“Did you talk to Dent and the guys yet about your sheep?”
“No,” Aundy said, making a point of looking at the green fields they drove by rather than the very good-looking man beside her.
“Don’t you think you should? You can’t exactly hide the sheep from them.”
“I wasn’t intending to,” Aundy said, feeling defensive as she leaned away from Garrett. He looked so handsome and smelled even better. His warmth at her side was making her stomach flutter in a most disconcerting way. If she wanted to be in any condition to negotiate with Mr. O’Connell, she needed to tear her thoughts away from how much she enjoyed being around Garrett and how well he filled out his coat and pants.
Feeling overheated, she wished she’d thought to bring along a parasol or at least a fan. Instead, she fanned her glove in front of her face.
Garrett raised an eyebrow her direction and gave her a mocking grin.
“A little warm out for you?”
“No,” Aundy snapped, wondering why he was goading her. “And to answer your question, I plan to tell Dent and the boys tomorrow. I wanted to make sure the deal was final before I said anything and jeopardized losing Fred. I’d really like to find a way to keep them all working for me.”
“Could you hire someone to tend the sheep and tell the rest of them they won’t have to worry about the woolies?” Garrett suggested. As fiercely as Fred hated sheep, he wasn’t sure that would be enough to keep him from quitting.
“Perhaps,” Aundy said, knowing if she could find someone willing to work for her, she’d hire him in a heartbeat.
“I take it you spoke with Owen this morning.”
“Owen?” Aundy asked, confused.
“O’Connell. His name is Owen O’Connell,” Garrett said, shaking his head. “Did you not even get the full name of the man you’re doing business with? Might be good to know, don’t you think?”
Realizing her mistake, Aundy felt like a chastised child and the feeling irked her considerably. “Yes. Of course.”
“What did you discuss?” Garrett asked, wondering if she’d offered a price, made a verbal agreement.
Aundy repeated the brief conversation she had with Mr. O’Connell. Garrett nodded, pleased that she hadn’t made any promises.
Pulling up in front of the attorney’s office, Owen O’Connell sat on a bench near the door, waiting.
Garrett hurried around the buggy to give Aundy his hand and then turned to the Irishman.
“O’Connell. Good to see you again,” Garrett said in his typical friendly fashion, shaking hands with the man as he stood from the bench. “Hear you’re getting ready to head south and leave our lovely Eastern Oregon weather behind.”
“It’s lovely now, boyo, but when the snow blows and the ice freezes everything, I’ll be sunnin’ meself in the warm, balmy California weather.”
“So you will,” Garrett said, reaching a hand over to place on the small of Aundy’s back and gently pushing her forward. “May I introduce Mrs. Erickson? Aundy Erickson. She married Erik the day of his injury.”
“I’m so terrible sorry for your loss Miz Erickson. Terrible thing that happened to Erik,” O’Connell said.
“Thank you, Mr. O’Connell. I appreciate your condolences,” Aundy said, smiling at the man, noting his eyes looked bloodshot and tired. “Shall we go in?”
“Certainly,” O’Connell said, holding the door for Aundy and Garrett to precede him.
An hour and a half later, they left the bank together and O’Connell shook both their hands. Once he delivered the sheep, he would receive payment in full. For now, Aundy paid him half of the agreed upon price, after drawing up papers at the attorney’s office.
“We’ll be at the farm tomorrow afternoon with your woolies, Mrs. Erickson. See you then,” O’Connell said, tipping his hat and walking down the street.
“While we’re in town, I’d like to go by the sheriff’s office,” Garrett said as he helped Aundy in the buggy and started down the street. “I want to ask about Hong and see if any of them have heard anything.”
“Do you think he’s wanted by the law?” Aundy asked, hoping the man wasn’t. For some reason, she felt a little protective of the poor immigrant who’d been beaten so badly.
“Probably not, but never hurts to ask,” Garrett said, stopping the buggy when he noticed his friend Kade walking toward them. Setting the brake, he turned to Aundy. “Mind waiting just a moment?”
“Not at all,” Aundy assured him, as he ran across the street and enthusiastically shook the hand of a man who looked like an officer of the law with a shiny star pinned to his vest. Aundy thought the tall, brawny man looked familiar then realized he was the handsome cowboy she’d seen at the train the day she arrived in town and at church several times although he usually left before the service ended.
Garrett visited with the officer a few minutes then both of them looked her direction. Far enough away she couldn’t hear what was said, she smiled when Garrett walked back across the street with the man.
“Aundy, this is my very good friend Kade Rawlings. He’s a sheriff’s deputy,” Garrett said, making the introduction.
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Erickson,” Kade said as he doffed his hat and nodded to her. “I’ve known Garrett since we chased tadpoles in the creek and terrorized the little girls at school.”
“It’s very nice to meet you,” Aundy said, shaking the man’s hand and offering him a smile. It was hard not to notice his handsome face or towering height. Garrett was quite tall and his friend Kade stood an inch or so over him.
“Garrett tells me he made a new friend Friday night. I might ride out later and ask him a few questions,” Kade said, watching the way Aundy and Garrett snuck glances at each other. So that was the way the wind blew. He’d have to torment Garrett about his obvious interest in the winsome widow later. “He also said you purchased a few head of sheep. Good for you. My uncle raises sheep south of here and does well with them.”
“Thank you, Deputy Rawlings. I hope the sheep will be a good addition to our farm,” Aundy said, catching Garrett rolling his eyes. “Although Garrett has made it clear he much prefers cattle.”
Kade chuckled as he slapped Garrett on the back. “You’ll have to ask him sometime where he got his dislike of sheep.”
Aundy smiled and looked over at Garrett who had narrowed his gaze and shook his head at the deputy. She laughed and offered Kade an approving nod. “I will do that.”
“I better be on my way,” Kade said, tipping his hat to Aundy with an engaging smile. “It was truly a pleasure to meet you, ma’am. If you ever need anything, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”
“Thank you, sir,” Aundy said, liking Garrett’s friend. He was fun and seemed kind.
Garrett took his seat in the buggy and picked up the reins. “Since we’re here, want to have some lunch?”
“That would be agreeable,” Aundy said, pleased at the idea of spending more time with Garrett.
He parked the buggy a few blocks from a busy restaurant and they strolled along, her hand on his arm. Anyone looking at them saw a striking couple, one fair, the other dark, enjoying a beautiful spring day.
After lunch, Aundy requested a few moments to purchase supplies at the store. Garrett left her there while he saw to some errands of his own and caught up with her just in time to carry a box packed full of supplies to the buggy.
“You buy out the store?” Garrett teased, easily carrying the loaded box.
“Of course not,” Aundy said, waiting for Garrett to assist her in the wagon, not because she needed the help, but because it was the proper thing to do. At least that’s what she tried to tell herself. It couldn’t have anything to do with the proximity of Garrett or the feel of her hand in his, or the opportunity to inhale his masculine scent.
Settled in the buggy and on their way out of town, Aundy let out a deep breath.
“Do you really think Fred will quit?” Aundy asked, looking at Garrett with such moist eyes he felt his chest constrict.
“Fred is the only one who can answer that question, but it’s certainly a possibility,” Garrett said, not at all convinced Aundy going into the sheep business was a good idea, but it was a little late to worry about it now. She’d signed on the dotted line and made a partial payment to O’Connell.
Although Garrett sat in the meeting with the attorney and the banker, he kept quiet. Expecting to need to help Aundy negotiate the price and terms, he was surprised she seemed to know what she was doing. She even bartered down the price on the sheep and got O’Connell to agree to deliver them.
Garrett smiled to himself, thinking how O’Connell fussed and fumed, putting on a good show. Aundy appeared calm and collected, refusing to budge from her offer. Everyone in the room knew O’Connell would agree to her terms, including the man himself.
“Do you plan on telling Dent about the sheep?” Garrett asked, thinking Aundy had already waited longer than she should have to share her plans with the foreman. He might have a thing or two to say about a flock of sheep descending on the farm. Even knowing she kept her plans a secret because of the reaction she anticipated getting from the men in her life, she still should have been more forthcoming about what she wanted to do. Then again, it was her farm and she could do whatever she wanted, whether Garrett liked it or not.
“Of course. I plan to make a nice breakfast and tell the men after they’re full of good food and coffee. I figure I need all the help I can get and they always seem to appreciate a hot meal,” Aundy said, making Garrett chuckle.
“You are something else,” Garrett said, placing his hand on her knee and squeezing before realizing the gesture was far too intimate for two people who were just friends. Jerking his hand back, he grabbed the reins with both hands and glanced at Aundy, who sat watching him. “If a home-cooked meal changes Fred’s mind, your pancakes must be a lot lighter and fluffier than Ma’s.”
“Maybe,” Aundy said, with a sassy grin. “Now, why don’t you tell me why you don’t like sheep. Either you do, or I’ll have to pay a visit to Deputy Rawlings.”
Awake most of the night with nerves, Aundy finally gave up on sleep and found things to keep her hands busy. Long before the sun began sending streaks of golden light across the horizon, she had baked a sheet cake and cookies, washed a load of laundry and strung it on the clothesline to dry, and dusted the front room.
By the time she heard the men clomping their way down the bunkhouse steps, she’d already gathered the eggs and made her morning threat to Napoleon to turn him into chicken dumplings if he didn’t refrain from pecking at her or flogging her head.
Hurrying back in the house, she whipped up a batch of biscuits, set bread to rise and put a big pot of beef stew on to cook for lunch. Frying strips of crispy bacon, and scrambling a big pan of eggs while potatoes fried in another pan, she made a pot of coffee and stuck her head out the door to call to Dent when she saw him walk toward the barn.
Although he didn’t appear to increase the speed of his steps, his stride quickly ate up the ground and he soon stuck his head in the kitchen where Aundy stood at the stove making sure the eggs didn’t burn.
“Morning, Missy. Need something?” he asked, taking in the site and smells of breakfast. His stomach rumbled in anticipation.
“I’d like you and the boys to join me for breakfast if you haven’t eaten yet. It will be ready in just a few minutes,” Aundy said, smiling over her shoulder at her foreman. If she could get the hands in a good mood, maybe they’d be more receptive to her plans. Feeding them a hearty breakfast had to be a good start, despite Garrett’s skepticism.
“I’m sure they’ll all appreciate a hot meal none of us had to prepare. I’ll round them up,” Dent said, hustling down the steps and across the barnyard toward the bunkhouse.
He soon returned with the other men, their hands and faces bearing traces of a thorough scrubbing.
“Good morning,” Aundy said, setting a bowl of fried potatoes on the table next to the eggs.
“Mornin’, Miz Erickson,” Bill said. “We’re mighty grateful for your invite for breakfast.”
“I’m glad you all could join me,” Aundy said, pouring five cups of coffee and making herself a cup of tea. Sitting in the chair Dent held out for her, the hands took their seats and Dent asked a blessing on the meal.
Aundy encouraged small talk, asking the hands about things they’d done or seen in the past few days, their growing up years, anything she could think of besides the topic of sheep.
George consumed the last piece of bacon while Aundy refilled coffee cups and took a deep breath.
“You’re probably wondering why I asked you to join me for breakfast,” Aundy said, looking around the table. At Dent’s nod, she continued. “I purchased something that I think will add to the value of the farm and provide additional income without increasing the work load by much.”
“Did you buy one of those new-fangled gas-engine tractors?” George asked, looking hopeful.
“I did not,” Aundy said, glancing at the man who was usually quiet. “However, if you all agree it would be a sound investment that will pay for itself in saved labor and increase production, we can discuss it at a later date.”
“So, what’d you buy?” Glen asked, swirling the last dregs of his coffee around in his cup.
“A surprise,” Aundy said, not quite able to get the word sheep past her lips. If they reacted even half as badly as Garrett did, she wasn’t up to facing all five of them at once.
“What kind of surprise?” Dent asked, giving Aundy a long, inquisitive look.