Love Inspired Historical March 2014 Bundle: Winning Over the Wrangler\Wolf Creek Homecoming\A Bride for the Baron\The Guardian's Promise (10 page)

BOOK: Love Inspired Historical March 2014 Bundle: Winning Over the Wrangler\Wolf Creek Homecoming\A Bride for the Baron\The Guardian's Promise
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“For what?”

“To trust God with your past, your present and your future.”

A present and a future of enjoying her company? Was it possible? Eddie would give him a job. He'd already offered. And then what? What about Brand's past?

Maybe Pa and Cyrus would forget about him. Maybe they already had. He sighed. Yeah, and maybe winter wouldn't come this year. The sun wouldn't rise in the east. And he could be a free man.

Not going to happen. Not with a wanted poster for the Duggans.

But with winter coming on, could he hope to remain here undetected for a few months? Would God give him a chance at a regular life? But then what?

Maybe he could have only a few weeks, a few months, but wouldn't it be worth it?

“I guess I need to let Dawg rest a few more days.” It was all Brand could give her. All he could give himself.

Her eyes flickered, acknowledging that his answer wasn't what she sought. “I pray you will discover you don't need to keep running and hiding.” She looked at him with such hope and assurance that his resistance disappeared like a wisp of smoke.

“You are determined to give me hope, aren't you?”

“Yes, I am.” She leaned closer. “You deserve it.”

He wasn't sure what she thought he deserved. More than was possible, for certain. But her sweet face begged to be kissed. And he lowered his head and caught her lips in a gentle caress.

She sat back and stared at him.

But she couldn't be any more surprised by his actions than he. His pulse took off in a wild gallop. What was there about this woman that unsettled him so much he forgot who he was, what he must do?

Brand fully expected she would rise in her dignified way and make some excuse as to why she must leave. But instead she continued to study him.

“Why did you do that?”

“Do you wish I hadn't?” He didn't regret it for one moment.

“No. But I wonder what it means.”

“I don't know for sure, except you make me forget everything I should remember.”

Her eyes crinkled in gentle laughter. “I'm hoping you mean that as a good thing.”

“It feels right and good at the moment.”

She nodded. “For me, too.”

His grin widened until he thought his face might crack.

They shifted, sat with their backs to the rough wood of the pen, their shoulders touching, as Dawg snored and snorted on his bed, and Brand finished the temporarily forgotten meal.

“Gonna miss all this good cooking.”

“You could enjoy Cookie's meals all winter if you wanted.”

He put the empty plate aside and smiled at Sybil. “You make me wish I could. But it's not possible.”

“So you keep saying. Why isn't it?” She grabbed his arm. “Why?”

“It's not, and that's all I can say.” His heart lay heavy in his chest. If only things could be different.

“I don't understand.”

“Sybil—” But before he could voice what he meant to say, the barn door creaked open and sunlight flared into the interior.

“Glad you could stop by.” It was Eddie, bringing Mr. Stone to get his horse. Brand had been introduced to the owner of the neighboring ranch earlier, when Mr. Stone dropped by and was invited to join them for supper.

“Thanks for the meal.” Sam threw the saddle blanket on his horse, then paused. “Have you heard about the recent robberies? The bank at Fort Macleod was robbed and a farmer north of there reported cash and goods had been taken while he was away from the place. Constable Allen says it's the work of the Duggan gang. He says they could be headed this direction.”

Brand jolted forward, listening intently.

“I'll be watchful,” Eddie said. “Thanks for the warning.”

Sam led his horse out, called a goodbye and rode away.

Eddie came to the pen to check on them. “How's he doing?” He tipped his head toward Dawg.

“Almost good as new,” Brand replied. Good enough to travel.

He waited for Eddie to leave, and then, his jaw hard, his voice firm, he said, “I'll be on my way in the morning.” He'd collect his wages tonight.

“I hoped you would stop running.” Her voice quavered.

“I can't.”

“Why? Don't we all have the power to make our own choices?”

“Sounds good and noble. Doesn't always work.”

“Why not? Brand, what it is you are running from?”

His gaze jerked to hers. He must deny any reason for running. Even more than that, he must deny any reason for wanting to stay. He'd been foolhardy to linger as long as he had.

“Dawg is a very fine animal, but a man needs more than a dog.” Sybil swallowed hard. “Brand, would you stay if I asked you?”

He scrubbed his lips together. Pulled his gaze toward the wall. He dipped into the reservoir of strength and shook his head. “Don't ask. I can't stay.”

“Can't? Or won't?”

“Same thing either way. I'll be heading off in the morning.”

She sank to the floor beside his dog and petted him. “What will happen to Dawg?”

“He'll come with me. As you pointed out, he's my only companion.”

“You could have more. So much more.”

Brand couldn't face the pain and disapproval in her eyes. He ached for what she offered. But the Duggan gang was too close.

If only he could stop running.

But as long as he was a Duggan, he might as well dream of finding gold in his pockets.

Sybil reached for the empty plate. He didn't want her to leave, but what was the point in asking her to stay? Every minute in her company made it that much harder to walk away without a backward look.

Brand saddled his horse at first light. Dawg limped after him, whimpering. “It's okay, old boy. I won't make you walk.”

Other cowboys went in and out of the barn, ready to start their day's work. Dawg growled halfheartedly and Brand simply ignored them.

Cal grabbed a saddle, shot him a challenging look. Brand let it slide off him. Always some young buck wanting to prove something. Let him go ahead and prove whatever he thought he must. Brand wouldn't be around to dispute Cal's accomplishments.

He led his horse from the barn, lifted Dawg in front of the saddle and swung up behind him. He pulled the dog close, holding him gently.

He cast one last glance up the hill to the big house. A shadow flickered past a window. Was it Sybil? Just in case, he touched the brim of his hat.
Goodbye, sweet girl. Thanks for trying to get me to stay.

“I'll show you who's boss.” Cal's harsh words drew Brand's attention.

Cal rode a little black gelding Brand had green broke the first day. Only he jerked on the reins, sawed the bit in the horse's mouth. Brand would have called out a warning, but it was too late.

With a wild snort that signaled both pain and protest, the horse lowered his head and gave a back-cracking buck that sent Cal over his head into a mud puddle. His mount snorted and raced to the far corner.

Cal scrambled to his feet. Several cowboys watched him, but Cal zeroed in on Brand. “You.” He jabbed his finger in his direction. “You got paid good money to have these horses ready to ride. And this is what we get?” He stomped off.

Brand called to him. “You're not handling the horse right. You're too hard on his mouth.”

Cal shook a fist at him and stalked away.

Brand felt the study of the half dozen cowboys. Yes, the horses were ready to ride. But only if handled with a little common sense. However, the black gelding would now think he could unseat any rider.

Band watched the horse trotting around the corral, and considered his options. If he left now, he would surely be out of Pa and Cyrus's reach in a few days. However, he could not, in good conscience, leave Eddie with a horse that couldn't be ridden. Another day. No more, he vowed.

Would Sybil realize he hadn't left, and pay him a visit?

“I'll take care of that horse,” he announced, and returned his horse and dog to the barn.

He spent the morning working with the horse, teaching it to obey him. He positioned himself so he could see the big house. But the sun was high overhead before he caught a glimpse of Sybil. She stepped outside, the sun pooling in her hair. She scanned the pens and corrals until her gaze stopped on him. Had she seen him?

She shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun and continued to look in his direction. Then she picked up her skirts and hustled down the hill, not slowing her steps until she reached the rail fence. “Eddie said you were still here.” Her voice was breathless.

“Had to finish my job.”

“That's what he said.” Her gaze went deep into Brand's heart, demanding more than an excuse.

Oh, how he wished he could offer more. But nothing had changed. Except he was still here. Even though it must be temporary, he might as well make the most of it. “Want to help me walk Dawg this afternoon?” It was the weakest invite any woman ever had, but it was the best he could do.

“I would like that. If you think he's up to it.”

“I figure he's up to a few steps.” Half a dozen, likely, but he might be persuaded to make it as far as the trees overhanging the river, where Brand and Sybil could enjoy a few moments of privacy.

And what, you crazy man, do you intend to do with such?

He realized he was grinning like a crazy man, and forced his mouth into a more moderate smile.

She ducked her head. “I'll come back later, shall I?”

Her shyness made him feel ten feet tall. “I'll meet you at the barn.” He forced his attention back to the task at hand.

When he deemed the sun was in the right position, he hustled to the barn to duck his head in the water trough, and clean his hands and face well. Then he trotted inside and pulled out a clean shirt. Nothing fancy. Just a brown striped cotton shirt that could have used a woman's touch to iron out the wrinkles. Lacking that, he smoothed the fabric as best he could before he pulled it over his head and buttoned it.

He scrubbed a spot in the window over the workbench and tried to see his reflection. He'd have done better to stare in the water trough, but someone might notice him.

Straightening, he warned himself, as he had done all day, this was only a small treat he was stealing, to carry with him the rest of his life.

A warning thunder filled his thoughts. He was taking an awful chance, with his pa so close. But one afternoon. Only one. Was it too much to ask of life? If he was the praying man his ma had hoped to raise, he would ask God to give him this afternoon, to bless it with sunshine and kisses and make it last forever.

Knowing Sybil would soon join him, Brand stepped outside to wait. Just in time. She sauntered down the hill, her golden curls beneath a bonnet of blue. He strode from the pen and went toward her. As they drew closer, her eyes seemed to gather up the blue of her bonnet and the sky and hold it. His eyes watered at how striking she was.

He reached her side. “You look like a sunny sky.”

Pink stained her cheeks. “Thank you...you do mean it as a compliment?”

He'd spoken without thinking, but replied, “Yes, it's a compliment.”

She smiled. “It's a fine afternoon, isn't it?”

Finer by the moment, but all he said was, “Very nice.”

He whistled for Dawg and they waited as the animal limped toward them. The way his tail tipped to the side in a wag, Brand knew Dawg was eager for this outing.

Not half as eager as his owner.

He turned toward the river, his eyes on the goal of that little copse of trees. Their progress was slow as Dawg limped along, encouraged by both Sybil and Brand.

Finally, they reached the river, and stepped into the shelter of the gold-dappled branches.

Dawg lapped up the cool water and lay down on the leafy carpet.

Brand had waited for this moment all day, but now his tongue lay motionless in his mouth. What could he say? “Trees are pretty.” Yeah, that was brilliant.

She nodded. “Mercy, Jayne and I walked along the river yesterday and saw a wonderful display of color.”

A bronze leaf fluttered from the tree and landed on her shoulder.

He plucked it off. Felt her start at his touch, and he jerked back, crushing the leaf in his palm. He would never have the right to touch her.

“Shall we sit?” She waved toward a tree and they sat side by side, their backs against the trunk. “Eddie's anxious to get the cows rounded up and moved to lower pastures.”

Brand didn't care about Eddie's cows. Not with Sybil at his side. If only he could stop time and stay right here. Build a cabin next to the water. Forget he was a Duggan.

Except he couldn't forget, not with news of the gang nearby. Every day made discovery more possible. Not only possible but impending. If he had any guts he would leave this minute. But he sat in the shade beside a pretty woman and discussed the weather, determinedly ignoring the increasingly loud warning bells.

She patted his hand as it lay on his knee. “If you stayed here, you might find you like it.”

Liking it was the problem. It had kept him from doing what he always did and must continue to do. Ride away. Disappear. Don't look back.

Dawg rose and whined, looking toward the barn.

Sybil laughed. “Do you think he's trying to tell us something? As in he'd like to go back home?” She got to her feet. “I guess we better do as he suggests.”

Thus ended his stolen afternoon.

As he gained his feet, he heard a quail cooing across the river.

Every nerve in his body fired hot lava. His heart took off at a mad gallop.

It could possibly be a quail, but Cyrus used to make that sound to signal to Brand.

Had Cyrus and Pa had found him?

He had delayed too long.

Sybil didn't seem to notice his hurry to return to the barn, and left them at the gate, saying she must get back and help Linette.

BOOK: Love Inspired Historical March 2014 Bundle: Winning Over the Wrangler\Wolf Creek Homecoming\A Bride for the Baron\The Guardian's Promise
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