A Cowboy Unmatched
Neill Archer sighed and slouched a bit in the saddle when he caught his first glimpse of Dry Gulch. Another dusty, dirt-colored town in the middle of nowhere. And to think when he first left his family’s ranch two years ago, he’d hungered for wide-open spaces. What he wouldn’t give to be hemmed in by those big, beautiful Archer pines right about now. But he hadn’t earned his right to return to them. Not yet.
Straightening his spine, he clicked his tongue and urged his sturdy roan forward. A new town—no matter how dusty—meant new opportunities and the possibility of work. He’d left home with a goal, and he’d not falter in his pursuit of it—not when he was so close to his target.
The deep bong of a church bell reverberated through the crisp morning air, drawing Neill down Dry Gulch’s main street. Townsfolk trudged along boardwalks on either side of him, past a general store, a bank, and even a diner. Maybe Dry Gulch had more to offer than he’d first thought.
A wagon, its bed overflowing with a passel of young’uns spit shined and Sunday ready, rolled ahead of him. The oldest girl smiled shyly up at him as he came alongside. Neill tipped his hat in response, which set the boys to hootin’ and hollerin’ and the younger girls to gigglin’. The poor gal turned apple red and tried to hide beneath the brim of her bonnet. Yet she managed a bit of well-aimed retribution when the toe of her shoe collided rather squarely with the length of the loudest boy’s thigh.
Neill hid his grin and nudged Mo into a trot, taking him past the wagon before the squabble escalated to a level that required parental interference. He and his brothers used to tease and tussle like that, too. Of course, there hadn’t been any parents to interfere, so there’d been more than one occasion when a good-natured wrestling match spiraled into a fistfight. But even in those cases, the family bond never wavered. They were brothers—brothers who would stand together no matter what trouble came calling.
He missed that security, the assurance that someone always had his back. But then, that was part of the reason he’d left. He needed to prove to himself, and to his brothers, that he was his own man, able to make his way in the world without them breaking everything in for him first.
Crossing into the churchyard, Neill guided Mo over to where the other horses stood tethered near some cedar shrubs, nibbling at the few tufts of grass that thrust up from the hard-packed earth. He dismounted, pulled his Bible from his saddlebag, and gave Mo a fond pat on the neck before striding toward the church steps.
It was still early, so people were milling around outside, visiting with friends and neighbors while children ran circles around the periphery, releasing their excess energy before they were confined to a pew. Neill inserted himself among a group of men and quickly made an introduction.
“Neill Archer,” he said, offering each man his hand in turn. “Fine town you got here. Gives a man hope he might find work with so many folks about.”
A portly gentleman in a fine gray suit eyed him speculatively, though not unkindly. “What kind of work you looking for, son?”
Son? Neill bit back his distaste for the term. Son, kid, boy—he’d been defined by those terms all his life. He was twenty-eight years old, for crying out loud. Shouldn’t he have outgrown such monikers by now?
But getting riled wouldn’t help him find work, so Neill shrugged off his pique and addressed the man who’d offered the question. “I’ve done a bit of everything, really. Ranch hand, cattle drover . . . I’ve laid track for the railroad, put up windmills, built barns, repaired roofs, dug wells.”
The sound of an indrawn breath behind him drew Neill’s head around. A willowy blond woman jerked her head away the instant his gaze landed on her, but he’d caught a glimpse of interest lurking in her light blue eyes before she’d shuttered them.
He turned back to the men and grinned. “I’m open to any honest labor with a decent wage attached.”
The men returned his grin with genuine warmth and nods of understanding.
“Old man Johnson might need some help around his place,” one of the men suggested. “His gout’s been acting up, and he ain’t been able to finish fencin’ off that back pasture like he wanted.”
Neill’s spirits lifted, only to plummet when a third man shook his head. “Naw. His boys rode in from Amarillo last week and finished stringing the wire. Good boys, Thomas and Grant. Wish mine helped out half as much around our homestead.”
“They got their own farms to tend, Yancy. You know that. You can’t expect them to work both your spread and their own.”
Apparently Yancy could, and that was all it took to veer the conversation off course. Neill held his tongue while the men debated the level of involvement sons owed their fathers. Maybe he’d have a chance to bring the issue up again later. Besides, the parson had started waving people into the building.
As he passed through the doorway into the sanctuary, he scanned the crowd for the woman he’d seen outside. Perhaps sheknew of some work in the area. He spotted a woman with pale blond hair and a dress that looked vaguely familiar, though he couldn’t have said for sure that it was the same one he’d seen outside. She was already seated in a pew, so all he could see were her shoulders and the back of her head, but he decided it wouldn’t hurt to look for a place to sit in her vicinity. He spotted a vacant seat in the row in front of her, so he slipped into it and turned to introduce himself—only to find her immersed in a whispered conversation with the child seated next to her. Not wanting to intrude, Neill twisted to face the front and bit back an impatient sigh. He’d just have to wait until worship concluded to speak to her.
Except when worship concluded, she’d disappeared again.
It was probably his fault he’d missed her. Feeling a tug on his heart, he had kept his head bowed for an extra moment or two after the preacher’s amen rang through the church. He’d add a few thoughts of his own to the prayer before rising—requests for patience and greater trust in the Lord’s provision. He guessed he shouldn’t be surprised then to find himself in particular need of those qualities when his one hope for an employment lead had vanished.
Neill shook his head and smiled at the irony. Well, Lord, the Good Book says you know what we need before we ask. Guess I just proved that, huh?
He visited a bit with the people around him, then reached for the Bible he’d left sitting on the pew. Odd. He didn’t recall that piece of paper protruding from the pages. He pulled it free and turned it over to find a message written in an elegant hand.
Roofer needed to repair widow’s home. Salary to be paid half up front to cover supplies, half when job is completed. Only men of upstanding character need apply.
Interested parties should meet at the schoolhouse at 7:00 p.m. Monday evening for more details.
Neill jerked his head up and scoured the chapel for anyone who might have left the note. Had it been the mysterious vanishing woman? The note’s script certainly appeared feminine. And refined. But she was nowhere in sight.
He turned back to the scrap of paper in his hand. It was worded like a newspaper ad. Perhaps whoever had placed the ad in the paper had heard that he was looking for work and stuck the original copy in his Bible to make sure he saw it. Or maybe God’s provision moved faster than he’d anticipated.
Neill grinned as he stuffed the note into his coat pocket. He needed to see about a hotel room for the night. He had a job interview tomorrow.
A dim light was flickering inside the schoolhouse when Neill arrived promptly at seven o’clock the following night. At the door, he pulled off his hat and took a minute to smooth his hair before entering. The door swung in easily at his push, the hinges well oiled. But when he crossed the threshold, he frowned.
The place was empty.
Where were the other applicants? Neill’s gaze swept over the empty student desks to the front of the room, where a lantern sat on a table, its muted glow casting shadows on the floor and into the corners. Had the man doing the hiring been called away unexpectedly?
Neill took a tentative step down the deserted aisle. Should he wait? See if the man returned? Setting his hat atop one of the student desks, Neill glanced back out the door standing open behind him. He saw no one. He half expected some kid to slam the door shut and lock him in, then run off laughing with a wild tale to tell his friends about the prank he played on the stranger.
But that wouldn’t fit with the handwriting on the note. It had been anything but juvenile.
He took out his watch and checked the time: 7:05. Might as well wait. Someone had left that lantern, after all. The student desks were too small for his long, lanky frame, so he strode to the front of the room, thinking to borrow the teacher’s chair. That’s when he saw the envelope.
It lay on the table, a few inches in front of the lantern. His name, slightly misspelled—people often left off the second l in Neill when they didn’t know him—was scrawled across the front. He picked it up and glanced inside. A twenty-dollar banknote and directions to the home of a widow Danvers.
Who would leave twenty dollars just lying around like this? Anyone could simply take it and leave the widow high and dry. Or wet, he supposed, since the woman needed a new roof.
Neill had never known his mother, but his best friend’s mother had filled that role for him later in life, not caring a whit that his skin was white where Myra’s was brown. What if she were in the widow Danvers’s position? Aged and frail, no husband or sons to take care of her? Neill would go to the ends of the earth to see she was provided for. Apparently this Danvers woman had no menfolk around to fill that need.
Well, the envelope was addressed to him, which meant the widow and her leaky roof were his responsibility now. And Archers never shirked their responsibilities. Neill slipped the envelope into a pocket in the lining of his coat and turned down the wick of the lantern until it sputtered and went out.
Whoever had put this little scheme in motion had handpicked him for the job, and he aimed to see it through.
Neill took the third turnoff as instructed and guided the rented team over a narrow bridge that spanned one of the waterless gullies that must have inspired the town’s name. Spotting the widow Danvers’s windmill, Neill flicked the reins over the horses’ backs and urged them to a quicker pace. Harness jangled and wheels creaked, adding harmony to the rhythmic clacking of the windmill’s spinning blades as the house came into view.
Shack might be a better term. The weathered building listed to one side, like a sapling buffeted by constant wind. The thing didn’t need a new roof. It needed to be torn down and completely rebuilt.
Too bad there weren’t any trees around. He might have been able to shore the thing up a bit with some chinked logs, but all his wagon carried by way of supplies were shingles, a keg of barbed nails, a few rolls of roofing felt, cement paste, and a handful of tools. Somehow he doubted he’d be able to do much with a hammer, jackknife, and cement brush. Maybe the late Mr. Danvers had some tools or scrap lumber Neill could put to use. He hated to think of some frail gray-haired lady putting her foot through a rotted step or having part of a wall collapse on her. He wouldn’t mind spending an extra day or two making sure the place was habitable before he left.
Neill pulled the wagon to a halt and set the brake. “Hello, in the house!” he called as he climbed down from the bench. “I’m here to fix your roof.”
The door inched open far enough to allow the twin barrels of a shotgun to emerge through the crack.
“I don’t know who you are, stranger,” a feminine voice rang out, “but I made no arrangements for any roofing to be done. I’ll thank you to get back in your wagon and leave the way you came.”
Neill stilled. Mrs. Danvers sure held that gun with a steady grip for a widow lady. And that voice sounded none too frail, either. Neill raised his hands, the leather work gloves itching against his empty palms. He took one step back toward the wagon—and the rifle waiting beneath the driver’s seat.
“I was hired by someone in town, ma’am,” he explained. “They paid up front for the supplies and gave me instructions on how to get to your place. Unless you’re not Widow Danvers.”
The implied question hung in the air for several tense heartbeats. Finally, the shotgun lowered and the door opened wide enough to give the widow room to step through.
“I’m Clara Danvers.”
Three things registered in Neill’s mind simultaneously. The widow Danvers wasn’t old. She wasn’t frail. And she sure as shootin’ hadn’t been a widow very long.
Clara maintained her grip on Matthew’s old shotgun while she took the stranger’s measure. Tall, lanky, a friendly enough smile. The few lines he sported around his eyes from years of squinting against the sun were the only indication of his age. Well, that and the way his stance radiated readiness. This was a man who’d seen trouble and had learned to be wary. Strong of spirit as well as body. But could he be trusted? What if her father-in-law had hired a new hand? It would be just like Mack Danvers to send the man to prod her into agreeing to his demands.
Her hand instinctively lifted to cradle her rounded belly. She’d die before she gave up her child.
Swinging the shotgun up in front of her, Clara caught the barrels in her free hand. She didn’t take aim at the stranger, simply held the weapon across her body, letting him know she wasn’t a helpless female. “You tell Mack Danvers that my answer hasn’t changed since the last time he visited. I’ll not be taking him up on his offer. Now, be on your way.”
The stranger cocked his head, furrows etching his brow. “I don’t know any Mack Danvers, ma’am. A lady in town wrote out instructions on how to find your place and gave me funds to purchase supplies. Here, I’ll show you.” He reached inside his coat.
Clara tensed and had both barrels pointed at his gut faster than he could blink. “Keep your hands where I can see ’em, mister.”
He eased his hand back out. “I don’t mean you any harm, Mrs. Danvers. Tell you what. Why don’t I step a few paces over here”—he nodded toward an area an equal distance from the wagon and the house—“and you can come take a look at what’s in the wagon. See the roofing supplies for yourself. Then if you want to see the note, I’ll give that to you, as well.”
Clara hesitated. It could be some kind of trick. Yet the man had no weapon on him that she could discern. If she kept an eye on him, she should be able to check out his story safely enough. She nodded her agreement.
With hands lifted in the air, the man took four long strides away from the wagon. Clara adjusted her position as he moved, keeping the shotgun trained on him until she reached the porch steps. Her overlarge belly made navigating the three stairs awkward since she couldn’t grasp the railing for support, but she took her time and made it to the ground without incident.
Once at the wagon, she flashed a quick glance into the bed. Roofing supplies. Just like he’d said.
“Who’d you say hired you?” Her grip on the shotgun relaxed. She lowered the weapon, then reached around with her left hand to rub at the sore spot on her lower back. Tension was taking its toll.
“I don’t rightly know, ma’am.” The stranger made no attempt to approach her, and she found her suspicions waning despite his lack of clear answers. “I rode into Dry Gulch on Sunday and attended worship. I let it be known that I was looking for work, and after services, I found a note regarding a roofing job stuck in my Bible. I followed the instructions, and the next evening found an envelope with your name and directions inside, along with enough funds to buy supplies and the promise of further payment when the job is complete.” His shoulders lifted in a shrug. “I think your benefactor wants to remain anonymous.”
Clara leaned against the side of the wagon, hope struggling to find purchase in her battered heart. For the last month she’d been slaving over the worthless pile of sticks her wastrel of a husband had left her, trying to make it safe for her baby. She’d patched cracks with sod to keep the wind and vermin out, repaired the broken step with a scrap from the busted barn door, and scoured the place from top to bottom. Twice.
If she’d learned nothing else over her twenty years of life, she’d learned that a woman carrying Comanche blood in her veins couldn’t depend on neighbors to lend a helping hand. Or husbands. Or men who were supposed to be family.
So she tended to things herself. But the one thing she couldn’t fix on her own was a leaky roof. She’d only endanger her child if she tried.
Did you send this man, Lord? Dared she believe it was even a possibility? Heaven knew she’d prayed often enough for protection for her babe, yet she was afraid to hope that God might actually be answering. He hadn’t protected her parents from the smallpox outbreak that took their lives the summer she turned eighteen, after all. Nor had He guarded her husband from the bullet that ended his career as the worst card player in the Red River Valley.
Yet a man she’d never met now stood on her property with a wagonload of roofing supplies and just enough swagger to convince her he knew how to use them. Who else could have orchestrated such a scenario?
She couldn’t send him away. Not when the welfare of her child hung in the balance. She needed that roof.
“Let me see the note.” Clara marched toward the stranger with her palm outstretched. Well, marched might be too grand a description. Waddled was probably closer to the truth with as ungainly as she’d become over the last month. But she refused to let this man intimidate her. She was in charge of this interview, and he would dance to her tune or leave.
The stranger met her halfway and handed over the paper for her inspection. No smugness lurked in his approach. Only concern and caution, as if she were a high-strung mare he feared spooking with sudden movements. And wasn’t that a flattering comparison.
She snatched the paper from his hand and examined the writing. Definitely not the slashing strokes Mack Danvers preferred. The stranger was right. It looked feminine. And the only woman on the Circle D was the housekeeper. Clara had seen Ethel’s handwriting on the supply lists that Matthew used to bring into her father’s trading post before they’d started courting and could safely rule her out. Ethel’s chicken scratch was barely legible.
Handing the paper back to the stranger, she scrutinized his face. Strong jaw. Direct gaze. None of the shiftiness she’d come to recognize in her husband nor the condescension or scorn she detected when her father-in-law deigned to look at her. No, this man’s eyes were warm and honest. Kind. And they had lovely green flecks that added a sparkle to the brown depths.
Clara took a step back. No need to look that close. He was a workman, nothing else.
So why did she suddenly have the urge to make sure her hair was in place?
Bah! It wasn’t like he would see anything beyond her belly, anyway. A belly that was fixing to burst with another man’s child. For all she knew, he had a wife back home somewhere. She was a job to him. And that was the way she wanted it. Three or four days and he’d be gone.
“I guess if you’re going to be repairing my roof,” she said with a defiant lift of her chin, “you might as well tell me your name.”
“Neill Archer, ma’am.” He touched the brim of his hat and bowed slightly in acknowledgment. But it was his boyish half smile that did her in.
Her heart did a foolish little flip in her chest. The reaction scared her so badly, she started backing toward the house.
“Go ahead and unload your supplies.” She waved a hand toward the wagon, hoping he wouldn’t notice the trembling in her fingers.
Distance. She needed distance. She was no naïve girl any-more, ready to swoon at a handsome man’s smile or charming flattery. She’d been down that road and had no plans for a return trip. The faster Mr. Neill Archer finished this job and left, the better.
“There’s a ladder in the barn,” she added once she’d reached the porch and had a better grip on her senses. “Not sure what kind of shape it’s in, but you’re welcome to use whatever you find.”
He nodded. “I’ll need to take the rig back to the livery in town after I unload, but I should be able to get a start on things before dark. That is, if you don’t mind me spreadin’ a bedroll in your barn. I could stay in town if you’d prefer.”
“No. The barn’s fine.” He’d lose hours of work time if he had to ride in and out of town every day. Better to get this over with as quickly as possible. “I’ll have supper ready for you when you get back.”
That crooked grin reappeared, but she steeled herself against it. Neill Archer was a temporary necessity. For her baby’s sake. That was all. She’d not allow herself to get distracted.
The woman was a distraction of the worst order. He couldn’t get her out of his head. Neill tightened his knees and urged Mo to a canter after leaving Dry Gulch and the rented wagon behind. The speed felt good but did little to banish Clara Danvers’s image from his mind.
The woman reminded him of an Indian princess reigning over her pathetic shambles of a house as if it were a rich tribal hunting ground. She’d been dressed in the same trappings as any other woman, calico from chin to toe, black hair piled atop her head in a tidy bun. No doeskin fringe. No braids. Yet her dusky skin and fierce pride transformed her into an exotic beauty that captured his imagination like no woman ever had.
Even with her hugely pregnant belly.
A grin tugged at Neill’s lips as he slowed Mo to a trot and turned him toward the bridge. When she’d lumbered down from the porch earlier, he’d nearly rushed forward to help her, shotgun be hanged. But her stoic determination kept him rooted where he stood. Clara Danvers was no fragile flower. She was a coyote who’d learned to scrape and scavenge and protect what was hers. No mere steps could fell her.
Neill’s smile faded as visions of Clara’s foot breaking through a rotted step dispelled any romantic notion that the woman’s pride alone could keep her safe. Perhaps he’d better check the soundness of the steps and railing before he started work on the roof.
As he rode into her yard, he could feel Clara—he couldn’t think of her as the widow Danvers any longer—eyeing him. He waved at her through the kitchen window, then dismounted and led Mo to the barn. In the time it took him to rub down his horse and do a cursory hunt for ladder and tools, Neill had worked himself into a right fine lather.
If the late Mr. Danvers hadn’t already been dead, Neill would have slapped some sense into the lazy no-account. Daylight shone through countless holes in the rotted siding, doors hung busted on their hinges, rust coated the water troughs, and he’d counted at least eight mice nests. No telling how many creatures made their homes in the darker regions beneath the loft. Even if the man had died the night he conceived his child, the place couldn’t have deteriorated this fast. It had to have been a run-down mess before the fella kicked off, leaving his wife to pick up the pieces.
Which, of course, she had. Neill ran a hand over the half wall that separated the front two stalls from the rest of the barn. The first stall housed the milk cow that stood munching her hay contentedly, as if blissfully unaware of the ruin around her. The second was where he had stashed his belongings and unsaddled Mo before turning him loose in the corral with the only other stock he’d yet to see on the place, a sturdy little gray mare that immediately set to bucking when Mo entered her territory. Much like her mistress had done with him earlier.
Both stalls were pristine. Fresh straw covered the floor, cracks in the outer walls had been filled with some kind of mud mixture as a barrier to the elements, and clean water buckets, free of algae and bugs, stood cheerfully waiting to be of use. Clara had done all she could to care for her animals. But when was the last time someone had taken care of her?
Clara inspected her table with a critical eye. It had been a long time since she’d fed a man. Matthew had been gone for six months—not that he’d ever graced her table as often as the ones in Dry Gulch’s saloon. Still, she couldn’t help worrying about whether or not she’d made enough. Fresh meat was in short supply. Her advanced pregnancy didn’t lend itself to setting snares, and what chickens she had left were needed for eggs. Thankfully, her cellar had a good supply of vegetables and last year’s canned goods, so she’d been able to put together a hearty corn chowder, throwing in extra potatoes for good measure.
She nibbled on her bottom lip as she surveyed the towel-covered basket in the center of the table. Would one pan of biscuits keep a hungry man satisfied? It would have to, she decided. There was no time to bake another. Clara wiped her damp hands on her apron before reaching for the ties at her back. She hoped the simple meal would be to his liking.
Clara tugged off her apron and tossed it over the back of a chair. She’d soak some beans tonight and make her mother’s molasses baked bean recipe tomorrow. It had been her father’s favorite. Tickled the tongue and stuck to the ribs, he’d always said.
Neill Archer would need something to stick to his ribs if he kept working at the pace he’d set. He’d been hammering and sawing nonstop since the moment he returned from town, all without setting foot on her roof. Her porch sported three new steps, though, and a railing that no longer wobbled when she grabbed hold. She’d tested it herself when he went to the pump to wash. His workmanship proved sturdy and strong, putting her feeble patching attempts to shame. Though why he felt the need to fix her porch steps when he was hired to repair her roof, she couldn’t imagine. No one was paying him for that.
A knock sounded on her back door, breaking her free from her musing.
“Come in, Mr. Archer.” She lifted a hand to her hair, then caught herself and immediately brought it back down.
Bootheels clicked softly against the floorboards behind her. “Smells mighty good in here, ma’am.”
She turned to find Neill Archer hesitating several feet away. He held his hat before him, plucking at the crown as if uncertain of his welcome. And no wonder. She had yet to converse with him without a gun in her hand.
Clara pulled out Matthew’s chair for him. “Have a seat. Please.”
He accepted her offer and sat down, hanging his hat on the spindled back of the vacant chair next to him. She dished up his chowder before slipping into her own chair, then paused.
“Would you offer grace?” She ducked her head. What had prompted her to ask such a thing? Now he was stuck in the awkward position of—
“Yes, ma’am.” The definitiveness of his answer reassured her, and she released a pent-up breath.
He bowed his head. “Lord, thank you for this fine supper and for the kind woman who prepared it. May the work of our hands honor you each day, and may our souls find rest in your presence. In the name of Jesus, amen.”
The instant he finished, she passed him the biscuits, careful to hide her reaction to his prayer behind a mask of politeness.
The words had been simple, but they’d resonated with a depth that made her pulse thrum. He hadn’t just repeated familiar phrases out of habit— he’d meant each one. She’d felt it.
“I . . . um . . . wanted to thank you for fixing the porch steps,” she murmured as she passed him the butter crock. “You didn’t need to do that.”
He shrugged. “I wanted to.” He tore open a biscuit and slathered it with butter. “I’ll start tearing down the old roof first thing in the morning. I don’t expect the job to take more than three or four days.” He popped half a biscuit into his mouth.
A contented expression flashed across his face while he chewed, and a rush of pride shot through her chest. She dipped her spoon into her chowder, not expecting to hear from him again until he’d finished his meal, but before she’d even swallowed her first mouthful, his voice resonated across the table. She hid a grin behind her napkin as she dabbed her lips. Apparently Neill Archer was a talker.
“I ain’t got anywhere special to be anytime soon,” he was saying. “So if you want to put together a list of chores that need doing around the place, I’ll see they get taken care of before I head out.”
“That’s kind of you, Mr. Archer, but I can’t—”
“The name’s Neill, ma’am, and yes, you can.” His stern tone cut through her excuses. “For the young’un’s sake, if not your own.” He gestured toward her belly with the hand that held his spoon. “Besides,” he said, his tone lightening, “meals this tasty are worthy compensation.”
Clara wasn’t quite sure how she felt about being badgered into accepting his kindness. Her pride balked a bit, but practicality won out. He was right. She could accept his help. For the baby.
“Thank you.” The words fell from her lips into her soup since she couldn’t quite bring herself to meet his gaze, but it seemed sufficient. She caught his nod out of the corner of her eye before he turned his full attention back to his food.
Several moments passed without further conversation, and Clara began to relax.
“So who’s this Mack Danvers fella you thought I was workin’ for?” Neill’s question shattered the silence along with Clara’s peace of mind. “A relative of yours?”
“My father-in-law.” And that was all she planned to say on the subject.
Neill scraped up the last of his chowder from his bowl, while Clara prayed he’d not pursue the issue.
“I take it the two of you don’t get along?”
She jumped up to retrieve the soup pot from the stove. “More chowder?”
A small chuckle escaped him. “All right—you win. I’ll shut up and eat my soup.”
“I didn’t mean . . .” She froze, the ladle poised above his bowl.
His grin only deepened. “I know you didn’t, Clara. That was just my ornery streak coming out. Pay me no mind.”
Chowder splashed into his bowl as Clara fought to hide her grin. This man didn’t know the meaning of ornery if he thought his teasing comments qualified. “Does it come out often—your ornery streak?”
Mercy. Was she actually flirting with the man?
His eyes warmed, and he smiled up at her. “Only with people I like.”
A heat rose to her cheeks that had nothing to do with the steam from the soup pot. Clara spun back toward the stove.
“I’m the youngest of four brothers.” His laughing voice followed her. “It was my job to be ornery.”
How easily she pictured him making mischief for his older brothers, pestering and getting in the way. Yet he’d grown into a responsible, capable man, if his actions this afternoon were any indication.
What would it be like to spend evenings with a man who worked hard all day only to laugh and tease with his family when the work was done? A little piece of heaven, surely.
Neill proved true to his word and stopped pushing her for answers about Mack. Instead, he told stories about his family—stories full of humor and adventure, about four boys running a ranch on their own after the death of their father, about brothers he obviously idolized and adored.
“Then there was the time I found that skunk behind the woodpile,” Neill said, leaning back in his chair, a light of deviltry twinkling in his eyes. “I was probably about ten at the time. I snuck back to the house and grabbed the scrap bucket we kept for Sadie, our bird dog, then laid a trail of the stuff from the woodpile to Jim’s workshop. He always disappeared there to work on his carving after dinner. I made sure to leave the door ajar for the visitor I’d invited.”
“You didn’t!” Clara knew she shouldn’t laugh, but a giggle bubbled up in her nonetheless.
The man beside her grinned with a mixture of boyish pride and rueful chagrin that brought a warmth to her heart she hadn’t felt in years.
“You shoulda heard him howl. Travis and Crock thought we were under attack. They snatched up their guns and ran across the yard while I stumbled to the porch, bent over with laughter. Jim staggered out of his workshop, took one look at me, and lunged for the railing. I never ran so fast in my life. I didn’t venture back till well after dark.”
Neill chuckled and shook his head. “Jim stank so bad, Travis made him sleep in the barn for a week. ’Course, he made me scrub down the workshop from floor to ceiling and take over Jim’s chores for the week, too. But it was worth it.”
He winked at her, and Clara couldn’t resist a smile over his antics, even as she ducked her head to focus her attention on her bowl. Empty. She chanced a glance at Neill’s bowl. It was empty, as well. But she wasn’t ready for the meal to end. Slipping quietly to her feet, Clara retrieved the coffeepot from the stove and refilled both of their cups, hoping to manufacture a reason for them to linger.
Neill had fallen quiet, though, and she worried he’d leave if she didn’t find a way to prolong the conversation, so as she eased back into her chair, she gave voice to the first thing that popped into her head.
“I wish I’d had older brothers to lean on after my parents died. Maybe then I wouldn’t have felt pressured to marry the first man who asked.” Clara bit down on her wayward tongue. She couldn’t believe she’d just blurted that out. Yet a defiant part of her was glad she had. It was true. And no amount of fanciful thinking could change it. She should know. She’d tried for two years.
“How old were you?” His deep voice melted over her, free of accusation, and in that moment, she knew she was going to tell him.
He was safe, she rationalized. A stranger passing through. And she’d been carrying the burden too long alone.
“Eighteen. Papa ran a trading post out here when all that existed were a handful of ranches.” The words poured out of her as she stared at the dregs of chowder at the bottom of her bowl. “He was half Comanche, so people weren’t all that happy to do business with him, but his was the only outfit around, so they did.” She stole a glance at Neill. He didn’t appear shocked by the revelation of her heritage.
“I imagine he came to earn their respect,” he said, lifting his coffee to his mouth, “since he was able to keep his business even after the town started growing.”
“He did.” Clara sat a little straighter, pride lifting her chin to face Neill Archer fully. “He ran an honest store and understood the ranchers’ needs better than anyone else. Extended credit in hard times, too, when other businessmen refused.”
“But his generosity left you without a way to support yourself when he died, didn’t it.”
Clara nodded. “It wasn’t his fault. He and Mama got the fever during the winter and died before the spring crops could be harvested and the debts repaid. I had to sell the remaining inventory to Claasen’s General Store in order to pay Papa’s suppliers. There hadn’t been much left after that. So when Matthew Danvers, son of the wealthiest rancher in Dry Gulch, starting courting me, I thought my troubles were over. Turns out, they were just beginning.”