Bear Creek sheriff's deputy Matt White is used to being the rescuer, not the rescued. But now the hurt lawman's marooned on Catherine Poole's remote homestead. The little girl he'd known briefly as a child is all grown upand tugging at his heart.
Isolated from the world around her, Catherine's spent her whole life caring for her ailing grandfather. The last thing she needs is a cowboy stranded in her home. Let alone the memories he dredges up of a past she's tried to put behind her. But can this deputy be her chance to finally move forward and find true happiness?
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Sheriff's deputy Matty White stumbled out of the bunk-house, still pulling on his left boot.
In the corral just outside, his brother Seb swung a lasso above his head, aiming for one of the green broke geldings trotting anxiously back and forth and tossing their heads.
Except for Seb, the barnyard was eerily empty. Matty's big family worked the family ranch together, and nearly everyone showed up for family breakfasts and suppers, so the absence of his older brothers was unsettling.
And it was easy to see why.
Matty clapped his hat to his head as a burst of wind threatened to send it flying. He didn't like the looks of the swirling clouds, low and heavy in the sky.
"Get those horses in the barn and get inside," Matty called over his shoulder to Seb.
Seb waved him off. Probably Pa had already told him the same. And while it was hard to remember sometimes thanks to his antics, his youngest adopted brother was twenty now and man enough to know when it was time to take cover from a storm.
This particular storm looked to be a nasty one, judging by the sky's sickly green hue.
Hailstones thumped against his shoulders and hat, stinging slightly, as Matty's boots hit the porch steps.
He burst in through the door, calling for his ma. Penny White was in the parlor with Walt, Ida and Andrew, her and Jonas's biological children, lined up on the sofa. She was disheveled, a state he rarely saw her in. Her auburn hair was coming out of the simple braid she must have rushed to put it in.
Andrew and Ida, ages five and eight, sat with wide, bright eyes, obviously alerted to the potential danger of the situation.
"Good, you've got the little ones," Matty said. He had to speak loudly in order to be heard above the hail pounding on the roof.
"We're not little," eleven-year-old Walt growled. "I'm plenty big enough to ride out with Pa. He shoulda let me go with him."
"Pa went out?" Matty directed his question to Penny, worry skittering through him. The hail would be uncomfortable or could possibly cause injury. And what if Jo-nas's horse spooked?
"Breanna was worried about her mare that's close to foaling," Penny explained breathlessly. It seemed she shared his concern. "She ran out of here before either of us could stop her, and Jonas followed. He'll keep her safe. They can take cover at Oscar's cabin or Davy's, depending on where they find the horse."
If they found her. The animal was half wilda little like his stubborn seventeen-year-old sisterand would likely hole up wherever she could find shelter. The family ranch had expanded as each adopted brother gained his majority, and there was plenty of land to cover. Seb, Matty and Breanna were the only unmarried siblings left at home.
But Penny was right. Now that his older brothers had married and built their homes around the ranch, Jonas and Breanna could take cover with one of them. Even Maxwell and his wife, Hattie, both doctors, had a place out here. They split their time between home and the nearby town of Bear Creek, where their clinic served those in town and the neighboring areas.
Seb burst through the door, snapping it closed against the wind that threatened to tug it out of his hands. "It's getting bad out there." He wiped the brim of his hat, and his hand came away wet. Several hailstones clattered to the floor at his feet.
"You got any quilts handy?" Matty asked Penny. "Get the children huddled up beneath them. Just in case."
He didn't go after the blankets himself. He'd grown up in this house, but as the White family had grown with Jonas and Penny's biological children and as the older boys had begun wanting more independence, they'd moved out to the bunkhouse. And he knew how particular his ma was with how she preferred her house to be kept.
Penny disappeared into the hallway toward the bedrooms and reappeared moments later with an armful of quilts.
"I ain't no baby," Walt protested, attempting to shove away the thick quilt that Penny extended to him.
"Listen to Ma," Matty said sharply. He didn't like to take that tone with his younger brother, but this wasn't a moment to assert his independencethings could get dangerous, fast.
"Matty" Seb's murmur drew his gaze to where the younger man stood in the kitchen, looking out the window over the washtub. Matty's feet took him there almost of their own accord.
"Get the children down behind the sofa," he said over his shoulder to Penny.
And then he was standing outside on the porch, his brother beside him, without really meaning to.
A soft curse escaped his brother's lips. Matty would've chastised him, except the word conveyed all the terror he felt this very moment.
At the edge of their property and rapidly moving closer was a funnel dropped from the clouds.
"Tornado," Matty whispered. The silent prayer that had been rolling around the back of his brain since he'd run out of the bunkhouse this morning suddenly shouted loud in the forefront of his mind. Keep my family safe. Please, Lord.
Noise, like a rolling freight train, pressed in on his ears. The ground at the base of the tornado was obscured in a cloud of dust and debris. On its current trajectory, it would come close to their barn. Or demolish it.
"Turn, turn," Seb murmured. Matty could barely hear him over the tornado's roar.
For long moments, they both simply stared at the oncoming horror. A full-grown tree pulled free of its home as if it weighed nothing. Earth crumbled from its roots as it was engulfed in the tornado's debris.
And as if God had heard their frantic prayers, the tornado did turn. Although it remained on the ground, it swerved to the west, taking out a copse of cedars.
He and Seb stood on the porch watching as the tornado ripped its way across the family property, knocking down two fences as it passed.
"I need to get to town," Matty told his brother. "Sheriff Dunlop will want his deputies" of which Matty was one "scouting the area."
"Check on Ma and the kids," Matty said. "Then Edgar and Fran, and Daniel and Emma. I'll stop at Oscar's and Davy's places on my way to town. Maxwell and Hat-tie are probably already on their way to town." Daniel and Emma were Fran's grown siblings and lived in a cabin nearby.
He could only pray they weren't needed, but knew that if the tornado had caught folks in Bear Creek unawares, there could be injuries. Or worse.
The only brother who didn't live nearby was Ricky, who planned to buy out his father-in-law's ranch up north. Ricky and his wife, Daisy, raised sheep, in contrast to the Bear Creek contingent, who raised cattle and horses.
Matty was torn as he ran out to the barn and saddled up his buckskin gelding. Part of him wanted to stay and help his family. They'd need to move any cattle or horses out of the pastures where fence had been knocked down.
He didn't even want to think about leaving them to deal with any animals that might've been caught in the tornado's path.
But he'd made a commitment to the town when he'd taken on the badge only three months ago. When Sheriff Dunlop had pinned the tin star to Matty's chest, he'd felt the weight of expectationsboth from the man and from the town he'd sworn to protect.
For now, his family would have to clean up without him.
* * *
Hours later, Matty was exhausted, covered in mud and hungry. His bedroll would be nice, right about now.
He was also several miles out of town, in the opposite direction of home.
He guided his horse around an uprooted tree, barely seeing the devastation surrounding him. The protruding roots and scattered earth showed the destructive path the tornado had taken. He'd ridden through the storm that followed. The driving rains had flooded local waterways, and hail had demolished crops and buildings. In town, strong winds had damaged several buildings. But the worst part had been discovering that the tornado had resulted in two deaths.
Sheriff Dunlop had sent his four deputies in each direction, north, east, south, west, scouting for folks who needed help and telling them that the Bear Creek school building was being used to house anyone who'd lost their homes.
Heading north had forced Matty to check on the McKeever family, including Luella McKeever, who'd just last week told him not to come courting anymore.
She hadn't given him a clear reason why she didn't want to see him anymore, and the rejection still stung. But a bigger part of him was relieved to find her family unharmed, even if they had lost a couple of head of cattle to the hail.
She hadn't made any move off the porch, and he'd stayed in the saddle, but their eyes had held for a long moment before he'd tipped his hat and taken his leave.
Maybe it was a coping mechanism to keep his mind off the horrors he'd witnessed today, but he couldn't stop thinking that maybe things weren't finished between them.
After everything he'd seen today, he realized that life was too short not to try to grab a second chance. His family had been blessed that the tornado had only flattened two fences, but many others had suffered.
He wanted to live each day to the fullest, starting now.
Or after he'd had a chance to wash up and get some rest. He'd ranged so far out of town that the last homestead he'd passed had been almost an hour ago. He didn't know many of the folks out here, but everyone he'd come across had been thankful to see him.
But there were no houses in sight and Dunlop had told him once he got to the creek that cut through the Samuelses' property, to turn back.
"You ready to head home?" he asked his mount, patting the animal's neck. Clouds had gathered on the far horizon, possibly threatening another storm or letting him know that one was hitting miles away. He breathed in deep, the scents of horse and moist ground and wet earth filling his senses.
But as he let his eyes take one last scan of the horizon, movement just beyond the next rise caught his eye. Was that ?
He urged his gelding forward and caught the flash of movement again. It was a person. A teenaged boy, looked like. With his hat pulled down over his brow, the lad was leading a mule several yards back from a creek bursting its banks.
Matty whistled to catch the boy's attention. The young man's head whipped up. But instead of halting, waiting for Matty to cross the creek and come to him, the boy took off, shouting something at the mule.
That wasn't the reaction of a law-abiding citizen.
Matty bit back an uncomplimentary exclamation as he urged his horse into a gallop. Whoever this was just made a long day even longer.
He leaned into the horse's neck as the animal cleared the slight rise, approaching the rolling creek on the down side.
The boy and his mule were disappearing into a copse of bushes across the stream.
The waters blocked his path; the stream had overrun its banks.
"Hey!" he shouted. "Stop! I just wanna talk to you!"
But the boy faded into the underbrush, becoming a shadow.
Matty couldn't see the bottom of the creek, only eddying, murky brown waters. He had no sense of how deep it was, and that meant danger.
He risked his horseand himselfif they got caught in the raging water and swept away. He could turn back.
But why would the boy run away from him? Had he broken some law? Would he have even been able to see Matty's tin star from that distance?
He needed answers.
He urged his horse along the creek's edge, looking for a place that looked wide enough to cross safely. Finally, he saw what appeared to be a flat stretch and turned his gelding to cross.
He was halfway across when a low roaring sound met his ears. He jerked his head up to see a wall of water advancing on him, with debris caught in the floodwaters. He spurred his mount with a "hiyah!" but it was too late. The water swept against his horse. The animal lost its footing, and Matty managed to get his feet out of the stirrups just before he was thrown from its back.
Immediately, he got dunked and inhaled a mouthful of muddy, foul-tasting water. He coughed and spluttered when he was able to kick his head above the water. He couldn't get his bearings, and then the creek turned a curve and he saw a tree growing right smack in the center of the creekor maybe the waters had just risen that much that it had surrounded the tree.
He scissored his legs, but then a huge branch with lots of small, twiggy offshoots rolled over him in the water. He went under, and then the branch and the water combined and it was too latehe was shoved into the standing tree with bone-shattering force.
From her position downstream, Catherine Poole saw the stranger, dressed as a cowboy, get swept up in the flooded creek and then crash into the tree. He didn't resurface.
Her grandfather "Pop" Poole had cautioned her time and again to stay away from strangers.
And she well knew the danger of those who called themselves friends.
Men meant danger, and that's why she'd run when she'd seen the rider. At first glance, she'd thought he was her neighbor Ralph Chesterton.
But what if the man died? Even though he'd been chasing her, she couldn't leave the man to drown, could she? There was no harm in checking on him.
She wouldn't have even been out herethere was plenty enough to do around the homestead with the damage the storm had inflictedbut the mule had broken out of its stall in fright from the thunder and she'd had to track it down.
She left her mule behind and moved away from the creek's edge, where she'd used some wild plum bushes to camouflage their presence. As she ran alongside the swirling, dangerous waters, she was careful not to slip on the muddy banks. If she tumbled in, who would rescue her?
This was when her habit of wearing men's clothingtrousers, shirt and bootswas beneficial. In a long-skirted dress, she would have been hampered, but her trousers made it easier to run.
Even as she watched for the man, she kept her wits about her. He could've pretended injury when he'd fallen into the water and be waiting even now for a chance to grab her.
She caught sight of him floating facedown, yards ahead of her, still being swept away. Worry spiked through her like one of the bolts of lightning that had split the sky this morning. Was he dead?
Her boots slipped on the muddy banks.
How was she going to fish him out of the water? If she had rope, she could form a lasso, but there wasn't time to run home and get some.
She knew this land. She'd been raised here and survived off the farmland and what nature provided. She knew that the creek made another twist up ahead and she put on a burst of speed. If she could get to the dogleg, she could possibly snag the cowboy when he passed.
She was panting, her chest clutching, but she didn't slow down. The sudden fear for him overshadowed her own concerns. She couldn't let this man die.
Her sleeve caught on a blackberry bramble; it scratched her cheek. But she dismissed the stinging pain.
She slid down the slight incline, scrambling for purchase, and nearly fell headlong into the rushing waters, but caught herself before she would have pitched into the water.
There he was! Still yards away but coming in her direction and quick.
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