“Vanessa, honey, why you crying?”
Clayton! He stood in the doorway to the stables, his presence both a soothing balm and a source of panic.
Vanessa gingerly leaned back against the wood behind her, willed herself to relax, but it was no good. It was going to be some time before she could calm down again. “I’m sorry I woke you.”
“You didn’t.” His eyes narrowed as he stepped closer. “It’s midnight. Isn’t it awfully late for you to be out of bed?” Yes. Yes, it was. It was too late for a lot of things now. Wiping her eyes with the side of her fist, she shook her head.
“I’ll go in soon.”
Clayton crouched beside her, his knees brushing her skirts. A puff of dust flew up, mixing with his scent, all bay rum and horses. “Care to tell me what happened?” She was thankful for the darkness. “No.”
He rocked back on his heels. “It might make you feel better.” Just his presence made her feel better, but that was how it always had been. Though only twenty-nine, Clayton Proffitt was the foreman of her family’s ranch, had been soon after her pa had hired him six years ago. When Pa had died, Clayton kept the place going for her mother.
Now that Ma remarried, Clayton had proved to be the most upstanding man she’d ever met. The differences between him and her stepfather were like night and day.
He’d always been patient and kind to her. Had always had time for her when no one else had. Even more importantly, he knew the Bible well, and often referred to it whenever she sought his advice. Consequently, his opinion mattered more to her than anyone else’s.
Which was exactly why she couldn’t tell him what happened. Desperately, she breathed deep. Inhaled his scent, his goodness, before tucking her chin to her chest. “It’s nothing. I’m... fine, Clay. I’ll be out of your way in a minute. Sorry I disturbed you.”
She moved to get up, but his hand stilled her. “I didn’t say you disturbed me. I don’t think you ever could.” Peering closer, his expression softened as one calloused finger touched her cheek. “Now. There’s got to be a reason you’re out here crying after midnight. What happened?”
She wanted to tell him. But if she did, he’d just shoulder all her hurt and responsibility, making her wish that she was less of a burden.
She hated being nineteen and unmarried. Too old to ask for help; too innocent to be self-sufficient. “Well, if you’re not going to get up, I guess I’m just going to have to join you, hmm?” Clay sat beside her, stretched his legs out next to hers, making her feel petite and insignificant. With no small amount of humor in his eyes, he sighed dramatically. Just like he had when Delaney Brewster had teased her about having arms and legs like sticks. Back when she’d taken to praying every night for God to stop taking His time to make her a woman.
“Looks like you’re going to make me guess,” he teased.
“Let’s see... George Law forgot to call on you today.”
Oh, Clay was so sweet to her. She hated to disappoint him.
“It’s not that.”
“Ben Forte didn’t say how pretty you looked in that periwinkle gown you like so much.”
Periwinkle. Vanessa hiccupped. The only reason Clay knew such a word was that she’d corrected him when he said her purple dress was fetching. “I’m not crying about a boy.”
“Well then?” He folded an arm around her shoulder and was about to squeeze her tight when she winced.
He turned, one knee facing her hip. “Vanessa?” he murmured. His voice turned concerned. There was no trace of humor lingering in his voice. “What happened?”
How could she tell him? “It’s nothing.” It was everything. His eyes narrowed. “I don’t think so.” With one finger, he tilted her chin up, tilted her head so it moved into the lone ray of glimmering moonlight shimmering down from the loft’s window.
She knew the moment he saw the bruise on her cheek. “I’ll be fine.”
Tender fingers, so gentle, brushed her hair back from her face. But his gaze had hardened. “You’re bleeding.”
“My cheek is, too?”
“Too?” Shifting again, he propped himself on one knee.
Looking her over a little more closely. “Vanessa, what happened?”
“I... I didn’t realize... ” Shame --- and the lethal glare in his eyes --- cut off her words. What would she do if he thought she was unworthy? Ever since her pa had died, she’d felt alone except for Clay. If he turned away from her, she’d have no one left. “Realize what?” His voice was hoarse. Urgent. Still he touched her, petting her hair, tracing the swelling on her cheek.
Against her will, the tears flowed again. Frustrated, she mopped them with her sleeve, then winced as the action brushed fabric across her back. “I... I can’t do this, Clay. I can’t say it.”
Clayton changed to a near crouch. Gone were all the traces of brotherly affection. In its place was everything that had made him a brilliant soldier. Determination. Fortitude. Strength. “Let me see you. Let me see your back.”
Clay’s voice was firm. It was the voice he used when ordering cowhands around. The tone he used when Lovey, Vanessa’s shepherd, forgot she was supposed to be working and there were still twenty head of cattle to bring in.
It was the tone Clay used with her brother Miles when Clay’s patience was at its wit’s end. He’d never spoken that way to her before. Ever.
Obediently, she turned her shoulders, closing her eyes at his sharp intake of breath. As he very gently touched her torn gown, she stiffened, then exhaled in relief when his touch didn’t hurt, it was so butterfly-quick.
“Who did this to you? Price? Was it Price?”
She turned back to face him, stunned to find him shaking. Stunned to see mist in his brown eyes. Almost roughly, he cradled her jaw with one of his hands. “Answer me, sweetheart.”
Sweetheart. He’d done that for years. Called her a whole host of endearments whenever they were alone. She supposed it was because a couple of months after they’d buried her daddy, she’d confided to Clayton how she missed the words. Her pa had been openly affectionate, her mother far less so. Clayton now called her “baby,” “darlin’,” “sweetheart,” and “honey.” Anything to make her smile. Anything to make her feel wanted.
Never had the words seemed anything but teasing. Never had they sounded as heartfelt as they did this minute.
“Vanessa, did your stepfather do this?”
She couldn’t lie. The truth hurt, almost as much as the belt had. Yet, lying to Clay would hurt worse. She nodded. Clayton looked at her for a good long moment, then, as if he made a decision, he stood up and carefully helped her to her feet. “Come here, honey.” Taking her hand, he led her to his room.
She’d seen it before. When Pa had gotten so sick, he’d asked Clay to build himself a nice suite of rooms in the back of the barn so their foreman could be within shouting distance of the house. Made up of two rooms, it had a bedroom and a small sitting area, complete with a stove. Her pa had insisted on that, since everyone knew Clayton Proffitt liked both his coffee and his privacy.
Her brother Miles said Clayton was uncannily self-sufficient. He often chose to eat by himself instead of eating with the ranch hands or joining the family in the dining room. She’d knocked on his door a time or two. Or fifty. He’d always come out to help her with her horse or to listen when she had a problem. More than once he’d made her tea as he listened to her prattle on about anything and everything. But now, as they entered his bedroom, Vanessa hardly had time to do more than inhale the scent of tobacco and mint before he motioned for her to sit. She perched atop his quilt, a crazy quilt she’d made for him four Christmases ago. After checking to see that his curtains were drawn, Clay lit a kerosene lamp. Then he crouched in front of her again. When he spied her cheek in the better light a look of such concern crossed his face that Vanessa felt a fresh surge of tears struggle to come forth. She bit her lip and hoped for strength.
“Van, honey... what happened? You’ve got to tell me the truth. At the moment, I’m thinking the worst.” If she said the words out loud, it would mean it had really happened. And that was too hard to come to grips with. “I... I can’t.”
“It would be best if you did.”
Those eyes of his, so gentle and soft brown, ended her struggle. Tears fell again. “Please, Clay. Not yet.” When she saw her hands were trembling, she pushed them under a fold in her skirt.
After a moment, he sat next to her, edging closer when he saw what she needed. “Come here, honey.”
With a sigh, Vanessa rested her head on his shoulder. She closed her eyes and breathed deep, taking in his scent, his warmth. Finding comfort in his powerful strength. Maybe he wouldn’t leave her when he found out the truth. Maybe, just maybe, everything was going to be okay.