Meg O’Brien slowed her quarter horse, Merry. Her smile quickly turned into a frown as she spotted the ranch hands huddled together. Puzzled, she spurred Merry on to the barn, slid out of her saddle, and hurried toward the men.
They glanced at her and nodded but each briskly turned away. Unusual for them; she’d never had a problem with any of the hands since she started running the ranch.
“What’s going on?”
They shuffled their feet and kept their gazes on the ground.
She stared at the youngest hand, Ron. He was about seventeen, near as she could tell, and scrawny with dark hair and eyes. He’d spill the beans. He seemed to sense that he was in her sites, and he glanced up. His eyes widened before he looked away.
“Ron, what’s going on around here?”
Ron tipped his sweat-stained Stetson at her and smiled. “We have ourselves a guest.”
Running out of patience, she touched Greg’s arm. He’d been her right hand from the start. His blue eyes searched hers. He had a nasty scar on his face, but she hardly noticed it anymore. “Tell me.”
“Kelly’s here. He’s in the bunkhouse.”
Her heart beat faster, and a lump grew in her throat. “Luke Kelly?”
Greg nodded and gave her a sympathetic smile.
Taking a deep breath, Meg turned toward the weathered bunkhouse, took two steps and stopped. Why was he here? She’d banked on never seeing him again.
For five years, she’d avoided serious relationships, and she didn’t need Luke now. The back of her throat ached, and she swallowed hard. It was foolish to think he was back for her. He had no interest in her, because if he had, he would have never left.
She walked on, hardening her heart. She was the foreman, and that saddle bum was not going to hang his hat in her bunkhouse. Who did he think he was anyway?
The door creaked loudly as she opened it.
“Dad, what’s going on?” Her dad had always been her rock, but age and a heart attack had slowed him down. It had taken a lot to persuade him to make her foreman, but she had prevailed.
“Luke is going to stay with us for a while.”
She didn’t like the worry reflected in his weary eyes. Slowly, she turned to where Luke sat and suppressed a gasp. Her big, hunky hero was a ghost of his former self, and the gauntness of his face was just the beginning. His blue eyes lacked emotion. He hadn’t shaved, and his dark beard was long and unkempt. His usual tight fitting clothes hung on him.
“Luke?” she whispered.
He glanced at her, gave her a semblance of a smile, and then turned away.
“Luke has run into some hard times, and I offered to let him stay here.”
The air seemed to grow heavy and it became difficult to breathe, and her stomach churned. She couldn’t see him every day, she just couldn’t. “Stay here?”
“Yes, honey, for as long as he needs.”
She felt for Luke, but he couldn’t stay. She’d lose her sanity and her heart for sure if he remained.
Meg stepped outside for some fresh air and sat on the top step of the wrap around porch, staring at the bunkhouse. Nerves had her clasping and unclasping her hands. She needed her father to come out and explain. What the hell had happened to Luke? She couldn’t remember seeing anyone look so bad. He appeared lost and, oh God, maybe he was sick or dying. That would explain his gauntness. Of course, he’d want to come home.
Well, as close to home as he could get. His dad had sold her father the land, he’d sold the house to a young family with a slew of kids, and then he had moved into a retirement home not too far away. Did Harry Kelly even know his boy was home?
Her father slowly ambled across the yard. She couldn’t wait so she stood and ran to him. “Dad, is he sick? Is he dying?”
“Whoa, Margaret Mary, he’ll heal eventually.”
“What are you talking about?”
He took her hand and led her to the porch. “Here sit. Luke has had a hard time of it lately, and he came here to get his head straight.”
“The truth, Dad, Luke looks like he’s been through hell and back.”
She sat on the edge of the old wooden chair, and her father gave her a sad smile. “He has, and it’s up to us to give him room to regain himself.”
“You’re not going to tell me, are you?” Meg stood, put her hands on her hips, and stared at her father.
“Honey, it’s not my story to tell. Besides, I gave him my word.”
“Well, I guess that’s it, then.” A man’s word was a powerful thing.
He smiled. “I knew you’d understand. Now, could you make him something to eat? Something light on the stomach?”
Meg pulled the screen door open. “Sure, Dad.”
She headed into the big kitchen and pulled out all the ingredients to make beef soup. She worked quickly, trying to keep her mind focused on the soup, but all she could think about was the last time she’d seen Luke. He’d taken her dancing, and it was such a magical time. At the end of the night, he had walked her to the door, kissed her goodnight, and held her as though he didn’t want to leave. It was only a few kisses actually, and foolishly, she’d thought he felt something for her. She’d been in love with him since forever but never had the nerve to let it show.
She went to bed that night thinking they were starting a relationship. She’d been so happy and full of dreams. Senseless dreams, she reminded herself. She shook her head at her stupidity.
The next day she waited for him to call or drop over. Her heart ached as the hours went by. A few days later, she went to town to see some friends and she heard that Luke had left town. He’d left right after their date. To her shame, she cried in front of her friends and became an object of ridicule and pity.
Never again. She’d never allow her heart to be ripped out like that again, and she’d never show her feelings to anyone. It was easier to be alone.