“I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve made up my mind.”
Having stated his position, Red Calhoun crossed his arms over his large chest. All right, maybe slightly shrunken chest would be more accurate at his age, but with his wife long gone these many years who was around to notice?
“All I’m saying,” Frank Williams, longtime friend and confidant, leaned forward, almost spilling his beer before righting it, “is that the horse has left the barn at this point. And you can’t put it back, so to speak. So, you’ve got to take the bull by the horns, because there’s no use crying over spilled milk, is there?” Frank’s wheedling voice, not attractive on a pastor, grated.
Red compressed his lips. And platitudes? Really? At a time like this?
Anyway, that just wasn’t going to happen in this case.
He glanced around his bar and wondered how all of his hard work had come to naught.
Just down the road from his ranch, the local watering hole, Red’s, as it was called, was a gathering place for folks outside the Fort Bridger, Wyoming, vicinity.
It sported a long bar down the center with a mirror behind it, tables situated throughout that could be used for lunch, dinner, or pulled back for the dance floor on Friday and Saturday nights.
In the middle of a Friday afternoon, it wasn’t too busy, giving a man a chance at food and conversation with his friends.
But it wasn’t going as planned. Was it too much to expect a bit of support? “Pete? What do you say?”
Pete shrugged. “He’s right,” Peter Saxton, a grizzled ex-lawyer with thinning gray hair and a love of polo shirts spoke in his usual matter-of-fact tone. “The girl’s going to have a baby, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Pete shrugged again, as if to throw off the problem. “In this particular situation, you can’t grab a shotgun and force the man to marry her. Legally, you can’t even know his name.”
“And that’s just not right, is it? None of it is!” Red slammed his hands down on the table, forcing himself not to wince at the sting, his voice coming out louder than he’d intended. When other patrons in the bar turned their direction, Red made an attempt to lower his voice.
“All I’m saying is we have an opportunity here. Mandy’s been hurt in the past. That’s why she’s gone and done this! Now, who better than the three of us to find her a man who’s got the gumption to stick around?”
He glanced at both his friends in turn, convinced that between the three of them, they could come up with the perfect solution.
Frank dropped his gaze and bent his head until the bald spot in the back showed. He let out a sigh and tapped his fingers on the table. “Red, you’ve been trying that for years. Sons of friends, the local country club, even a newspaper ad that one time. Look how that turned out. You’ve never found the right man for her, and chances are you probably never will. Stop torturing yourself, and just accept that you’re going to have a great-grand child, and you’ll likely be the only father he ever has.”
Red’s eyebrows slammed together and he barely kept himself from hitting the table again. “What are you saying? My granddaughter isn’t pretty enough to attract a man?”
“No! You know I’m not saying that. She’s a beautiful girl, but she’s headstrong, and picky as all get out! You should know, you raised her.”
Red sat back in his chair with a sigh. “Pete? You want to weigh in on this?”
Pete swallowed a bite of turkey sandwich and took a quick sip of beer. “Frank’s right. There’s nothing wrong with the way your girl looks, but she don’t seem to want a man around, not anymore anyway, and you can’t exactly fault her for it.”
A wave of anger flooded him. “I should’ve taken my shotgun and run those first boyfriends down. I would’ve done, if I’d known it was going to affect her like this all these years later.”
Red drummed his fingers on the table. “What about Ori Schmidt? Is he still single?”
Frank sighed. “Yes, but he’s got to be thirty years older than Mandy.”
Red glared. “There are lots of May December romances about these parts. Look at the Andersons! And the Connors! Both those marriages have worked out just fine.”
His friends looked at him doubtfully. Finally, Frank said, “I think they’re only about seven and ten years apart in age, respectively.”
Pete nodded. “Thirty would be pushing it.”
Pete eyed him across the table. “I heard a rumor, that she’s engaged to be married.”
“Yep. I started that rumor myself.”
“Red!” Frank was shaking his head again. “You can’t go around doing stuff like that. Mandy finds out, and she’s going to be fit to be tied.”
Red shrugged, unconcerned. “I’m hoping it will be the truth by the time she has this baby.”
“Have you seen the doctor about your pacemaker?”
“I’m not ready for that kind of foolishness yet.”
Pete threw down his napkin. “What are you waiting for? You keel over and then it’ll be too late. I, for one, don’t want to be giving you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”
Red made a scoffing noise. “As if I’d let you! I’d rather die.”
“Well, you’re going to if you don’t get the blasted pacemaker!” Frank lost some of his calm.
Red ignored him. They had more important things to talk about. He pulled a paper from the jacket over the back of his chair and laid it on the table.
Pete pulled it toward him, took his glasses out of his breast pocket, placed them on his nose, and looked the document over. He finally shook his head. “Does Mandy know you went to the courthouse and got her a wedding license?”
“I’ll tell her when the time is right.”
“Red,” Frank put his head in his hands. “You are a meddling old fool.”
“I never said I wasn’t.”
“If Amanda was here, she’d skin you alive.”
At the thought of his feisty wife, God rest her soul, Red shot him a pleased smile. “So she would.”
They sat in silence for a moment, his so-called friends refusing to understand the gravity of the situation.
He looked at Frank again. “Are you at least praying for Mandy to find a husband? That’s sort of your job, isn’t it?”
“Maybe it would help if you came back to church on Sundays?” At Red’s glare, he raised both hands in surrender. “But don’t worry, I’m keeping her in my prayers.”
Red snorted. “Don’t seem to be working none.”
Why had she gone off and done such a thing? Didn’t she have a care for her reputation? For his reputation and standing in the community?
Pete took a healthy swig of beer and set the glass mug down. “Things are different now than when we were growing up. People don’t care as much about such things.”
The door to the bar swung open with a squeak, letting in a gust of cool, March air, and all three men turned to look in that direction.
A very large man, the spring sun at his back leaving him in silhouette, stood in the doorway. He had longish red hair, braids around his face, and there was no doubt the man was Scottish, and definitely not from around these parts.
He was wearing a kilt.
He walked inside, letting the door swing shut behind him and, boots ringing on the hardwood, approached Timmy, wiping glasses behind the bar.
“What’s your poison?” Timmy’s voice squeaked a bit as he eyed the man now standing at the end of the bar.
“Are ye the owner?” The man asked, his voice low, melodious to someone with Red’s heritage.
Timmy nodded his head in Red’s direction. “He’s sitting right over there. The guy wearing the plaid shirt.”
The man turned, and Red got a good look at him for the first time. He wasn’t a bad looking fellow, maybe a bit of a bruiser as his nose looked to have been broken at one time.
He crossed the distance between them. “Ye the owner?”
“I am. Leith Calhoun, though everyone calls me Red. How can I help you?”
“I’m Calum Milne. I’m lookin’ for a job.”
Red liked the way the other man didn’t look away, his blue-eyed gaze steady and firm. He felt a jolt go through him, an idea rising, and glanced at his friends before looking back at the Scottish lad. “Is that so? Where you from?”
“Aberdeenshire, sir. Off the coast outside Stonehaven.”
Red nodded. “I had family in Glasgow, way back when. Where are you staying?”
“I doonae have a place tae stay as of yet.”
He glanced at his friends again. Could this man possibly be the answer to Frank’s prayers?
“Do you know anything about beer?”
“O’ course. Drank ale my whole life.”
“Do you know anything about horses? Cattle?”
“I know all there is to know about horses. And I’ve had a few cattle in my time. Anything I doonae understand, I’ll pick up. I’m a fast learner.”
Red had a really good feeling about this. About him. He seemed a likely enough lad, gave off a good vibe, and might just be attractive enough to entice his stubborn granddaughter.
He looked at his friends. Pete gave a shrug, and Frank a wide-eyed nod. He could practically hear the platitudes rising in the pastor. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Red stood and held out his hand. “Name’s Red Calhoun and I’m always willing to help a fellow Scotsman.”
The bigger, younger man took his hand in a firm grasp, something else Red approved of. “Thank ye, sir. I appreciate the opportunity.”
Real hope, something he hadn’t felt in a while, bloomed in Red’s chest.
He appreciated one as well.
* * *
Mandy Calhoun turned the fried chicken in the pan, and smiled at the golden color.
Was six months pregnant too soon to nest? She wasn’t sure, but supposed it was quite possible.
She turned to take the cornbread out of the oven, gave the collard greens a quick stir, and glanced out the window.
She still couldn’t see Grandpa’s truck in the distance, and glanced at the clock on the wall.
He was only a few minutes late, but he was such a creature of habit, she figured he’d have a wonderful story to tell her over dinner all about what kept him so long.
She hoped so anyway. That would be better than the glares or worse, the worried looks.
She checked the dining room table once again, did a visual check of the perfectly set table with its everyday dishes and the Eiffel Tower salt and pepper shakers Grandma and Grandpa had picked up on their one trip to Europe years ago.
With the cooking under control, she took a moment to sit down, and rest her hand upon her stomach. “And how are you doing in there, Tyler? Michael? Landon?”
Once again none of the names sounded quite right. Her best friend, Heidi, had assured her she’d know when she hit upon the perfect name.
She glanced over at Grandpa’s place setting and sighed. She was hoping for a calm, sane dinner tonight. That would be nice.
Grandpa had been acting crazy lately. She’d heard about her fake fiancé in town today at the Family Market, and found out that he was a good-looking guy who traveled a lot.
“Austin, Henry, Brandon?” she said in an attempt to distract herself. When the little guy in her stomach gave her a nudge, she wasn’t sure if it was in approval, or dismay.
She chuckled. “Don’t you worry, we’ll figure it out.”
Names were important. She liked her old-fashioned name, and loved that she was named after her grandmother, Amanda, who’d died of breast cancer years before.
She stood to turn the chicken again, and glanced out the window looking for Grandpa. He still wasn’t driving down the lane.
Could he be avoiding her? His doom and gloom predictions were making her feel bad about her decision to have this baby without a father, but she wasn’t going to let him get to her, as she’d thought this decision out, and it was a done deal at this point.
She hadn’t told him anything about the father, but he hadn’t let the subject drop, ready to round up his friends and, with a shotgun in hand, force the guy to do right by her.
When she’d finally admitted to being artificially inseminated, he’d gone ballistic, and maybe lost his mind a bit.
He was on a low simmer now, but as she was having this baby, he’d just have to get used to the view like everyone else.
She was twenty-six, had a string of failed relationships, and had decided that it wasn’t worth it to her anymore.
That didn’t mean she didn’t get to be a mother. Not in this day and age.
She made good money, could provide a good home, and would give this child enough love he’d never feel he’d missed out on anything.
Finally, she heard the truck coming down the lane, and right on time, because the chicken was done.
Using tongs, she carefully placed the meat on a paper towel covered plate and set it in the middle of the table.
She took the salad out of the refrigerator, and grabbed a bowl for the collard greens and glanced out the window again.
She slowly set the bowl on the counter.
Grandpa had brought company.
Now, granted, they were sociable people, but lately she couldn’t help but be suspicious. The last few unexpected guests had turned out to be potential suitors. At least from her grandfather’s perspective.
He just wasn’t going to give up.
She watched her grandfather and a stranger exit the truck and the two of them stood outside, chatting across the truck. Grandpa was doing most of the talking and she could pretty much guess what he was saying.
She let out a noise of exasperation, and finished putting the greens in the bowl, set it on the table, and went back to the window.
Soon the two men crossed to the front of the truck, and the stranger was huge next to her grandfather.
Taller, thick with muscle, and wearing a kilt of all things.
Mandy shook her head. At least the men her grandfather brought home the last couple of months hadn’t been strangers.
This man? She didn’t know him from Adam.
She busied herself with getting the cornbread cut and set on the table, and was just getting out another place setting when the two men came inside.
Both men looked a bit bashful, and while she had no desire to make their visitors feel uncomfortable, she placed one hand on the back of a wooden chair and the other on her hip and gave her grandfather a wide-eyed, what the heck, look.
Grandpa cleared his throat. “Mandy, this here is Calum Milne, fresh from Scotland, a single guy looking for a job. Calum, Mandy Calhoun, my granddaughter.”
Single? Really? She wanted to shoot daggers at her grandfather, but didn’t want to make their guest uncomfortable. It wasn’t his fault her grandfather was unhinged. She let go of the chair and gave the man a nod. “Welcome, I hope you’re hungry.”
“Both of you have a seat.”
He came in from out of the shadows, and when she got a good look at him, butterflies exploded in her belly and her heart rate picked up.
Good lord. When she’d decided to get artificially inseminated, she’d looked at a lot of profiles of a lot of different men.
Looks wise, this man could almost be the father of her child.
Red hair, blue eyes, tall and well built.
She quickly seated herself at the table, waited until both men had taken their seats to offer a hand to each of them.
When Calum hesitantly took hers, it felt like the heat of his hand clung to her skin leaving her hyperaware as her fingers prickled in reaction. She was relieved to close her eyes to say grace, and quickly release him.
Not looking at him, she dished herself up some food, and then passed the plates to the men as her heart continued to thunder in her chest.
Surely not. Surely, she was mistaken about him.
She took a bite of chicken, but didn’t really taste it as she shot another quick glance at the man and then away again.
Grandpa cleared his throat. “I was thinking that after dinner I could do the dishes while you take Calum here out to the guesthouse to get him situated.”
Grandpa? Dishes? She swallowed and shot him an incredulous look. “Sure, I could do that.”
“Because, the thing is … wait, you will?” Grandpa was the one who looked flustered now.
She nodded her head. “Of course, I’d be glad to.”
Grandpa looked between the two of them and then slowly smiled. “Oh, good. That’s good then.”
Yes, she’d take the man outside to get settled, because she had a few questions to ask him.
Such as, had he ever visited a fertility clinic in Salt Lake City?
* * *
After dinner, Mandy led their guest outside. “Do you have any luggage?”
“Nae, lass. I’ve naught.”
Pang went her heart, and she had to keep herself from asking questions like, where’s your stuff, and why don’t you have anything? “No worries, the guest house is well stocked. And I think we can round up some jeans and T-shirts.”
Note to self. Go into Evanston tomorrow and pick up some clothes. Anything her grandfather owned would definitely not fit.
Walking beside him she tried not to let herself look at him directly, but could feel him beside her. Crazy.
The three dogs joined them, looking to her for guidance for how to act toward the stranger. When he offered his fingers to the two border collies, and the labrador mix, she gave the okay. “It’s all right.”
After sniffing at him, they went into spasms of delight as he squatted down and took the time to pet each one, rubbing their pelts and talking soft nonsense to them. “What are their names?”
“The mostly black one is Buddy, the bigger one is Moose, and the lab is Scout.”
“Tis been a long while since I’ve been able to pet a dog.”
“City living?” she asked, deliberately fishing. “Maybe you’ve spent some time in Salt Lake City, Utah?”
“Nae, lass, never been there.”
“Oh.” That put a nix on her next question. Whether he’d made any deposits to the local sperm bank.
So, she was mistaken.
Still, he looked a lot like the man in question and she knew she’d be running upstairs later to look at the picture she had of the man who’d fathered her child.
He was her type, apparently.
She drew in a breath and willed her heart to calm. She needed to get hold of herself.
She suddenly felt incredibly awkward and tried to think of a way to further the conversation without getting too personal. She bit back a grin. Personal, like asking if he went around fathering children for women wanting to be mothers.
Time to put that theory to rest. This wasn’t the guy and she needed to move on from the thought of it. Maybe he had a twin brother?
By the time he stood up, the dogs where his new slaves and were looking at him with adoration, tongues lolling out of their mouths, pushing close to his legs as they begged for more.
“Go on with you,” she said to the dogs.
Calum turned a brilliant smile on her, and it had her heart stuttering in her chest. “What?”
“My grandmother used tae say that all the time. Go on wi’ ye, then. It just reminded me of her.”
At her slack expression, I remind you of your grandmother? he was quick to insert, “In the best o’ ways, o’ course. Lovely woman, my grandmother.”
Mandy huffed out a laugh. “Thank you, I think.”
They started walking again, but this time it was a little more relaxed. “How many horses and cattle do ye have?”
She glanced toward the barn and the pastures beyond. “We have five thousand acres. A thousand head of cattle. Only the four horses. We have some chickens for the eggs, and the dogs, barn cats. It keeps us busy. Joe is the only ranch hand we have at the moment, and he and Grandpa will welcome any help you can give. Any idea how long you’ll be staying?”
He looked slightly perplexed, and finally said, “I’ve nae plans tae move on at the moment. I’m grateful for the work.”
Again, she felt a little flutter at the thought of the man staying, maybe permanently? It was probably her hormones acting up, the fact that he looked so similar to the father of her child, but the man was definitely doing something to her.
They arrived at the guest house, which hadn’t been used since her second cousin and her kids had come out from Missouri the year before.
She used the key to let him in. “The place is clean, and I even dusted in here about a week ago. It’s yours to use as long as you like.”
“Breakfast is at six, and Joe will text me if you guys are in need of lunch. Joe and his family live down the road and he usually goes home for lunch, so you’re welcome to come to the house even if Grandpa’s gone to the bar. Do you have a phone?”
Again, her heart went pang. He really was down on his luck. “Just have Joe let me know if you’ll be at the house or the bar.”
She went inside the living room/dining room/kitchen area and he followed making the spacious room seem smaller. “There’s a bedroom, and a bathroom through there,” she pointed at the small hallway. “The kitchen is stocked with mostly canned goods, and there are fresh eggs if you’re willing to collect them, but feel free to come to the kitchen anytime. The TV has Netflix, or there are some DVDs if you want to watch a movie.”
“Okay then, I’ll leave you to it.”
She turned to see the three dogs waiting patiently outside the door. “Looks like you won’t hurt for company. They’re allowed to come inside if you want, but they know they’re not allowed on the furniture.”
Again, he smiled, and it sort of made her breathless.
Good looking guy. Knowing her grandfather brought him home especially so she’d meet him was also doing a number on her. She’d never been tempted in the past. Was there a chance Grandpa had snooped in the file she had in her bedroom and found him for her?
Now she was the one that was unhinged.
The fact that Calum was attractive to her was neither here nor there. She could easily ignore it, and intended to do so. She had a baby to grow so she wasn’t exactly in a prime position to interest a man anyway.
Not that she wanted to.
“Don’t hesitate to let me know if you need anything. Good night.”
“Wait, lass. I’ve something I need tae ask ye.”
She almost didn’t want to turn back as what felt like a premonition shivered up her spine, but she didn’t want to be rude so she turned around and was hit fully with his presence. Big, bold, larger than life, and when his chin jutted forward in a determined way, heart-meltingly adorable. She was inclined to say yes to whatever it was he wanted to request. An advance on his payday, perhaps? “Yes?”
He looked nervous but resolute and she pasted an encouraging smile on her face so he’d be able to work up the nerve.
He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “Will ye marry me, lass?”
Mandy’s mouth dropped open and she turned away without saying a word to him to march back to the house, the gravel of the driveway crunching beneath her feet.
When she got there, she threw open the door and called out, “Grandpa!”