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Wyoming Territory, 1883
One hand clutching her valise, the other flattened atop her ivory bonnet to prevent the biting wind from snatching it away, Cora Mae Tindale charged through the dusty, pitted road of Slippery Gulch. Horses and wagons clamored through the small strip separating the parallel rows of buildings. She leaped onto the crowded boardwalk. Folks swarmed like bees as the stagecoach driver continued to toss parcels and crates down from the stagecoach that had brought her this far.
Only twenty more miles.
Cora drew her carpetbag of dusty traveling clothes against her aching ribs and forged her way through. Her corset pinched beneath the straining fabric of the yellow gown her mother had starved her into just one agonizing month ago. Lord, what she'd give for a full breath. She hadn't inherited her mother's petite build, but the raving woman wouldn't relent.
There was nothing to be done for it now. This was the nicest dress she'd managed to stuff into her trunk. She couldn't arrive at the Morgan Ranch appearing a vagabond in need of charity.
Keeping her gaze on the livery just a few shops down, she quickened her pace. Beyond the noise and bustle of the crowded strip, tiny canvas-topped homes spotted the uneven grasses. Miles of rolling hills rippled into the distance like great green waves. Farther out, snowcapped mountains spiked up into the clear blue.
Cora's heart constricted painfully. The imposing view made it all too clear that this settlement was nothing but a tiny speck in a vast expanse of hills and sky. She'd heard Wyoming Territory was largely unsettled, but hadn't imagined Tucker and Chance would have built their ranch so far out into sheer wilderness.
She wouldn't be discouraged. She'd waited so long to see them again, though these were not the circumstances she had envisioned.
An instant burn of tears stung her eyes at the thought. The eight years she had spent at the textile mill had truly been a kindness. She'd been such a fool to believe her mother had summoned her home because she had missed her. Had she even suspected
Alarmed by the foul scent of bourbon on the breath so close to her ear, Cora swung around.
A tall cowboy shifted his hat over curly black hair. "Name's Wyatt McNealy. I hear you're headed to the Morgan Ranch and are, uh, in need of my services."
Cora took one look at Wyatt McNealy's smug grin and winking eye and knew she'd crawl the twenty miles to the Morgan Ranch before she'd travel in the company of a man carrying the stench of alcohol.
"You are mistaken, Mr. McNealy. I am not in need of any services."
"Spud tells me you're headed out to the Morgan place. I happen to be traveling in that direction. No sense in you having to struggle with a cart across such rugged ground."
Cora squared her shoulders. "I appreciate your concern, but I'm quite capable of handling a horse and cart. After traveling for weeks without altercation, I'm sure I can manage another twenty miles." She attempted to move past him. "Good day."
He sidestepped, blocking her way.
Fear nettled beneath her skin. Her fingers tightened around the handle of her carpetbag, preparing to knock him out of her way. Her other hand curled into a fist, just as her stepbrothers had taught her.
"You kin to the Morgans?"
"We're a kin of sorts," she said, hoping Chance and Tucker still thought of her as such.
"Well then." His fingers closed around her elbow. "I know they'd want me to make sure you reached their homestead safe and sound."
Cora wrenched her arm from his grasp.
"Wyatt!" boomed a voice from behind them. "You black-hearted son of a bitch!" The cracking of knuckles against Wyatt's jawbone punctuated the hard-spoken words. Wyatt dropped to the boardwalk. The crowd around them dispersed like a clutch of spooked chickens. Cora swallowed a shriek and backed against the building as Wyatt's attacker brushed past her.
The dark figure seemed a giant, well over six feet and covered in dried mud. He turned toward his companion standing in the road. Wyatt started to rise. The giant tossed something at him, knocking him back down with a loud clunk.
A dead foal caked in mud pinned him to the boardwalk. Cora clamped her hand over her gaping mouth.
Wyatt groaned and shoved against the weight.
"I'll be sending you a bill for that foal and any others should they die from the stress you put them through. You better pray they make it, Wyatt."
Wyatt shifted. Cora saw his hand going for the hilt of his gun. Before she could shout a warning, a younger man stepped forward and pointed his rifle at Wyatt's head.
"The kid's known to have an itchy trigger finger," said the muddy rogue. "I'd hold real still if I were you."
Her pulse thundering in her ears, Cora glanced beyond the giant pillar of dirt and his young accomplice, toward the spectators gathered at a safe distance. Most watched with mild interest, while others continued on about their business.
Where was the sheriff?
The beastly rogue moved closer. Cora pressed her back against the rough wood of the building, holding her breath as his filthy trousers brushed across her yellow skirt.
He knelt beside Wyatt. "You got anything to say for what you did?"
"I didn't do" Wyatt's whimpered words ended in a squeal as the man grabbed his boot and wrenched it up.
"Sure looks like the dainty boot prints we saw in that riverbed, don't it, Garret? A notch in the left heel."
The younger man spared a glance, his hazel eyes taking in the notched heel. "Sure does. Matches perfectly."
"You so much as kick a pebble into that river to divert water from my land again, and I'll be gunning for you, Wyatt. That's a promise."
"You're the one bent on using that devil wire!"
"Got tired of waiting for you boys on the Lazy J to learn your alphabet. Our brands are distinctly different. I've been patient with your boss, but if you don't catch on, I'll have no choice but to believe you're rustlers. Stupidity's forgivable, Wyatt. Stealing isn't." He lifted Wyatt's gun from its holster and tucked it into his own grimy waist-band. "Just a precaution to keep you from filling my back with lead." He straightened and turned away, stepping out into the street.
Cora released a hard sigh of relief but found herself stuck between the building and Wyatt's sprawled legs, the rest of him still struggling with the muddy carcass.
"We didn't mean to startle you so," the younger man said, his gun now lowered at his side. "Let's get you out of harm's way." He flashed a gentle smile and offered his arm.
Cora nodded and allowed him to lead her around Wyatt.
"I sure hate that you were caught in the midst of our quarrel." Reaching the road, the young man stepped away from her and removed his hat, revealing short cotton-white hair. The dirt on his trousers didn't go past his knees. "I hope you'll accept my apologies."
"Of course," she said, forcing a tight smile.
Cora jumped at the harsh shout and spotted the other man standing on the boardwalk across the road.
"I's just apologizing to the lady for scaring her half to death," Garret shouted back.
The beastly man tugged off his hat. His matted hair was just as dirt-filled as the rest of him. He batted the hat against his thigh, scattering dust and chunks of dried mud. "If she's looking for formal socials and tea parties, she bes' get back on the stage. There's nothing but backstabbers and mudskippers around these parts."
He was obviously a mudskipper, Cora thought, watching him shove his hat back onto his crusted hair. His sharp green eyes burned with irritation before he turned and walked into the general store.
"Don't mind him," said Garret. "He's just havin' a real bad day. You be careful, now." He tipped his hat to Cora, then turned and darted across the busy road.
Cora didn't waste a moment. She hurried to the livery at the end of the road. Rounding the corner, she was pleased to find a large bay mare hitched to a cart just outside the open double doors. Her trunk had been secured to the back. She tossed her bag onto the seat, then stepped into the shadows of the large stable.
"Mr. Spud?" she called out.
"Miss Tindale." Mr. Spud stepped from a stall. His stringy gray hair poked out in all directions from beneath his battered brown hat.A grin pushed high into his whiskery face. "Don't you look pretty as a spring daisy," he said, brushing his hands across the front of his striped shirt as he walked toward her.
"You're too kind," she said, certain the old man's eyesight must be failing. "May I assume my cart is ready?"
Mr. Spud's bushy gray eyebrows pinched. "Didn't Wyatt find you?"
"Yes. He's been detained. As I said earlier, I'm quite capable of handling a cart."
"I can't send you out into those hills by your lonesome. The Morgans won't"
"You've given me explicit directions. I can assure you"
"Hey, Spud! You in there?"
Cora tensed, recognizing that strident voice. Not again.
"Well, speak of the devil," Mr. Spud said as he peered toward the open double doors, "and he's bound to surface."
Coated with dirt, the man did look as though he'd crawled up out of the earth. Garret walked in behind him. When he spotted her his young face beamed with a smile.
"What in thunder happened to you?" asked Mr. Spud.
"Had to pull a few colts from a muddy riverbed. I was told you've got the feed stocked up in here. I paid for six bags."
"Sure do. Right inside the door there. Help yourself. Now that you're here, I won't have to worry about finding the lady an escort."
"That's quite all right," Cora quickly cut in. "I don't need an escort."
Cold green eyes raked across the length of her. "If you're headed in our direction"
"No. Thank you. I really do not require an escort."
His broad shoulders shifted, creating tiny avalanches of dust and dirt. "Your choice."
"But that don't make no sense," said Mr. Spud. "Not when"
"I can manage," Cora insisted. "Thank you, Mr. Spud. I'll be on my way."
"You heard the lady. Let's get these loaded, kid." He turned away and hoisted four large sacks of feed.
"Nice seeing you again," Garret said, smiling brightly as he backed toward the open doors carrying the other two bags. "See you next month, Spud."
"Uh, Miss Tindale?" Mr. Spud poked his fingers under his hat and scratched at his hair as he squinted at her.
"Ain't you headed to the Morgan place?"
"I am," she said, walking toward the cart.
"Then you ought to change your mind about the escort, seein' as that there's one of the Morgans."
Cora's gaze whipped toward the hitching rails outside the stable. "No." She looked from the nice young man who couldn't be more than sixteen to his broad-shouldered companion securing bags of feed to the back of a horse. "Are you certain?"
"Yes, ma'am. He's either the married one or he ain't. 'Bout the only time I can tell 'em apart is when Tuck brings his wife along."
She thought of the man's piercing green eyes, and her heart skipped a beat.
Oh, my goodness. Struck between horror and disbelief, she slowly made her way outside.
Garret laughed as the Morgan man dunked his head into a trough. He whipped back, spraying water across the sky and revealing golden blond hair. Drops of water trickled down handsome features to his sharp jaw. His head tilted back as he raked his fingers through his hair, and she spotted a tiny scar hidden beneath his chin. A scar she'd given him accidentally.
Smoothing her hands across the front of her skirt, she continued toward him. She had so wanted to make a good first impression. She stopped a few feet away. Tears stung her eyes, constricting her throat when she would have offered a greeting. She had waited so long.
"You're gonna get mighty cold by the time we reach the ranch," Garret said through his laughter.
Chance Morgan welcomed a chill, but he doubted it would help. "Trust me, kid, I won't be cold."
"She caught your eye, too, huh?"
"My eye didn't catch anything," he countered, still irritated that he'd been attracted to a pile of fluff and lace. Not his style. It was just as well Her Highness had opted to decline their escort.
"All that mud must be clogging your vision," said Garret.
Not likely. He'd made out all those curvy features with crystal clarity. He had enough trouble without adding fancy women into the mix. Five minutes in the general store and mothers were nudging their frightened daughters toward him. What was wrong with townfolk? Why would anyone assume that because he had a ranch, he'd be suitable marriage material? Or that he wanted a wife?
"Mud wouldn't have kept me from noticing that little lady was prettier than a buttercup," said Garret. "A buttercup bloomin' in the, uh um "
Pressing his hat over his wet hair, Chance glanced at Garret's beet-red face. He followed the kid's wide-eyed gaze to the "buttercup" standing a foot to his right, and grinned. That'll teach the kid to go spouting off at the mouth.
"You again?" He allowed his gaze to slide across her alluring figure. "Did you change your mind about the escort?"
She stared up at him through watery eyes and appeared to be choking.
"Miss, are you okay?"
"Chance," she said, sounding breathless.
Shock rippled through him. Being one of the prettiest women he'd ever seen, he knew damn well he'd never laid eyes on her until today. But she sure as hell seemed to know him.
"Have we met?"
"Oh, yes," she said in a rush. "I've been waiting forever to see you again." Her pink lips formed a bright smile. A smile that sparkled in eyes the shade of cinnamon.
His gaze honed in on the light dusting of freckles across her small nose. Spotting a spiral of bright-auburn hair poking out from beneath her wide fancy hat, Chance was hit by the flashing memory of big doe eyes, long orange braids and the mischievous grin of a little girl he hadn't seen since he was twelve. He looked deeper into brown eyes flecked with bits of gold and amber.
Chance took a cautious step back. "Cora Mae?"
She gave an excited shriek. Her body seemed to vibrate before she leaped at him, her arms banding around his waist.
"Goodness, how I've missed you!" she exclaimed, damn near squeezing the life out of him.
Chance patted her back as she smiled up at him, hoping the light touch would release him from her tight embrace.
"You're so tall," she said, squeezing him tighter still. "And handsome! I've missed you so much. And Tucker. How is Tucker? You can't imagine "
As she continued to jiggle and talk, Chance didn't know what made him dizzier. The woman's rapid-fire sentences or the soft, supple curves pressed flush against him. The discomforting stir of his body answered his quandary, while bringing about a stark realization.
He may have lived under the same roof as a red-headed tomboy during two years of his childhood, but he didn't know this shapely woman from Eve. Certainly not well enough to have her rubbing herself all over him, her pretty face gazing up at him as though the sun rose and set in his eyes.
"You've heard of Lowell's Textile?"
Chance nodded and gently pried her arms from his waist and set her away from him. The abrupt shift didn't slow her excited chatter.
"but I was so certain I'd find you. And here you are. My goodness gracious, so strong and tall."
He smiled, her jubilation seeming somewhat contagious as he tried to keep up with her rapid-fire sentences.
"ornery dickens that you were as a boy, and twice as cunning. Mother was sure you'd perished in the war, but "
Her rush of words shattered into meaningless fragments at the mention of a name that never failed to put ice in his veins.