Today she’d let Mad Dog get too close. Far too close. Just thinking about it made her feel queasy and vulnerable and afraid. She’d let him inside her today, just a little bit and for no longer than a heartbeat, but she’d let him in all the same.
A tremor passed through her, made her fingers tremble. His quiet confession had touched something in her, made her feel warm and liquid inside, as if maybe things would someday be all right again. It was a thought she hadn’t had in years, hadn’t let herself have.
For a few precious, magical moments, she had almost believed in her old dreams, almost believed her life could be different.
She sighed. Feeling infinitely tired and old, she left her bedroom and descended the stairs. In the kitchen, she went through the motions … started a fire in the stove and pulled the food from the ice rack. But even as she buried herself in the familiar, comforting routine, she couldn’t make herself forget.
What a fool she’d been.
It had been crazy to let herself pretend. She knew the cost of looking at life through rose-colored spectacles. Mad Dog Stone offered her an easy smile and a moment’s comfort. Nothing she needed, nothing she could count on. She had to remember that. Always. He wasn’t the answer to the aching loneliness that gripped her in the long hours of the night.
He was a drifter, just passing through her life.
Maybe he wasn’t exactly like Stephen, but in the end that wouldn’t matter, wouldn’t save her from heartache. Because he was enough like Stephen.
Her heart gave a tiny lurch at the thought. Without him around, she’d go back to her old life, lonely and isolated and afraid of everything.
But that was what she wanted, she reminded herself. What made her feel safe. She had to protect herself from Mad Dog and from herself. She had to make sure that when he left—and he would leave—he didn’t take her heart with him. She couldn’t survive that again. She wasn’t strong enough.
And the only way to be sure he didn’t take her heart with him was not to give it to him.
She hauled a big cast-iron skillet from beneath the stove and dropped it on the range top. It landed with a loud clang. She added a dollop of lard and a bunch of sausage and leftover mashed potatoes and onions. The foods slid together in a splattering, popping mixture.
Suddenly the front door creaked open. "Go on into the kitchen. I’ll be right back,"
came her father’s voice from the foyer.
Mariah’s heartbeat sped up at the thought of seeing Mad Dog again. Please help me be strong. …
Stiffening, she picked up the pepper sprinkler and added a healthy dose to the food.
"Hi, Rass. Mad Dog," she called out, careful not to look their way. "Supper’s almost ready."
The front door clicked shut. Quiet footsteps moved through the foyer and into the kitchen. "H-Hi."
Mariah glanced at the doorway. And found herself staring into the face of a young boy with large, frightened green eyes and tousled red-gold hair. He was thin, too thin, his face all hollows and sharp points, looked almost elfin. But he had strong cheekbones and a squared jaw that would someday make him a handsome man. He was wearing a dirty, patched blue work shirt and oversize wool trousers, hitched around his small waist with a thick black belt.
Her heart skidded to a stop. The aluminum pepper sprinkler slipped through her nerveless fingers and clanked on the hardwood floor. For one crazy, terrifying moment, she thought she was looking at a ghost—an image created by her own guilty, lonely mind. "Thomas," she whispered throatily.
The boy licked his lips nervously. "I’m Jake," he said in an unsteady voice. "Mr.
Throckmorton invited me to supper. I’m his new assistant."
Mariah blinked in confusion. "I don’t understand. .. ."
Rass shuffled into the room. "Ah, Mariah, I see you’ve met our young guest."
Slowly the tilting world righted itself. Mariah’s hopeful, impossible image slid into reality.
She stared at the boy, really seeing him this time. Disappointment poured through her, leaving her shaken and desperately sad in its backwash. No ghost, she realized; just a young man. A dirty, ragged-clothed boy with strawberry blond hair and green eyes.
Of course it couldn’t be Thomas. .. .
She swallowed hard, fighting to regain her equilibrium. "Jake." As hard as she tried, she couldn’t make her voice anything but a tremulous whisper.
"He’s going to help me catalog my fossils."
Marian nodded, too stunned to even point out that she cataloged her father’s fossils.
Too dumbfounded to even feel criticized. "That’s … wonderful." She moved hesitantly toward the boy. Her fingers stung with the need to touch his cheek, to push the dirty hair from his eyes. To be the mother she never had been, never could be.
She came up short, stopping before she made a complete fool of herself. She glanced at her father. "Where did you find him?"
Jake threw a frightened look a Rass.
Rass shrugged. "He … uh … answered my other ad at Ma’s Diner. He’s just passing through and needed some extra money."
Just passing through. Mariah tried not to be hurt by the familiar words. She shrugged, wondering what she could say to this boy. He was probably at least fifteen years old; far too old to need a mother or mothering. And yet her instincts were so strong, almost overwhelming. It took all her strength and self-control not to move toward him or offer to wash his clothes. "Oh . . ."
"I-Is that okay with you?" Jake asked.
Mariah looked at the boy, seeing the nervous tensing of his mouth and the way he kept rubbing his palms along his wool pant legs. An aching tenderness unfolded within her. He was alone in the world; somehow she was sure of it. As alone as she and Rass. She wished she could take the pain of that away from him. No one so young should ever be alone or lonely or afraid.
She gave him a soft smile. "Of course it’s all right. You’re welcome here, Jake." The words echoed back at her, filled her with desperate longings she thought she’d forgotten years ago. She crossed her arms. Her empty, empty arms.
So welcome . ..
He glanced down at the floor. A thick lock of hair fell across his eyes. "Thanks."
"Here," Rass said, showing him to the table. "I’ll set you a place."
Mariah stared at the boy a moment longer, then forced herself to turn away. Moving stiffly, she went to the stove and added more sausages and potatoes and onions to the pan.
But her hands were shaking and her heart was racing. Between Mad Dog’s touch and Jake’s presence, she felt frighteningly out of control, as if the world she’d spent fifteen years creating had just tilted on its end. And everything she wanted, everything she believed in and had fought for, was slowly, irrevocably sliding into the darkness of the unknown, the unmanageable.
Things were changing too fast. She was feeling things she hadn’t felt in a lifetime, and it scared her to death.
God, help me . ..
But this time the words didn’t help. She didn’t even know what to ask for.
Jake sat at the table, his back stiff, his knees held tightly together. He stared down at his hands, pressed palm-down on his thighs. His heart was hammering so hard, he couldn’t hear anything else.
"You been .. . outta … long, Jake? Jake?"
He blinked hard and snapped his chin up. Across the table, Rass was peering at him intently, the old man’s bushy white eyebrows drawn in a concerned vee above his blue eyes.
"Uh . .. sorry, sir. What did you say?"
Rass smiled. "I didn’t say anything. Mariah asked if you’d been out this way for long."
Jake glanced over at the woman. She was standing by the stove, staring at him in the soft, gentle way his mother had. He swallowed hard, feeling a rush of embarrassing emotion. She looked .. . caring. Almost as if he mattered. But that was crazy. "Sorta long."
"Oh." She gave him a smile that made his insides feel like they were melting.
He tried to think of something else to say, but before he could, someone knocked on the front door.
Jake froze. His fingers coiled into a sweaty ball of nerves. Suddenly he wasn’t ready to do this. He wanted to sneak back into the shadows and put off the inevitable.
Mad Dog wouldn’t accept a long-lost son, wouldn’t care. Jake had no business here….
"Will you get the door, Mariah?" Rass said.
Jake’s anxious gaze cut to Mariah; he hoped she’d do something to stop Mad Dog from coming in.
For a second he thought she might stop the inevitable. She looked as nervous as he felt. But in the end, she didn’t. She smoothed her hands on her wrinkled apron and left the room.
Jake heard the door creak open, then came the rumbling sound of Mad Dog’s voice.
Then the woman said something he couldn’t hear. Her voice sounded fluttery and nervous—just like Jake felt.
Oh, God, Mama …Oh, God …
Mad Dog sauntered into the warm, cozy kitchen. He stood in the doorway, hat tilted back on his head to reveal a smiling, suntanned face. His threadbare black shirt drooped on his broad shoulders, the open collar exposing a gaping slash of dark chest. Old, faded blue jeans hugged his long legs.
"Well, well," he said with a deepening smile. "Who we got here, Mariah?"
Jake lurched to his feet so fast, the chair skidded out behind him and crashed to the floor. Heat crawled up his neck and fanned across his cheeks. He yanked his fingers apart and forced his hands to his sides.
Mad Dog swept the hat from his head and tossed it on the Peerless creamery. It landed with a muffled thwack. Running a hand through his shoulder-length, sun-streaked hair, he strolled toward the table.
Each thud-thud-thud of bootheels on the planked floor seemed thunderously loud.
Jake flinched at every step.
Mad Dog held out his hand in greeting. "Hiya, kid. I’m Mad Dog."
Jake’s throat went bone-dry. He stared at the hand extended toward him and thought of his own sweaty palms. He cleared his throat and tried unobtrusively to wipe his hand on his pant leg, then reached out.
Mad Dog’s long, strong fingers curled around Jake’s and squeezed hard. "You got a name, kid?"
Jake’s chin snapped up. He looked into Mad Dog’s gray eyes and felt a surge of emotion so strong it was almost overwhelming. He’d never been this close to his father. It was a moment he’d dreamed of all his life, but never actually believed would happen. Longing spilled through him in a sickening wave.
"I’m Jake," he said quietly, afraid his voice would crack if he tried more.
Mad Dog started to extract his hand, but Jake couldn’t let go. He clung to his father’s hand for a heartbeat too long, desperate to maintain the connection he’d waited all his life to find.
Mad Dog frowned, pulled a little harder.
Jake forced his fingers open and withdrew his hand.
"So." Mad Dog turned to Mariah. Looping his thumbs inside the waistband of his frayed jeans, he turned his back on Jake and headed for the range. "What’s for supper tonight?"
Jake stared at the man’s broad-shouldered back and felt a rush of anger. He’d been dismissed, forgotten.
One thing you gotta remember about your daddy, Jake. Mad Dog forgets things easy. It’s just the way he is.
His mother’s words came back to Jake, calmed him. He let out his breath softly, and felt the anger dissolve. It wouldn’t be easy getting Mad Dog’s attention, and even harder to keep it. He’d known that all along. His mother had told him so. Mad Dog was a loner who never stayed in one place too long and never cared about anyone but himself.