There are clear breaks as settings or points of view are changed, but I was never inclined to put the book down at those points. I enjoyed the sense of humor injected into both the narrative and dialog. Throughout the book, there was always a bit of suspense about Jane’s health and Rider’s past, which increased my need to finish reading.
~Lisa Menkhaus, Reviewer
Old Book Barn Gazette:
FAMILY Man is another excellent example of Carol Carson’s ability to tell a fast moving story, create realistic characters and wrap the package in a delightful sense of humor. You won’t want to miss this one. ~DanaRae Pomeroy,
CompuServe Romance Reviews
Three dimensional characters and the threat from Rider’s past draw the reader in and hold her interest from first page to last. Readers will enjoy FAMILY MAN. ~Rendezvous
Although some prose cliches make the reading a bit bumpy, it’s well worth the buggy ride. Carol Carson fills her romance with the appeal of family, entertaining touches of humor, and a smoky Western flavor. ~3 Stars *** Romantic Times
Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life.
One month later
“I don’t like you.”
Rider Magrane jumped. With his hand poised to knock on the weather-beaten door, his heart pounded in anticipation of what awaited him on the other side. Rider glanced down to see a boy, about knee-high to a grasshopper, standing beside him on the sagging porch.
With serious button-brown eyes, the youngster stared up at Rider. “I don’t like you,” he repeated. Dressed in mud-spattered britches of indeterminate color and a shapeless, threadbare jacket, the ragamuffin looked as pitiful as a hind-teat calf.
Rider wiped a damp palm down his thigh. He removed his dusty Stetson and squatted before the child. “But you don’t even know me.”
The tyke glared, his head cocked at a stubborn angle. “You got a dirty face.”
“And your hair needs combin’.”
A grin tugged at Rider’s mouth. “So does yours.”
“You have hair growing on your chin.”
Rider rubbed his beard-roughened jaw. The little urchin had him there. He’d been three days riding hard and resting little to get to this sorry rundown farm.
He questioned his sanity.
Rider itched his scratchy beard. “I do at that. So will you one of these days.”
Rider shrugged. “What’s your name?”
“I’m not s’posed to talk to strangers.”
“I’m not a stranger. We’ve been talking two whole minutes. We’re almost friends.”
The youngster’s brow furrowed as he mulled that over. Finally, he said, “Teddy, but Jane calls me Thorn when she’s mad at me.”
“Because I’m a pain in the backside,” he stated, as though he’d heard it a few times before.
Rider chuckled. “Are you Teddy Warner?”
The child reached into the pocket of his pants, ignoring Rider’s question. “Know what I got here?”
Grinning from one end of his dirty face to the other, Teddy carefully lifted his hand to show Rider what he now held. “A hoppytoad.”
Rider took the squirming creature from the boy’s eager, outstretched fingers. “He’s a good one, all right.”
“I can’t bring him in the house, though.”
Rider nodded, then handed the toad back. “I reckon he belongs outside.”
Teddy gave Rider a grave nod. He patted the critter’s knobby head, then tucked him back inside his pocket. “John Michael sure likes hoppytoads.”
“He’s my baby brother. He’s sleeping.”
“Hmmm.” Rider took a long breath and released it through clenched teeth before asking, “So tell me, Teddy, where’s your pa?”
He shrugged his thin shoulders.
“All right, where’s your ma?”
“She’s in heaven.”
Rider swallowed hard around the lump that suddenly clogged his throat. Guilt bit at his conscience. Had his misdeeds contributed to her death? God, he hoped not. He slowly rose to his feet, but he had no intention of retreating now. “Who’s taking care of you and your brother?”
“Could you take me to her?”
Teddy surprised Rider by taking him by the hand. The boy’s fingers were sticky and dirt-encrusted, but the simple gesture warmed Rider’s heart. He smiled. “Do you like me now?”
“Nope.” He didn’t drop Rider’s hand, though.
As they stepped off the porch, Rider noticed the dismal condition of the lonely homestead far from Drover, the nearest town. The right side of the porch drooped and several boards had gone missing. A good gust of Kansas wind would likely blow away the few shingles on the roof before winter arrived. As they circled the clapboard house, he noted the peeling and chipped paint flaking off the sides. He passed two broken windows with nothing but billowing grain-sack curtains to keep out the coming cold.
Guilt gnawed anew at his gut. He shook his head to dispel the feeling. He’d served his time for the crime he’d committed. He had nothing to be sorry about.
If he believed he wasn’t to blame, then what the hell was he doing back in Drover?
Rider stepped around a rusted, broken-down plow and over an empty bucket minus its handle. Several scrawny chickens pecked listlessly at the meager corn scattered around the yard. He sidestepped the hens, pulling the youngster alongside.
“There’s Jane.” Teddy pointed his grubby finger at a woman kneeling on her hands and knees in the garden. At least Rider thought it was a garden. He stopped to take a better look-see. By November most crops were harvested. He wondered what she could possibly be doing.
She did present him with an enticing view of her backside. Each time she dug into the dirt with a hand spade, her buttocks wriggled.
During his five years of incarceration with nothing but men for company, Rider had almost forgotten what a woman looked like. Almost.
She dusted off her hands, then settled back on her heels. A pile of egg-sized potatoes lay on the ground beside her. She shaded her eyes from the sun and turned. “Teddy, who is that with you?”
Rider strode forward and tipped his hat. His back to the sun, he cast a shadow across her face. “Ma’am.”
Rider offered his hand to help her up. Either the woman didn’t see the gesture or chose to ignore it. She rose to her feet and wiped her hands on the front of her dress. She stared at him a second, taking in his height and new clothes in one swift glance. Her expression changed to one of surprise when she saw his fingers entwined with the boy’s hand. “Find a new playmate, Teddy?” Her lips turned up in a friendly smile a moment before she turned her gaze on Rider.
He found himself looking into compelling toffee-colored eyes. Clear, direct and completely without guile. If he looked hard enough he could see his own reflection staring back at him. Rational thought flew from his head. He stared at the mousy brown hair braided on top of her head, the chapped hands, and her work-worn calico dress that ill-disguised the womanly, though thin, figure beneath.
His heart thudded in his chest like a lovesick schoolboy. How could such a plain woman cause his blood to course through his veins like a rapid mountain stream?
Suddenly remembering the reason he’d searched for this particular farm in the first place, Rider swallowed his dread and spoke up. “Is your man about?”
She gave him a questioning frown. “You here about the advertisement?”
“Umm, yeah,” he lied, stalling for time. As soon as she heard his name, she’d commence to chasing him around the yard with a pitchfork anyway. He could wait a while.
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“Good question,” he muttered beneath his breath. If he’d known he’d gain a smile from her, he would’ve said it sooner.
Teddy trotted over and stood beside the woman. She tousled his hair, then left her hand on his shoulder.
“This is Jane,” the boy volunteered.
She smiled at Teddy. Her expression stilled and grew serious. She slanted profound ginger-kissed eyes once again toward Rider.
His heart lurched in his chest.
She inclined her head. “Miss Jane Warner to you.”
“Miss?” Rider questioned. “Are you related to David Warner?”
“I’m David’s sister, Teddy is one of his boys. And you are?”
“Rider Magrane.” He waited for a spark of angry recognition or a rush of furious indignation. Nothing. Not even a blink. She didn’t know him from Adam. He released a slow breath, then slapped the side of his leg with his Stetson. “Where is Mr. Warner?”
Shock rendered him momentarily speechless. When he found his voice, he said, “Dead?”
“No. He just rode out one day and never returned.”
The man just rode off? And left his family? Damn. He’d wanted to find David Warner and have a straight talk with him – man to man. Apologize and offer his help, but this woman’s penetrating gaze and straight-forward speech dashed all coherent thought from his head. Just being this close to her rattled him so badly his hands shook. He gripped them behind his back and cleared his throat.
She brushed back a loose strand of hair and strode to the house. “Well, I’ve got work to do, and I’ve got to check on John Michael. Come up to the house and we’ll discuss the details.”
Without a backward glance, she left him standing in the yard.
Teddy capered up alongside him. “You best do what Jane says.”
“Yeah, Jane can’t abide lollygagging.”
“Teddy,” she called over one shoulder, never slowing her stride. “Come along. You, too, Mr. Magrane.”
The boy scampered off after her.
The back door shut, leaving Rider alone with a yard filled with rusted tools, a played-out garden and his desire to make amends abruptly changed.
Maybe David Warner wasn’t around but Rider could still do what he intended – give the man a hand. Now he would just help his sons and his sister. But what had he walked into? And what was this advertisement he supposedly had read? He wasn’t used to conversing with anyone, much less women. He was sure once she found out who he was, and before he had a chance to explain things, she’d come after him with a double-barreled shotgun.
Determination alone sent him following her up to the neglected farmhouse.
* * *
Jane checked John Michael, still sleeping soundly with his thumb tucked in the corner of his mouth. She couldn’t help but smile, although a lump formed in her throat. Her gaze skittered to Teddy who found his toys and plopped down on the floor. He began stacking misshapen wooden blocks and then knocking them over with a jarring crash.
“Where did that man disappear to?” Jane looked around, as if he’d followed her and was now hiding in a corner. She then remembered the potatoes she’d left in the garden. “Damn.”
Teddy looked up, his eyes round. Jane put a finger to her lip. He grinned, then went back to playing with his blocks.
A knock on the opened back door startled Jane. She swirled around. There stood the lean, dark-haired stranger, with the salvaged potatoes in his cupped hands. She’d noticed his height before, but he looked like he’d missed a few meals of late. A distinct pallor marked his thin face.
“Ma’am,” he said. “I brought you your potatoes.”
“I see that.” She pushed open the screen door and motioned him inside. She took the potatoes from his hands. “You might as well come in and see what you’re letting yourself in for.”
He stepped across the threshold and removed his hat, but stood in front of the door, slowly taking in the room and its meager contents. He rolled the brim of his hat several times. Jane saw him catch Teddy’s gaze and wink at him. Teddy attempted to wink back but both his eyes closed, then opened, which gave him the expression of a dazed owl. The stranger turned to see John Michael sleeping and his gaze softened.
“Sit down, Mr. Magrane.”
He ambled over to the kitchen table and sat down holding his hat in his lap.
Jane pumped water into a cup and handed it to the stranger. “I’m afraid I don’t have any coffee. Haven’t had any for some time.” As she sat down across from him she felt his gaze on her. A spreading warmth in the pit of her stomach took her by surprise. She met his penetrating gaze for a heartbeat. She blinked at the unwavering honesty clear upon his every feature, then turned away, her heart thrumming in her chest.
Jane cleared her throat. “I expect you want to know the chores involved.”
“The advertisement, you mean?”
“Of course, what else?”
“Yes,…ma’am. That’s exactly what I was wondering about.”
Understanding dawned on Jane. “You haven’t seen it, have you?”
He shook his head. “No, ma’am.”
“Can you read?”
His left brow rose. “Yes.”
She handed him the newspaper folded neatly on the table. Pointing her finger, she showed him her post.
He bent his head and read. He stopped once, lifted his head, his eyes wide, and his mouth turned down in a frown. Then he glanced down to read it again.
Jane knew the contents by heart. She’d agonized over the wording for well over a week.
WANTED: Family man to help raise two young boys. Must love children. Payment negotiable. House habitable and clean. See Jane Warner at the Warner Farm five miles due south of Drover for arrangements.
Jane watched him as he read. He had a young face but his eyes were old…and dark as a moonless night. His eyes were surrounded by long, sooty lashes. Bushy black brows curved across a furrowed brow. His beard, several days old, and as black as the hair on his head, grew thick and coarse. A tuft of sable hair stuck out above the starched, new chambray shirt he wore.
He curled his right hand around the tin cup of water and as Jane watched, his thumb began a slow, thoughtful back and forth motion across the lip. She stared, fascinated, until she felt his gaze upon her again.
He stared at her a moment, then his gaze dropped. He eyed the cup almost as if he’d forgotten it was there. He took a long swallow and carefully set it down. “I like kids,” he stated without ceremony.
“That’s good, Mr. Magrane, because what I need is someone to father the boys.”
“There’s a few things I don’t quite understand, though.”
Jane nodded to encourage his questions.
“Is the farm for sale?”
Jane’s temper caught fire like a dry Kansas wheat field in the middle of August, and she jumped to her feet. She moderated her reply before responding. “You’ve seen the place. It’s falling down around my head, and it doesn’t belong to me. You understand?” Her voice rose. “It’s not really mine. It belongs to the boys but I can’t take care of it myself. I need help.”
Rider jumped up, too, his eyes wide, his hands spread out in front of him. “Now, Miss Warner, Jane, I meant no offense. It’s just that those boys over there…why, this is their inheritance. I wouldn’t take anything away from them.”
She pointed a finger at him. “You can sit back down. I’m not going to shoot you.”
One black brow tilted uncertainly, but he sat down and stared at her with questioning eyes.
“The reason I didn’t advertise for a couple was because then their own children would inherit. So the farm would be yours for now but when you died, it would, of course, go to the boys. You’ve got to understand the most important thing is that you love those boys.”
“All right, but you’ve got to understand I have little money.”
“If you’ll take care of the farm and the boys, it doesn’t matter. This farm is only for sale because my brother is a thin-skinned, cowardly fool. When his wife died he acted like he’d been struck dumb. I understood his grieving but he wouldn’t do anything, not care for the boys or the farm or the house or even the darn chickens. He just took off.” She slapped the tabletop, then waved her arm around the room. “Just look at this place and it’s only been six months. What will things be like in a year?”
He glanced around, nodding his head. “Didn’t your brother leave you any money?”
His eyes rounded. “And you’ve got no family to help out?”
“My parents are gone. I have two younger sisters but…”
“You are in a bit of a jam, aren’t you?”
Jane couldn’t help the sigh that escaped her lips. “More than you know.”
“And the farm–”
Jane interrupted, “Have you really looked at it?”
“Yeah, it needs work–”
“Lots of work.”
“But all the same, I would have taken it sight unseen.”
“You would have?”
“Of course.” Rider’s voice wavered as he replied in an odd tone. Jane blinked in bafflement.
“It may need some work, but look at all the wide open space you’ve got. The freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want. This is my idea of heaven.” He glanced away from Jane as his cheeks flared red. “Excuse me, ma’am. I’d better take care of my horse.”
He rushed out the door before Jane could open her mouth. What an oddly poetic man. He acted like this hardscrabble scrap of land really was heaven and he couldn’t wait to dirty his hands on every last clump of soil.
It seemed her problem was solved. So why did she have this throat-clogging lump in her throat at the thought of seeing him do just that without her? Jane shivered, unwilling to allow her thoughts to drift away in such a sentimental direction. Besides he was a perfect fit for her plan.
* * *
No doubt about it, he’d made a fool of himself in front of that woman. Rider shook his head as he walked his horse around the side of the house toward the ramshackle barn. As he came in sight of the tumbledown building, he noticed a faded hex sign painted just beneath the gabled roofline and above the sliding double doors. He couldn’t remember if the traditional German geometric design was to ensure good luck or to ward off bad luck. Either way he looked at it, his own luck seemed about to forever change.
He wanted to work this farm so bad, his mouth watered. He had a bit of trouble seeing himself raising those boys, but he wanted the falling-down barn, the rundown house and everything else that came with it. And he wanted to be the one to fix them all up.
He would even take Jane; plain-spoken, plain-dressed, plain-faced. Plain Jane, a mousy woman with maple-sugar eyes and a soft mouth…that begged for his kisses.
He’d come determined to redeem himself, but now that wasn’t enough. He wanted it all.
Had he just gone and spoiled it?
She wouldn’t let him stay. He probably reminded her of her thin-skinned, cowardly fool of a brother. He felt like a coward for running out like that, but he’d opened his heart to her, a virtual stranger. Afraid that she’d laugh at him, or worse, ridicule him, he’d found the most expedient way out. Through the door.
Jane didn’t know Rider Magrane. She didn’t know he’d robbed her brother. She didn’t know he’d spent the last five years in prison unable to speak to another soul, unable to move farther than a four by eight foot space, unable to breath clean, fresh, Kansas air.
Unable to do anything but wait.
Just waiting to get released and right things with David Warner, the man whose livelihood he thought he’d stolen.
And if she did know, she’d hate him for what he’d done to her brother. He vowed right then and there to never tell her. He was determined to make the farm a better place for those two youngsters, and only by not confessing to his true identity could he accomplish that. It was only a little lie for a good cause, wasn’t it?
As Rider stepped into the shadowy barn, questions plagued him.
Where was David Warner and why did he really run away? The death of his wife? The farm? Lack of money and the wherewithal to take care of his family? He wished he knew.
Rider removed the gear from his horse and led him into a stall. He was here now and, by God, he could help. He had a strong back and a not-so-feeble mind. He could make this farm a going concern. He could learn to love those children.
He took a deep breath, pushed his Stetson to the back of his head and marched up to the house. He knocked on the door.
Jane opened it, a surprised expression on her face. She held the baby in her arms. “I figured you’d high-tailed it back to wherever you came from by now.”
Rider swallowed the retort that jumped to his lips. “No, ma’am. I’m here to stay.”
“Good. Take this child.” She thrust the wiggling boy into Rider’s arms. “He needs changing.”
“Changing? Into what?”
She rolled her eyes. “His diaper is wet. Can’t you tell?”
A moist warmth spread across the front of Rider’s shirt. He held the baby away from his body. “I can now.”
“Good. See you later then.”
Rider stared at the smiling, gurgling bundle in his hands. “What’s his name again?”
“John Michael, and if you don’t change him right soon, that cute little grin of his is going to disappear.” Jane picked up a wooden bowl and clutched it to her mid-section.
“And he’ll start caterwauling loud enough to wake the dead.” She headed for the door.
“Where are you going?”
“See if I can find more potatoes.”
“Hardly worth the effort.”
“You haven’t been in the larder lately, have you?”
John Michael pulled Rider’s nose and laughed. A sweet bubble of a laugh that turned Rider’s stomach to mush. Rider noticed two teeth, tiny and white as pearl buttons, protruding from the top of the babe’s gums.
“I’m not sure I can do this.”
Jane’s voice came softly from the doorway. “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it, or did you leave something out of our discussion?”
“We didn’t exactly finish.”
“Well, call this practice. See how you take to fathering. I’ll be back shortly and start dinner.”
Teddy showed Rider where Jane kept the clean cloths and even explained the basic fundamentals. After warning Rider about the potential hazards of John Michael’s anatomy, he left him on his own and went back to playing with his blocks. Rider lay the child on the kitchen table and pulled up the baby’s gown. Two flailing arms and two equally flailing legs occupied him as he attempted to figure out the ins and outs of diaper changing. He marveled at the child’s good nature through it all.
When Rider finished, he tipped the baby’s chin up and looked into his face. “John Michael is an awful mouthful for such a little boy.”
The baby grinned, again exposing those two bright front teeth.
“You look like a gopher to me.”
Teddy, playing on the floor, hooted with laughter. “He does kind of look like a gopher.”
“Well, then, Gopher it is.” Rider picked the child up and settled him in the crook of one elbow. He smelled warm and moist, reminding Rider of his mother’s kitchen on baking day when he was young. “You can call me Rider.”
“Wide,” John Michael gurgled.
Rider grinned. “Wide, Rider, I guess it doesn’t much matter. Teddy, what do I do now?”
“Yeah, what am I supposed to do with him?”
“You can put him on the floor but since he’s learned to walk you have to really watch him. He puts everything in his mouth. Jane says he has curious ideas about what he’s s’posed to eat and what he’s s’posed to play with.”
“Well, I guess I’ll find out about all that soon enough when Jane and I marry up.”
Rider heard a gasp from the doorway. Jane stood there, her face pale, her expression horrified. The bowl she held in white-knuckled hands tilted. Potatoes spilled out and rolled across the floor. John Michael gurgled happily and, on short, wobbly legs, chased after them.
She glanced at Rider with a look that said he must have lost his mind in an all-night poker game. “When did I ever say anything about getting married?”