If You Believe
Page 4

 Kristin Hannah

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Shit, it was nice. Private.
No prying eyes would bother him here, no conductor would rouse him in the middle of the night and throw him off, no innkeeper would demand payment. He could put his bag on the floor and be sure it would be there in the morning, the contents undisturbed.
He tossed his bag in the corner of the room and sat down on the bed. It squeaked and groaned beneath his weight. Wishboning his arms behind his head, he flopped backward and stared up at the pitched wooden ceiling.
For no reason whatsoever, his thoughts drifted to Marian Throckmorton.
Prim, proper, look-down-her-nose-at-you Mariah.
She was exactly the kind of woman he shied away from. Not that they usually wanted anything to do with a man named Mad Dog anyway. She was the sort of woman who hurriedly crossed the boardwalk in front of him, the kind who never glanced at a dirty drifter.
He could tell that by the tidy little bun she wore at the back of her neck—and the stiff, unapproachable way she carried herself. And the brown . .. God, didn't she look in the mirror? That god-awful color made her look like a corpse.
He pitied the woman. Her hair was so damn tight, she probably suffered a perennial headache. Life was too short to spend it all tied up in knots.
And too short to spend it working.
He sighed and pushed up to his elbows. Shaking the dirt off his boots, he got slowly to his feet and headed toward the door.
Christ, he hated farm work.
Chapter Three
Marian stood on the porch, watching that man swagger toward her. Her mouth tightened into a disapproving pinch.
Everything about him screamed shiftless, from the scruffy tips of his cowboy boots to the battered tilt of his black hat. He moved slowly, casually, with his hands thrust in his pockets. As if he didn't care if he arrived someplace on time, or, and this was probably more accurate, as if he didn't care if he arrived at all. And he was staring at her, rudely. She could feel his gaze like a prickling heat across her face.
He was an affront to hardworking people everywhere.
She crossed her arms and glared at him, willing him to pick up speed.
He slowed down. In the shadow of his hat, his mouth was a white curve. "You're lookin' mighty tense, Miss Throckmorton," he drawled, coming to a stop directly in front of the house. Casually he rested his boot on the bottom step. It landed with a thunk that reverberated up Marian's spine and lodged as a migraine at the base of her skull.
She clenched her jaw and glared down at him. "I'm surprised you even know the word tense, Mr. Stone."
He tilted his hat back and grinned up at her. "Ain't that what Indians live in?"
She let out her breath in a disgusted sigh. She deserved that for even speaking to the man. With a sniff, she bent and picked up her basket and hammer. Then, tilting her chin up, she marched down the steps and sailed past him without so much as a sideways glance. "Follow me."
He waited a full ten seconds, then followed.
She could hear him behind her, his bootheels crunching through the carpet of crispy autumn leaves. Every snap of a twig or crinkle of a dead leaf hit her like a slap.
She couldn't believe her father had invited that ... that vagabond into their lives.
Their home.
She gritted her teeth. Damn, damn, damn. The silent curses matched her every step, echoed the quickened pounding of her heart.
She had to get rid of him. Now. And she had the perfect plan to do it. He was obviously a man who made no commitments, a man who never stayed too long in one place. A man who didn't like hard work.
All she had to do was work him hard—brutally hard—and he'd be gone by sunup.
At the huge walnut tree behind the washhouse, she came to a stop and spun around, prepared for battle.
Mr. Stone ran right into her.
Marian grunted in surprise and dropped her basket. Her arms flailed backward. She started to fall.
His arms were around her in an instant, holding her tight. He drew her toward him.
"Steady there," he murmured.
His gaze snagged Mariah's, held it. Her breath caught. She blinked at him. Up close, he had a face that was full of laughter and warmth. The kind of face that drew a woman in, the kind of eyes that quietly lured confidences. The kind of eyes she'd fallen for once before.
She jerked backward, stumbling in her haste to be away from him. "Don't ever touch me again."
"Then keep your distance. When a woman throws herself at me, I tend to catch."
Heat crawled up Mariah's throat. "I did not throw myself at you."
"All right, hurl."
Mariah felt her self-control start to slip. A tiny, niggling thread of fear uncoiled in her stomach. She was reacting to Mr. Stone in entirely the wrong way. She wanted to ignore him, not banter with him.
She bit down on her lower lip and turned away, focusing instead on the green orbs that dotted the brown grass at her feet. Then, when she felt stronger, she bent down and picked up one of the walnuts from the ground. Slowly, breathing steadily, she turned around. "These are walnuts."
"Now, ain't that fascinatin'."
She ignored him. "I want you to shake the branches and dislodge as many of the nuts as you can. Then you crack the soft husk, extract the nuts, and put them in that basket."
He shrugged. "Sounds easy enough."
"For a man as ... handy as you, no doubt it will be."
With a curt nod in his direction, she plucked up her skirts and headed for the house.
At every step, she resisted the urge to turn back around and see how he was doing.
There, she thought, crack walnuts for ten hours and tell me you'll be here in the morning.
"Sleep well, Mr. Stone?"
The sharp-edged words pierced the comforting darkness of his sleep.
Mad Dog winced. Shit.
He cracked one eyelid open. Old button-up brown eyes peered down at him. And she did not look pleased. But then, he wasn't entirely convinced it was possible for her.
"Hey, Miz Throckmorton." He straightened, came more fully awake.
She went to the basket in a swish of drab skirting and plucked up a handful of shelled walnuts. Then she turned to him, a look of incredulous disapproval stamped on her pale face. "You call these shelled?"
He shrugged. "I don't call 'em squat."
She thrust her hand toward him. A lone walnut sat huddled on her flat palm, its brown meat flecked with remnants of green shell. "There's green on this nut."
He looked up, met her gaze. "What am I supposed to do—suck it off?"
She bristled and snapped her palm shut. "Don't use that kind of language around me."
He laughed. "I said suck, not fu—"
"Mister Stone!"
He couldn't help laughing. "I did the best I could. I didn't fall asleep for hours." He held up his bruised, stained hands. "And I got the injuries to prove it."
Her gaze flicked uncaringly across his hand, then returned to his face. "I suppose that means you'll be leaving-----"
His lips twitched. Suddenly he understood this afternoon. Old button-up had done this to him on purpose. She'd known cracking walnuts was hard work, and somehow she'd surmised that he wasn't a man who liked hard work.
He should have been angry, but instead he felt a grudging respect for her. It was a damn good idea, and it had worked like a charm. After today, he couldn't wait to take a few bucks from the professor and get the hell out of here.
Even clean sheets wasn't worth this shit. His thumb felt like an oxcart had run over it, and his arm ached from shoulder to wrist. Yeah, he was leaving, all right.
But first he was gonna have a little fun with the schoolmarm. "Naw. Where would I go?"
Casually he got to his feet and walked toward her. She didn't move, didn't back away, but she wanted to. He could see it in the fearful flaring of her nostrils and the way she leaned slightly backward.
He smelled her fear and it challenged him; it was just like when he was in the ring.
All of a sudden he felt less tired. "What if I like it here?"
"I'll ... pay you."
He tilted his hat back and gave her a slow, pointed once-over. His gaze started at her pale, severe face and leisurely moved down, over the curves she tried to hide beneath a baggy brown dress. But if there was one thing Mad Dog could find, it was a woman's curves, and the wren wasn't built too badly. Biting back a smile, he let his gaze wander once again to her face. "With what?"
She gave him a look of pure, red-hot hatred. "Money."
He cocked an eyebrow. "A little egg money you've saved to ward off prowlers?"
"Sixteen dollars," she said. "Cash."
Mad Dog grinned. Now, that was an unexpected bonus. Sixteen dollars was damn good money for doing next to nothing. He could hole up for a long while on that.
She saw his interest and gave him a gloating smile. "I knew that'd get your interest."
Ah, damn, he thought, don't do that. Don't gloat.
"A man like you couldn't last on a farm."
He rolled his eyes. Oh, that's it. Add a challenge. "Shit." He said the word on a sharp exhalation of breath. He wanted to leave, really wanted to. But now she'd made it impossible.
There were only two things Mad Dog prided himself on: He never walked away from a fight, and no one ever told him where to go. And now Miss High and Mighty had just started a fight and told him where to go in a single breath.
"Naw," he said softly, "I think I'll just earn my keep."
Her smile crashed. "But—"
"But nothing. I'm staying."
"Just my luck. You choose here to make an honest wage."
"Gotta do it somewhere."
She bent down and picked up the basket. Ramming the hammer in with the nuts, she gave him a look sour enough to curdle milk. "Supper's in one hour. I'll leave yours on the porch."
"What? I'm not invited to the table?"
She frowned at him. "Hardly."
"Now, that's not too neighborly of you, darlin'. I'm beginnin' to feel downright unwelcome."
She gripped the basket and held it tight against her body. Thrusting her chin up, she marched past him and headed for the house. "And I thought you were stupid."
Her words floated back to him in a rustle of swishing skirts. He burst out laughing.
Mariah stared down at the Knoigsberger Klops and had an almost overwhelming urge to grab the cast-iron skillet and throw the whole mess across the kitchen.
With exaggerated calm she picked up the slotted spoon and began removing the meatballs from their broth. When she finished, she poured a flour-and-water mixture into the bubbling liquid and stirred the thickening gravy.
She heard the slow, steady thump-thump-thump of Rass coming down the stairs, and she straightened.
"Evening, Mariah."
She spooned the meatballs back into the gravy and dished up supper. Then, two plates in hand, she turned to face her father. "Hi, Rass."
He went to the head of the table and sat down. "Something smells mighty good."
"Knoigsberger Klops."
He grinned. "Ah, no wonder." He glanced around the table and frowned. "There isn't a place for young Mr. Stone."
She wanted to say, Mr. Stone's as young as I am, but she bit her tongue and forced a smile. "He's not eating with us. I put a cold chicken supper in a basket for him. It's on the porch."