The Forever Man
He wore the scar almost proudly, she thought, her gaze leaving it to sweep once more over the stern visage he presented her. Except for a faint tightening of his mouth, he was unmoving beneath her scrutiny. His shoulders were broad beneath the fine fabric of his coat, his trousers clung to the strong line of his thigh as he shifted after a moment, lifting one long leg, propping it against the front of the wagon.
He was a big man, a strong man, if the size of his hands, the flexing muscles in his thigh and the width of his upper body were anything to go by. Her gaze moved to tangle with his, meeting dark eyes that were narrowed just a bit against the sun’s rays and held her own with unswerving intensity.
“What can I do for you, mister?” She drew to a halt several feet from the wagon, her irritation at the interruption vivid in her voice. The wind blew a lock of pale golden hair across her eyes, and she lifted an impatient hand to brush it back.
“From the looks of things, I’d say the question is what can I do for you?” His words were harsh against her ear, and she bristled.
“You’re the one comin’ hat in hand, mister. Looks to me like you’ve got something to say. Spit it out or leave me to my work. I haven’t time to do much entertainin’ this morning.”
“Miss Johanna! I’ve brought Mr. Montgomery here to do you a service.” Reverend Hughes slid from his mount to hurry to her side. “If you can come to a mutual agreement, it will greatly benefit you both. I urge you to give him a few minutes of your time.”
Johanna sighed. “I haven’t got much time, Reverend. If Mr. Montgomery wants to sign on as a hired hand, he’ll find the pickin’ pretty poor here. Lots of work and not much pay to be found. And it looks like I’d be feedin’ three more at my table.”
“I’ve no experience as a hired hand, Miss Patterson.” Tate Montgomery’s voice vibrated with a multitude of impatience. “I thought we might come to an understanding, perhaps an agreement, but now I’m thinking your attitude would not be beneficial to my children.” He turned in the wagon seat, speaking in a low voice to the young boys who were peering past him at Johanna.
“My attitude!” Her hands lifted to rest against her hips as she challenged his judgment. “I’ve been called from my work to speak to you, Mr. Montgomery, and you look me over like a side of beef at the general store. I’ve been judged and found lacking, and I don’t even know what you’re doin’ on my property.”
Looking down at her from his perch, he hesitated, then spoke quickly, in a voice that was pitched at a level she strained to hear. “I’ve been looking for a place to invest in, where my boys can live a peaceful life and I can build a future for them. But from the looks and sounds of things here, there wouldn’t be much peace to be found.” His eyes rested on her, darting to take in the telltale stance she’d taken, her hands propped belligerently against her hipbones.
His quiet words were chilling in their finality as he lifted the reins in one hand. “They’ve already lived through all the wrangling any soul should be obliged to contend with.” Slapping the leather straps against the broad backs of his team of horses, he averted his gaze as the wagon creaked into motion.
Johanna bit at her lip, abashed by his scathing words, aware that his conclusions were fairly reached. She watched as the big wagon lumbered in a circle, heading back to the road. The two small boys had turned, looking back over their shoulders.
Maybe it was the quiet acceptance she recognized in their gaze, or perhaps the vulnerable curve of the smaller child’s cheek as he flexed his jaw. A shadow of shame dulled the sunshine as Johanna watched. Those two young’ns looked like they could use a bite to eat and some shade to park in for a while, she thought, no matter how grim and ornery their daddy appeared to be.
“Mr. Montgomery!” Her voice was husky, but firm. “Come on back. Let those boys down to stretch their legs for a while.”
The horses pulled the wagon another twelve feet or so before he drew it to a halt. His shoulders square, his head erect, he waited. Beside him, the two children wiggled, their whispers quiet, obviously urging him to consider the woman’s offer. His glance downward encompassed both small faces, and he relented, nodding his agreement.
Needing no further permission, the boys edged to the wagon’s side, the elder sliding to the ground and turning to help his young brother down. Tate Montgomery grasped the child beneath the arms and lifted him, lowering him to his brother’s side. Then he turned the wagon once more, following the two boys back toward the house and the woman waiting there.
Chapter Two (#ulink_01625a35-a33f-5c6c-86b5-918acbf11a5c)
Pete was the oldest boy’s name. Seven years old, he’d said proudly—much older than his small brother, his uptilted chin had proclaimed. Timothy was four, Tate Montgomery had volunteered gruffly, even as four chubby fingers rose in silent affirmation of his father’s words. Still carrying a vestige of baby roundness about his features, he’d smiled at her with innocent warmth, beguiling her with his blue eyes and rosy cheeks.
She’d offered them milk in thick china cups and a small plate of sugar cookies from her crock. Then she’d ushered them to sit on the back porch, where Timothy had grasped his cup with both hands to drink deeply of the cool milk. His smile had been white-rimmed above his upper lip, and she felt a strange warmth invade her as she remembered the sight.
Across the table, Tate Montgomery had removed his hat and unbuttoned his coat, the latter a concession to the warmth of her kitchen. He’d swept the wide-brimmed hat from his head as he bent to enter the door, holding it against his leg as he took the chair she offered him. His eyes had scanned the room, pausing as they reached the cookstove, where chicken simmered within her Dutch oven. She’d set it to cook before heading to the orchard, and now its aroma filled the room, a little garlic and onion combining to coax her appetite.
She watched him, unwilling to break the silence. The man had invaded her territory, so to speak. Let him make the first move. Yet a twinge of curiosity piqued her interest as she waited. What had he said? He was looking to invest in a piece of property. Probably wanting to buy her out. But no…that hadn’t been it, either.
“Miss Johanna, would you be willing to listen to what this gentleman is here to speak of?” Theodore Hughes spoke anxiously from behind Mr. Montgomery, his own hat held before him, his fingers moving against the felt surface with barely concealed agitation.
Johanna nodded, her gaze moving from the parson to the man sitting at her kitchen table. “I can’t see that it will do any harm,” she allowed, clipping the words tightly. She felt invaded. The very moment he entered the room, she’d sensed his presence, inhaling his subtle scent, that musky, male, outdoor aroma some men carried. Unwillingly she’d been drawn by it, long-suppressed memories coming to life as she faced his imposing presence across the blue checked oilcloth.
“I’m Tate Montgomery, lately of southern Ohio. You’ve met my sons. They’re the only family I have. My wife is dead.” He paused, his gaze resting on her hands as she entwined her fingers on the table before her.
“I decided my sons needed a fresh start, away from some bad memories. We’ve been on the road for several weeks, stopping here and there, looking for the right place to settle.”
Johanna watched his mouth as he spoke, catching a glimpse of white, even teeth between full lips. A faint white line touched his top lip, an old scar. Not nearly as noticeable as the newer one he wore. The one that should have detracted from his masculine appeal. But didn’t.
“And you think this is the right place?” Spoken without inflection, her query reached his ears.
Tate sensed her reluctance, had made note of it from the first, when she trudged through tall grass from the orchard toward his wagon. Now it was in full bloom between them, that feminine need for self-preservation that kept her from accepting him at face value. He couldn’t begrudge her the feeling. But the urge to press his advantage, now that he was inside the house, was uppermost in his mind.
There had been a feeling of homecoming as he drove up the lane toward the farmhouse. The two-story dwelling, shabby around the edges, but nevertheless graceful in its design, had drawn him with an urgency he’d not felt in any other place. The tall maple trees, towering over the house in a protective fashion, their leaves turning color, had bidden him welcome. Not like the woman, who had greeted him with little patience for his coming.
She’d scanned him and his belongings with a wary eye, only warming a bit when the two boys came under her gaze. She’d been more than generous with them, offering milk and sugar cookies, the sight of which had made his own mouth water. She was sturdy but slender around the middle, her apron emphasizing the narrow lines of her waist. Full-breasted. Womanly, might be the right word to describe her form. Johanna Patterson. A sensible name. He could only hope the woman would be as reasonable as a female in her circumstances should be.
Bristly and faintly belligerent described her attitude toward him, he decided with a wry twist of his mouth. Perhaps she wouldn’t be the smallest bit receptive to his proposal. And that was the only word he could come up with for the bargain he was about to lay on the table before her.
“You grow apples, Miss Patterson,” he began, nodding toward the brimming bowl on her cupboard. The ruddy skin of the snow variety glistened in the sunlight that cascaded through the window.
“I pick them,” she corrected quietly. “They grow all by themselves, with a little help from the Lord.”
His mouth moved, one corner twisting again, in amusement. “I agree. Most farmers consider themselves to be in partnership with the Almighty, I’ve found. Although sometimes he doesn’t appear to tend to business, what with the dry spell we had this year.”
“Farming’s a gamble,” Johanna answered. “Apples are a pretty sure thing. Provide them with a beehive in the vicinity and they pretty much tend to themselves, once the blossoms fall and the fruit starts to grow.”
“You don’t do much with crops?”
She shrugged. “The hay is about ready for a last cutting. Mr. Jones at the mill made arrangements for shares for me, last time around. I’ll do the same this time, I expect. I’ve got eighty-six acres here, fifty acres of pasture for the cattle. I’ve been keeping some of them pretty close to the barn lately. My father fenced off a ten-acre piece, and I feel better having them close at hand, with winter coming on.”
“How many head are you running?” he asked.
“Not many left in the far pasture, besides the bull. I sold off the young steers last month.”
He shook his head. “‘Not many’ doesn’t tell me much.”
“I’m only milking six cows right now,” she said, exasperation apparent in her tone. “There are more of them dry, with calves due in the spring. Why do you ask?”
“I want to offer you a proposition, Miss Patterson.”
She waited, noting the faint furrow between his eyebrows, the twitch of his left eyelid as he leaned back in his chair. His arms folded across his chest in a gesture she sensed was automatic with him. As if he set up a guard around himself. She sat up straighter in her chair and nodded, unwilling to give him verbal encouragement.
“I’ve been on the lookout for a farm to invest in. It must be a special situation in order for it to work to my advantage, though. I’d thought to hire a woman to live in, tend to my boys and run the house for me.” He lifted one shoulder in a shrug that spoke of his lack of success thus far.
“When your minister told me of your place, I thought it would bear investigation. Then he told me you were not willing to move from here or sell out your interest in the farm.”
Johanna nodded once. Apparently she’d finally gotten it across to folks in town that she was planning on living out her life here. At least the preacher had gotten the message, she thought A chuckle rose within her, and she ducked her head, swallowing the sound before it could be born.
Tate Montgomery rose from his chair and paced to the cookstove, lifting the lid on the covered iron pan with Johanna’s pot holder to peer within. Steam billowed up, and he inhaled quickly as the succulent scent of simmering chicken tempted his nostrils. He clapped the lid down and cast her a sidelong glance.
“You enjoy cookin’?” Not waiting for a reply, he paced to the doorway, looking out at his sons on the porch, then returned to where she sat.
His lips flattened, and he pushed the lower one forward a bit, as if he were considering what he would say next. “Have you thought of getting married, Miss Patterson?”
Her eyebrows lifted, and her eyes widened. If she’d thought herself immune to surprise, he’d just this minute effectively shot that theory all to small bits. “Not lately.” It was an understatement, to say the least. Not at all might be more to the point. At least not in the past ten years.