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By Jillian Hart
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMontana, 1884
Looking up from her early morning chores, Sarah Redding watched the distant horse and rider against the vast expanse of the eastern horizon. The newly rising sun peered over the edge of the world, casting the mounted man in silhouette, limning him with light. Morning came soft as a whisper to the land, but it seemed as if the daylight did not touch him. The stranger rode in darkness.
He's like a myth, all power and steel, she thought as the rider grew nearer on the road from town. Then closer still until she could see the angle of his Stetson, the glint of silver at his belt and the blue of his denim trousers.
"What kept you? I've been waiting on the milk," a sharp voice scolded from inside the weather-beaten shanty.
"I've got the full pail right here."
"Then hand it through the door. You're running late with your chores again." Aunt Pearl, a babe balanced on her hip, rammed open the screen door and seized the tin bucket. "I'll strain this. Hurry and go, before Milt comes in from the fields wanting his breakfast."
There would be trouble to pay if that happened, Sarah knew. As a widow with an ill child, she could not risk angering her uncle, not when she was down on her luck.
She plucked the egg basket from the porch,determined to waste no more time daydreaming about the lone rider with the fancy Stetson.
Still, she wondered about him. He didn't look to be from around here. Strangers were few and far between on this forgotten spot on the Montana prairie. Who was he and why was he here? Sarah resisted the urge to turn toward the horizon as she unlatched the chicken house door.
High, angry squawks filled the air as chickens hurled toward her, flapping their wings. Yellow beaks pecked at her ankles and she shooed the mean birds away.
I'm grateful to be here, she reminded herself. She wiped a few specks of blood away with her skirt hem before scaling up the wooden ramp and into the dark cramped coop.
If Aunt Pearl hadn't convinced her husband to let Sarah live with them, there was no telling what would have happened to her or to her daughter. She might not be happy living here, but at least they had a roof over their heads. A place to stay while Ella recovered her health.
Already, the little girl was growing stronger. Staying here was only a temporary situation. One day, she would be able to work full-time again. There would be no more Aunt Pearl, no more hardship and no more chickens.
For all Sarah knew, happiness could be waiting just around the corner.
"Shoo, bird." She waved her apron at the wiry old hen wisely guarding her nest.
The hen didn't move, so Sarah flapped her apron harder.
With an insulted screech, the chicken dove at her. Feathers flew everywhere, choking the air.
"Hello? Miss?" a man's voice called from outside the henhouse. "Thought you should know there's a hole in the fence. Your birds are out."
That wasn't Uncle Milt's voice. Then who could it be? Surely not one of the neighbors.
She remembered the dark rider she'd spotted on the horizon's edge, and she plucked a feather from her hair. No. It can't be him.
She peered through the small door. Her jaw dropped at the sight of the mounted man in her uncle's yard. With his black hat tipped low over his face, she could only see the cut of his square jaw, dark with several days' growth. His mouth was an unrelenting line that did not flicker.
The dark rider stood in the yard, so handsome she could not breathe. She brushed a feather from her patched apron before stepping into the sunlight. "Thank you for mentioning it. Goodness, the hens are everywhere."
"My pleasure, ma'am." He touched the brim of his Stetson. He looked like man and might, like a legend on horseback, as he stared at her without saying more.
She'd never been so aware of the dress she wore, thin and faded from wear. Her fingers found another feather in her hair and she tugged it free. "We had a hungry coyote last night."
"There are tracks. Two sets of them." His voice was magnificent, too, as he gestured toward the hole in the fence.
Here she was, standing before a dream, and what was she wearing? The ugliest dress in the county. It was clear he was not about to be carried away by the sight of her.
Well, life never promised to be fair or love easy to find.
She brushed at the straw clinging to her hem and knelt in front of the fence.
"No." Leather creaked as the stranger dismounted. He was as tall as he looked. He approached with a slow confident gait, strolling right past her as if she wasn't there.
Her skin tingled at his nearness. A zing of sensation skipped down her spine, making her aware of this man, so strong and silent. Far too aware. Her blood felt warm in her veins, and she stared intently at the hole in the earth. Could he guess that she was attracted to him?
"I don't suppose this is the Buchanan spread?"
"That's the way my luck's been running lately." He tipped his black hat lower over his eyes. "I'll need a shovel."
"A shovel? Oh, I can't let you fix this." The sooner he rode away, the faster her reaction to him would fade. She took off her apron and stuffed it into the small hole. "There, this will do for now."
"Don't want my help?"
"I don't know you, sir."
"Last name's Gatlin." His hard mouth softened into a small grin at the corners. "My friends call me Gage. You look alone here. Is this your place?"
"No, this is my aunt's husband's farm. She's busy in the house, and Uncle Milt is out early in the fields."
She climbed to her feet only to realize there was a dirt stain across the front of her bodice from preparing the garden spot yesterday. She looked like the poor relation she was.
Well, nothing could be done about it now. "What are you doing riding this way, Mr. Gatlin?"
"Looking for my next job." She spotted a stray chicken and dashed after it. Mr. Gatlin's fine-blooded mare snorted in surprise as she whisked past. Out of the corner of her eye, Sarah noticed the polished leather of the quality saddle, and the expensive rifle cover strapped beneath the right stirrup. "Your next job? You don't look like a drifter."
"And you look like you need some help." The grin in the corners of his mouth widened a little more as he stood, all power and masculinity.
Making her feel small and plain. She scooped a hen from the grass at the roadside. When she turned around, he was gone. So, he thought he'd help her, would he? Judging by the quality of his horse and saddle, he didn't need to trade work for a meal.
Excerpted from Montana Legend by Jillian Hart Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.