Beginnings & Endings
Amanda stared at the blood on her hands. Her husband’s blood. And she was numb. Cried out. She shoved the door open with her hip and stepped into the fading day. But she focused on the water pump across the yard. The few steps stretched out before her. Holding her hands away from her body, she moved toward it, not caring that she stirred the dust of the dry earth beneath her feet as she walked.
The pump’s handle was solid and cold in her hand. She jerked her hand away. Jed’s blood now stained the metal. It couldn’t be helped. Grasping the handle once more, she pulled it up then pressed down. Again and again, until water began to flow from the spout. Thrusting her hands underneath, she rubbed at the dark red on her skin.
Once all traces were gone, she tugged at her apron, wrapping her hands in the thin fabric. When she looked at her hands again, they shook. And she could still see the deep crimson upon them. She blinked. The red vanished.
Spinning on the balls of her feet, she turned back toward the house. The clicking of her shoes reminded her she was once again inside the house. And the smell.
“Where were you?” A gruff voice greeted her.
Her head jerked in that direction. The tall frame of the doctor stood in the doorway to her bedroom. His scowl accused her.
“I needed some fresh air.”
He shook his head. Had she disappointed him somehow? “You are needed in here.”
She nodded, lowering her gaze to the floor as she stepped toward him.
He held up his hands. “There’s no point now. He’s passed.”
The doctor moved past her, his shoulder grazing hers. “It was only a matter of time.”
Her heart stopped. Cold surrounded her and pervaded her being. And her breath rushed out of her. Would she be able to draw in another one? In time, it did come, but with it came the tears. There were more. After all.
Brandon Miller pushed the gate closed and secured it. Gazing out across the cattle, he frowned. Would his efforts be enough? He doubted it. All the wishing in the world would not pay the bank.
Shoving away from the fence, he turned toward the homestead. Time for lunch.
As he slipped into the house, he spotted his uncle hobbling across the room.
Rushing over, he put an arm under the old man’s bad side. “Uncle Owen, you should have called Cook to come and help.”
“She’s busy getting things ready for you and the boys. I couldn’t bother her. ‘Sides, I can get around just fine.”
Brandon shook his head. The man leaned even more on his nephew. His body was worn. Too many years abusing it. If he took another fall…
They reached the dining table at last and Brandon shifted his uncle’s weight into one of the chairs. Uncle Owen let out a sigh as he did so. The man could not deny that it was getting more difficult for him to even get around the house.
The door opened and the ranch hands trailed in, dirty and dusty as ever. They were a misfit group indeed.
“Whatever Cook’s got stewing smells mighty good,” Cutie, the smallest of the men said as he turned his chair around backwards and straddled it.
Brandon furrowed his brows. Cook wouldn’t like that one bit.
Cutie glanced the other way.
Slim, who was tall and well-built, not at all slim, cocked his head at Brandon. “Any idea when the new cattle are coming in?”
Brandon ran a hand through his hair. How was he going to answer? He had neither the money nor the means to procure more cattle. Though his ranch desperately needed more for the auction if they were to make enough to sustain the place.
Perhaps he should tell the men that there had been some sort of mix up or delay. He opened his mouth to speak, but Cook came into the room and all eyes fell on her.
“Now I don’t want to hear any more gums flapping,” Cook’s voice boomed as she bustled around the men, first setting the dishes of food down and then placing napkins in their laps. “Y’all best be eatin’ up!”
Brandon smiled at the woman. How did she always know?
“Not this second!” She slapped Dan’s hand when he reached for the serving fork. “You know how we do things. Grace first.”
Dan glared at her, but withdrew his hand.
Brandon gave the men a once over and then bowed his head, returning thanks for the food.
Only then did Cook nod and return to the kitchen.
Brandon couldn’t help but notice that Uncle Owen watched after her until she disappeared through the doorway and there was nothing left of her but the clatter of pots and pans. Their dinner music.
Slim met Brandon’s eyes. “So, boss, about those cows…”
“I hear chatter in there!” Cook called.
Brandon looked down and shoved a bite of food in his mouth. It was clear who ran this ranch.
Cold. The air whipping her hair chilled her face, but it couldn’t touch her heart. That was already lost. Was this all she would ever feel? Perhaps that’s what she deserved.
A small hand pulled at her skirt. Samuel. She couldn’t forget him. He deserved better. More than what life had dealt him. Leaning down, she swept him into her arms and held him to her chest. If only there was some semblance of warmth there for him. It couldn’t be helped.
“Don’t cry, Momma.” His tiny voice broke through the silence. Small hands framed her face. “Pa’s in heaven, right?”
Nodding at her son with his simple faith, she set her forehead on his, shutting her eyes so he couldn’t see her tears.
Movement off to her left gave her pause. But she dare not look. Another well meaning friend come to comfort her. A face among many.
“They need to start.” It was Reverend Mason.
Men with their shovels clanging fell into step behind him. Why now? Could she just have a few more minutes before time continued? Before the inevitable swept her along?
“Ma’am?” The preacher’s voice was kind, but insistent. Didn’t he know that her world was falling apart? That nothing would ever be the same? That she had lost the only one who ever knew…who ever understood…
A hand fell upon her arm and she did not try to resist him as reverend tugged at her, pulling her away from the graveside. She snuggled Samuel closer to her chest, placing a hand behind his head and pressing his little face into the crook of her neck. He didn’t need to see. No, she couldn’t let him see as the two men scooped dirt onto his father’s casket.
“Momma, you’re hurting me,” came the muffled little voice.
She loosened her grip. And guilt slammed into her. She had caused enough pain, enough grief. No more. And certainly not for Samuel. He was everything.
“The next few days will be hard, Mrs. Haynes. Don’t expect anything different. You will have to find a new normal. Life as you knew it is gone.”
Amanda nodded numbly as she pressed a kiss to the side of Samuel’s head. New normal. What did that mean? What was normal? Her husband had been ill for near three months. She watched him waste away. And her child watched his father suffer until death released him.
Shouldn’t they welcome a new normal? But Amanda would give anything to have Jed back. Not to hear his voice, or feel his arms one more time, but to know that everything was going to be all right. Was that selfish? Because right now, the future looked grim. How was she to care for Samuel? For herself? For the ranch?
The preacher stopped in front of Amanda’s cart. They stood in silence for several moments.
“If you need anything, let me know. The church is of little means, but we may be able to help some.”
Her eyes met his then. What could they do? They barely managed to pay the reverend and keep the doors open. Help her? No. Amanda refused to lay herself on the mercy of the church. She would find a way.
“Thank you, Reverend, for your kind offer. We will manage.”
He gave her a long look, his mouth a thin line. Who cared if he believed her? He lowered his voice. “Your parents, are they still back east?”
Her eyebrow shot up. What exactly was he getting at? That she should return to her parents’ home? He didn’t know what he was saying.
Holding her chin high, she maneuvered Samuel over to her right hip so she could look the preacher square in the face. “Yes, sir, they are.”
“Perhaps they would enjoy a visit…”
“I appreciate your kindnesses toward me and my son, Reverend Mason. If you’ll excuse me, I have much to attend to at home.”
The reverend’s mouth fell open and shut, his eyes wide.
Amanda lifted Samuel into the cart and then, grabbing the bench firmly, pulled herself up.
Then, with a fire in her belly, she jerked the reins and prodded the horse forward.
Brandon perused the aisles of the General Store. He already had his purchases in hand, but he was reluctant to return to the ranch. More questions, more doubts from his ranch hands awaited him.
Why couldn’t they just trust him? Why couldn’t he find the right answers? His ranch would be forfeit if he didn’t find some way to infuse his ranch with added income. But where would such a salvation come from?
He moved closer to the front of the store and caught some of the words being flung between the clerk and the customer.
“…I just can’t imagine what the poor thing is going to do.”
Who were they talking about?
“Doesn’t she have kin back east?”
“Yes. But her parents are poor. Not much help there. She’d have to find a way to make money. She’d end up supporting that son of hers and her parents.”
Supporting? Now he was curious. Brandon wasn’t really one to listen to idle gossip, but he found himself intrigued. He picked a can up off the shelf and pretended to read the label.
“It’s a shame. That ole’ husband of hers wasn’t the best, but at least he did give her something.”
Ah. They must be talking about Amanda Haynes. He had heard Jed had passed away. Sick with tuberculosis these last couple months. Terrible shame.
“A name and a home.”
“And food on the table.”
“She worked near as hard as he on that ranch. I bet she’s the only reason it kept running.”
That’s right. Jed had a ranch. Not a large one, budding really. But it had cattle. And that was just what Brandon needed. Some cattle.
“Well, one thing’s for sure, she can’t run it by herself.”
“Who knows what’ll happen to her?”
“She’ll have to take the first offer that comes along. She is mighty pretty.”
“That is the truth.”
Offer? Offer for what? Marriage. They were talking about a proposal. Well now, that would be one way to secure that cattle for himself. Then they could both get what they want: he would offer security for she and her son and he would get the cattle he needed for his ranch. Was it too perfect?
Brandon jerked his head toward the sound. Had he spoken out loud?
The clerk and the customer, a tall woman with dark hair, were both staring at him.
“Yes?” He straightened.
“Can I help you with anything?”
“No, thank you.” He held up the can. “I’m just looking at this…” Glancing at the label, he noted that it was infant food. Brandon quickly put it behind his back. “I’m checking out what you have over here. Can’t say I’ve noticed this shelf before.” His face warmed.
The clerk quirked a brow. “All right. If you need anything, let me know.” She turned back to the customer in front of her, but continued to give him sideways glances.
Brandon put the infant food back on the shelf and rubbed his palms, now sweating, on his pants legs. Then he took several deep breaths. Was this plan sane? Or was he crazy?
Glancing over toward the clerk, he noticed her looking at him, but her voice was lowered to the point he could no longer hear her conversation.
He needed to get out of there. Then he would be able to think. Taking his wares to the counter, he paid, mumbling simple pleasantries along the way. Relief washed over him when he stepped into sunlight. He had to make a plan. And soon.
Amanda heaved a sigh as she picked up the bucket of water. Why did she have to fill it so full? Because she loathed making multiple trips. So, she walked back toward the house, leaning to one side, her shoulder nearly pulling out of it’s socket as she carried her load.
She climbed the porch steps with much effort and breathed in the relief when she reached the door. Pressing on it with her body, she was startled when it didn’t give way under her weight. Water sloshed onto her dress hem and shoes.
Releasing one hand’s hold on the bucket, she worked the latch. Nothing. What?
Had he locked the door? Again?
Slamming her palm against the rough wood, she called out. “Samuel, let Momma in.”
A giggle sounded from the other side.
She groaned. “Samuel, this is not a time to play games. Momma needs to get in the house.”
The water became more than her arm could bear. She set it down.
“Momma wants you to open the door right now, young man.” Amanda tried not to let her anger into her voice, but it came through in her raised volume.
Banging both of her flat hands on the door, and then shaking on the latch, she began to lose her tightly held control. “Samuel James Haynes, do you hear me?”
“Is there a problem, ma’am?” a voice behind her asserted.
She spun toward the sound. A dark haired man sat on a caramel colored horse. Had she see him before? He had a dark, scruffy beard that had probably only been growing for only a couple of days. His equally dark eyes seemed to look through her. Ah, yes, he was another rancher. What was his name? Something Miller…
She had failed to answer him.
Taking a step away from the door and toward him, she squared her shoulders. “I am perfectly well. I seem to be…temporarily locked out of my home. But it’s nothing to concern yourself with, Mr. Miller.”
His eyebrows raised for just a moment. Surprise? Surprise at her comment? Or surprise that she knew his name? It didn’t matter.
“What can I help you with, sir?”
He remained silent for a moment, then looked down at his hands on the pommel of his saddle. “I was…ah…hoping I could speak with you.”
Her eyes held his. She crossed her arms in front of her. “As you are.”
His face colored and he nodded. “Yes, that I am.” He licked his lips and looked from side to side. “The thing is that I have a, um, proposal…that is, a proposition for you.”
Amanda’s brows furrowed. “Proposal?” Marriage offer so soon? Her husband was barely cold and in the ground. He couldn’t be serious.
Mr. Miller continued to shift and fidget in his saddle. “Yes. I, ah, know about…that is, I understand that your situation is, well, you have no means to care for yourself and your son…”
Fire ignited in her belly. Couldn’t care for herself and her son? Of course she could! She would do anything…everything…of course he was right. Her hands were tied. There was no real work for a woman in her position. How would she support herself and Samuel?
That very question had kept her awake every night since Jed’s condition turned serious. But that didn’t mean she had to take any offer that came her way. Did it?
Amanda eyed Mr. Miller. He seemed a pleasant enough fellow. She searched her memory. What did she know of him? Not much. Although she had not been much of a busy body, keeping mostly to the ranch and the home. All she truly knew was his surname.
Shaking her head, she refocused on him. “I’m sorry, what?” Had he continued talking? What had he said?
“I said that I could take care of you and your son, offer you the kind of stability you need. A home, food, whatever you need to be comfortable.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Why would you do this?” What was he after? She watched his eyes rather closely. Was that a leer? Or just an insecurity?
He cleared his throat. “I am in a position of needing to expand my ranch. Taking on your late husband’s herd would be just it.”
Relief washed over her. He didn’t have designs on her. They would each bring something to the table. A deal.
Would he want her to also share his bed?
“Would I have my own room?”
The man blinked as if that had not occurred to him. “Yes, ma’am.” There it was again, the reddening of his face.
She released her arms and let them fall by her sides, eyeing the ground. Should she take this offer? Was there likely to be another? Or one so gracious?
Interlacing her fingers at hip level, she met his eyes again, opening her mouth to speak.
But he spoke before she could. “I’ll give you some time to think about it.”
She closed her mouth and nodded. That would be best. Not a quick decision. “Thank you, Mr. Miller.”
“I’ll call again tomorrow afternoon.” He pointed behind her. “But I think you’re other problem may be solved.”
She spun around.
Samuel stood in the doorway, door opened just enough for his face to fit through. How much had he heard?
Amanda jerked her foot back to stop the door. Samuel ducked back inside and pushed on the door, but it wouldn’t budge with her foot in the way.
“Good luck,” Mr. Miller called, tipping his hat.
Amanda smiled and nodded before turning back toward her son and forcing the door open wider. “Samuel James, you are in big trouble!”
As Samuel ran further into the house, Amanda couldn’t help but glance over her shoulder at the retreating figure on horseback.
The truth was that it was a good offer. Probably the best she could hope for. If she received another offer of marriage, it would likely include a different understanding. Concessions she wasn’t sure she would be willing to make. But, in her situation, she might have to.
Perhaps Mr. Miller would have himself a deal after all.
Brandon fidgeted with the cuffs of his best Sunday jacket. Moisture beaded on his forehead. Was it warm in here? He shot a glance at the preacher. The man seemed fairly comfortable in his jacket.
Perhaps it was something else then. He gazed up at the ceiling and took some deep breaths. Was he truly that nervous? Why? It wasn’t as if this was a real marriage. Though it was the only one he would ever have.
He never had such silly notions as love. That was a grand idea, but did those marriages ever work out? His parents had been matched for better reasons and they seemed well suited for one another. Surely that was wisdom enough to seek a more logical process for choosing one’s life partner.
And what he knew of Amanda Haynes, though little, did not put him off. She was pleasant enough to gaze upon. Everyone that spoke of her told of what a good wife she was. The only criticism Cook had ever heard tell of was that she kept to herself. He could find no fault in that. That may even be a trait that earned her admiration in his book.
A hand landed on his shoulder. He turned toward its source. Reverend Mason looked at him.
“I’m certain she will be here any moment.”
Brandon nodded. How long had it been? Was she late? He glanced over at Uncle Owen and Cook, seated in the first pew. Uncle Owen gave him a nod and a smile.
Was he doing the right thing? No doubt he did the prudent thing. For this poor widow and for his own ranch. But did he preclude her from finding love again? That is if she put such stock in these things.
The door to the small church opened, breaking his thoughts. Amanda stepped in, holding her son’s hand, straggling behind. As she walked down the aisle toward him, her eyes remained glued to the floor. But his were on her. Would he remember how she looked this day?
She wore a cream colored shirt trimmed in lace fabric. Her skirt was smooth and pink. Perhaps her best church outfit. Had he expected a white dress? No, that would not have been appropriate for a woman who had…well, who had already been married.
Her long blonde hair had been pulled back and up in an attractive style with curls piled on top. She had even adorned the right side with flowers which matched the bouquet she carried.
The boy did not seem aware or pleased at the circumstances. He fairly scowled as his mother pulled him along behind her. As she neared the front of the church, she set him on the front pew opposite Uncle Owen and Cook. She spoke some words to him in hushed tones. He whined in protest, but soon quieted. Then she pressed a kiss to his hair and he leaned back, folding his arms across his chest.
What was Brandon going to do about the boy? He hadn’t considered how the youngster would feel about a new man in his mother’s life. And so soon after his father’s death. But nothing could be done about it at this point. Sometimes very adult decisions had to be made regardless.
Amanda turned and faced Brandon, smoothing a hand down her skirt. Then her eyes were on his. And his breath caught. She was quite a sight up close. Her cheeks were flushed and eyes bright from the slight exertion. That only served to highlight her features.
“Sorry I’m late.” Her words came out in a breath.
Brandon opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. So, he closed his mouth and simply nodded.
“If everyone is ready, we can begin,” the preacher stepped closer to them.
Amanda nodded, licking her lips and grasping her flowers. Did he see a slight trembling in the delicate buds?
“Yes, Reverend,” he said, swallowing against a dry mouth. He shifted to face Pastor Mason and sensed Amanda do the same.
The preacher spoke words about the institution of marriage, but Brandon had a difficult time listening. He found himself stealing glances at Amanda. What was she thinking? Did she have second thoughts? Regrets?
Still, they moved through the ceremony, responding in turn when they were asked to.
Amanda spoke the words that would bind her to Brandon seemingly without hesitation. Should it surprise him? It did.
“Now it is time for the presentation of the rings.” Reverend Mason turned toward Brandon. “Do you have the rings?”
Brandon reached in his pocket and produced the circlets of gold.
“Will you take the smaller ring and place it on your bride’s finger and repeat after me?”
Brandon spoke the words after the preacher as he took Amanda’s smaller hand in his underneath the bouquet. Sliding the ring on her finger, which seemed impossibly smaller than his, he was surprised when he encountered resistance. Her other wedding band.
His eyes shot to hers.
Hazel eyes widened and slid closed.
Reverend Mason, having paused, spoke in that moment. “Is there a problem?”
Brandon slid his wedding band off of her finger.
Amanda pulled her hand out from under the bouquet.
The preacher’s brows shot up. “I see.” He eyed Brandon. As did Amanda.
Everyone seemed to be waiting on him with baited breath. What was he to do? Was it his place to remove Jed’s wedding band? Surely that was something she needed to do. But everyone looked at him as if he were to be the one to act.
So, he reached for her hand once more. Her eyes flitted between his and the wedding band on her finger. He gently grasped it and pulled. It wouldn’t come. Twisting a little, he felt it budge. From there, it took little work to get Jed’s wedding band off.
His face warmed. Why did he have to do that? It just wasn’t right. To remove another man’s claim on his wife. She should have been the one to do it.
But he held fast as he slid his wedding band onto her finger.
Reverend Mason let out a sigh and continued, instructing Amanda to place the other wedding band on Brandon’s finger.
He held out the wedding band to her, but he now held Jed’s wedding band and the one for him in his hand.
As her fingers reached for the band, they hovered for just a moment over her former band. Perhaps no one else would have noticed. But Brandon did. And why shouldn’t she? It had been on her finger for years. She must be loathe to part with it, perhaps one of the last pieces of her husband she had left.
Still, she picked up the band for Brandon and slid it onto his finger, releasing his hand as soon as the ring was securely on.
Brandon continued to watch her face, but her eyes shifted toward the preacher soon after. Was she afraid? Embarrassed? He had not meant to offend her.
But he turned his attention toward the preacher as well for the remainder of the simple ceremony. It wasn’t long before Reverend Mason spoke the final words and declared them husband and wife.
“You may now kiss your bride.”
Brandon looked over at Amanda. She didn’t meet his eyes. Her gaze caught on his chest. Why had he not thought about this particular part of the ceremony? The woman seemed so scared, so vulnerable.
She needn’t be, he decided. So, he leaned forward, tilting his head down and pressed a kiss to the side of her face before pulling back.
Then she met his gaze, eyes wide. Did she wonder at his simple contact? He wanted nothing more from her than what they had discussed. If she feared differently, than she was mistaken.
All he wanted…needed was that cattle. He needed it desperately. Now it was his. And that was all that mattered.
Amanda awoke to another day. What would it bring? It had been late the previous day when she and Samuel had finally moved into Brandon’s home. Not that he saw to it. He had been too concerned with Jed’s cattle. When he said he was only interested in the herd, he had spoken truthfully. Shouldn’t she be grateful?
Part of her wondered, though. Should she have protected Jed’s legacy better? Been more selective about her partner?
But she hadn’t a choice. Not truly. There were not likely to be many offers forthcoming. Not with a child. And Brandon seemed decent enough. At least he didn’t expect marital favors from her to boot.
Cook and Slim had seen to her and Samuel’s things. They had been nice to her. Though she insisted she could manage, Cook would not let her lift a finger to move in. Which caused Amanda to wonder, with that woman to run the house, what was left for Amanda to do?
Sitting up in the bed, she stretched. How was she to make a life in this strange place? A fine window had been carved out in one wall of the bedroom. She moved over to it and drew the curtain to the side. Through it, she could see the barn and a portion of the herd grazing. A fair prospect.
Moving through her morning routine, she became stuck on what to wear. Was it inappropriate to continue to wear mourning attire? She still wanted to honor Jed’s memory, but didn’t want to offend Brandon. Then again, he hadn’t seemed to care much about what she did.
Black it was.
After donning her dress, she stepped into the hall, straining her ears. Pots and pans clanged in the kitchen further away. But that was the only evidence of life beyond her small quarters. Taking another step across the space, she knocked on Samuel’s door.
A muffled groan greeted her. She smiled in spite of herself. At least this remained the same: Samuel liked his sleep.
“Samuel, it’s Mama.”
She pushed the door open and slipped into his room.
Her small man lay bundled in his sheet and quilt, still snoozing.
Crouching by his bed, she laid a hand on his back and shook him. “Time to wake up, my sleepy head.” Leaning forward, she pressed a kiss to his mussed hair.
He groaned and stirred.
She sang a bright little tune to help him welcome the day.
Samuel turned his face toward her and smiled.
“There’s my sweet boy.” She rubbed the hair at the top of his head and swept errant strands from his forehead.
He opened his eyes and looked up at her as she continued to caress his face.
“When are we going home?”
She sighed. Why did he have to make this harder? “This is our home now.”
He groaned again and turned away from her.
She laid her hands on his back. “Come on, sweetheart. We talked about this. Mr. Miller is going to take care of us.”
“I thought you were going to take care of us.”
A dagger pierced her heart. It couldn’t have hurt more if it had been real.
“You know I wanted to.” Her voice broke. “But I…” She couldn’t finish that sentence. How could she tell him that she wasn’t capable? That a woman in her position only had two choices? Get married or go crawling back home to her parents? And the latter was not an option she was willing to entertain.
Samuel flipped around to face her. “Don’t be sad, Mama. I’m sorry.” He raised up in the bed and leaned toward her.
She swept him into her arms and held him fast. He was everything to her. How could she not keep him safe from the harsh realities of the world? From her own ineptitude?
Kissing the side of his face, she struggled to contain her emotion. “What do you say we help get breakfast going?”
He nodded against her shoulder.
Amanda rubbed his back as he pulled away from her. She watched as he walked toward his trunk. And her heart continued to ache. For him. For herself. For the loss of their place in the world.
The smells of breakfast cooking stirred Brandon from sleep. He jerked awake. How had he lingered so long? Now in a seated position, he wondered where he was. Glancing around the room, he remembered. Uncle Owen’s room.
But he was alone.
How had the older man risen, dressed, and hunkered out without waking his nephew? Brandon had never been the heaviest sleeper. But a late night rustling Jed’s cattle had worn on him.
Rubbing his eyes and yawning, he rose and then stretched long, releasing any lingering sleep from his muscles.
A shriek sounded from the other side of the wall causing his head to jerk in that direction. The voice gave way to laughter, and his body calmed. These were uncommon sounds indeed.
The house was always still as death when he rose. And he cherished his early morning walk of the grounds before returning to a house alive with Cook’s meal preparations.
What had her in such fits this morning? Uncle Owen? Brandon had his suspicions about the two of them.
After dressing in a hurry, he then moved in the direction of the kitchen. The sight that greeted him gave him pause.
Cook stood in the middle of the room watching Amanda Haynes work. The young widow rolled out something that appeared to be dough.
Uncle Owen sat nearby in a dining room chair. Had Cook allowed him to bring one in? The young boy sat above Uncle Owen on a counter. He looked down on the older man working a knife against a block of wood. Whittling? Uncle Owen? The man hadn’t picked up a knife in months! Said his hands were too stiff.
“Then you just roll the dough as usual and cut out the biscuits,” Amanda said, her back to Brandon.
“Well, I declare!” Cook slapped her leg. “I never would have thought.”
“It makes them nice and fluffy.” Amanda turned to look at Cook, and Brandon saw her in profile. A hair fell in her face, and she moved her hand to sweep it back, brushing flour across her forehead. It only heightened the beauty of her features.
Brandon shifted his weight, and a floorboard creaked.
All eyes turned on him.
Amanda handed the rolling pin to Cook and clasped her hands in front of her hips, ducking her head as if she had done something wrong.
Cook offered him a wide grin. “Good morning, lazy bones. Nice of you to join us.”
Uncle Owen laughed and turned his attention back to his whittling.
“I…suppose I was tired.” Brandon stepped farther into the room.
“I suppose you were,” Cook said, winking at Amanda and grabbing for the biscuit cutter. She then pressed it into the sheet of dough.
Amanda took a step away from Cook and over to the nearby table that bore a stack of pans. She placed a hand on the surface, running her fingers along the wood. “If you will point me toward the plates, I can set the table.”
“You’ve done enough. Please, sit. Take a load off.” Cook looked between her and Brandon.
“Yes,” Brandon chimed in. “Please, sit.” He took a step toward her, hand stretched out in the direction of the dining room.
As he drew closer, she moved away, as if repelled by his presence. Tossing a glance at Samuel, she then turned and walked where Brandon had indicated.
Once they stepped through the swinging door, they were alone.
Her eyes wandered over the empty chairs. Was she unsure whether or not she should sit? Should he sit first?
Brandon reached for the chair closest to the door and, pulling it out, settled into it. Then he met Amanda’s eyes.
Her brow quirked.
He indicated the seat across the table.
She moved toward it and situated herself there, somewhat hesitantly.
Now that they were seated, Brandon realized how awkward it was for them to be sitting, with no food, and nothing to talk about.
He splayed his hands on the table, suddenly interested in the pattern of the wood.
Her chair creaked as she shifted, smoothing over her skirt.
Only then did he notice she was dressed head to toe in black. Why? Their marriage had brought an end to her mourning. Should he be bothered that his wife still mourned her first husband? Because he couldn’t find it in his heart to fault her. The man was buried not two weeks ago. No one could expect her to be rid of him.
Her eyes met his. Had he been staring? He must have been.
“I’ll get us some coffee.” He stood, nearly toppling his chair he rose so abruptly.
“I can get that…” Amanda started, rising as well and coming around the table.
They came to the door at the same time, hands touching when they reached to push it open.
Brandon drew back at the contact.
As did Amanda. She clasped her hand with the other, staring at the door.
And he once again found himself watching her.
“I’m sorry. I just—” he started.
“No, I thought I—” she said at the same time.
Her eyes slowly came up to meet his.
He let out a sigh. “I don’t want you to be uneasy around me.”
She remained silent for a few moments, eyes falling to the floor.
“This is your home now, too. I want you to feel comfortable. But I don’t want you to think you have to treat me any sort of way.”
Amanda’s eyes rose to meet his again.
“Aaah…” He shrugged, looking at the floor. “I’m not saying the right thing here.” He turned to walk away.
She put a hand on his forearm.
He froze at the contact, eyes on her small hand, then on her face.
“No, Mr. Miller, you’re doing just fine. I just…I don’t know how to say ‘thank you.’ You don’t know how much your kindness means to me.”
She offered him a small smile, which he returned. “How about I get us that coffee?”
“All right.” She let her hand fall from his arm. Then she stepped back toward the table.
He held up a hand to the door, but paused. “And it’s ‘Brandon’.”
She turned. “Pardon?”
“As opposed to ‘Mr. Miller.’ Everyone here calls me ‘Brandon’.”
“Brandon.” She nodded.
He flashed her one of his more charming smiles, showing his teeth.
This may be the beginning of a perfectly amiable relationship.
Grass crunched beneath her feet. Amanda gazed across the pasture at the movement of the herd. A beautiful sight. How she longed to get her hands dirty again! But she had not found a way to make herself useful yet.
Could she don a pair of work gloves, grab a rope, and work alongside the ranch hands as she had at home? Jed never had a problem with it. In fact, he had appreciated her hard work.
More than once, when she’d been injured, he had even said he missed her working alongside him. Yes, she had been wanted. Needed. And it was wonderful.
Not here. All Brandon wanted was Jed’s cattle.
Drawing her attention back to the other side of the fence, she watched the movement of the red-brown and white animals as they brushed against each other, seeking out the best grass.
But she continued to walk. Could she even distinguish Jed’s cattle from Brandon’s? Had he branded them yet? If his desire to attain them had been any indication, then he had done so that very night.
A figure approached, riding a painted horse, moving along the fence line. As he came closer, she noted the shorter stature of the man—Cutie. He tipped his hat as he drew near.
She waved, hoping he would keep on riding by.
“G’day, Mrs. Miller.”
Why did they have to call her that? Some misplaced form of respect? She never knew if she should insist they call her ‘Amanda.’ Perhaps she should ask Brandon.
Cutie pulled on the reins, bringing the horse to a halt.
She held a hand over her eyes. “What can I do for you?”
He shrugged. “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“I’m just out for a walk. Enjoying the sights and sounds.”
“Probably not the smells.” He smiled as his horse shifted beneath him.
She returned his smile. “I’m used to it.”
He raised an eyebrow.
Amanda looked down the fence line from whence he had come. “Checking for damage?”
His gaze followed hers. “There was a storm last night. Gotta make sure no tree limbs fell on any of the posts.”
“A storm?” Her question was not one of surprise. A light sleeper, she had been up from the moment the first gust of wind blew past the house.
“Yeah. It didn’t wake you?”
She shook her head and chose not to share her sleeping habits with this young man she didn’t know all that well.
“It sure did bother old Daisy.”
The dog. Amanda had only once chanced upon the hound dog that lived in the barn. A pleasant enough creature, it had no objections to Amanda, so she had none for the aging animal.
“She howled most of the night. Kept us up.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Cutie nodded and watched Amanda’s face for a few more moments. His stare became a little more intense than Amanda was comfortable with.
“I think I’ll head toward the creek. This way?” Amanda pointed down the gently sloped hill.
“Yes, ma’am. Keep walking toward that tree line a piece. It’s just past it.”
“Thank you, Cutie.” She offered him another smile and then turned in that direction.
He made a clicking sound with his tongue and then there were only hoof beats.
Moments later, she looked over her shoulder. He was nearly out of sight. She put a hand on her stomach and let out a sigh. Should she feel more comfortable around these men? Something still made her feel uneasy. Like she wasn’t quite welcome.
Crack! A sickening snap off to her right drew her attention. From somewhere within the herd came the cry of a wounded animal.
Amanda leaned on the fence and scanned for what she feared may have happened. But the cows would not move out of the way. There was only one thing that sound could be—an injured calf, perhaps its leg broken from being stepped on.
Looking in the direction Cutie had gone, she hoped against hope that she could wave him down. It was no use. He had disappeared from sight.
What should she do? She couldn’t leave the animal to suffer. The barn was too far away. Could she carry the calf herself? She would have to. Besides, she had done plenty of ranch work alongside Jed and his ranch hands. Including much work with the calves. Surely, she could carry the smaller animal.
Jumping onto the fence near the post, she scaled the wooden beams as gracefully as she could. Yet she was thankful she did so without an audience. And then she was in the pasture. But she was not alarmed. She had been in with the herd many times.
Moving slowly so as not to startle any of the larger animals, she maneuvered between them toward the unearthly screeches. Moments later, she saw the injured youngling. It lay on the ground, its leg at an odd angle. Amanda’s stomach turned, but she fought the wave of nausea that threatened to overcome her.
Amanda knelt next to the poor creature. It was much bigger than she had anticipated. How old was this calf? There was no way she could carry it. Looking up, she searched for Brandon or one of his ranch hands. That was a mistake. The cattle loomed over her, all around. She almost fell back from the intensity of their glares.
A loud huffing sounded from several feet away over her left shoulder. She turned. And found herself staring into the eyes of an angry bull.
One of the things Brandon loved about ranching was the routine of it all. The chores were the same each day. All the cows and horses needed the same things as they did the day before. There was just enough variety to keep things interesting. Brandon was not someone who liked drastic changes.
And this marriage had brought a drastic change. A beautiful woman and a small boy now lived in his home. If that wasn’t enough, she seemed to show up everywhere he turned. It just wasn’t suiting him. In fact, it was downright distracting.
Brandon finished putting out his horse’s food, stepped out of the mare’s way, and secured the stall door. He reached in and gave his horse a pat on the neck and rubbed Candy’s soft muzzle.
“Good girl. Eat now.”
He grasped a pile of rope in disarray from nearby and strode out of the barn.
Cutie rode up, stirring a cloud of dust.
“How does the perimeter look?” Brandon glanced down the fence line, imagining he could see all the way to its edges.
“I checked everything but the west side, Boss. Gonna go out there next.”
Brandon nodded and continued looping the rope.
He jerked his head around.
Cutie’s horse bucked and pulled.
“Cutie?” Brandon hung his rope on the closest fencepost and moved toward the horse.
“I think something is wrong with one of Patch’s shoes.” Cutie pulled at the reins, but the animal would not still.
Brandon held out his arms to halt the animal, but the horse continued to shift and stir. At last, he was able to grab the bit and hold Patch while Cutie slid off.
“Take her inside and check it out. The fence inspection can wait.”
Cutie nodded, taking the horse’s bit and leading her into the barn.
Brandon watched them go. They’d had about all the bad luck they could stand for a while.
A breeze blew over him, carrying with it a strange sound. Like a screech. Brandon inclined his head in that direction.
What was it? An injured cow? He scanned the pasture for any sign of Slim or Dan. Both were supposed to be watching over the herd. Neither was in sight. Should he wait for them to catch it or check it out himself?
The bull continued to eye Amanda. She rose to her feet with slow movements. Was it her imagination or did the bull tilt its head?
Should she run? Glancing the fence line out of the corner of her eye, she noted the distance that fell between her and her destination. She would never make it.
The large animal nodded its head, up and down, up and down, its horns rather prominently displayed. And the warmth drained from Amanda’s body.
Then the bull looked past her. Somewhere into the distance. Why?
Straining her ears, she heard it—hoof beats—slowing as they approached. Dare she turn to see who was brave enough to come to her rescue?
“Do not move,” a calm voice said.
Brandon! Relief poured through her. He would know what to do, wouldn’t he?
The calf continued to screech. And though it tugged at her heart, she could do nothing to help the injured animal.
Brandon was near. She could sense it. And he continued to inch his horse forward. The thumping of the horse’s hooves on the grass allowed her to track the mare’s location.
The bull flicked his tail back and forth, but kept watching her.
Warmth now emanated from the horse’s body as Brandon pulled up next to her.
Brandon spoke, his words coming as if chosen with care. “I’m going to take off my shirt…”
What? What was he doing? Why would he take off his shirt? Her heart raced. Still, she had no choice but to trust him.
In her periphery, she saw movement as Brandon unbuttoned his shirt and slid it off.
“Raise your right arm to me. I’m going to lift you onto the horse and then I need you to hold on to me. Tight.”
Licking her lips, she nodded. Would she be able to do this? Then she closed her eyes. She had to.
“Are you ready?” His voice was calm. Too calm.
Amanda opened her eyes. “Yes.” Would she survive this? With a shaky hand, she raised her arm closest to him.
The bull snorted.
A strong arm grasped her, catching her upper arm and dragging her onto the horse. As soon as she was solidly on the animal, she grabbed ahold of Brandon as tightly as she could.
They took off. The bull pawed at the ground, making all manner of grunting noises, but as if by some miracle, he ran off to the left. All of this happened as if time had slowed.
The horse continued to push forward. And as they neared the edge of the fence, Brandon urged the horse to go even faster. Were they going to break through? What would happen to the cattle with the fence destroyed?
But as they approached the fence, the horse leapt. Amanda gripped Brandon impossibly tighter. Jolted when the horse landed, her teeth chattered.
Only then did Brandon slow the horse. He then placed a hand on her upper arm and pushed.
She released him.
He sucked in a deep breath and expelled it.
Had she been holding him too tightly? Her face warmed.
He took hold of her shoulders. “Are you all right?”
She nodded, and though their faces were but a breath apart, she was not quite able to meet his eyes, fighting tears in her own. Only then she found herself staring at his bare chest. Jerking her head away, she averted her gaze.
“Do you realize what could have happened?” His voice rose.
She nodded, still not able to meet his eyes. The force of his emotion hit her. Was he so concerned after her?
“I would have had to shoot that bull.”
What? Eyes wide, she tilted her face up to look at him.
“That bull is worth half my herd.”
So he was only worried about the cattle. Not her. His precious cattle.
“I was just trying to save the calf—”
“You should never have gone over the fence.” There was no forgiveness in his voice. “These are matters for me and my ranch hands. You are not capable—”
There was that fire again. In the pit of her stomach. “I assure you, Mr. Miller, I am quite capable. I was simply unaware that it was breeding season.”
His eyes were hard, but she refused to give an inch.
“Just promise me that in the future, you will leave these things to the men. You are not one of my ranch hands.”
What could she say? Clearly, she was not welcome on the ranch either. Cook took care of the house, and Brandon took care of the ranch. And she…she was an unwelcome guest in his home.
She swallowed against a lump in her throat. Don’t cry. Not now. “As you wish.”
Her hands became rather warm. She looked down. They were balancing her by resting on his legs. Jerking them back to herself, she almost toppled over.
Brandon grabbed for her shoulders. His tone softened when he spoke again. “You’ve just been through quite an ordeal. I shouldn’t have yelled like that. I’m sorry.”
Yelled? He hadn’t yelled. Not truly. Spoken firmly, yes. But not yelled. Not like Jed when…
“Let me get you back to the house.” He reached his arms around her to grasp the reins again. With his arms surrounding her, she had no choice, but to lean against his bare chest.
“Wait!” She put a hand against him. Then pulled back from the contact with his skin.
Their eyes met.
She broke away first.
He seemed confused.
“What’s going to happen to the calf?”
“I’ll send Dan or Slim after it. But I need to get you settled first.”
Then, without further discussion, he whipped the reins, and the horse moved forward, as she pressed her back against him. Maybe he did care. If only a little.
And then she wondered what he had done with his shirt. She had a vague memory of something flying overhead as he lifted her. Had he thrown his shirt? Had that served as a distraction for their getaway? Was that the miracle?
As they neared the house, she began to wonder what the others might think with Brandon shirtless and she a mused mess. Would they think she and Brandon had…? That the bull story was made up?
She prayed they believed. What would it mean for the others to think that of her? That she might have moved on? What would Samuel think if such talk reached his ears?
Brandon paused and let out a long breath. His horse shifted underneath him. Overseeing the herd during the day was not his favorite job, nor was it one he dreaded.
He did enjoy being among the herd. His herd. As his chest expanded, warmed by that thought, his gaze drifted across the pasture. This field held the cattle that had once belonged to Jed. No longer. All that Jed had now belonged to Brandon. Including his headstrong wife.
What was he to do with the woman? What was the chance of her risking her life again?
He raised his face heavenward and sent up a silent prayer of gratitude that he and Amanda had both survived the events of the other day. Beyond that, he did not know what he ought to say.
His thoughts were a jumbled mess. He could not grasp anything clearly. So, he sat in silence and let the Holy Spirit pray for him. That brought him some peace.
When he thought of Amanda, the bull loomed before him and fear welled within him, threatening to choke him. The same fear he felt the day before when he had come upon the scene. He had been terrified for her.
Should he have grabbed for his gun and shot the bull? That might have wounded the animal. And a wounded animal was even more dangerous. No, he had done the right thing. Only, his anger had then gotten the best of him. And his pride.
Lord, forgive me, my pride! Was it so wrong to be thusly overcome? Rubbing a hand across his forehead, he attempted to wipe the images from his memory. It was no use. The growing tension in him, the relief as he held her securely in his arms, the warmth that spread through him at her nearness…the way she clung to him and looked at him that day. He had almost lost his resolve.
All of it rushed through him anew. And he experienced every emotion as if time slowed.
What was he going to do? He could not allow this to continue. She must stay out of harm’s way. How was he to accomplish this? There must be limitations, boundaries.
What if he could prevent these things from happening in the future? If she would only stay away from certain places. He had already forbidden her from the pasturelands, going over the fence. But would that be enough?
So many things in the barn could be problematic. The horses, the tools, the hayloft… It would just be best if she didn’t venture into the barn.
Yes, that would work. Perhaps he could even consign her to the homestead. He pictured it in his mind, and the plan seemed well laid out. All that remained was delivering the edict.
Amanda leaned against the front porch post and smiled. Samuel had taken a liking to that old dog after all. He and Daisy chased each other in the large side yard between the house and barn. Picking up a stick, he then shook it toward the animal. Daisy jumped, gaining more height than Amanda would have given her credit for.
At least Samuel had adjusted well. Between Uncle Owen and Cook, they had made sure the boy felt welcomed and included. Uncle Owen taught Samuel to whittle, which Amanda remained skeptical about, and Cook had made him cookies every day since their arrival.
Amanda gazed off toward the horizon. The setting sun split the sky with an array of colors soothing her worn nerves. She had nearly recovered from her near-miss two days past. Scanning the pastures, she noted that the cattle had not missed a beat. They had not a care for the happenings of one woman. No, they just kept on grazing.
Samuel’s laughter drew her attention back to the yard, but as her eyes drifted over the pastureland, she noted the pond in the distance. Odd that it should catch her attention. Why did it?
Narrowing her gaze, she focused on the pleasant little water source and the cattle munching nearby. Jed had a similar pond on his land, however he did not allow the cattle to remain in that particular pasture long before rotating them to another field. What had he said about standing water? She couldn’t remember. But there had been some reason he didn’t let them graze there for prolonged periods.
Shifting her focus back to Samuel, she smiled again as he and Daisy ran around the yard. Her heart warmed. Indeed, Samuel had adjusted well to his new life here. Perhaps she would in time.
A loud snort to her right gave her pause. She turned her head in time to see Brandon approaching on his caramel-colored horse.
He pulled on the reins as he neared the porch. His eyes met hers, and he tipped his hat.
They had not been alone since her rescue. And he had barely spoken two words to her at breakfast that morning.
“Good day.” A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, yet his lips maintained their neutrality.
She moved around the post so it wasn’t blocking her and tipped her head. “Afternoon.”
His head inclined toward Samuel and the old dog. “I see Daisy has made a new friend.”
“Yes, I believe she has.” Why did things have to be so awkward?
A silence fell between them.
Brandon shifted in his saddle. Why didn’t he dismount?
“Are you well?” He looked at her again. “I mean, after the other day…with the bull.”
Her face warmed. “Yes.” And she was, except for a few bruises on the area he had grabbed to pull her to safety. She crossed her arms, rubbing a hand along her upper arm where the marks remained covered by a light sleeve.
“I wanted to apologize—” he started.
At the same time, she said, “I never said thank you for—”
They both paused.
She offered him a timid smile and then looked at the ground, suddenly rather interested in the wooden boards that made up the porch. Would this tension dissipate as they became accustomed to each other?
“Please,” Brandon said, breaking into her thoughts. “Ladies first.”
Amanda met his gaze again. “I never said thank you for what you did.” The last word was broken. He deserved her gratitude, but once again, she found herself leaning on someone. She had been useless.
Brandon nodded, but did not smile. He then looked off into the distance. Was he uncomfortable with her words? Should she not have said anything?
Then his brown eyes were on her again. “I wanted to apologize for my behavior.”
Her eyes widened. His behavior? What could he mean?
“I reacted badly and chose my words even more poorly.”
In her mind’s eye, she replayed the incident. She could not find fault in his words. He only spoke the truth of it. His bull was worth half his herd, and her thoughtlessness could have cost him the prize animal.
She raised her head to meet his eyes, only then realizing she had been staring at the boards of the porch again. “Yes?”
“Will you accept my apology?” His brown eyes were warm and soft in that moment. He seemed sincere. Regardless of her belief in the necessity of it, he meant it.
He nodded. His whole body seemed to relax. “Thank you.”
She smiled and forced herself to uncross her arms.
Brandon then pulled the reins to the right, turning the horse. “I’ll get back to the cattle then.”
“Mr. Miller,” she called, holding out a hand as if that would halt him.
He did pause, turning the horse back toward the porch, maneuvering the animal closer to her.
She caught herself. Should she say something about the pond? It was none of her business. Truly, she shouldn’t get involved. But these were Jed’s cattle, too, and she had a duty to see that they were well cared for. Yes, it was best she speak up.
“I just wondered… How long have the cattle been in the pasture with the pond?”
Brandon looked over at the field in question and then back at Amanda, eyebrow quirked. “A few days.”
“And will you rotate them soon?”
He shook his head, jaw tightening.
That should have been sign enough for her to go no further, but still she pressed on.
“I understand that it’s not good for cattle to graze near standing water for any length of time. Perhaps you should consider rotating them soon.”
His shoulders stiffened. “And where, pray tell, does this advice come from? This great ranching advice?”
Amanda’s face heated. “I used to help out around the ranch. It’s just something my late husband said.”
“Did he happen to say why?”
Her face warmed several more degrees in the moments she remained silent. “No. But he was quite adamant of its import.”
Brandon’s eyes bored into her. With his muscles tensing, he sat tall and rigid on his horse, presenting a more intimidating picture. “I can assure you that I have a rotation pattern I follow. It has served me well. If you must know, I had to split the herd for breeding season now that I have two bulls.”
Now that you have Jed’s bull.
“So I cannot rotate the land as frequently as I would like. But I will maintain a close eye on the cattle to ensure that no harm comes to them, and we will watch to make sure the land is not overgrazed, as is our duty as ranchers. For this is our livelihood.”
How dare he push her to the side! As if she were as useless as he imagined her to be. One way or another, he would learn her value.
She shot back, “I mean no disrespect. But I also know that not every rancher can know every trick. Least of all a rancher who is fairly new to the practice. It was simply my intent to help educate you.”
Amanda spun, moving toward the door.
Whirling at the sound of the name she refused to take ownership of, she glared at him.
His eyes flashed, and his jaw clenched. “I will run my ranch as I see fit. And I do not wish to see you insert your advice or yourself into my business. Is that clear?”
She bit at the inside of her lip until she tasted blood.
“Furthermore, I would have you remain here at the homestead, clear of the barn and the cattle, and the bulls, from now on. If you can manage that.”
Her mouth opened, but only a gasp came forth. Who did he think he was ordering her around? Oh, yes, he was her husband. And, he had every right under the sun to do just that. Whether she thought it just was irrelevant.
She shut her mouth, grabbed at her skirt, and stomped toward the door. Swinging it wide, she proceeded to stomp into the house and slam the door.
If he wanted an answer out of her, he’d just have to keep waiting.
Brandon slammed the stall door closed and pulled at the rope as he wound it. Infuriating woman! What was in her head?
He thrust the rope onto its hook and picked up a pitchfork. Jabbing it into a haystack, he gritted his teeth. Then he hefted a forkful of hay into the stall. His hands gripped the tool tightly, twisting and wringing the wooden handle almost without thinking.
Confounded business this whole marriage. Must he be hitched as such to her for life? He’d rather not lay eyes on her again if he could help it.
A stinging sensation pinched his hand. He jerked it away from the handle. Naught but a splinter. Releasing the tool to its perch next to the stall, he maneuvered his other fingers over to pull the splinter out.
Agh! Such a minor annoyance. Yet an irritant all the same. Just like Amanda. One big splinter. If only she was as easy to remove.
Working with the nail on his opposite thumb, he was able to work the largest portion of the splinter out of his palm. Was that all of it? Surely so. It appeared intact.
He leaned against the stall door and sighed. And begged the Lord’s forgiveness for the thoughts he’d had about his wife.
Yes, he was angry. And, yes, she had overstepped her bounds. But she was still his wife and still God’s beloved child. As such, she deserved much better consideration from him. Besides, her life had been turned upside down.
Rubbing a hand down his face, he tipped his hat back. How was he to keep his cool against such odds? His heart slowed its racing. And he knew. The same grace bestowed upon him.
That meant that he needed to once again apologize. He pinched the bridge of his nose.
That’s what had gotten the better of him. Not her.
With renewed purpose, he strode back toward the house. Darkness had started to fall on the ranch. It would be time for dinner soon. He’d have to face her then. Easing the front door open, he slipped inside. A din of voices rose from the dining room. Was she among them?
Maneuvering through the house the long way, he entered the kitchen and pumped water into the sink. His palm stung as he gently rubbed his hands together. Because of the recent trauma? Or because there was still a piece of the splinter there? Holding the injured hand closer to his face, he attempted to see if there was a fleck of brown against his skin. Nothing.
Likely it was only his imagination.
“There you are!” Cook’s voice sounded behind him.
He nearly jumped at the unexpected presence. “Why aren’t you eating?” Grabbing for a hand towel, he wrung his hands.
“I could ask you the same thing. We were beginning to worry after you. Figured you and Mrs. Miller went off for a moonlit ride.”
His brows scrunched. Off on a moonlit ride? That was the last thing he could imagine. He and Amanda, in a tender embrace…
“Couldn’t decide what had happened to the two of you.”
He spun on Cook. “Amanda isn’t here?”
Her eyes widened. “No, sir. We thought she was with you.”
He shook his head slowly.
“What…?” Cook started, but Brandon held up a hand.
Moving further into the house, he stepped into the hall between their rooms. As he came to the door, he prayed, Lord, please let her be shut up in here, safe and sound. What if she had run off into the night? Would she be so foolish?
He raised his hand, preparing to knock, and then he heard it—muffled sobs. Quiet though she was, he became certain of it. His heart stalled. Was this about him? About what he had said? Or were these tears for Jed?
And what should he do? Leave her be? His heart ached. That possibility became lost. He had to face her, to at least attempt to right this situation.
Garnering all his courage, he raised his hand once more. And, sucking in a breath, he knocked on the door.
The crying stopped, but he could not discern any movement within.
After several moments, he rapped on the door again. “Amanda?”
Footfalls allowed him to follow her across the room. She soon stood on the other side of the door.
“What do you want?” came her strained voice.
“Please.” He leaned on the doorframe, a hand on the latch. “Open the door. I just want to talk.”
The latch moved beneath his fingers. Then the door gave way. He stood to his full height.
Her features were revealed in the soft light coming from the kitchen. Even if he hadn’t heard her, it was obvious on her face—eyes rimmed in red with puffy circles underneath, cheeks and nose reddened. His heart went out to her. Had his words so affected her?
“Amanda,” he breathed.
She turned away, looking toward something in the room. The window? Or something on the wall perhaps?
He reached forth, but thought better of it and let his hand fall.
Amanda sniffled and wiped a hand across her face. More tears?
“You must believe me, I never intended…”
She met his eyes then, hers flashing with intensity. “I must? Must what, pray tell, dear husband?”
He closed his mouth.
A ragged breath was forced through her lips. “I’ll tell you what I must do. I must learn to live with a man who gives little regard to my thoughts or feelings. Who orders me about like chattel. Jed never…” She held a hand over her mouth, and her eyes narrowed as fresh tears pooled in the corners.
Brandon’s throat burned. He tried to swallow past it, but was unable.
Her hand fell to her chest. “I am no one’s property, Mr. Miller.” The words were broken with emotion. “Least of all yours.” Then she reached for the door and closed it soundly in his face.
And he was once again alone in the hall. Only this time, he stung as if she had slapped him. He wished she had. That would have been better than this.
Amanda sat on the bed that didn’t belong to her and stared out the window. How long had she been here, poised on the edge of the bed? The small of her back ached from holding her torso so straight, rigid even.
Her eyes slid closed. What was she to do? Move beyond the door and face the rest of the house? What had Brandon told them?
If only she could hole up in here the rest of the day. But Samuel needed her. Almost as much as she needed him.
Smoothing a hand over the quilted spread across the foot of the bed, she opened her eyes and raised them heavenward. No. She would not pray. Not even for strength. If she didn’t have it, she would have to manage without. Or scrape up what she could. There would be no help from above. Never had been.
She stood and took slow steps toward the door, but paused as she set her hand on the latch. Did she have what it took to face him? Her forehead met the door’s hard surface.
Why had she exploded? Said things she didn’t mean? No, she meant them. She was just sorry for the awkwardness they now created.
A floorboard creaked in the hall.
She jerked her head off the door. Was someone lurking outside her door? Who would…?
Putting an ear to the smooth wood, she held her breath.
The movement stilled, but she swore someone stood just on the other side.
What game was this? Spying on her? Come for more tears? Or an apology? She stifled a laugh. He would have to keep wanting.
Grasping the latch firmly in hand, she readied herself and jerked the door open.
And there stood a wide-eyed Samuel.
“Samuel?” she gasped, hand on her chest.
He worked to right himself. “You scared me, Mama!”
She grabbed for his arm. Once he was steady, she crouched in front of him. “Why were you outside my door?”
“I was worried about you, Mama.” His voice was small, timid, and his eyes were still wide and clear; sincerity shone through.
Her heart turned and her whole body sighed. She reached up and straightened his collar, allowing her fingers to linger on his small chest for a moment.
“Listen, I don’t want you to worry about Mama.”
“But you’re sad. I don’t want you to be sad.” His green eyes, so like Jed’s, peered into her soul. What could he see?
“Mama just misses Pa sometimes. Do you ever feel that way?”
He nodded, his brown hair shaking. A haircut would be in order soon.
“That’s how Mama feels right now. But I’ll be fine. You know why?”
“Cause you got me?” A smile spread over his features.
The same smile tugged at her lips. “That’s right. I’ve got you.” Amanda reached across the distance between them and drew her son to her chest.
He wrapped his small arms around her shoulders.
What would she do without him? He was the best part of her. The best of Jed. Proof that what she and Jed had existed. Fresh tears stung the back of her eyes, and she fought them. No need to stir more questions in her son.
He pulled back before she was ready. Such was the price of growing up. As he aged, he needed her less and less. Wasn’t that what she was supposed to want?
But as the gentle weight of his arms left her shoulders, she longed for more. How long had it been since she had been held? The day Brandon had rescued her. He had held her tightly then. And she couldn’t deny how it had stirred a rather pleasant warmth in her core.
“Let’s go see what Cook is making, Mama!” Samuel, his troubles forgotten, bounded down the hall before Amanda could rise.
“Coming,” she called after him, straightening her skirt.
She turned to move after Samuel when the door down the hall creaked open.
Brandon stepped out. Did he know she was out here? His eyes met hers, and he paused.
She, too, halted her progress, and then averted her eyes.
“Amanda, I…” His words trailed off. What did he want to say?
She shifted to look at him.
He reached behind himself to grasp the door’s latch and pull it closed, but not before she glanced into the room. Had she meant to violate his privacy or had curiosity simply gotten the better of her? She spotted Uncle Owen, still asleep on the only bed in the room.
Where did Brandon sleep? On a pallet on the floor? Surely that wasn’t where… Unless he had given up his room for her. So that she and Samuel could have separate sleeping quarters.
Her eyes met his again. Only then did she realize he had continued to talk. But she had missed most of what he had said.
He looked at her expectantly.
She swallowed past the lump in her throat. When she opened her mouth, she feared she wouldn’t have a voice as much as she feared what she had to say. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
Brandon’s eyes widened, and then his brows furrowed. “I apologized for being hard headed and prideful.”
Amanda turned her face away from his. Her cheeks warmed. This was not going well.
She pulled together her courage and forced herself to look at him again. Into eyes that were deep and difficult to read.
His jaw muscles twitched.
Opening her mouth, she prepared to say what needed to be said, hoping it came out the way she wanted.
Her head jerked in the direction of the loud sound. A hand was on her arm—Brandon’s. He stepped in front of her, placing himself between her and the perceived danger as if by instinct.
Amanda’s slender fingers wrapped around the arm that protected her, and she tried to move around him. The sound had come from the direction of the kitchen. Something might have happened to Samuel!
Brandon continued to hold her back as they moved in that direction. As they neared the end of the hall, he turned toward the dining room. She was tempted to veer off toward the kitchen, certain he was wrong.
But as they stepped through the doorway, the source of the commotion became evident.
Cook stood off to one side of the room, Samuel in her arms, A shattered glass vase was splayed out on the floor and wildflowers were scattered among the shards.
“I just wanted to get Mama some flowers,” Samuel cried into Cook’s shoulder, his voice muffled. Did he even know Amanda had entered the room?
Spotting Brandon and Amanda, Cook nodded in their direction and sidestepped into the kitchen, carrying Samuel away from the mess.
Brandon’s shoulders relaxed, and his arm fell.
Amanda stepped around him, coming closer to the disaster created by her little boy’s fine intentions. After a handful of seconds, the warmth emanating from Brandon’s body alerted her that he had come alongside her.
“I’ll clean it up.” Where was the strength in her voice? It seemed so weak.
“I’ll help.” He knelt down next to the glass and began picking up the shards.
“Mr. Miller, you don’t have to—” she started.
He looked up at her, his brown eyes soft as he spoke. “It’s ‘Brandon.’ And it’s no trouble.” As he turned back toward the pieces of glass littering his dining room floor, he pointed toward the front door. “Can you grab that bucket?”
She looked where he indicated and moved to retrieve the metal bucket. After bringing it over to him, she knelt and began gathering what pieces she could.
Some rather large shards lay in front of her. She lifted one, holding it up to catch the light. The vase appeared to have had curved lines with a design on at least one side. A portion of the design remained on the piece she held.
“This must have been a beautiful vase.” Her comment surprised even her.
Brandon glanced over at the section she held. “It was a gift for my mother.”
Amanda’s head jerked toward him, causing her hand to lose its place alongside the shard. It ran down the edge, cutting her delicate skin.
“Your hand!” he called out, reaching for her.
She dropped the glass piece, shattering it yet again.
He took her hand in his as blood pooled in her palm.
She grimaced, not at the pain, but at the amount of blood. And she tried to pull away. No need to get blood on him.
Brandon held her hand firmly. Then, reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a handkerchief. White. Of course. One more thing in his life for her to ruin.
Without a moment’s pause, he pressed the cloth to her wound. Now her small hand was clasped between his larger, warmer hands.
Her eyes were on his face, but his attention was on her hand.
He eased the cloth back and inspected the cut. “I don’t think it’ll need stitches. But I can take you to town to see the doctor if you’d like.”
She shook her head, biting her lip. Did she trust herself to speak?
He looked at her, eyebrow quirked.
Letting out a breath, she said what she had been holding in. “I think I’ve upset enough of your day.”
His brows furrowed.
“I intruded on your privacy in the hall, my son broke your vase, I soiled your handkerchief…” She closed her eyes and let the words go. Was there more? Opening her eyes, she peered at him. What was he thinking?
“Nonsense.” His eyes danced. “Your wellbeing is more important than any of those things.”
She tilted her head and looked at him. Really looked at him. Perhaps for the first time. What she found drew her deeper. And that frightened her. So she pulled back.
“Thank you.” Her words were simple, but meaningful.
“I am sorry my son broke your mother’s vase.”
“And I’m sorry your son wasn’t able to give his mother those pretty flowers.”