The Widow’s Rancher – 26

THE evening meal went well. The mashed potatoes, steaks and vegetables disappeared within minutes. Afterwards, Nadia and Katy washed and dried the crockery while Hester made the coffee and carried it out to the men gathered on the front porch.

Nadia reckoned she should be glad the woman did something more than complain about everything, the way she had through supper. She sensed a frostiness in the other woman’s nature and decided to ignore it.

After thanking Katy for her help, Nadia made her way to the front door and pushed it open. The hinges squeaked loudly enough to cause everyone on the porch to stop talking and turn to the sound. Conscious of all eyes on her, she hesitated.

“Nadia!” Diggory called out and beckoned her over. He sat in the centre of the wooden swing, his dusty boots resting on a low stool set in front of it.

She lifted her head high and silently made her way through the bodies seated on the porch, careful not to step on any feet as she made her way towards him.

Diggory slid across the wooden seat and patted the empty space next to him.

“That was a fine meal, Nadia. You’re not only pretty, but you can cook better than a room full of mamas set on impressing.”

She blushed at his compliment. He’d already praised her culinary skills before leaving the kitchen, but it was nice to hear it again. True appreciation never became tiresome.

He reached for her hand and clasped it with his own. He was always eager to show her his affection, not in the least concerned that others sat around to see.

“Where did you go off to today, Mrs Rorke?” Hester asked, interrupting Nadia and Diggory’s moment. “You were gone for many hours.”

Nadia glanced at the young woman, sitting in a chair at the other end of the porch, some sewing rested in her lap.

Nadia sensed Hester intended her question to cause trouble. After all, why had she chosen to ask it in front of everyone else when she’d had the opportunity earlier in the kitchen?

“Out,” she replied.

The woman picked up her sewing, but continued, “Out where?”

Nadia purposely sat back, taking her time answering, careful not to show any agitation at the query.

“Is there a reason you wish to know, Hester?”

Hester shrugged and threw an innocent smile her way.

“I’m surprised you chose to leave the ranch so quickly after coming here. Hardly the behaviour one expects from a new wife eager to fulfil her new responsibilities.”

“I have a lot to sort out on my homestead. I can’t abandon it to the mice.”

“But on your first day as the new Mrs Rorke? I’d have thought you had plenty here to deal with first.”

“Hester,” Toby warned. He shuffled uncomfortably on the chair next to his wife.

Hester continued despite her husband’s caution.

“I’m only attempting to make polite conversation. Not my fault Mrs Rorke is unwilling to discuss the subject further. Anyone would think she had something to hide.”

The last thing Nadia wanted was for Hester’s questioning to arouse Diggory or anyone else’s suspicions. If they found out about Sissy living at her house she wasn’t sure how they would react or who they would tell. Would they view Sissy as someone who needed help, or as a social embarrassment to the good name of Rorke?

What if they tried to insist she give up all ties with the young girl? Or tell Sissy’s father where she was and insist she return home? Nadia refused to leave Sissy alone or put her at risk again. Someone had to shelter the girl from harm.

“I don’t resent your interest, Hester.” Nadia made sure her voice sounded even and unconcerned. “But I don’t understand how what I do is your affair, unless you wish to ask me about any extra chores around the ranch you wish to take on.”

“How Nadia spends her days are nobody’s business but mine,” Diggory said. His tone indicated an end to further conversation on the subject.

“Time we went home, Hester,” Toby said and stood up.

“But I . . .” she stammered, startled when her husband grabbed her elbow and lifted her up out of her chair. “You can sew at home, same as you can here. Come on.”

Nadia watched with amusement as the foreman marched his wife down the porch steps and across the yard towards their cabin, amazed the man had it in him to be so forceful.

Diggory slid an arm around the back of the swing, and sighed.

He brushed her hair back from her face with tender fingertips.

“Is something bothering you, Nadia?”

Shocked by his intuition, she turned his way and shook her head.

“No, why?”

His eyes searched her face.

“You seem troubled. Are you worried about your place?”

Initially she denied it, but then decided to mention one concern.

“What will happen to the corn I’ve planted? Be a shame to see it go to waste.” “I’ll get one of my men to take care of it. Don’t fret any longer.”

She leaned further into his arm, amazed at how easily the man took charge of any problem.

“Thank you, Diggory. Though I prefer if he didn’t go near the house.”

“Is there a reason?” he asked.

Did his tone hold a trace of suspicion or was her imagination making guilt creep through her mind?

“No, but sometimes my young neighbour comes over and uses the creek to wash clothes. I’d hate him to scare her.”

“I’ll make sure he stays away. How am I doing as a husband so far?” She smiled.

“Pretty fine.”

He pulled her toward him and kissed the top of her head.

Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!