Keeping Christmas. Marisa Carroll

Keeping Christmas - Marisa Carroll

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his stature, and Beau trusted him with his prized mares, knowing they were in good hands.

      “I’ll keep an eye out for the girl,” Pony said quietly. “She’ll come to no harm here.”

      “No one else is to know she’s on the place,” Beau stated, his gaze encompassing the group. “If I hear otherwise, there’ll be hell to pay.”

      The four men nodded in unison, and Beau relaxed his stance. They were to be trusted, he was dead certain of that. He wouldn’t have allowed them room in his bunkhouse if he weren’t. Wearing a blue uniform for two years had taught him that the men surrounding him were his first defense. If he couldn’t trust the troops he fought with, he might as well lay down his gun and call it quits. He’d chosen his ranch hands with the same thought in mind.

      “She’s going to clean stalls this morning,” Beau stated, aware of the harsh glance shot in his direction by Pony. “Her choice,” he emphasized. “I figure it’ll take the best part of the morning to round up the yearlings and get them into the near pasture. Rad and Joe, you’ll follow Pony’s lead in sorting them out.” He turned to his trainer. “You know what I’m looking for. Pick the best. I’ll look over the rest for the sale.”

      Beau turned his gaze to Shay. “Keep an eye on things in the barn and check that pasture gate. We can’t take a chance on losing any of those yearlings.”

      With nods of agreement, the men left the corral and Beau glanced over his shoulder toward the main barn. He’d be willing to bet that Maggie had been listening to his words. It had been his intent that she feel secure, and unless he missed his guess she was just beyond the double doors this very minute. He’d left her with pitchfork in hand at the far end of the line of stalls. With any luck, she’d be done with the chore in an hour or so.

      It would give him time to sort out the back room, just off his kitchen, a place where she could sleep undisturbed.

      She’d only caught one name—Pony. And wasn’t that appropriate for a man working with horses, Maggie thought. She wondered which one of the four he was. He’d be in charge this morning. Her thoughts turned to the yearlings, those frolicking creatures who raced the wind with no thought of restraint or fear of danger. She’d come upon a herd of mares and their offspring, yearlings and weanlings alike, late the evening before, watching them as they bunched together beneath the shelter of overspreading tree limbs.

      Now they were to be separated from the mares. And she wondered which of those carefree beauties Beau Jackson would keep, and which would be sold. The muscles in her arms flexed as she pitched a fork loaded with manure into the wheelbarrow. Maybe he’d let her help with the yearlings, she thought wistfully. Her mouth pulled down. Probably not. He’d think her too stupid, fit only for scut work, just like Pa had said.

      She inhaled deeply. It was up to her to prove him wrong—that is, if she decided to stay on here for a few days. He’d offered her refuge, and she was mightily tempted. Too far away from the farm for Pa to find her right off the bat. And if those four ranch hands were true to their word, she’d be safe…for a while.

      The wheelbarrow was heavy, and she took a fresh grip on the handles, a grunt escaping her lungs as she hefted the weight. The manure pile was fifty feet or so beyond the barn and she trudged there, her arms aching from the punches they’d received the day before yesterday. Three more trips, she figured, would do the trick, and then she’d spread fresh straw and take a gander at the rest of the barn.

      The room was small, but adequate, Beau decided. The cot against the inside wall held a thin mattress, and he winced as he thought of the feather tick topping his own bed, in a room directly over this one. If she left the door open, she’d get a breeze through the kitchen. Otherwise, the air would be stifling. He eyed the outside wall. Maybe if he cut a hole, put in a window….

      A shadow fell across the floor and he turned. Maggie stood in the doorway, peering past him into the storage room. A sense of relief washed through him. He’d wondered, just for a while this afternoon, if she’d cut and run. The yearlings were contained in the pasture, and their antics had kept his ranch hands hopping. One foot propped on the fence, he’d watched them sort through the herd, his mind only half aware of the melee before him. He’d walked through the barn, searched the tack room, even checked the loft, without any sign of Maggie.

      A stifled sound from behind him had caused him to turn his head, looking upward at the open loft window. She’d been there, only half visible in the shadows, watching the yearlings evade the men who sorted through their numbers, following Pony’s shouted instructions. One hand covered her mouth as she smothered another laugh. And he’d relaxed, chagrined at his relief.

      Now, she faced him from the doorway. “Is this where you’re gonna put me?” she asked bluntly.

      “It’s not much,” he hedged, tucking his hands into his pockets. And wasn’t that an understatement. “There’s a cot and a table.” He slid one hand from his pocket to wave at the shelves against one wall. “You can put your gear there. I’ll get you a lamp.”

      She nodded. “I’ll need one if I expect to see anything.”

      Almost, he caught a glimmer of humor in her eyes as he met her gaze. She stepped back and he walked past her, careful to maintain his distance. She was like a flighty young colt, all arms and legs, poised to shift and turn should he step too closely. Her forehead glistened with sweat, and she smelled of the barn, a mixture of fresh manure and animal scent. Yet, beneath that pungent aroma was a hint of woman, snagging his attention, drawing him unwillingly.

      “I’ll find you something else to wear. I doubt you brought much with you,” Beau surmised. He allowed his eyes to measure her briefly. “You’re smaller than my housekeeper, but I think something of hers might do.”

      “I wear pants, mostly.” Her chin rose defiantly. “I’ve only got a dress on now, ’cause that’s what I was sleepin’ in when I left home.”

      She slept in a dress? “You always sleep in your clothes?”

      “Whatever’s handy,” she retorted. “My pa don’t hold with buyin’ any more stuff than he has to.” One sleeve had fallen to cover her hand and she bent her head as she rolled the cuff, hiding the ragged edge from his view.

      “Then I’ll ask Pony if he has anything he’d like to give you. He’s not much taller than you are.”

      “I don’t need any handouts, mister. I’m doin’ fine, just like I am.”

      He shifted, thinking of the boiler full of water he’d put to heat on the kitchen range. “I thought you might like to have a bath and some clean clothes, what with hiding out and not…”

      “I’ll wash up in a bucket.” Her words left no room for argument, and yet he plunged ahead, unwilling for any female to be so bereft of simple comforts.

      “How about after supper? I’ll fill the tub right here in your room. There’s a lock on the inside of the door.” He waved his hand for emphasis, pointing to where a brass hasp hung from the wooden door.

      She stepped closer, peering at the shiny apparatus, then at the doorjamb, where he’d installed the rest of the lock. “You can jam a spike through there,” he pointed out. “It’ll hold firm.” His jaw clenched at her wary look. “You’ll be safe. I promise.”

      “You got a towel I can borrow?”

      He caught a fleeting look of yearning in her eyes as she looked past him toward the range, where steam rose from the wash boiler. “Clean towels and a bar of soap.” Her eyes narrowed as she shifted her gaze back to his face.

      “I’ll do extra, maybe clean up the garden for you, to pay my way. I swept up the barn and cleaned your tack room this afternoon.” She inhaled deeply and then her shoulders rose and fell in a gesture of nonchalance. “Guess I wouldn’t mind havin’ a bath. You needn’t bother about the clothes, though. I got a shift in my bundle. I’ll wear it while I wash out my things in the bath water. You can toss them over the porch rail for me overnight,

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