Authors: RaeAnne Thayne
“They love you,” she said simply. “You've always been decent and kind to them. Lord knows, they got little enough of that from theirâ¦from Charlie.”
“I hate like hell that I'm putting them through this.”
“They'll live. People get over all kinds of things.”
He wanted to ask, but didn't. He carried a pile of plates to the sink, wishing things were different. That he didn't have to leave. That these were his dishes, that this was his kitchen.
That she was his woman.
Silhouette Intimate Moments
The Wrangler and the Runaway Mom
lives in a crumbling old Victorian in northern Utah with her husband and two young children. She loves being able to write surrounded by rugged mountains and real cowboys.
lbow-deep in blood and muck, Annie Calhoun Redhawk jerked her attention from the heifer she was helping through its first labor and stared at her foreman. Her insides suddenly felt as if the little Hereford had just shoved all four hooves hard into her gut.
“What do you mean, you're taking a job in Wyoming? You can't do that!”
Hay rustled under his boots as Joe Redhawkâher ex-husband's brother, and once her closest friend in the worldâshifted his weight. He refused to meet her gaze. Instead, those hard black eyes focused on some distant point above her head in the barn rafters. “I've already done it. I just accepted Norm Waterson's offer. Told him I could start April first.”
Less than two months! How could she possibly find somebody to replace Joe in just two months?
She couldn't, she realized with grim certainty, even if she had a year or more to look. He was the best
cattleman in Montanaâthe best she'd ever known. He had unerring instincts when it came to the stock, knew just which animals to breed for the best genes, knew exactly the right feed ratios for the highest yield, knew when the weather was going to change days before it happened.
In the last eighteen months, he had singlehandedly yanked the Double C almost completely back into the black after the mess she had made of things.
“Butâ¦I don't understand. You didn't say a word about this yesterday when we went to Ennis!”
Still, he refused to meet her gaze. “I just made the decision this morning.”
How would she possibly survive without him? Greasy fear churned in her stomach at just the idea. He had been more than her foreman. He had been her rock for as long as she could remember, the one safe, constant shelter in an ugly world.
“You can't leave, Joe. IâI need you.” Before she could yank them back, the words she had vowed never to say to him scurried out between them like beady-eyed little barn mice.
If anything, his rough-hewn features became even more remote, his dark eyes more shuttered. “You don't need me, Annie. Not anymore. The ranch is prospering, the kids are okay. You're doing well. I told you I'd stay until you were back on your feet and I have. You're all fine now and it's time for me to move on.”
As if to echo Annie's own turmoil, the heifer bawled suddenlyâa high, frightened soundâand her eyes rolled back into their sockets as she strained and pushed.
“She still having a tough time?” Joe asked.
Annie turned her attention back to the animal, swal
lowing down the familiar feelings of betrayal and fear. Later she would have time to give in to them, but right now she had a calf to deliver.
“Yes,” she answered, her voice clipped. “She's been at it most of the day but doesn't seem to be making much progress. The calf's twisted around in there pretty good. Think I'm going to have to pull it.”
“Mind if I have a look?”
Without waiting for an answer, he removed the black Stetson he always wore and shrugged out of the thickly lined denim coat protecting him against the bitter weather outside. He hung both on a nail outside the stall and entered the small enclosure, rolling up the sleeves of his soft tan chamois work shirt.
As soon as he stepped inside, the bare wooden half walls seemed to close in around her. For an instant, she had a churlish urge to refuse his help. If he had his mind set on leaving, she'd have to get used to doing things on her own. Might as well start now, right?
But the heifer was in misery and needed help immediately or the calf would likely die. She couldn't let her suffer, not when Joe might be able to help. Knowing she had no choice, Annie stepped aside.
“Looks like you're right,” he said after a few moments, his arm up to the shoulder inside the heifer. “I can feel the back legs right here. Let me try to turn it.”
Muscles bulged under the fabric of his shirt as he worked one-handed to try maneuvering what she knew from past experience would be a slick and uncooperative calf.
“Damn. Can't do it,” he muttered after several moments of trying.
The heifer bawled again, a long, pained cry, and Joe
sat back on his heels in frustration. “You have the rope?”
“Right here.” She held up a length of new, clean cord purchased just for this purpose. “My hands are smaller than yours. I might have an easier time tying it.”
While she tied a loop, Joe moved aside to make room. He easily held the heifer in place while Annie reached into the birth canal and worked one-handed to slip the loop around the calf's tiny hind legs.
They made a good team, she thought, not for the first time. Since he'd come to work for her, they'd had plenty of chances to work together. There was never a shortage of chores on a ranch the size of the Double Cârepairing fence line, going on roundup, putting up hay. She loved every aspect of it and never missed an opportunity to help where she could.
But the rhythm the two of them developed whenever they worked together on a ranch chore went back far longer than just the last eighteen months since he'd come to work for her, back to the time she always thought of as Before.
Before that nightmare day Joe killed his father and changed the course of all their lives forever.
“Got it,” she said when the rope was secured, then her hand slipped free with a loud sucking noise.
They switched places again and this time she held the heifer in place while he worked the rope. As always, he went out of his way to avoid touching her, careful to keep that discreet distance between them, like some protective barrier she could never breach.
She knew exactly why. He couldn't stand to touch her. She could tell in the way he jerked his hand away
like it had been scorched if he so much as accidentally brushed her arm.
Even though she and Joe shared a friendship that went back to the days when she was little more than a carrot-headed brat in pigtailsâand even though for one brief moment in time they had shared much, much more with each otherâthe woman she had become was weak and pitiful, frightened of her own shadow.
Joe obviously didn't like that woman any more than Annie did.
Since he'd come to the Double C she'd had plenty of time to get used to his constant subtle rejection, but it still hurt like an open wound.
Maybe it wouldn't bother her so much if she didn't crave his touch so desperately. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't ignore this constant awareness always simmering just under her skin. She couldn't seem to control the little hitch in her breathing when he was around, or the flutter in her stomach or, of course, the memories: vivid, sun-drenched images that refused to stay buriedâof fire and tenderness and skin the color of richly polished teak under her fingertips.
She closed her eyes briefly, ashamed of her weakness, that after all these years some secret part of her wouldn't let her forget.
She had made her choice and married Charlie, she reminded herself sternly. She'd had her reasonsâpowerful, compelling reasons. At the time marrying him had seemed like her only option. And even though her marriage had been a bitter sham, she had been faithful to the vows she'd made.
In her heart, though, she had relived those stolen hours with Joe until every second was branded into her memory.
“Almost there,” he said suddenly, jolting her from her thoughts back to the straining cow. He had worked the legs free and now he let go of the rope and pulled the calf's hindquarters out. A few seconds later the little calf followed in a slick, messy heap.
The little white-faced russet Hereford lay in the hay for a few moments while his mother, acting on instincts as old as her breed, licked him clean. It wasn't long before he was stumbling to stand, eager for the colostrum so vital to his survival.
After a few shaky moments of jerking and jolting around the stall, he made it back to his mother's side, completely unfazed by the messy trauma of birth.
Annie eyed the little calf with envy. If only she had the same resilience. But she was still wobbly, teetering on legs that felt entirely too unsteady. Eighteen months wasn't nearly long enough to glue back together the pieces of her spirit Charlie had shattered.
“Good work,” she said to Joe, smiling a little as the calf eagerly pulled at a teat. She watched this small miracle for a few more moments then crossed to the closest sink to scrub the muck off her hands.
Joe joined her and they lathered their hands in silence while they waited for warm water to travel from the ancient water heater at the other side of the barn. Even over the strong aroma of the soap, she could smell himâthe honest scents of leather and sage and hard-working maleâand her stomach did a long, slow roll.
She tested the water. Still cold. “It shouldn't be long now,” she said, anxious to fill the silence that had grown suddenly awkward.
He glanced down at her, then away again. “Look, I'm sorry I didn't tell you before I was considering this
job offer. But until today I wasn't sure I was even going to take it.”
At his words, the harmony created between them during the calf's delivery blew away like dry leaves in a hard October wind. She shoved her hands under the faucet, heedless of the still-icy water as all the fear rumbled back. “Why now? Why did you suddenly decide you couldn't wait to leave the Double C?”
What did I do?
The thought pushed its way to the front of her mind, but she thrust it away. She was done thinking she was to blame for every single thing that went wrong in the world. Or that she could make it all better, if only she tried a little harder.
“It's time,” he said quietly. “Past time.” With abrupt, violent movements at odds with his low tone, he yanked a paper towel from the dispenser.
“If it's money, I can raise your salary some.”
Some, but not much, both of them knew. The blood money she had used to buy her freedom from Charlie had sapped the ranch's resources until there was very little disposable income to increase anybody's salaries.
Until the Double C had another good year or two, there wouldn't be much extra for anything.
He shook his head. “It's not about money, Annie. It's about the future. Waterson's offering me a chance to start my own herd, with an option to buy some prime land on the edge of his ranch for my own spread.”
“Iâ¦I could do the same as this Waterson's doing. Make you the same offer.”
She wouldn't beg. She was done with begging. Still, she had to try something. This was Joe. “Maybe we could work something out. I could sell you the bottom land by the river and give you part of your salary in livestock. I don't want to lose you.”
He closed his eyes briefly, as if her words hurt him. When he opened them, they were clear and determined, but with a vulnerability that shocked her. “I need to make a new start, Annie. Away from Madison Valley. Somewhere I can be just another rancher.”
The soft intensity in his voice made her heart ache for him, made her ashamed of her selfishness.
Just another rancher,
he'd said, not Joe Redhawk, ex-con, who couldn't walk into the grocery store in town without stares and whispers following right along behind him, even after all this time.
The rest of her arguments dwindled away into dust. He wanted to leave, to make a clean break from the shackles of his past. Even if she had the kind of power that would bind him to her, she cared about him too much to deny him his freedom.
She took a shaky breath, her stomach hollow and achy. What would the kids say when they found out he was leaving? C.J. adored his uncle and would be devastated. As to Leah's reaction, she couldn't even begin to guess. Her daughter had become a sullen stranger since Charlie left, full of lip and resentment.
At least with Joe gone, you won't have to worry so much about either of them stumbling onto the truth.
The thought whispered into her mind but was small consolation compared with the huge gaping hole his departure would leave in all of their lives.
She gnawed on her lip for a moment, then let out a breath, knowing she had no choice but to accept his decision to leave the Double C.
“Okay,” she finally said. She would never be able to tell him she was happy for him at the opportunityâat least not and mean itâbut she knew she couldn't argue any more.
She grabbed her coat off the rail and shrugged into it, anxious to get away from him before she did something foolish like break down. “If your mind's made up,” she said, her voice only faltering a little, “I guess there's nothing more I can say. You can break the news to everyone at supper tonight and I'll start looking for a replacement.”
She might be able to hire a new foreman, she thought as she walked outside to face the bitter February wind. But she knew as surely as she knew a blizzard was howling its way toward them that she would never be able to find another man to take Joe's place.
He watched her walk out of the barn, shoulders stiff and head held high, and fought the urge to pound a fist through the splintery old barn wall. He growled a curse, hating himself for putting that hurt and self-doubt back into her eyes.
She had been through so much. More than any woman should have to endure. She had finally begun to find some measure of peace in her life, finally begun to find her way again, and here he was shattering whatever serenity she had managed to create.
He had seen in her eyes how the news of his job offer had come as a crushing blow. He'd known it would, that she would see his leaving as just another in a long string of betrayals. While he hated hurting her, he didn't have a hell of a lot of choices here.
He hadn't lied about his reasons for taking Waterson's offer. He
want his own ranch, his own herd, his own chance to start a new life away from Madison Valley.
He just hadn't told her the whole truth.
In a furious burst of energy, he grabbed a pitchfork
and started forking fresh alfalfa into the stall for the new mama. He would never be able to tell Annie why he had to leave, why the situation here had become so intolerable to him.