Keeping Christmas. Marisa Carroll

Keeping Christmas - Marisa Carroll

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using a scant portion of his supply, and heard the sound he made deep in his chest. Looking up quickly, she caught a look of anger in his eyes, a narrowed, dark glimpse into the depths of his soul. “I’m sorry if I used too much butter, mister.” If he was angry about that, she could scrape it off and do without. Butter was a luxury, anyway, Ma had always said. It brought good money from the store in town. No sense wasting it on family.

      He shook his head. “Use all you want. There’s more where that came from.” He pulled out a chair and sat across from her. He’d poured himself a cup of coffee, and she watched as he poured a generous amount of cream into it. The cream swirled and blended and he reached for a spoon, completing the process with a quick stir. Then he pushed the pitcher toward her.

      “Go ahead, help yourself.” His voice was gruff, even to his own ears, and Beau cleared his throat. He’d never seen such a wary creature in female form before. She was clean from the neck up and the wrists down, revealing fine skin, tanned to a golden hue. His curiosity was running rampant, becoming more aroused each moment by the creature he’d discovered. More woman than girl, now that he had a good look at her, with full breasts beneath the nondescript garment she wore. Her face held a piquant beauty, with wide-set eyes and a narrow nose. The bruising was dark around one eye, closing it to his view, but the other was dark blue, the orb circled with black. Her mouth was swollen and scraped, and she bit gingerly at the bread she held.

      The thought that the brute who had damaged her flesh might have loosened teeth in the process angered Beau almost beyond his control. His hands tightened their hold on his cup, then flexing his fingers, he tightened them into fists. He’d give a bundle to lay hold of the man who had hurt her. She glanced up at him, and he caught the hint of fear she could not hide, as if she must guard against any sudden moves on his part.

      Beau leaned back in his chair, then forced the corners of his mouth to curve upward. “More coffee?” he asked. “If I’d gathered the eggs this morning, I could’ve scrambled some for you. Never did get the knack of frying them without breaking the yolks.” Nonsense talk, all of it designed to help his guest relax. Yet he saw no results.

      She ate cautiously, quietly, steadily, her hand holding the fork as if it were a weapon, clutching it against her palm. Ever vigilant, she was poised on the edge of her chair, alert to his every movement. “I’d take more coffee, mister,” she said after a moment, pushing her cup across the table.

      She looked revived, her movements more limber, and the routine of eating had slowed. “Thanks for the food,” she said, almost grudgingly, as he rose to pour steaming coffee into her cup. Her mouth pursed as she poured cream into the strong brew, and he caught a glimpse of satisfaction in her half smile. “Maybe I can milk your cow for you. To help pay for my breakfast, I mean.”

      Beau leaned against the kitchen cabinet, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Why don’t you stick around for a day or so, just till you get your feet under you?” Her gaze shot in his direction and she hesitated, her cup held midair.

      “You need another hand around here?” She’d seen the three men near the barn, and seen a fourth ringing the bell. Surely he had help enough to run the place. And yet, hope rose within her breast. If she could hide here, just for a while. Maybe sleep in the loft and earn her grub. His lower lip protruded a bit and his eyes scanned her. She sat up straighter in the chair, then pushed away from the table and stood erect.

      “I’m strong, mister. I can muck stalls and tend stock like a man.”

      “What’s your name, miss?” he asked quietly.

      She hesitated, a bit too long it seemed, for he frowned. “Don’t lie to me, honey. I can spot a phony a mile away.”

      “I’m Maggie,” she said, tilting her chin a bit, allowing him to look directly into her one good eye. “And I’m not a phony. If you don’t need any more help around here, I’ll earn my breakfast and be on my way.”

      He walked toward her and halted just beyond her reach. One hand stretched forth and she looked down at it, then back up at the somber look he wore. “My name’s Beau Jackson,” he offered.

      The man wanted to shake her hand. Maggie shivered at the thought of giving him the chance to drag her against him. Yet, maybe that wasn’t his aim. He’d had plenty of chance to haul her around if he’d been set on that course, and he’d kept his distance. Now, he held out his hand like a gentleman might, and she lifted her own to press her palm against his, allowing her fingers to curl around the wide expanse. He held her smaller hand in his, looking down for a moment. Then with a gentle movement, he squeezed, and released her from his grip.

      She drew back, rubbing her palm against the side of her dress. It was warm, holding the heat from his flesh, as though the memory of his hard calluses somehow remained. “I’ll go clean your barn, mister,” she told him, anxious suddenly to be away from his presence. He was too big, too close for comfort.

      He nodded, sliding his big hand back into his pocket. Maggie backed from him, then turned to the door. On the porch, visible through the screen, her woebegone companions sat, waiting for whatever she might offer them. Guilt struck her and she flinched. “I forgot,” she said, turning quickly to face her benefactor. “You said I could feed Cat and Maisie.”

      “I’ll get it,” he told her. Beau reached for a bowl on the shelf, dumping its contents into the scrap pan in the sink. “More of the beef left over from last night,” he told her. “Never seen a dog yet that didn’t like stew meat.” He tore up two slices of bread, adding them to the pan, then reached for a crock on top of the cookstove. What looked to be bacon grease spilled over the whole offering, and he carried it toward the door.

      She opened the screen and held it wide for him to pass. He nodded his thanks. “I’ll get some milk for the dog,” he offered. “Looks like she’ll be dropping a litter before too long.”

      The animals beheld the pan of food for a moment, wary of his scent, Beau supposed, then gave in to the hunger they could not hide. Ever watchful, they shared the pan, Cat finally crouching as her balance gave way.

      “I thank you,” Maggie said with polite formality, bowing her head. “They haven’t had much to eat lately.”

      And neither have you. She was a prickly little thing, but her loyalty to the creatures who depended on her gave away a soft side of her nature Beau planned to exploit. He’d keep her here, for a while at least. Help her get cleaned up and find something decent for her to wear. And then, if it was the last thing he ever did, he’d find out who’d beaten the tar out of the girl.

      Chapter Two

      “I don’t want any one of you touching that girl. And I sure don’t want any of you looking her over,” Beau added for good measure. “She’s young and on her own, and I’ve told her she can stay here for a while.” He paused to cross his arms across his chest as he scanned the four men before him.

      Joe Armstrong, a strapping youth who lived up to his name, grinned and nodded readily. “That’s all right with me. She’s not much to look at, from what I saw, boss. Reckon I’ll stick to Betty.”

      “You just better hope Betty sticks to you,” Radley Bennett scoffed. “She’s lookin’ for a man with some money.” He caught Beau’s eye and sobered. “I hear you, boss. The girl looks like she’s already had too much attention from someone.”

      “She’s on the run,” Beau said bluntly. “She needs a place to stay, and I don’t want her feeling threatened by anyone on my ranch. She’s to be left alone.”

      Shay agreed silently, nodding his head, dark eyes flashing, his mouth tight. Beau expected no more from the man. His face was scarred, a puckered slash marring the skin beneath his right eye, drawing his mouth up a bit when he spoke. Something he did rarely, keeping to himself, remaining silent, for the most part. But the man put in a full day’s work and Beau had found no fault with him. His name was Shay, but beyond that, he was an enigma. There would be no hassle coming from Shay. Beau would bet his

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