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Chance Worth bent down on both knees and leaned over, splashing lake water onto his face. Refreshing drops sprayed his bare shoulders and chest as two-day-old dust melted away. The cleansing felt damn good.
He'd been careful treading through the foothills looking out onto the Red Ridge Mountains. He'd left Channing, Arizona, in a hurry, making sure he wasn't being followed. Only thing that ever could trail him was trouble and it seemed to follow him everywhere he went.
Narrowing his eyes, he searched the perimeter of the lake, taking in every detail, every bush, shrub and tree in the distance. Nothing stirred but his horse, Joyful. The mare was feeding on tall grass by a copse of trees.
Glistening waters tempted him like a whore's beckoning smile. "What the hell." He unfastened his gun belt and folded it into his shirt. His boots were next. Then he tucked it all in a hollowed-out patch under a boulder. Without further thought, he dove into the lake and pure heaven, cool and inviting, burst against his skin, soaking him through and through and washing away the remainder of his grime. Holding his breath, he swam underneath the smooth surface until his lungs burned.
He shot up out of the water gulping air and grinning like a kid who'd found a five-dollar gold piece. He remembered river runs with his friends at the orphanage. Taking turns jumping off mesquite branches into the rushing river and living to speak about it afterwards.
Lifting his face to the sun, he shook his hair out, splattering water in his wake. The heat seared his skin and for a moment, he enjoyed the warming from where he stood in the lake.
A noise broke his respite and instincts took hold. He reached for his gun then groaned. A quick glance at his clothes sitting on the bank, thirty feet away and housing his Peacemaker brought a curse to his lips. He lowered down, water up to his neck, and listened closely.
A female's scream pierced his ears and he focused his gaze in that direction, but the bend in the lake obstructed his view. He dove in and swam toward the source of the sound.
When he came up from the water he spotted a girl flailing her arms in a sinking rowboat. The straw hat she used to scoop out water wasn't emptying nearly fast enough. It was clear as day her efforts were useless as the boat made a slow descent under the water. But she continued to scream and scoop, scream and scoop until the boat's top lip met with the water's edge. "Just jump in and get it over with," he muttered.
The girl went under. He waited for her head to bob up. When she didn't surface immediately, he squeezed his eyes shut and swore. He had a bad feeling about this. His next glance found no ripples in the water. The lake had swallowed her up.
Hell, he wasn't anybody's hero. But drowning wasn't a pretty way to die.
He dove back under and swam with sure strokes, gliding across the lake quickly and reaching the area where the boat went down. He found the girl sinking down fast, her arms and legs tangling with her petticoats. She'd been under for less than a minute, he figured, but surely enough time to scare the life and breath out of someone who couldn't swim.
He grabbed on to her and hauled her up against him, his arm draped around her chest. Her boots met with his shins in a frantic attempt to save herself. "Ouch, dammit!" He held on and swam backward, pulling her head above the water's surface. Her arms and legs still flailed. "Hold on," he ordered. "Don't fight me."
"Let me go!" she shrieked in a panicked voice.
He held her firm. "Stay calm and breathe slow."
"No, let me go! Let me go!"
He'd never seen someone so intent on drowning. He spoke through gritted teeth. "Quiet down."
His muscles burning, he dragged her to shore. She wasn't but a little wisp of a girl yet her weight doubled from her dreary, soaked-to-the-bone clothes.
Once he got her to safety, he slid out from under her body and rolled away. His breaths came heavy and he took a few seconds to steady them, before he came up to kneel beside her.
Her eyes were closed and she'd gone real quiet. "Miss, are you alright?"
It was eerie how her eyes snapped open. They were sky-blue and a little hazy now, but it didn't take him long to figure out they were the prettiest thing about her.
"My dolls." Her plea scratched through her throat.
"Did you say, dolls? Miss, if they were in that boat, they're gone. Probably at the bottom of the lake by now."
She turned away, a look of pain on her face. She fought tears, and he thought it the darnedest thing, seeing as she might have lost her life just a minute ago. Seemed all she cared about was her dolls.
"You're gonna be just fine," he told her.
She shook her head, her lips trembling.
"What's your name?"
She didn't answer.
He repeated, "What's your name?"
"Okay, Elizabeth. You just hold on and wait here. I'll be right back."
The girl didn't respond.
He took off at a run along the lake bank, swearing an oath every time his bare feet hit a rock or a spiky twig.
I ain't anybody's hero, he kept repeating in his head. Didn't do a damn bit of good, thinking it, though. His daddy would say, "Thinking it ain't doing it, son." It was one of only a few memories he had left of his father.
He found his clothes and dressed quickly. Swinging his legs into the saddle, he rode Joyful hard along the lakeshore, retracing his steps until he reached the girl again. To his relief, she'd sat herself up though she appeared white as a sheet. Her clothes were stuck to her skin, looking like they'd need a good peeling to get them off her.
Not that he would suggest that. She'd have to be satisfied with the wool blanket he'd untied from his bedroll to keep her warm. Lucky the sun still shone bright in the sky.
He squatted beside her and wrapped the blanket around her shoulders. She didn't look at him. Her gaze, directed at the lake, was filled with yearning.
"This should warm you up."
She let the blanket hang from her body.
"You're trembling. Gonna catch a chill. Lake water's pretty cold."
Finally, she looked at him, her voice quiet and quivering, "They're ruined now. All of them. You shouldn't have stopped me."
His brows furrowed. "You got yourself a death wish?"
Her eyes dimmed with disappointment.
He sat down next to her. Bracing an arm on his bent knee, he gave her a moment of peace and absorbed the quiet of the lake, the heat of the sun.
After a few moments, he turned to her. "I'm no expert or anything, but that boat didn't look all too sturdy. Went down pretty fast. And clearly, you can't swim."
She snapped her eyes at him. "I can swim I just got tangled up in my skirts."
"Yeah? That's not how I saw it." He plucked a thin blade of grass from a small patch growing nearby. The girl was acting as if he'd done her a disservice by saving her life.
"I wish you hadn't come along. I needed those dolls. I would have found them."
What in tarnation? The ungrateful girl didn't appreciate what he'd done for her. She'd interrupted his peaceful time at the lake with her screams and she didn't have the good grace to utter a thank-you when he came to her rescue.
"You would've drowned looking for them, your swimming abilities being such as they are."
She sent a look of dire misery toward the water. Then she spun her head his way. Fire snapped in her eyes. "I was coming up for air, then going back down again. I didn't need your help. Now, my dolls are gone! And we're going to lose the ranch.. " Elizabeth's voice trailed off in despair.
Things with her must be mighty grim, he thought. She'd risked her life for those damn dolls. He didn't quite understand how her dolls would save a ranch. His knowledge of ranching was obviously lacking. Then it hit him. Elizabeth could she be Lizzie? The same Lizzie that Edward Mitchell had written to him about?
He dug into his shirt pocket and unfolded the square parchment, reading the letter his older friend had written.
I'm asking a favor of you, boy. I wouldn't ask if I had any other choice.
Need some help pretty quick. It's not for me, but for my granddaughter, Lizzie.
Come to Red Ridge if you can and I'll explain.
He stared at her. "You're Lizzie Mitchell?"
She whipped her head toward him. "How'd you know that?"
He pursed his lips, amused at the coincidence. "I'm Chance Worth. Your grandfather sent for me."
She jumped up with more vigor than he thought she could muster, being that she'd just nearly drowned, regardless of her claims otherwise. Her dark curly hair was plastered to her head, her face dull as his old scratchy blanket, her body covered throat to ankles with stuck-on wet clothes. Only things that glistened, bright as the lake that almost took her life, were her startled blue eyes. "You're Chance Worth?"
"Yeah, Lizzie, you heard me right."
She folded her arms across her middle, jutted out her chin and hoisted her head like Queen Elizabeth of England. "Well, I won't do it. Grandpa's got no right sending for you! I refuse to marry you. And that's final!"
"I told you I could walk home." Lizzie kept her chin high and her body stiff. She sat upon this sorrel named Joyful, sharing the saddle with the stranger. His arm was wrapped around her middle and she tried not to think about how if she leaned back ever so, she'd be flush against his big body.
"I should make you," he said. "Serve you right for taking that good-for-nothing boat across the lake."
For all her bold talk, Lizzie probably would drop of exhaustion if the cowboy did make her walk back home. The spill in the lake robbed her energy and losing her dolls had destroyed her spirit. She was bone tired, but wouldn't give the cowboy the satisfaction of that bit of knowledge. "You could leave me here right now and turn around. Tend to your business."
"I'm tending to my business. Told you that once already, Lizzie."
"It's Elizabeth." Her spine stiffened at the childlike name that everyone including her grandfather insisted upon calling her. Grandpa was forgetful lately, so she couldn't fault him, but that didn't explain why everyone else in Red Ridge saw fit to address her in that manner.
Chance Worth may have pulled her out of the water today but that didn't give him the right to insult her. After she'd jumped up, declaring she'd not marry him, he'd given her a long narrow-eyed look, then burst out laughing. He might've busted a gut with all the cheer he'd spread over the quiet lake at the very notion.
It was the reason Grandpa sent him that letter. Had to be. Her gramps had told her the tale of the orphan boy whose life he saved and how the boy had clung on, fighting for his life, refusing to give up the one thing he had left of value. The robbers would have beaten him to death if her grandfather hadn't been riding the back roads in Channing and heard the confrontation. Chance Worth owed her grandpa his life.
Good Lord, she thought, squeezing her eyes closed. Had that been the trade-off, he'd repay his debt by marrying her?