Authors: Kathleen Ball
Secret Cravings Publishing
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Cravings Publishing Book
2014 Kathleen Ball
E-book ISBN: 978-1-3105-356-6
Publication: October 2014
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Copyright © 2014
Colt O’Malley stood watching
the sunrise in the big, Montana spring sky. He hadn’t slept, how could he? In
fact, he hadn’t slept for days. Burying his brother, Caleb hadn’t been part of
his plan, ever, but plans change in the most drastic ways.
As he rubbed his hand over his
unshaven jaw, he was surprised at the length of his stubble. He hadn’t changed
his clothes in a few days either. As soon as he’d gotten home from the funeral,
he’d thrown on some old clothes and rushed to the barn to muck stalls with the
hope that keeping busy would distract him from dwelling on the heaviness of his
heart. The last few days had been a horribly painful blur. It really didn’t
matter how he looked. He didn’t care anymore. The only thing that still made
sense was caring for the horses. They relied on him to get them well and to
keep them safe. They were the only reason he got out of bed. They needed him.
Nothing worked not excessive
physical exertion and certainly not large amounts of whiskey. He’d tried both
routes but neither helped, and bitterness filled his heart. He was a lone
cowboy now. Caleb had been the last of his family, now he was gone too.
Everyone was gone, and he was the sole owner of the ranch, land handed down over
the centuries. The legacy would end with him.
Grabbing his Stetson and coat,
he headed outside. The ranch was cold, bitter even, and it matched his mood.
There was plenty of snow, but he’d already plowed and shoveled yesterday so he’d
have to find something else to tire him out today. Maybe if he moved some of
the massive, round hay bales, he would finally exhaust himself and be able to
pass out. Yeah right, he’d probably never sleep again.
He noticed a truck coming up
his long drive and swore. Why couldn’t people just leave him alone? It had been
a week, and everyone still felt the need to try to cheer him up. Well, he’d had
about all he could take. He didn’t want any more condolences or flowers, and he
certainly didn’t want another casserole delivered; the women of Carlston weren’t
very good cooks. The urge to go back in the house and slam the door was
powerful, but he stood waiting for the truck to come closer. He’d just send the
busybody on their way.
His brow furrowed. Old Ed, the
town loner, had a passenger with him. Old Ed didn’t like anyone bothering him
so Colt thought, out of everyone, Old Ed would know to leave him alone. No one
knew anything about Ed except that he moved to Carlston about forty years ago.
A nice enough
but he never talked much and he didn’t
Colt didn’t miss the shrug Ed
gave him as he walked over to the passenger-side door. Colt widened his stance
and crossed his arms. Whoever was with him was going right back to town.
“This young miss was supposed
to meet Caleb at the bus station.
Didn’t know what to tell
the gal so I brought her out to you.”
“Just take her back. Caleb
never mentioned a girlfriend,” Colt snapped.
The girl walked toward him,
her blue eyes were wide and filled with confusion. Hell, she didn’t know, and
he’d have to be the one to tell her.
why didn’t Ed tell her?
“Caleb told me to come.” Her
chin wobbled a bit, but she stared him straight in the eye. There was strength
and determination in her eyes but it was tempered by her obvious nervousness.
She didn’t seem like Caleb’s type, fun loving and clueless. Something was off
Colt shook his head. The girl
wore a light jacket and sneakers, and she didn’t even have a hat to cover her
lush, red hair. No, she didn’t belong here, and Caleb would have mentioned a
new girl in his life.
“Caleb is dead. We laid him to
rest three days ago. You’ll just have to go back to where you came from.” He
made his voice as gruff as possible hoping she would turn and run.
She took a step back and
covered her mouth with her cold-reddened hand. “I saw him in Texas just before
the school break. He can’t be dead. We…we had plans. Are you sure?”
“I’m damn sure. He’s dead and
buried. Just go home. There’s nothing for you here. Go back to Texas and live
your life. Finish college.” He gestured to Ed. “Take her back, and put her on a
* * * *
Her whole world slowed, and
she stared at this man with an aching chest. Her best friend was dead? How
could he be dead? Caleb was the most vividly alive person she knew. He
constantly delighted her with stories of his brother and ranch life. Turning
away she only saw snow and more snow. Piles of it were everywhere. Her body
chilled, and she shook her head. It couldn’t be true. Caleb would walk right
out of the house, give her a big, bear hug and laugh. However, the pain in his
brother’s eyes crushed her; she wasn’t going to see Caleb ever again. Now what?
There was no going back. She bit the inside of her cheek as she turned back
His brown eyes were filled
with grief. The heavy shadows under his eyes indicated a lack of sleep, and his
shoulders slumped in defeat as though he was about to fall over.
Wrapping her arms around her
middle, she stared at him. He was a big man, tall with wide shoulders. Somehow,
he looked shrunken. “I’ll stay and make sure you eat. I’m assuming the job is
Colt took off his tan Stetson
and slapped it against his thigh. His dark hair hung past his collar, and it
looked soft blowing in the cold wind. “Look, I don’t know what the hell you are
talking about. There is no job. I don’t know what Caleb told you, if he really
invited you here at all. It’s not his style to bring girls home.”
Spring’s heart was in a vice
that kept tightening. “He offered me a job keeping the books for you.”
“Ed, take her back.” The
bitterness in his tone was loud and clear.
“No can do. This little gal
was promised a job, and I think you should honor that promise.”
“Then leave, I’ll take her
Ed turned and walked to his truck. When he got the door, he turned toward Colt.
“You know I don’t go around handing out advice, but if I was judging by the way
you look, I’d say she needs to stay.”
Colt’s eyes raked her over,
making her nervous. Finally, he sighed. “Let’s go inside, and get you something
warm to wear before I take you back.”
Numb inside and out, she
followed him. The house looked much bigger than she’d pictured. The exterior
was wood, covered in peeling paint, but the front porch looked ample. It was
hard to judge, however, with all the blowing snow.
Walking inside, she shivered.
It was spring break, and she thought it might be chilly still, but she didn’t
have the money to buy a heavier coat or boots. She felt stupid arriving in her
windbreaker and sneakers. The snow must be due to melt soon. Warmth was in full
bloom in Texas already. Sure, there was a bit of snow remaining at home, but
this whole area was still a blanket of cold, white snow.
The front part of the house
had an open floor plan, the kitchen and great room were connected, and a
roaring fire in the massive stone fireplace welcomed her.
“Have a seat, I’ll make
Spring nodded and cleared a
place on the cluttered, threadbare couch. Caleb hadn’t exaggerated when he’d
told her that they were barely keeping their heads above water. She didn’t mind
poor. It was what she’d known all her life.
Caleb had held out a helping
hand when he invited her to work at the ranch. He knew what she’d been through,
but it didn’t look as though she’d be staying.
“So what did Caleb promise
you? Were you two going to share a room?” Colt leaned his long body against the
kitchen counter staring at her.
Swallowing hard, her eyes
widened as she stared back. She’d done nothing to deserve this. “Caleb was the
best friend I ever had. I was in a bad situation, and he offered to help.”
“How were you planning to pay
him back? You were planning to pay him back, weren’t you?”
“It wasn’t…we weren’t…we were
just friends. He used to come to the diner I worked at every evening to study
and drink coffee. I believed his offer of a job was genuine. Caleb didn’t seem
the type that would have wanted me to pay him back.”
Colt sighed and nodded. He
grabbed two mugs from the wooden cupboard, and poured the coffee.
“Anything in it?”
“No, black is fine.”
Colt stood before her looking
even bigger. He handed her a mug and sat in a chair to the left of the couch.
“You knew Caleb.”
Spring was surprised that it
was a statement instead of a question. “Yes. He was my best friend. I
understand why you don’t want me here but truthfully, I have twenty-seven
dollars to my name. He said that the pay would be sparse, but there’d be a roof
over my head, and a place I could feel safe. I quit my job.”
* * * *
Colt knew he was a goner as
soon as he looked into her shimmering eyes. To know Caleb was to know his
generosity in all things. “Hell, I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Spring Reed.” She took
her flimsy coat off exposing a too thin, angular figure.
“Tell me what the job
Giving him a skeptical look,
she proceeded to explain. “He planned to teach me how to do the paperwork. He
said that you hated paperwork the most, and he wasn’t organized enough to do a
good job at it. He also asked if I’d help with the cooking occasionally. He
mentioned you were a good cook as long as it came out of a can.”
That much was true. They did
eat canned meals, and he did hate paperwork. The ache in his heart grew knowing
Caleb had been looking to help him. He shrugged. “I haven’t even had time to
keep up with the bookkeeping. I guess the best I can do is give it a try. Caleb
trusted you enough to invite you here. That’s good enough for me. Caleb was
good at sizing up a person’s character. He had a knack for picking out whose
word was good and whose wasn’t.”
Spring nodded and appeared
relieved. She sipped her coffee, lost in thought for a moment. She put the cup
down and gazed at him. “What happened to Caleb? How did he die?”
More pain and regret washed
over him. He didn’t want to tell the story again, but she deserved to know. “It
was a snowmobile accident. It happened a week ago. The snow was coming down
hard and fast, and little Rachael from next door called over here crying
because her dog Snoopy was lost in the snow. You must know how Caleb was always
trying to fix everything.”
Colt noticed she winced at his
last words. She was probably someone Caleb was trying to fix. Her story had a
ring of truth to it, and on his brother’s behalf, he felt honor bound to give
her a chance.
“Caleb charged out into the
snow, determined to help Rachael.”
“Did he find Snoopy?”
He ran his hand over his face.
“Yes, he did.”
The silence in the room grew
as the minutes ticked by, and he wondered if he should be talking. What was
there to say?
She was a little bit of a
thing, and he thought there was something wrong with her shoulder since she
flinched when she moved it. The house was in a shambles. Between being busy
with the horses and Caleb’s death, he hadn’t picked up at all. Glancing around,
the amount of clutter astounded him.
“I’m not an easy man to get
along with lately. I don’t want to be cheered up, and I don’t want you to tell
me how or when to grieve. In fact, the less we talk the better.” Standing up,
he gazed at her. She stiffened. “I’m going to find you a sweater. Think about
what I said before you take the job.”
Standing, he walked to Caleb’s
room, opened the door and closed it behind him. He leaned against it, closing
his eyes, trying to block out the image of Caleb’s broken body. The hole in his
heart grew daily, and he didn’t know how to make it stop. Pushing away from the
door, he found a sweater in the back of Caleb’s closet. He honestly couldn’t
remember Caleb ever wearing it. Spring might as well get some use out of it.
Lord knew Caleb didn’t need it anymore.
She was another waif of Caleb’s.
It wasn’t unusual in the least. Only instead of an injured animal, he’d brought
a troubled woman to the ranch.
* * * *
Spring drank the last of her
coffee, grateful it warmed her insides. There wasn’t even an open spot for her
to place it on the coffee table. She was needed here, and it wouldn’t be
charity; she’d be working for her keep. A hard man, so different from Caleb’s
description, she hoped she could get along with him.
Colt returned with a navy blue
cardigan. He walked toward her and handed it to her. She put it on, wincing as
she stretched her arm into the sleeves. “What’s wrong with your shoulder?”