“Hey-oll—you didn’t tell us she was that cute!” Jarrod whistled as the petite, pink-haired girl climbed down from the train.
“Behave,” Frank murmured under his breath as they walked toward her. “Remember what I told you.”
Cordell rolled his eyes at his buddy, shaking his head in disbelief, but said nothing. Trust Jarrod… He gazed over at the girl and had to admit she was beautiful.
“Trinity, my, how you’ve grown.” Sylvia was the first to approach the elfin girl, and the hug she gave her niece looked like it might snap her right in two.
“Aunt Sylvia, it’s so nice to see you again.” Trinity smiled, although her eyes maintained a melancholy expression. “And Uncle Frank, how good of you to fetch me. I was expecting to call a cab. How’s your arm?” She frowned as she studied his left arm, encased in a sling across his chest.
Frank stood forward and gave her a hug, too. “It’s fine, sugar. Don’t you worry about that. I just fell a little awkwardly, the doctor said. Dang horse got spooked by a mouse or something and reared up suddenly. I didn’t realize what was happening until I hit the ground.” He chuckled. “Still, like I always say, where there’s no sense, there’s no feeling.” He tipped his head as he let her go. “This here’s Jarrod and Cordell.” He gestured toward the two guys who stepped forward to join them.
Cordell watched Jarrod smile broadly at the pretty waif and cringed inside, unsure of how she would react to them. To his surprise, she held out her hand.
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Trinity Ellis,” she said.
Jarrod seemed a little bemused as he shook her hand, though he was still smiling. “Jarrod Parker. Good to meet you, darlin’.”
Cordell noticed her blush slightly before she turned to him, holding that hand out again.
“Hi Trinity, I’m Cordell Bray.” He took her tiny hand in his, surprised that such a little woman had such a firm shake. She wore bright pink nail varnish that matched her hair, and her palm was warm and soft against his skin. He couldn’t resist prolonging their shake a little as he continued, “Welcome to Cavern County.”
She gave him a shy smile before withdrawing it. “Thank you.”
“We came to carry your bags—and to do the driving, of course,” Jarrod told her, glancing around.
“Oh, that’s very kind. But I’ve only got this.” She had a yellow, oversized handbag she was clinging to for dear life. “Everything else is gone.” Tears filled her big, green eyes as she said it, and Cordell’s heart went out to her.
“Well, let’s get you home and settled in,” Sylvia offered quickly, throwing an arm around Trinity and leading her toward the car. “I’ll bet you haven’t eaten in a while, have you?”
Cordell hung back a little as Frank followed the women.
“Looks like she hasn’t eaten in a month of Sundays,” Jarrod whispered, getting closer to his friend.
“Shh.” Cordell rolled his eyes again. Jarrod was a lovely guy, but tact had never been his strong point.
“I’m only saying,” Jarrod said, holding his hands up in surrender. “She seems like she’ll get blown away if the wind springs up.”
“Cut it out,” Cordell murmured. “You know dang well she’s been through hell and back. The last thing she needs is your smart-ass comments. And don’t think I didn’t notice you giving her the eye, either. She’s off limits, remember?”
“She’s still beautiful. You can’t deny that,” Jarrod muttered with his sing-song tone. “I saw the way you gawked at her, bro. You can’t tell me you don’t fancy her.”
“That’s not the point. Just cut it out, will you?” Cordell was muttering through clenched teeth as they neared the car.
“Stop worrying,” Jarrod whispered into his ear before disappearing around the other side of the car.
Cordell couldn’t help smiling as he climbed into the driver’s seat. Nothing fazed Jarrod. That was one of the many things he liked about his best friend.
“I’ve got the guest room all ready for you,” Sylvia was telling Trinity as they drove toward Pelican’s Heath.
“That’s very nice of you,” Trinity replied, in a small voice. She was sitting in between her uncle and aunt, who seemed to dwarf her, although they weren’t exactly large people.
Cordell watched her through his rear-view mirror. She looked bewildered and he realized she must still be in shock after what had happened. “Do you like to ride, Trinity?” he asked, trying to keep the conversation light.
“Yes, I used to,” she told the back of his head. “I haven’t ridden for quite a while, though. Think I might be a bit rusty by now.” Her voice sounded a little more cheerful, and he noticed in the rear-view mirror how she flushed slightly.
“Well, you’ll get plenty of opportunity in Pelican’s Heath,” Jarrod offered. “Although I’d advise you to stay on the horse. Your uncle’s method of riding isn’t quite what we’d recommend.”
They all laughed, and even Trinity sniggered, Cordell noticed. Good.
“I’ll have you know that wasn’t my fault, young man,” Frank admonished, playfully.
Jarrod turned to face him. “What? Surely, you’re not blaming that poor horse, Frank?”
Cordell glanced over to see the fake expression of shock on Jarrod’s face as his buddy put his hands on his cheeks.
Trinity giggled. It was quiet, but it was definitely a giggle.
“That’s not what I said and you know it,” Frank protested with a tut. He was clearly well-used to Jarrod’s teasing.
“Sounded that way to me. What do you think, Trinity?” Jarrod goaded.
“I’m not getting involved,” she told him. “I wasn’t there, remember?”
“None of us were,” Cordell offered, still watching her in the mirror. “In fact, we’ve got our suspicions that there wasn’t even a horse involved at all. Seems to us your Uncle Frank might have had a little too much of his elderflower wine and simply fell over his own feet or something.”
Jarrod hooted with laughter, and Cordell was pleased to see Trinity snigger, too. Her face seemed a little more relaxed now, and she was even more beautiful.
“That’s a load of baloney and you know it,” Frank protested, shaking his head. He was in his seventies, very well-dressed and had an authoritative air about him. Luckily, he also had a keen sense of humor.
“Oh, Frank, you know the guys are only kidding,” Sylvia soothed him with a smile. She turned to Trinity. “They do this all the time, hon. You’ll soon get used to it.”
Trinity smiled, and Cordell noticed her glance up at him in the mirror then blush as she quickly turned away, obviously seeing that he was watching her. He grinned. She was a hard one to figure out. Her bright pink hair and nails gave the impression of a girl who oozed confidence, although she seemed anything but right now. He hoped that spending some time in Cavern County would help her recover from her ordeal and get back to her normal self—whatever that might be.
“Here we are,” Frank announced as they pulled up on the drive outside his large house. “Let’s get you inside, young lady. You must be worn out.”
“No, I’m fine, honestly, Uncle Frank. I slept on the train,” Trinity said.
Jarrod was already waiting to help Sylvia and Trinity out of the car so Cordell slowly made his way toward the house where Frank was unlocking the front door.
“I don’t like it,” the older man whispered. “I know she’s just lost her home, but I reckon there’s more to it than that. She used to be so bubbly and lively. Hell, it was hard to get a word in edgeways last time she was here. I’m gonna get to the bottom of all this if it kills me.” His face tightened as he spoke.
Cordell frowned, but, noticing the women catching up to them, said nothing.
“I’ll put the coffee on,” Frank offered as they all piled into the hallway. It was a beautiful home, with high ceilings and large rooms.
“Let me show you your room,” Sylvia told Trinity with a smile. She led her up the stairs while the guys went through to the kitchen.
“Where have you been hiding her?” Jarrod asked, hoisting himself up to sit on the counter. His long legs dangled and he rolled up the sleeves of his white cotton shirt to reveal his ripped arms.
“I told you. She lives in Nebraska,” Frank told him gruffly. “She used to come out here for holidays and stuff when she was growing up, but since she’s started working, we’ve hardly seen her.”
“She’s sure grown into a gorgeous woman,” Jarrod remarked.
Cordell was expecting Frank to berate Jarrod, but instead, the old man frowned thoughtfully. “She has.” He nodded.
“But she’s got a boyfriend, right? I noticed she’s wearing a ring with a heart on it.”
Cordell stared pointedly at Jarrod, recalling how Frank had filled them in on the situation earlier. “Here, let me help.” He took out the coffee cups and pointed to a high stool where Frank obediently plunked himself down with a sigh.
“That ring was her momma’s. It’s probably the only thing she’s got left of her now.” He pursed his lips. “She did have a boyfriend, though. I presume they’re still together.”
“Then where the hell is he?” Jarrod fumed. “He should be with her right now, not leaving her to deal with all this by herself. What sort of a man is he?”
Frank shook his head. “I never met him.”
“Maybe that’s part of the problem,” Cordell offered. “If it was a bad split, it could have left her in a state, without her home going up in flames on top of it all. I think we need to tread carefully for a while, at least until we know the situation.” He gave Jarrod one of his I hope you’re listening to this stares before resuming preparation of the drinks.
He could feel Jarrod staring at the back of his head and knew his buddy had gotten his message loud and clear, although Cordell realized Jarrod wouldn’t like it. Despite being one of the biggest flirts in Cavern County, Jarrod had a heart of gold. Cordell could see he liked Trinity—who wouldn’t?—but he would need to tread carefully to avoid upsetting her. Jarrod’s stunning appearance never failed to turn women weak at the knees, but in Trinity’s case, that was the last thing she needed. The poor girl looked weak enough already.
He’d noted that Jarrod listened intently when Frank had told them last night that he would need a helping hand today, and he guessed the old man wasn’t just referring to physical help. The poor guy had turned pale when he had explained to them that his niece had recently lost her home when a gas pipe exploded right outside her apartment building. Sylvia’s sister—Trinity’s mom—had passed away a few years ago, and the girl’s dad hadn’t been on the scene for a long while before that. Frank and Sylvia were worried sick about their niece and had insisted that she come to stay with them for a while. They were determined to care for her whether she wanted them to or not. She was quite independent, apparently, so had been a little reluctant to take them up on their offer.
It was hard to imagine Trinity as being a self-reliant chatterbox. Her face was pale and tired and her tiny frame made her seem fragile and weak. She was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt with Converse sneakers, and if it weren’t for her bright pink hair, she would simply blend into any crowd. Her penchant for vivid pink made him think there was much more to Trinity Ellis than her manner suggested…
While the coffee pot gurgled away, Cordell turned around to face Frank, who looked lost in his thoughts as he sat at the counter staring into space. “How long will she be staying here?” he asked.
Frank quickly started in surprise, as though dragging himself from his muse. “As long as we can get her to,” he murmured, half to himself, Cordell surmised.
“You said she worked from home. Has she got anything to go back to Nebraska for?” Jarrod frowned.
“I don’t know. I suppose it hinges on this guy of hers,” Frank replied. “If it’s serious, she might want to get back to him as soon as she can.” He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “It depends how she feels.”
Cordell felt a jolt in his stomach at the thought of her boyfriend abandoning her at a time like this. “Can’t be much of a man if he doesn’t stick around when she needs him,” he muttered.
“Ain’t that the truth?” Jarrod chimed in with a sneer.
“Now, come on, guys. We don’t know the whole story. Let’s not jump to conclusions, shall we? There could be a perfectly good explanation as to why he’s not here.” Frank put a hand up to pacify them as he stood.
“I can’t think of anything that would be counted as a good reason for not being with a girl when she needs him,” Jarrod protested. “Any guy worth his salt would rush to be with her at a time like this. That girl needs comforting, looking after. Whoever this guy is, I could punch his dang lights out for not being there for her. He doesn’t deserve a girl like Trinity. I don’t care what his excuse is, it’s not good enough. What sort of guy leaves a girl right after her home gets burned down?”
A sudden noise from the doorway made them all turn around.
“A dead one,” Trinity replied.