Authors: Arthur Mitchell
“Are you okay? Let me get some help,” she whispers, reaching for his hand.
Dinkie brushes her away. There's a nasty gash along his bicep. The bull's horn has torn clear through his shirt.
Up ahead, just beyond the corner of the shed, several men are yelling. Her heart sinks, slightly slower when she realizes they aren't cries of pain, but surprise.
The bull's snorts mix with their commotion. The obvious struggle goes on for awhile, until it abruptly stops – probably because the men have managed to wrangle it back into its stables.
Damn! This wasn't supposed to happen again. He's brushing me off, and I don't know what to do.
He's blaming me for everything. If it gets to his boss...
She turns toward the sound of an engine roaring behind her. It's the sound of her worst nightmare coming into existence.
Brax's large SUV screams to a stop.
He leaps out the door without his hat, wearing the most intense mask she's ever seen.
“Dinkie. Hold still, man. I better get you to a doctor.”
“Let me fucking go!” The older man snaps, mere inches from whacking his boss in the head. “I've suffered bigger cuts than this. Respectfully, sir, you got bigger fish to fry than looking after me.”
“I'm not sure what you're talking about.” The rancher frowns. “Go home. Have Pete or Charlie drive you. I can't let you work the rest of the day until you get that patched up.”
“Only thing that needs to be patched around here is her screw ups. Yeah, boss, the truth hurts. But somebody's gotta say it anyway.” Glaring, he steps past Brax.
Just before he's out of range, Brax's arm shoots out. Dinkie spins with the fabric, until he's face to face with his boss.
“Listen. I don't care how hurt you are. If you gotta problem, then you talk to me in private. Not in front of her. I'll take care of this, and you take care of your own damned business.”
Looking much paler, Dinkie falls from his grasp. He runs off without another word, holding his wounded arm.
Shit. Please, let him go easy on me. I didn't mean any of this.
“Come inside the house. We're going to figure something out right now. This has to stop.”
Following him to his truck is her only option. Making her feet move in unison with his feels harder than forcing the gate across the gap.
It's a short, tense ride to the house. On the way up the path, Sadie walks in front of him, feeling the fire hurling from his eyes.
“Sit down. Before I say anything else, you have to know that I'm not gonna give up on you. I'm not going to stop helping you out.”
“Maybe I don't want your help.”
That's a lie.
Her thoughts turn jagged, piercing her mind with fear and disgust.
“This isn't an even exchange. I can't even close a fricking fence. What good am I here?”
No answer. Brax settles his fist on the smooth table across from her, inhaling the silence around them.
“Not much. Not yet, anyway. We've learned that you aren't cut out for the work outdoors.”
“Great. That makes me feel so much better.” She hates the flood of sarcasm pouring out her mouth, but there's no stopping it.
“I told you I'd give you another chance. I'm a man of my word, Sadie. Starting tomorrow, let's see how well you do keeping the house clean and preparing food. Do you have any experience at all with those things? Think. Think hard.”
She closes her eyes for a moment. A vague outline of a grungy stove top flashes in her mind.
She leans over it, carefully measuring powdery spices. At least they seem like spices.
But spices shouldn't require the kind of protection she remembers. A slim mask stretches across her mouth and nose as she cooks. It's not enough to keep her from smelling the awful fumes rising toward her face.
The memory fades with a sigh.
“I think so. I know how to use a stove and I can measure, at least.”
“Good. We've gotten off to a rocky start putting you to work, but there's plenty of time to turn it around.” He reaches for her hand.
The movement shocks her. His grip is strong, domineering, and soothing all at once, a rugged blend of contrasts – just like the rest of him.
“I believe in you, Sadie. I'm a believer in fate too. We found you on that stormy night for a reason...we just haven't figured out what it is yet. But I'm gonna keep digging.”
She squeezes his hand and then slips from his grasp. It's too hard to hold on indefinitely, listening to his words, without blushing.
His brow is strong, so powerful it comforts even when he's unhappy. A single bead of sweat runs off his temple like water.
I don't have time for this. The last thing I need to think about right now are those daydreams I've had
of him in the shower.
Embarrassment nips at the base of her spine. Thankfully, it doesn't blossom anywhere into a crimson flush.
“Am I excused?”
“Sure are. Go rest up before dinner. I have some more business to take care of out there. Tomorrow's going to be a new beginning, Sadie. Count on it.”
III: Country Healing
Kneading dough in the kitchen isn't as bad as Sadie expects. It's the third batch she's run through the huge silver mixing bowl, making enough bread to feed a small army.
Actually, that's exactly what Brax has called for.
He's a generous boss. A mid-sized ranch in a small town like his can't afford great benefits, but it can serve up plenty of free meals.
Aside from their own dinners, most of the food will go to his men, many of whom are too poor to bring their own lunches everyday. It's a full time job keeping them fed – one he often had to outsource to a local housekeeper and cook.
At least I'm saving him some money. I suppose that makes me a little more useful than I thought.
At first, sticking her inside to bake and sweep the floors felt demeaning. She wanted to prove that she fit in on the ranch, no different than the rest of the workers.
Now, the housework has caught up to her in a traditional way that caused her to squirm restlessly in her sleep.
“But not all traditions are bad. This...I don't mind so much.”
She digs deep into the dough and scoops it out after it's thoroughly mixed. The timer on the table goes off, signaling that the latest batch is ready to exit the oven, golden and piping hot.
Sadie digs apart the end of one of the small loaves for a test bite. With a little butter spattered on top, it disappears behind her lips, crunchy and succulent.
“Wow. Never knew I could cook like this. That's natural talent, I guess.”
Amazingly, the bread is
Work on the next batch of dough begins. Several long ivory streaks of flour escape the measuring cup as she's dipping into the bag.
They spill across her skin, powdery and soft. With her opposite hand, she pauses and scoops it off her arms.
Between her fingers, the flour feels...curious. Familiar. Horribly familiar.
The adrenaline rush almost knocks her to the floor.
She grabs for the counter before the falls. Sadie's breathing intensifies, echoing loudly throughout the empty kitchen like a cruel taunt.
“What's happening to me?”
Hunched over, she walks to the table and slides into one of the empty chairs. Sitting down helps, but not by much.
Where do I know this white powder from?
Oh, God. It's cocaine, isn't it? Illegal, dangerous, and so desired...
Nerves in her temples throb painfully. She cradles her head, trying to push the undesirable thought aside.
That can't be it. I'm not some fucking druggie. It's got to be from somewhere else.
Deep inside, a doubtful voice stirs her fragile consciousness. Being a junkie would explain everything. Easily.
Fleeing across the country in a bad storm, the memory lapses. But then, why don't I feel a desire to
use this stuff? Why do I feel only repulsed?
Just on the verge of hyper-ventilating, she catches herself. Sadie straightens her spine and breaths deep, an old calming technique that feels equally as familiar as the white stuff.
“It's all in the past now. It doesn't matter. Not for what I'm doing today. This flour isn't a drug.”
She moves to the counter, forcing herself to work again. Her hands are shaky when she plunges them into the soft mix.
But slowly, they begin to settle. No, shaping dough doesn't have anything to do with drugs after all.
The rest of the batches go smoothly. She's grateful to clean up, though.
A little sweeping awaits, and then dinner and a shower.
She dines alone in the huge kitchen. Brax has gone away to Wyoming on business for a few days.
In some ways, it's a relief. She hums to herself reassuringly. For the first time in a long while, the day hasn't been a disaster.
Keeping the house tidy is just as easy as cooking – or at least not as hard as the sticky back breaking labor outside. She spends the next few days dusting shelves, vacuuming, and organizing some old antique figurines that look like they've seen better days.
Before she closes the glass case housing her boss' heirlooms, one of the fat little women catches her eye. She picks it up with a smile.
“Hey, she's not fat. It's...a pregnant lady.”
She turns the small, smiling woman over in her hands. The bottom reads MADE IN GERMANY.
Might as well be from another world. It's nice to see that people used to admire such natural things.
Talk about simpler times.
Carefully, she pushes it into place, next to a happy lumberjack near the corner. The little collection makes her wonder who he inherited it from.
Physical labor she can stand brings a pleasant regularity to life on the ranch. By the fourth day without any hitches, she wants to jump up and down.
She's outside serving chili and bread to the workers when Brax's truck rolls in. The men instantly begin crowding around him, except for the ones who haven't gotten their fill yet.
Dinkie returns for seconds, giving her a demanding wink.
“Tastes real good, doll. Glad to see you've found something you're good at.”
Just let it slide. It's nice to get a little respect around here. Even from him.
Normally, she wouldn't be able to keep from rolling her eyes. But the rancher's return washes away all the small frustrations, including uncivilized workers.
“That's right, boys! We're gonna have twice the head of cattle out here next year. Might have to buy a few more acres off old man Vock next door.”
Sadie beams at the news. Half a dozen men take turns slapping Brax's shoulders as he moves through the crowd.
“Hey, beautiful. What's cooking?”
She lifts a bowl and spoons out a large ladle of chili. It passes toward him with a big loaf of bread.
“Oh, that looks nice and thick. Smells spicy too.” He lifts the spoon to his mouth and closes his eyes.
Seeing his face go tense with pleasure is funny – and arousing. Sadie laughs, covering up her baser thoughts.
“Damn, girl! Did you use Momma's recipe?” He gulps down another bite, his eyes large with
surprise. He hasn't tasted anything remotely like it for years.
“Yeah. I found it in the old folder tucked by the cookbooks.”
“That's amazing. Nobody's ever been able to get it done to my liking. I stopped having other people try for a long time. And me? I'm clueless when it comes to anything more complicated than steaks or breakfasts.”
He eats half his portion in front of her, slowing his bites and smiling. “You're really in your element here, aren't you? Let's see what else you've done in the house.”
She picks up the giant pot and follows him indoors. Accompanying Brax through the house makes her nervous.
I really hope I've put everything back where it belongs. Surely, I didn’t throw out anything important
– I tried so hard not to!
When they step into the large living room, he lets out a whistle. Brax runs toward the fireplace and sweeps his finger across the cement stone surrounding the gate.
“Awesome job. Haven't seen the thing free of soot since it was built. And that was back when I was a kid! Can't believe I didn't stop in here sooner. It's nice to do a check up like this, when I can take time to breathe and really see your good work.”
Excitedly, he runs back to her, pulling her tight in a huge bear hug. She falls into his beautiful chest laughing, savoring the immense slab of his muscles.
He holds her there for almost a minute, whispering encouragement and squeezing her close. Sadie doesn't miss the opportunity to inhale the divine air wafting off his neck.
Incredible. His cologne is so spicy when it mingles with his sweat. Masculine and perfect.
She worries about too much attention. Luckily, he releases her before the lust begins to build, threatening to overflow in a way that may betray everything.
“I can't wait to check out the bedrooms. You've been working your little tail off.” He watches her shake her head. “Don't be modest. I know this house. I've been so busy that so much crap has slipped through my fingers.”
“If you say so...”
“I do. I'm gonna say that you should have the rest of the evening off too. Let's get that serving table inside and go shower. I missed this place – and your company. Eating with a bunch of cowboys in Wyoming isn't half as good as eating at my own table with a pretty lady.”
She moves outside swiftly before new redness blooms on her cheeks. Weak kneed and giddy, Sadie feels like a teenager again, returning from a late night dance with that boy she's eyed all semester.
Soon, the shower is cranked up to full blast. She doesn't allow herself any warmth. The hot water feels alien on her skin.
Nothing is more satisfying than the wintry coolness. She opens her arms, letting the beads hit her round breasts again and again, hoping they'll numb the uncontrollable tingle winding through her skin ever since he touched her.
Climbing out of the shower, she dries off and eyes the simple jeans and blouse. Self-conscious disappointment makes her freeze.