Authors: Wendy Lindstrom
Still, Radford’s unsolicited assistance made Evelyn feel uncomfortable, as though he’d rescued some fair damsel from distress. The ridiculous image nearly made Evelyn snort. She was far from being a fair damsel, and the source of her distress was standing right in front of her. Lord, but she couldn’t drag her gaze away from Radford’s handsome face. Something in his voice seemed warmer, hopeful, not so brittle and angry anymore. His smile reached his eyes now. Maybe that’s why she couldn’t look away when he caught her staring.
With a small grunt, Radford heaved the chain onto the bed of the wagon, then stepped back and dusted his hands against his trousers. “Who’s running the saw?”
“Kyle,” Evelyn answered. “Duke and Boyd left at six-thirty, but Kyle had a job he wanted to finish tonight. He’ll be a while, yet.” Evelyn glanced down at Rebecca who stood like a miniature statue beside Radford. “I assume this is Rebecca?”
A proud smile lifted Radford’s lips and he captured his daughter’s hand. “Can you say hello to your aunt?” he asked, but Rebecca hid her face behind the long length of his thigh. Radford gave Rebecca a comforting pat, his fingers spanning the breadth of her tiny shoulders. “I guess the trip wore her out.”
Noting gentleness in the hands that Radford once wore as fists, Evelyn trailed her gaze up his forearm. It was tanned and corded with muscle that shifted each time he stroked his daughter’s small back. Intrigued by the contradiction of strength and gentleness, Evelyn wondered if he’d finally escaped the demons that drove him away years earlier.
He met her eyes and smiled. A rush of warmth slammed into Evelyn’s chest and she glanced away. How unfair that Radford should be clean and handsome while she was covered with hay-dust and smelled like her livery. He probably thought Kyle was out of his mind to be marrying her.
To hide her unease, and to soothe Rebecca’s, Evelyn squatted to the child’s level. “I used to have a yellow blanket just like yours,” she said, giving it a friendly tug, “but your uncle Kyle tossed it in our well. I cried until your daddy brought his fishing pole over and tried to fish it out for me.” Evelyn left the story unfinished, thinking Rebecca would be curious enough to ask what happened; instead she tugged at her daddy’s hand until Radford picked her up.
Evelyn stood. “I take it Rebecca doesn’t like stories?”
“She’s just shy.”
“Well, we’ll get her over that, won’t we?” Evelyn said, giving Rebecca a soft pat on the leg.
Both Radford and Rebecca stiffened.
“Please don’t do that.”
The warning in Radford’s voice jerked Evelyn’s gaze to his face. “Do what?” she asked, confused by their odd response to a natural act of affection.
“Touch her. It frightens her.”
Though Evelyn knew firsthand a father’s protective instinct toward his daughter, Radford’s overreaction was unusual. So was Rebecca’s cowering.
“A friendly pat shouldn’t frighten any child.”
“I agree,” Radford said. “But Rebecca is too young to understand that you won’t hurt her. She’s afraid. That’s all that matters to me.”
“Then you should explain...that is, maybe I could help her if...” Evelyn’s sentence trailed off as she stepped away from them. “Never mind.”
Radford felt Rebecca relaxing as he rubbed her back. She was like this with everyone. Trouble was, she would eventually warm up to Evelyn and that would cause bigger problems.
He studied Evelyn with renewed curiosity and she met his gaze unflinchingly. Her quiet display of strength reminded Radford of her father, of the fierce pride that had sparked William’s eyes during the war.
Radford could understand what Kyle saw in Evelyn Tucker. A backbone of steel.
What sort of woman had she become? Though Radford had rarely thought of her over the years, the sparkle of an emerald ring or necklace had always conjured the vision of a wild girl with flashing green eyes. They were still the emeralds he remembered, but shadowed now. Yet, as Evelyn stood before him, dirty and disheveled, there was a restless energy that intrigued him, that made him want to know what she was thinking.
Radford gave himself a mental shake. What the devil was he doing? He couldn’t afford to be interested in Evelyn. All he wanted was peace. To work an honest job that he could be proud of. To build a comfortable home where Rebecca could learn to laugh again. And to share an occasional mug with his brothers after a day of working beside them in the mill.
That was enough.
“I’d better go see Kyle, then get over to Ma’s,” he said, aware of their growing mutual discomfort.
“Would you tell him I’ll be up in a minute?”
With a relieved nod, Radford went to find his brother.
At one end of the building a set of wide double doors was thrown open to the August evening. Steam spat from a huge, gasping boiler housed deep in the interior, then another scream from the mighty saw blades split the air.
Rebecca clapped her hands to her ears and cowered against Radford’s neck.
When the saw finished its pass, Radford yelled inside and waved Rebecca’s blanket overhead. “Kyle! Stop that noise and come meet your niece!”
Kyle’s head came up and he faced in Radford’s direction for several seconds before straightening his stance. “Radford?” His voice boomed from the other end of the building. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Radford laughed at Kyle’s lack of preamble. “Looking for a job. You hiring?”
There was no response at Kyle’s end except the quieting of equipment and whistling sound of steam escaping in an endless, drawn-out sigh. Finally, Kyle walked toward them from the shadowed depths of the building. Joyful anticipation expanded Radford’s chest. It had been so long. So many
When Kyle stepped into the waning sunlight, Radford eyed him with pride. His brother had become a giant of a man. Wider in build than Radford, though an inch or two shorter, Kyle still easily topped six feet. Radford couldn’t begin to imagine the changes he would find in Duke and Boyd.
Kyle extended his hand. “You’re early.”
Radford experienced a moment of confusion before it dawned on him that Kyle wasn’t going to welcome him home with the backslapping hug he’d expected. Mile after mile of the trip from Boston, Radford had staved off anxiety with visions of a joyful, rollicking reunion with his brothers.
Kyle was offering a
Hope began slipping away like steam from the cooling boiler, but Radford took Kyle’s broad hand in his and gave it a
shake. What could he expect after being absent since the war? Though he’d come home occasionally during the last five years, he’d never stayed more than a few weeks before his shame drove him away again. It wouldn’t this time, he vowed silently.
Radford glanced at the mill building. “You’ve made changes while I’ve been away.”
“We expanded the building and bought a new mill so we could keep up with Tom Drake. You remember Tom?”
“Of course. Our toughest competitor with the pretty daughter.”
Kyle nodded, but turned his attention to Rebecca who was peeking at him. A grin climbed his cheek as he studied her. “She resembles her uncle Boyd, but you’d better hope she doesn’t grow up to be as wild as he is.”
Radford glanced at Rebecca and knew that wildness would be a welcome change from her frightening withdrawal.
“Come on,” Kyle said, gesturing for Radford to follow him. “I’ll show you the mill.” They entered the building and stopped by the saw where Kyle proudly laid his hand on the heavy iron husk. “This girl has doubled our output. These dual saws chew through twenty thousand feet of timber a day. The smaller saw speeds up our cutting time and allows us to use thinner blades, which means less
and sawdust waste.”
Radford remembered his father’s crude mill. The thought of running the new, powerful machine made his hands itch. A wide leather drive belt wove through a series of pulley wheels and up over a mandrel shaft that was powered by a stationary engine and boiler. A sawdust elevator had also been attached to the mandrel shaft to carry the waste outside where three huge piles spilled across the ground.
“Are you still selling the sawdust?”
“Of course,” Kyle said as if it was a dumb question.
Radford laughed, then scanned the interior of the building. “Why are those logs wet?” he asked, balancing Rebecca on one arm to point at a nearby stack of logs.
“We rinsed them. It saves the blades from eating dirt so we spend less time sharpening them.”
No wonder they had grown so much, Radford thought with pride. Fighting the sudden urge to fire up the saws, wrap his hands around the metal levers, and finish
the white pine waiting on the carriage table, Radford throttled back his excitement. Tomorrow, he would do it. He’d stand beside the huge blades and feel the vibrations shimmy his legs. He’d look over and see his brothers and pretend he heard his father’s voice shouting orders in the yard. Then he could silence the other voices and everything would be all right again.
“Let’s go out through the office so I can lock up,” Kyle said, waving Radford and Rebecca into a room with a thick maple table in the center. The walls were buried behind metal hand files, saw blades, log hooks, and shaving knives. “It's not pretty,” Kyle said, stepping outside and pulling the door closed behind them, “but we’re doing a good business. Since I was left in charge, I did what I thought best.”
The meaning behind Kyle’s words didn’t elude Radford. He knew he hadn’t been there for his younger brothers when they needed him to run the mill after their father died. The best he’d been able to do was send money home to keep them going. More than anything, Radford had wanted to resume his normal life after the war, but he couldn’t suppress the nightmares or his violent physical reactions caused by them. His lack of control had shamed him so deeply that he moved to Boston to escape the sympathy in his brothers’ eyes. Unfortunately, his leaving had forced Kyle to run the mill instead of pursuing the law degree he’d wanted, and though Kyle had never said anything, Radford could still sense his brother’s resentment.
“You’ve done a great job, Kyle. I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” Radford said with sincerity. He glanced at Rebecca, who had suddenly perked up at the sound of Evelyn’s wagon rattling across the yard.
When she pulled up, Kyle propped his elbow on the side rail. “I guess your father wasn’t up to the ride tonight. I thought he was feeling better.”
Evelyn shook her head. “He thinks he is, but he was too tired to even climb the stairs. He’s napping on the sofa.”
Radford’s chest constricted with fear. “What’s wrong with William?” he asked, praying it was only a cold or sore back, but knowing from their shared experience in battle that it would take more than that to keep William Tucker down.
“He’s had seizures,” Kyle said.
Radford met Evelyn’s worried gaze as she filled him in. “He had his first one six months ago. The second one happened three months later. He got his strength back after his first attack of apoplexy, but the last time drained him. He can talk now, but he still needs a cane to walk.”
Radford’s gut tightened with the instinctive need to protect William, the man who’d been like a father, his friend, his mentor since he was a boy.
, they had survived a war and too many years of hell together for William to be laid low by some inexplicable seizure.
“Has he seen a doctor? A
“Both times,” Kyle said. “And he’s been told he won’t be able to work the livery anymore. Evelyn has been running it for him for the last six months, but it’s not doing so well.” He glanced at Evelyn. “It’s not her fault. She manages fine and works hard, but it’s too much for her.” Evelyn straightened on her seat and opened her mouth, but Kyle held up his hand. “It is,
. You’re killing yourself.” Ignoring her scowl, he turned to Radford. “Naturally William will be passing the livery to Evelyn and me when we marry, and I’d like you to run it for me— if you’re staying, of course.”
“What?” Radford and Evelyn asked in shocked unison, their glances clashing before flying back to Kyle.
“I have all the men I need at the mill. William can’t work, and despite what Evelyn says, she can’t run the livery alone,” he said, glancing at Evelyn but directing his statement to Radford.
Radford couldn’t have been more shocked or offended had Kyle struck Rebecca. Radford
a fourth of their mill. Was Kyle worried that Radford had come home to reclaim his position as eldest? Was that why he was trying to keep him out of the mill? All Radford wanted was to work with his brothers. He just wanted to be a part of their life and to have them in his.
“I had planned to have one of my men help in the livery, but I’d feel better knowing you’re there. I need someone I can trust, Radford. I’m too busy building Evelyn a house and running the mill to supervise the livery.”
Radford’s heart contracted so hard, he felt the brutal wrench clear to the pit of his stomach. His arms weakened and he lowered Rebecca to the ground, standing her at his side before he dropped her. Kyle didn’t want him here. It was in his eyes. He was welcoming Radford home, but not back to the mill.