Love Inspired Historical March 2014 Bundle: Winning Over the Wrangler\Wolf Creek Homecoming\A Bride for the Baron\The Guardian's Promise (5 page)

BOOK: Love Inspired Historical March 2014 Bundle: Winning Over the Wrangler\Wolf Creek Homecoming\A Bride for the Baron\The Guardian's Promise
9.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Once Pa and Cyrus found him they became unstoppable.

How many times had Cyrus slammed him against a wall saying, “You been friends with those uppity people. Guess they must have money hidden in their house. Where is it?”

No matter how many times, or how hard Brand denied such knowledge, Cyrus would not accept it.

“Go back there and find out where they keep their money. We'll be waiting and watching until you do,” he would press his face close and growl.

“Cyrus, be nice to your brother,” Pa would say. He said the right thing, but he didn't intend to let Brand go, any more than Cyrus did.

“I can't believe you're my brother.” Brand had once spat the words at him.

Pa didn't intervene when Cyrus punched Brand in the gut.

Brand had learned to wrap rags around his horse's hooves and find his way out of town in midnight darkness.

The lonesome call of a coyote echoed across the dusky plains, breaking into his memories. Another call came from the opposite direction.

Brand shuffled about. Most days he enjoyed the way the coyotes called to each other, and the yip-yip-yi of their singing, but tonight the sound ached through his insides like an untreated sore, filled with painful loneliness.

Was it loneliness that had driven him to court May? He'd thought her so sweet, a real lady. He tried to recall her face, but saw only blue eyes. No, May's eyes had been brown, like her hair.

They'd met five years ago, when she came into the store where he was buying supplies, in one of the many towns he'd stayed in only long enough to keep ahead of Pa. Brand could barely recall the names of most. This one had been Lost River, Wyoming. She'd asked a few questions and got vague answers, just enough for her to guess he was alone and unsure of the future. She'd invited him to join her and her family for church and then dinner afterward, shared with her parents, a widowed aunt and a sullen younger brother. Following the meal, they'd played board games.

It was the best Sunday Brand had known since his mother died.

Sundays with May's family became a regular occurrence, as did Saturday afternoon outings. He and May spent time with her family. Sometimes they walked along the edge of town on their own.

He hadn't seen Pa and Cyrus since Ma's death, and let his guard down, thinking now Ma was gone they had no use for him.

Then he saw their names in a newspaper story. They'd robbed a bank, shot an innocent woman in the ensuing gunfight. A half-page poster accompanied the story. Duggan Gang Wanted. $500 Reward. Dead or Alive.

The ink had smudged, so it was impossible to see their likeness clearly, and no one looked at Brand with suspicion.

But he decided to tell May the truth. He planned the moment carefully. Saturday afternoon they walked to a secluded spot just out of town, where he could hope for privacy.

“That's my pa and brother,” he said, knowing no other way to say it.

“Who?”

“The Duggan gang.”

She'd laughed. “Don't be silly.”

He laughed, too, though out of nervousness, not mirth. “I've never been part of the gang.”

“Of course you haven't.” She'd given him a playful push.

“How do you feel about being associated with a Duggan?” He waited, unable to pull in a satisfying breath. Then, overcome with a need to make her see it could be okay, he poured out a gush of words. “Ma and me always ran from them, but they've forgotten about me since my ma died. They'd never harm you. I wouldn't let them.” He had no idea how he planned to protect her. In hindsight he knew he had deluded himself into believing they wouldn't come after him.

She'd stared at him, her eyes wide as she accepted the truth. “A Duggan. An outlaw gang.”

“Not me. I've never robbed a soul.” Surely she couldn't believe otherwise.

She backed away.

When he followed, she held up her hands. Her face twisted. “How dare you? What will happen if people associate my name with yours? A Duggan.” She spat the word out as if it burned her tongue.

She flung about and returned to the road.

He went after her. “May, wait.” He had to make her understand.

She kept walking. “Go away. I never want to see you again.”

He ground to a halt. Again his life had been shattered by the Duggan name. It was a curse.

He'd returned to his job, but three days later knew he had to move on. As he saddled up, a bunch of rowdies rode into town. He'd glanced up in time to see Pa and Cyrus leading a half dozen hard-looking men.

They had come. They would always come. They would find him. Even in Canada. Brand had no doubt of it. And if he had a lick of sense he would leave now. Before they showed up. Before they put Sybil in danger. Before he had to face the same cold dismissal he'd seen in May's face.

Dawg lifted his head and growled.

Brand calmed him with a touch.

Hard voices murmured through the aspen. Hoofbeats thudded. Two horses, if he didn't miss his guess. Had the reward money brought someone to his camp? He reached for his pistol.

The sounds grew closer. He got a glimpse of two horses and riders through the leaves.

His fingers tensed on his gun. Dead or alive meant bounty hunters would just as soon shoot him as tie him up. Less trouble that way.

The trail turned. So did the riders. Not until he could no longer hear them did his grip on the gun relax.

His heartbeat slowed to normal.

How long could he stay without putting himself in danger? Worse, putting Sybil and the others in danger from the Duggan gang?

But he'd told Eddie he would break the horses, and he meant to keep his word, though it wasn't horses, Eddie or his honor that made him ignore his common sense.

It was the hope of seeing a golden-haired girl again that made him ignore all the reasons for leaving that normally proved enough to spur him on his way.

Dare he allow himself to hope Pa and Cyrus had forgotten about him?

He laughed at such high hopes.

Chapter Five

T
he next morning, Sybil made her customary notes in her journal, then tucked her writing pad and pencil into the deep pocket of her dress designed expressly to hide them, and left the house. She meant to walk a little distance from the buildings and find a quiet, secluded place to work on the story of the nameless cowboy. Only he wasn't exactly that. He was Brand.

But who else was he?

Her thoughts darted back and forth among the bits and pieces of information she'd gleaned. How much could she embellish to give the impression of strength and honor she sensed in him before her story grew more fanciful than actual?

So lost was she in her contemplations, she didn't realize a man worked with a horse in the corral until she reached the bunkhouse, where she had an unobstructed view.

Her feet stuttered to a stop, matching her stuttering heartbeat.

Was that Brand? She knew the answer even before the bucking horse brought him around to face her.

His head jerked back. Their gazes collided with such force she gasped and pressed both palms to her chest as if she could stop the frantic surging of her heart.

Why had he come back?

Her mind raced with a thousand possibilities, all of which ended in one question. Had he come back to tell her who he was?

The horse bucked again and Brand turned away.

She blinked back her surprise. She must move on before anyone wondered why she stood in the middle of the yard staring in Brand's direction.

Sybil hurried onward until she found a private spot and sat down, pressing her back to the sunlit poplar. She lifted the backs of her hands to her overheated cheeks and slowed her breathing to normal. Why did she feel such a peculiar leap in the depths of her heart at his return?

She shook away her stumbling confusion. Time to forget uncertainties and get to work. She pulled out her notebook and pencil and turned to the page where she had been arranging notes on Brand's story. “Who are you, Brand?” she wrote.

After thirty minutes or so all she'd put on the page besides that question were a series of doodles—circles that went round and round. Exactly how she felt as her thoughts returned again and again to the cowboy in the corrals. Why had he returned?

And why does it matter to you?

Only because I feel like it's an answer to a prayer if he changed his mind about being a nameless, rootless cowboy.

And why would that matter to you?

Annoying, persistent voice.

Because.

Yes?

She closed the notebook and put it in her pocket before she answered. Because it gives me a chance to learn more about him for my story.

Oh yes. The story. The one you haven't added a word to in half an hour of sitting here
.

“I will.” She silenced the inner voice by speaking aloud. “I just have to learn more about him.”

She pushed herself to her feet and dusted off her skirts. She didn't know how long Brand would stay around, but she would find an excuse to visit him and talk to him and get the information she needed to flesh out her story.

Right then she returned to the house to help Linette with kitchen chores. The afternoon sped by as they made pickled beets and filled dozens of jars. The kitchen grew hot and steamy. Sybil's nose stung with the smell of vinegar.

Finally, the bottles of burgundy beets sat in neat rows on the cupboard shelves and Linette rubbed her hands together. “These will be so tasty during the winter months.”

Sybil was about to excuse herself when her friend pulled out potatoes for the evening meal. She couldn't leave Linette to prepare supper on her own. They finished just as Eddie and Grady came in. Mercy followed, and they gathered around the big wooden table in the kitchen.

Sybil joined the others for the meal. Would Brand be gone by the time she got a chance to leave the house?

After supper there were dishes. Finally, she dried the last pot and hung the towels to dry. She looked around the kitchen. “I thought I'd go see if Brand is still breaking horses if you don't need me for anything more.” She hoped her words sounded casual. As if it didn't matter one way or the other.

Mercy winked at Sybil. “I'll help Linette if she needs anything. You run along.”

Sybil ignored her and waited for Linette's reply. “Yes, you run along.” And if Linette grinned at Mercy as if they shared a secret, Sybil pretended not to notice.

As she left the house, her gaze went immediately to the corrals. No bucking horses. Was he done, and gone already? She hurried, but not enough to make anyone think she was desperate.

Brand was still there, talking to Buster, the youngest cowboy on the ranch.

Sybil moved to the fence.

“Mister,” Buster said, “you know a lot about horses. Maybe you can help me with mine.”

“Certainly will if I can.” His words were gentle, his tone kind.

Just as she thought—a good man. A good man on the run? She shook her head. She moved closer to catch every word. Listening to this conversation might provide valuable information for her story.

“What seems to be the problem?” Brand asked the young man.

“He always backs away when I try and mount him.” Buster hung his head. “Makes me look stupid in front of the others.”

Brand clapped a hand to the younger man's shoulder. “Anything else?”

Sybil's throat tightened at the comfort that gesture offered. She'd certainly include that detail.

Although a loner, perhaps an outcast
—she liked the word for her story, but cringed at using it to describe Brand—
the cowboy never turned his back on those who were weaker, younger, more vulnerable. Whatever had sent him on this lonesome journey, it hadn't destroyed the cowboy's compassion for others
.

Buster pushed his shoulders back at Brand's touch, then continued. “Yeah. When I try and lead him anywhere, he walks too fast, as if he's gonna run over me. Sometimes I get a little nervous.”

“Sounds to me like he's trying to find out if you're the boss or not. Bring your horse here and I'll show you what to do.”

Buster trotted into the barn and led out a shaggy-haired horse that indeed seemed to be pushing him rather than following.

Brand took the rope from Buster. “You can teach him to follow you by doing this.”

He swung the rope in a circle in front of him as he led the horse about. Every time the animal tried to get by him, it encountered the twirling rope.

Sybil stared, mesmerized by the ease with which Brand swung the rope in a lazy loop...the poetry of motion in his limbs.

“Here, you try it.” He handed the rope to Buster and let the young cowboy lead the horse.

Brand looked in Sybil's direction, his gaze direct, unblinking.

She'd wondered if he knew she watched, and now wondered if he liked having her there or—she swallowed hard—if he wished she'd leave him be.

Well, that wasn't going to happen. She had a story to write. She girded up her heart with that excuse.

Buster led his horse around the pen and soon the animal decided it was safer behind him than facing the swinging rope.

Brand slowly took his attention from Sybil and she sucked in air to relieve her starving lungs.

“Let's see you get on.”

Buster saddled his horse, but when he tried to mount it backed away just as he'd said.

Brand nodded. “Let's try making it so he doesn't want to do that. Grab under his chin and make him back up. When he gets to the fence, bring him forward and do it again. Soon enough he'll decide it's easier to let you get up than to be pushed around.”

As Buster followed those instructions, Brand sauntered toward Sybil. He leaned against the fence not four feet away from her.

She took it as invitation to talk. “I was surprised to find you here today.”

“Eddie bought some more horses.”

“I see.” She scratched at a splinter on the fence and pretended her throat hadn't tightened. He'd mentioned only the horses. Of course she wasn't surprised, and certainly not disappointed.

“Look,” Buster called. “He didn't back up.” The young cowboy sat in his saddle, as pleased as could be. Then he jumped off and led his horse toward Brand. “Mister, you're pretty good with horses. How'd you learn that?”

The question brought Sybil's thoughts back to her purpose for being there—to get information. She watched Brand. He continued to lounge casually against the fence. Only a tightening around his eyes indicated the question struck a nerve.

“My pa was good with horses.”

She caught the past tense of the question. “So your pa is dead?”

He hesitated a beat. Two. “Not that I know of.”

“That's good.” Buster's sad tone was a contrast to his positive words.

Sybil shifted her attention to the young man. “Buster, how old are you?”

“Sixteen, ma'am. Or I will be pretty soon.”

He was barely more than a child. “Where are your parents? Why aren't you with them?”

He looked beyond her into the distance. “I left them on a farm in the Dakotas.”

“You seem young to be on your own. Why did you leave?”

“They were dead, ma'am. All of them. My ma and pa and two sisters.” The words were barely audible, though Sybil caught no hint of self-pity. And he certainly had every right to feel such.

Her heart twisted with knowing how alone he must feel. “I'm so sorry.” She looked at Brand. His eyes darkened. His jaw muscles twitched. Compassion filled his gaze. Surely if he chose to be a recluse it wasn't because he hated people. Or even because his dog came first.

What was his secret?

She couldn't believe he was a wanted criminal, as Mercy had suggested. He simply didn't seem the type.

What do you know about the type? Have you ever met any wanted criminals?

No, but surely their hearts would be cruel.

You think him helping Buster means he's got a good heart?

Yes, of course it does. Besides, I've other evidence, such as his friendship with a dog and how he rescued me.

Aha. That kind of makes you see him with stars in your eyes, doesn't it?

Not with stars, but with certainty.

You're certain to have your heart dashed to pieces if you think it meant anything more than a man in the right place at the right time.

And willing to do the right thing. That makes him noble, if nothing else.

But are you ready to risk your heart on that?

No. She would be detached. A gatherer of information. Nothing more. She'd discover who he was. Criminal or otherwise.

Everything he did revealed an honorable heart. Those around him wondered how such a decent man had ended up being such a loner. It wasn't because he had no family. Although his mother's death had ripped away a portion of his heart, he talked affectionately of playing with an older brother, and pride filled his deep voice when he told how his father had taught him about breaking horses.

“You're doing just fine,” he said to Buster, and the boy lifted his head and smiled.

“Good evening, ma'am.” Buster led his horse away, swinging the rope to keep the animal behind him. Proud and sure of himself now, thanks to Brand's kindness.

Again the question raced through Sybil's mind. Who was this man?

“Did you have supper yet?” Seems he might have eaten with the others at the cookhouse.

“No, ma'am,” he said, imitating Buster's formal politeness. “Me and Dawg were about to go to camp and make our supper.”

“Why don't I bring you a plate of food instead? Unless you prefer your own cooking.”

His laugh sent ripples of joy through her veins.

“About all I got in my pantry is beans.”

“Fine. I'll be along shortly with a plate of food.” She paused. Maybe she'd misunderstood. “Unless you plan to ask Cookie for a late meal.”

“No, ma'am. No such plans.” He watched her from under the brim of his cowboy hat.

She tried to read his expression. He revealed nothing. “You could come with me and eat in the kitchen.”

He lifted his head. His face remained expressionless. His eyes darted past her to the big house, then to the woods, and finally to her. She saw a world of sorrow and regret that jarred her. Was this the look of a man who had committed a dreadful crime?

No, she couldn't believe it. Any more than she could explain the ache clenching her heart, squeezing out sorrowful tears. She gave herself a mental shake. All this talk about parents had simply reminded her of her loss.

And loneliness.

You have no reason to make so many assumptions. Sorrow, guilt or innocence all based on the way his eyes darted about and grew dark. The way he and Buster make you think of your parents.

No reason, she argued, but the witness of my heart to his. I know sorrow when I see it. I recognize it as different than guilt.

Then he blinked. “Me and Dawg will go to our camp, if it's all the same to you.” He whistled for the dog, which rose from the shadows of the barn and trotted after his owner.

“I'll bring you a meal,” she called.

He didn't turn, but it sounded as if he said, “Suit yourself.”

God had given her a second chance with Brand and she didn't intend to waste it.

She dashed up the hill, her feet light. Just before the door, she drew to a halt. What chance did she mean—to learn more about Brand for her story or for her own sake?

Her story, she silently insisted. That's all that mattered.

That and keeping her heart safe. She knew all too well the sorrow of a leaving kind of man.

* * *

He should have told her he didn't want a meal brought to him, but he couldn't deny himself a visit from Sybil. He lifted his head as she stepped from the trees, bearing a covered plate, and thankfully saving him from having to analyze why he allowed himself to enjoy her company and ignore the warning of his gut.

BOOK: Love Inspired Historical March 2014 Bundle: Winning Over the Wrangler\Wolf Creek Homecoming\A Bride for the Baron\The Guardian's Promise
9.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Second Chance by Kacvinsky, Katie
Island Promises by Connell, Joy
Red Earth by Tony Park
Equilibrium by Lorrie Thomson
Love of Her Lives by Sharon Clare
Shift by Raine Thomas
Marked by the Moon by Lori Handeland
Veneno Mortal by Dorothy L. Sayers