"Miz Throckmorton," he drawled, scratching his nak*d chest. "What a pleasant surprise."
She jerked her chin up—anything to keep from staring at his chest—and found herself gazing into warm, inviting gray eyes. He smiled down at her. The flesh around his eyes crinkled invitingly, his thick mustache bunched up. She drew in a sharp breath and stiffened, shoving the basket toward him. "Here’s your breakfast."
That was all he said, just "thanks," but in the dark, chilly beginnings of an autumn morning, his voice sounded warm and rich and … beguiling. Mariah shivered at the intensity of her reaction to it.
She winced at his perceptiveness and felt suddenly exposed. "No," she snapped. "I am not cold, and it wouldn’t be any of your business if I were." She crossed her arms and glared at him. "Get dressed and meet me here in one hour. Farm work starts early."
"That’s only one of the things I hate about it," he said with a throaty, vibrating laugh.
"I suppose you’ve concocted an especially enticing chore for me this morning?"
She felt just a tinge of satisfaction. "I have."
His cocky grin faded. "What?"
She smiled. "The pigpen."
By four o’clock that afternoon, Mad Dog realized he’d been lied to. All his life he’d heard that pigs were smart animals. But now, after mucking through their shit for six hours, he knew it was a hoax. Pigs were the dumbest, dirtiest animals on the face of the earth.
He jammed the shovel in the thick, oozing mud and rested against the wooden handle.
She was doing it to him again, trying to kill him.
He closed his eyes briefly, feeling the once comforting and now brutal warmth of the sun on his face.
Yanking his hat down over his eyes, he wondered fleet-ingly if a man could sleep standing up.
A hog bumped against his legs and sniffed at his crotch.
He stumbled sideways. His boots caught in the pungent muck and he fell, face-first, into the goo. When he looked up, he saw a pair of prim, lace-up canvas boots. •
"Need a hand, Mr. Stone?"
Gritting his teeth, Mad Dog planted his bare hands in the mud and pushed upward.
Through a painful blur, he saw Miss Button-up looming in front of him like some evil brown bird of prey.
She was standing behind the low-slung slatted fence, her feet ankle to ankle, her small, pale hands at her sides. A dull brown-striped sunbonnet shielded her face, but nothing could hide her superior smile. It was as bright as the sun. And her eyes were glitteringly hard.
She was gloating again.
He moved fast. Launching himself forward, he took hold of her hand in a greasy, oozing grip and hauled himself to his feet. "Why, thanks, Miz Throckmorton," he said, standing directly in front of her, "a hand is exactly what I needed."
A look of pure horror twisted her face. She stared down at her muddy hand and skirt. Then she snapped her gaze to his, and this time there was no superior smile, no condescension. Only white-hot anger. "I should have known . .."
He grinned and tipped his filthy hat back. "Of course you should have."
"Are you finished?"
He nodded and swept a hand toward the pen. "The containers are clean, the water trough is fixed, the beds are raked, the manure’s piled, the mud is chunkless, and those goddamn hogs are as pink as a baby’s butt."
She gave him a curdled, disapproving frown. "Good."
"And best of all, I’m still here." He clapped his hands together. Mud flew on impact.
She lurched backward a second too late. Dark, slimy specks splattered her dress.
"Sorry about that." He smiled broadly. "Guess you shoulda stayed away from the work area."
"I didn’t think there’d be one."
"Seems I’m making a habit of proving you wrong."
She said nothing, just glared at him.
He tried to brush the muck off his pants, but it just smeared down his legs. "Christ, I smell like—" he grinned and looked up at her "—shit."
"Don’t worry, it’s not a noticeable change. Supper’s in thirty minutes. Don’t be late to pick it up."
Before he could answer, she was off.
Mad Dog watched her leave. Her back was ramrod-straight, her hands fisted at her sides. He didn’t need to see her face to know that it was screwed into an irritated pinch. Those full lips of hers were probably pressed into a pale white line.
He smiled. She might look like a tall, unforgiving bird, but that butt of hers sure twitched nicely beneath all that washed-out brown skirting. …
Brushing off his hat, he strolled to the pump and washed in the painfully cold water, getting as much shit and mud out of his hair and clothes as possible. He wished like hell he hadn’t lost his razor in Abilene. He could use a shave.
He twisted his wet shirt and stared at the meticulously tended farmhouse. Absently he tugged at his drooping mustache. He still couldn’t quite figure out why he was still here. It went against everything in his nature—working like a common laborer and taking shit from Miss Button-up. Pig shit.
He should be on his way to Sonora by now.
But there wasn’t anything in Sonora that was half as fun as ruffling the schoolmarm.
Challenging her, testing her mettle, was beginning to be downright fun. She was a surprisingly worthy opponent. She had the tenacity of a goddamn bulldog.
He bounded up the porch steps and skidded to a stop at the front door. Before he could even knock, the door banged open.
Rass stood in the opening grinning wide. "There you are, son. I was just coming to get you."
Mad Dog gave his shirt another good twist and then put it on. The damp fabric stuck to his flesh. "No need for that, professor. I’m just here to pick up my supper."
Rass stepped back across the threshold. "Pick it up? No need for that, son. You’re welcome to eat inside. Surely Mariah invited you. . . ."
Mad Dog grinned. He could practically hear Mariah grinding her teeth. "Naw, she musta forgot to mention it."
"Well, come on in."
Mad Dog followed the professor into the warm house. A darkly paneled foyer curled around him, offering a beautiful embroidered bench to the weary. A gaslit hallway led to two closed doors. To his right was the parlor, a cozy room painted the color of summer roses and cluttered with ornate mahogany furniture. Family pictures covered the wallpapered walls and littered the tables.
Rass turned to the left and went into the kitchen. It was a large, square room with a glistening hardwood floor and an oval dining table. A huge, six-hole stove and free-standing sink lined the left wall; above the sink, a small window flanked by faded yellow curtains overlooked the porch and farm. Dozens of pale yellow crockery plates, pitchers, bowls, lay in perfect array in a polished oak dresser. A small icebox was tucked in the corner alongside the sink. The walls were papered in demure yellow and rose stripes.
Mariah eyed him, a small frown pulling at her mouth.
He grinned at her, tipped his hat. "Evenin’."
She stared at him, unmoving.
Rass smiled at his daughter. "You forgot to invite him in for supper last night. But I remembered."
She tried to smile. "I’m so glad."
"Well . . ." Rass’s gaze bobbed from Mariah to Mad Dog and back to Mariah. The silence stretched between them, became uncomfortable.
"Sit down," she said finally, turning back to the stove.
Mad Dog followed Rass to the table and took a seat. Mariah dished up supper and sat down across from him.
Mad Dog stared at the food on his plate, feeling strangely uncomfortable for a moment. He felt Mariah’s eyes on him. She was no doubt waiting to see if he’d eat like an animal. And he probably would. He didn’t know shit about table manners.
In his childhood, there’d never been a table; no mother teaching table etiquette. He just grabbed some bread off a passing cart and shoved it down his throat. And lately, on the train line, it had been no different. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d sat down at a table to eat a meal.
He didn’t look up, didn’t make eye contact with anyone. Slowly, hoping like hell he wasn’t doing something wrong, he picked up his fork.
He cast a quick, surreptitious glance around. Mariah was quietly spearing a chunk of potato with her fork, and Rass was using his spoon to shove all his food into a single, unappetizing pile.
Mad Dog let out his breath in a relieved sigh. He wasn’t being watched at all, no one cared in the least about his manners. The irritating sense of discomfort disappeared.
Smiling, he picked up his knife and started sawing through the sugar-glazed ham.
"So, son," Rass said, his mouth full. "Where are you from?"
Mad Dog took a satisfying taste of potato before he answered. "Chicago."
"Do you have family there?"
Mad Dog smiled. Something inside him softened for a second, remembered. "My ma died when I was a boy."
Rass closed his eyes in sympathy, then said softly, "I’m sorry. How ’bout your dad?"
"He left one day for a tin of tobacco and never came back. I heard tell he died."
His gaze caught Marian’s across the table. She immediately lowered her lashes. "I …
"Don’t be. He was a lousy drunk who couldn’t hold down a decent job."
She tilted her chin up. Their eyes met again, but neither said a word. He felt a sudden jolt of communion with her, as if she knew what it felt like to be abandoned, which was absurd.
The rest of the meal passed in a comfortable silence. When it was over, Marian stood up and began clearing the dishes from the table. At the sink, she stacked the dishes on the slopstone and turned on the spigot. Water gushed from the indoor pipe and splashed into the metal bucket in the sink. "Mr. Stone," she said over her shoulder, "tomorrow is washday. You may leave your things on the porch."
"What if I don’t have anything to wash?"
Wiping her hands on her apron, she turned to face him. Her narrowed gaze swept him from head to foot, noting the smearing of dirt on his sleeves and shirt. "You do."
"Then I’ll do it."
She gave him a grim smile. "I’m sure you will … someday. I’d just prefer it was done—" she sniffed delicately "—quickly."
He shrugged. "Okay. If you want to wash my underwear that bad—"
She gasped. Embarrassment or anger—he wasn’t sure which—stained her cheeks.
She opened her mouth—no doubt for a stinging retort.
He grinned. "Yes, Miss Throckmorton?"
Her teeth came together with an audible click. He could almost see her fighting for composure. "Mr. Stone, I believe I’ll let you harvest the apples tomorrow morning."
He frowned. Let you harvest the apples? She made it sound as if she were granting him a rare, undeserved, treat.
"It’s a difficult task, of course, but I suspect that if you concentrate, you’ll do an acceptable job. The whole orchard takes about a week to harvest. We may as well begin while you’re here."
He understood now. She thought he was dim-witted. "A difficult job … picking fruit?"
She gave him a sour look. "It is not as easy as it sounds, Mr. Stone. First thing tomorrow morning, you will go to the root cellar. There you’ll find five barrels.