If You Believe
Page 11

 Kristin Hannah

  • Background:
  • Text Font:
  • Text Size:
  • Line Height:
  • Line Break Height:
  • Frame:

He was standing in the doorway at a casual slant, one shoulder rested against the doorjamb, arms crossed, hat pulled low over his eyes. She was unaccountably reminded of a lion, waiting in the shadows for its prey.
He stepped out of the shadows, and her breath caught. She stared at him, unable for a moment to tear her gaze away. He'd shaved and changed his clothes. The drooping, too thick mustache was gone, as was the brown stubble that furred his cheeks. His face was strong, with a blunt, squared jawline, and a damnably sensual mouth that was curved in a dazzlingly white smile. He was wearing a clean white shirt that hung loosely on his broad shoulders and gaped at the throat. Faded, worn Levi's, bleached to the color of foam, hugged his long legs. Blond hair lay curled, thick and soft-looking, against his limp collar.
Sweet God, he was a good-looking man.
Nothing could have irritated her more. "It isn't polite to sneak up on people," she said stiffly.
"Did you really expect politeness from me?"
A traitorous smile tugged at her mouth. She immediately bit it back. Damn him for making her smile. "No."
He pushed his hat back and sauntered toward her, slowly. His bootheels clicked on the planked floor, his even, gentle breathing filled the air between them. His eyes were fixed on her, as if he were searching for something.
She smoothed a nonexistent wrinkle from her apron and turned away from him.
"You may sit down, Mr. Stone. Supper will be ready in a few moments." He peered into the pan. "Looks like maggots." "Lovely comparison. Of course, if anyone should recognize a maggot, Mr. Stone, it'd be you." He laughed.
The rich, rumbling sound grated on her nerves. She'd meant to insult him. Almost involuntarily, she glanced up. He was beside her. Close. So close, she could smell the clean, masculine scent of his skin and the just-washed freshness of his clothes.
His face filled her vision. Intense, pewter gray eyes stared into her own. She felt somehow invaded by his look, penetrated.
She dragged her gaze away from his eyes. And acci-dently glanced at the vee where his collar lay open. Curly, coffee brown hair darkened his suntanned flesh. The sight of it taunted her, tempted her.
She yanked her chin up and forced herself to meet his eyes again. "Was there a reason you came over here?" "Yeah."
She knew instinctively that she shouldn't ask, but she couldn't help herself.
"W-What is it?"
He leaned closer. Mariah's heartbeat sped up, whether from fear or some darker, more dangerous, unknown emotion.
"I want to get to know you." "What?"
He laughed softly. "I'm curious about you, that's all."
Oh, that's what she needed. She straightened, careful not to look at his eyes. "I don't want you to be curious about me, Mr. Stone."
"I know you don't. That's why I am."
She gave an impatient sigh. "Are you trying to irritate me, Mr. Stone?"
"No. It just comes naturally. One of my few gifts."
"Your mama must be proud." One second too late, she remembered that his mother had died. "Oh, Lord, Mr. Stone, I'm sorry...." She turned to him, not knowing what else to say.
He stared back at her, and for once he wasn't smiling. Their eyes met, held. There was something in his gray gaze that surprised her. A depth of emotion, of loneliness, that seemed vaguely familiar. Then it was gone.
If it had ever really been there at all.
"You're forgiven."
Mariah refused to think about what she'd seen in his eyes. "Well, that was easy,"
she said with a brittle laugh.
His smile was back, stunning in its warmth. "I'm an easygoing guy. Just remember it when I offend you."
"Oh? Are you planning to offend me?"
He shrugged. "No, but it'll happen. That's my other gift."
"That's it—only the two?"
"Well, I throw a mean right punch."
She stirred the spaetzle. "My, my, what a repertoire of skills. It must be a simple matter to find employment."
"I rarely look for work."
"Unfortunately for me, you occasionally find it."
He leaned toward her. For one terrifying moment, she thought he was going to touch her. She tried to back up, but couldn't move.
He didn't reach for her. His only touch was with his eyes. And somehow that look, that glance, was more intense and physical than any touch she'd ever known.
"You're not what you seem, are you, Miss Throck-morton?"
The quiet words pierced Mariah like tiny, poison-tipped arrows. She tried to think of a flip, sarcastic remark, but nothing came to mind. She stared at him, her lips parted for words that never came.
Behind them, the kitchen door creaked open. "Hi, you two," came Rass's gravelly voice from the foyer.
The spell shattered. Mad Dog backed up.
Shaking, Mariah turned away from him. "Hi, Rass." Her voice was sandpaper-rough and soft. Even breathing was difficult.
Rass inhaled deeply and patted his stomach. "Smells like sauerbraten and spaetzle.
My favorite. Give me an extra helping, will you?"
"Sure, Rass." She bent down and opened the oven door. Waves of heat hit her in the face as she eased the big roasting pan from the oven and set it on the range top.
She stared down at the steaming roast, barely seeing it. Anxiety curled around her insides, cold and hard. She didn't want to be studied by Mad Dog, didn't want him testing her limits, asking her questions that hadn't been asked in years. Questions she had been unable to answer in the first place. She didn't want to be "known" by Mad Dog Stone.
Her past was hers, damn it. He had no business probing into things that didn't concern him.
She told herself that's why she was shaking, why she was afraid of Mr. Stone. She wanted her secrets kept secret. Just that and nothing more.
But she couldn't make herself believe it. There was something besides fear that made her tremble in his presence, something she hadn't felt in ... sixteen years.
Mad Dog was chipping away at her resolve, getting past her rigid defenses. He made her angry, made her smile, made her laugh, for God's sakes.
He made her feel alive again.
It had been so long since she'd felt anything for a man. And then she'd done it all so badly, given her heart completely and asked for so little in return. Her own emotions had devastated her.
She didn't want to feel alive again, didn't want to respond to Mad Dog as a woman reacts to a man. She wanted to be employer-employee, nothing more. Anything else would hurt too much.
Of that, she had no doubt. There was no percentage in caring for a man like Mad Dog Stone. The worn, holey soles of his boots told her everything she needed to know about him.
He was exactly like Stephen. And he was making her feel things, just like Stephen had___
But then she'd been a young girl, practically a child. The words calmed her, soothed her somewhat. She wasn't sixteen anymore and she didn't want the same fairy-tale life she'd wanted then.
Now, she was older, wiser, the exact opposite of that starry-eyed adolescent. She saw the world as it was, a cold, inhospitable place where danger lurked behind every corner.
She was stronger. Mad Dog might make her feel things—she couldn't deny that—but he couldn't hurt her unless she gave him her heart.
And God knew she wouldn't do that.
Mad Dog scooted his chair up to the table.
Across from him, Mariah sat as stiff as a plank, her hands demurely in her lap, her gaze on her plate.
She was trying to ignore him right now, to pretend she didn't care at all if he delved into her past. But she couldn't quite manage it—either that, or he was getting to know her well enough to see the tiny pleats of worry at her brow and the barest of trembling in her fingers.
There was something in her past. As hard as it was to imagine, Mariah had a secret.
He was becoming more and more certain of it, and the more he thought about it, the more intrigued he became. The more he wanted to know the truth.
But he couldn't learn anything about her if she wouldn't look at him. Right now she was staring at her plate as if it held the crown jewels of England. She was trying to ignore him—and he couldn't stand that.
He cleared his throat and poked at his food with a fork. "These maggots sure look tasty."
Her head jerked up. "It's spaetzle, Mr. Stone."
Rass glanced. His blue eyes had a dreamy, faraway look. "Did someone mention maggots?"
"Of course not, Rass. Mr. Stone was just telling us about his friends." She gave Mad Dog a too sweet smile. "It's an understandable mistake." Before he could respond, she turned to her father. "You've hardly touched your supper. Are you feeling well?"
Rass stabbed a slippery spaetzle and brought it to his mouth. "Um ... good," he said, chewing noisily.
She smiled. "Very funny."
Mad Dog stared at her, amazed again at the transformation a smile made on her face.
She seemed to feel his gaze and turned. "What are you looking at?"
"I was just thinking how pretty you are when you smile." He said the words softly, surprised by the truth in them.
She stiffened. Her lips pressed in a hard line and she looked away.
Mad Dog frowned. "I meant it as a compliment."
She ignored him completely and stared at her food.
He plopped his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers, studying her. She was trying to retreat into herself, trying to pretend he wasn't even at the table. He had no intention of being ignored. "So, Miss Throckmorton, how long have you lived here?"
She tensed, but didn't look up. "Most of my life."
"Mariah doesn't leave the farm," Rass said matter-of-factly.
Mariah gasped quietly. "I ... I'm sure Mr. Stone isn't interested in our private affairs, Rass."
Mad Dog leaned forward, smiled encouragingly. "On the contrary, Miss Throckmorton, your affairs are of the utmost interest to me."
He'd gone too far. He knew it instantly.
Everything about her changed. She straightened. Her cold brown eyes fixed on him as if he were a spider on clean sheets. One eyebrow lifted derisively. "I can't imagine why, Mr. Stone."
Rass set his fork down with a clank and sighed impatiently. "All this mister and miss is getting tiresome. Your names are Mariah and Mad Dog. Use them."
Mariah looked at Mad Dog.
He gave her a challenging smile.
She didn't return it. "I cannot call a ... human being Mad Dog. What is your given name?"
The question caught Mad Dog by surprise. It had been years since someone had asked his name; years more since he'd answered. He'd become accustomed to traveling in anonymity, unknown and untraceable. He liked being one of the nameless.
He leaned back in his chair and gave Mariah his best sexy smile—the one that always worked. "Come on, Mariah, you can say Mad Dog if you really try."
"Certainly I can call you Mad Dog, but I choose not to." She leaned forward, setting her elbows on the table. "So, Mr. Stone, what is your given name?"
He swallowed hard. For the first time in years, he felt a flash of uncertainty around a woman. "It doesn't matter."
She sat back in her chair, her gaze still fastened on his. "It seems, Mr. Stone, that you have a few secrets of your own."