Caleb unwrapped his sandwich and laid
it on the chipped bone china plate Laura had placed in front of him. He
had sat at the same table five years ago. This time he occupied the place
at the end, where Mark Shafton had sat on that day of horror.
Caleb was hungry and the food was well
prepared. But his dry mouth had lost its ability to taste. Why had he come
back here, to this place, these memories and this beautiful, damaged
woman? He should have headed west to California or south to Mexico, where
he could put the past behind him. Instead he’d chosen to open old wounds,
and he was already bleeding.
Laura stood at the stove, measuring
dried chamomile into a porcelain pot. He noticed the way she kept the left
side of her face turned away from him, hiding the scar. “We don’t get many
travelers out here since they finished the railroad,” she said, making
polite conversation. “Where are you headed?”
“Texas. San Antone, most likely.
Thought I’d take my time and see some new country on the way.” Another
lie, as was everything he’d told her except his name. “I don’t see any
hired help around,” he said, changing the subject. “How do you manage out
here, a woman alone with a youngster? Wouldn’t you be better off selling
the place and moving to a town?”
“I might.” She poured boiling water
into the teapot. The flowery aroma of chamomile drifted into the room.
“But I stay here to keep the land for Robbie. That’s what his father would
have wanted—a legacy for him, his children, his grandchildren...” Her
voice broke slightly as she spooned some honey out of a jar and dribbled a
little of it into the tea. “I sold off the beef cattle and the spare
horses after Mark died,” she said. “I wasn’t up to taking care of them,
and I needed the money to live on. Steers and mustangs can be replaced.
Land can’t. I’ll wear rags and go barefoot before I sell a single acre.”
Struck by the passion in her voice,
Caleb studied the proud angle of her head and the determined thrust of her
jaw. He had thought of Laura as fragile. But underneath her porcelain doll
exterior was a core of tempered steel. He had glimpsed that steel when
she’d turned on Zeke, sunk her teeth into his arm and grappled for the
knife that would slash her face. Now he was seeing it again.
He should have guessed he would find
her here, holding on to what was hers. So why hadn’t he turned around and
left as soon as she opened the front door? Why was he still here, risking
the chance he might be recognized?
Caleb took a sip of cold cider and managed to swallow it. If he had any
brains he’d get up from the table, thank Laura for the meal and ride away
before he dug himself any deeper. But there was the matter of a small,
broken boy who might yet need a trip to the nearest doctor. And there was
the matter of this scarred, beautiful woman to whom he owed a monstrous