Christmas in Cowboy Country (17 page)

Rowdy burst out the door, did his business, barked at the snow, and ran back in again, going in crazy circles on the rug.
“He likes the snow,” Stone said.
“I can see that.”
He took her jacket from her and hung it over a chair, pushing it near a baseboard heater. She was glad there was backup for the little woodstove in the corner.
Stone offered her a glass of wine, which she accepted. She wasn't very hungry after the lasagna, but she nibbled at the snack plate he put together for both of them, perching on a bar stool at the kitchenette counter. They chatted for a while. Not about the dance. It was as if they had never kissed, never held each other.
And there was that giddy redhead. That was still on her mind. She couldn't guess what Stone was thinking, though.
He kept a careful distance from her. Tired as she was, Annie was fine with that. She kept up the neutral small talk, twirling a lock of hair in her fingers as he got through the rest of his household routine in silence, feeding the dog and putting things away.
She moved to the love seat.
“Would you like another glass of wine?”
Annie yawned. She was feeling sleepy. And safe. Being in such a cozy space while a storm raged outside was great.
“Sure.” She held out her glass and he filled it halfway, bringing over the snack plate and setting it down before turning away. Rowdy sneaked a chunk of cheese off it before either of them could stop him.
Annie laughed, finishing the glass of wine so that she could rest her head on the back of the love seat. The cabin was blissfully warm. Before she knew it she had dozed off.
Her eyes opened. Rowdy was beside her, flopped on the folds of an afghan that she guessed Stone had thrown over her. Annie focused on the face of a clock across the room. She'd drifted off for no more than half an hour.
Stone was busy. Putting up a clothesline. Unless she was dreaming it.
“What are you doing?”
He made sure it was tight. “Guarding your virtue.”
“What? I can do that myself,” she said. She watched him throw a blanket over the clothesline.
“You can take the bed,” he offered. “I have a sleeping bag and a pad for the floor. This is a wall.”
“Is that really necessary?”
A smile played at the corners of his sensual mouth. “I don't have anyone to guard my virtue.”
Annie reached out and ruffled Rowdy's black and white fur. “What about your faithful dog?”
“Not in his job description.” Stone kept on with his task. “This blanket is going up and it's staying up, just in case you're suddenly overcome by flaming lust.”
Annie rolled her eyes, knowing he wasn't looking at her. He was pulling out the wrinkles in the blanket by dragging it along the clothesline.
“Just wanted to give you some privacy.”
She didn't know what to say. But it was gentlemanly of him to rig something up. Her dad, who would never know that she'd been here, would have appreciated it. Annie wasn't entirely sure that she did.
“Okay.” He stood back and looked at the makeshift wall. “You can get ready for bed.”
“What about you?”
“I changed while you dozed off.”
Annie checked him out more closely. So he had. Stone was wearing sweatpants and a long-sleeved T-shirt and thick clean socks. She looked at the puffy white bed. Identical items were laid out on it for her, many sizes too big.
“Your pajamas. Best I could do under the circumstances.”
“Thanks.” She couldn't bring herself to tell him that she usually slept in nothing but her underwear and a tank top. The situation was charged enough as it was.
He dimmed the light by the bed and went over to his side of the Great Wall of Blanket, getting into the sleeping bag on the floor and turning his back to her.
Rowdy jumped down from the love seat and investigated, sniffing at his master with the intent concern of a search-and-rescue dog.
“Scram,” Stone growled.
Rowdy obeyed the terse command and went back to Annie, wagging his tail.
Annie bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud and told him to lie down. She settled for the long-sleeved T-shirt and huge socks, and folded up the sweatpants at the bottom of the bed. Then she scrambled under the poufy comforter. She'd definitely gotten the better deal.
“Sweet dreams,” she said softly.
There was a moment of silence.
“Yeah. Same to you,” Stone muttered.
 
 
Annie didn't remember falling asleep. Daylight poured in the windows, brightening most of the cabin. But the blanket on the clothesline had kept the sun off the bed where she lay, utterly content. The storm had passed.
Stone was in the kitchen making noise.
“Are you up?” she called.
“Obviously.”
She guessed by the irritable edge in his voice that he hadn't been comfortable on the floor.
“I'll buy you breakfast,” she said coaxingly.
“No. I mean, there isn't any coffee or eggs or bread, and we do need to go out, but I'm buying.”
“If you insist.” She sat up and reached for the folded sweatpants, pulling them on and hanging on to the waistband so they didn't fall off. Then she came out, pushing the blanket aside.
Stone hadn't shaved. His jaw was shadowed with attractive dark stubble and his hair was tousled. He ran a hand through it, not looking at her.
“Gotta find my boots. Gotta get the snow off the truck. You can shower. Plenty of time.”
Out he went.
Annie shrugged, looking at his back as he closed the cabin door behind him. She might as well take him up on that. Two glasses of wine had her feeling just a tiny bit woozy this morning. A hot, pounding spray all over her body would take care of that. But she didn't want to wash her hair.
She scrabbled through her jacket pockets for a hairpin, finding a long one that would hold up her mane for a few minutes. When she came out, she dressed quickly and joined Stone outside. He glanced at her, frowning as if she looked different.
“Nice hairdo,” he said gruffly. He seemed to mean it.
Annie had forgotten to take down the careless knot. A few damp tendrils of hair still clung to her cheeks. She pulled out the hairpin and let her hair tumble down to keep her neck warm.
Stone went past her, whistling to the dog to follow, and put Rowdy inside. Annie was already in his truck, enjoying the heat blasting from the sleek dashboard console. He soon joined her.
“Anyplace in particular you'd like to have breakfast?”
“Jelly Jam is always good.”
He nodded and rolled out.
Main Street was virtually empty of people, although the town snowplow had cleared it. Her red truck was pretty much buried as a result.
“Looks like they're open,” she said happily. Stone pulled his vehicle into a cleared spot and they went in.
He ordered the biggest breakfast on the menu, and finally smiled when a waitress brought over a huge jug of hot coffee. There were more people coming in. The town was waking up later than usual. Stone poured Annie's coffee first and then filled his own mug.
“Whew. I need this.”
“Thanks for last night,” she said, sipping her own. She looked over his shoulder, not really seeing the man who'd just come in.
But Tyrell Bennett saw her. He stared at Stone and at Annie, until she felt the force of his gaze and set down her cup.
“What's the matter?” Stone asked.
“My dad just walked in.”
Marshall Stone turned around. But Tyrell had already gone.
“Annie. It's not like you're a teenager. And nothing happened. Just explain, okay? I can't.”
She looked out the plate glass window of Jelly Jam, swallowing hard when her father's pickup roared by. There was a tall blue spruce tied inside the back.
He didn't look in her direction.
Annie sank her head into her hands and closed her eyes. “This isn't going to be easy.”
Chapter 19
“L
et's go,” Stone said. He put several bills on the table to cover the meal and the tip. “I'll help you dig out the truck.”
Annie shook her head. “I can do it.”
Stone got up and put on his jacket. “Suit yourself. But I really don't think—”
With the barest nod, she indicated the other customers at tables a little distance away. No one was looking at them, but that didn't change the fact that Velde was a small town. “I'd rather not get into it here,” she muttered.
Stone was silent as he escorted her through the doors of Jelly Jam out to the snowy pavement. “How about here?”
Annie walked ahead, knowing that he would quickly catch up to her. “No,” she said when he did. “Just no.”
“Mind if I ask if you talked to him about me? Like, after the dance?”
“Actually, I didn't.” Annie stopped and turned to face him. “I just told him that I had a good time, not with anyone special.”
“Oh.”
“Last night, when the deputy offered to contact my folks, I only told him to say that I was staying with a friend. I never gave a name. So for my dad, seeing me with you first thing in the morning—it just looks bad, that's all. I have to figure out how to tell him nothing happened.”
“You sure that's the way to go?” His dark eyes held her gaze. He wasn't smiling. At least he didn't think it was funny.
“I have to be honest with him,” Annie insisted.
“What if he thinks you're not telling the truth?”
“Please. Both my parents can read me like a book. Although I would say my mom's better at it than he is.”
“That's unfortunate,” Stone said, scuffing snow with his boot. “Because he already doesn't like me and I have yet to meet your mom.”
“Whatever. They know I have my own life. I mean, I did until I broke my leg and had to move home.”
“Then what happened?”
“I didn't date anyone from here, not when I was hobbling around, if that's what you mean. It's just that—well, he has to adjust to the fact that I can. When I was working in Vail and Aspen, I never had to deal with guys meeting my dad. But I was never serious about anyone, so it didn't matter.”
He studied her for a few seconds, his strong jaw set and his mouth in a firm line. “And now it does. That's interesting.”
Annie made a frustrated sound as she whirled away and strode on. Her emphatic steps began to slide on an icy stretch. She struggled for balance, about to slip. Stone caught her by the waist and set her down on a dry patch of sidewalk that someone had shoveled off.
“Sorry,” he said flatly. “I didn't mean to get you in trouble.”
“It's not like that. I have to talk to him, that's all. By myself.”
They walked to her truck without saying anything more.
Stone looked it over. “Not too bad. I suppose you can do it yourself.”
“Wouldn't be the first time.”
She heard the muffled ringing of a cell phone and realized it was his. Stone took it from his pocket, looked at the number, and frowned. He put the phone away.
“Aren't you going to answer it?”
“Some other time,” he said casually. “I'm with you.”
That remark could be interpreted in more than one way. Annie didn't want to think about it too much. “You should go.”
“All right.” He stepped back as they said their good-byes, and she felt a pang of longing, realizing that she had been unconsciously expecting some sort of touch or kiss. Stone's nod was all he would offer as they parted company. He went down the street, walking as briskly as the slippery sidewalks would allow.
Annie had an uneasy feeling about the call he hadn't taken. It wasn't like anyone needed the services of a surveyor after a snowfall. Who had wanted to talk to him?
Hmm. If he'd wanted her to know, he would have told her. There were just too many things she still didn't know about Marshall Stone.
Annie climbed into the back of her truck and cleared off the tool chest that held a folding shovel. She straightened before she unlatched the tool chest, watching Stone stride around a corner. She figured he was going back to the restaurant. His truck was still there. Thank goodness Jelly Jam was nowhere near the town square, where her dad was probably helping to put up the blue spruce.
Annie clambered back out and got to work. The snow was nowhere near as fluffy as it looked. It had begun to melt, making it heavy, and a lot of it had turned to chunky ice where the sun didn't reach. She cut through the chunks with the edge of the shovel and smashed them into small bits. It didn't take her long to free the wheels. She opened the door and tossed the shovel into the passenger-side foot well and got in.
Time to face the music.
 
 
Annie circled the town square from a distance. Just as she'd thought, her dad was there, directing a two-man crew installing the blue spruce from the Bennett ranch. Tyrell was giving instructions and not doing any heavy lifting.
Annie found a parking space behind some evergreen shrubs, hoping he wouldn't see her until the installation was completed. She left the key in the ignition and kept the heat on, then switched on the radio, listening to the weather report and then the news. No more snow for a while. Peace on earth at the moment. Good enough.
She leaned her head back, closing her eyes for a little while that turned out to be longer than she thought.
A rap on the window snapped her out of her doze.
Tyrell chuckled as Annie rolled it down. “Did I wake you up?”
“No,” she said defensively. “I was just tired, that's all.” Annie wished she could take the words back the second they were out of her mouth. She didn't want him to think she'd been up all night. As if she wasn't in hot water already.
Her father nodded and made no reply. He moved away and she saw him go around the back of the truck in her side mirror. Soon enough, he'd reached the passenger-side door, which he opened, climbing in.
“The spruce looks good,” Annie said.
“It's a fine tree.” Her father paused for a moment. “Now then. We need to talk.”
Annie braced herself. Tyrell had a way of getting to the point. And he did.
“It's none of my business where you were last night. You're not a child. And that's all I have to say about that.”
No questions. No accusations. She quickly glanced at her father. He looked straight ahead through the truck's windshield.
“I just wish you trusted me enough to tell me the truth. But maybe you felt you couldn't.” Tyrell looked at her steadily. “Unless there isn't anything to tell.”
“I didn't plan to—it just sort of happened. Darla didn't answer and I couldn't reach anyone else and Nell had a friend over and the snow was really coming down, so . . . I ended up with him.”
“Where?”
Her father's nonchalance didn't last long, no matter what he said. Annie suppressed a smile.
“Nell's rental cabin,” she answered. “He insisted that I take the bed. He slept on the floor with the dog.”
“Oh.”
The younger man from the tree crew, a heavyset guy in a padded flannel jacket, was heading their way. He waved when he caught sight of them behind the windshield and called to Tyrell.
“Be right there,” her father called back.
“Aren't you done with the installation?” she asked.
“Apparently not. Anyway, there's one more thing, Annie.”
“What?”
“I knew you didn't pick up that information about surveying online. Our Internet's been down for a week.”
Annie looked at him sideways, biting her lip. Busted. It was no use trying to act innocent. “Shoot. I never noticed.”
“Next time keep your story straight.” Tyrell opened the door and got out. “From what I hear, Stone is quite the dancer.”
“Dad—”
He shut the truck door before she could finish the sentence. So her father had guessed at some of what was going on even before this morning and had kept his mouth shut. Now, that she never would have expected.
She ventured a smile when he looked back at her. Tyrell made her wait for a few seconds before a faint smile creased his face. They understood each other. She couldn't ask for anything more.
The man in the flannel jacket gave her a polite nod, and commanded her father's attention as they walked back to the town square.
Relieved, Annie rested her hands on the wheel, thinking that the conversation could have gone very differently. She collected herself, and put the gearshift in drive, rolling away from the curb and turning down a different street.
Then she slammed on the brakes. A half block ahead, Stone's gleaming black truck shot through an intersection with no light or stop sign. She saw his passenger for only a second or two. The redhead.
There went her good mood. Annie reversed and went in the opposite direction.
Then she pulled over. She wasn't going to go back to the ranch or to the town square. No, she was going to stay on the side streets until she calmed down.
And do what?
she asked herself.
Annie chastised herself for not thinking of Mrs. Pearson sooner. She would go by and make sure the old lady and her husband were all right. If they needed shoveling out, Annie needed the exercise. The frigid air might just cool off the heat of her temper.
So Kerry had called Stone. Now she knew why he hadn't answered. Annie felt like a fool.
 
 
There weren't many cars in the part of town where the Pearsons lived. The houses were mostly small and set on large lots, built back when land was cheap. No wonder Shep Connally had been trying to make friends with Mrs. Pearson. The area was home to a lot of seniors whose children had grown and gone decades ago.
Annie noticed the quiet. There were no kids making snowmen or forts or having snowball fights. No snowblowers, either, but then it hadn't been a major storm and the bright sun would help melt a lot of it. She parked and made her way down the sidewalk, waving to a couple of hale-looking old guys in trapper hats who were out with big red shovels. Maybe Mrs. Pearson had hired someone to do her walkway.
She stopped at their mailbox. There were footsteps in the undisturbed snow, only one set, going to the door. Probably a woman's. They were neat and narrow. Maybe a friend had stopped in.
Annie glimpsed the old lady through a window, waving at her. She waved back and hurried up the walkway to the porch. Mrs. Pearson had the door open before she'd raised her gloved hand to knock on it.
“Good morning, Annie. How nice to see you. Would you like some coffee?”
“No, thanks. Just had some.” Annie stepped into the small foyer and glanced toward the table, where a thirtyish woman with short, nut-brown hair was sitting, filling out forms. She looked up from her paperwork and gave a friendly nod.
“But you can stay for a bit, can't you?” Mrs. Pearson asked Annie.
“Sure.”
“Then take off those warm things and come meet Jane Generosa. She's a visiting nurse from the county. Nell contacted her. We're finding out about some benefits and programs that could be very helpful.”
“That's great. Hi, Jane.” Annie unzipped her jacket, stuffing her gloves into a pocket before she hung the jacket up on a hook.
“I'll take a cup of coffee,” Jane said. “Good morning, Annie.”
It wasn't only the sun that brightened the interior of the little house. The visiting nurse's cheerful nature was clear from her broad smile and self-assurance. Nell had obviously forgotten to mention anything about this last night, but then Nell had been pretty cheerful herself. Annie made a mental note to stop by the saloon and catch up with her.
Jane returned her attention to the forms, obviously finishing up her morning's work.
Annie sensed immediately that the nurse was thoroughly capable, exactly what both Pearsons needed right now.
“You can sit there, dear.” Mrs. Pearson indicated a chair across the table for Annie and went into the kitchen.
Jack's rumbling voice issued from inside it. “I took care of the coffee, Elsie. You don't have to fuss.”
“All right then.”
The elderly couple reentered, Elsie behind Jack, who was holding a cup on a saucer. He set it down with care as Jane Generosa collected the papers and stacked them on one side. “Thank you, Mr. Pearson.” She relaxed and leaned back a little, her plump shape filling the chair.
“Call me Jack.”
Elsie put creamer and sugar on the table. She gave Annie a tiny, crinkly wink, no doubt noticing Annie's surprise at seeing her husband in such a good mood.
“Glad you could make it to Velde,” Annie began, speaking to Jane. “No one was expecting this much snow.”
Jane lightened her coffee and sipped it appreciatively. “The main roads got cleared pretty fast. Of course, I always check the highway report before I head out.”
“Good idea.” Now Annie understood her dad's early arrival in Velde. He must have cut and loaded the tree yesterday, and moved the truck into the garage when the snow started really coming down. She wondered who had helped him.
The four of them chatted for a little while. Then Jane gathered up her papers and put them into a canvas briefcase, sorting them out into the right pockets. “Thanks for the coffee. Too bad I have to leave,” she sighed. “This has been a really pleasant morning. If you have any more questions, please feel free to contact me.”
“We will,” Elsie said. “But I do have a question before you go. On the home health aide.”

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