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Ellie's booted footsteps sank silently into the damp grass that separated the east stable from the closed corral. She stopped at the coral's locked gate and propped her arms along the fence and tilted her face upward.
The sun fell like magic against her upturned face. An unknowing smile tugged at the corners of her full lips as she drew in a deep, hungry breath.
It had been a long time since she'd been at the ranch. She blew out the breath and turned her attention to the lone corralled horse.
The female thoroughbred standing alone, isolated, was one of the Wilde Ranch's latest acquisitions, one that Nate Wilde, the oldest brother, had bought at a ranch near Cheyenne several months ago.
From her father, who was the veterinarian for the Wilde Ranch, Ellie knew they'd tried mating the Arabian a few times with several of their top-quality quarter horses. However, they had quickly realized that although they'd managed to tame her, it hadn't been enough to allow her to tolerate another horse anywhere near herat least not for mating.
She stood grazing in the middle of the corral, content to be left alone.
Ellie felt a certain empathy with the beautiful horse. She too found contentment in being alone.
After several minutes Ellie turned away and again lifted her face upward, shielding her eyes from the brightly glowing sun.
It was late spring, and nature had awakened from her winter sleep. The ranch was alive with noise from horses and cattle as well as sounds of men hard at work across the sprawling ranch.
Spring was mating and branding season for the cattle, and with a new venture into crossbreeding horses, it was a busy time at Wyoming Wilde. The men were also hard at work preparing for one of their largest auctions, to come in the fall, and a lot depended on this season.
The ranch had come a long way from the days when Jed Wilde had run the one hundred acre spread alone, trying to make ends meet. Now it was one of the most prosperous family-owned ranches in the country.
Ellie glanced around, remembering the many times she'd visited the ranch growing up, accompanying her father on his visits.
She'd always felt at home at Wyoming Wilde. As the only child of older parents, she'd been cosseted, protectedsome would say overly protectedby both parents and outside of activities with them; the ranch had become a second home to her.
Ellie had come as a complete surprise to her mother, told long ago she couldn't have children. Because of that, her parents' tendency toward overprotecting her had made Ellie more content at home, curled up with a book or playing with the few animals her parents had on their own land.
With her love for animals, the ranch became her own haven. Only at the ranch did her father give her free rein to explore, allowing her to follow the ranchers around as they went about their duties. It was a place where she felt like any other child, playing, learning about the animals, without inhibition.
A bittersweet memory flooded her mind. It was also the place where part of that independence her parents had afforded her had been taken away.
She'd been young, only ten years old, not long after Jed Wilde had become a foster father for three young boys he'd later adopted.
Ellie had been riding one of the horses, alone, something she knew her father wouldn't approve of. But she had been so caught up in the sheer enjoyment of the warm day, riding with the wind rushing against her face, she hadn't realized she'd gone out so far, with no one around.
Voices calling out to her had caught up with her on the wind, and she'd stopped, glancing over her shoulder to see Jed Wilde and the three young boys riding with him.
Surprised, Ellie had spun around and startled the horse when she'd reined him around too fast. The horse had lost its footing and Ellie had come tumbling down. With her foot caught in the stirrup the panicked horse had dragged her several feet until the men had caught up with them and managed to free Ellie.
She didn't remember much after that. The searing pain radiating from her knee up the length of her thigh had made her so dizzy she'd passed out. She'd come in and out of consciousness, her father clutching her hand as Jed Wilde had driven them to the hospital.
When finally she'd awakened, it had been in a hospital bed, staring up into the worried face of a young boy.
She'd been confused, dazed and not sure where she was, or who the boy was staring down at her.
"It's it's gonna be all right," he'd whispered.
Ellie had frowned, sniffing back tears. "What" She'd stopped speaking, grimacing when she moved and a pain shot up her leg. "What happened?"
He'd touched her hand, holding it within his, his young face lined with worry. "You had an accident. But everything is gonna be okay. They fixed you up real good. Everything is gonna be okay," he said again, as though he didn't know what else to say to her.
Before Ellie could ask who he was, her parents, along with a nurse, had rushed into her room. Her mother ran to her side, and from her peripheral vision Ellie saw the boy step back, silently moving away and allowing her mother to take the hand he'd just held.
She'd learned that when she'd fallen from the horse, one foot had gotten caught in the stirrup. Unable to free herself, the horse had dragged her, and her knee had violently turned. During the traumatic chain of events she'd also suffered a concussion.
Upon her arrival at the hospital, unconscious, she'd had an MRI of her kneethe swelling had been so severe, they were unable to ascertain the extent of the damage. She'd suffered an ACL injury that would take years of therapy, and eventually surgery. The devastating news that her knee would never be the same and she'd have to wear a brace for years to regain her mobility had changed her life.
Although her knee had healedbetter than the doctors had expected, in factthere were times when her limp became more pronounced. But it was unnoticeable most of the time Her continual physical therapy, the brace she wore for years and sheer determination had seen to that.
Even as a girl Ellie had a determination that belied her young years. The pain that came with recovery she could deal with. It was the stares and looks of sympathy on the faces of her peers, and adults, that had left a scar deeper than the ones inflicted on her knee.
Already introverted, she had retreated even further into her shell. So her father had reluctantly allowed her to come back to the ranch, desperate to see his daughter return to being the happy child she'd been, before the accident.
At the ranch she was able to be free, no one looked at her with sympathy in their eyes as their glance would fall to her leg, supported by the brace. At Wyoming Wilde, the ranchers allowed her to work, encouraged her to and treated her like one of them.
At the ranch, the men as well as Jed's young foster sons, treated her like anyone else, something she never forgot.
Especially one of the boys, in particular, the one whom she'd seen at the hospital, who'd taken her hand. Shilah Wilde.
The memory of Shilah Wilde replaced those of a more painful nature. Although she'd been only a young girl, she remembered how his concern for her had affected her, the way he'd wiped away her tears and held her hand, even for that brief moment.
Each of the boys had his own distinct personality. Nate, the oldest, took on the role of big brother, and had always seemed to be mature, despite his young age. Holt, the youngest brother, was the flirt, the one with the ready comeback.
But it was the middle brother, Shilah, whom Ellie had been drawn to.
He was quieter than his brothers, yet in his dark eyes there was a wealth of humor at times, sadness at others. She remembered her mother once commenting that Shilah had what the old people would call an "old soul."
Although she only saw him a handful of times during her visits to the ranch before her accident, she'd been aware that he'd been following her. Before the accident, she'd been too shy to call out to him, let him know that she knew he was following her.
Afterward, it had taken months before she'd garnered enough courage to do so. It wasn't long before their tentative friendship had blossomed into one Ellie had cherished.
He'd brought out a side of her that few besides her parents ever saw, especially after the accident. His ability to make her laugh, even when she didn't want to, was one that she never forgot.
And she'd never forgotten his impact on her.
"Ellie? Is that you?" A deep voice penetrated her thoughts, jerked her out of her memories. She spun around.
Shielding her eyes with her hand, Ellie watched as a large figure emerged from the cover of a newly budding magnolia tree. Slowly she backed up, until her back bumped up against the wood fence, her heartbeat increasing in tempo.
She knew she was safe at the ranch, as once, long ago, it had been like a second home to her. But now, everything everyone, was so new to her, it was as though she were seeing the place for the first time.
Once the figure came into full view, Ellie drew in a breath, her mouth forming a perfect O of surprise. It couldn't be.
"Shilah?" she asked, her frown easing from her mouth as the figure came into full view.
"Hey, El long time no see," he said, a slow smile hijacking the corner of his mouth, his voice deeper than she remembered.
She drew in a breath, her glance sliding over him as he stood several feet away.
Not only was his voice deeper than she remembered, but he was taller. At five foot eight, Ellie was used to being close to the same height as most men. In heels she was often taller. But as he drew closer, despite the high heels on her boots, she had to stretch her neck up to see into his face.
Oh, mercy And what a face. He removed his Stetson and a soundless breath of appreciation escaped from her lips.
For a moment she stood still, their gazes locked. Once he removed his hat, she could see his face fully. Handsome was much too tame a description for him.
His skin was a natural light golden hue, due to his Native American heritage, reminding her of cream with a strong hint of sweet, decadent honey. High sculpted cheekbones, a narrow nose and square chin gave him the kind of looks that would make anyone stop and stare. The set of his features was perfect. His face could have been sculpted by a master artisan.
But it was his eyes that sent a deep shiver over her body, despite the warm day. Dark, slashing brows were set above deep-set chocolate-brown eyes, the thin ring of gold around the iris lending him an almost.predatory appearance.
Her glance slid to his mouth, where one corner was curved lightly in a half smile and everything. feminine in Ellie went still. As he moved closer, she found herself rooted to the spot, unable to move.
Several steps more and he was standing a foot away from her. "You're home," he said, simply.
Before she could read the play of emotions that crossed his handsome face he'd reached over and pulled her close, tight against his body and into his once-familiar embrace.
Once he released her, he pushed her away, running his glance over her.
Ellie's heart was still pounding out a ragged beat and she quelled the urge to place her hand in her hair to tuck imaginary strands back into the low chignon she wore at the base of her neck.
Shaken, she took a few steps away, when the boot of her heel caught on a piece of timber, turning her ankle and twisting her knee. She hissed, reached down and gingerly rubbed her knee.
Immediately he was there, next to her, grabbing her beneath the elbow to steady her.
"Are you okay?" Shilah asked, his warm hand cupped beneath her elbow.
Ellie bit back a curse. Of all the times for her to lose her balancethis was the one time she would give anything for it not to happen.
She shook her head, dismissing her clumsiness, hiding her grimace as well as her embarrassment.
"I'm fine just clumsy," she said. "And I should have known better than to try and be cute by wearing these boots," she finished in self-mockery, laughing lightly and glancing up at him. As she looked into his handsome face, old ghosts reared and Ellie inwardly cringed, expecting to see sympathy in his dark eyes. That was something she couldn't take. Especially from Shilah.
"From where I stand, I'd have to say with all selfishness that a potential tumble was well worth it, considering what those boots do for your legs."
She wet her bottom lip, not sure what to say she was so shocked at his reply. She tugged the hem of her skirt down past her knee and glanced back up at him. Instead of the sympathy she dreaded to see lurking there, what she saw made her draw in a short breath.
She remembered how gorgeous he'd been as a young man, the way he'd look at her, a half smile on his sensual lips in response to something she'd said, sending her young heart thumping out of control. But now, standing before her, so tall that his broad shoulders blocked out the noontime sun's blazing rays, Stetson held loosely in his big hand.the man was devastating.
She drew in a breath, wetting the bottom rim of her lip. When his gaze followed her action, she swallowed and forced herself to look away.
"Are you okay?" he asked again, and she shook her head, the smile on her face shaky.
"I'm fine." When she pulled away slightly, after only a brief pause, he released his hold on her, allowing her to move away.