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Authors: Victoria Bylin

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Sighing, Beau counted his reaction as another reason to win the milking contest. He was dead sure that stepping into the life she’d imagined would limit her future. It took a brave man to marry a woman with three children in her care. If Dani took on the farm and the girls, she might never find a husband. On her own, a pretty blonde in a town full of ranchers, she’d be married within a year. Beau had known the joy of marriage for only a short time, but he remembered the goodness, especially with Dani singing to the blasted cow who was giving more milk than it ever had for Beau. She was on her second bucket and nearly finished with the first cow.

Beau didn’t want to listen to the hymns, but he couldn’t cover his ears and milk at the same time. As Dani’s soprano filled the barn with the words to “Blessed Assurance” and its promise of Heaven, Beau tasted bile.

Irked, he tugged too hard on the Jersey’s teat. The bovine stomped her foot. He muttered an oath, then straightened his back and glared at Dani. “Do you have to sing?”

“The cows like it.” The milk hissed into her bucket. “I’m not hearing anything from your side of the barn. You might try it.”

He chuffed.

She stood and lifted the bucket, grinning as she turned to the milk can with a swing of her hip. “By the time you and Sweetness make peace, I’ll be done.”

Beau saw nothing “sweet” about Sweetness. All the cows had names. Sweetness and Light were sisters. Martha, Dolley and Mary Todd were named for former first ladies. The last five, known as the “flower girls” were Buttercup, Rose, Daisy, Lily and Daffodil. Beau watched as Dani neared the milk cans. She set down the bucket, used her long apron to get a better grip on the handle, then hoisted it and poured the milk into the can, not spilling a drop. Beau knew how much the bucket weighed. As slender as she was, Dani had strong arms and a strong back.

She covered the can with a clean towel, then went to fetch another cow. She came back with Lily. After getting the cow settled, she scratched its ears and even kissed its nose.

Sweetness swung her head around, stared at Beau, then bellowed.

Laughing, Dani sat on the stool. Five seconds later, Lily let down her milk. Dani looked over her shoulder. “Sweetness wants you to sing. There’s no getting around it.”

No way would Beau sing a hymn, but both his pride and his common sense told him he had to do something. He gave the old cow a pat on the leg, realigned the bucket and broke into “Camptown Races.” By the second “doo-dah,” Sweetness let down her milk. White streams hissed into the bucket in perfect time to the song.

Dani’s laughter pealed through the air. Beau had never heard anything quite like the mix of the silly song, her laughter and the beat of the milk. The high ceiling caught the music and bounced it back and around, filling his ears with harmonies he’d never heard. He’d become accustomed to silence, men grunting in saloons, the rush of wind and rivers and the rustling of dried leaves. Today he heard unity, oneness, especially when Dani switched from laughing to singing the “Doo-dahs” in “Camp Town Races.”

Before Beau knew it, his bucket was close to full. He stood, patted Sweetness and strode to the can assigned to him. Dani hurried up behind him and added another bucket to her can.

He had some serious catching up to do. Lowering his chin, he eyed her. “I wouldn’t get cocky if I were you. It’s not over yet.”

She smiled back. “We’ll see about that.”

She turned so fast her apron flapped. Beau went back to Sweetness, finished the milking and led her to the pasture. He came back with Light and saw Dani filling a new milk can.

He couldn’t let her win. Being a man of his word, he’d have to give serious consideration to allowing her to stay with the girls. Beau found the idea both appealing and irksome. As long as Dani and the girls were in Castle Rock, he’d have something akin to a home. Pushing the thought aside, he positioned the bucket under Light and went back to work, singing whatever tune popped into his head.

Thirty minutes later, Dani had milked Rose, Lily and Daisy. Beau had finished with Sweetness and Light. Martha, the oldest of the cows and named for Mrs. Washington, didn’t appreciate “Camp Town Races,” so he switched to “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Martha didn’t care for it and neither did Beau.

An old favorite came into Beau’s head. Without thinking, he sang the opening line of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the verse about a man’s eyes seeing the glory of the coming of the Lord. It lifted Beau up. So did the next verse, the one about grapes of wrath. He’d sung the song in church in Denver. It called to his blood and his cause. Beau understood wrath. When he dreamed of finding Clay, the images weren’t pretty. He’d shake off the pictures when he awoke, but the bitterness never left.

Except right now, he felt good. Martha liked the song and let down her milk with the ease that made her the best producer. In minutes she’d given all her milk and he’d caught up with Dani. After hauling the bucket to the milk can, he fetched his fourth cow, a sweet thing named Dolley. Dani’s fourth cow was named Daffodil. Dolley had a sweet nature and gave generously. Daff was the most stubborn of the ladies, the cow who’d stepped on his foot and inspired his one use of profanity. Beau smelled victory.

As he pulled up the stool, he glanced at Dani who was coaxing Daff with clucking sounds as she worked the teats. Nothing happened. The lines tightened around her eyes.

“Come on, girl,” she said. “What’s bothering you?”

Beau had a feeling he knew. He and Daff didn’t get along, but he knew she liked being scratched between her eyes. He’d gained on Dani and almost had the lead. If he said nothing, he’d win, but he felt like a heel. He sat straight on the stool. “Give her a scratch between the eyes. It works every time.”

“Thanks.” She pushed to her feet, gave Daff a long scratch that made Beau think of his own itchy back, then sat on the stool. Milk squirted into the pail.

Without breaking the rhythm, Dani turned her head. “That was nice of you.”

“It beats hearing ‘Camptown Races’ again.”

She smiled. “I enjoyed it. You have a fine voice.”

He said nothing.

“Do you like to sing?”

His voice choked, but he answered. “Back in Denver, I sang in the church choir.”

“That’s nice.”

He blew air through his nose. Lucy had sung alto. Choir practice had been on Thursday evenings. They’d eaten supper out, and…Beau groaned out loud.

Dani stopped milking. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.”

But he’d wasn’t. She’d used his given name before, but today he liked the sound of it. His chest swelled with breath, with life. The barn had a window high in the wall. It cast a beam of gold light to the floor between them, catching dust motes and making a gossamer wall between himself and Dani. If he wanted, he could pass through that dust and be her friend, maybe more. But to what end? He had a call on his life. She had a broken heart. She needed the kind of life he couldn’t give.

Can’t or won’t?

Pushing aside the whisper of his conscience, Beau focused on the milk filling the bucket. A little scratching and some sweet talk and the cows gave generously. He thought of Dani’s good cooking and the girls playing checkers on the porch. If he didn’t watch himself, he’d react as generously as Martha. He’d give his all for this little family.

The barn door creaked open. Along with the hiss of the milk, Beau heard the pad of little-girl feet. He’d never heard that particular scuff until he’d arrived at the farm. Men took long, thumping steps. Boys ran. Little girls scampered, even when they were sad and missing their daddies.

“Who’s there?” Dani called from the stall.

“It’s me.”

Beau recognized Ellie’s voice and looked up. She’d reached Dolley and had stopped to scratch her. Dressed in coveralls as always, she reminded Beau of Patrick at that age. They’d grown up in Indiana on a farm similar to this one, half brothers with Beau the elder by three years. Patrick had been the baby of the family, their mother’s favorite and his father’s pride. Beau’s own father, a man he didn’t recall, had died in a wagon accident. Beau had toughened up early in life. Losing a father forced a boy to grow up.

Ellie rubbed the side of Martha’s head. “I used to help Pa with the milking.”

What did a man say to a hurting little girl? Did he talk about Heaven? Beau had rebelled every time some well-meaning fool told him Lucy was in a better place. What could have been better than sharing his bed, his home, meals at the table he’d built with children in mind.

His gaze slid to Dani. She had already straightened and was looking at him with the same sad expression he’d seen in the cemetery. Then and there, Beau lost the milking contest. Dani needed these children. She needed the farm, a home of her own, and he could give them to her.

He rose from the stool and called to Ellie. “Want to finish with Dolley?”

The child’s eyes showed all the chaos in her heart. He wasn’t her father, but he looked enough like Patrick to stir up memories. Just for now, he could fill the hole in her life.

“I don’t know,” Ellie said.

Beau kept his expression gentle. “Dolley misses your pa, too. She’d like it if you’d help.”

Ellie’s eyes widened and her lips parted as if she wanted to speak. Beau recognized the signs of knowledge dawning on her face. Her father was gone, but life would go on. He’d felt that way when he’d eaten Dani’s raspberry pie.

Ellie stroked Martha’s nose, then looked at Beau. “I can finish. My pa taught me everything.”

As she took his place, Beau stepped into the aisle. He heard the hiss-hiss of Dani milking Daffodil. As he turned, she met his gaze with a question in her eyes.
What about the contest?

Beau had no doubt about the outcome. Even if he’d edged Dani by a pound or two, she’d bested him in spirit. She knew about breeding, milk prices, feed crops, even confounded things called silos. Even more important, she loved the animals like children. Never again would he hear “Camptown Races” without thinking of this day.

Beau spoke softly. “You won, Dani.” He’d used her given name. It tasted sweet, like the berries.

She blushed. “Does that mean…”

She was asking about adopting the girls. “I don’t know yet, but you’re closer.”

He still had concerns. What would happen if Dani lost her heart to a man with his own ambitions? Grief-stricken women made foolish choices. They married too soon and lived with regrets. Before he handed her the responsibility of the farm, he had to be sure she knew the facts. That meant having a long, private talk. Maybe tonight…Beau bristled at the thought. He didn’t want to see Dani in the moonlight. He’d have to find another time.

She’d filled a bucket, so he lifted it and carried it to the milk can. When he brought it back, he took Ellie’s pail and did the same thing. When the last cow was milked, Dani carried the buckets to the well for scrubbing. Beau lifted a shovel and headed for the horse stalls. Ellie picked up a smaller shovel and followed him.

“Uncle Beau?”

“Yes?”

“Do you like to fish?”

“Sure.”

A graybeard in Wyoming had taught him to fly-fish on the Snake River. Beau liked it quite a bit. If he kept his eyes on the water, the current caught his thoughts and carried them away.

Ellie dumped a load of dirty straw into the wheelbarrow. “I like it, too. Pa used to take me.”

Beau felt the itch as if it were his own. “Where’d he take you?”

“To a stream that’s near the mountains. It’s pretty far, but I bet it’s running fast.”

“Trout?” Beau asked.

“Big ones.”

Beau thought for a minute. Planting season was coming to a close. He had to get the alfalfa in the ground, and he wanted to build Dani’s silo. Fishing sounded like pure pleasure, but he couldn’t say yes. He looked at Ellie, intending to change the subject. Her blue eyes were alive with hope, a bit of sunshine that melted Beau’s heart. He’d plant tomorrow. Today had needs of a different kind. Ellie needed new memories, plus he could speak to Dani in private while the girls caught tadpoles.

He braced the shovel on the floor and put his boot on the blade. “How’d you like to go fishing right now?”

“I’d like that.”

“Me, too,” Beau said.

Ellie smiled. “Can I tell my sisters?”

“Let’s check with Miss Dani first.”

They went back to shoveling, working even faster than before. When Dani brought the clean buckets into the barn, Ellie blurted the question about fishing.

Dani smiled. “That sounds like fun.”

“We can have a picnic,” Ellie added.

Dani looked at Beau, saying with her eyes that he’d made her proud. Peace washed over him. Just for today, he belonged on the banks of that stream, listening to the water, the wind, the chatter of three little girls and a pretty woman. As Dani turned to leave, he watched the sway of her skirt, a deep blue that matched her eyes. The light from the window caught in the crown of her braid and glinted gold.

Beau pitched another forkful of straw. Before he knew it, he was humming “Camptown Races.”

Chapter Seven

D
ani watched Beau’s hands as he wielded his pocketknife against an apple, removing the red peel in a single strand. When she’d first laid eyes on him, she’d taken his measure by his hands and doubted his character. Today she saw a man capable of a gentle touch and great patience.

The picnic had been relaxing except for Emma’s fussing. Back at the farm, she’d been uninterested in packing the food and had worried about the long wagon ride to Sparrow Creek. She’d also been rude to Beau, who’d endured the girl’s sass without a single harsh word. While he and Ellie caught trout, Emma had followed Esther like a shadow, warning her about rocks and ruts and everything in between.

With the sun high in the sky, the five of them were seated on a blanket Dani had spread beneath a cottonwood. She’d passed out sandwiches and apples and was enjoying the sunshine. Beau sat across from her with his back against the tree, his legs bent and his forearms resting on his knees while he peeled the apple. Ellie had positioned herself at his elbow, and Esther had curled up in Dani’s lap. Emma was seated between Dani and Ellie.

Beau held up the peeled apple. “Who’s first?”

“Me!” Ellie took the fruit and bit into it.

A drop of juice shot in Emma’s direction. The older girl jerked back as if Ellie had spit on her. “Cut it out!”

Dani didn’t know what to do about Emma’s foul mood. She was hurting, but hurting others wouldn’t bring her father back. Dani touched her stiff shoulder. “It was an accident, sweetie.”

Emma’s mouth trembled. “I know.”

Beau had a second apple in hand. He finished peeling it and offered it to Emma. “This one’s for you.”

She took the apple and heaved it as far as she could. “I don’t want it.”

Dani gasped. “Emma!”

Beau shot Dani a look, the one that belonged to the lawman who’d broken up fights in Denver.
I’ll handle this.
Dani welcomed his help. She understood the cause of Emma’s anger but didn’t know how to handle it. When Dani felt melancholy, she wanted to be left alone. When she cried, she did it in private. She didn’t understand Emma, but she suspected Beau did.

He handed Emma a third apple. “If it makes you feel better, throw this one, too.”

Tears flooded the girl’s eyes. “
Nothing
makes me feel better.”

Beau worked his knife around the fruit. This time the peel broke. “It can’t be fixed, but it’s still an apple and it tastes good.” He held the fruit out to Emma.

The child shot daggers with her eyes. “What’s going to happen to us?”

Dani wanted to know, as well, but she’d hoped to discuss the matter with Beau in private. He’d conceded the milking contest, but did that mean he’d approve the adoption? Neither of them had told the girls about Harriet Lange. Until now, his nieces had been too afraid of Beau to ask about the future. When they approached Dani, she’d told the truth. Their Uncle Beau had legal authority and was still deciding.

Emma’s outburst made the waiting seem cruel. Dani looked pointedly at Beau. “I’d like to know, too.”

“I see three possibilities,” he replied.

Esther paid no attention, but Ellie stopped chewing the bite of apple.

Emma tensed. “What are they?”

“You’re not going to like the first one.” Beau kept his gaze on Emma. “I asked Mr. Scott to find a boarding school.”

“No!” she cried.

Beau held up one hand. “Hold on. That’s not likely to happen.”

“It better not.” Emma raised her chin. “I won’t leave my sisters.”

“Fair enough,” Beau said. “The second option concerns your Aunt Harriet.”

Ellie turned to her big sister. “Who’s she?”

“She’s a witch!”

“Emma!” Dani cried.

“She’s mean,” the child declared. “We visited her when I was little. She’s mama’s great-aunt. She’s old and ugly and she slapped my hand for touching one of her stupid little teacups.”

Dani felt outraged but cautioned herself.
Judge not.
“That was a long time ago.”

“I don’t care,” Emma said. “If she liked children, she’d have some of her own.”

“Not necessarily.” Dani’s back stiffened. Maybe, like herself, Harriet Lange hadn’t found the right man. Dani had jilted Virgil Griggs and ended up the town pariah. Perhaps Miss Lange had a similar story.

Beau’s voice broke into Dani’s thoughts. “We don’t know what Miss Lange is like.”

Emma frowned. “I know she doesn’t like
me.

Dani weighed Emma’s comments and worried. Harriet Lange had asked for Emma only, not the younger girls. Beau, thinking money was a problem, had offered to pay an allowance for all three girls. If Harriet Lange took the offer, how would they know she’d done it out of love? Judging by Beau’s frown, he’d gone down the same road.

Ellie had her half-eaten apple in her hand. “Uncle Beau?”

“Yes?”

“Why can’t
you
stay with us?”

“I’ve got business elsewhere,” he said simply.

Ellie hugged her knees. “If you stayed, you could marry Dani.”

No one said a word, not even Emma.

Ellie’s voice sped up. “She’s pretty and she can cook. Emma and I can do most of the chores. Esther’s too little, but she’s fun. That counts for something, doesn’t it?”

Dani’s heart broke in two. Not for Ellie, who looked desperate. And not for Emma, who looked helpless. But for Beau, whose eyes had taken on the color of grass stirring helplessly in a breeze. Across the blanket, she saw the man who’d loved Lucy and married her, the sheriff who’d sung in the church choir in the tenor she’d heard bouncing in the cavernous barn.

Her heart raced with feelings she couldn’t name. She loved Patrick. She always would, yet she’d come to know Beau in a way she’d never known his brother. She and Patrick had traded dozens of letters, but he’d never shared his secrets. Dani had his photograph in her box of keepsakes, but she’d never seen his eyes change with emotion the way Beau’s were changing now. The dark glint had turned into a twinkle that matched the grass. He looked at Dani with a wry smile, silently sharing the humor of Ellie’s naive remark.

She smiled back.

Beau’s eyes lingered on hers, but then he blinked. The twinkle faded, leaving behind the man who’d called himself Cain. Looking away, he hurled the half-peeled apple into the stream. It bobbed once and raced away.

Beau kept his eyes on the apple. “It’s not possible, Ellie.”

“Why not?” the child asked.

Dani felt sorry for them all. “Your Uncle Beau and I are friends, but we don’t love each other.”

Esther wiggled in Dani’s lap. She hadn’t sucked her thumb since they’d left the house, but she had it in her mouth now.

“Why not?” she mumbled through her fingers. “You could be our mama and he could be like Pa.”

Dani blushed. “It’s not that simple.”

Esther pressed even closer. “I want you to stay.”

“Me, too.” Emma glared at Beau. “My pa wrote to Dani every week. He said
you
disappeared.”

Dani knew why, but Emma didn’t. Someday the girls would learn more about their Aunt Lucy and Beau’s loss but not this minute. “Emma, there are things you don’t understand.”

“Then tell me,” the child demanded.

Beau’s expression stayed blank. “My name’s on the will. That’s all that matters.

“But it’s not right,” Emma insisted. “Dani knows us. She knows about cows, too. A
lot
more than you do.
And
they like her!”

Beau shifted his gaze to Dani. His expression shot her back to her mother’s kitchen and the times her parents traded looks she hadn’t understood. Those moments usually involved her brother getting into trouble. Beau, she realized, wanted her to understand him in a way the girls couldn’t. They were two adults—equals—addressing a problem.

He made his voice formal. “Birthing season’s a tough time of year. Tell me, Miss Baxter. Can you handle it?”

“Yes.” She’d helped her father.

His brows lifted with surprise. “Can you build that silo you’re planning?”

“I’d hire someone.”

“What about the alfalfa?” he asked. “Can you handle the planting, harvesting
and
the baling?

“If I have to.” Dani held his gaze. “The seed should have been in the ground two weeks ago. If you can’t finish it in the next day or two, we should hire help.”

Emma chimed in. “Howie Dawes will do it. Pa hires him every harvest. We all help. We can help Dani, too.”

Ellie sat straighter. “I can do a lot.”

“Me, too,” Esther said.

Beau drummed his fingers on his knee. “I’ll be straight with you, girls. The third option is to leave Dani in charge and get back to my work, but I can’t. I have to do what’s best, not what’s easy.”

Emma frowned. “This
is
best.”

“Hear me out.” Beau held up his hand. “You girls have lost too much already. I know that. I want to see you safe and settled.
How
that happens is my decision.”

The suck-suck of Esther’s thumb beat with Dani’s heart.

Beau looked at the child, then at Emma. “I’d like to speak to Dani in private. Can you watch out for your sisters?”

Emma stared at Beau with the haughtiness of a little girl playing dress-up. “Of course, I can.”

“Good.” Beau focused on Dani. “Let’s take a walk.”

When she nodded yes, he pushed to his feet. Dani slid Esther off her lap, tried to stand and wobbled. Her leg had fallen asleep. Before she could steady herself, Beau grasped her elbow. Blood rushed to her toes. They tingled, but not as much as her elbow. She thought of Beau milking cows and peeling the apples. He had strong hands, steady hands. She’d come to trust him…except where it came to the girls. Dani knew best about the adoption. She had to prove it to him.

As soon as she steadied herself, he let go of her elbow. “Let’s go upstream.”

With the grass twisting around her boots, she cut across the slope to the bank of the stream. She saw prints where Beau had cast his line and caught tonight’s supper. Ellie’s smaller feet marked the ground next to his. In the distance she spotted a cluster of boulders surrounded by lupines, poppies and tiny pink flowers she didn’t recognize.

“That’s a good spot,” she said. They could see the girls, but the stream would cover their voices.

Beau nodded. “I want privacy.”

When they reached the boulders, Dani smoothed her skirt and sat on a slab of granite. She expected Beau to sit at her side. Instead he stood in front of her with his hands behind his back. She felt like a witness in a court of law and didn’t like it.

Before she could stand, Beau looked into her eyes. “I have just one question, Miss Baxter.”

So she’d stopped being Dani. If he thought formality would give him an edge, he was wrong. “What is it?”

“You traveled a thousand miles to marry a man you’d never met. I want to know why.”

She’d been expecting Beau to challenge her skills, not her motives. What could she say? That she’d been courted by every man in Walker County and was impressed by none? That she’d been engaged twice and had jilted Virgil Griggs a week before the wedding? Dani still cringed when she thought of Virgil trying to kiss her. She hadn’t loved him, not even a little. He’d smelled like bad onions, and she’d turned her head in revulsion. When she’d broken the engagement, Dani had sealed her future as a spinster.

That Dani Baxter, she’s as fickle as they come!

Dani didn’t have a fickle bone in her body. She’d been lonely and had made a mistake when she’d said yes to Virgil, but the town had other ideas.

Beau crossed his arms over his chest. The longer she waited to reply, the darker his eyes became.

“Does it matter?” she finally asked.

“Yes, it does.”

“Why?

His voice went low. “There’s only one reason a woman leaves her home for a man she’s never met.”

Dani stiffened. “What’s that?”

“She’s running from something.”

He’d struck dangerously close to home. She’d been running from loneliness but saw no reason to admit it. “You’re wrong.”

“Am I?”

“I wasn’t running
from
anything,” she insisted. “I was running
to
Patrick.”

Beau dropped down next to her. Their knees brushed. They both pulled back, but he didn’t seem to notice. “I don’t believe you, Dani.”

He’d used her given name. It made her feel soft inside, but she kept her back straight. “It’s true.”

“You didn’t even know him.”

“We wrote letters.”

Beau shook his head. “It’s been years since I’ve seen Patrick, but leopards don’t change their spots.”

Dani’s heart pounded. “What do you mean?”

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