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About the author:
As a kid I hated to read and avoided it if I could, but I loved to write, so whenever there was a writing assignment at school I gave it my all. I also loved the Saturday movies, and Tarzan was my introduction to the concept of hunks. Now, I live in a log cabin located on thirty acres of evergreen forests in the foothills of Oregon’s Coast Range. Still loving to write, I spend my time living a life of romance and adventure through my fictitious characters, and the hunks are in my stories. Although writing is my number one love, over the course of my lifetime I’ve raised laying hens, milk goats, and Tennessee Walking horses, built, plumbed and wired three houses, been a professional photographer, written photo essays for national and international publications, and slept outside under the stars for one whole summer. I currently have 25 books available on Amazon, 13 of them in my Dancing Moon Ranch series, and I’m about ready to start writing the first book in Cajun Cowboys, another contemporary western romance series. I love hearing from readers through the contact box on my website, and I respond to all notes.
What inspired you to write your book?
The inspiration for Justified Deception was a line-up of posters of missing children at Walmart in McMinnville, Oregon. I found myself stopping to read the posters every time i went to Walmart, while also wondering how a parent could ever come to terms with a missing or kidnapped child, so I decided to write my own story.
Here is a short sample from the book:
Annie Kincaid stomped her small, bare foot against the ground and said, “I don’t want a nanny, and I won’t do what she says!”
Matt Kincaid clenched his jaws to keep from letting out an expletive. “Look pal, don’t jerk my chain. You’re going to have a nanny and you’ll do what she says, and that’s that.” He knew his anger was aimed more at Annie’s mother than Annie. Jody had been spoiled, self-centered and stubborn, and whenever Annie showed those traits it made him mad as hell. He also didn’t have the time or patience to deal with a stubborn six-year-old this particular afternoon. Finding someone willing to live at the ranch was tough enough. Keeping her on afterwards was damn near impossible. Annie could be a real pain in the butt when she wanted to get rid of a nanny.
He also knew Annie might get her way this time. Of the women he’d interviewed, the first had fingernails chewed to the quick, the second wrung her hands through the entire interview, and the third was a mouse of a woman who stared at him, unblinking. Granted, he’d been hard on the women, but if they couldn’t stand up to his interrogation, they wouldn’t survive Annie or the rugged, isolated existence of living on the Kincaid.
Annie glared up at him. “I hate nannies,” she said. “They’re bossy and stink like perfume. If you get me another one I’ll jump in the bull pen and get stomped to little pieces.”
Matt clenched his jaws. He refused to let a pint-sized prima donna manipulate him, but with less than twenty minutes before the arrival of Annie’s next potential victim he’d have to change tactics. Softening his tone, he said, “I can’t be all things to you, honey. You’re a little girl, and you need a woman to see to your needs.” He saw Annie’s bottom lip quiver and knew he’d made some headway.
“No one has to look after me,” Annie lamented. “I can look after myself.”
“Sorry, that’s not an option,” Matt said. “When I’m out on the range you need a nanny.” He glanced at his watch. “Meanwhile, Miss Crawford will be here in twenty minutes for her interview and I promised I’d put together Aunt June and Uncle Bret’s glider while we’re here, but first, I want a smile and a hug.” He crouched and opened his arms. An impish glimmer came into Annie’s big blue eyes and she slipped her hands around his neck. “That’s my girl.”
Matt cranked up the volume on his radio and grabbed the wrench he’d been using to assemble his sister-in-law’s lawn glider, and Annie scrambled up the ladder leading to a tree fortress built over, around, and between the sturdy limbs of an ancient oak.
Twenty minutes later, Matt glanced up from his crouched position, startled to find a woman staring at him. He hadn’t heard her arrive and had no idea how long she’d been there. Which he concluded was probably often the case. If he were to describe the woman in one word, it would be, limpid. A plain woman with not a trace of lipstick on her prim, tight lips, she peered down at him through the lenses of wide, round glasses. She wore her mouse brown hair caught in a knot on top of her head, and her shapeless frame was clad in a loose-fitting brown suit coat that hung over matching slacks. Serviceable brown shoes with broad flat heels completed her garb. A woman well into her thirties, she obviously had no desire to catch a man, which suited him fine.
She offered her hand. “Mr. Kincaid, I’m Ruth Crawford, and I’m sorry I’m—”
With a whoosh, something dropped from the boughs of the oak and glanced off the woman’s head, drawing an audible gasp from her while dislodging the knot. She looked up, then repositioned the knot and impaled it with a wooden pin.
Matt scooped up a rubber chicken that lay at the woman’s feet. Jaws clenched, he looked toward Annie’s perch. The little twit was really testing him.
Miss Crawford, having recovered her composure, offered her hand again, this time somewhat tentatively, and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. That rarely happens.”
Matt glanced at his watch. Six minutes was hardly late. Still, he wouldn’t let it pass. “I hope you’re right,” he said, “because my daughter needs structure.” He wiped his palm on his jeans and shook the woman’s hand, finding it moist and cold, which didn’t surprise him. In fact it would have shocked the hell out of him to find the woman’s hand anything but cold. A hot little number, she was not. “Please have a seat.”
She sat on the edge of a lawn chair, feet together, hands folded across her leather shoulder bag, a sedate pose that whispered distinctly, do not touch, but she also looked practical, sensible and pragmatic, qualities that did nothing for him, but would help keep Annie in check. She seemed to be studying him though, as if she were here to interview him.
He dragged a lawn chair over and sat opposite her. Now he’d see the kind of stuff Miss Ruth Crawford was made of. He had no intention of painting a rosy picture. He’d had his fill of nannies packing up and leaving with little more than a moment’s notice.
Looking directly at her, he said, “I’m going to lay it out for you, Miss Crawford. If you’re looking for an easy job this isn’t the one for you. The Kincaid’s a working ranch located in an isolated valley twenty miles from the nearest store, so you can’t run into town for every impulsive female whim you’ve a mind for, and my daughter’s a scrapper. Annie’s got a mind of her own, and she’s independent as hell.”
Holding his gaze, the woman said in a confident tone, “I pride myself in being able to cope with difficult children.”
“Good, because you’ll need all your skills to cope with Annie. She doesn’t have a very high regard for mothers or mother substitutes.”
The woman’s inscrutable eyes unmasked momentarily. Did he glimpse despair in those eyes? Then it was gone.
“As I said, Mr. Kincaid, I’ve handled difficult children. They’re not a problem for me,” she commented, her voice businesslike.
Unquestionably no-nonsense, Matt decided, and she reeked of self-control. Probably never had a fit of temper or uttered a cuss word in her life. Good. She wouldn’t cave in to Annie’s melodramas or manipulations. “I assume you can ride.”
“Horses. The Kincaid’s spread over more than twenty-five-hundred acres of rugged terrain, much of it accessible only by horse.” The woman’s eyes sharpened, not so much in surprise, but something more akin to… Panic? “You do ride, don’t you?”
She blinked several times. “Well, yes. I did once when I was a child.”
“Once! Oh geeze!”
“I’m a fast learner,” she said. “If you’re willing to give me some instruction, I’m willing to learn. I’m not afraid of horses. I assume that’s half the battle.”
“Okay, if you hire on, I’ll give you four days. You’ll work with your horse from the ground up—do the feeding and grooming, clean its hooves, tend your own tack—and if you fall on your butt you’ll be expected to pick yourself up and get back on. You’ll roll into bed bone tired and wake up aching from head to toe. I’m not meaning to scare you, but if you don’t learn to ride fast, Annie will leave you in a cloud of dust. Besides, if you don’t know horses, you and Annie won’t bond.”
Ruth Crawford’s lips parted and fell into a downward curve, and behind the round lenses of her glasses, Matt saw sad brown eyes that glistened with unshed tears. Though nothing about the woman attracted him, he had an illogical urge to hold her in his arms, like comforting a lost child. Then with a mercurial shift of mood, the woman blinked away the sadness, the corners of her mouth lifted, and she said, “I assure you, I’ll be riding well within the week.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see. Any questions?”
“Am I supposed to cook or clean?”
“Nope. We have Edith for that. You just look after Annie. Anything else?”
“Then the job’s yours if you still want it.”
“Yes, yes I do.” She smiled then, her first real smile, and Matt noted two small dimples in her cheeks. Appealing little dimples that made years vanish from her face. He made a vow to coax that smile from her often. “Thank you, Mr. Kincaid.”
“Honey, just call me Matt.”
“Yes, well, thank you, Matt.”
“Right. And one thing more. Annie will be homeschooled. Can you handle that?”
“Homeschooled?” A look of alarm crossed the woman’s face and her smile faded, replaced by wariness. “Is there a reason why?” she asked.
“Sure,” Matt replied, “the ranch is located miles from the school.”
“It’s my understanding that there’s school bus service,” she countered.
“There is,” Matt said, “but for the first couple of years I’ve decided to keep Annie home. Would that be a problem for you?”
“Well, no,” the woman replied. “I’m certain I could manage her studies.”
“Good. Since that’s decided, it’s time you met Annie.” He looked up at the tree fortress and caught a glimpse of a young, sassy face before Annie ducked out of sight. He should climb up there and tan her little bummer for dropping the rubber-chicken. Instead, he stood at the base of the tree and called up, “Annie, get your fanny down here and meet your new nanny.”
“Annie, fanny, nanny. Annie, fanny, nanny,” she mimicked in a sing-song voice.
“Don’t push my buttons pal. Do as I say.”
A very strident young voice bellowed down from the boughs of the tree, “I don’t want a nanny and I’m not coming down!”
Matt looked askance at Ruth, and said, “Go on inside and have a cup of coffee. The pot’s on the stove. I’ll bring Annie in and you two can meet and get acquainted.”
Ruth’s lips parted, as if to respond, then she nodded vaguely and turned away.
As Ruth walked toward the house, the realization that in moments she might come face to face with her own little Beth hit her, and everything about that horrifying day, five years before, came rushing back. The shock, the hysteria, the helplessness, the waiting, the fear of leaving home because she might miss a call from the police. The fear of getting a call from the police, and the terrible, ever present guilt. If only she hadn’t left Beth with a babysitter. If only the babysitter hadn’t left Beth alone in a playpen for an instant while she answered the phone. A playpen in a fenced yard. In their own front yard. If only the clock could be turned back.
…If only… if only… if only…
By the time she reached the house, Ruth was so lightheaded she had to lean against the door for support, but after the dizziness passed, she willed herself to again take on the demeanor of the nanny she held herself out to be, the nanny Matt Kincaid just hired. That woman was calm, collected, in control. A woman able to cope with difficult children.
She’d come prepared for that possibility.
It all started when Bill McFadden, her private investigator, sat at a table with Matt Kincaid and several other strangers at a political rally for Matt’s brother, a state senator. During that time a little girl, with a striking resemblance to the computerized face Bill made that advanced Beth into a 6-year-old child, rushed up to Matt, who was clearly her father.
After the little girl rejoined her friends, Bill learned, from the conversation between Matt and two others at the table, that Matt was a single father who’d be running a newspaper ad for a live-in nanny, and returning to Salem the following week to interview applicants. But what caught and held Bill’s attention was that Matt’s daughter was adopted, and because his ranch in southeast Oregon was so isolated, and the child so unruly, nannies didn’t stay long.
Was her little Beth a difficult child now, and had Matt Kincaid made her that way? If, in fact, Annie Kincaid was Beth. The possibility was very real. This had been their best lead yet, and for some reason, Matt Kincaid wanted his daughter homeschooled… Maybe so he could keep her away from authorities who might learn the truth? Learn she wasn’t Annie Kincaid, but instead, a little girl named Beth Simpson who’d been abducted five years before?
In due course she’d find out, but for the moment she’d set aside Matt Kincaid’s reason for keeping his daughter out of school and focus on the plan she’d set in place, a plan in the face of warnings from both her parents, who worried that Matt Kincaid could be a dangerous man. But she couldn’t sit back and wait through what could be a very lengthy investigation into the man’s background and the circumstances surrounding the adoption of his daughter, when a few weeks as the child’s nanny might end her search, and she’d have her daughter back.
She stepped into the kitchen and scanned the surroundings. The presence of a child was everywhere—a scattering of broken crayons beside a coloring book, a plate with a half-eaten jelly sandwich, a plastic cup with a coiled plastic straw.
She walked over to the refrigerator and studied the photos attached to the door with magnets. One showed Annie sitting on her father’s shoulders. Another displayed her father holding a horse while Annie stood with her arms out, balancing on the horse’s back. There was also one with Matt Kincaid crouched behind Annie, who held a winner’s ribbon, a proud smile on her face, and in a larger photo Annie was slung over her father’s shoulders like a sack of grain, with Annie making a silly face at the camera.
As Ruth studied the photos, one thing stood out above all else. Annie and Matt Kincaid looked truly happy together, as if no one mattered but each other.
Ruth was about to turn from the refrigerator when a magnetic frame with a head-and-shoulders image of Annie caught her up short. Unzipping her shoulder bag, she retrieved a computerized image that morphed Beth’s one-year old face into that of a six-year-old girl, and held it up to the photo in the frame. Her gaze shifted between the two. The curly ash-brown hair, the cleft in the chin, the almond-shaped blue eyes… The likeness, right down to the scar on Beth’s chin, was more than uncanny. Annie Kincaid had to be Beth. Ruth knew it in her heart, and on some higher plane, she knew it in her soul.
She felt prickles of pain in her hand and realized she’d been clenching her fist so tightly her fingernails impressed half-moons into her palm, but the pain was mild compared to the deep, heartfelt fear that, even with everything pointing to this child being Beth, it could yet be another false lead. She closed her eyes.
Please God, don’t let me down again. Let this child be Beth.
Not Beth. Annie. This child is named Annie. Annie Kincaid.
Ruth started trembling and hot tears welled. She patted her cheeks and blinked away the tears, then silently practiced her opening words. ‘Hello, Annie, I’m pleased to meet you. I’m certain we’ll get on fine. Please call me…’ Always she stumbled here. Since the kidnapper could be familiar with the name, Jennifer Simpson, using her middle name, Ruth, and her mother’s maiden name, Crawford, was a compromise.
Returning the computerized image to her handbag, she glanced out the window and saw Annie making her way down the tree ladder. When her foot hit the ground, Matt snagged her by the arm and headed toward the house. Before Ruth could remind herself to take a deep breath and stay calm, Matt walked through the door with the child tugging against his grip. As Ruth stood, silent and rigid and clinging to the strap of her shoulder bag, Matt nudged the sun-kissed, slip of a child toward her.
Ruth’s throat tightened, and when she tried to speak, words wouldn’t come. Nor could she take her eyes off the small scar that followed the line of the child’s jaw, a scar about where Beth’s would have been. For an instant, everything in the room faded. Only the compelling blue eyes staring back at her seemed to exist, as if she and the child were frozen in time, and as she held that unwavering gaze, she searched for some sign of recognition in the child’s eyes, but all she found was hostility. Forcing a smile that felt as stiff as it was feigned, she said, “Hello, Annie, I’m pleased to meet you.”
Annie’s brows gathered in a frown, and for an instant Ruth was certain she’d detected bafflement in those eyes, but the moment was fleeting, and Ruth wondered if she’d simply deluded herself into seeing something that wasn’t there.
Matt nudged Annie. “Mind your manners, bucko. Say hello to Miss Crawford.”
Annie pinned Ruth with a cold glare, shot a defiant look at her father, and said, “I don’t want a stupid nanny,” then fled through the open door and never looked back.
Ruth stared after her, feeling confused and uncertain. During the terrible empty years without Beth she’d held onto the hope of this moment, to the dream of a tearful, joyous reunion, of taking Beth in her arms and holding her for dear life, and now, if the moment had come and gone, she could never have prepared herself for this kind of reception from a child who might be her daughter. Complete aversion.
Matt looked at Ruth and shrugged. “Nannies aren’t her favorite people.”
“And her mother?” Ruth asked. “Does Annie see her frequently?”
“Annie’s mother isn’t a part of Annie’s life,” Matt said in a tone that told Ruth the discussion was over. Which made Ruth even more determined to learn why Matt Kincaid had sole custody of his daughter. Bill had not been able to glean that information, but he had pointed out the power in the Kincaid family when he’d first begun piecing things together…
“Kincaid’s the son of a judge, the youngest of four boys,” he’d said. “One brother’s a high-powered attorney, one’s a state senator, and another’s attorney general. Seems Matt Kincaid’s the maverick in the family, left home when he was sixteen and moved around, hiring on as a ranch hand, married a rancher’s daughter, divorced her, and ended up with the ranch and sole custody of their daughter. Obviously used his family’s influence to come out on top…”
Ruth looked at Matt Kincaid, and said, “Annie must feel somewhat insecure living on an isolated ranch with only one parent.”
Matt gave a short, ironic laugh. “Annie’s about as insecure as a rutting bull. She’s got more family at the ranch than she knows what to do with, and she knows the only way she’d ever be separated from me would be over my cold, dead body. If anyone’s insecure it’s me. Without Annie, there wouldn’t be much meaning to my life, something someone without kids wouldn’t understand. Just take my word for it.”
Ruth clenched her jaws to keep from screaming, how dare you say I don’t know how much meaning a child can bring to a person’s life, or how meaningless life can be without her.
Matt smiled a slow, contemplative smile. “There’s no question, Annie’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
In that moment, Ruth knew Matt Kincaid would go to any length to hold and protect his child, and at this point, she couldn’t be absolutely certain that Annie wasn’t his child, just as she could not be sure the little girl was Beth, but time would tell. If Annie was Beth she’d have a past that didn’t include Matt Kincaid. Photographs from birth to one year old would be missing. So, inquiring about pictures of Annie as a baby would be one of her first objectives. Locating Annie’s birth certificate and adoption papers would be another. For now, she’d still cling to hope.
If Annie was Beth, the worst of her fears would be dispelled. Beth had not been snatched by a sexual predator, or a child killer, or a deranged woman desperate for a child. She’d been cared for by a devoted father who’d lay down his life for her, a man with the money and wherewithal to take the child he claimed was his and hide where they’d never be found, and Ruth didn’t question for a moment that Matt Kincaid would do precisely that, if boxed into a corner.
“We’ll be flying to Burns in the morning,” Matt said.
Ruth looked up from her distracted thoughts. “So soon?” She’d have no time to get the DNA kits before leaving. Bill only recently brought up the idea of DNA self-collection tests, if she got the nanny job and would have access to the child. The results would not be admissible in court, but if they confirmed a biological relationship, it would be enough to start legal action that would force Matt Kincaid to allow the Chain of Custody collection procedure to be done, which would be admissible in court. More important, it would determine if Annie Kincaid was Beth.
“I need to get back to the ranch,” Matt said. “We’ll fly to Burns, where we’ll stock up on supplies, but from there we’ll head to the Kincaid by truck.” He scanned the length of her. “I hope you have some more suitable clothes… jeans, shirts, boots, a hat.”
“I have a few pairs of slacks,” Ruth said.
“Slacks won’t do,” Matt replied. “We’ll get you outfitted in Burns.”
Ruth shook her head. “I can’t allow you to buy my clothes.”
One corner of the man’s mouth tipped up in an ironic smile. “Honey, I don’t need your permission. Consider it uniforms.”
Ruth stiffened. This sweet talking cowboy with his domineering attitude set her blood boiling. She wasn’t one of his range hands, and she definitely wasn’t his honey. She was, however, a hired hand of sorts, with the most important job of her life, and she’d better remember that if she wanted to hold onto it.
Giving him a wavering smile, she said, “I’d rather you didn’t,” but as she said the words she already knew he’d get his way. Whatever she thought of Matt Kincaid was irrelevant though, because in her heart she believed she’d found Beth, and she had no intention of leaving her side until Beth was returned to her own bedroom, where she’d find her toys and stuffed animals waiting. But to accomplish that goal, she’d be forced to put up with the bossy, arrogant likes of Matt Kincaid and his empty endearments, which meant she’d have to guard against her own rash nature, and the impulse to call the man down.
Kincaid Ranch – Harney County, Southeast Oregon
After a bumpy flight in a twin engine plane, they arrived in Burns, where Ruth was outfitted in the clothes she didn’t want—snug fitting jeans, western-cut shirts with pearl snaps, a western hat with a wide brim, several bandanas, and a pair of stiff, western boots for riding. Since the plane was to remain there for servicing, the rest of the trip was in a truck with an extended cab, but on arriving in Pine Grove, they stopped in at a place called Pete’s Pub and had a dinner of ranch burgers piled high with fries. During the meal, Annie sat beside her father and glared across the table at Ruth, who attempted to avoid her hostile young gaze.
It was after dark by the time they arrived at the ranch. Pole lights lit up a compound of several outbuildings that included a large structure filled with bales of hay, a big white stock barn, and the shadowy outline of a stable. But the structure that caught and held her attention was a large, log ranch house with a porch across the front, and a steep roof made to shed the snow, a roof broken by several dormers to what she presumed were upstairs bedrooms.
With Annie sleeping cradled in his arms, Matt led Ruth through a spacious, rustic living room with a large stone fireplace at one end, up a wide bank of half-log stairs, and down a hallway, stopping in front of a bedroom with the door ajar. He nudged the door open with his elbow, and said, “This is your room, and Annie’s is the next one down the hall. Have her dressed and down for breakfast by seven. Normally morning meal’s at six, but we’ll bend the rules this once.” With not so much as a “Good night,” he continued down the hallway to Annie’s room.
Her hand on the doorframe, Ruth was a heartbeat away from yelling after him, “The devil with ranch rules! A child needs sleep!” Not only would it get her fired, but Matt Kincaid was obviously too self-important to listen to anything the new nanny might offer.
Yet, there was also another side to the man. Once airborne, and with his ranch foreman in control of the plane, Matt turned back his cuffs and became totally absorbed with Annie, reading to her and playing endless games of tic-tac-toe and connect-the-dots, until Ruth felt as if Matt and Annie existed in their own little world—except for those unexpected moments when he’d look towards her as if suddenly remembering she was aboard. It did, however, give her time to study the man, unobserved. A big man with a lean, sun-bronzed face and broad shoulders, he was all cowboy, from the crown of his weathered Stetson to the tips of his scuffed brown boots.
She reflected on the first time she’d seen a picture of him. Bill showed her a photo he’d covertly taken at the campaign rally while passing on information he’d learned that day, saying, “Matt Kincaid owns a large cattle ranch in southeast Oregon and occasionally visits his brother, Bret Kincaid, an attorney who lives in Salem. Take a look. See if you recognize the man.”
Ruth braced herself for what she might find. Someone familiar, a friend of the family, someone the child would trust. Words from police officers, and social workers, and concerned citizens who’d read of Beth’s abduction, but when she looked at the photo, all she saw was a tall, broad-shouldered man who, with his deep blue eyes and ash-brown hair, looked more akin to Beth than she did, with her dark brown eyes and reddish-brown hair.
Heaving a weary sigh, Ruth flipped the light switch on, expecting to find a room with faded curtains and a timeworn bedspread. Instead, she stepped into a bedroom outfitted with a pine dresser with horseshoe drawer pulls, a pine wardrobe with a full-length mirror on its wide door, and a double bed made of peeled-pine logs. Covering the bed was a spread with a maple-leaf quilt pattern in shades of browns, rusts and forest greens, and stacked on the foot of the bed were two sets of towels and washcloths that appeared to be brand new, one set in a mossy green, the other in cinnamon red, like the sets had been purchased to coordinate with the spread. And in the corner of the room was a big overstuffed recliner with a floor lamp beside it, the combination perfect for snuggling with a child and reading.
While she was turning back the bedspread, a ranch hand, named Seth, delivered her hand baggage, along with the shopping bags with her new clothes, and left abruptly. After fetching the nightgown she bought for Annie in Burns—a pink, flannel nightie with purple pansies with smiling faces dancing across the front—she went to Annie’s room. By the light funneling in from the hallway, and while Annie was sleeping soundly, she stripped off Annie’s tie-dyed tee shirt and mini sweats and eased on the gown, then tucked the covers around her. Annie would not remember any of it, but she’d be happy to wake up wearing something pretty, and pink, and new.
Before leaving the room, Ruth looked at Annie’s restful face, taking a moment to study the child’s quiet features bathed in soft light, but when Annie stirred, Ruth backed into the hallway.
As with most nights, she knew she wouldn’t fall asleep without a book to make her drowsy, but when she’d packed, she’d been so anxious about what lay ahead that she forgot to include any books. However, she’d noticed, when they passed through the living room on their way to the stairs earlier, bookcases on both sides of the stone fireplace. Intending to fetch a book and crawl into bed, she made her way down the stairs, but when she entered the living room she was surprised to find Matt settled into a leather overstuffed chair, reading. Ankles crossed, bootless feet propped on a leather-padded footstool, a pair of reading glasses on his nose, the whole scene appeared incongruous. Cleaning guns or soaping boots seemed more appropriate.
The floor creaked beneath her feet and he looked up, then waited for her to speak. She shrugged, and said, “I need a book to make me drowsy and I thought I could find one here.”
“Help yourself,” Matt replied, then returned to his reading.
Ruth scanned the books, surprised to find so many of the classics, including Plato’s Republic and Homer’s Odyssey. She also found books of poetry interspersed with Aesop’s Fables and The Boy’s Book of King Arthur. A small area included books on child psychology and single parenting. Definitely not what she’d expected to find in Matt Kincaid’s library. Reaching for a book on child psychology, she turned and said, “I’ll just take this one and be on my way.”
Matt looked up, as if surprised she was still there, gave a nod, and returned to his reading.
Before turning away, Ruth took a moment to study his face as he sat absorbed in his book, brows gathered in concentration. Light from the lamp beside his chair emphasized his deep-set eyes, angular jaw, and the little splinters of day-old beard pressing up through his sun-darkened skin. Photographs could not begin to do justice to the flesh-and-blood man, and as she stared at him, she had the eerie feeling that somehow her life would be altered irrevocably by this man, though she feared it may not be for the better.
Morning came quickly. So quickly, Ruth realized that for the first time since Beth had been kidnapped, she’d slept through the night instead of waking with a start to twist and turn between guilt and hope and despair, and for the first time since she could remember, she had not prayed, Please God, give me some sign she’s dead, knowing it would be easier to accept. A tremor of hope rippled through her. Maybe God had at last spoken. Maybe the sense of calm enveloping her was His way of telling her the search was over.
Anxious to call her parents and let them know she’d arrived safely, she took out her cell phone, only to read, out of service area, on the screen, and with that, the sense of calm she’d felt moments before was replaced by a frisson of uneasiness. Without cell service she’d have no way to communicate with Bill, unless she could get to town, because it would be too risky to call him on the ranch phone, but she’d worry about that later.
Curious to see the ranch by daylight, she went to the window and pushed the curtains aside and gazed at the view beyond. Although the ranch was located in a valley, the valley opened up to a vast panorama of buttes and plateaus. To the east, the morning sun painted the sky like polished copper. Bathed in the pink-gold light of morn, a vast rangeland dotted with sagebrush, prairie grass and cattle stretched into the distance.
Closer in, fences crisscrossed the landscape, some connected to the big white barn she’d seen the night before. A little distance beyond the barn was the large, red board-and-batten stable, and just below her window, a shaggy black and white mongrel chewed on a beef joint the size of a man’s arm.
Turning from the window, she prepared for the day ahead. After making the bed she rummaged through her canvas tote for her hairbrush. While twisting her hair into a knot, she contemplated the various aspects of Matt Kincaid. With Annie, he was firm yet gentle, and when he looked at her it was always with a twinkle of affection in his eyes. With Seth he often joked, yet he maintained a position of authority Seth seemed to respect, but was Matt Kincaid a man who’d resort to illegal means to acquire a child, and if so, to what extent would he go to keep that child, if his right to her was challenged?
Ruth turned to find a square-shaped woman with a round ruddy-face and graying-red hair standing in the doorway. “Yes?”
“I’m Edith Jenson, Matt’s housekeeper. I do the cooking and run the domestic end of the place,” the woman said. “I just want to welcome you here. I hope you find the room comfortable.”
Ruth glanced around. “It’s lovely,” she said. “Did you by any chance make the bedspread?”
“Oh no,” Edith replied. “Matt wanted the room nice and fresh for your arrival, so he sent me out to find something I’d think you’d like.”
“It’s very nice, thank you,” Ruth said.
“Just to let you know,” Edith continued, “I’ll be watching Annie after breakfast this morning since you’ll be learning how to ride a horse.”
Ruth stared at the woman, wide-eyed. She was absolutely not ready to ride a horse. “Are you sure I’m supposed to ride… today? I’ve just barely arrived.”
“Matt’s orders. He said he’d be working with you right after breakfast, so you might want to get on your riding clothes now since he doesn’t like to be kept waiting,” Edith said, her voice trailing off as she walked down the hallway.
Ruth told herself that sitting on a horse, five feet off the ground, wasn’t any different than being five feet up a ladder, all the while a little voice in her head pointed out that a ladder didn’t buck or paw the ground, or have the ability to run away with her.
Hearing noises, she knew Annie was awake. Slipping into her robe, she went to Annie’s room and found her sitting in bed within a circle of Ken dolls, her hair a tangle of curls, imprints of the pillow on her cheek. Annie had changed back into her tie-dyed tee shirt and mini sweats, and the new nightgown lay in a heap on the floor, a statement of what she thought of the new nanny’s gift. Ruth picked up the gown. “Good morning,” she said.
Annie ignored her.
When Ruth hung the gown in the closet, her attention was drawn to an elongated Giraffe Growth Chart taped to the inside of the closet door. Marks, at intervals, denoted Annie’s height, starting on her third birthday. Ruth stared at the chart, the lack of marks before age three underscoring the years of Beth’s absence. Turning, she said to Annie, “Why don’t we mark your chart. You’re probably a lot taller now.”
Annie eyed Ruth with annoyance. “Daddy does that.”
“Well, we’ll make sure he keeps it up.”
Annie glared at Ruth. “Daddy never forgets.”
“I see.” Ruth realized she’d overstepped her bounds. However, the thought of Matt keeping up Annie’s growth progress touched her in a way she hadn’t expected.
Closing the closet door, she looked around at the disorderly array of toys and books. On a shelf above the bed was a collection of carved wooden figures. She lifted a squirrel from the shelf and noted the fine workmanship on its appealing little face, with its pointed nose and polished black eyes. Next to where the squirrel had sat was a short squat cowboy, fancifully dressed in boots, chaps, a vest and a cowboy hat, and beside the cowboy was what looked like a princess wearing cowboy boots. “You have a nice set of carvings,” she said. “When we’re in town maybe we can find one to add to your collection.”
Without looking up, Annie replied in an impatient tone, “There aren’t any ’cause Daddy carves ’em when he’s on the trail and nobody gets ’em but me.”
Ruth returned the squirrel to the shelf. “Your daddy does nice work,” she said, surprised to learn this facet of the man, and finding it hard to believe those large calloused hands she’d seen could be capable of producing such sensitive pieces.
She looked at the collection of Ken dolls surrounding Annie. One had a string lasso taped to his hand, another a paper-clip branding iron, and the rest wore construction-paper riding chaps. The Barbie doll Annie held in her hand was nude. Annie seemed to be contemplating Barbie’s upper torso. Pressing Barbie’s breast to push it flat, she pursed her lips and announced, “When I grow up I’m not gonna have boobs. They’re gross and make you hot.”
Ruth pulled open a dresser drawer to select Annie’s clothes. “What makes you think they make you hot?”
“‘Cause they do. Lorinda has big boobs—” Annie popped off Barbie’s head “—and Daddy told Seth Lorinda’s hot.”
Ruth tried to hide her uneasiness with their offbeat conversation. While pulling out a pair of purple jeans, she said, “Who’s Lorinda?”
“The lady at the café Daddy takes out sometimes.” Annie shoved Barbie’s head back onto its neck post. “She must like havin’ big boobs ’cause she’s always bending over so Daddy can see them, but I’m not gonna have any.” She tossed Barbie aside.
“When you become a woman you won’t have a choice,” Ruth said, while reaching for the T-shirt she’d bought for Annie, a pink shirt with a kitten chasing a butterfly. “All girls eventually have them.”
“You don’t,” Annie countered. “Daddy said you’re a flat chested old maid who probably sleeps with your legs crossed.”
Every muscle in Ruth’s body seemed to go slack. She tried to keep her voice steady as she said, “Your father told you that?”
“No, he said it to Seth last night when he thought I was sleeping. He also said that’s the kind of nanny he wants ’cause they’re not a straction for him. What’s a straction?”
Agitated, Ruth replied, “He meant distraction, which is like bothering someone.”
“I guess old-maid nannies don’t bother Daddy.” Annie eyed Ruth’s chest. “Do you have boobs?”
Stay cool, she’s just a child. Smile.
“Sure. Like I said, all girls eventually have them.”
“How come they don’t stick out like Lorinda’s?”
“Because I don’t want to flaunt them.”
“Why would anyone show off boobs? They’re obtuse.”
Miffed as she was, Ruth had to stifle a laugh. “Do you know what obtuse means?”
“No, but when I do something Daddy doesn’t like he calls me obtuse, so it’s something bad, like boobs. I’m still not gonna have any when I grow up ’cause cowboys don’t have boobs and I’m gonna be a cowboy. Do you sleep with your legs crossed?”
“Because I want to.”
“Do all old maid nannies sleep with their legs crossed?”
Count to ten. One, two, three, four, five…
“Come on, it’s time to get dressed,” Ruth said, ignoring Annie’s brazen question, though she was fairly sure she had no idea what she was talking about. Still, it was an inappropriate conversation to be having with a six-year-old girl. “Breakfast will be served soon.”
“Do all old maid nannies sleep with their legs crossed?” Annie pressed.
“Enough! Get up this instant and get dressed!” Ruth snapped.
Annie stuck out her bottom lip. “You can’t make me.”
Be calm, be patient. Be creative.
“If you don’t do as I say this instant,” Ruth clipped, “I’ll pop all the heads off your Ken dolls and replace them with Barbie heads, and all your precious cowboys will grow boobs!”
Eyeing Ruth dubiously, Annie edged her way off the bed and stood still while Ruth tugged off the tie-dyed T-shirt and mini-sweats and replaced them with the kitten T-shirt and purple jeans—the only jeans in the dresser that were not faded, threadbare, tattered, or all three—but shortly after Ruth returned to her room, Annie rushed past the open doorway wearing her tie-dyed T-shirt and sweats, while shrieking for her father at the top of her lungs.
Ruth shut herself in her bedroom, determined to let Matt handle the intractable child. On passing the wardrobe, however, she looked into the full-length mirror, and what she saw was a pathetically plain woman in a shapeless robe, a woman she barely recognized. Slowly she approached the mirror and peered into it. When had the corners of her mouth begun to droop? When had lines of tension appeared around her eyes? When had her face become haggard?
When had she stopped caring?
In the early days after Beth’s kidnapping she’d been caught in a vicious circle, breaking into desperate fits of crying, pulling herself together, patching up her makeup because she had to keep busy, had to strive for some semblance of normalcy, had to do something. But somewhere along the way she’d stopped looking in the mirror because it didn’t matter. She didn’t matter. Life didn’t matter. All that mattered was finding Beth.
Now, as she tried to absorb the image of the unfamiliar woman in the mirror, she saw what Matt had seen. A flat chested old maid who probably sleeps with her legs crossed. If she didn’t look so pitiful, with her unmade face, homely owl glasses, and twisted knot on top of her head, she might laugh because his assessment was so accurate.
Turning sideways she sucked in her breath, expanding her chest. She wasn’t stacked, but she wasn’t flat chested either, but who could tell. All she wore were shapeless clothes. And her hair. Who but an old maid would wear it pulled up in a knot on top of her head? There had been a time when she’d brushed her hair till it shone with rich highlights, and soft curls framed her face.
Reaching up, she pulled out the slender wooden stick holding the knot, and the rope of hair she’d twisted into submission unraveled and fell around her shoulders.
She didn’t know if it was Matt’s crass assessment of her, or because she may have at last found Beth, or maybe because it was time to put behind a tragic, unalterable past, but for the first time in years she wanted to look pretty, but she’d packed no makeup, not even a lipstick. She did recall seeing an array of cosmetics in the bathroom though, which she assumed belonged to the last nanny, along with a pair of scissors. Maybe she’d trim her hair. And the ugly round glasses would go. She’d brought along contacts, which she rarely wore because they were too much bother. Feeling a long-forgotten sense of exhilaration, and a new determination to make Matt Kincaid eat his words, she headed for the bathroom. Flat chested old maid indeed!
Matt looked with disgust at the tabloid Edith brought from town the day before, his eyes focusing on the front page spread with its color photograph of Jody leaning into her husband, her huge breasts brimming over her star-studded, western-style gown. The word that came to mind, as he eyed the woman he’d been married to for twelve years, was hooker.
Her body was designed to catch a man’s eye. It sure as hell caught his, half-a-lifetime ago. He’d been a sixteen-year-old at the time with one thought on his mind. Jody was a master at making that thought a reality, awakening his body with a stash of sexual practices she’d been hitting on the boys of Pine Grove with since puberty, and three years later, when she agreed to marry him, he felt like the town stud to be the one to finally catch her.
Shifting his attention to the article, he reread the parts he’d circled in red:
“Nashville-based singer-songwriter, Jody Kincaid-Waxman, will perform thirty-eight concerts in the Pacific Northwest, traveling from city to city in her private tour bus. “Wayne and I like to travel separately from the rest of the group to make sure I can get my rest,” Kincaid was quoted as saying, then went on to add, “and for obvious other reasons. Wayne and I have a driver, so that big king-sized bed gets lots of use while we’re on the road.” And further down the tabloid, “My ex-husband has custody of our daughter, but Wayne and I will be filing for joint custody. My daughter will be living with us half the time. We have a bedroom suite prepared for her.” And on down. “I’ve missed my daughter terribly over the past four years, but that’s about to change. It will be a blessing having her with us…”
The article went on to talk about their mansion on the outskirts of Nashville, and the half-million dollar motor home they travelled in when on concert tours.
Matt clenched his jaws. There was no way he’d let Jody take Annie to that cesspool of drugs, sex, and extramarital affairs, and everything that made up Jody’s world, not even for a day. Although in recent years he’d made an effort to mend some of the bridges he’d burned when he stormed out of his parent’s house against his father’s will, years ago, he hadn’t asked his family for anything, but it was time to put pride aside and do whatever it took to keep Jody out of Annie’s life. During his recent visit to Salem, his brother gloated that he’d never lost a custody case. His gloating seemed irrelevant at the time because Jody had made no effort to have contact with Annie, but now it was time to roll out the big gun. Bret Kincaid.
Tossing the paper aside, he poured a mug of coffee and glanced out the window. Annie sat just outside with Digger, one of the ranch dogs, stroking the dozing mutt. After her outburst earlier, Annie seemed remarkably content, unlike Ruth, he suspected. He was curious to hear Ruth’s side of the story. What Annie related about her Ken dolls had been highly inventive, but didn’t measure up with Ruth’s straight-laced demeanor.
Hearing footsteps coming from the direction of the hallway, he turned, and stared in stunned silence. Ruth stood in the doorway, her western-cut shirt emphasizing full breasts and a small waist, the new jeans molded to her slim frame delineating gently tapering hips and long coltish legs. Her hair, released from its knot, framed her face in a casual disarray of brown waves, and the owl glasses were gone, her wide-eyed stare seeming to say to him, look at my eyes, see how beautiful they are.
His gaze swept over her, taking in the rosy blush of her cheeks, the pink gloss of her parted lips, the new light that flared in her eyes. In fact, her whole face glowed. He stared openly and with increasing fascination at the transformation, which seemed more a change in attitude than appearance. What little makeup she wore couldn’t account for the change.
Ruth ran the tip of her tongue over her lips, leaving them moist, and said, “Where is Annie?”
“Outside.” Matt arched a brow. “I take it you had to whip her into submission earlier.”
Ruth looked at him in alarm. “Is that what she told you?”
“No,” Matt said, “but why else would she come hollering down the stairs like a wounded coyote?”
“I swear, I didn’t lay a hand on her,” Ruth said, in an anxious voice.
Seeing the worry on her face, Matt said, “Relax, sweetheart, I know you didn’t. I’m familiar with the shriek of an intractable child. Coffee?”
“Oh, yes, please.” She sat at the table, opposite him.
Matt poured a cup of steaming coffee then nudged the platter of eggs, hash browns and sausages in front of Ruth, followed by a basket of warm biscuits, a crock of butter, and a jar of homemade strawberry jam. She stared at the coffee, brows gathered in deliberation, then looked at him, and said, “Do you have cream?” Her eyes captured his attention. Ranges of browns flashed with golden highlights, as she waited for his response.
Get a grip, Kincaid. She’s just the new nanny.
“Cream. Right.” He set a pitcher of cream in front of her and watched as she poured half the contents into her coffee. Next she’d probably want to adulterate it further with—
“Sugar?” She pinned him with those large luminous eyes and waited.
“Yeah, sure.” He plunked a sugar bowl next to the cream pitcher. While she shoveled a couple of teaspoons into her coffee, he said, “I forgot to tell you. Annie doesn’t like being bossed.” He took a slow sip of coffee. “Can’t figure out how she got that way though.”
“Yes, that is kind of hard to figure,” Ruth replied.
Matt looked up to see her staring directly at him, a wry smile touching her lips, and he realized, for the first time, that Miss Ruth Crawford might have a sense of humor. “Yeah, well, I suppose it’s because she’s around so many men, which suits her fine. Annie doesn’t relate too well to women. They keep walking out of her life.”
In a flash, Matt saw a series of fleeting emotions race across Ruth’s face. Remorse, as if she held the weight of the world on her shoulders. Desperation, as if the ground beneath her was about to crumble. Vulnerability, as if she were holding back tears. Then the corners of her mouth lifted, erasing the forlorn droop, though the earlier light that shone in her eyes was gone. For whatever her reason, she’d crawled back into her protective armor.
He studied her face. Strange, how he hadn’t noticed before her nicely proportioned features—her straight slender nose, her delicate cheekbones, her well-defined lips. It wasn’t a beautiful face, but it was a pleasing one, a face that could grow on a man. “So, what was the problem with Annie?” he asked. “She told me her side, something about you threatening to decapitate the Kens.” He cocked a brow. “Sounds intriguing.”
A scowl touched Ruth’s lips, as she replied, “I told her if she didn’t do as I said I’d replace her Kens’ heads with Barbie heads and her Kens would—” she stopped short.
Ruth nodded, her face turning a delicate shade of rose, its color heightened in her cheeks.
Matt smiled. “An interesting thought.”
Ruth’s flush deepened, and in the depths of her eyes he again saw the dancing flecks of gold. He hadn’t realized how long her lashes were, or how deep their color, as if they’d been dipped in molasses. Maybe she’d hook a man yet, though she didn’t seem to be a woman who’d be eager to warm a man’s bed, so maybe she was happy enough with her lot in life, which was okay with him. Annie needed a woman to relate to, and he had a gut feeling Ruth could be that woman—
“Is something wrong?” Ruth asked, while staring at him, unblinking.
Matt snapped out of his musing. “Why do you ask?”
“The way you’re looking at me,” Ruth said. “You seem puzzled.”
“I’m just trying to figure out what makes you tick,” Matt replied. “I keep getting mixed messages.”
Ruth bristled. “I’m not meaning to send you any messages at all,” she said. “I’m here to look after Annie, pure and simple.”
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t meaning you were sending me messages,” Matt replied. “You just seem to switch moods midstream. It’s damn baffling at times.”
“Maybe that’s because I’m not used to being studied like I’m something in a curio shop,” Ruth said. “I know I’m out of my element here, but like I said, I’m a fast learner, so maybe it’s time you stopped trying to figure me out and started showing me how to ride a horse.”
“Right.” Matt scooted his chair back and jammed his hat on his head, feeling like a school kid who’d just been put in his place by his teacher, and that didn’t sit well with him, made him want to take Miss Crawford down a notch or two. Or kiss the hell out of her just to see her reaction. Now that was an idea worth considering.