If You Believe
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It was all she had to offer her father, all she did well. And now he was taking it away, telling her again that she wasn't good enough.. . .
"I won't let him stay," she said.
Rass shuffled toward her, his blue eyes swimming in sadness. "We've been alone here too long, Mariah."
She backed away from him, afraid suddenly to meet his gaze. She knew what he was going to say next and she didn't want to hear it. "It hasn't been that long.. .."
"Mama's gone. You've got to get on with your life."
His words hit her like a slap. "I won't have it," she said, curling her hands into fists.
"I won't let you bring that stranger into my home."
"It's my home."
Mariah flinched at the quietly spoken words. She'd lost. Her father had hired the man, and Rass wouldn't change his mind. Sometime, somehow, she'd done something wrong, something to make Rass think she was incapable of caring for their home. The realization filled her with a familiar, sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
God, she tried so hard to be perfect, to make Rass proud of her and atone for the shame of her past. Why didn't it ever work?
"Look at him."
She stiffened. "Absolutely not."
"Look at him. Please," Rass pleaded.
Reluctantly she turned toward the open kitchen door and looked at the man outside.
The stranger was sitting up now, apparently trying to focus. His clothes were old and ragged and filthy. She could smell him from here.
He was younger than she'd first thought—-perhaps thirty-five or six. But worn for his years. There was a sinewy leanness to his face that bespoke long, lonely roads and too much alcohol. A bushy, drooping brown mustache obscured his mouth and blended into a fuzzy stubble of new beard that fanned down his neck. He obviously hadn't shaved in days.
His hair was ragged and too long, streaked by a hot sun to the color of wheat. The frayed, once white collar of his shirt hung open to reveal a dark, hairy chest.
The sight of it resurrected a hundred forbidden images, a thousand buried longings.
Mariah's mouth went dry. A tiny pulse at the base of her throat throbbed.
"Like what you see, lady?"
Mariah's gaze jerked back to his face, and she found herself plunged into a pair of pewter gray eyes. His gaze locked with hers, dared her to look away. His eyes were focused and hard, with a bone-rattling intensity that cut through her self-control. He had Stephen's eyes.
Her breath caught. She wanted to look away, ached to look away. But his gaze held her in a perverse, velvet grip. Fear pressed in on her.
Calm down, Mariah. Don't let him do this to you.
She let her breath out in a steady stream and closed her eyes, silently counting to five. When she felt better, she let herself look at him again.
She was wrong. His eyes weren't familiar. Stephen's had been warm and brown and filled with easy laughter; the stranger's were cold and gray. It was simply the look in the eyes that was familiar.
Uncommitted. Alone. The eyes of a man who never stayed in one place too long.
Her irrational fear turned to disgust. He was everything she despised in a man. A shiftless, lazy loser. The kind who'd attracted her once—when she was a starry-eyed girl—but never would again.
"Trust me," Rass said quietly.
"Fine, Rass. I'll trust you." She spat the words out, then shot a last glance at the stranger. "But I won't trust him."
Mad Dog touched the bruise that was already forming at his jaw. Christ, what had the schoolmarm hit him with? A pickax? Then he remembered. The brown blur had smashed the butt of her shotgun into his jaw.
Shaking his head to clear it, he tried to get to his feet. His first effort was a wobbly failure. He sank back into the plants, smashing another row of purple blossoms. The sickly-sweet scent of the flowers clogged his nostrils and brought a burst of nausea.
He was gonna puke. Shit . . .
Squeezing his eyes shut, he clutched his gut and tried to will the nausea to pass.
"You all right?"
Mad Dog opened his eyes. Rass was standing close, peering down with a fatherly smile on his wrinkled face.
He forced a smile. "Never better."
Rass kneeled and held out a handkerchief. "Here."
Mad Dog eyed the embroidered scrap of linen. It was the size of a postcard. Rass had obviously never been coldcocked. "That should help."
Rass frowned for a moment, then brightened as if at a sudden inspiration. "Get the man a steak, Mariah."
"I will not. He can wait until supper to eat."
"It's not to eat," the old man answered. "It's for the swelling."
The woman in the doorway didn't move. Mad Dog pushed himself up on his elbows to see her better. His vision was still slightly blurry, but what he could see was discouraging. She looked like a tall, disapproving owl. From the tip of her carefully coiled hair to the pointed toes of her sensible shoes, she was entirely brown. Brown hair, brown eyes, brown dress, brown apron.
She stood as stiff and unforgiving as a statue. Head held high, arms crossed, mouth pinched, she watched him study her. She had a face that looked as if it had been carved from stone. No laugh lines pleated the flesh around her eyes or bracketed her pursed lips. When his gaze finally reached her eyes, he was surprised by the hot emotion in her gaze. "It's not polite to stare," she said curtly. "I see your manners are as exemplary as your dress."
Mad Dog shrugged. "As are yours."
"Mariah," Rass said sharply. "Get the man a steak. It's the least you can do after you knocked him out."
The woman called Mariah snorted. For a second Mad Dog thought she was going to ignore her father. Then, with a defiant snap of her dull brown skirts, she turned and went into the house.
Rass gave Mad Dog an apologetic shrug. "She's rather ..."
Rude? Dim-witted? Battle-trained?
"Headstrong," Rass finished. Then, slowly, he got to his feet. "I'll go get you some Purola Sizz. You're going to have a hell of a headache later on."
Mad Dog nodded. "Thanks, Rass."
"No thanks needed, son. I'll be right back." With a wave, the old man wandered into the house and disappeared.
Mariah emerged a moment later, holding a tiny scrap of beef between her thumb and forefinger, as if it were a dead rat to be offered to a cur dog. Lifting her skirt a fraction of an inch, she descended the porch steps and came to a stop at Mad Dog's feet.
Her gaze swept his outstretched body in a single condemning glance and stopped at the holey soles of his cowboy boots. She grimaced and held out the meat. "Here."
Her obvious disapproval struck Mad Dog as funny. It was as if she actually expected him to care what she thought. One thing he didn't care much about were judgmental, narrow-minded spinsters. He sat up and offered her a cocky grin. "It's an awfully small piece of meat."
"It's an awfully small bruise."
Mad Dog burst out laughing. "So the wren has a temper."
Slowly he got to his feet.
She started to back up, then stopped. The porch's bottom step pinned her in place.
She squared her shoulders and met his gaze head-on.
She was tall for a woman, with a straight-backed stance that made her seem even taller. The top of her head came almost to his jaw, and he was six feet tall. Fuzzy, curly strands of hair tickled his chin, and he knew instinctively that she hated the defiant curliness of her hair.
Up close, he could tell he'd been wrong to dismiss her as a brown wren. She was ...
Everything about her bespoke grit, from the strong set of her delicately pointed jaw to the defiant tilt of her chin. Her face was chisled and sharp, without a hint of softness. Strong, prominent cheekbones slashed above hollow cheeks; pale, colorless lips spread in a thin, unforgiving line. She wasn't beautiful by any means, barely even pretty. But there was something interesting about her face, something that made her seem almost attractive in spite of her austere, freckled features. If she'd smile, she might actually be pretty.
It was the eyes. At first glance he'd thought they were brown, like everything else about her, but on closer examination, he saw that they were the extraordinary hue of maple syrup, and fringed by thick, dark lashes. Against the milky paleness of her skin, they seemed huge and vibrant.
"Are you going to stare at me all day?"
He shrugged easily. "I've been known to stare at a pretty woman for that long."
She stiffened even more—if that was possible. "No doubt you have. Why don't you go find one? Sapphire Lil's in Walla Walla probably has just your sort of woman."
Grinning, he extended a hand. "They call me Mad Dog."
She looked at his grubby hand as if it were a garden slug. "And you let them?"
He laughed. "Worse. I like it."
"And what's your last name? Bite?"
Somehow, she made that seem unacceptable, too. She sniffed and tilted her chin.
"What did the advertisement say?"
"Handyman wanted. Room and board in exchange for light manual labor."
"Obviously my father placed the ad without my knowledge or consent. However, since you've answered it, I have no choice but to put you to work."
"You may keep your sarcastic comments to yourself, Mr. Stone."
He grinned. "I will if you will."
She looked at him then, took in everything about him in a single, disapproving glance. "The bunkhouse is a mess, but I don't imagine cleanliness matters much to you."
He gave her an exaggerated frown. "Is that an ... insult? And from an obviously Christian woman such as yourself?"
She ignored his remark completely. "The bunkhouse will be cleaned, and the linen changed on Saturday. As usual."
He shrugged, feeling no more than a moment's disappointment. "I can use my bedroll till then."
For the first time, she smiled. It was a grim tightening of her lips that made her look even colder. "Somehow, I don't think you'll last until then, Mr. Stone."
"You mean you hope I won't."
"That's exactly what I mean." She nodded toward the building beside the front gate.
"That's the bunkhouse. You may put your things away and report back here in ten minutes for work."
He frowned. "You want me to start now?" "Oh, yes, Mr. Stone. You wanted to work—" she paused for effect "—and you will."
Mad Dog eyed the small whitewashed bunkhouse. A slow, appreciative smile curved his lips. He tripped the latch, swung the narrow door open, and went inside.
The door creaked loudly and thumped against the wall, rattling the whole building.
Dirt showered down from the open rafters. A wedge of filtered sunlight dove into the room, its golden glow marred by dancing motes of dust.
He coughed, blinked.
The small, cramped room was a scratchy blur that reeked of disuse and darkness, with just a hint of old beeswax. A narrow cot jutted from the center wall, its mattress covered by a thick, blue woolen blanket that draped almost to the floor. Two graying pillows huddled against the metal headboard. The bedside table was an upended packing crate that held a dusty lantern and a tin matchbox.
Against the left wall, an old oak dresser leaned awkwardly to one side, its oval mirror hung on the peeling wall above. There was one window. Tired gingham curtains let in faint rays of sun. The floor was thick-planked wood, scarred and stained from years of use. A squat, potbellied stove occupied the corner.