This was going to be disastrous.
“Not exactly,” Aundy said, realizing it might have been a good idea to involve Dent in her decision, but she was sure he, like Garrett, would have done his best to dissuade her from buying the sheep and she’d already made up her mind.
“Look, Aundy, I think you…”
Placing her hand over Garrett’s mouth again, Aundy fought the tremor that shot from her fingers up her arm and spiraled down to her toes. The feel of his lips beneath her fingers made her wish he’d take her in his arms and kiss her again in the very worst way. She didn’t want to think about why she wanted, needed, him to hold her. She just knew that she did.
“I’m not changing my mind, Garrett. It’s my decision to make and mine alone. If it’s a mistake, I’ll face the consequences,” Aundy said, yanking back her hand like it was singed and getting to her feet. “I do appreciate your concern and you riding over here to make sure I made it home without incident. I’d be happy to take care of the Chinese man if you think he could be moved.”
“Leave him be. It gives Ma someone to fuss over,” Garrett said, wondering how Aundy’s fingers had started a fire that burned from his lips all the way to the tips of his toes. He could hardly function with his thoughts so centered on Aundy’s lips and his desire to kiss them until neither of them could think.
Knowing he needed to leave before he got any more out of line, he walked to the front room, slipped on his gloves and grabbed his hat.
“Will you at least let me go with you to sign the paperwork with O’Connell?” Garrett asked as he stood with one hand on the doorknob.
“Perhaps,” Aundy said with a teasing smile. Despite her best intentions to stay away from Garrett, she couldn’t stop her fingers from brushing softly over the little cleft in his chin that had intrigued her from the first time she’d noticed it. “If you promise to let me make the deal and behave yourself.”
“I always behave,” Garrett said, giving in to the temptation to wrap his arms around Aundy’s waist. He pulled her against him and breathed of her scent again, getting a tiny whiff of Bay Rum. That cooled his desire as he reminded himself of the heap of trouble she could have gotten herself into with her shenanigans. Kissing her cheek, he placed his hat on his head and opened the door. “You didn’t say if I had to behave well or like a wild ruffian. I’ll assume either will do.”
Aundy laughed as Garrett hurried down the steps and across the yard to where his horse waited. She stood watching him mount Jester in the gathering darkness, waving at him before closing the door. Turning out the lights, she hoped her decision would turn out to be sound.
If not, she’d soon know.
Tired of pacing the kitchen floor waiting for the phone to ring Monday morning, Aundy finally sat down at the table with one of the books J.B. let her borrow and read the chapter on sheep again. She hoped Mr. O’Connell would call and prayed she hadn’t made a bad decision.
Absorbed in the information she was reading, she jumped when the phone rang. Rushing to answer it, she smiled when she heard the lyrical Irish voice of Mr. O’Connell on the line.
“Yes, this is Mrs. Erickson,” Aundy said, wanting to dance a jig that the man had called like he said he would. “May I help you?”
“I’d like to think so,” Mr. O’Connell said. Aundy could hear the smile in his voice. “I met a boyo Friday night who indicated the fair and lovely Mrs. Erickson might take a shine to the flock of critters I have for sale. If that is correct, would ya have time to meet me in town today to discuss the details? If they are satisfactory to both parties, we could sign the paperwork and I could bring the animals to ya tomorrow. It’s with haste and hurry I am to be on me way to the sunny warmth of California.”
“That would be satisfactory, Mr. O’Connell,” Aundy said, grinning from ear to ear. She asked him to meet her at her attorney’s office and thanked him for the call. Hanging up the phone, she quickly placed a call to Nash’s Folly, relieved when Garrett answered the phone.
“Mr. Nash, this is Mrs. Erickson,” Aundy said, all too aware of the many ears no doubt listening to their conversation since the phone lines were far from being private. “I have a business matter to conduct today and was hoping you might offer your insight into the matter. Would you be able to provide your assistance?”
“I’d be happy to, Mrs. Erickson,” Garrett said, keeping her formal tone. “What time shall I expect to meet with you?”
“I could stop by around ten on my way into town, if that wouldn’t be in imposition,” Aundy said. Wanting to ask how the Chinese man was doing, if Garrett was still mad at her, and if he’d experienced as much difficulty sleeping as she had after sharing such heat-filled kisses the other night, she instead squeezed her lips together to keep from blurting out something she shouldn’t.
Now that she’d set the wheels in motion for buying the sheep, she was frightened of what she’d done. What if she invested the money in the flock and they ended up being worthless, or causing all her hands to quit?
“I’ll see you then,” Garrett said, then hung up.
Aundy was sure that meant he was still upset over her escapade Friday evening.
Finishing a few things around the house, Aundy took a bath and washed her hair, dressed in one of her nicest suits with a frothy ruffle of lace at the throat of the shirtwaist, and packed a basket with cookies she’d made earlier that morning. Picking up her reticule, she gathered a pair of creamy gloves to go with her buttery-yellow and cream striped outfit, and pinned a hat on her head.
Realizing she should have hitched the horse to the buggy before she got dressed, she hoped one of the men would be nearby. Fortunately, she discovered Glen mending tack at the barn. It took him just a few minutes to hitch a horse to the buggy and have Aundy on her way to Nash’s Folly.
Parking the buggy at the end of the walk, she hurried up the steps and gave a perfunctory knock at the front door before sticking her head inside.
“Aundy, don’t you look like a picture of spring today. That soft yellow color is a perfect complement for your hair,” Nora said, giving Aundy a warm hug as she pulled her inside the house and accepted the basket of cookies the girl held out to her.
“You won’t believe what Garrett dragged home the other night,” Nora said, taking Aundy’s hand, once she’d set down her reticule and removed her gloves, leading her to a bedroom near the kitchen.
“A puppy?” Aundy asked, giving Nora a silly grin.
“No, you goose,” Nora said, “A man from China.”
“Oh,” Aundy said, following Nora into the room. The man looked even worse in the morning light than he had Friday night in the evening shadows. His face was a swollen mess and he slept on one side with his knees slightly bent. Aundy felt pity for the man and the pain he had to be feeling. Maybe they really should have the doctor take a look at him. “Will he be okay?”
“I think so. Other than a few cracked ribs and his poor face, he didn’t seem to have any other injuries. He doesn’t speak very good English, but we think he said his name is Li Hong.”
“Li Hong,” Aundy repeated, testing out the foreign name. She hoped Li Hong wouldn’t remember her part in his coming to be at Nash’s Folly.
He opened one eye, the one not swollen shut, and glanced first at Nora then at Aundy. His eyes widened when he saw her, but he held her gaze. When he didn’t appear to plan to say anything, Aundy released the breath she was holding.
“Mr. Hong, this is our neighbor, Aundy Erickson. She lives on the next farm over,” Nora said, making introductions.
Aundy took a step closer to the bed and nodded her head at him. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr. Hong.” Uncertain if she should extend her hand, nod her head or bow, Aundy decided just to offer him a warm smile. “I hope you aren’t in too much pain.”
“No,” Li said, working up something that could have been a smile had one side of his mouth not been swollen. “Li fine.”
Aundy smiled again and backed toward the door. She was glad he could talk and seemed coherent. It must have been frightening for him to wake up in a strange place, beaten and in pain.
“I’ll get you a fresh glass of water, Mr. Hong,” Nora said, following Aundy out the door and to the kitchen where J.B. sat reading a newspaper and drinking coffee.
“Well, look at you, Aundy. Don’t you look like summer sunshine today,” J.B. said, offering her a smile that reminded her so much of Garrett as he helped himself to a handful of cookies from the basket Nora set on the table.
“Thank you, J.B. I need to pay a visit to my attorney and then possibly the bank, so I decided I better be dressed for the part.”
“She has a talent for dressing the part,” Garrett said, giving her a wicked smile as he strolled into the room. Dressed in pressed pants with a crisp shirt, light coat and vest, Aundy thought he looked too handsome for words. The burgundy vest and dark gray coat accented the liquid silver of his eyes and the rich color of his dark brown hair.
“Lands sakes, honey, what’s got you all dressed up?” Nora asked, knowing Garrett much preferred to wear the denim waist overalls the cowhands all wore with a soft cotton shirt than his “fancy duds” as he and J.B. called their town clothes.
“I promised Aundy I’d go with her to meet a man about some business she wants to conduct this morning. If you want more detail than that, you’ll have to pry it out of her,” Garrett said, kissing his mother’s cheek and grabbing his hat off a peg by the back door.
“Shall we?” Garrett asked, holding out his arm to Aundy.
She rolled her eyes, but placed her hand gingerly on his offered arm. “I’ll give you all the details when we return,” Aundy said to Nora who looked at her expectantly. “Can we bring anything for Mr. Hong?”
“I can’t think of a thing,” Nora said, waving them out the door. “Remember, I want all the news when you get back. We didn’t get to visit at all yesterday and I’m feeling neglected.”
“Yes, Ma,” Garrett called, settling his hat on his head once they were outside the door.
Glancing at Garrett from the top of his dark cattleman’s hat to the tips of his freshly polished boots, Aundy thought he looked far more handsome than Ashton Monroe ever would.
She was still irritated at Ashton for treating her so roughly in the saloon, even if he didn’t know who she was. He shouldn’t be that brusque with anyone.
While Ashton was what she’d call aristocratic in appearance, Garrett was all muscle and rugged man with a little rogue thrown in to further discombobulate her senses.
The strong arm that helped her into the buggy made her knees feel wobbly and the friendly grin that promised more teasing drew a smile from her own lips. She breathed in his spicy scent and longed to have his mouth pressed against hers again.
His fervent kisses Friday night were so mesmerizing, she’d completely lost herself in the experience despite her vow to stay far, far away from men and romance.
Settling her skirts on the buggy seat, Aundy looked over at Garrett to see him staring at her, apparently waiting for a response to a question she hadn’t heard him ask while she was lost in her thoughts of his kisses.
“My apologies, Garrett. I didn’t hear what you said,” Aundy said, feeling flustered under his intense gaze. She fussed with her hat, and tugged at her gloves, smoothing down each finger just to have something to do to keep her hands busy.
Slapping the reins, the horse ambled down the lane at a moderate pace that suited Garrett. It was a beautiful day and he was sitting elbow to elbow with a girl who made his heart thump wildly at thoughts of her kisses while her soft rose scent made him think things he knew were inappropriate.
“I asked how your shoulder is today. You don’t seem to be favoring it, but you’re sure to have a bruise.”
“It’s fine,” Aundy said, appreciating his concern, but not worried about something like a bruise when she had much more important matters on her mind. “Did you find out anything about Mr. Hong, other than his name?”
“Not much. He said he works for different people, doing odd jobs. He wouldn’t say what happened, just that someone asked him to do something he wasn’t willing to do, so they beat him up and tossed him in the doorway. He fell down the stairs and crawled up to the top, where you found him,” Garrett said, trying not to be utterly distracted by the picture Aundy made in her yellow striped dress with her golden hair piled on her head. A few errant tendrils worked their way loose, swirling temptingly along her neck.
It took every ounce of willpower he possessed to keep from hauling her into his arms and kissing her until they both forgot where they were going or what they were doing.
Instead, he turned his attention to the horse and looked out at the rolling fields of green against the bright blue sky. Eastern Oregon was an altogether lovely place to be in the spring, before the heat of the summer turned things brown and dry.
“That’s terrible,” Aundy said, thankful she had found Mr. Hong and was able to help him. She wondered what he refused to do that earned him the beating. They’d probably never know. “Are you sure he’s fine at your house? I could take care of him.”
“I don’t think so,” Garrett said. With his dad in the house, Garrett wasn’t concerned their guest would try anything. If Li Hong was at Aundy’s, Garrett wouldn’t get a wink of sleep, worrying about her well-being. “He’s just fine at Nash’s Folly.”
Deciding to get down to the reason they were heading into town, Garrett broached the subject of sheep. He wasn’t happy that Aundy had agreed to buy the flock and knew her hands would like the idea even less than he did. As she pointed out Friday night, though, it was her decision to make.