Pete was pitching hay into the back of wagon, and Charley took a moment to appreciate the fluid way his lanky but powerful body moved. He shot a wary glance at her approach but continued to work.
“Feel like taking a break?”
“Can’t.” He speared another pitchfork full and tossed it into the bed. “Gotta finish this chore.”
“You work too hard. Do you have family? Someone special to share Christmas with?”
He paused for a moment before returning to his work. The worn felt hat shadowed his face, so Charley had no idea what emotions her comment had elicited, but by the way his hands gripped the handle tighter, she figured she must have hit a nerve.
“The boss won’t mind if you stop for a bit. In fact, Uncle William will consider it a favor if you’ll help me out of a bind.”
He stopped and wiped his forehead with the back of his gloved hand. His silence was not inviting, but she plowed on anyway.
“I need you to help me cut a tree for Christmas.”
“I’ll have Blake do it.” He pushed his hat back, and his striking features arrested her attention. Dark brown hair fell across his forehead in a tangle of waves. High cheekbones and a broad nose hinted at Indian blood somewhere in his lineage.
“No. I don’t trust anyone to do it right but you, Mr. Hart.”
He narrowed his blue eyes and looked as if he meant to protest, but William chose that moment to ride into the yard and into their conversation.
“Goodness, Uncle Will, you look cold to the bone.” Her own cheeks felt blustery from the winter chill. The cold front had brought rain and biting temperatures but little else. With Christmas only five days away, she hoped it would snow.
“I hate the cold. You about done, Pete?” Will asked after dismounting.
“I’ve got another hour of work before I’m finished with this chore, I reckon.”
“But I want to steal him for the afternoon. Please, Uncle Will. Your kids are counting on me to find the perfect tree to decorate.”
Will frowned but nodded. “Pete could use a bit of fun. Yeah, you two go on. I’ll find someone else to finish up here.”
Pete did not look happy with the order but couldn’t refuse the boss’s wishes. Steam left his lips as he heaved a great sigh. Without much talk, he gathered supplies, hitched another wagon, and clamored into the seat. “Climb in,” he ordered.
She stood next to the buckboard and glared. “A gentleman always lends assistance.”
He jumped from his perch and roughly helped her onto the hard, wood seat. She adjusted her coat and folded her gloved hands into her lap. After rearranging the scarf about her throat, she was ready to go.
They found a patch of forest that looked promising, and Pete set the brake. He even remembered to help her down. She lamented the need for gloves, for she would have enjoyed feeling his touch.
He followed her into the dense woods. “Find one fast. I really need to get back to work.”
The elm and oak had all lost their leaves and looked like skeletons against the harsh blue sky, but after hearing the stories of the Christmases she’d enjoyed in the northeast, Will’s children had wanted a tree. With enough decoration, bare limbs could come alive with color and symbolic meaning.
“No you don’t. You work all the time. I’ve been watching you.”
“Handsome young man without a wife? Single woman heading for spinsterhood? No mystery there.”
“You don’t know anything about me, or you’d play in someone else’s backyard.”
“I know more than you think, Pete.” She stopped in front of the perfect tree and examined it from top to bottom. “I know you want to kiss me in the worst way.”
He caught her arm and yanked her close. “Don’t toy with me. I’m not the settling down kind of man you want.”
His gruff voice spoke of a deep hurt, one that only time could heal. She understood, had singled him out for that very reason. She’d overheard Bryce talk about Pete with her Aunt Kaitlin and knew she had to find him, to heal the wounds in his soul. In so doing, she could come to grips with her own tainted childhood. They had a lot in common. He’d been abused as a youngster, and she’d grown up in a brothel. And both owed the Stantons the world for changing their destinies.
“I – I know most men don’t want the daughter of a calico queen for a wife.” There, she’d finally put into words the pain she endured the moment a prospective beau found out her past. Oh, they might be willing to overlook her upbringing in light of Bryce’s wealth, but once she’d seen that look in their eyes, she knew they could never love her for herself.
“Why me?” His voice broke. She’d touched his heart with her confession.
“Because the reasons you don’t want me have nothing to do with my past and everything to do with yours.” She stepped closer.
He dropped her arm as if her nearness would roast him alive, but she didn’t back down. She grabbed the lapel of his jacket and tugged him forward. “Kiss me, Pete. Make this a Christmas to remember. For both of us.”
To find out more about Pete's sordid past or Charly's background, grab a copy of Kaitlin's Silver Lining.