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Dutchman's Creek, Colorado June 7, 1919
Clara Seavers closed the paddock gate and looped the chain over the wooden post. The morning air was crisp, the sky as blue as a jay's wing above the snowcapped Rockies. It was a perfect day for a ride.
Swinging into the saddle, she urged the two-year-old gelding to a trot. Foxfire, as she'd named the leggy chestnut colt, had been foaled on the Seavers Ranch. Clara had broken him herself. He could run like the wind, but he was skittish and full of ginger. Keeping him under control required constant attention, which was why Clara allowed no one other than herself to ride him.
This morning the colt was responding well. With a press of her boot heels, Clara opened him up to a canter. She could feel the power in the solid body, feel the young horse's impatience to break away and gallop full out across the open pastureland. Only her discipline held him back.
For as long as she could remember, Clara had wanted to breed and train fine horses. She'd passed up her parents' offer of college to stay on the ranch and pursue her dream. Now, at nineteen, she could see that dream coming true. Foxfire was the first of several colts and fillies with champion quarter horse bloodlines. In time, she vowed, the Seavers Ranch would be as well-known for prize horses as it was for cattle.
Gazing across the distant fields, she could see her grandma Gustavson's farm. Days had passed since Clara's last visit to her grandmother. It was high time she paid her another call.
For years Clara's parents had begged the old woman to move into their spacious family ranch house. But Mary Gustavson was as iron willed as her Viking fore-bearers. She was determined to live out her days on the land she'd homesteaded with her husband, Soren, in the two-story log house where they'd raised seven children.
So far Mary had done all right. For a woman in her seventies, her health was fair, and the rental of pasture-land to the Seavers family gave her enough money to live on. She did her own chores and borrowed the ranch hands for occasional heavy work. But seventy-two was too old to be living alone. The family worried increasingly that something would go wrong and no one would be there to help her.
Clara pushed Foxfire to a lope, feeling the joyful stretch of the colt's body between her knees. There was an old barbed-wire fence between the ranch land and her grandmother's property. But the wires were down in several places where the cattle had butted against the posts. It would, as always, be easy to jump the horse through.
They came up fast on the fence, with Clara leaning forward in the saddle. She was urging her mount to a jump when she caught sight of the gleaming new barbed wire at the level of the colt's chest.
Some fool had fixed the fence!
With an unladylike curse, she wrenched the reins to one side. They managed to avoid the fence, but the pressure on his bit-tender mouth sent Foxfire into a frenzy. He reared and stumbled sideways. Thrown from the saddle, Clara slammed to the ground. For a terrifying instant the colt teetered above her, hoofs flailing. Then he regained his balance, wheeled and galloped away.
Clara lay gasping on her back. Cautiously she moved her arms and legs. Nothing felt broken, but the hard landing had knocked the wind out of her. She took a moment to gather her wits. First she needed to catch her breath. Then she would have to get up and catch her horse. After that she intended to hunt down the addle-pated so-and-so who'd replaced the sagging wire and give him a piece of her mind.
"Are you all right?" The voice that spoke was distinctly male, with a gravelly undertone. The face that loomed into sight above her was square-boned with a long, stubbled jaw. Tawny curls, plastered with sweat and dust, tumbled over blazing blue eyes.
It flashed through her mind that her virtue could be in serious danger. But the stranger leaning over her didn't look lustful. He looked concerned—and furious.
Clara struggled to speak but the fall had left her breathless. It was all she could do to return his scowl.
"What in hell's name did you think you were doing?" he growled. "You damn near ran that horse straight into the wire. You could've cut its chest to pieces and broken your own fool neck in the bargain."
Summoning her strength, Clara rose up on her elbows and found her voice. "What right do you have to question me?" she retorted. "Who are you and what are you doing on Seavers land?"
His gaze flickered over the straining buttons of her plaid shirt before returning to her face. His boots, Clara noticed, were expensively made. Most likely the rough-looking fellow had stolen them.
"Begging your pardon." His voice was razor edged. "Until you fell off your horse, I was on the other side of the fence—Mrs. Gustavson's fence, if I'm to believe her, and I do. She's hired me to make some repairs."
Fueled by annoyance, Clara scrambled to her feet. One hand brushed the damp earth off the seat of her denim jeans. "Mary Gustavson is my grandmother, and this fence has been down for as long as I can remember. I ride this way when I come to visit her. Whose idea was it to put the wire up?"
"Mine." His jaw was unshaven, his clothes faded and dusty. He looked like a trail bum, but his tone was imperious. "She told me to look around and fix whatever needed fixing. I assumed that included the fence."
Clara glared up at him. He towered a full head above her five-foot-four-inch height. "You must've seen me coming," she said. "Why didn't you shout and warn me?"
"How was I to know you were going to run the damned horse into the fence?"
His mention of the horse reminded her. Glancing past the stranger's broad shoulder she saw Foxfire grazing in the far distance. The skittish colt had experienced a scare. He was going to be the very devil to round up.
"Well, no thanks to you, my horse has bolted. It's going to take a lot of walking to catch him so you'll have to excuse me." She turned to walk away, but his voice stopped her.
"I've got a horse. Allow me to help you—on my own time, not your grandmother's."
It was a decent offer. But his condescending manner made Clara want to slap his face. The man looked like a tramp. But he talked like someone who was used to giving orders. What gave him the right to boss her around?
"I'll thank you for the loan of your horse," she said. "Aside from that, I won't need your help."
His scathing eyes took her measure. He shook his head. "My horse is a stallion. I doubt you could handle him. Stay here and I'll catch your colt myself."
Clara stood her ground. "Foxfire's been spooked. You won't get within fifty paces of him."
"And you can?"
"I broke and trained him. He knows my voice. And I've been riding since I was old enough to walk. I can handle any horse, including your stallion."
Again he shook his head. "I watched you damn near break your silly neck once. I'm not going to stand here and watch you do it again, especially not on my horse. If you want to come along, you can ride behind me."
Without another word he turned and strode away. Only then did Clara catch sight of his horse, grazing on the far side of a big cottonwood tree. It raised its head at the man's approach. Clara's breath caught in her throat.
The rangy bay would have dwarfed most of the cow ponies on the ranch. Its body was flawlessly proportioned, the chest broad and muscular, the head like sculpted bronze. Clara was a good judge of horseflesh. She had never seen a more magnificent animal.
The stranger was halfway to the horse by now. "Wait!" Clara sprinted after him. "Wait, I'm coming with you!"
At close range the stallion was even more impressive. Perfect lines, flaring nostrils. A Thoroughbred, almost certainly. No doubt the man had stolen it. In all good conscience, she should report him to the town marshal. But right now that was the furthest thing from Clara's mind.
A stallion among stallions!
And two of her best mares were coming into season.
She was not about to let this horse get away.
The man probably needed money—why else would he be working for her grandmother? Maybe he would sell her the stallion for a fair price. But did she want the risk of buying a stolen horse? Maybe she could borrow the splendid creature long enough to service her mares.
She waited while the stranger mounted, then gripped his proffered arm. His taut muscles lifted her without effort as she swung up behind him.
Unaccustomed to the extra weight on its haunches, the stallion snorted and danced. Clara had to grip the stranger's waist to keep from sliding off. Beneath the worn chambray shirt, his body was rock hard. He smelled of sweat and sagebrush, with a subtle whiff of her grandmother's lye soap lingering behind his ears. A warm tingle of awareness crept through Clara's body.
She gave herself a mental slap. What did she know about this man? He could be a shyster or a criminal on the run, or worse.
What had possessed a sensible woman like Mary Gustavson to hire him? For all she knew, the scruffy fellow could be planning to slit her throat in the night and steal everything in the house.
Who was this stranger? What was his business?
For her grandmother's sake, she needed to find out. And for her own sake, she'd be keeping a close eye on him—and his stallion.
Jace Denby took the stallion at an easy trot. He didn't want to startle the colt—nor did he want the stallion to rear and dump Miss Clara Seavers on her pretty little ass. He knew who she was, of course. Mary Gustavson had talked about her granddaughter all through supper last night. When he'd seen the girl flying across the pasture on a chestnut colt that matched the hue of her unruly curls, he'd recognized her at once.
And the instant she'd opened her full-blown rosebud mouth he'd known she was a spoiled brat. Just the kind of female he wanted nothing to do with. Especially since she was so damnably attractive. He couldn't afford the distraction of a pretty young thing accustomed to getting her own way. She'd flirt, wheedle and pout to win him. Then, when he broke her heart, she'd be out for his blood. For him, that could be highly dangerous.
If he had any sense he'd dump Miss Clara Seavers off in the grass and ride for the hills.
She clung to his back, the pressure of her firm breasts burning through his shirt. He hadn't been within touching distance of a woman in months, and this intimate contact wasn't doing him any good. The heat in his groin was fast becoming a bonfire, igniting thoughts of stripping away her light flannel shirt and cradling those breasts in his palms, stroking them until the nipples rose and hardened and her breath came in little gasps of need…
Hellfire, just the idea of it made him harder than a hickory stick. Jace swore under his breath. As a man on the run, it was imperative that he keep his mind above his belt line where it belonged. The last thing he needed was a saucy little hellion like this one pressing her tits against his back.
"You can call me Tanner," he said, using the alias he'd given Mary Gustavson. "And you, if I'm not mistaken, would be Miss Clara Seavers."
She was silent for a moment. Her knees nested against the backs of his legs, fitting as snugly as the rest of her would fit him, given the chance…
"What else did my grandmother tell you?" she asked.
"That you could ride anything on four legs and dance until the band went home."
A lusty little laugh rippled through her body. Jace felt it as much as heard it. "I take it you didn't believe her. Otherwise I'd be sitting where you are."
"No comment." Jace's gaze swept over the pasture, the silky summer grass, the distant foothills dotted with scrub and blooming wildflowers, the soaring peaks of the Rockies and the endless sky above them. Over the past few months he'd learned to savor every day of freedom as if it might be his last. Today was no exception.
"I know a fine animal when I see one," she said. "What's your stallion's name?"
"Doesn't have one."
"Why on earth not? A horse as grand as this one deserves a name, at least."
"Why?" Jace was playing her now, parrying to keep her at a distance. "Does a horse care whether he has a name or not?"
"No. But maybe I do." In the silence that followed, Jace could imagine her ripe lips pursed in a willful pout.
He forced a chuckle. "So you name him. Go ahead."
Again she fell into a pause. The stallion trotted beneath them, its gait like flowing silk. "Galahad," she said. "I'll name him Galahad, after the knight in the King Arthur tales."
"Fine. Galahad's as good a name as any."
"May I ask how you came by him?"
"You're wondering whether I stole him, aren't you?"
"Did you?" she demanded.
"I borrowed him. He belongs to my sister." That much was true, at least. Never mind that she wouldn't believe him. He didn't give a damn about her good opinion. He only planned on staying until he earned enough to move on. Maybe he could make it to California before the cold weather set in. Or maybe Mexico. A man could get lost in Mexico.
"So how do you come to be working for my grandmother?" Her voice dripped suspicion.
"I came by the ranch a couple of days ago looking for work. She was kind enough to hire me and feed me in the bargain. She's one fine lady, Mrs. Gustavson."
"That she is. And my family would kill anybody who tried to take advantage of her, or harm her in any way."
"I take it that's a warning."
"You can take it any way you like." Her arms tightened around him as the horse jumped a shallow ditch. The chestnut colt had raised its head and was watching their approach. Jace slowed the stallion to a walk.
Galahad. At least Clara had chosen a sensible name.