Authors: Victoria Bylin
he markers in the cemetery were unlike anything Dani had ever seen. They were made from rhyolite, a pinkish-gray stone that made her think of blood mixed with ash. In particular she noticed the stone cross in front of the bench. The crossbars ended in scallops that resembled open hands. The grass had been trampled and someone had left a single rose, now shriveled, at the foot of the marker. Tears welled in Dani’s eyes. She’d miss Patrick forever, but God willing, she’d find comfort in raising his daughters and offer it in return. It all depended on Beau Morgan.
Dani bowed her head.
Are You there, Lord?
I need Your help and so do the girls.
With her stomach quivering, Dani poured out her heart to the cross. Surely God had a plan for her life, a purpose. She
to believe that. She couldn’t bear the thought of going back to Wisconsin and intruding on her brother. Apart from her tattered pride, she had no hope of a future in Walker County.
Please, Lord, make my path straight. Show me Your will.
“Amen,” she said out loud.
A man cleared his throat.
She opened her eyes and saw a shadow across the grave. Expecting to see Reverend Blue, she looked up. Instead of the minister, she saw Beau Morgan with his hat in one hand and a lily in the other. He’d bathed and bought new clothes. The blue shirt turned his eyes a truer green, and his brown trousers still had a crease. He’d been to the barber, too. Dani took in his clean-shaven jaw and the dip in his upper lip. Without the grit and the dust, Beau Morgan was a handsome man. Even more handsome than Patrick. Dani felt disloyal, but she had to tell the truth. She also had to convince him she could care for the girls and run the farm.
He offered her the lily. “This is in honor of Patrick.”
She held the white trumpet by the stem. Missing Patrick’s funeral had denied her a line in the sand, a place that marked before and after. She’d found it today in the cemetery.
Beau glanced at the lily, then stared into her eyes. “It’s hard saying goodbye, even harder with things unsaid.”
Dani’s heart ached. “You understand.”
She didn’t want any deception between them. “Adie told me about your wife. I’m sorry for your loss.”
He gave a curt nod. “It was a long time ago.”
“But you still miss her.”
Dani didn’t want to bring up painful memories, but she had to put the girls first. “I don’t mean to pry, Mr. Morgan. But the Blues told me about Clay Johnson.”
“What about him?”
“Are the girls in danger?”
“That’s my concern.” He put his Stetson back on his head and pulled it low. The sun lit up half his face, leaving the other side in the shadow of the brim. In a cemetery, the gesture smacked of disrespect.
Dani stood up from the bench and faced him. “The girls are my concern, too. The Blues are willing to take us in. I think that would be wise.”
“You’re free to accept,” he said. “But the girls are staying with me.”
“If there’s danger—”
Bitterness spilled from his skin. Dani couldn’t stand the thought of leaving the girls in his care. She looked him hard in the eye. “I have to know, Mr. Morgan. Is it safe to be around you?”
As soon as Dani said the words, she regretted them. His wife had taken a bullet meant for him. Being around Beau Morgan wasn’t safe at all.
He sneered at her. “Let’s put it this way. It’s as safe to be around me as it is to be on a horse in a thunderstorm.”
Dani blinked and recalled the charred pine. This morning she’d expected Patrick to greet her train. Now she was at the mercy of this bitter man. If he wouldn’t let the girls stay with the Blues, Dani would have to stay with them. “You have a point,” she said mildly. “We’ll be fine on the farm.”
The man rocked back on his heels. “I won’t be needing your help after all. The situation’s changed.”
Dani stiffened. “How so?”
“Scott’s located another relative, a great-aunt in Minnesota.”
He told her about Harriet Lange’s offer to take Emma, his concern about the woman’s finances and his offer to provide a monthly allowance if she’d take all three girls. Dani searched her memory, but Patrick had written nothing about the girls’ grandparents or cousins. She had asked about Elizabeth’s family, but he’d ignored her question. She’d figured his first marriage was too personal to share in writing and hadn’t pushed.
Beau Morgan shifted his weight. His gun belt creaked. “If things go as I expect, the girls will be leaving for Minnesota in a week or two.”
“You can’t do that!” Dani cried.
“Yes, I can.”
“But this is their home!”
He said nothing.
She gestured to the town. “The girls have friends here, people who know them.”
“It’s for the best.”
“I do.” He sounded kind. The tone threw Dani off balance, so did the regret in his eyes. “If I could, I’d bring Patrick back to life. I’d do a lot of things, Miss Baxter. But I don’t have that power. If Harriet Lange’s willing to raise my nieces, I’m going to let her.”
Dani felt close to panic. “Let me do it.”
His brow furrowed with impatience. “Where would you live?”
“On the farm, of course.”
“I mean no disrespect, Miss Baxter. But do you have any idea how much work it is to run a dairy?”
If a man could be judged by his hands, so could a woman. Dani tugged off her gloves a finger at a time. She put them in her pocket, then held out her hands palm up. “What do you see, Mr. Morgan?”
His eyes softened. “Calluses.”
“You’ve got long fingers.”
“Would you care to guess how many times I’ve milked a cow?”
“Quite a few.”
Dani lowered her hands. “My father owned the biggest dairy in Walker County. He grew it from five cows to fifty. I know the business and I’m not afraid of hard work. We’d have to hire help for the busy times, but—”
Her words came faster. “Did you see the lumber by the barn?”
“What about it?”
“It’s for a silo. My father built one six years ago. It’ll hold enough feed for the entire winter. I sent Patrick the plans before I left.”
He spread his boots in the dirt and crossed his arms. “That’s all well and good, but—”
“The cows should have been bred a few weeks ago. Did you check his records?”
He stared in disbelief.
Dani had no time to be shy about nature’s ways. “If a bull didn’t visit, we’re in trouble. Without calves, the cows won’t have milk.”
Mr. Morgan looked amused. “Is that a fact?”
“Of course.” Dani didn’t see the humor. “A second cheese factory is opening. Have you gotten prices?”
He said nothing.
“Denver’s booming. With a daily train, we can sell twice as much dairy as we do now.” Dani saw boundless opportunity, but Beau Morgan looked like a man with a headache.
He put his hands on his hips. “You’re obviously knowledgeable, Miss Baxter. But my answer is still no.”
“Who’s going to do the heavy lifting?”
“I’ll do what has to be done.”
She wanted to quote Proverbs, the verses about the woman who bought land and sold it, fed her family and worked tirelessly into the night, but Beau Morgan had made it clear that he didn’t feel close to God. Quoting scripture would serve no purpose, but neither would she apologize for telling the truth. After years in the dairy business, she knew how to bargain.
“I’ll make you a deal, Mr. Morgan.”
“The way I see it, you have a problem. You have three little girls in your care, and you don’t know the first thing about children.”
“You’re an honorable man. You want to provide for their future.”
Dani’s heart pounded. “The problem is your demeanor. You showed up looking like a grizzly bear, then you scared the daylights out of them by sitting on the porch with your guns. They don’t like you, but they like me.”
“What’s your point?”
I can run a dairy farm. Give me two weeks. If you’re not convinced that it’s best for the girls to stay with me in Castle Rock, I’ll take them to Minnesota myself.”
Beau Morgan shook his head. “I can’t allow it.”
“Like I said, the girls will get attached to you.”
“They already are.”
He rubbed the back of his neck, a sign of frustration.
Dani decided to press. “I know my way around a kitchen, Mr. Morgan. Just think…fried chicken and biscuits as light as air.”
He glared at her. “That’s not fair.”
“I thought you said Emma was a good cook.” Dani knew from the child’s letters that her biscuits were rock hard. Even Patrick had complained.
Emma tries, but she doesn’t have a knack for cooking.
Beau’s grimace showed he held the same opinion, but his eyes twinkled. “I lied and you know it.”
She smiled. “There’s a peach tree on the side of the house. Do you like cobbler, Mr. Morgan?”
He looked ravenous but said nothing.
“How about peach jam?”
Laughing out loud, he pushed back his hat. The shadow dividing his face disappeared, leaving only light. “You win. But on one condition.”
“I like raspberry pie.”
Dani thought of Adie’s story about Beau’s last meal in Denver. “I’d be glad to make it for you.”
“In that case, we have a deal. You have two weeks to prove yourself and my word that I’ll be fair.”
“I never doubted that you would be.”
Dani held out her hand. Beau glanced down, then gripped her fingers, engulfing them in his. The handshake sealed the deal, but the future was far from certain. She didn’t doubt Beau’s integrity or her ability to run the farm, but today had taught Dani a lesson. Anything could happen to anyone at any time.
She looked into Beau’s eyes and saw the same uncertainty. Earlier Dani had prayed for God to make her path straight. For reasons she didn’t understand, that path now involved this hard, troubled man. She didn’t understand why. She only knew she liked him. He cared about his nieces. He worked hard. A long time ago, he’d loved his wife with the devotion commanded by God. As for Clay Johnson and Beau’s search for justice, Dani prayed he’d find peace.
He broke off the handshake and stepped back. “It’s time to go, Miss Baxter.
“Please, call me Dani.”
His eyes darkened. “We’re not friends. We’re business partners.”
“Whatever you’d like,” she replied gently. “I was thinking of the girls. They might like you better if you seem less…distant.”
“I like distance.” He jerked his chin toward the gate.
With the lily in hand, Dani brushed by him. She caught a whiff of shaving soap and thought about the odd way of appearances. Beau Morgan had cleaned up on the outside, but his soul was still full of grit. She didn’t care for his bad manners, but she could tolerate them. As long as he gave her a chance to prove herself, she’d could put up with just about anything.
As they left the cemetery, Beau called himself a fool. Raspberry pie? What had he been thinking? No good could come from letting Dani Baxter stay at the farm. He didn’t believe for a minute she could handle the cows and the crops alone, but he couldn’t back out now. When they reached the parsonage, he caught a whiff of pot roast, thought about fried chicken and scolded himself for thinking with his belly instead of his brain.
Adie met them on the steps. “You’re staying for supper, aren’t you?”
“Yes, thank you,” Dani answered.
Almost drooling, Beau followed the women like a hungry puppy and took a seat at the maple table he remembered from Denver. His nieces filled the chairs at his sides, Josh sat at the head, and Dani sat across from him and near Adie and the kitchen. It was the most company he’d had in a long time. To his embarrassment, he became the guest of honor.
Your Uncle Beau caught a bank robber.
Your Uncle Beau helped us build our church.
The chatter lasted through supper and into dessert. With his plate clean and his coffee cup empty, Beau felt both satisfied and empty. Esther slid out of her chair and climbed on Dani’s lap. Ellie smiled at him. Even Emma seemed at ease. If it hadn’t been for Clay Johnson, this would have been his life. He and Lucy would have raised a family.