The Hired Man Lynna Banning A home for the drifter Cordell Winterman is haunted by his mistakes—and the years spent paying for them. Broke and hungry, he takes a job as a hired man on Eleanor Malloy’s farm. Eleanor needs help. Desperately. Her kids are running wild and the place is held up by spit and rust. But as Cord helps her set her home to rights, Eleanor realizes she doesn’t just need this enigmatic drifter with hunger in his eyes...she wants him, too! “I’m sorry, Cord. Really sorry.” “For what?” “For everything. I’m sorry about Tom, and for being so weak after the pneumonia, and I’m sorry about your wife. I’m sorry you saw my apple trees in bloom on your way to California. I’m sorry you stopped.” He sucked in a breath and held it, eyeing the daisy things he’d laid on the quilt beside her. Then he exhaled in one long, slow stream. “Eleanor, I’m sorry about Tom, and about you being sick. But I’m not sorry about your apple trees, and I’m sure as hell not sorry I stopped at your farm.” Author Note (#ub3a4fbdf-f875-5b82-a0cf-8c3bd12de7ef) My mother was raised on a ranch in Oregon, and she always spoke fondly of the hired men who came to help out. She remembered them as kindly, usually unmarried men, who moved from ranch to ranch in the summertime. She recalled one hired man in particular, by the name of Frank, who came every summer; he shared his cookies with her after supper and made her corncob dolls to play with. The Hired Man Lynna Banning www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) LYNNA BANNING combines her lifelong love of history and literature in a satisfying career as a writer. Born in Oregon, she graduated from Scripps College and embarked on a career as an editor and technical writer, and later as a high school English teacher. She enjoys hearing from her readers. You may write to her directly at PO Box 324, Felton, CA 95018, USA, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org (mailto:email@example.com) or visit Lynna’s website at lynnabanning.net (http://www.lynnabanning.net). Books by Lynna Banning Mills & Boon Historical Romance One Starry Christmas ‘Hark the Harried Angels’ The Scout High Country Hero Smoke River Bride Templar Knight, Forbidden Bride The Lone Sheriff Wild West Christmas ‘Christmas in Smoke River’ Dreaming of a Western Christmas ‘His Christmas Belle’ Smoke River Family Western Spring Weddings ‘The City Girl and the Rancher’ Printer in Petticoats Her Sheriff Bodyguard Baby on the Oregon Trail The Hired Man Visit the Author Profile page at millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) for more titles. For hired men everywhere. And women. Contents Cover (#uf112151d-b36b-5aba-9c8c-db059a6e8cfd) Back Cover Text (#u0cdab67c-6a72-5fd3-91ec-0af37b81f79a) Introduction (#u503d3cc5-bf8a-50ea-8665-9cf8e9aef22f) Author Note (#u9ac64355-d25e-54e7-b14c-6d2b2274e27e) Title Page (#u3e9dec28-6cd2-5d1c-a2b4-2731291ae4a0) About the Author (#u658440b3-d774-5d8c-8cb6-cdb8b73c0be7) Dedication (#ue93a0b7a-5b0f-5440-b0a3-f93784e03d49) Chapter One (#u1f802605-4675-50ed-9b29-616d7464e48f) Chapter Two (#u21ee856a-e6d1-53ef-aceb-bb6e3776c3c2) Chapter Three (#u74519386-d704-5bf2-bca0-16120da58d0d) Chapter Four (#uef6bcda1-ae97-5040-9581-a3511eac84ce) Chapter Five (#u1dd75a44-17e0-5914-a824-eedca7b5ce82) Chapter Six (#u2354d4a4-8302-5c8d-9559-0fc80ac6514d) Chapter Seven (#u65d9ee64-feaf-5729-a850-c7e0be2fbe9b) Chapter Eight (#u05b65bc2-f015-513b-ae31-35583bda1f0b) Chapter Nine (#ucbb0327b-6c3b-5471-855e-f6ab959b2d28) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Extract (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One (#ub3a4fbdf-f875-5b82-a0cf-8c3bd12de7ef) Smoke River, Oregon Cord dismounted and reached to open the iron gate, then shook his head in disbelief and patted his horse’s neck. “Just take a look at that, Sally-girl. Only thing holding that gate up is rust.” He laid his palm against the top and gave a little push. The decrepit gate swung partway open, hung there for a few seconds and toppled onto the ground. He narrowed his eyes and studied it more closely. The split-rail fence looked like it was held together with spit, and there was no cattle guard. Man, this place needed more than a hired man. It needed a whole battalion of them. A rickety-looking barn that had once been painted red stood off to one side of the dingy farmhouse, and the front yard was full of busily scratching chickens. “Come on, Sally.” He grasped the bridle and tugged his mare forward. The only thing that looked even half-alive was the apple orchard he’d seen when he rode in, the frothy white blossoms clinging to the branches like soft puffs of new snow. Even from here he could hear the buzzing of thousands of bees. But that was the only sign of life. He tied the bay mare to a spindly lilac bush and stepped up onto the porch. His boot punched clear through the rotting middle step. The front door stood open, but he couldn’t see through the dirty, spiderwebby screen. He rapped on the frame and watched flakes of rust sift onto his bare wrist. “Just a moment,” a voice called. A long minute passed, during which the only sound was the hum of bees and Sally’s whicker. Finally a blurry shape appeared behind the screen. “Yes?” The voice sounded suspicious. “Name’s Cordell Winterman, ma’am. I understand you’re looking for a hired man?” “Oh. Well, yes, I guess I am.” “You don’t sound too sure about it.” He dug the scrap of newsprint out of his shirt pocket. “You put this ad in the newspaper, didn’t you? ‘Wanted—hired man for farm and apple orchard.’” He pressed it up against the screen. “Ah,” she said after a pause. “Yes, I did advertise for a hired man. Are you interested?” Cord swallowed hard. Hell, yes, he was interested! He hadn’t eaten in three days, and he was out of money and out of sorts. “Sure, I’m interested, ma’am.” “Why?” she asked bluntly. Cord blinked. “Why? Well, I could give you a lot of palaver about wanting to help out because I like farming, but that’d be just fancy words. The truth is I’m broke and I’m hungry.” “Oh,” she said again. And then nothing more. “Ma’am?” he prompted. The door latch snapped and the screen swung open. “You’d better come in, Mr. Winterman.” The minute he stepped into the threadbare parlor an enticing smell hit him and his belly rumbled. Roast chicken, he guessed. Right about now it didn’t matter; he’d eat roast anything. He hung his battered hat on the hook by the door and followed her to the kitchen, where he watched her shove a pan of biscuits into the oven, then turn to face him. For a moment he forgot to breathe. A pair of wide gray eyes surveyed him from under dark brows. Soft-looking eyes, and tired. Her thick chestnut hair was caught at her nape in a scraggly-looking bun. A blue-checked apron cinched the waist of her faded green dress, and from under the hem peeked ten perfect bare toes. But the most surprising thing wasn’t those bare toes. It was her face, heart-shaped and chalk white. She’d be beautiful if she wasn’t so pale. Jumping jenny, she was beautiful anyway. He couldn’t take his eyes off those pale cheeks; you’d think out here on a farm in the middle of Oregon she’d at least be a bit sunburned. Or freckled. Instead, her skin looked smooth as cream. She gestured at the round wooden table in the kitchen and pointed to a straight-backed chair, then walked to the staircase. “Daniel? Molly?” Even her raised voice was soft somehow. Refined. Feet thumped down the stairs and she turned back to the stove while he pulled out the chair she indicated as a shaggy-haired boy of about nine and a small blonde girl some years younger clattered into the kitchen. “Have you washed up?” the woman asked. “Aw, Ma,” the boy whined, “do I hafta?” She pointed to the sink, and both children groaned. “Quickly, now. We have a guest. This is Mr. Winterman.” They edged past him to pump water into the sink. “Hullo,” the boy said over his shoulder. “H’lo,” his sister echoed. “I betcha you haven’t washed up.” Cord chuckled. “Well, no, I haven’t.” He rose and accepted the bar of yellow soap from Molly’s small fingers and pumped water over his calloused hands. “Set the table, children,” their mother ordered. All of a sudden he realized he didn’t know her name. The boy, Daniel, slapped four blue china plates onto the table, followed by Molly, who pushed forks and spoons into place. Then four blue gingham napkins appeared. Cord settled into his chair and watched the children scramble into their seats, fold their hands and sit at attention while their mother brought a platter of fried chicken and a bowl of biscuits. Finally, she set a mason jar of apple blossoms in the center of the table. Cord’s stomach rumbled and Molly giggled. “You must be hungry, huh, mister?” “Yeah, I sure am.” “Molly,” her mother admonished. “That is not a polite question.” “I don’t mind, Mrs....?” “Malloy,” she supplied. She perched on the edge of the empty chair and pushed the platter of chicken toward him. “Eleanor Malloy.” She didn’t say another word until supper was over and Daniel and Molly had splashed through the dishwashing and racketed off upstairs. Then she set a china cup before him. “Coffee?” she asked. He noticed that her hand was shaking. “Thanks.” “And then we will discuss my newspaper advertisement.” They drank their coffee in complete silence, and after a while he wondered if he’d said something to offend her. He sure hoped not. He’d do almost anything for another chicken dinner. Or any dinner. “Where are your people, Mr. Winterman?” His people? “I’m da—Darned if I know, ma’am.” “But surely you have some family living? A mother? Father?” “I don’t think so, Mrs. Malloy. I was raised in the South.” He cleared his throat. “When I went back after it was all over there was nothing left standing.” “So you came north?” “Uh, yeah.” He saw no need to explain everything that had happened next. Or explain why he’d been in Kansas when the War broke out. “I see,” she said primly. “I need a hired man to help out here on the farm. I can offer meals and lodging in the barn, but I cannot offer any pay. Would that suit?” “Yes, ma’am, it would. I can see that you need help around here. You need a new front gate for one thing, maybe a new barn roof, a new front fence, a new porch step, and...” He shot a look at the open front door. “A new screen door.” “I will also need help with the apples when they come on in the fall. I cannot... Well, I can no longer lift the heavy bushel baskets.” “Some reason?” She couldn’t be expecting, could she? She looked slim as a birch rod. And, since there was no sign of a man around, he figured she was a widow. “The doctor says I will regain my strength in time, but right now...” Her voice trailed off. She took a sip of her coffee and set the cup on its saucer with a sharp click. “I asked if the arrangement I offered would suit,” she reminded him. “Oh, sure it will, Miz Malloy. Thanks.” He resisted an impulse to lean over the table and hug the heck out of her. Eleanor studied her empty coffee cup, then flicked a glance at the man’s face. He looked tanned and weather-beaten, but his eyes were kind. Very blue, she noted, but kind. He handled himself well. His body was lithe and muscular, and he had nice manners. She would not want Molly or Danny to pick up bad habits. Her instincts told her Mr. Winterman was trustworthy and well-behaved, and he was willing to work for just room and board. Until the apple harvest, that was all she could afford. On the other hand, her instincts had been wrong before. Mr. Winterman unfolded his tall frame from the chair and stood up, strode to the door and snagged his worn gray hat off the hook. As he went to push the screen open he caught sight of the revolver she kept above the door. “This your gun?” “It is, yes. I keep it for protection.” He sent her a look. “Can you fire a revolver?” “Y-yes, if I have to.” “I mean cock it and fire it like you mean to hit something. On short notice?” “Probably not,” she admitted. “Got any ammunition?” “Yes, I think so. Somewhere.” He said nothing for a long moment. Then he turned to face her. “It’s dangerous to keep a gun you can’t fire in plain sight. Also dangerous for your boy. He might figure he wants to try it out one of these days.” “Oh, I don’t think—” “Trust me, ma’am. He’s a boy, isn’t he?” She stared past him at the velvet-covered settee, then let her gaze drift to the lilac bush out the parlor front window. “I know my son, Mr. Winterman.” He snorted. “All mothers think that, Miz Malloy.” An overwhelming urge to weep swept over her and her chest tightened into a sharp ache. She did not like this man, she decided. He was too sure of himself. Too knowledgeable. She remembered his eyes when they looked into hers. Hungry. But she needed a hired man. Chapter Two (#ub3a4fbdf-f875-5b82-a0cf-8c3bd12de7ef) Cord unsaddled Sally, walked her into an empty stall in the barn and fed her a double handful of oats. Now, where should he bed down? He eyed the ladder up to the loft overhead and smiled. He liked straw, and he liked being up high; it gave him a hawk’s-eye view of whatever was going on. Which wouldn’t be much on a farm this run-down, he figured, but you never knew. Experience, most of it bad, had taught him that the unexpected could be damn dangerous. He washed up at the pump in the yard. The cool water felt so good after days in the saddle he stripped off his shirt and did it again, then tossed his saddlebags and a single wool blanket up into the loft and let out a long breath. He’d always loved the smell of a barn—horses, leather, animal droppings, clean straw. This barn had two animals in roomy stalls, a sturdy gray gelding with a white star on its forehead and a milk cow contentedly chewing her cud and rolling a disinterested brown eye at him. A dusty saddle hung on one wall, and a broken-down buggy sat in one corner. It didn’t look sturdy enough to get to town and back, and the cracked leather seat looked mighty uncomfortable. He wondered how the woman, Mrs. Malloy, fetched supplies. The boy looked too young to ride into town alone, and she didn’t look strong enough to make the trip. If she was a widow, as he figured, she must have had some kind of help. Then again, the place looked so run-down it was plain it hadn’t been cared for in some time. He crawled up into the loft, spread out the worn wool blanket he’d slept in ever since leaving Missouri and folded his arms under his head. This place would do until he could get his feet under him. At least he could eat regular meals and sleep with both eyes shut instead of with his Colt under his pillow and one finger on the trigger. He wondered if he’d ever get back to feeling like a normal human being again, someone who didn’t flinch at every loud noise and wonder where his next meal was coming from. Someone who could learn to trust his fellow man again. The War had shaken his faith in the human race, and his years in Missouri had taken care of the rest. Stop thinking about it. He should count himself lucky; just about the time he was thinking about giving up, he’d come up over that hill and smelled those apple blossoms. * * * Breakfast the next morning made him smile. When he walked into the kitchen, little Molly was standing on a chair at the stove, poking an oversize fork into a pan full of sizzling bacon. Daniel was cracking fresh eggs into a china bowl. “Plop!” He chortled after the first one. “Plop!” he said again. His mother laid slices of bread on the oven rack, moved the speckleware coffeepot off the heat and dumped in a cup of cold water to settle the grounds. The kitchen smelled so good it made Cord’s mouth water. She motioned him to a chair. “Coffee?” “Please.” He pushed his cup across the table toward her. “There is no cream, I’m afraid. Bessie hasn’t been milked yet.” “Black’s fine.” She turned back to the stove. “Molly, lift those bacon slices onto the platter now. And no snitching!” The girl clunked down a china platter of bacon in front of him. “No snitching,” she whispered, then twirled back to the frying pan. “Wouldn’t dream of snitching,” he murmured. That brought a giggle from Molly and a sharp look from Mrs. Malloy. “Daniel, pour those eggs into Molly’s pan and stir them around.” “Aw, Ma, let Molly stir them around. I’m gettin’ too old for this cooking stuff. Besides, she’s a girl.” “You are most certainly not too old for ‘this cooking stuff.’ In this household everyone does their share.” “Sure can’t wait ’til I’m growed up,” he muttered. “Even ‘growed-ups’ help out!” his mother replied. All through the meal Cord tried to catch Mrs. Malloy’s eye, but she steadfastly refused to look at him. Daniel, on the other hand, gazed at him with intelligent blue eyes and peppered him with questions in between bites of scrambled eggs. “What’s your horse’s name?” “Sally.” “How old is she?” “About three years. Got her when she was just a filly.” “Can I ride her?” “No. She’s too much horse for a boy your age.” “Do you like venison jerky?” “Yes, I do.” “What about chocolate cake?” “Well, sure, son, everybody likes chocolate cake. You gonna bake one?” “Nah. But I keep hopin’ my mama will bake one someday.” Mrs. Malloy said nothing at all. When the last slice of toast disappeared, Daniel and Molly scooped the dishes off the table into the dishpan in the sink, and Cord waited for orders from his employer. Five minutes went by while Mrs. Malloy sipped her coffee. Finally he cleared his throat and she looked up. She looked paler than ever this morning. “You want me to milk your cow, ma’am?” “No.” “How ’bout I fix your front gate?” “What?” “Your gate. Yesterday I accidentally knocked it down.” “Oh. Yes, do repair it.” “And the fence? Wood looks half-rotten, and—” “Of course.” “I’ll need to get lumber from the sawmill in town. You have a wagon?” She didn’t answer. “Then there’s the barn roof and the corral and the front porch step and the rusted door screen and...” Hell, she wasn’t even listening. “Yes, fix it all, please. I have accounts with the merchants in town if you need...nails or...things.” “Kin I help him, Ma?” Daniel called from the sink. Molly splashed soapy water at her brother. “An’ me, too?” “We’ll see,” said Mrs. Malloy quietly. Cord picked up his hat from the hook near the back door. “Guess I’ll be going on into town, then. You want anything from the mercantile, ma’am?” “A newspaper. And some flour and a bag of coffee beans. Maybe one of chicken mash, too.” He studied her hands, cradling the china coffee cup. The knuckles were reddened. Daniel and Molly were making plenty of noise having a soapsuds-splashing contest, so he risked a question for her ears alone. “Miz Malloy, how long have you been on your own out here?” She glanced up at him, then quickly refocused on her coffee. “Seven years.” “Uh, is there a Mr. Malloy?” Her shoulders stiffened under the faded green calico. “There is. Or rather there was.” “What happened to him? The War?” “I assume so. He went off to fight and he never came home.” Cord’s first thought blazed through his mind like a fire arrow. What a damn fool. “If it’s not being too nosy, how have you managed all these years?” Her laugh surprised him. “Believe it or not, until six months ago I had a hired man.” It was his turn to laugh. “Sure hope you didn’t pay him much.” “No, I—Why do you ask?” He stuffed back a snort. “I can’t see that your hired man did a da—Darn thing around the place.” She set her cup down with a snick. “Most assuredly he did not,” she said, not meeting his eyes. “But I trusted him around my children.” He stared at her. “Ma’am, you don’t know me from Adam. How come you trust me around your children?” She met his gaze with calm gray eyes. “I don’t really know why, Mr. Winterman. I just do. Only once before have my instincts been wrong, and that had nothing to do with my children.” Eleanor rose and moved into the kitchen. “Children, stop that!” She rescued the suds-soaked dish towel, and when they rattled past her out the back door, she wrung it out and hung it on the rack by the stove. When she turned back, Mr. Winterman’s chair was empty. She bit her lip and watched her new hired man push carefully through the screen and walk out the front door with a slow, easy grace. She couldn’t tell him everything. She just couldn’t. Chapter Three (#ub3a4fbdf-f875-5b82-a0cf-8c3bd12de7ef) The two kids tumbled down the porch steps after him. “Watch out for that loose board,” he cautioned. “What loose bo—?” Daniel’s shoe snagged on the rotted step and just as he was about to take a tumble Cord scooped him up under one arm. “That loose board.” He set the scrawny form on the ground. “Watch where you put your feet.” Cord headed for the barn, Molly tagging at his heels. “Where ya’ goin’, mister?” “Town.” “How come?” “Need some coffee and flour and chicken mash for your mother and some lumber to repair the porch step.” And the fence and the gate and the barn and... “Kin I come?” Daniel asked. “Maybe. If you tell me where your ma keeps your wagon and ask her permission.” The boy danced off, leaped over the loose porch step and slammed the screen door. Molly tugged his sleeve. “I’ll tell you where the wagon is. It’s out behind the barn. But I don’t wanna go to town,” she added. “You don’t? Why’s that?” “Cuz everybody there’s bigger’n me and...and Mr. Ness yells at me.” “How come?” The girl gazed up at him with huge blue eyes and he went down on one knee in front of her. “How come?” he repeated. “Cuz I knocked over his candy jar once. But I didn’t mean to, honest. It just fell over when I reached in to get my lemon drop.” Daniel came flying off the porch. “Ma says I can go!” The wagon was behind the barn, all right. It should have been chucked onto the trash heap. Cord had never seen a more rickety pile of boards and rusted wheels. Probably wouldn’t hold even a light load of lumber. In the barn he led out the gray gelding and lifted a saddle off the wall peg. When he blew off the dust he groaned. The leather was so dry it practically creaked. “Got any saddle soap, son?” Daniel sent him a blank look. “What’s that?” “Stuff you rub on leather things like saddles to keep them soft.” “How come?” “Because...” Oh, the hell with it. “Come on, son, let’s go to town.” The trip into Smoke River was one Cord wouldn’t soon forget. Daniel asked so many questions Cord’s throat got dry answering them. And one of them brought him up short. “You ever been in jail, mister?” Cord hesitated. “Yeah. A long time ago.” “What for?” “For...” He swallowed. “For being on the wrong side.” For getting shot in the leg in the field and then captured because he couldn’t run. It wasn’t something a young boy needed to know. And the rest of it, spending eight years in a Missouri prison, he didn’t want anyone to know, especially Eleanor Malloy. He was trying like hell to put that behind him, to stop drifting and find some purpose in life, but it was rough. Everywhere he went people wanted to know things about him. That was one reason he decided to go to California, so he could start over. He clenched his jaw. If he had his life to live over, he wouldn’t even carry a gun. Smoke River’s main street looked like a hundred small towns in the West except that it was clean and the stores looked spruced up and well-painted. Ness’s mercantile, between the barber shop and the feed store, stood out like a sore thumb with a shiny coat of pink paint. Pink? What next? Inside, the proprietor lounged behind the counter, bent over a newspaper. Cord read the upside-down headline. MONTANA GOLD RUSH! Suddenly the man looked up and scowled at him. “Need some help, mister?” Daniel disappeared down an aisle lined with men’s hats on one side and boots on the other. “Yeah,” Cord said. “I need coffee, flour, salt and a bag of chicken mash. And some lemon drops,” he added quietly. “You new in town? I’m the owner here. Name’s Carl Ness.” “Cordell Winterman. I’m working for Mrs. Malloy a couple of miles out of town.” The man’s shaggy eyebrows shot up. “Eleanor Malloy?” “Something surprising about that?” “Heck yes. Miss Eleanor, she, uh, she usually has her supplies delivered by one of the young men around town. Matter of fact, they have fistfights over who gets to do it. Leastways they did ’til Sheriff Rivera put a stop to it. You puttin’ these purchases on Miss Eleanor’s account?” Cord nodded. When Carl Ness studied him a mite too long, he couldn’t resist. “Pretty shade of pink on your storefront.” Ness’s face turned the same shade. “Blame my daughter Edith for that.” He gestured one aisle over, where two young women stood examining bolts of cloth. “Wants to be an artist, she says. Didn’t know what she’d done to the store ’til one morning all my customers came in laughing.” “Women can be unpredictable, all right,” Cord allowed. One of the young women looked up from a bolt of gingham and studied Cord for a moment. Quickly she detached herself from her companion and scooted up the aisle toward him. She was extremely pretty, with blond ringlets that bounced at every step and a yellow ruffle-encrusted dress. “Ooh, Mr. Ness,” she cooed. “Edith’s been telling me all about...” She gave Cord a flirty look. “Um...all about... Well, aren’t y’all going to introduce me to this handsome stranger?” The proprietor rolled his eyes. “Fanny Moreland, Cordell Winterman. There, now you’re introduced!” He went back to his newspaper. Miss Moreland giggled and sent Cord a dazzling smile. “Well, hello there! Fanny is short for Euphemia. Ah’m so very happy to meet you!” She slid her hand into his in a handshake of sorts. “Ah find this county is woefully short of good-looking gentlemen.” Cord resisted an impulse to roll his eyes back at the proprietor. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Moreland.” He disengaged his imprisoned hand. “Now I—” “Oh, please, you must call me Fanny.” “Okay.” “And ah may call you—?” “Like the man said, my name’s Cordell Winterman. Now, I—” “Oh, surely you’re not leavin’ already?” The mercantile owner made a choking sound. “Yep,” Cord said. “I sure am.” He stuffed a bag of lemon drops and one of caramels in his shirt pocket, hoisted the flour sack onto one shoulder and called out to Daniel. “Think you can wrestle that bag of coffee out to the wagon?” “Yessir.” The boy grinned, waved goodbye to the girl at Cord’s elbow and bolted out the door. Cord followed him. The owner came out with the bag of chicken mash over his shoulder, plopped it into the wagon bed and gave Cord a grin. “Kinda entertaining morning, I guess.” “Not too much, no,” Cord replied. Carl Ness chuckled all the way back into the mercantile. The next stop was the feed store, and then the sawmill, where once again Cord managed to raise the owner’s eyebrows. “Eleanor Malloy? Say, mister, you know I could have all this delivered.” “Nope. I brought a wagon.” “Miss Eleanor know about this?” “Yeah, she does. It’s her wagon.” On the way back to the farm, he fed Daniel caramels and plied him with questions. “How come your mama has all her deliveries made by somebody else? Didn’t your previous hired man bring the wagon into town?” “Nah. Isaiah was too old to drive it. Besides, people like helpin’ Ma out.” “Men, you mean?” “Yeah. Lots of ’em, ever since I was little. Even Sandy, the sheriff’s deputy. The only one who doesn’t bring her stuff is Doc.” “Doc?” “Doc Dougherty.” That brought Cord’s own eyebrows up a notch. “Your ma’s been real ill, huh?” “Yeah. She had pneumonia for a long time. She was real sick. I had to learn how to milk Bessie, and Molly and I cooked all the meals and took supper up to Ma every night.” “Is she well now? She looks kinda pale.” “Doc says she’ll be fine, but she’s gonna be weak an’ tired for a real long time. I’m sure glad you’re here, Mr. Winterman. I can’t hardly chop enough wood by myself.” “How old are you, Daniel?” “Nine. Molly’s just seven, and Ma won’t let her touch the ax, so I have to do it all by myself.” The oddest sensation crawled into Cord’s chest. Here he was, out here on the Oregon frontier with no home and no money, trying to stay alive on an apple farm with not one thing that was working right. God had some sense of humor. “You gonna stay with us, mister?” “Yeah, I think so. For a while, anyway.” The warm feeling in his chest got bigger. Somebody needed him. Or at least needed his help. It made him feel...wanted. Worthwhile. * * * Eleanor glanced up as the wagon rumbled into the yard, a new screen door riding on top of a load of lumber. Oh, my heavens, she couldn’t afford all this, not even after the fall apple harvest came in and she had money in the bank. Her hired hand must have intimidated Ike Bruhn at the sawmill. Which wasn’t surprising, she thought as she watched him set the brake and climb down from the bench. Her hired man was tall and muscular; Ike Bruhn had been over-plump for years. Mr. Winterman headed for the house with a bag of something—flour? Coffee beans?—over one shoulder. Daniel struggled to keep up with those long legs. Her heart gave a queer little thump. Maybe if her hired man was around she would no longer have to make conversation with those too-eager young men from town, not until she was completely well and could fetch her own supplies. Danny burst through the screen door. “Ma, guess what? Mr. Ness painted the mercantile pink!” “Pink? Why on earth would he do that?” “Actually, Miz Malloy,” said Mr. Winterman at Danny’s heels, “Ness claims his daughter Edith painted it. You want these coffee beans in the pantry?” “Yes, thank you.” Danny stopped short in front of her. “You all right, Ma? You look kinda funny.” “Yes, I—Well, I tried to milk Bessie and I guess I overdid it.” Cord stopped short. “I milked her before I went into town this morning, ma’am, even though you said not to. Didn’t you see the milk pail? I set it inside the back door.” “I... Well, I...” How could she ever confess what she’d done? He waited, a frown creasing his tan forehead. “I, um, I accidentally kicked over the bucket. I had to mop it all up, and then I decided to milk her again, but first I had to catch her and...” She closed her eyes in embarrassment. Only an ignorant city girl would try to milk a cow twice in one morning, and she was certainly not a city girl. Ignorant, maybe, but not a city girl. And only a clumsy idiot would kick over a pail of milk. Molly came to her rescue by stomping her little feet down the stairs. “Mama made me go to my room!” she announced in an aggrieved tone. “How come?” her brother asked. She stared at the floor. “Dunno.” The hired man and the burlap bag of coffee beans disappeared into the pantry, and then he tramped back out through the screen door. When he returned he had a big white sack of flour over his shoulder. But this time the screen door twisted off its one remaining hinge and hung sideways. Without breaking his stride, he yanked it all the way off and sailed it off the front porch. Molly and Danny watched, wide-eyed. “Wow,” her son breathed. Suddenly Eleanor was bone-tired. She made an effort to breathe normally, in and out, like Doc said. In and out, slowly. She couldn’t manage all of this, the milk pail, the mop, the cow, Molly’s incessant questions, the screen door...she couldn’t manage any of it. She closed her eyes. She wanted to scream, but she didn’t have the energy. She felt a hand on her shoulder and she snapped her lids open. Cord stood beside her, dusting flour off his jeans. “Got any whiskey?” “In the pantry,” she said wearily. “Top shelf.” She shut her eyes again and concentrated on her breathing. “Ma’am?” He stood in front of her, holding out a cup of coffee. She hesitated, then lifted it out of his hand and downed a big swallow. Her throat convulsed as something hot burned its way down her throat. Tears came to her eyes. “Guess you don’t drink much liquor,” he observed. “I don’t drink liquor at all,” she rasped. She risked a dainty sip of the brew this time. “It tastes awful, like varnish.” He chuckled. “You drink a lot of varnish?” She laughed in spite of herself—in spite of her exhaustion, in spite of everything. She breathed in the scent of sweat and sunshine and caramel. “Mr. Wint—” “Name’s Cordell.” “Cordell—” “Cord,” he corrected. At that moment Danny streaked out through the front door, stopping to inspect the space where the ruined screen had been. Molly tagged at his heels. Cord pulled his attention back to Eleanor Malloy. “Guess you’ve had a tough morning, huh?” At her nod, he continued. “Me, too. First there was that pink-painted storefront. Then what’s-his-name at the sawmill gave me some grief about putting the lumber on your account. And then,” he said with an exaggerated sigh, “Daniel ate all the caramels and wanted Molly’s lemon drops, too.” “You bought lemon drops for Molly?” “Sure. I knew Daniel’d brag about his caramels when we got home, so I figured—” Without warning she started to cry. “Well, now, maybe Molly doesn’t like lemon—” “She l-loves lemon drops. Th-thank you.” She handed her coffee cup to him. “Mr. Winterman, I am feeling a bit tired. I think I will lie down for a few minutes.” She managed to stand up without swaying and reached the settee in the parlor before her knees gave out. Cord thunked his cup onto the kitchen table, walked over to her and lifted her into his arms. She sure didn’t weigh much. He started up the stairs. “Where’s your bedroom?” “Last door,” she murmured. Cord tramped down the hallway, swung open the door of her room and strode across the rag rug beside the bed. Then he bent and carefully laid her on the quilt. At once she curled up like a little girl and before he straightened up she was asleep. The room was Spartan, just the bed and a battered armoire and a chest of drawers with a basin and china pitcher on top. No mirror. Ruffled white muslin curtains fluttered at the double window. Which, he noted in passing, looked out on the front yard where the discarded screen door lay between two maple trees. Daniel and Molly were squatting on their haunches with their chins propped in their hands, contemplating the rusty mess. He hated to think what project they’d come up with for the old screen—a safe one, he hoped. Mrs. Malloy, Eleanor, didn’t need any more worry. He noted the intent look on both children’s faces and how they kept poking each other with their elbows. Guess he should be prepared for anything. Eleanor’s children were turning out to be fun to watch. With a chuckle he went back down the stairs, climbed up onto the wagon bench and drove the load of lumber around behind the barn. Chapter Four (#ub3a4fbdf-f875-5b82-a0cf-8c3bd12de7ef) Eleanor stretched luxuriously and opened her eyes. Doc Dougherty had ordered her to take afternoon naps, but really, this was ridiculous! From the angle of the sun through the bedroom window, she guessed she had slept for hours. The sound of hammering came through the open window, and she dragged her aching body off the bed and peeked out. Danny was perched at Mr. Winterman’s elbow, handing him nails, which he pounded into the new porch step. Molly was playing with something in the porch swing. She wondered what it was until a tiny ball of orange fur tumbled off onto the floor. A kitten! Where had she found a kitten? As she watched, another orange ball dropped off the swing, and then another! She groaned aloud. Surely Cord wouldn’t have brought kittens from town without asking her first? Molly gave a squeak and scrambled out of the swing to corral the animals, and Eleanor turned away from the window. She splashed lukewarm water over her flushed cheeks and patted some on her neck. Imagine, sleeping away the afternoon when she should be baking bread and starting the beans for supper. It was probably because of that whiskey Cord had slipped into her coffee. The man was a bad influence. Well, maybe not so bad, considering that he’d apparently worked all afternoon and watched over Daniel and Molly while he repaired whatever he was working on. She looked out the window again. The front porch step was fixed. Oh, yes, she surely did need a hired man! She was glad she had hired Cordell Winterman. She thought about the tall, sun-browned man all the way down the stairs and into the kitchen to start supper. An hour later the children tumbled in through the new screen door, dusty and happy. And hungry. “Wash up,” she ordered. “We already did,” Molly answered. “Oh? Where?” “At the pump out front,” Danny volunteered. “With Cord. I mean Mr. Winterman.” She propped both hands on her hips. “With soap?” “With soap,” Cord said as he came through the door. He took the chair she indicated, tipping it back until the two front feet lifted off the floor. “You’re gonna fall over backward,” Molly observed. “You want to bet on that?” “Yes!” the girl shouted. “Okay. I bet three lemon drops that I won’t tip this chair over.” “Please,” Eleanor interjected, setting a platter of fried potatoes on the table. “Do not teach my children to gamble!” He stared up at her. “You mean I can’t bet even one lemon drop?” “I mean exactly that,” she said, keeping her voice extra-crisp. “And kindly tell me where those kittens came from? Not from town, I hope?” Molly went rigid. Cord returned all four chair legs to the floor. “Well, ma’am, to tell you the truth—” “Don’t tell her anything!” Danny yelled. “She’ll make us get rid of ’em.” “Would you do that, Mrs. Malloy?” Cord inquired, his voice quiet. “Make your children get rid of some kittens?” “Well...” “Because,” he continued, “actually they’re your kittens. They were born in your barn, up in the hayloft.” “Are you absolutely sure about that?” She couldn’t soften the suspicion that tinged her voice. “Oh, I’m sure, all right,” he said with a laugh. “Mama Cat and the little ones snuggled right up to my belly last night. They’re yours, all right.” She sat down suddenly, completely out of steam. “What? Oh. Well, then, I suppose...” “Yaaay!” Molly cried. “Tomorrow I’m gonna give them all names.” Cord studied the white-faced woman sitting across from him. “Daniel,” he said quietly, “why don’t you check on whatever’s in the oven.” “Oh, yessir, Cord.” “And, Molly,” he continued, “get your mother’s napkin and wet it under the pump at the sink.” The children bustled about their tasks while Eleanor sat limp as a cooked noodle. When Molly handed her the wet napkin, she took it without a word and laid it against the back of her neck. Cord kept his eye on her while he pointed to the oven. “Dan?” Danny opened the oven door and sniffed. “Beans, I guess. A big pot.” Cord stood, grabbed two potholders and lifted the pot of bubbling beans to the table. Danny handed him the big serving spoon, and Cord ladled out a dollop onto a plate and pushed it over to Eleanor. She pushed it back across the table to Cord. “I’m not hungry.” Cord added a square of corn bread and slid the plate back to her. “I said I wasn’t hungry,” she murmured. “Yeah, I heard you. Eat some anyway. You’ve got two kids who need their mother, so don’t argue.” “Well!” She ruffled herself up like an angry banty chicken. “Mr. Winterman, just who do you think you are, giving me orders?” He drew in a tired breath. “I’m your hired man, Eleanor. I’m trying to help you here, so do what I say, all right?” Molly and Danny exchanged wide-eyed looks and picked up their forks without a word. Cord ladled some beans onto their plates and then some onto his own. After a long moment their mother picked up her fork, and the kids exchanged another, even longer, look. Cord caught Danny’s eye and gave him an imperceptible shake of his head. Don’t say anything, son. Nobody likes to give in when they’ve made a speech about refusing something. To Molly he sent a smile and a wink. After that, supper was dead quiet except for the clink of utensils against the china plates. Finally Danny broke the spell. “We got any dessert, Ma?” “No, I’m afraid not,” she said. “I meant to bake an apple pie, but...” “I make a humdinger of an apple pie,” Cord announced. Three startled pairs of eyes stared at him. “Aw, you can’t neither,” Danny said. “Don’t bet on it, son.” Eleanor pinned him with a disapproving look but he paid no attention, just grinned. “You all get ready for apple pie tomorrow night, all right?” He held her gaze just long enough to make her a little nervous. Eleanor stared at him. Apple pie? Surely he was joking. After an announcement like that, she found she couldn’t stop looking at him. Well, maybe it was more than his apple pie promise. Maybe it was his way of taking over, of making her feel...cared for somehow. She gave herself a mental shake. The man left her with an uneasy, fluttery feeling in her stomach. She watched Danny and Molly gobble down their beans, butter extra squares of corn bread and gulp down their milk. Then, without a word from her, they gathered up the plates and pumped water into the teakettle to heat for washing up the dishes. Things were certainly different since Cord Winterman had appeared at her door. She wasn’t sure she liked it. She wasn’t sure she even liked him. Could a man like that really deliver on a challenge to bake a pie? She didn’t think so for one minute. Not for one single minute! * * * That night, Cord lay awake in the loft until long past moonrise, not because he wasn’t tired from fixing the screen or the porch step or the front gate, but because Mama Cat brought her wriggly kittens to curl up against his back and he was afraid to roll over for fear of crushing them. He could move them, he supposed. But after a few hours he kinda liked hearing them purr next to him. You know what, Winterman? You are a damn fool. Maybe. He didn’t know exactly what he’d landed in here at Eleanor Malloy’s apple farm, but he was grateful for the roof over his head, even if the barn was drafty, and three meals a day with no one prodding him to hurry up or move on or...anything else. God, it was good to be here! It felt good to buy lumber at the sawmill, buy lemon drops for Molly and caramels for Danny. It felt especially good to talk to a pretty girl at the mercantile. What was her name? Fanny something. Even if she did giggle and flutter her eyelashes at him, it was good to know he still looked like a normal man on the outside, even if the inside was pretty much broken. He drifted off to sleep with Mama Cat warming his backside and a woman’s face floating in his mind. But it wasn’t Fanny What’s-her-name’s face. It was Eleanor Malloy’s. In the morning he milked Bessie, saved a saucerful for Mama Cat and the kittens, laid out the lumber to repair the rotten corral fence and ate the best breakfast he could remember in the last seven years. Molly fried up a mess of bacon, Daniel mixed up thick sourdough pancake batter and Eleanor made coffee with one hand and flipped pancakes with the other. She looked better this morning, more rested. The dark circles under her eyes seemed less pronounced. Maybe that nap yesterday afternoon had done her some good. Or maybe he should slip whiskey into her coffee more often. It took all day to repair the fence. Halfway through the afternoon he remembered his promise to bake an apple pie for tonight’s dessert. He was sure ending up doing some strange things on this farm, cuddling kittens and plying kids with lemon drops and caramels. And now he’d gotten himself into baking a pie. Still, any single hour of life here on this farm was better than sixty seconds of where he’d been before. After midday dinner he shooed the kids outside and watched Eleanor nod off on the parlor settee. After a while he tiptoed out onto the porch, where Molly and Danny were arguing about what to do with the old rusted-out door screen. “Let’s build a bird cage.” “No! Let’s make a chicken coop.” “We’ve already got a chicken coop,” Molly pointed out. “Yeah,” Danny conceded. “But it’s pretty rickety. How about making a dirt-strainer.” “A dirt-strainer!” Molly’s blue eyes went wide. “That’s a dumb idea. What’s a dirt-strainer, anyway?” “You know. When Ma plants tomatoes ’n’ carrots she hoes the dirt real fine. A dirt-strainer would make it easier.” They argued and discussed until their mother woke from her nap, and Cord strode into the kitchen to bake his apple pie. Eleanor shook her head at the sight of the rangy man in her kitchen and when he tied her blue-checked gingham apron around his waist she had to smile. Danny disappeared into the pantry and emerged with a big bowl of last season’s red Jonathan apples. Cord sat him down at the kitchen table with a paring knife and showed him how to cut them in half, remove the core and peel them. He showed Molly how to slice them up fine, and while the children labored away, he started his piecrust. She watched with misgivings. Piecrust was hard to get just right. Adding too much water made it tough; adding too little made the crust crumble into nothing when you tried to roll it out. Cord scooped two cups of flour out of the barrel and dropped in a palm-size lump of her just-churned butter. She didn’t really believe he knew what he was doing, but his motions were decisive. He was even humming! Well, maybe he did know and maybe he didn’t, she sniffed. The proof would be in the pudding. Or the pie, she amended. Part of her hoped he would fail, that his crust would turn out tough and the apples mushy. Another part of her admired him, a rugged-looking man too tall for her low-ceilinged kitchen, for even attempting to bake a pie. And, she thought, studying her two children absorbed in their apple peeling and slicing, Molly and Daniel were certainly learning something new! Not only that, she acknowledged, they weren’t squirming or whining to go play outside. Cord must have threatened them with something. In just two days, this man who’d ridden in from God knows where, and about whom she knew absolutely nothing, had tamed her over-curious son and her lively daughter, and that was a miracle if there ever was one. She trusted Cord Winterman, and she had to wonder why. She was no green girl, one who was easily bowled over by a handsome face and skill with a hammer. In all the years she’d been alone, she had never hungered for male company. She knew this was a source of gossip and speculation on the part of the townspeople, and it was definitely cause for frustration on the part of the parade of men who brought supplies and mail and news from town and dropped broad hints about staying for supper. None of them had ever set foot in her kitchen, or sat at her supper table, or anywhere else inside the house. She wasn’t interested, and until this moment she had never wondered why. Isaiah, the old hired man she’d had for years, had rarely even spoken to her children, let alone taught them anything. Isaiah had been lazy and inept and dull-witted, but she’d been desperate for help and for all his shortcomings, she had trusted him around Danny and Molly. When the crotchety old man had moved on, she wasn’t sorry, but then she’d fallen ill. But this man, Cord Winterman, was a different kind of fish. He made her children sit up and take notice. He made her sit up and take notice. He made her wonder about things. Why, for instance, was he content to work as just a hired man when it was plain he was capable of so much more? Where had he come from? Where was he going? She should have demanded answers to these questions, but somehow when he had appeared at her front door, all the questions had flown out of her head. She watched him sprinkle flour over the breadboard, divide his pie dough into four equal parts and search for her rolling pin. So he was making not just one but two pies! The man knew his way around a kitchen, and she couldn’t help but wonder whose kitchen it had been in his past. He let Danny and then Molly try their hand at rolling out the crust. Then he took over, rolled it thin and expertly laid it in the tin pie pan. He showed Danny again how to roll out the next bottom crust, and then they all heaped in handfuls of sliced apples and brown sugar. Brown sugar? She never used brown sugar in apple pie! And then he added bits of butter and...cheese? Cheese! Whatever was he thinking? When he slashed the top crusts and slid the filled tins into the oven, the children clapped their hands and Cord half turned toward her. A flour smudge marked one cheek and his apron was spotted with something, but he sent her a grin that curled her toes. Even from here she could see the triumphant light in those unnervingly blue eyes. Suddenly she wished she had some whiskey in her coffee cup. Chapter Five (#ub3a4fbdf-f875-5b82-a0cf-8c3bd12de7ef) Cord knew she was watching his every move, assessing him, judging him. Eleanor resented his presence in her kitchen, rooting around in her pantry and in the cutlery drawers. But she wanted an apple pie, didn’t she? If there was one thing he’d learned in this life, it was that you don’t get something for nothing. No rooting around in a pantry, no apple pie. He worked on, trying to ignore her, and trying to ignore the undercurrent of pleasure he felt knowing that her eyes were following every move he made. It made his chest feel as hot inside as he felt outside in the stifling kitchen with the roaring fire in the stove heating up the oven. While the pies baked, the children drifted out the back door to play in the yard and Cord warmed up the coffee, poured two cups and carried them into the parlor, where Eleanor sat. She looked up at him with a strange expression on her pale face. He sucked in his breath and waited. “You’re not just a hired man, are you?” she said. “I mean, that’s not what you did before I hired you, is it?” “I’m a hired man here,” he said carefully. “I’m not sure what I’d be somewhere else.” She reached for his offered cup of coffee, then glanced up again. “Do you have plans for ‘somewhere else’?” He gave her such a long look that she lowered her eyes. “I was planning to go to California, to the gold fields.” “What stopped you?” He didn’t answer for a long time, just focused his gaze out the window on the apple orchard. “To be honest, I wouldn’t have stopped here if I hadn’t been so hungry, even though I’d seen your advert in town. But then I came up on that little hill and saw all those apple trees covered with lacy white blossoms. Kinda made my heart feel funny, so I stopped and...well, you know the rest.” She paused with her cup halfway to her mouth. “How long will you stay?” “It’s April now,” he said slowly. “I thought I’d give it five months, say ’til August, before I move on.” “Very good. Doc Dougherty tells me I should be completely well and strong long before August.” “Yeah? You gonna chop wood and hitch up the horse and drive that wagon to town and muck out your barn by yourself? You need some help out here, ma’am. Even if I’m not going to be here, you should have a hired man to help out.” She gave him a half smile and sipped her coffee for a full minute before she spoke. “I chopped wood and mucked out the barn before I fell ill, Mr. Winterman. I have been on my own here for almost seven years, ever since Molly was born.” Cord studied her. Her cheeks were getting pink. “It’s too hard for a woman alone. That’s most likely why you got sick.” “That is pure nonsense. I got sick because I fell in the creek while I was chasing the cow and took a chill. A week later it turned into pneumonia.” He stood up suddenly. Dammit, he didn’t want to concern himself with her well-being. He didn’t want to like her kids, and he didn’t want to like her. But he did. And he had to admit it scared the hell out of him. “Think I’ll check on the pies,” he growled. He moved into the kitchen and bent over the oven door, and when he returned he brought the coffeepot and filled her cup. He didn’t look at her. But he did ask the question that had been niggling in the back of his mind. “Do you and your husband own this place free and clear?” “I own it. I removed Tom’s name from the deed when he...when he left home to go off to war. It’s been seven years now, and he is considered legally dead.” “You said you had a hired man before you hired me.” “Yes. Isaiah. As I told you, he didn’t do much.” “Why’d you keep him, then?” “He needed a place to stay and I needed someone to help about the farm. Molly was just a baby then, and Danny was too little to be much help.” “How’d you manage after this hired man, Isaiah, left?” “I managed,” she said in a quiet voice. “And then you got sick,” he observed dryly. She took a swallow of her coffee. “Well, yes I did. Doc Dougherty came, and he sent a woman out from town, Helen, I think her name was, to nurse me and take care of Molly and Daniel. She stayed until I was strong enough to get out of bed. I am growing stronger with every day that passes.” “Mrs. Malloy. Eleanor,” he amended. “Seems to me you’re just hangin’ on by a thread. You’ve got two kids. You owe it to them to take better care of yourself. That means no more milking and no chopping wood.” She pressed her lips into a thin line but said nothing. Cord studied the rigid set of her shoulders and the white-knuckled grip she had on the handle of her china cup. “I get the feeling you don’t take orders too well.” She gave him a wobbly smile. “You are most likely correct. I was a great trial to my parents.” That made him laugh out loud. “I bet you’re still plenty stubborn when it comes to doing things your own way.” “Oh, maybe just a little.” Her cheeks turned an even deeper shade of rose. “Maybe you’re more than a little stubborn,” he said. “Maybe a lot stubborn.” “Oh, all right, maybe I’m a lot stubborn.” By now her cheeks were flushed scarlet. “Now that you’re here, I will take better care of myself. Especially,” she said with a little bubble of laughter, “since you can bake an apple pie. Which,” she added with an impish grin, “you have quite forgotten is still in the oven.” Instantly he wheeled away from her and strode into the kitchen. The pies were not burned, as he had feared, just nicely baked. He grabbed potholders and lifted them out of the oven. Oh, man, they looked just right, golden brown on top with rich juice bubbling out the vents he’d slashed in the crust. They smelled wonderful! He was damn proud of them. Eleanor followed him into the kitchen, cup and saucer still in her hand. “Who taught you to make a pie? Your mother?” “No,” he said shortly. She looked at him with another question in her eyes, but he ignored it. Best not to dig around in those long-past years. No good ever came from opening a wound that had healed over. He set both pies on the open windowsill to cool and stacked the mixing bowl and the paring knives in the sink for the kids to wash up after supper. Eleanor returned to the parlor, where she curled up on the settee and gazed out the front window. “You don’t like talking to me, do you?” she asked suddenly. Whoa, Nelly. How’d she figure that? “Why is that?” she pursued, her eyes on his face. “Guess I haven’t been around many ladies lately.” “Silence is perfectly all right with me,” she went on. “I spent years and years not being talked to.” She closed her eyes against the late-afternoon sun’s glare, and that gave him a chance to really look at her. Her lids were purplish with blue-black smudges shadowing her eyes. She might not be sick anymore, but she was obviously exhausted. So even if she was as stubborn as three ornery mules, now she had a hired man to help her. He drew in a long, quiet breath. For the first time in longer than he could remember he felt needed. And that, he thought with a silent groan, made him nervous. * * * The kids raced through their supper of biscuits and something Eleanor called bean stew, which as near as he could figure out was last night’s baked beans with cut-up carrots and potatoes added. Tasted good, though. His apple pie was received with oohs and aahs. Even Eleanor wanted a second piece. “Ma, Miz Panovsky says we’re gonna have Student Night at school on Saturday.” Eleanor looked up from the table. “Oh?” “You gonna come? You were too sick the last time.” “Well, yes,” she said quickly. “Of course I’m going to come, Danny. I’m much stronger now.” Cord thought the boy looked somewhat unsettled at that. “What about me?” Molly wailed. “When do I get to go to school?” “As soon as you’re big enough, honey.” “But I’m big now!” “Molly, you’re still too young to walk three miles to town and then three miles back home, and you’re too little to ride a horse.” Her face scrunched up. “When will I be big enough?” Cord stood up suddenly. “How ’bout I measure you, see how tall you are? We can make a mark on the back door frame.” He sent Eleanor an inquiring look, and she nodded. “Then later I’ll measure you again, and you can see how much you’ve grown. How about it?” Molly’s eyes sparkled. “Can we do it right now?” “Sure.” He caught Eleanor’s eye. “You got a tape measure handy?” “It’s upstairs in my bedroom. But—” “I’ll get it,” Cord said. Eleanor had looked peaked all afternoon and during supper she’d seemed short of breath. “Where is it, exactly?” “It’s in my top dresser drawer. Molly can show you, but she’s too short to reach it.” Cord followed the girl as she scampered up the stairs. He’d been in Eleanor’s bedroom only once, the day she’d almost fainted and he’d carried her upstairs. Molly banged the door open and streaked toward the walnut chest standing against the far wall. “Up there.” She pointed to the top drawer. Something about being here made him nervous. Too private, maybe? Too...female? Carefully he pulled the drawer open. Her possessions were all neatly arranged, lacy handkerchiefs, a red knit hat and two blue silky-looking scarves. No jewelry, he noted. He wanted in the worst way to open the second drawer. Maybe he’d find some of her smallclothes, drawers or chemises, or a sheer nightgown. Nah. Eleanor wouldn’t wear a sheer nightgown. Or would she? Concentrate on the tape measure, man. He gingerly laid one finger on the tumble of scarves and pushed one aside, looking for the tape. But what he uncovered instead was a framed daguerreotype. A man and a woman, apparently on their wedding day. A long veil fell below her slim shoulders. She was not smiling. His gut clenched. What made a woman not smile on her wedding day? He wished he hadn’t seen it. Molly danced at his side. “Didja find it?” He pushed the photograph to one side and there underneath it lay a neatly coiled measuring tape. “Got it.” Reluctantly he pushed the drawer shut. Molly darted out the door and down the stairs. “Measure me! Measure me!” While Eleanor and Danny washed up the supper dishes, Cord lined Molly up against the door frame and made a pencil mark for her height. “You’re thirty-two inches tall,” he announced. “Now do me,” Danny insisted. He dried his hands on the dish towel, marched to the back door and stood at attention. Cord dutifully marked his height and turned to Eleanor. “How tall are you, Miz Malloy?” “Why, I have no idea.” “Shall I measure you?” “Oh, I don’t think—” “Aw, come on, Ma, do it!” Danny ordered. Obediently Eleanor moved to the back door and straightened her spine against the frame. She sent him a self-conscious look and closed her eyes. Closed her eyes? Why in hell would she close her eyes? He snapped the length of measuring tape in his two hands, moved toward her and stopped. He couldn’t lay the tape against Eleanor’s body. He didn’t trust his hands anywhere near her. They were already shaking and he wasn’t anywhere close to her. “You’d better hurry up, Cord,” she said. “You and Molly have to dry the dishes.” He swallowed. “Right. Open your eyes and turn around, Eleanor. Face the door and put your nose right up against the wood.” She obeyed, and he ran the tape from the back of her work boot, over the curve of her hip and along her upper spine to the top of her head. “Okay, now step away.” She ducked under his hand and moved back a step while he made a pencil mark on the door frame. Next to it he inscribed her initials. E.M. “Now you!” Danny insisted. Before he could refuse, Eleanor snatched the tape measure out of his hand. “Stand up against the door,” she ordered. “Front or back?” he asked. Wait a minute. The thought of her touching him anywhere near his groin was unnerving. He turned toward the door and put his back to her. He felt her touch his ankle, felt the tape slide along the back of his jeans and then over his butt. He stopped breathing. Then her hand skimmed up his spine to his neck, and he couldn’t help the shiver that shook him. Suddenly she stopped. “The tape measure’s not long enough,” she announced. Cord said a silent prayer of thanks. Her every touch was arousing. Actually, he didn’t dare turn around just yet because his groin was engorged and...well...active. “How tall is Cord?” Molly asked. “Over six feet,” Eleanor said. “Golly,” Danny breathed. “Do you think I’ll be that tall when I’m all growed up?” Eleanor wound the tape into a tight coil and slipped it into her apron pocket. “I don’t think so, Danny. Your father was...” She stopped abruptly. “Shorter than Cord,” she continued. “So chances are you will be—” “Tall enough,” Cord interrupted. “Tall enough to be a really good rider.” The boy’s gray-blue eyes widened. “Really honest?” “Yeah, really honest.” He caught Eleanor’s gaze. She was shaking her head no. “I don’t want Danny riding a horse yet. There’s been no one to teach him, and besides, he’s too young.” Cord stepped away from the doorway and surreptitiously adjusted his jeans. “He’s not too young, Eleanor. I’ve been riding since I was five years old.” She bit her lip. “I still don’t think—” “Please, Ma?” Danny yelped. “I’ll do all the dishes every night for a month, I promise.” Cord laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder and squeezed lightly. Then he turned to Molly. “Come on, Molly. I guess it’s up to us to dry the supper dishes.” Chapter Six (#ub3a4fbdf-f875-5b82-a0cf-8c3bd12de7ef) “You ever think you’d like to eat pie for breakfast?” Cord asked the next morning. “Yes!” Molly and Daniel shouted in unison. “No,” Eleanor said decisively. Cord shrugged and watched her crack eggs into the skillet. “Apple pie is not a proper breakfast for growing children,” she pronounced in a no-nonsense tone. “Aw, Ma,” Danny moaned. “I’m sick of eggs.” “Eggs,” their mother said with an edge in her voice, “are what civilized people eat for breakfast.” Both children dawdled through the meal of fried eggs and bacon, and suddenly Cord realized why they were eating so slowly. It was Monday, a school day for Danny. An hour later the grumbling boy hoisted his satchel over his shoulder and plodded out the front door. Molly moped around the yard petting the chickens until her brother trudged back through the gate late that afternoon. “Danny, you know maybe you could ride my bay mare to school,” Cord remarked casually. “I could teach you to ride.” “Nah. Ma won’t let me. You heard her. She says a horse is dangerous. Besides, you said it was too much horse for me.” “It is dangerous if you don’t know how to handle a horse. You ever been on a horse?” Danny shook his head. “How long does it take you to walk to school?” “Most of an hour. It’s over three miles.” Cord nodded. He’d like to see the boy get to and from school faster, if only because Molly was always underfoot when her brother was gone. An extra hour morning and evening could be well spent if Danny was around to entertain the girl. After supper that night Cord again raised the subject with Eleanor. “Absolutely not,” she said shortly. “He’s too young to manage a big animal like that.” “He’s not too young, Eleanor. I told you I learned to ride when I was younger than Molly.” “Then your mother was a fool.” “My mother was dead. My father was the fool, but he taught me to ride anyway. And hunt and read and write. He even taught me to dance a Virginia reel.” Eleanor’s face changed. “Did he really? How extraordinary!” “He also taught me how to repair a barn roof, which is what I’m going to do tomorrow. Unless,” he added, “you have something else that needs doing.” “Does the barn roof really need fixing?” “It does. The holes are so big, at night I can look up and see the stars. Come winter it’ll leak like a sieve.” “I take it that you are sleeping up in the loft?” “Yeah.” He sighed. “Along with Mama Cat and her kittens.” “I think Isaiah slept in one of the horse stalls. He wouldn’t climb the ladder up to the loft. He said it made him light-headed.” Cord chuckled. “Then he never knew about the holes in the roof, did he? Or about Mama Cat?” “Oh, very well,” she said with a laugh. “Fix the barn roof. I certainly wouldn’t want a wet cat and kittens when the winter rains come.” She stood up, untied her apron and hung it on the hook by the stove. “Thank you for making those pies, Cord.” She hesitated. “A man who can not only bake a pie and dance a Virginia reel but repair barn roofs is certainly rare in my book.” Cord thought about her remark all the rest of that day. Rare, huh? He’d been called a lot of things in his life, but “rare” wasn’t one of them. Still, he thought with a smile, a man liked a compliment now and then, didn’t he? * * * It was Saturday, Danny’s School Night. All day the boy moped around the yard with such a long face Eleanor wondered if he was sick. Finally she couldn’t stand it any longer and set aside the basket of green peas she was shelling and stood up on the back porch step. “Danny, are you feeling all right?” “Sure, Ma. I guess so. Got something flutterin’ around in my belly is all.” Cord looked up from the chicken house, where he was nailing a new roost in place. “Butterflies, huh?” “Guess so,” the boy muttered. “You have to give a speech or something? That can make a man plenty nervous.” Danny perked up at the word man and sent her hired man a pained look. “Yeah. I gotta recite the Bill of Rights from memory and give a speech about it.” “Hey, just yesterday you wanted to be ‘all growed up’ so your ma would let you ride a horse,” Cord reminded him. “Part of gettin’ there—” he shot Eleanor a look “—is, uh, standing up to those things that are hard.” “Like giving a speech?” Danny muttered. “Yeah, like giving a speech.” Eleanor sat back down on the step and again started shelling peas. Cord made a good deal of sense at times. And then her hired man opened his mouth and spoiled it. “Believe me,” Cord called from the chicken house, “you’re gonna find ridin’ a horse easy after makin’ a speech in public.” Her son’s eyes lit up. “Oh, yeah?” “Yeah,” Cord said. “No,” Eleanor countered. “No horse-riding. Not yet.” Cord pounded another nail into the chicken roost, tossed the hammer to Danny and strode across the yard toward her. But instead of starting an argument with her, he asked about her daughter. “Where’s Molly?” “She’s in the barn, playing with those kittens.” “She’s not near the horse stalls, is she? Or up in the loft?” “She is not allowed up in the loft, Cord. I don’t want her falling off that narrow little ladder. And she’s scared to death of horses.” “But you trust her, right? She’s sensible enough not to get hurt.” “Well, yes. But...” “Ma,” Danny called, his voice plaintive. “Do I really have to go to School Night?” “Yes,” both she and Cord said together. “You really do. Now, go find Molly and both of you wash up for supper.” Thankfully, Cord kept his mouth shut about horses and riding all through her supper of creamed peas on biscuits. When she shooed the children upstairs to put on clean clothes, Cord went out to the barn to hitch up the wagon. Upstairs in her bedroom, Eleanor quickly sponged off her face and neck and donned her blue gingham day dress. She was the last to descend the front porch steps. She felt as nervous as Danny. All her life she had disliked public gatherings. Her mother had criticized her for being shy, but Eleanor knew better. She was not just shy; she was frightened of people, especially crowds of people. Somehow she felt she never “measured up,” in her mother’s words. Cord took one look at her, jumped down from the driver’s seat and lifted her onto the wagon bench beside him. Before he picked up the reins he leaned sideways and spoke near her ear. “You all right, Eleanor? You look white as milk.” “I’m fine,” she said shortly. “Just a little scared.” “Scared about what?” She twisted her hands in her lap and looked everywhere but at him, but she didn’t answer. Finally he laid down the reins and turned to face her. “Scared about what?” “About all those people,” she admitted. “About... I guess I’m worried about Danny. It’s so hard to be on display.” “Yeah.” He raised his eyebrows but said nothing. Instead he picked up the traces and they started off. Danny clambered down to shut the gate behind them, then climbed back into the back. He looked so preoccupied Cord had to chuckle. Probably rehearsing his speech in his head. The schoolhouse was lit up like a Christmas tree with kerosene lamps and candle sconces along the walls. Children milled about in the schoolyard, and as Cord maneuvered the wagon into an available space he heard Danny let out a groan. “I don’t wanna do this!” he moaned. “I don’t want to do this, either!” Eleanor murmured. Molly stood up in the wagon, propped her hands at the waist of her starched pinafore, and at the top of her voice screeched, “Well, I do! I do wanna do this!” All the way into the schoolhouse Cord chuckled about Fearless Molly in a family of Nervous Nellies. Danny disappeared into the cloakroom, and he followed Eleanor to an uncomfortable-looking wooden bench near the back. He lifted Molly onto his lap, careful not to squash the ruffles on her clean pinafore, and then looked around. He recognized Carl Ness, the mercantile owner, with a thin-faced woman he took to be Carl’s wife, flanked by two young girls. He recognized Edith, the girl who had painted the mercantile front pink; the other girl looked exactly like her so that must be Edith’s twin sister. Ike Bruhn, the owner of the sawmill, sat with two women, one with a baby in her arms and the other tying a bow on a young girl’s braids. Then a very beautiful young woman with a bun of dark hair caught at her neck with a ribbon stepped to the front of the room and clapped her hands. That must be Danny’s teacher. At the clapped signal, a humming sound began at the door behind him, and all at once he heard singing. Twenty or so students, ranging in age from about six or seven to a strapping blond boy of maybe fourteen, marched in two by two, singing “My Country ’tis of Thee.” A chill went up Cord’s spine. Danny was the seventh in the line, walking next to a small blonde girl in a pink gingham dress. The boy looked like he wanted to sink through the floor. The teacher, Mrs. Christina Panovsky, arranged them in rows against the front wall and turned to the audience. “Welcome, everyone. This is an extraordinary class of extraordinary young people—your sons and daughters. We want to share with you what we have been learning this school year.” What followed was impressive. Four students acted out a scene from a play about Robin Hood they had written themselves. Then a small choir sang “Comin’ Through the Rye” in three-part harmony and a larger choir presented a “spoken word” song, a clever recitation of geographical names chanted in complicated rhythms. “Ar-gen-tin-a. Smoke Riv-er. Clacka-mas Coun-ty. Mex-i-co Ci-ty.” Molly loved it; she bounced up and down on his lap in time with the words. Finally Danny stepped forward to deliver his speech. Molly sat up straight and craned her neck to see. Eleanor clutched Cord’s arm. He felt a tightening in his chest. “Ladies and gentlemen...” The boy’s voice shook slightly, but as he progressed through his speech it grew stronger, and when he finished with, “We are one people, one nation... We are Americans,” his words rang with assurance. He stepped back to spirited applause. Eleanor still clutched his arm, and now she was crying. Cord pried her fingers off his bicep and pressed his handkerchief into her hand. “Th-thank you,” she wept. It made him chuckle deep down inside. Molly twisted around and flung her small arms about his neck. “Wasn’t Danny wunnerful? I wanna go to school, too!” Following Danny’s speech there were more songs and recitations, ending with the little blonde girl in the pink dress, who sang a haunting folk song, first in French and then in English. Something about yellow daisies in a meadow. “That’s Manette Nicolet,” Eleanor whispered. “Her mother is French, from New Orleans. Her father is Colonel Wash Halliday, over there.” She tipped her head to the right, where a small, very attractive woman sat holding the hand of a well-muscled gent with a bushy gray-peppered mustache. His eyes were so shiny Cord could see the moisture from here. “Colonel, huh?” he murmured. “Blue or gray?” “Blue, I think. Union. His full name is George Washington Halliday. It’s her second marriage. Her first husband was killed in the War.” “The daughter, Manette, doesn’t look much older than Molly. Looks like she does well in, uh, school.” Eleanor let the remark lie. When the presentations and recitations drew to a close, Mrs. Panovsky invited them all to stay for cookies and lemonade. “Oh, boy, lemonade!” Molly sang. She scooted off Cord’s lap and bobbed excitedly at her mother’s side until Eleanor rose and moved toward the refreshment table in the far corner. Cord was about to follow when a feminine voice called his name. “Why, Cordell Winterman, is that really you?” A ruffle-bedecked Fanny Moreland made a beeline across the room toward him. “Y’all remember me, don’t you? Carl Ness introduced us at the mercantile? You were buying coffee and lemon drops and—” “Chicken mash,” Eleanor said from beside him. “Oh, hello, Mrs. Malloy. I haven’t seen you in town for such a long time I thought you might be...well...you know, expecting. Are you?” “Expecting what?” Eleanor inquired with a perfectly straight face. “Um...well, you know,” Fanny said, lowering her voice. “Expecting a...baby.” She whispered the last word. “I am not, thank you,” Eleanor replied, her voice cool. “My husband, you may recall, has been away for some years.” Fanny looked nonplussed for just an instant. “Oh, that’s right, I remember now. Why, you’re practically a widow!” Molly reached up and gave Fanny’s flounced skirt a sharp tug. “That’s not very nice! My mama is not a widow.” Cord lifted Molly into his arms and started to move away, but Fanny wasn’t finished yet. “Oh, Cordell, I am so terribly thirsty. Would you be so kind as to fetch me some lemonade?” Cord gave her a level look. “Sorry, Miss Moreland. As you can see, I have my hands full.” He shifted Molly’s weight to emphasize his point. “Why, who is this darling little girl?” Fanny gushed. “Surely you are not the father? You’re not married, are you, Cordell?” “No, he’s not!” Molly blurted out. “I’m Molly, and he’s not married. He lives with us!” Fanny’s expression changed. “Oh, you mean with Mrs. Malloy?” Molly nodded. “Yes, with my mama.” Cord cleared his throat. “I work for Mrs. Malloy. I’m her hired man.” “Well, isn’t that interesting! I was just about to pay a call on Mrs.—” “No, you weren’t,” Cord interjected. “Well, why ever not? I only want to extend a friendly gesture.” “You want a helluva lot more than that, Miss Moreland. And I’m not interested.” The smile on the young woman’s face never wavered. “Oh, come now. I’m sure you don’t really mean that, do you, Cordell?” Molly squirmed. “Oh, yes he does!” she shouted. Cord could have kissed her. He spotted Danny across the room. “Excuse us, Miss Moreland.” He met the boy halfway across the room. “Didja see me, Cord? Was I all right?” Cord dipped to extend his hand to Danny without dislodging Molly. “You were very all right, Dan. Congratulations.” He took the boy’s small hand in his and gave him a firm, manly handshake. Danny grinned up at him and Cord thought the boy was going to float up off the floor. After cups of watery lemonade and too many chocolate cookies, Cord herded his little entourage out the door and across the schoolyard to their waiting wagon. He tightened the cinch on the gray horse, lifted Molly into the back and watched Danny climb in beside her. Then he walked around to the other side, where Eleanor stood. He didn’t even ask, just slipped both hands around her waist and lifted her onto the wooden seat. She said nothing until he drove out of the schoolyard and started on the road out of town. Chapter Seven (#ub3a4fbdf-f875-5b82-a0cf-8c3bd12de7ef) “It must be wonderful to be young and pretty,” Eleanor said at last. She kept her voice down so Molly and Danny in the back of the wagon couldn’t hear. “It’s wonderful to be young, for sure,” Cord said. “Don’t know about being ‘pretty.’” “Men don’t worry about ‘pretty.’ Women do.” “Are you jealous of Fanny Moreland?” Eleanor jerked. Oh, Cord could be so maddeningly blunt! No, she wasn’t jealous of Fanny. She did envy her boldness, though. She was jealous of Fanny’s youth. She acknowledged that she had squandered her own, trying to be a good mother to Danny and Molly and struggling to keep her farm going through winter storms and scorching summers that left vegetable seedlings dried up as soon as they sprouted. Now she was thin and tired and...not young anymore. And she envied Fanny Moreland’s health. “Cord, do you ever wish you could be young again?” He surprised her with a harsh laugh. “Young and what, handsome? Rich? Smart?” He thought for a moment. “Yeah, I wish I was young enough to live some parts of my life over again.” “What parts?” He didn’t answer. She regretted her question the instant she uttered it; it was none of her business. Then after a tense minute or two of silence he surprised her by answering. “Maybe getting married. Getting shot during the War.” He let out a long breath. “Killing a man.” She gasped. “You killed a man?” “I killed more than one in the War, Eleanor.” The tone of his voice made her wish she had never asked. Cord glanced quickly into the back of the wagon, where both Eleanor’s children were asleep. “Tell me about Fanny Moreland,” he said. He held his breath. It was obvious Eleanor didn’t like her. But he didn’t want to talk about his wife. “Oh, Fanny.” Eleanor shifted on the bench next to him. “I guess it’s sad, really. Fanny is from the South. New Orleans, I think. She lives with her aunt, Ike Bruhn’s wife, Ernestine. And Ike, of course.” “Why is that sad?” “Well, Fanny has pots of money she inherited from her father. About three years ago she was jilted, left at the altar by a man Ernestine said was just after her fortune. Her father sent her out West to get her away from the city.” Cord laughed. “Smoke River’s about as far from ‘a city’ as one can get.” “Fanny has no use for small towns, and she is desperately looking for some man to spirit her away from here to a big city. Any big city.” Cord made a noncommittal noise in his throat. “Why?” Eleanor asked. “Are you interested in Fanny?” “Not much. She doesn’t look like the type who’d be too interested in panning for gold in a California mining camp.” “How do you know?” He chuckled. “Too many expensive ruffles.” Eleanor laughed out loud, and Cord shot her a look. “You feeling better now that this school shindig is over?” She nodded, but he noticed she was still twisting her hands together in her lap. He flapped the reins over the gray’s back and picked up the pace. After a moment he slowed the horse down again. Something had been crawling at the back of his mind for the last few days. “You said that Mrs. Halliday’s first husband was killed in the War. Are you sure that’s what happened to Mr. Malloy?” She didn’t answer for a long time, and before she did she checked to make sure Molly and Danny were asleep. “I—I don’t honestly know what happened to Tom. If he had been killed, you would think they would notify the next of kin.” “Maybe. Maybe they didn’t know where to find you.” “How could they not know? I’ve lived on this farm since before the War.” “Or maybe,” he said with studied calm, “he’s not dead.” He shot a look at her. Her face changed, but not in the way he expected. Her mouth thinned into a straight line, and she stared down at her clenched hands. He couldn’t blame her. “I guess you don’t want to talk about your husband.” “And you don’t want to talk about your wife,” she replied. “Ex-wife. She divorced me after I—did something I lived to regret.” He sucked in a breath and let it out in an uneven sigh. “Oh, Cord,” she breathed. “I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.” “Don’t be sorry, Eleanor. I’m not.” In silence he drove up to the gate, climbed down to unlatch it, then guided the rattling wooden wagon up to the front porch. Molly popped up behind them. “Are we home?” “Yes, we’re home,” Eleanor said. “Wake up Danny.” Cord lifted both sleepy children out of the wagon bed and carried them up the front steps. Then he returned and reached up for Eleanor. He half expected her to stiffen up and brush past him and climb down by herself, but she let him circle her waist with his hands and swing her down to the ground. “I’ll drive the wagon around in back of the barn, so I’ll say good-night now. It’s been an...interesting evening.” Again he glimpsed that half-amused expression on her pale face. “Good night, Cord. I’m making French toast for breakfast tomorrow, so don’t be late.” French toast? What in blazes is that? She herded the kids through the front door screen and he heard them clatter up the staircase. He waited, but he didn’t hear the click of the lock on the front door. Was she crazy? Way out here with two kids and a revolver she didn’t know how to fire and she didn’t lock her front door at night? He shook his head and climbed back onto the wagon bench. He’d argue it over with her tomorrow morning while eating her “French toast.” * * * Somehow Eleanor guessed Cord wouldn’t know what to make of French toast. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing a man like Cordell Winterman would eat, and she was certain sure it would never have been served on trail drives in Kansas. If, she thought with a dart of unease, that’s how he’d spent his time after the War. He’d never really said. Molly and Danny waited patiently while she dipped the slices of day-old bread in the milk-and-egg mixture and plopped them onto the hot iron griddle. Before the first slice was ready to turn, she heard Cord tramp up the front steps. But when he stepped into the kitchen she could tell something was wrong. Chapter Eight (#ub3a4fbdf-f875-5b82-a0cf-8c3bd12de7ef) “Good morning,” Eleanor said. “Morning,” Cord grumbled. Well! That wasn’t like Cord at all! Usually he grinned at Molly and ruffled Danny’s shaggy hair. “Morning, Cord,” her children sang in unison. “Hurry up,” Danny added. “We’re about to starve.” He sat down heavily and tilted the chair back. “Eleanor?” Her stomach turned over. He sounded angry about something, but what? She flipped the French toast slices onto a platter and set it down before him. “Yes, Cord? What is it?” “Your front door,” he said tersely. Danny pounced on the platter, speared a slice with his fork and flopped it onto his plate. “What about the front door?” she inquired as she laid three more slices onto the griddle. “Ma, we got any syrup or honey?” “What? Oh, yes. In the pantry, Danny. Why don’t you fetch it? It’s on the middle shelf.” Maybe Cord would forget about the front door. She watched him stab his fork into a slice of nicely browned French toast. Or maybe not. “Your front door...” He paused to dribble the honey Danny had found over his plate. “Yes? What about my front door?” Her appetite was fast fading. The expression on his face was... Thunderous was the only way she could use to describe it. Like clouds before a storm. A bad storm. She couldn’t stand this suspense one more minute. “Just what is wrong with my front door, Cord?” It came out sounding more strident than she’d intended, but it certainly got his attention. She sat down across from him, folded her hands on the table and waited. “The door...” he said between bites of honey-slathered French toast “...should be...” He chewed and swallowed and cut another bite. “Should be what?” she said, her voice tight. He looked up from his plate with narrowed blue eyes. “Should be locked at night.” “Locked! Why, I’ve never locked the door in all my years on this farm! Nobody locks their door out here in Smoke River.” “Eleanor,” he grated. “I’m asking you to lock the door at night.” “Why? Give me one good reason and maybe, maybe, I will consider it.” Cord sent her a hard look. “Molly and Daniel,” he said. “That’s two good reasons. And you. That’s three reasons.” Eleanor stared at him like he had green cabbages for ears. “That’s ridiculous,” she shot out. “No, it isn’t,” he shot right back. “We’ll continue this discussion after the kids finish breakfast.” Danny straightened up in his chair. “But we gotta stay and do the dishes!” “I’ll do the damn dishes!” Cord shouted. Danny and Molly gaped at him, their eyes widening. Eleanor’s eyes narrowed. He reached out his fork for another slice of French toast and found his hand was shaking. Yeah, he was het up about her front door, but maybe he was madder than he thought. Very rarely did he allow any anger he might feel to show on the outside. It was one of the hard lessons he’d learned in prison. Maybe that was why he’d just drifted when he got out. He hadn’t wanted to get involved with anything that made him feel anger or desperation or...anything much at all. There was safety in being numb. “Very well,” she said primly. She pointedly removed his empty coffee cup from the table. He pushed back his chair, stood up and grabbed the speckleware coffeepot off the stove. Then he grabbed his cup out of her hand, sloshed it full and sat down again. Eleanor’s frown etched deep lines into her forehead. “Cord, what is wrong with you this morning?” Cord caught Danny’s eye. “Kids?” He tipped his head toward the back door. “Outside.” “C’mon, Molly. Let’s go find the kittens.” “No! I wanna see what’s gonna happen.” Danny blinked at his sister. “Molly,” he whispered. “What do you think’s gonna happen?” “I think he’s gonna spank Mama!” Eleanor made an involuntary jerk, shooed both children out the back door and moved toward the sink. When the door slammed shut, she sat back down and stared at her folded hands, waiting until Cord looked at her. “It’s not the door, is it? It’s something else.” He clamped his jaw shut. “Well,” he said after a long minute, “it is and it isn’t.” “All right,” she said as patiently as she could manage. “What is and isn’t it?” Cord swallowed a double gulp of coffee and pushed the cup around and around in a circle on the table. “I think...” He made an effort to keep his voice calm. Stay rational. Don’t let too much show. “I don’t care what people in Smoke River do. I think you should lock your front door at night.” She just stared at him, her eyes looking more like hard agates every second. “And the back door,” he added. “You’ve got no way of knowing who might come snooping around, Eleanor. You’ve lived a very protected life.” “This is something you learned at some point from people who weren’t exactly honest.” “That’s partly true. The rest I learned just living somewhere that’s not a little town like Smoke River. This place is...well, it’s like a little bit of heaven. Peaceful and quiet. Nothing much goes wrong here unless it’s some mercantile store getting painted pink. Most places aren’t like this.” She sat without moving for so long he thought maybe she hadn’t heard him. Then she absentmindedly reached for his coffee cup and downed a big swallow. “All this upset is about locking my doors?” An unexpected little spurt of laughter escaped her. “The children think you’re going to spank me!” He chuckled at that. “Maybe I would if I thought I could catch you.” He rescued his cup from her fingers and stood up to pour some coffee for her. Before he set it down in front of her he reached for the brandy bottle she kept on the top shelf of the china cabinet and dolloped some of the liquor into her cup. * * * Monday morning Cord decided he needed to go into town for another pound of nails and some hinges, and he timed his trip so he’d be riding back when Danny would be walking home from school. He had an idea. He knew Eleanor wouldn’t like it, but it was a good idea anyway. Sure enough, half a mile after he left the mercantile he spied the boy trudging along the dusty road, his satchel slung over one drooping shoulder. “Hold up, Danny.” Cord reined up his bay mare and waited. The boy looked up and his dusty, heat-flushed face broke into a tired smile. “Didn’t know you was comin’ to town today, Cord. You see that Miss Fanny lady at the mercantile?” “Nope. Wasn’t looking for Miss Fanny. Bought some nails and some sugar for your ma. Glad I ran into you, though.” “Oh, yeah? Why’s that?” Cord leaned down and spoke quietly. “Thought you might fancy a ride on Sally here.” Danny’s eyes lit up. “Oh, boy, would I? You mean it?” “I never say things I don’t mean, son. Now just hold on a minute, all right?” Before the boy could say another word he slipped out of the saddle and was unbuckling the cinch. “You ready to ride her?” “Can’t. Ma won’t let me.” “Maybe your ma won’t know about it.” Danny frowned up at him. “You’re kidding, right?” “Like I said, Dan, I never say things I don’t mean.” He lifted his saddle off and hefted it onto his shoulder. “Golly, Cord, I don’t know.” “Thought you wanted to learn to ride,” Cord said. “Oh, I sure do, but—” “No buts.” Danny bit his lower lip in exactly the same way Eleanor bit hers. “How come you took the saddle off?” “Because first you’re gonna learn to ride bareback. The saddle comes later.” The boy dropped his book satchel in the dust and reached up to touch the mare’s nose. “H’lo, Sally. Gosh, you’re real handsome, and...” All at once he looked doubtful. “How am I gonna get up there without a stirrup?” “Indian boys don’t use saddles or stirrups. How do you think they do it?” “They... I bet they stand on something so’s they can reach.” Cord shifted the saddle so he could make a foothold with his hands. “Step here,” he ordered. “Now, grab some of the mane and haul yourself up.” He watched the boy hold tight to a fistful of mane and clamber onto Sally’s broad back. When he was sitting upright, he sent Cord a triumphant smile. “What do I do now?” “Squeeze your knees right around her belly and let go of her mane. Then pick up the reins. You won’t fall off if you keep your knees tight.” “O-okay. My knees are squeezin’ like anything and I’m gonna let go of all this hair.” He lifted one hand a scant inch from Sally’s thick mane, then gingerly freed the other and grabbed the leather lines. “Now,” Cord said, “give her a little nudge with your heel.” “Can’t,” Danny announced. “Why not?” “I’m scared she’ll move!” Cord chuckled. “That’s what you want her to do, Dan. Try it.” The horse moved ahead a single step and Danny yelped. “Hell, Cord, she’s moving!” “Watch your mouth, son. There are some things I will tell your ma about.” “S-sorry.” He patted the mare’s neck. “Sorry, Sally.” Cord bit back a grin, turned away and headed down the road. “You know how to make her go,” he called over his shoulder. “If you want her to stop just pull back on the reins and say ‘whoa.’” “Hell—Golly, Cord, I don’t know...” But after a moment Cord heard the unmistakable clop-clop of Sally’s hooves on the road behind him. He dropped back to walk alongside the mounted boy and tried to remember how he’d felt the first time he’d ever felt a horse move under him. Scared. Proud. All “growed-up,” as Danny put it. Well before they reached the turnoff to the farm, Cord raised his hand and the boy brought the mare to a halt and slipped off. “You gonna mount up like you just rode in from town?” “Nope.” He grasped the reins and walked alongside Danny until they reached the farm. He motioned the boy to open the gate and walked the horse through. “Won’t Ma think it’s strange, you walkin’ and carryin’ your saddle like that?” “Probably. But your ma thinks a lot of the things I do are strange, like wanting her to lock the doors at night.” Danny chortled. “And baking pies.” They both laughed all the way into the barn. Chapter Nine (#ub3a4fbdf-f875-5b82-a0cf-8c3bd12de7ef) The sound of insistent hammering stopped conversation on the porch, for which Eleanor was extremely grateful. Red Wilkins looked up from the glass of lemonade she had just poured. “Whazzat?” She always made sure Red had a full glass; he talked less when he was guzzling his lemonade. “My hired man is repairing the barn roof.” Silas Maginnis nudged his spectacles down and peered over the thick lenses at the barn. “Hope he knows what he’s doing, Miss Eleanor. Can’t be too careful about hired help these days.” She gritted her teeth. “More lemonade, Silas?” Silently she prayed the hammering would resume and the conversation with her two unwanted callers would stop. She could hardly wait. “He’s workin’ on the Sabbath, too,” Red observed. Mighty un-Christian-like.” Silas nodded his shiny bald head. “Mighty unhelpful, too, makin’ all that clatter while we’re out here on your porch tryin’ to be sociable.” At that, Eleanor almost laughed aloud. Please, she silently begged Cord. Make some more clatter. Lots more. She settled back into the porch swing and pushed it into motion with her foot. She hated being sociable. For the hundredth time this spring she wondered why Silas and Red and the half dozen other young men from town bothered to bring her supplies or her mail or the town gossip or come calling, since for all they knew she was a married woman. Since she had never received word of Tom’s death, in many ways she considered that she was still married, even though Judge Silver in town said that technically she wasn’t. She had never given even one hint of encouragement to the stream of male visitors from town, and she often wondered why they didn’t give up and stop coming. They couldn’t possibly be interested in her. Or maybe, she thought with sudden misgiving, it was not her they were interested in, but her farm? She checked the lemonade level in their glasses and tried to close her ears to the debate about whether goats were easier to raise than sheep. Reciting the multiplication table would be more interesting than this conversation! Her gaze drifted up to the barn roof, where Cord was pounding nails into a long piece of wood. It was hot this afternoon, the sun relentless and the breeze absent. Bees hummed in the lilac bush, and somewhere a mockingbird trilled and twittered an ever-changing song. Eleanor is bored, it seemed to sing. Bored, bored, bored! From his vantage point on the barn roof Cord had a bird’s-eye view of the activity on the front porch. He flipped the new board over and paused to study the two visitors Eleanor was entertaining. Town types. Pressed creases in their trousers, boots polished to a shine, shirts starched so stiff they could stand up by themselves. The fellow with the spectacles had brought the mail out from town; the other gent had brought a tin of fancy chocolates, which he was devouring along with his lemonade. Molly had fled to the barn to play with the kittens. Danny had groomed Cord’s bay mare and was now lounging around the yard playing marbles with himself. Cord positioned another two-by-six to replace a rotted plank and set a nail in place. He had just raised his hammer when Eleanor’s suddenly upturned face made him check his motion. She picked up the lemonade pitcher, pointed her forefinger at it and raised her eyebrows at him. Did he want some lemonade? Sure he did. But she was down there on the porch and he was up here on the roof, so he shook his head. A look of resignation crossed her face, and she turned her attention back to her visitors. He had to laugh. It was plain she wasn’t enjoying this social call, but he had to wonder why the men lounging on her porch didn’t take the hint. In the next minute he figured it out. They wanted something. Cold lemonade on a hot day? Female attention? The goodwill earned by bringing offerings of mail or chocolates or spools of thread from town? His hammer slowed. Or maybe they wanted her? He drove the waiting nail home in a single blow. When he positioned the next one, he purposely shifted his body around so his back was facing the front porch and he couldn’t see her. But he could still hear the continuous drone of the two male voices. Made him clench his jaw. Eleanor didn’t seem to be saying much, and that was kinda odd. Wasn’t an afternoon social call an occasion for give-and-take conversation? As far as he could tell, this afternoon was all “take” by the two gents but no “give” from Eleanor. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/lynna-banning/the-hired-man/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.КУПИТЬ И СКАЧАТЬ ЗА: 201.34 руб.