Love Inspired Historical March 2014 Bundle: Winning Over the Wrangler\Wolf Creek Homecoming\A Bride for the Baron\The Guardian's Promise (6 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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Dawg bent his tail to one side—the closest thing to a wag Dawg ever managed.

“I hope there's enough food for you.” She handed Brand the plate and removed the cloth.

He bent over and filled his nose with the aroma of hot beef and rich gravy. The mashed potatoes were a small mountain. “Reminds me of the meals my ma used to make.” Now where had that come from? Except something more than the food reminded him of Ma. Sharing mealtime with a woman, listening to her talk, were sweet moments he'd tuck next to his heart to warm him throughout the long winter months.

“She sounds like a good woman.”

“She was.”

“Do you mean because she made good meals?”

He sensed Sybil's probing. It surprised him some to realize he didn't mind. It would be good to talk to someone besides Dawg for a change. Dawg might be a good enough friend but he wasn't much for carrying on a conversation. Brand would simply have to choose his words carefully and not reveal anything that would identify him as a Duggan.

“She was a good cook, all right. Sometimes there wasn't much in the pantry, but she always managed to find something and make me feel like I was privileged to have it. I guess I was. But she was so much more than that. Do you mind if I go ahead and eat?”

“By all means.”

He took three bites and savored the flavors. The break gave him a chance to consider his words. “Ma never let life get her down. She used to say, ‘God sends the rains that bring on the flowers.'” He fell silent. The words might sound silly to someone else.

“I like that. So your mother was a believer?”

“To her dying day.” She would be disappointed to know Brand had let his faith lag.

“Are you also?”

“A believer? I am, but I don't think about it much anymore.”

Sybil turned to consider him with probing blue eyes. The look went deep, knocking at closed doors, examining forbidden corners. “Why have you let it slide?”

He couldn't tell her, and shifted away from her intensity, directing his attention to the plate of food.

She turned, releasing him from her intense study, and he filled his lungs with relief.

“My parents were older when I was born,” she said, her voice low as if she was lost in her memories. “They said I was a special gift from heaven, and treated me that way. They taught me my life was precious and I shouldn't waste it on foolishness.” She let out a long sigh. “Mercy says I am controlled by rules, but I don't see it that way. I simply realize that life is full of dangers and risks, and yet we can do much to avoid them.”

He watched her out of the corner of his eyes. She again seemed lost in thought. If she knew how much danger he posed to her and the others at the ranch, she would run back to the shelter of Eddie's home as fast as her legs would carry her. Likely she'd tell him about Brand, and Eddie would run him off the place.

Not that Brand would blame them. He already felt guilty at putting them in peril.

She nodded once as if she'd made up her mind about something. “I expected to have my parents around for a long time yet. They were only in their sixties when they died, within weeks of each other.” She glanced at him, her eyes dark with sorrow. “A fever. I nursed them to the end.”

Was she aware that a shiver ran up her body? “I guess it just goes to show we can't count on anyone staying around,” she added.

His fingers knotted as he considered his actions, but he went ahead and pressed his hand to her forearm. “I'm sorry. It must have been very difficult.”

She nodded again, slowly turning to look into his face. Her eyes glistened with tears. “It was the hardest thing I've ever dealt with.” One tear slipped from each eye. “So I understand when you say burying your mother was the hardest thing you've done.”

If only he had the right to pull Sybil into his arms and comfort her. If only he could ever have the right. But being a Duggan made it impossible for eternity...a thought that scalded his insides.

She gave him a watery smile. “It's almost two years ago. You'd think I would be past the crying stage.”

He lowered his hands to his knees and shifted his attention to Dawg. “Maybe there are things we should never get over.” Like being a Duggan.

“Over and over my father and mother instructed me on the importance of obedience to God and living a wise life. I simply can't imagine leaving the faith of my parents.” She blinked back her tears and squinted hard at him. “I can't envision what would cause anyone to neglect their faith. Was it something really awful? Was it because your mother died?”

He shifted his attention to Dawg again, unable to reply to her question because he didn't know the answer. It was a thousand little things and two major things—his brother and father. Finally, he shrugged. “Just happens, I guess.”

“Then I shall pray it unhappens.” She practically glowed, as if she imagined it had already occurred.

He allowed her words and her faith to warm him for two heartbeats before he gave himself a mental shake. What she thought or wanted or believed would not change the facts of his life.

He cleaned the plate and handed it back to her. “Thanks for the meal.” He couldn't bring himself to tell her she'd best be going, but she must have sensed his unspoken words. Her expression flattened and she pushed herself to her feet.

“I'll be getting along.” She paused to pat Dawg on the head. “Good night.” She sucked back a gust of air and turned to face him. “Brand, I don't know who you are or what you're running from, but remember wherever you go, God goes with you. He loves you and protects you.”

Before he could pull a word from his stunned brain, she was gone.

God loves and protects you.

Words Ma had said over and over. When had he quit believing them? He sat back and stared into the darkening sky. About the time Ma died. Or maybe when the Duggan gang—in the hopes of getting Brand to find out when the payroll was being delivered—had beat up a young man he had befriended.

Brand had learned two valuable lessons that day. Don't make friends and don't let Cyrus and Pa catch up to him.

So why was he still here?

Only a few more days and he would ride out as fast as his horse could go.

He hadn't prayed much in many years, but tonight he asked one favor of God.
Please don't let them find me while I'm here, where my presence could put Sybil in danger.

Did God love him enough to hear the prayer?

Chapter Six

S
ybil had gone to the corrals twice the following day, but Brand barely glanced her way. She told herself she wasn't disappointed. Of course he was busy. She knew that and appreciated his dedication to his job.

When he disappeared at suppertime, she prepared a plate of food again. At least he'd never refused to eat.

Yesterday she had learned wonderful things about him. He'd had a faithful Christian mother. The way he talked about her revealed a tender side. Something or someone had wounded that tender spot.

Sybil slowed her steps to savor the memory of the previous evening. She couldn't explain why she'd told him about losing her parents, but she didn't regret it. Not for a moment, because he'd touched her arm in comfort. His eyes had softened as she shed a few tears. She had almost expected him to pull her close and pat her back.

Maybe
expected
was too strong a word. She'd wished for it.

Now she could hardly wait to learn more about him.

He stood as she stepped into the clearing and handed him the plate.

“Go ahead and eat. You must be starving.”

“I shouldn't be. I've eaten better the last few days than I have in months.”

She waited until he sat and then chose a spot beside him, careful not to touch him lest he think her too bold.

“You worked hard today.”

“Lots of horses to break,” he said.

“Guess you're in a hurry to finish up and move on.”

He seemed preoccupied with his food, but after a moment said, “It's what I do.”

She didn't detect so much as a whiff of regret. Not that she was surprised. She'd known from the start he meant to leave. She expected it. People left. One way or another. Suzette by death. Colin by choice. Afterward Sybil could only do her best to put the pieces of her heart back together. It had never quite been whole again, so she hardened the fences around her heart now, not intending to let anyone hurt her.

“My parents weren't the only ones I lost.” She didn't mean to talk about it, but the words escaped and once started, she couldn't stop. “I had a dear friend, Suzette. I knew her from as early as I can remember. We were so close.” Sybil held up two fingers pressed together to indicate what she meant. Her breath jerked out and in again before she continued. “We liked to play in the bushes, making playrooms in little spaces beneath the branches.” She tipped her head back as sweet memories filled her thoughts. “We had all sorts of babies. Real dolls but also pretend babies we made out of knots of wood.” A tiny laugh escaped her lips. “The gardener made a swing for us at the bottom of the yard. My, we spent many happy hours on that swing. The seat was wide enough that we could sit side by side and swing together.”

“Sounds nice.”

She had stopped talking as she recalled the warmth and joy of those days. “It was real nice, but it ended so fast. I wish I could have stopped time before that dreadful day.”

He waited, not rushing her to tell what had happened, as if he understood she could hardly bring herself to say the words.

“One day she didn't come to play as usual and Mother took me to my room. She pulled me down beside her and held me close as she told me Suzette had drowned while on an outing with her family.” Sybil shook her head. “To this day I can hardly believe it.”

Brand squeezed her hand gently.

She held on for dear life.

“How old was she?”

“We were both twelve.”

His hand clasped hers, warm, solid, reassuring. “So young. I'm sorry for your loss.”

The tension in her body slowly dissolved. “I haven't let myself think of her or talk about her since she died.”

“Aren't you robbing yourself of happy memories by doing that?”

Sybil turned to look into his face.

His eyes were filled with warmth. “It seems a shame to throw out the good with the sad.”

She looked deep into them, finding nothing but kindness. Something inside her shifted...a sense of being released. She sat back, stared at Dawg lying at her feet. A truth hit. “All this time I was so afraid of the pain I felt at her loss that I've buried my memories.” A smile filled her heart. “I miss her terribly and always will, but my childhood was rich because of Suzette. She was full of life.” Sybil told him many stories of two little girls with vivid imaginations. The games they'd played and adventures they'd had without leaving home.

Brand didn't say much, but she didn't need a lot of encouragement to continue.

Dawg stretched, turned around and settled at Sybil's feet.

She grew quiet. She'd talked for so long. How could she be so selfish and thoughtless? She'd never learn anything about him if she did all the talking. And she still held his hand, as if her life depended on it. She slipped it to her lap. “I'm sorry. I've talked about me this whole time.”

“I don't mind. I'm sure your life is more interesting than mine.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You lived a privileged life with all sorts of advantages.”

She turned to look at him. “You make that sound like it somehow makes me different.”

“It is different than my upbringing.” His eyes were curtained, letting her see nothing of what he thought. “It allowed you to cross the ocean in the company of other fine women.”

“Humph. Since my parents' death I've been living with my elderly aunt Celia. She's old and set in her ways. She doesn't like the curtains opened, so I spent last winter in gloom.” Sybil jerked about to see his reaction. “Do you think that was a joy and privilege?”

His grin was lopsided. “Not when you put it that way.”

“How did you spend last winter?” There were so many things she wanted to know about him.

“Holed up in a remote cabin on my own with Dawg.”

“Sounds lonely. What did you do to pass the days?”

“I hunted game to feed us, chopped wood to keep us warm and twice ventured out to the nearest town for supplies. A man gets to crave coffee when he's been out of it for almost two weeks.”

She laughed. “What I miss most about life in the West is having a grocer close enough to go every day. I could hardly believe it when I first came. But between the big gardens and generous storerooms, the ranch has its own grocer.”

He joined her in laughing. “From the little I've seen this is one of the best run ranches in the territory.”

“Eddie is determined it will be the best.”

They sank into silence again.

“Tell me about your dog.”

Brand chuckled, the sound filling her insides with pleasure at getting him to laugh. “Found him beside a trail a couple years back. Don't know if he was lost or forgotten, but his paws were raw from walking.”

Dawg lifted his head and looked toward Brand as if knowing the man talked about him. His tail bent in one direction.

“I suppose he was glad to see you.”

Brand laughed again. “You'd think he might be, but even then Dawg had a bad attitude. He tried to bite me.”

Sybil wanted to know more. “What did you do?”

His eyebrows lifted in silent question.

“To befriend him,” she added.

“Nothing. I just made camp and cooked a meal. Guess Dawg was hungry because he soon sidled toward me. Eventually he decided it was okay to be friends. Of a sort.”

Sybil studied the dog. “He's not as ugly as I first judged him, but he certainly isn't a thing of beauty, either.”

They sat in peaceful contentment for a moment. She'd learned much about him.

Cowboy understood how to approach wounded and frightened people and animals alike. He never pushed, never expected anything in return for the help he offered
.

She realized the same patient technique that caused Dawg to judge Brand a safe friend had worked on Sybil, too. When had she ever talked so much about herself? About Suzette? But perhaps her openness would make it easier for him to speak honestly.

“Brand, tell me more about your mother.”

“Why?”

She shrugged. “I heard pride and affection in your voice when you spoke of her.”

“I was proud of her. Still am. She lived by high standards despite our circumstances. She did sewing to support us. I went to bed many nights with her sitting by the table, the lamp close as she sewed.”

“And your pa?”

“Nothing to say about my pa.”

Before she could ask the question on her lips, Brand added, “Or my brother.”

She didn't press. She squeezed his hand gently and quickly withdrew before he could think her inappropriate. “I'm sorry. Whatever happened, it has hurt you deeply.”

He neither acknowledged nor denied it.

She sought for something to bring back the peace she'd felt talking to him about Suzette, something to offer the same understanding he'd offered her.

“Nothing can separate us from God's love.” She waited, hoping he would acknowledge her words. When he didn't, she added, “Unless we let it.”

“I guess that's so.”

“You make it sound like it doesn't matter. But it does.”

“My ma would agree.” He hung his hands over his knees and stared at them.

Sybil couldn't bring herself to say anything more for fear of adding to his dejection. Besides, it was time she returned to the house. She rose to her feet. Dawg stood, too, as if expecting to go with her. She patted him on the head, then brushed her hand across Brand's shoulder. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be removed and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.” She hadn't meant to preach to him, but the words had come of their own accord. She would pray they would comfort him, whatever the cause of his discouragement.

* * *

Brand left his camp early the next day, and made his way toward the ranch. Why had Eddie bought so many wild horses? Could be he meant to sell them at a profit. But even putting in long hours, Brand wouldn't be able to leave for several more days.

A fact that should make him nervous, but failed to do so. And why shouldn't he enjoy a few days of visiting with Sybil? He'd succeeded in revealing nothing that put either of them at risk. She'd never know his pa and brother were wanted men.

Brand might not be a praying man, but his heart murmured one prayer over and over.
Please don't let Pa and Cyrus find me here. Let me get done and leave before that can happen
.

The tree before him made him think of Sybil's story of two little girls playing on a swing. It would be a perfect tree for a swing.

He reached the corrals and roped the first horse of the day. Of necessity, he must keep his mind on his task or end up facedown in the dirt. Ruining not only his clothes, but also his reputation as the bronc rider who never got thrown off. But he still found space in his thoughts to replay every word Sybil had spoken the night before. As the day progressed a plan evolved.

Partway through the morning, Sybil stepped to the fence and watched him. He nodded once in her direction, then forced himself to concentrate. Although he tried to ignore her, he knew the moment she stepped away. She and the other ladies went to the garden with baskets that they soon filled with vegetables. Then they returned to their various houses.

Only one other time did he see her, on the hill beside the ranch house, throwing out a bucket of water.

It was late afternoon when he turned loose the horse he'd finished working on. But rather than catch another, he went to the barn. With Eddie's permission, he cut a board the size he wanted and chose a length of rope, then made his way to the tree he'd noticed in the morning. In a few minutes, he had a swing hanging from a branch.

He returned to where he could see the ranch house, and waited, hoping Sybil would come down to the corrals before suppertime. He halter broke a horse as he waited. Fifteen minutes later, she trotted down the hill.

He slipped the halter from the horse and turned it loose. This one time he would think about something besides work. Though he could never stop thinking about the Duggan gang. During the passing hours he'd convinced himself he would surely hear rumors of them long before they could reach this area of western Canada. Their reputation had a way of preceding them. He'd have time to ride away before they found him.

He was hanging the halter over a post to take care of later when he saw her approach the fence. “Howdy,” he said.

“Hello.” She glanced about the pen. “Are you done for the day?”

Did she sound surprised or pleased? It didn't matter. “I have something to show you.”

Her eyes lit up, bright blue. “Really?”

“Yup.” He vaulted over the fence. “Come and see.” She kept close to his side as they crossed the yard. His grin grew to rival the sky for size.

“Where are we going?”

“You'll see.” He slowed, smiled even wider when she matched his steps. How was he going to surprise her when she'd be able to see the swing as soon as they passed Seth's cabin? Only one way. Would she agree? “I need you to close your eyes.”

“Why?”

“It's a surprise.”

“All right.” She closed her eyes.

He swallowed hard. She looked as if she waited for a kiss. Every nerve in his body sent up a red flare. She was very kissable, but not by him. She was out of his class. She deserved better than he could ever offer her—a life on the run. Most importantly, if she discovered his identity, her eyes would snap open and fill with fear and loathing.

Nope. He'd sooner leave with memories kept sweet by hiding the truth.

“What direction am I to go?”

Her question brought him back to his purpose. “Straight ahead.”

She took one step and stopped, her hands before her. “I might stumble.”

He wiped his palms against his trousers and ignored the red flares of warning as he took her hand. “I'll show you the way. Trust me.” His heart slammed against his ribs. Ironic assurance from a man hiding the truth.

BOOK: Love Inspired Historical March 2014 Bundle: Winning Over the Wrangler\Wolf Creek Homecoming\A Bride for the Baron\The Guardian's Promise
10.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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