them to come inside.
Returning, the mother found the ointment and carefully spread it across the red welt on Rand's palm. He'd never known such a soothing, tender touch. As the owner of a saloon, he'd been touched by lots of women, but this was different. It almost felt like the feathery caress of a whisper. He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the sensation.
Finally, she put the lid on the salve, then tore a strip off the flour sack and wrapped it around his hand. "There, that should do it."
"I owe you." He gave her a wry smile. "But I'm afraid it'll take me awhile to get you that breakfast I promised."
"You sit here. I'll fix it." She rose and took another skillet from a shelf under the counter.
He watched, amazed at her competence as she put a dollop of butter into the skillet, beat the eggs, cut thick slices of toast, and had it all ready before he knew what was happening. It astounded him how she seemed to know her way around the kitchen. Where he kept the skillets, the butter, the eggs. But he decided that most kitchens were pretty much laid out the same, and women instinctively knew where everything was.
"I don't have milk for the boy. Haven't had time to get a milk cow."
Her amber stare met his. "No need to apologize. I can't let him have it anyway. Fever will curdle milk."
"I believe I might've heard that somewhere. Sorry." His gaze drifted to the mound of scrambled eggs on their plates. They sure looked fluffy and light, just like the café in Battle Creek made them. His mouth began to water even though he'd already eaten.
It became more apparent that she had good breeding a few minutes later. She went to get the boy from the pile of quilts but wouldn't let him eat until they'd both bowed their heads and given thanks.
Toby, she'd called him. The lad's fevered eyes lifted to Rand's. "Thank you, sir."
"You're welcome, son." Rand swallowed a hard lump in his throat. The scrappy child reminded him of himself and his two brothers seventeen years ago. They'd had nothing and no one except for each other, were on the run for their lives, forced to trust strangers for survival.
He poured himself a cup of coffee. "I would've made biscuits, only I don't know how. Me and cooking are like two snarling strangers, and I'm pretty sure I'm not going to win."
She spoke low. "This is fine. It's filling. More than we had outside. You have no woman?"
"No." And that's the way Rand wanted it. He would live alone the rest of his life. "What's your name, ma'am?"
"It's not important. I deeply appreciate your kindness, but we won't be here long enough to socialize, mister."
"Like I told you, I'm Rand Sinclair, not mister. And a name is always important...to someone."
"Not anyone I know." She sighed. "It's Callie. That's all. Just Callie."
"Glad to meet you, Callie."
"I didn't know anyone lived here." She forked a bite of food into her mouth. "I'm not a poacher."
"I guessed that," Rand said quietly. "You're welcome to stay as long as you want. But it's too cold out there. I can't in good conscience let you go back to that bunkhouse."
Callie's chin raised a notch. "Then we'll move on."
He couldn't let this woman and child risk it out there in the unforgiving Texas winter. His conscience would never forgive him. And he suspected he needed them as much as they needed him. This morning had already proved he might well starve if left on his own.
An idea took root. "Wait a minute and hear me out first. I'm looking to hire a cook for me and a few ranch hands when I bring them on in a few months. I'd love for you to fill the job. If you're willing, I'll furnish room and board in exchange. You'd live off this kitchen." He walked to a door and opened it to show her the small bedroom that had not one single stick of furniture in it. "I know it isn't much, but it's warm."
She lifted an eyebrow. "And you? Where would you sleep?"
"Upstairs. You have nothing to fear from me. This kitchen would be your domain. You alone would rule it. I have some furniture ordered that will be here in a week or so. As I told you outside, I recently bought the place. It'll take time to fix it up and get it looking decent. Frankly, I could use the help."
The boy coughed, the sound rattling from deep inside his thin chest. Concern darkened Callie's eyes. She tenderly smoothed back his hair.
"Winter is supposed to be a bad one," Rand pressed.
"I make no promises about how long Toby and I will stay."
"And no one can know about us being here."
"Can't promise that. I have two brothers, and they'll both be here helping me. The oldest, Cooper Thorne, is now the sheriff in Battle Creek. Brett Liberty is the youngest. I won't lie to them. But I can agree to not tell anyone else."
"Yes. My word is my bond."
"You're not to ask any questions."
"Understood. Do we have a bargain, Miss Callie?"
The lines in her face relaxed a bit. "Toby and I will stay. Just for a while."
Why it meant so much to help them, Rand couldn't say. Maybe he simply wanted to pay forward Daffern's kindness to him. Yet when he and Callie struck the deal, it seemed to lift the dreariness of the gray gloom that had closed around him.
What had seemed overwhelming before now appeared manageable. He would succeed. He had a strong back and hands that itched to carve out something he could be proud for others to see, even if those "others" were just the pair of strays he'd found.
Rand allowed himself a slight smile for the first time that day. "Excellent. I'll go into town to round up a bed for you and anything else you think we might need."
Though God only knew where he'd get the money. The thought of accepting help from the mother who'd recently come back into his life after twenty-some-odd years stuck in his craw. His relationship with her was...well, complicated. He didn't know yet if he could forgive her for leaving him in an orphanage.
Still, the simple fact was, except for putting some money by for repairs and to buy cattle in the spring, he'd thrown everything he'd gotten from the sale of the saloon into this piece of ground. That left his brothers. Cooper and Brett would give him anything he needed. They'd always been there for each other and always would be.
Whatever help he had to ask for, he'd make it crystal clear it was only temporary. A loan, not charity.
"We're not used to much," Callie insisted. "Like you, some blankets on the floor will do just fine."
"All the same, I planned to buy more furniture and a cow anyway, so I'm not doing anything special." Or was he? Rand only knew he saw their need and related to their plight. Didn't mean anything. "Meanwhile, look over the supplies I brought. Whatever's missing, I'll get from the mercantile. I'll bring in more wood before I go. Enough to keep you until I get back."
Her curt nod indicated the discussion was over. She rose, picked up their plates, and carried them to the wash pan.
Rand buttoned his coat and put on his hat and gloves. He intended to bring in some water so she wouldn't have to go out.
The north wind sent a chill through his bones when he stalked to the woodpile he'd cut only yesterday. He'd done that first thing, knowing how fast a person could die during a norther. After he carried in several armloads, he filled a couple of pails with water.
Once he had his new cook and her son taken care of, and her list in his pocket, he hitched his horses to the wagon. It would be a miserable ride into town, but he didn't have much choice. Callie and Toby would have a bed before nightfall.
He didn't know from what or whom they were running. Memories of a woman-a friend from town, Jenny Barclay, whose husband had beaten her to within an inch of her life a year ago-swept through his mind. He recalled her dark bruises and the injuries that had laid her up for weeks. He had vowed then that he'd never let that happen to any woman again.
The next bottom-feeder who thought he could thrash his wife and get away with it had better run, because Rand would kill him.
Was Callie married? Seemed likely, since she had a son.
Despite the absence of any visible sign of abuse, he didn't discount that often scars lay buried deep inside, where no one could see. He knew more than a little about scars, how they puckered and left welts long after the wound closed. He sighed, shoving the painful darkness of that particular part of his life back into its hole. With some effort, he corralled his thoughts, bringing them back to Callie.
For sure, something had happened to send her and Toby out into the cold. Though he'd promised not to ask any questions, he cursed his damnable need to know. She aroused a strong curiosity, and he probably wouldn't rest until he figured out her story.
Besides, he couldn't effectively protect her if he didn't have any idea what had caused her life to intersect with his on this cold, wintry morning.
Rand set his jaw.
No matter what he had to do.
No matter the secret Callie kept.
No matter the circumstances that led her to his door, he'd keep her safe.
He'd stake his life on keeping that promise.