Tragically widowed at a young age, Anna was thrust into the intimidating, but satisfying role of sole owner of a Kansas wheat farm. Tragedy strikes again as a tornado rips through her town, almost leveling her barn and home, and injuring her beloved elderly foreman. As she watches her only hope for recovery drive away down the long dirt road, she collapses in her driveway in tears, afraid, utterly alone, and almost destitute. The heat of the sun’s rays cool as a shadow passes over her body. Firm, but gentle hands, lift to comfort her, but will she allow him to?
When the fatigue of her worn-out body combined with the effects of the peacefulness of the late afternoon, she dozed off. Her head, heavy with weariness, rested against the old swing, but she jerked awake at the sound of Jake’s deep bark. The sound came from the side of her house, and she wondered what had him so excited. It wasn’t an angry bark, but one of a dog having fun. Who or what was he playing with? She hoped it wasn’t some wild animal again.
Rising despite protesting muscles, she walked stiffly to the top of the porch steps to see what was going on just as her perpetually happy dog came into view. Excitedly jumping up and down on his two back legs, he growled happily as a stranger wrestled his favorite ball from his mouth and tossed it across the yard.
Her Jake, all eighty pounds of him, took off at a run with his tail wagging and a huge doggie grin on his handsome face. With his long, blue-black hair blowing behind him, he bolted after the flying ball. The man chuckled, and she turned her eyes to him as she walked down the steps to her lawn. Who was he?
His gaze darted to hers and he smiled, the simple gesture suffusing his face in warmth and kindness.
He was tall, over six feet by her guess, with raven black hair swept back from a sculptured and handsome, rugged face. His skin was a rosy tan, so different than her own creamy white. She guessed he had a Native American heritage in his lineage.
His shoulders and arms were muscular, his waist and hips narrow, and his thighs were thick and solid beneath his faded blue jeans. She could easily see he was either used to hard labor or took great pains to keep his body in shape. Either way, he was toned to perfection, and she took a quick moment to appreciate the beauty of the man.
If Jake hadn’t felt so comfortable around him, she would have been concerned in the presence of this man’s obvious strength. Anyone who could help defend her was far on the other side of her yard. Jake, however, was already back and shoving the frayed, time-worn, sloppily wet ball into the man’s hands, wanting more playtime from his new playmate.
Jake knew who was enemy and who was friend, and he’d obviously determined this man was okay. She trusted Jake implicitly. With a dog’s insight, he’d warned her off several times when she’d interviewed possible hired hands or when she was approached by a shady salesman. He was her right hand, her best friend, and as a woman who lived alone, a strong protector. She loved him with all her heart.
She stepped forward cautiously. "Can I help you?"
Throwing the ball, a bit further this time, he turned and walked towards her. His face was friendly, his manner perfectly serene, and she was at once captivated by the warm smile. It was odd, but for some reason she wanted to believe Jake was correct in his judgement of this man.
He extended a hand in introduction, and she looked at how clean he was. She held back with a shake of her head and a grimace as she showed him the filth that encased her hand.
“I don’t think that would be wise.”
He laughed and lowered his arm, withdrawing the offer. "My name is Dakota Powers, ma’am. I'm looking for work and have been visiting the local farmers, asking if they are hiring. One of them suggested I visit you, said you may be.”
Fascinated, she kept her gaze glued to him as he spoke. Sensual and dreamy chocolate brown eyes with just a flicker of playful amusement sparkled at her in hopeful goodwill. Her gaze dropped from the infusing warmth of his eyes to his lips as they moved, and she shocked herself as she pictured the full lips touching hers. His words were friendly, spoken in a soft, smoky, deep voice, and she found the sound comforting and assuring. It was easy to relax surrounded by his good nature.
A loud, gurgling growl broke her observation, and he laughed, laying his hand across his stomach, apologizing. “I’m sorry. I think it’s time for dinner.”
She laughed along with him, but inside she worried. The man was obviously hungry, if his stomach was any indication, and poor if he was searching for a job. She felt a surge of compassion for him, knowing only too well how many were going hungry in the current economy.
Many a time, she’d struggled to feed her own family, but she always made sure Pop and her pets were fed before her own needs could be met. Pop would complain, but she would always shush him. She did what she had to do.
"I'm so sorry, Mr. Powers, but I’m not hiring right now," she said with a shake of her head.
As if to emphasize her words, her three hired hands and Pop exited the barn, joking and laughing. Without a wind to carry it away, their voices could easily be heard across the stretch of grounds to her and the stranger.
Pop noticed the stranger immediately and waved at Anna in their secret signal. She waved back to assure him all was well. She turned back to the stranger just in time to see the flicker of amusement disappear from his gaze, replaced by a look of defeat. If she hadn’t been watching him closely, she would’ve missed the barely perceptible slump of his shoulders. She did see it, though, and again felt compassion fill her at his plight.
She knew it must have taken great effort on his part, but he smiled, his look gracious and kind.
“Would you know of anyone who may be hiring?