Texas Mail Order Bride(125)

By: Linda Broday

She didn’t answer. She stood lost in thought, staring at two sets of horizontal marks beside the door. Her spine straightened and she sucked in a breath as she touched the penciled-in measurements.

Rand guessed she was remembering something that meant a lot to her. Unexpected memories could certainly jar a person. He wished he could say something to offer comfort, but nothing came to mind.

“I’m not much of a cook,” he rambled on. “This is only my second day at it. Surely I’ll get better.” He gave her an apologetic grin. “How long have you been in that old bunkhouse?”

Her head snapped up. “You’re full of questions, mister.”

“Sorry. A bad habit. My brothers always say that I should’ve been a census taker. I get on their nerves sometime, especially my oldest brother’s.”

With a sudden swoosh, flames erupted in the skillet.

Before thinking, he grabbed the handle. The minute his hand came in contact with the heated metal, he pulled back with a yell. Searing pain radiated through his hand, every curse word he knew poised on his tongue, wanting to come out.

Only a day and a half and he was already burning down his house.

Quick as a flash, his mystery woman grabbed a flour sack as a mitt and carried the skillet of burning grease to the door where she set it on the ground. Then she came and gently took his hand, dipping it into the pail of cold water he’d carried in that morning. The relief was welcome.

“Thank you. Like I said, I’m a stranger to this.” He met her stare and saw compassion in their depths, a far cry from the brittle anger that had been there just minutes ago. She wasn’t as hard as she wanted him to believe.

Her dark brown hair shot through with strands of scarlet was warm in the lamplight. But her soft amber eyes, the exact color of whiskey, revealed a deep-seated distrust and a whole lot of grit.

“Do you have some salve by chance?”

“On the shelf above the stove. I never thought I’d need it this quick.”

“Sit at the table and I’ll doctor your hand.”

“You don’t have to do that, but I appreciate your offer.” He took a chair next to the boy, who had laid his head on his arms. The lad was clearly ill.

Before she went for the salve, she felt the boy’s forehead. Her frown told Rand his suspicions were true.

“It would be best if he lies down,” he said quietly. “At least until I get you something to eat. You’ll find some quilts in front of the fireplace in the parlor.”

A gentle shake roused her son. “Come, Toby.”

Rand’s gaze followed them to the parlor, which was visible through the doorway. Great love for her son shone in the way she tucked a quilt around him, then kissed his cheek. Rand was glad he’d persuaded them to come inside.

Returning, the mother found the ointment and carefully spread it across the red whelp on Rand’s palm. He’d never known such a soothing, tender touch. As the owner of a saloon, he’d been touched by lots of women, but this was different. It almost felt like the feathery caress of a whisper. He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the sensation.

Finally, she put the lid on the salve, tore a strip off the flour sack, and wrapped it around his hand. “There, that should do it.”

“I owe you.” He gave her a wry smile. “But I’m afraid it’ll take me awhile to get you that breakfast I promised.”

“You sit here. I’ll fix it.” She rose and took another skillet from a shelf under the counter.

He watched, amazed at her competence as she put a dollop of butter into the skillet, beat the eggs, cut thick slices of toast, and had it all ready before he knew what was happening. It astounded him how she seemed to know her way around the kitchen. Where he kept the skillets, the butter, the eggs. But he decided that most kitchens were pretty much laid out the same and women instinctively knew where everything was.

“I don’t have milk for the boy. Haven’t had time to get a milk cow.”

Her amber stare met his. “No need to apologize. I can’t let him have it anyway. Fever will curdle milk.”

“I believe I might’ve heard that somewhere. Sorry.” His gaze drifted to the mound of scrambled eggs on their plates. They sure looked fluffy and light, just like the café in Battle Creek made them. His mouth began to water even though he’d already eaten.