In 1866 on the empty Kansas prairie, two children shared a few desperate moments that changed their lives. For years afterward, each nursed a secret dream—that the other had grown into a special person—brave, good, kind.
When Norah Hawkins and Caleb Sutton cross paths again, dreams die. She is a bitter, suicidal widow. He is a gunman with little conscience and few scruples. Alternately angry, repelled, and attracted, the two form an uneasy partnership to hold land she owns and he covets against a marauding neighbor. Their bargain never included love, or did it?
They walked side by side without touching, yet Norah buzzed with awareness of him, his height, the breadth of his shoulders, the way he moved.
The dark streets held no menace. The occasional drunken shout from a saloon was of no consequence. Tonight the worst danger in town was at her side, on her side, and she was safe. How long had it been since she’d felt like this, female, protected, almost floating with it? She couldn’t remember.
Moist, warm air enveloped her as she stepped through the restaurant door. In the dim lantern light she saw bare wooden walls and less than a dozen plain wood tables, no more than half of them occupied.
Every head in the room lifted, every eye took in first her old, much-mended coat, and when she had given that up, her equally old and mended dress. The floaty feeling dissolved, and she moved toward the closest table.
“The farther away from the door, the better,” Caleb said. His hand, warm on her arm through the dress sleeve, guided her toward the only empty table far from the door and close to the stove.
To her relief, he didn’t hold a chair for her or do any of those other foolish things Mrs. Tindell expected of her husband. By the time Norah seated herself, the other diners were at least pretending they’d lost interest in the Widow Hawkins and Van Cleve’s gunman.
“Your eyes are blue.”
He sounded surprised, and Norah stopped looking everywhere but at Caleb Sutton. The shadowy light in the room made it easier. “You sound surprised. A lot of people have blue eyes.”
“I am surprised. That day in your yard they were gray. I didn’t think eyes could change like that.”
“They didn’t change. It was an overcast day, and I…. You didn’t get a good look is all.”
He made a sound of disbelief. “Your eyes aren’t all that’s different. You’re still too skinny, but you look good. I always knew the Girl would be pretty.”
She opened her mouth to reply but couldn’t think of a thing to say. Was he making fun? She decided to pretend he hadn’t said it, but the floaty feeling came back, just a little.
“Do you know I’ve never eaten in a restaurant before? I don’t know what to do.”
“All you have to do is eat. You’ve never been any place to eat? Not even back where you came from?”
“Baltimore. Papa did, and he took Mama sometimes, but my sisters and I never went.”
“In cities they have restaurants ten times this big with white cloths on the tables and chandeliers overhead, but this isn’t bad for Hubbell.”
“It’s nice. Kind of cozy really, and oh, does that mean we can choose?” She tipped her head toward the large slate board hanging on the wall beside the open door to the kitchen. Chicken, beef, pork were written there, one below the other.
“Usually. Sometimes they forget to erase if they run out of something. Remember, Tommy back there is some behind you as a cook.”
“There were lumps in my gravy tonight.”
“There are lumps in his every night.”
She laughed, glad to be free and away from the Tindells, amused by the covert glances at Caleb from two young women across the room. Curiosity provoked those glances. And envy. Scary or not, he was handsome in a dangerous way. Light from the nearest lamp picked out gold glints in his hair and in the two-day beard growth covering the lean cheeks and jaw.
The gun belt over gray wool trousers emphasized his lean hips, and the blue flannel shirt did the same to his shoulders. Or maybe the clothes had nothing to do with it. Other men in the small restaurant sported suits, white shirts, and collars with ties. Compared to Caleb Sutton they all looked tame and — ordinary.
Tonight she didn’t care if he was one of Webster Van Cleve’s hired killers and should probably be in prison. She was out in the night. He’d said she was pretty and a good cook, and once long ago he had been the Boy.
Tommy’s cooking was as advertised. One side of her pork chop was black, and both the mashed potatoes and the gravy over them were lumpy.
Norah hardly noticed. Unlike Joe, who always ate with single-minded devotion to his food, Caleb showed a sociable streak.
“Did the old bat give you a hard time about coming out tonight?”
“She’s not that bad. She was — nosy.”
“She’s afraid you’re meeting some beau and might be on your way to remarrying, and she’d lose you.”
Norah paused, fork in midair. She decided to ignore the beau part. “She’d rather have notice so she could go straight from me to someone new, but she wouldn’t mind losing me. She’s used to unsatisfactory help and having to find replacements.”
“You’re not unsatisfactory. Tindell’s telling everyone in his saloon they should place their bets months further on. He likes your cooking, and she admits you’re the best worker they ever had.”
“I don’t believe it. She never said anything like that.”
“Of course not. You might want more money.”
“She’s paying me ten dollars a month.”
His brows went up slightly. “That is pretty good. Have they got you eating their leftovers?”
“You shouldn’t believe the worst of everyone. I cook enough for all of us, and I set mine aside before I serve. I’m eating like royalty.”
“Better than this then.”
“Better food, but eating alone in the kitchen… I like this, Caleb. Thank you for bringing me here.”
“No one’s called me Caleb for a long time. Just Cal.”
“Oh, if you don’t like Caleb I won’t…. Did your uncle call you that?”
“No, he never called me by my name that I can remember. The one who called me Caleb….” He gave her an assessing look before reaching for his coffee. “Go ahead and use Caleb. It’s good.”
Scars stood out on his hands, straight white lines, thin and thick, short and long. The fact she hadn’t noticed before proved how much he had upset her that day in the house.
“I didn’t make those scars, did I?”
She almost bit her tongue, embarrassed to have let a question that personal and rude pop out, but before she could withdraw it and apologize, he answered.
“Only one.” He traced one thin line that ran from the base of a thumb and disappeared under his shirt sleeve. “I’d still owe you if you made them all.”
“You really don’t owe me anything. You never did, but if you felt you needed to do something, you did more than enough.”
He ignored her, still fingering the scars. “The rest are from skinning knives. After I got away from your wagons, I skinned for the buffalo hunter who found me for a few years. When I started, the other skinners thought it was funny to jerk the hide so the knife slipped.”
“But that’s dangerous.”
“It was all dangerous.”
“What did you mean when you said that buffalo hunter thought you owed him forever for saving you?”
“He thought he had a slave for life, and for five years, he did.”
“And then you left him?”
“And then I killed him.”
She gasped and dropped the fork.
“Why the surprise?” he asked. “You know what I am. Not worth saving, right?”
One corner of his mouth curled in a cynical half-smile and his dark eyes chilled her to the bone. Once she had thought brown eyes always warm. No more. Why would he tell her a thing like that? To scare her, that’s why. Her first instinct, to jump out of the chair and run, died.
“If you’ve changed your mind and don’t want company for supper, say so. Otherwise stop trying to spoil my first time in a restaurant.”
The half-smile widened into a real one, even if it was in that controlled, inward way.
They ate in silence for a few moments before he said, “Talking about slaves, you can’t mean to be that old lady’s slave forever. What are you going to do?”
“Not kill her.”