It took them almost an hour to get to the ranch the Coloradan mentioned. He must know the road because Nick couldn’t see a thing through the snow-speckled windshield.
Suddenly drained now that the real crunch was over, Nick didn’t feel like struggling to make conversation. Except for telling Nick where the thermos was and asking him to pour a cup, the big man also remained silent the whole time. Nick excused him with the admission that driving in these conditions was seriously demanding.
Not until they staggered together into the kitchen at the ranch did Nick get a good look at his Samaritan. Nick was five-ten and worked out enough to keep a trim physique, but even the body-builder types at his gym couldn’t stand up to this man. Nick simply stood and gawked as the rancher peeled off his parka, the heavy padded coverall, hung them and his hat on some big spikes by the back door and then kicked off his soaked boots. Standing there in stocking feet, he stretched, his fingertips brushing the ceiling. Next he rolled shoulders almost as wide as the doorway, then flashed Nick a rueful grin.
“Guess we might take time now for introductions. I’m Caleb Storm. I was born in this house thirty-six years ago come July. I’ve lived here all my life, except the four years I was in the Army. My folks left the ranch to me when they passed on. Only have one sister and she isn’t cut out for ranch life. Life story in a nutshell.”
Nick nodded. “I’m Nick LeGrande. My trade is a kind of mixture of landscape architect, site planner, and crazy dreamer. Home base now is in Philadelphia, but I grew up in western New York. I was trying to get to Denver from the airport when the blizzard hit. I guess I took a wrong turn somewhere, but you couldn’t see past the hood half the time. I grew up with snow, but it wasn’t anything like this. Do you get these white-out conditions a lot?”
“Off and on. We’ll have a real blizzard at least a couple of times most winters, sometimes more. I know it can be dangerous, but I work around it best I can. Right now I’m just hoping none of my heifers decide to drop their calves tonight. A wise, old range cow might make it with her baby, but the green young ones won’t.”
Nick had only the vaguest idea what Caleb was talking about, but then, it really didn’t matter. He was too caught up in studying the bigger man to think about anything as esoteric as cattle giving birth. Normally he looked and then moved on from men he met, but this Caleb Storm was an exceptionally arresting specimen.
The rancher’s hatchet-sharp face, though roughhewn, was balanced and striking. A pair of keen gray eyes looked as if they never missed anything, however insignificant. Never try to lie to this man.
The unexpected thought flashed through Nick’s mind.
In the flat light of a single ceiling fixture, Caleb’s hair was shining blue-black, probably well past his shoulders when he didn’t have twisted up in that odd bunch at the back of his head. The wind had torn a few strands free. They drifted down over the bright striped yokes of his western-cut shirt.
A sharp, squeaky bark from Cedric recalled Nick’s attention to the carrier at his feet. A ragged-looking dog with strange, blotchy markings had ambled over to sniff at the carrier. Inside, Cedric was working himself into a complete frenzy. He didn’t get to see other dogs too often and this one really seemed to push his buttons. The carrier bounced like a cardboard boat on a windswept pond as Cedric spun in circles, folding himself almost double to do it. Each bark got a little more shrill.
“Why don’t you let your dog out? He’s going to bust that pocketbook wide open in a few more minutes anyway.”
Glancing askance at the splotchy dog that still nosed around the carrier, Nick reached down and tugged the zipper open. Cedric shot out like a fluffy, white cannon ball. The bigger dog sat back in surprise, eyeing the flying bundle of fur with suspicion.
Caleb obviously shared the sentiment. “What the hell kind of dog is that? It looks like a dust mop on roller skates, and I’ve seen bigger cats. If I hadn’t heard it make definite doggie noises, I’d never guess it was canine.”
Nick had to come to his pet’s defense. “He’s a Maltese. Although they’re actually related to spaniels, some call them Maltese Terriers. Breed’s been around a long time. Cedric has a pedigree as long as your arm. He’ll slow down in a minute. It’s been a traumatic day for him.” Dropping to one knee, Nick snapped his fingers. “Come here, Cedric.”
Cedric came barreling back across the room and launched himself into Nick’s arms. The speckled gray dog approached with a good deal more dignity. Nick started to lift Cedric out of the other dog’s reach.
“No, it’s okay. Chey won’t hurt it. She may think it’s a puppy and pretty near love it to death, but she won’t hurt the little critter. Maltese Terror, huh? If that don’t beat all.”
With that comment, Caleb began to bustle around the kitchen, which felt almost like a sauna in contrast to the bitter cold outside. He poured two more cups of coffee from the thermos and set one in front of Nick, who’d sunk onto one of the mismatched chairs that hovered around the big, round wooden dining table in one corner of the room.
Cedric perched on Nick’s knees, looking down at the spotted gray dog with a fascinated stare. That dog had settled on the floor about two feet from Nick and Cedric and stared back at them with uncanny blue-white eyes.
“What kind of dog is this one you have? It looks a little like a hyena.”
Caleb gave a snorting laugh. “Hyena? They’re not even canine! Cheyenne’s Australian Shepherd and Blue Heeler, my senior herd dog now. Age has its privileges. She’s the only one allowed in the house—on account of her arthritis. She was born right in this room, one of the last litter my boyhood pet gave us. Hyena? Aren’t you getting things crossed up? Might be thinking of dingoes, the wild dogs of Australia, kinda like our coyotes. Heelers come from down under and most of them are said to carry some dingo blood.
“Go on and put your pup down. They’ll be all right. Chey wouldn’t hurt a baby rabbit. She prob’ly thinks that dog of yours is a funny kind of lamb. I’ve got a few sheep along with my cattle, and she believes they’re her special charges.”
Nick eased Cedric to the floor. The small dog began to dance in circles around the bigger one. Finally Cheyenne stood and shook herself. Then, using her nose, she steered Cedric to her special place behind the stove. Nick could almost hear her saying, “Come on, kid, this is where the dogs hang out here. See, it’s nice and cozy.”
Apparently Cedric agreed it was a good place. Within minutes he was asleep, curled into a ball between Cheyenne’s extended forelegs. She rested her muzzle on her right leg and dozed off too.
Once Nick assured himself that Cedric was essentially in good hands, he turned his attention back to his host. If Caleb was reluctant to have his home invaded by a total stranger, he concealed it well. Another astonishing thing was how comfortable the big man seemed to be in the kitchen. Although he moved at what seemed a leisurely pace, it wasn’t long before he had a meal fixed. He started to dish up two plates.
“I’m keeping this light,” he explained. “It’s pretty late and trying to sleep on a belly full of heavy food isn’t a good idea.”
The result didn’t look too light to Nick. Caleb set a plate full of steaming stew with a fluffy biscuit on the side in front of Nick, resting a hand briefly on Nick’s shoulder as he reached around to the table. The touch seemed totally impersonal, yet it sent a shivery jolt of awareness along Nick’s nerves.
Wait a minute. What’s this all about? I guess I’m just strung out and tired. It can’t be anything else
. It felt like his submerged longing for a special relationship was coming to the surface. Too risky! How could he have anything to do with this giant of a man whose life was so far from Nick’s world?
The stew smelled delicious, but Nick recalled his mother’s relentless schooling in manners. He waited until Caleb settled into an opposite chair with his own filled plate. Then Nick reached for his fork, stopping midreach in surprise. Caleb had bowed his head over his plate and obviously offered a silent prayer for the food. Only after that did he pick up a fork and begin to eat. Then Nick dug in as well. The food was just as good as the aromas, if not better.
“This is great,” Nick complimented, as he wiped up the last bits of gravy with the final scrap of biscuit. “I could hire you for a cook! My culinary talents are barely adequate at best. I’ve gotta admit, I eat a lot of fast food and prepared meals.”
Caleb looked up, a smile softening his austere face. “I was in food service in the Army. Before that, my mother insisted I learn my way around the kitchen just as she and Dad made my sister learn some basics of maintaining an automobile and making small household repairs. When you live in the country, you can’t always afford the luxury of traditional roles. Any person, man or woman, needs to be able to do whatever has to be done. You can’t always go to the café down the street or call a mechanic or a plumber.”
Nick nodded. “That makes a lot of sense. When I was a kid, the older of my two sisters did the household stuff because Mom was generally working. Sometimes she held down two jobs to keep the family fed, clothed, and sheltered. Single parenting is no easy task. I usually had an after-school job from about age twelve on. We all pitched in as best we could.” Although he wasn’t sure why, Nick wanted to erase any impression he was one of the privileged class and used to luxury. He sensed Caleb would have little respect for anyone in that category. And despite all reasons to the contrary, he did want the rancher to respect him. At least that…
Somewhere out of sight a clock chimed twice. Was it really two a.m.? In spite of himself, Nick yawned.
“If you’ll point me at a bed, I’ll put it to good use. I’ve been up and on the go for about twenty-two hours now. A warm meal and I’m ready to conk out like Cedric’s done.”
Caleb hesitated a moment. “That’s where a problem rears its head. I only have one bed. I took my old room and made it my office and the room that Sissy used is stacked to the ceiling with the folks’ old stuff I’ve never found time to sort through and get rid of. I guess I can throw a bedroll down out here on the floor and let you have the bed. I expect I’m more used to sleeping on the ground than you are.”
His tone wasn’t quite condescending but Nick still bridled. “I was in Boy Scouts and I still get out camping at least a time or two every year. I don’t want to put you out. Give me a blanket and a pillow and I’ll be fine.”
Caleb shrugged negligently. “Whatever. It’s a king-size bed. If you aren’t uncomfortable with sharing, I guess there’s room for both of us.” He held Nick’s gaze as he spoke, a peculiar intensity in his face, as if he was waiting to see how Nick would respond to the suggestion.
Affecting a level of nonchalance he didn’t really feel, Nick nodded. “Sure. Why not? Unless you snore like the roar of a lion, I don’t think you’ll bother me.” Whether his presence would bother the rancher was something else entirely. If he was honest, he had to admit he’d like to bother the big man in a most pleasant way.