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Kate felt Ellie's side of the bed dip, then rise. She listened to her sister's small feet pad against the wooden floor of the farmhouse loft. She turned on her side to watch Ellie drag a chair to the window. The soft blue light of morning spilled through the glass as Ellie pushed back the curtains for a better view. Kate sighed then sat up in sleepy curiosity. "What are you doing?"
"I can see the road from here," Ellie said, then jumped down from the chair with a decided thump. She ran to kneel in front of the bed and lifted her sparkling green eyes to meet Kate's. "Do you have a feeling that today will be a very special day?"
"No, not particularly," she said. Seeing Ellie's crestfallen expression, she amended, "I suppose that every day can be a very special day if we let it."
Ellie gave her a half smile seemingly more out of politeness than anything else. Kate hid her bemusement as she turned away from Ellie and quickly dressed. Her siblings seemed to have made a concerted effort to behave since she'd managed to stop their plan to marry her off. While she was relieved to see such an improvement in their behavior, she found it unnerving. How could they possibly not be up to something?
Kate smoothed her hair into an upturned twist as she watched her sister suspiciously. The girl had gone back to her post at the window. "Are you looking for something, Ellie?"
"Hmm? Oh, no," she said absently. "Then please get ready for school."
Sean and Ellie stepped into the kitchen just as she set the food on the table. Kate packed their lunch pails and set them in the usual place, then turned to survey their progress and was satisfied to find them nearly done eating. "Do you both have your slates and your homework?"
"Yes." They answered as they deposited their empty plates in the sink.
"Don't lollygag on the way or you'll be late again," she warned, then sank into an empty chair and sent them a smile. "Be good and have fun."
Sean grabbed the lunch pails and slates before hurrying out of the kitchen. Ellie began to follow him then paused to look at Kate. She met the girl's measuring stare. "Yes, Ellie?"
"Are you going to wear that the rest of the day?"
She looked down at her serviceable blue dress. "Why? Is something wrong with it?"
Ellie stepped farther into the room. "Wouldn't it be nice to get dressed up this once?"
"I'll be doing the wash all day. Why would I dress up for that?" she asked in confusion.
Ellie shrugged. "If someone stopped by, you would want to look presentable. Don't you think"
Sean appeared at the door and frowned at Ellie. "Let's go. We're going to be late."
Ellie nodded then sent Kate a hopeful smile. "Perhaps just your hair"
"Bye, Kate." Sean grabbed Ellie's arm and pulled her toward the door. As they left Kate heard him whisper, "What are you trying to do, anyway?"
The door slammed shut behind them leaving Kate in perplexed silence. She shook her head in frustration even as her lips curved in an amused smile. It looked like things were finally back to normal. She grabbed a biscuit for breakfast, then went about the chores with her usual determination.
She gathered their laundry and carried the large basket through the forest to the small creek that ran through the property. She washed clothes until her fingers became wrinkled from the cool water, then took a break to let the sun warm her freezing hands. She carefully stretched the kinks from her back. The waterfall that pooled into the small creek provided a drumming rhythm that lulled her senses into disarming relaxation.
A gunshot reverberated through the still morning air. Kate started, then spun toward the sound. Stunned, it took her a moment to realize she was staring into the forest toward her family's farm. She picked up her skirts and ran. She dashed through the trees, her bare feet creating a quick rhythm on the path she'd traveled only an hour ago.
The edge of her petticoat caught on a fallen branch but she refused to slow down as she neared the large clearing where her father had built their farm. The curious sound of masculine voices made her pause. She cautiously moved around the side of the barn toward them. The voices grew louder. With one last step, she cleared the barn and found herself in the middle of a standoff.
Kate froze. Her gaze traveled from the tall cowboy on her left whose gun was drawn toward the house, to the young man standing just outside her doorway. He was struggling to keep his grip on his pistol and control the haphazard pile of possessions in his arms. She narrowed her eyes as she recognized the items, then gasped as realization tumbled over her. She stepped forward. "What do you think you're doing with my things? Put those down!"
He jumped and turned to stare at her with panic in his gaze.
Her eyes widened as she realized he was just a boy. She lifted her chin and her tone turned imperious. "I said, put those down. Just you wait until"
A wild shot flew from the boy's gun.
She jumped, then stared at him in surprise.
"Get down!" The deep unyielding command from the cowboy made her obey without question. Another shot broke out, this time from her side.
"Of all the foolish things to do " The cowboy let out a volley of shots. The boy ran for the horse waiting in the barnyard and somehow managed to mount with his armful of goods.
A shot from beside her sent the boy's hat flying from his head. Kate caught her breath then pushed the man's gun away from its target. "Don't do that. You'll hit him!"
She watched as his aggravation seemed to flare along with the golden ring outlining his deep brown eyes. "Woman, don't touch my gun."
She gasped at his harsh tone. "I was trying to keep you from killing a child!"
"If I had meant to hit him, I would have." He stood then caught her elbow to help her to her feet. "As it is, he got away with my horse."
"Not to mention his life," she delivered testily.
He frowned at her.
She glared back.
His frown slipped, then pulled into an amused half smile. "I wondered if you'd have a temper to match your hair."
She let out a confused breath, then caught an escaping lock of her rich strawberry-blond hair and vainly tried to tuck it into place. "What do you mean?"
"Not a thing I didn't say," he said seriously, but his eyes held hers teasingly.
Kate found herself momentarily distracted by him as she suddenly became aware of his strong yet dangerously handsome features. She took a small step back, feeling a telltale warmth spill across her cheeks. He eyed her for a long moment, then gave his gun a small spin before tucking it safely into the holster. He tipped his Stetson to introduce himself, "I'm Nathan Rutledge."
She lifted her chin. "Miss O'Brien."
"Rutledge," he reminded with a nod.
Didn't he just say that? she wondered. "Yes, I know."
Unnerved by the friendly grin her statement caused, Kate glanced away. "Thank you for your help. Unfortunately he still got away with everything."
"Oh, he hasn't gotten away with anything yet."
She glanced up to survey the determined glint in his eye. "You're going after him."
"Of course I am," he said. "Delilah's been with me more than three years. I'm not letting some little thief get away with a horse of that stock."
"Delilah?" she asked, unsuccessfully denying her curiosity.
The man nodded. "Yes. Delilah."
Uncomfortable with his warm gaze, she glanced down at her dress. "That's an interesting name for a horse."
"One of a kind," he admitted. Kate frowned. He stepped closer.
Surprised, she looked up and couldn't seem to look away. She closed her eyes against the searching, his and her own. What is going on here? This is not normal. No one should have this sort of rapport with a total stranger. I may spend most of my time alone on the farm when Sean and Ellie are in school, but I can't be that lonely. Can I?
"Kate," he said, and her eyes flew open at the sound of her name. Snapped from whatever spell held her, she lifted her chin and stared at him. She hadn't given him her Christian name. Perhaps she'd met him before and forgotten? She allowed her gaze to sweep from his dark brown eyes and past his blue checkered shirt. His dark gray pants fit loosely against his long legs, and the dark metal of his gun rested against his thigh while his low-slung gun belt stretched across his hips. Meeting his gaze, she shook her head. If she'd met him, she would have remembered.
She opened her mouth to question him but he was already speaking. "I have to go after him. May I use your horse?"
She managed to nod, then watched him hurry toward the barn. A few minutes later, he reappeared on her horse and went in pursuit of the thief without a backward glance. Kate watched him disappear into the distance and vainly tried to sort out what just happened.