Keeping Christmas. Marisa Carroll

Keeping Christmas - Marisa Carroll

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squatted in the wide doorway and held out his hand.

      “Come here, girl,” he coaxed, balancing on the balls of his feet. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

      The dog backed up a few inches and growled again, a menacing warning. Yet her ears twitched forward, and if canine eyes could be called hopeful, Beau decided this one’s could qualify. His eye caught a movement in the shadows just beyond the dog, and his brow lifted in surprise.

      “Well, I’ll be—looks like you got yourself a friend, honey.” His words were soft, meant to pacify the bedraggled animal before him, and for a moment, she relaxed her stance, her tail moving from between her hind legs to become a flag at half-mast. Crouching beside the feed barrel, a cat shifted and lunged to its feet, wavering uncertainly for a second or two, until it caught its balance.

      “I’d say you’ve got a problem, kitty.” Beau felt his brow furrow and knew a moment of pity as he watched the gray cat move beyond the dog’s shadow. Three legs held the creature erect, a scarred area, bare of hair, revealing the site of the fourth missing limb. The cat balanced on its one remaining foreleg beside the dog and watched Beau with stoic indifference.

      It was a stand-off, one he could not afford to continue. The dog would either attack or back down, and it was time to give her a chance to make that decision. Beau stood slowly, one hand on the butt of his gun. “You going to let me pass, dog? Or do we have to do this the hard way?”

      The dog’s back ridged in protest as Beau spoke and her lips drew back over white teeth, even as a low, threatening growl announced her position.

      “Damn. This isn’t my first choice, pooch. But I can’t let you take a chunk out of me, can I?” Beau drew his gun carefully, even as he reached for a rope that hung on the wall. If the dog lunged, he could fend it off with the heavy coil of rope, but if he couldn’t manage to chase it from the barn, he’d probably have to put a bullet in its head. And that didn’t sit well with him.

      Not only was he opposed to putting down an animal unless there was no other choice, but it was a hell of a way to start the day. Especially since he hadn’t even had his breakfast. He took one step closer, prepared for the snarl that erupted from the animal.

      What he wasn’t prepared for was the sight of a bare foot descending from the hayloft. It barely touched the top step of the ladder before its mate moved lower, and he was exposed to the sight of curving calves and slender feet. A drab, colorless skirt fell to cover the feminine limbs as their owner scampered to the barn floor and whirled to face him.

      “Don’t you shoot my dog. She’s just scared you’ll hurt her.” The girl stepped forward, shielding the pair of animals, her narrowed eyes glittering defiance. Dark hair hung in disarray, its snarled length falling over her shoulders and partially covering her face. She snatched at the unruly mop and peered up at him.

      “Who beat the tar out of you?” Beau asked, his voice quiet, even as his stomach roiled in disgust. She hadn’t narrowed her eyes at him purposely. One was almost shut, its lid puffed and purpled, a bruise covering most of her cheek. Blood stained the corner of her mouth and her lips were swollen and discolored.

      “None of your business.” The dog moved to nudge its nose against the girl’s hand and Beau watched as her fingers spread to cover the furry head. “Just let us get by and we won’t bother you none.” The cat stood again, and hobbled to lean against the girl’s bare leg. She glanced down and reached for the wounded creature, her movement swift, her gaze returning quickly to Beau.

      “I don’t think I can do that, ma’am,” he said quietly.

      “I didn’t steal nothin’,” she told him sharply. “I just took a nap in your loft. We didn’t touch anything.”

      “I wasn’t worried about that.” What he was concerned about was getting her and her menagerie better acquainted with the idea of eating breakfast.

      She watched him warily. “If you’ll move out of the way, mister, we’ll be gone faster than you can blink.” She took one step toward him, the dog moving to her side, the cat creeping up to wind itself around the back of the girl’s neck.

      “You got any belongings, miss?” Surely she hadn’t arrived in his barn without some sort of baggage, aside from the creatures she protected.

      Her eye twitched and she hunched her shoulders, glancing to where the ladder led to the loft. “I left my stuff up there. Forgot it.”

      Beau nodded. “Why don’t you go up and get it, and I’ll see what I can rustle up for breakfast for you and your critters.”

      Stock-still, she watched him, her head turning a bit as she gauged his considerable length, her gaze finally coming to rest on the gun he held. “You gonna kill my dog?”

      “Not till I feed her,” Beau said, sliding the pistol back into its holster.

      “I don’t take somethin’ for nuthin’,” she said firmly. “I’ll earn the food.”

      He hesitated, but only for a moment. He’d have to let her call the shots, most likely. Otherwise, she’d be gone in a heartbeat once he turned his back. “All right, you can do that. Come on up to the house and I’ll find some grub. Then you can work for a while in the garden, if you want to.”

      Her chin stuck out mutinously. “I’d rather clean stalls.”

      Beau swallowed a chuckle as she stood her ground, then shrugged. “That’s up to you. I just need to have the potatoes dug and the rest of the onions pulled.” At her glare, he relented. “Hey, if you’d rather clean stalls, by all means, have at it.”

      She turned away, reaching for one of the pitchforks on the wall and he stilled her hand with a word. “No.” It was a firm command, and she was obviously used to the harsh tone he used, for she turned quickly, her expression fearful. “You can earn your food after you eat it, and after your animals get fed.”

      Her head nodded slowly, her hand returned to clutch at the side of her dress and she waited. “Go ahead, mister. I’ll follow you up to the house.”

      “Is your dog going to latch on to my leg when I turn away?” he asked, amusement coloring his words, hoping to lull her into conversation. He offered a smile and was stunned as she backed from him again.

      “Maisie won’t bite you if I tell her not to.” She touched the dog’s head and the animal sat quietly by her side. “Go ahead on. We’ll follow you.”

      Beau turned away, walking briskly toward his house, the silence behind him tempting him to look back. She was a fey creature, without much to recommend her. Somebody had trounced her good from the looks of it. And unless he missed his guess, she’d gone hours, maybe days, without food. It was no wonder she was wary of him, with his gun slung around his waist. He’d only worn it in case he encountered the snake he’d spotted last night. Rattlers were rare around the house and barn, but he wasn’t about to take any chances.

      He hunched his shoulders and then stretched upward, bringing sore muscles into play. Damn, his day was shot all to hell and back and he’d hardly had time to rub the sleep from his eyes.

      Maggie moved behind him, matching her steps to his, scampering as he outpaced her. Cat clung to her hair, balancing across her neck, and Maggie reached up to grasp the animal’s hind legs. Beside her, Maisie moved cautiously, and as they approached the back porch of the ranch house, the dog halted and growled a warning. Maggie touched the shaggy head and looked down.

      “Your dog not partial to men?” The rancher stood on the porch and turned to face her. “She can stay out here. Hell, you can all stay out here if you like. Or come on in. It makes no matter to me.” He turned from her and opened the screened door, walking into the house.

      “We’ll eat on the porch,” Maggie said, raising her voice so as to be heard. The screened door slammed and she climbed the steps with care, her feet tender from the long hours of walking on rough ground. She should have snatched up her shoes when she’d left, but Pa had been rustling

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