His hand on her back gave her no choice and she kept up with his long stride, almost skipping to keep up, fearful of the contact he forced upon her, yet thankful for the warmth of his body. Beyond the open door was a kitchen, and he ushered her over the threshold, closing the wooden portal behind them.
If the temperature had been close to freezing in the bar, it was nearer to the fires of Hades here in the kitchen, she decided, shivering at the blast of warm air that the big cookstove aimed in her direction. The woman who stood before it had opened the oven, and the heat from within made her back away from its intensity, but to Katie, it was a welcome shot of comfort and she did not evade it.
In fact, she took another step closer to the huge stove, warming the front of her body and shivering in reaction. The man next to her spoke, catching her attention and that of the woman who was dealing with the food atop the cooking range.
“Hey there, Molly. Anything left from supper? This little gal’s hungry.”
Why that should make Katie bristle so, she didn’t know. Perhaps it was because the man acted as though she were a child to be fed. Or maybe because he looked at her from his greater height with a look of amusement, as though she were someone to be mocked.
“I’m not starving,” Katie said defensively. “I can wait till tomorrow to eat.”
“And where will you find breakfast?” the man asked, even as the woman he’d called Molly turned from the stove to shoot her a long assessing look.
“Land sakes, John Roper. Leave that little girl alone. Quit your pickin’ at her.”
With a swift step, she approached Katie, lifting a warm hand to touch her shoulder. “Come on over here, honey. That cowboy don’t know which end is up. Just ignore him, why don’t you. I’ve got a kettle of beans and spuds here that’s probably gonna be food for the pigs by morning if I can’t push it off on some hungry soul.”
Katie caught the glimpse of tenderness the woman tried to hide, her words almost curt, but her eyes warm with another emotion entirely. It was enough to coax her from her stiff resistance, and she stepped closer to the stove, to where a kettle sat on the back burner, steam rising from its depths.
“I’d eat some beans and potatoes, ma’am,” she said quietly. “I’m probably hungrier than the pigs, anyway.” Her mouth twisted in a smile, and as if she had gained a friend, Molly grinned back, drawing Katie nearer with a quick touch on her hand. A touch Katie fought to accept, sensing that Molly meant her no harm.
“Sit yourself down, honey. I’ll fetch a bowl and fix you something to warm your belly.” And if the invitation was not couched in genteel terms, Katie found it didn’t matter, for the look of kindness Molly wore more than made up for her blunt speech.
A chair appeared from beneath the edge of the table, and the man—hadn’t Molly called him John?—stood to one side, offering her a seat. Katie took it with a nod and then thought twice about the condition of her hands.
“Ma’am? Could I bother you for a dab of soap and some water to wash my hands?” She looked toward the back of the kitchen where a sink held a pitcher pump and a large basin beneath it, and Molly nodded.
“Of course. Come on over here and I’ll fix you up. I might have known a girl like you would need to tend to herself before she sat down to eat.” The plump form bustled across the room, one rounded arm reaching for the pump handle. Ensuring that a gush of water poured into the basin, she reached beneath the sink for a container of soap.
“Here you go, honey. Not French-milled, but good old lye soap, like I use for the dishes.” Molly looked quickly at the mottled flesh on Katie’s arms and her eyes sought those of the man who watched. A barely imperceptible nod caught Katie’s eye and she felt confusion overtake her.
Her voice quavered as she recognized that she was the object of an unspoken discussion. “That’ll do just fine,” she told Molly, thankful for the freely given offer. For the first time during the long hours of this evening, she began to breathe more easily, sensing a kindred soul in her vicinity. Not that the help of the man called John had gone unappreciated, but finding another woman who offered her a bit of sustenance was a bonus she had not looked for. And Katie was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The steaming offering of green beans swimming in a thick broth laced with bits of ham and braced by the addition of three small potatoes was mouthwatering and she bent over it, inhaling the aroma as she picked up the fork Molly offered. Her mouth burned from the first bite, but she was so hungry she barely noticed, shifting the bit of potato from one side of her cheek to the other as it cooled.
“How about a glass of milk, girl?” Molly made the offer even as she poured the glass full from a pitcher in the icebox.
Katie looked up and met her gaze, basking in the friendly smile she was given as if it were her due. “Thank you, ma’am. I’ll have to admit I’m a little hungry.” And then proved her words by devouring the bowlful of food as if it might be removed from her presence at any time.
“Take your time there, girl. Molly won’t rush you any,” the man told her quietly.
She looked at the man named John now, a quiet figure who watched her from dark eyes and then darted a look at Molly as if asking for direction.
“Why don’t you stay with me tonight?” Molly asked her, surprising her with the kind offer. “I’ve got a big bed upstairs and a spare nightgown you can use.”
Katie shivered, huddling in the chair, aware that her trembling was from a source within herself, not a result of the temperature in the room, for the stove gave off a comforting heat she was only too aware of. But the relief of finding sanctuary in this place threatened to bring quick tears to her eyes, and though she had long since abandoned tears as a form of expression, she found now that they burned just behind her eyelids.
“Thank you, ma’am. I’d be pleased to take you up on your offer,” she said quietly, scraping the bottom of the bowl and eating the last morsel. A fluffy biscuit appeared on a small plate beside her bowl and a container of butter was moved close to her glass of milk, accompanied by a table knife.
Such largesse was more than she had ever expected to find here, and Katie looked up at the woman and felt a tear fall from her eye, trailing slowly down her cheek and falling to her bodice.
“Come now, girl. Don’t waste time on cryin’. Just eat up and we’ll worry about everything else tomorrow.” With a quick look at John, she gave orders swiftly. “It might be good if no one knew that the girl was here with me, John. I’ll put her to bed and lock the door so she won’t be disturbed. There’s men in there—” she nodded at the saloon just beyond the kitchen door “—who’d be tickled to get their hands on her tonight, but I’ll see to it she’s safe and sound.”
“I’d appreciate it, Molly. And I’ll be back in the morning to settle with you, and take her off your hands.”
Molly snorted. There was no other word for it, Katie decided, for the inelegant sound was a combination of laughter and disdain. “And what will you do with a bit of a girl like this, John Roper? You gonna put her in the bunkhouse out there at the ranch with those cowhands you work with?”
He shook his head, his mind working rapidly. “No, I’ll put her in the cabin the boss gave me when he made me foreman of the ranch. He said it was for a married man, but he suspected I’d be taking on a wife before long, so he said I’d might as well move into it now. He’s got four or five cabins for his married hands. There’s room for this little gal in mine.”
“And then what will you do with her?” Molly pushed the issue with a harsh look that asked his intentions. “You got marriage on your mind?”
He shook his head. “No, I’ll just take care of her till she gets back on her feet. If the bruises I can see on her arms and her face are any indication of what she’s wearing under that dress, I’ll do a better job than whoever’s been looking after her.”
Molly nodded. “I wouldn’t be surprised, but your boss is gonna be asking questions if you bring a woman there and move her in and she’s not your wife.”
John was silent for a moment and his gaze touched Katie with kindness. Then he spoke again and she knew that her future had been decided for her and she would not argue with the man, for he was far and away the best prospect for shelter she saw in her future.
“I need someone to keep things up for me, Molly. Let’s call her my new housekeeper and cook. I’ll bet she can do better on that cookstove than I can, and it’ll mean I won’t have to go to the big house for my meals if this little gal cooks for me.” He shot Katie a long look. “Can you put a meal together, girl?”
She nodded quickly. “I’ve been cookin’ and cleanin’ for a lot of years. The folks at the place I lived wasn’t much on keepin’ stuff up to par, but I learned how to cook a long time ago. I can make biscuits and bread and fix a meal from most anything.”
“You want a job working for me?” John asked bluntly. “Not much pay, but a place to hang your hat and a warm pallet in front of the stove at night, or else on my sofa. It’s not very long, but you’re not very tall, so it might work.”
“What kind of an offer is that for a young woman?” Molly asked sharply. “This girl don’t need to be in those sort of circumstances. She’ll have the folks around here talking a mile a minute about her, and you, too, John.”
“Sounds better to me than where she’s been living. And I’ll guarantee you I won’t be leaving any bruises on her like those she’s wearing tonight.” As if that were the final word on the subject, he looked directly at Katie and asked the question that would offer her a choice as to what might lie in her future.
“You interested in a job, girl? No strings attached, just cooking and cleaning and keeping my clothes up to snuff.”
Katie thought but a moment, measuring what little she knew about the man before her with the certainty of the peril that awaited her should she be returned to Jacob and Agnes Schrader. Her reply was quick, for she knew she was able to run again should this man not be as honest as he appeared.
“I’ll work for you, mister. Just give me a place to sleep and a warm spot to roost during the day. I can cook and clean all right, and I don’t need any money from you. Just food and a place to live.”
“SOUNDS LIKE I’VE GOT a new housekeeper,” John said to Molly, “if you’ll keep her for the night. I’ll come back in the morning to get her. I’ll need to talk to Bill Stanley before I bring her out to his ranch, make sure he understands the circumstances. I won’t make a move that will jeopardize my standing with him.”
Molly cast him a measuring look and then as if she found his words to be all that was truth and honesty on his part, she nodded. “I’ll keep her here tonight, safe in my bed, with my door locked. But you’d better be on the up and up, John Roper, or I’ll skin you. Understand?”
John nodded, meeting her gaze. He’d not put it past the woman to do just as she threatened. Molly was as honest as the day was long, even given that she worked in the kitchen of a saloon, she was known as a woman to be respected. That he bore the same reputation was knowledge he prized, for his honor was not questioned by any who knew him.
The girl would be safe with him, for he had no need of a woman in his bed, his masculine instincts long since subdued by the memory of the woman who had forever left him with anger as his companion. The wife he’d buried six years ago had been unfaithful, her acts of immorality documented by the men who had received her favors. Then she’d left him to run off with another man, and the disease she’d gained from her acquaintance with him had brought her to an early grave.
He’d taken care of her needs during the days of her illness, hiring a widowed lady to nurse her, a woman who had lived in the same room with Sadie, tending her until the day she breathed her last. And then, with her burial, a solitary moment he’d shared with no other person but the local undertaker, he’d cut his ties and traveled from home. Two years of wandering had brought him to the north country, and here in the Dakota Territory, he’d found work and a place in which to bury his past.
No, an attachment to any women was the last thing he wanted, and only the basic goodness of his upbringing had prompted him to offer this fragile child a place to live. His mama would roll over in her grave if she thought that a son of hers would turn his back on someone in need.
John Roper was known as an honest man, a good man with a horse and handy with a gun. There was little about him that could be considered soft, for he stood tall, broad-shouldered and yet lean. With dark hair and eyes, he knew he presented a picture of masculinity that appealed to women, and yet he felt little need of them, only an occasional visit to a widow who had been more than welcoming when he deigned to visit her.