Levi had a reputation on the Longhorn Canyon Ranch for bringing in strays, from dogs to turtles to a crippled miniature donkey. His experience had taught him to give an animal space and to let them come to him. No need to be in a rush anyway—the storm wouldn't let up until tomorrow morning at the earliest, and it might be a day past that before Cade or Justin could rescue them. He just hoped that she kept that cute little pistol tucked away and didn't point it at him again.
The tiny one-room cabin could sleep up to four people and was often rented out to hunters in the fall and spring. Two sets of bunk beds set end to end covered the south wall. A sofa with a couple of mismatched end tables faced the stone fireplace. Four chairs—no two alike—were pushed around a small kitchen table over in the far corner. Cupboards without doors hung above a wall-hung sink. A tiny two-burner stove and an apartment-size refrigerator were on one end of the kitchen area and a closet that had been converted into a pantry on the other.
"Where were y'all headed?" he asked as he turned the knob and struck a match to light one of the stove burners.
"My daddy went away again." Zaylie sighed. "But he'll be home for Christmas."
He didn't want to spook the child by looking right at her, so he stole sideways glances. She was a delicate-looking little girl with huge blue eyes and wispy blond hair falling to her shoulders.
"We were on our way home from San Antonio, Texas, to Randlett, Oklahoma, right across the Red River," Claire answered. She didn't look a thing like her niece, with her long brown hair twisted up on top of her head with some kind of big clip and light green eyes set in a round face.
"How did you get way back here?" He poured two cans of noodle soup into a pan and set it on the burner.
The electricity flickered, and Zaylie dived back under the quilt.
"Don't be afraid," Levi said. "We've got plenty of wood so we won't freeze, and the hurricane lamps you see scattered around aren't just for pretty."
"But you'll keep the monsters away if it gets dark, won't you?" Her blue eyes were huge.
"I promise." He nodded and turned his attention toward Claire. "How did you get this far off the highway going from San Antonio to Randlett?"
"There was an accident on the Interstate and the GPS on my phone rerouted me, but then I lost service, probably because of the storm," she explained. "When I got it back, I'd gotten off on the wrong road and the snow was coming down so hard I couldn't see more than a foot in front of the van. The battery in my phone played out, and I hit a really big pothole in the road and a slick spot at the same time." She talked fast and twisted the edge of the quilt, obviously more than a little nervous.
"The car went like this." Zaylie waved her arms around. "And then a tree was right there, and the car stopped with a big bump. And Aunt Claire said 'shit' and then she hit the steering wheel." Zaylie slung her legs off the bed and ventured over closer to the fire. Holding her little hands out to warm them, she looked so vulnerable that Levi wanted to hug her and reassure her that everything would be fine. Poor little thing had to have been scared out of her mind when the car was slipping and sliding all over the road.
"Zaylie Noelle Mason, little girls don't say that word," Claire scolded.
"I didn't say it, you did," Zaylie argued, and then turned her attention back to Levi. "I held Aunt Claire's hand real tight so I wouldn't get blowed away. Is the soup ready yet?"
"Almost. And I'm thinking I could make a hoecake too."
"Hoecake?" Claire eased off the bed and joined Zaylie at the fireplace.
"Something like a cornbread pancake. It'll take less fuel than firing up the oven, and it will cook faster."
"Sounds good," she said.
"Dejert?" Zaylie asked.
"Dessert," Claire translated.
He rustled around in the cabinet and found a can of peaches, powdered sugar, and pancake mix. "How about some peach fritters for dessert?"
"I like peaches. Is this like campin' out?" Zaylie left the fireplace, put her knees on the sofa, and peered over the back at him.
"Little bit," he answered with a smile.
Claire had the same look in her eye that the ranch's old mama cat, Gussie, did when someone got too close to her kittens as she made her way across the room and joined Zaylie on the sofa. Yep, he would have to go real slow to gain her trust.
"Looks like there's some blood on your forehead, Miz Claire. There's a first-aid kit in the bathroom if you want to clean it up." He wanted to offer to clean the wound and see just how deep it was, but his better judgment told him that wouldn't be wise. She looked like she might spook easier than a wild deer.
"Oh. Come on, Zaylie, you might need to help me." She took the little girl by the hand and led her to the bathroom.
Levi read the directions on the cornbread mix and stirred it up. When the oil in a cast iron skillet was hot, he poured the mixture in it and covered it with a heavy lid.
While that cooked, he whipped up some peach fritters to fry as soon as the bread was done. It took two things to get an animal to trust him—patience and food. He hoped it worked as well on humans.
"You didn't let me help." Zaylie was fussing when they came out of the bathroom.
"But you were there if I'd needed you," Claire told her.
Levi removed the lid from the skillet, flipped the hoecake over so it would brown on the other side, and carried the pot of soup to the table. "Did you hit your head on the steering wheel?"
"Seat belt leave a bruise?"
"Yes, and it hurts," Zaylie said. "And Aunt Claire's got one on her leg too. Want to know how we got from the tree to here?"
"I sure do," Levi answered.
"Aunt Claire got the suitcase and I got the tote bag," Zaylie said. "And the snow was in my face and I fell down three times." She held up the right amount of fingers. "And I cried because my face was cold."
"I would have cried too." Levi turned the cornbread out onto a plate and then made the fritters. "And you spent the night here in the cabin?"
"Yep, we did, and then you came." Zaylie crawled up into a kitchen chair. "How did you get in here? Aunt Claire locked the door."
"We keep a key under the mat just in case." Levi smiled.
"I'm glad." She made herself comfortable at the table. "I like chicken noodle soup."
"Me too." He finished putting the rest of the food on the table and held a chair for Claire.
She hesitated and glanced at her purse on the bunk bed, but finally sat down. "How long have you been foreman on this ranch?"
"Couple of years as foreman, but I've worked here since I was big enough to do a job. My dad was the foreman before me. Justin and Cade are more like my brothers than just friends since we were all three raised here on the ranch." He chose the chair across from Claire. "It's not my best cookin', but it's what I can do with what we've got to work with. Do you folks say grace?"
"I'll do it." Zaylie bowed her head. "Jesus, I'm a little mad at you for lettin' Aunt Claire get lost, but I'll forgive you since you sent someone to cook for us. Amen."
"Amen." Claire smiled.
"Amen." Levi grinned as he cut the hoecake into pie-shaped wedges. "Don't know how good it'll all be, but it's fillin' and it's hot."
"Thank you," Claire said.
"So you lived in Randlett your whole life?" he asked.
"No, I moved there three years ago to take care of my grandmother after she fell and broke her hip," Claire answered as she filled three bowls.
"But Nanny died," Zaylie said. "They put her in a fancy pink box in a pink dress, and Daddy gave me a pink rose to put on the box after the preacher said a prayer."
"Six months ago," Claire said. "Cancer."
"I'm so sorry," Levi said. "So you work in Randlett? At the casino, maybe?"
"No." She shook her head. "I've run a little Etsy business for six years—homemade quilts. It lets me work at home and be flexible enough to take care of Zaylie when my brother is deployed or away on missions." Her voice had lost that high squeaky sound and settled into a husky tone that was downright sexy.
He wished his phone was working so he could research Etsy and see what kind of business that was. He'd never heard of it, but he'd bet dollars to cow patties that if it was like that Pinterest thing that Retta was always looking at on her phone that she could show him what Etsy was.
"I like this hoecake stuff," Zaylie declared after the first bite. "It's wondermous."
"I'm real glad that you like it, Zaylie. I'm not the cook that Retta is, but when we get back to the ranch house, I bet she'll make you a real good meal." Levi dipped up a second bowl of soup. "Anyone else?"
"Not yet. I'm goin' to save room for those fritter things. Never ate hoecake or them things before," Zaylie said. "Have you, Aunt Claire?"
Claire shook her head. "No, ma'am."
"Nanny didn't ever make them, did she?"
"Nanny wasn't much of a cook, remember?"
"But she could make real good hot chocolate when she didn't burn it," Zaylie said.
"Yes, she could," Claire agreed. "Nanny liked to cook until she broke her hip, and then things went downhill from there. We thought the hip problem brought on dementia, but it turned out to be a brain tumor. That's why I moved in with her. This is very good, and it warms from the inside out." She ladled out another bowl full.
He met her gaze across the table, but she quickly looked away. Levi recognized something in her expression like one of the abandoned animals he'd brought to the ranch through the years. The eyes did not lie, and they couldn't cover up deep pain. Regret, remorse, grief—there was something about her that needed rescuing.