“Like I said before, don’t pay Call no mind. It’s the grief makes him grouchy as a bear with a thorn in its paw. Digs into him like a rusty pitchfork, though these last months it seems like he’s finally beginnin’ to get past it.”
“What do you mean? What happened to him?”
“I ain’t much for gossip, but I guess you got a right to know, seein’ as how the two of you keep crossin’ swords. The way I hear it, Call came up here after he lost his wife and three year old daughter.”
Her heart snagged. “His wife and daughter were killed?”
She nodded. “In a car wreck, I heard. Call musta really loved ’em. He quit his high-powered job in California, bought that big chunk of property next door, and built himself a place to live. He was raised in the north, ya see. He come back here to heal.”
A lump rose in Charity’s throat. She had wondered at the brief flashes of something she had glimpsed in Call’s eyes. Now she realized it was pain.
“Oh, Maude, that’s terrible. I can’t begin to imagine how it would feel to lose your family like that.” But as close as she was to her father and sisters, she could guess.
“I think you been good for him. Till you come along and the two of you started spittin’ at each other, he spent most his time holed up in his house or traipsing around the woods by himself. Like I said, last few months, he’s been better. Been goin’ into town once in a while. Hired Toby to work for him. Still, it’s you who put the fire back in his eyes. I used to think I’d never seen such cold, lifeless eyes in all my days. Now, he looks at you, and they light up with fire. Makes ’em glitter like 24 karate gold.”
Charity thought about that, thought that Call’s eyes hadn’t seemed cold at all when he had looked at her Sunday morning. In fact, they seemed to burn.
“I’m glad you told me, Maude.”
“Like I said, I ain’t usually much for gossip.” She looked at Charity as if she somehow knew what had happened between her and Call that morning. It was ridiculous, of course. Though at times Maude did seem to have some sort of mental radar.
Charity returned her attention on the metal detector but her mind remained on Call and what he must have suffered. If what Maude said was true and he was beginning to get over his grief, maybe she could help him.
“I didn’t really thank him for saving me from the bear. Maybe I should.”
“He could probably use a good homemade supper. I doubt Toby is much of a cook.”
“Even if I asked him, he probably wouldn’t come.”
“I don’t suppose it would hurt to ask.”
Maude reached into the pocket of her flannel shirt, pulled out her short-stemmed pipe, and stuck it between her teeth. “Nope. Never hurts to ask.”
Charity thought about asking, she really did. But after the way she had behaved she simply couldn’t face him. For heaven’s sake, she had nearly torn the man’s clothes off! Never in her life had she felt so reckless, so wildly out of control, but of course he didn’t know that. If she went over to his house, he would probably think she was trying to seduce him.
Inwardly she groaned, embarrassed all over again. Still, she thought about him, couldn’t get those hot, drugging kisses out of her head. Fortunately, she had plenty of work to occupy her mind and keep herself busy.
They started using the metal detector, slowly working their way along the stream. Later they would form a grid and work the property inland. In the afternoons, when the air was a little warmer, they worked the dredging machine, taking turns on the suction pipe.
“Best place to look for gold is between the layers of bedrock,” Buck told her. “Sinks into the tiniest crevices. Stays trapped there for hundreds of years…till somebody comes along and sucks it out.”
“What about nuggets? Where’s the best place to look for those?”
His eyes dropped down to the peaks of her breasts. “You can find nuggets in lots of different places. They come in all shapes and sizes. Pretty little things they are.”
Charity ignored the innuendo, knowing he only said it to make her uncomfortable.
Buck returned his attention to the dredge. “Gold is mostly in the bedrock and fine black sand. Or you might run across some alluvial gold. It washes down each year and you find it in the gravel. Metal detector works good for that.”
But so far they hadn’t found any nuggets or anything else. If they had dredged anything up, it was caught in the wire mesh and riffles of the sluice box. Cleaning the box, she learned, meant taking it apart, removing and carefully cleaning all the screens and riffles, then putting it back together again. It was a long, painstaking process so it was done just once a week.
She was using the metal detector on Thursday morning, running it along the banks of the creek, when a pair of men’s hiking boots appeared at the edge of her vision. Her gaze traveled up a set of long, nicely muscled legs encased in faded denim, past a worn leather belt, over a flat stomach that veed to a man’s wide chest. She must have been staring, because Call reached over and shut off the metal detector.
“Hi,” she said lamely.
He cleared his throat and she wondered if he was as nervous as she. “I saw you working your way along the creek. I figured I owed you an apology for…for what happened the other day.” He glanced over her head, then looked back into her face. “I don’t usually attack helpless women. I hope I didn’t scare you.”
She was a lot of things that morning, but afraid of those burning-hot kisses wasn’t one of them. “No apology needed. What happened was my fault as much as yours. Why don’t we just chalk it up to an adrenal rush with nowhere to go?”
He nodded and turned to leave.
“Actually, I was thinking of coming over to your place,” she said, stopping him. “I never thanked you for saving me. If you hadn’t shown up when you did, I’d probably be bear food by now.”
His mouth edged into a faint half smile. “I doubt it. You don’t really need to be afraid of them. Most of the time, bears leave you pretty much alone. You just need to use a little good judgment and be cautious whenever one’s near.”
She studied his face, the chiseled lines and valleys, the square chin and solid jaw. There was something different this morning, but she couldn’t quite figure…
“You shaved,” she blurted out, feeling like an idiot the instant the words left her mouth.
His lips curved up. She remembered exactly the way they felt pressing into hers and a little sliver of heat trickled into her belly.
“Believe it or not, I shave every once in a while.”
“You look good.” God, did he. If she’d thought he was handsome before, now she realized how disturbingly attractive he was.
“Do I?” A hint of color crept beneath the bones in his cheeks. “Then I guess I’ll have to do it more often.” He glanced down at the metal detector. “How’s it going? Found anything yet?”
“Not yet. I don’t think I’ve quite got the hang of this thing, but tomorrow we clean out the sluice box. Hopefully, something will turn up then.”
He nodded, began to look off toward his house like he wanted to escape. Or maybe only part of him wanted to leave.
She gathered her courage and plunged in. “I still say I owe you for your very timely rescue. How about supper?”
“Just a neighborly sort of thing. If you don’t already have plans, that is. I was thinking maybe tomorrow evening.”
He looked uncertain, torn in some way. “Well, I…yeah, tomorrow night sounds all right.”
“You won’t attack me again, will you?” she teased just to make him feel at ease, and he relaxed a little.
“Not unless you ask me real nice.”
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