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"Make way! Big load comin' through," Pete O'Leary, the local grave digger, announced as he plastered his tall lanky form against a row of mercantile shelves. "Zach, you must be half ox, with the way you're lugging those heavy crates."
they're not all that heavy. I'll be fine." Adjusting his grip on the two jampacked crates, the ranch foreman ducked under a display of bridles that had been hung like moss from a tree.
"I think Conroy here's scairt of ya, Zach." Pete dragged his pet ferret, its longwhiskered nose twitching, from his shoulder and held out the critter to Zach. "Feel how the little guy's jest shakin' up a storm."
Pausing, Zach eyed the lanky critter, a purchase Pete had made from a traveling salesman a year ago. The cute weasellike animal was Pete's constant companion, except at church, which Pete had often mourned, saying that attending might do the ferret's thieving soul some good. Zach was pretty sure that if he didn't take the time to alleviate Conroy's apparent fear, he'd wound Pete's feelings.
Easing the crates to the floor, he took the ferret from Pete, chuckling at the way the animal draped over his arms like a wet cloth, peering up at him with those mischievous marblelike eyes of his. "Well, aren't you a cute little guy," Zach said, if for no other reason than to placate Pete. "See, I'm as harmless as a newborn pup. I wouldn't hurt a soul."
"I don' know 'bout that," Pete contradicted. Blowing out a big breath, he stirred up tiny particles of dust on a nearby shelf that sashayed on his hot air to some other shelf. "Conroy and me
we wouldn't want to cross you that's for sure."
"I'm slow to rile," Zach reasoned, recognizing that with the long hours of hard physical labor he worked on the Harris ranch, he'd come by his size honestly. "But when it comes to defending what's right and looking out for loved ones, I don't back down." Zach wore the trait proudly.
"Yer jest like yer brothers," Pete stated with a tight wink. "Every last one of you Drake boys is cut'a the same sturdy, Godfearin' cloth."
"I count myself a blessed man to have them."
His brothers meant the world to him. He'd do anything to help them out, and they'd do the samethat is, if he let them.
Zach swallowed a generous gulp of pride as he recalled just how often his brothers had said that he needed to stop taking on the world by himself. And more than anything
that he needed to find his way to trusting God again instead of trying to be the Almighty for himself.
He was trying. He'd even felt God's gentle tugging, but time and again, it seemed Zach was better off carving out his own path. He had too much to prove after living in his brothers' long successful shadows. Now, he was determined to forge his own way in life. Or die trying.
The rhythmic jangling sound of a wagon rolling down the street filtered into his hearing like some patent reminder to get a move on. The way his boss, Mr. Harris, had seemed under the weather recently, Zach had stepped up his duties a notch.
"I've got to get going, Pete." He returned Conroy to Pete's arms and hefted the crates again. "See you around."
"See ya later, Zach," Pete said, observing Zach as though he was carrying a big old pine tree down the aisle.
Craning his neck around the bulky load, Zach headed toward the door, the bolts of colorful calico to his right. Turning, he nudged the unlatched door with his backside. When it stuck, he gave it a hard shove.
"Get off!" a female voice yelped from the mercantile platform outside.
He whipped his head around just in time to see a flourish of hands flailing, skirts ruffling and wings flapping.
"Go!" she hollered, waving her hands madly.
A barn swallow bolted from the woman's fancy feathered hat into the crisp September air. She spun around and backpeddled, stumbling toward the edge of the fourfoot boardwalk.
Dropping the crates with a clank and clatter, Zach bolted into the late afternoon sun. Snaked out a hand to grab her. Missed.
As she tumbled to the mudslopped ground with a delicate splat, he shot off the platform, landing on his feet beside the woman. He hunkered down at her side. "Are you all right, ma'am?" He touched her shoulder.
"I'm fine. Just dandy," she sputtered, her mouth a resolute line and barely visible from beneath her widebrimmed, dirtsplattered hat that had been knocked askew. She struggled to lever herself from the mud's sloppy grasp.
"Here, let me help you." He pulled the woman up to a sitting position then retrieved her small handbag, and after wiping the mud from it onto his breeches, held it out to her. "Here's your bag, ma'am."
She hunkered down and whispered, "Where's that horrible bird? Is he still here?" A heavy thread of desperation flashed through her words even as a wavy lock of rich auburn hair tumbled from beneath her hat.
"He's gone." Zach scanned the rooflines. "Flew the coop. At least for now, anyway."
"You mean he's likely to return?" she yelped. She ducked her head between her shoulders as though she was about to be swooped down on by an entire flock. "Because I'm scared to death of birds."
He didn't believe he knew this woman, hadn't even gotten a good look at her with that pretentious hat draping over her face, but the fact that she was so obviously unsettled by a harmless bird struck a chord of compassion in his heart.
He settled a protective arm around her shoulder and angled a glance at the mercantile overhang where the barest makings of a nest had been wedged onto a strut. "I hate to break the news to you, but with that nest he has started up there, he'll likely be back."
She gave a muffled screech, and with muddy hands, shielded her hatdraped head as if she was being pelted by eggsize hailstones.
"It's all right. Don't be afraid." He gently grasped her arm. "I'll protect you if he returns."
With the wagons clattering by and horses plodding through the streets, he almost missed the long breath she inhaled right then. But he couldn't miss the way she stiffened, her spine growing straight and unyielding, as though she'd been jarred to her senses.
She pulled away from him and with mudcaked fingers, primped the ruffled white shirtwaist beneath her fashionable silken wrap. "I can manage just fine by myself."
He shook his head at her show of stubbornness. Something about this woman was vaguely familiar. Her voice
with its rich lilting tone, and her slender fingers
the way they tapered to a delicate end, and then there was the almost prideful way she'd diverted his concern.
Angling his head down, he tried unsuccessfully to peek at her from beneath the mudwilted brim. When he took in the bedraggled state of this spritely stranger, and her seemingly unconcerned attitude about her condition, he couldn't help but be slightly amused. The hat she wore, big and looking more like a small garden of frippery than a head covering, dwarfed her petite frame.
The sound of wildly flapping wings broke through his musings. She must have heard it too, because the woman balled herself up tight as the bird braved another approach.
"Go on, bird. Shoo!" He waved off the curious winged creature with one arm and folded the other around the trembling woman. His heart skipped several beats as she burrowed against his chest, her warm breath seeping clear through his shirt.
He could've stayed right here with this little lady in his arms for the next hour. Maybe more. Even in spite of the noticeable way a gaggle of older women had gathered outside the hotel, their lips tight disapproving lines as they stared in his direction.
He'd never quite felt like this before. He'd never gotten close enough to know what this felt like. In years past, his annoying stutter would crop up, unbidden, chasing him away from the very idea of love. And once he'd been made foreman, he'd been too focused on doing the best job he could to spend any kind of thought on a woman.
Scooping her into his arms, he lifted her from the mud and crossed over to the walkway, giving little notice to the dark slime that now caked his arms, hands and down the front of his shirt.
But the soft gasp that came from her lips just now
he definitely couldn't ignore that.
She scrambled to free herself from his arms, jerking him from his temporary lapse of wits. "What in the world?" she sputtered, irritation sharply framing her words.
"I said I'd protect you if he returned, and that's what I was doing," he defended, a little put out by her abruptness.
put me down!" she demanded, breathless.
He grinned at her endearing grasp for control, and held on. "You might want to take that thing off your head if you're planning on protecting yourself." He settled her feet on the boardwalk. "With all those feathers and leaves and whatnot, I'd say it's a little too tempting for that nesting bird. He probably thinks he's discovered a perfect fall and winter home."
Stomping mud from her fancy buttoned boots, she tugged the brim of her hat down all the more, hiding her face nearly completely. "I'll leave it on, thank you."
"Suit yourself." With unabashed curiosity, he looked on while she brushed at her skirt. With the delicate way she was going about it, she may as well have been trying to remove a smudge of innocent dust, not a thick layer of reddishcolored mud. He could hardly blame the spirited woman for being so on edge. After all, her entire backside was coated in a slimy layer of mud. She was probably mortified. Humiliated. Downright mad.
With that silent acknowledgment, he drew his neatly folded handkerchief from his back pocket and held it out like an olive branch. "Here. Take this."
Clutching the front edge of her hat, she lifted it into place with more dignity than he'd expect, given her filthy condition.
"This might help a litt" His words died on his tongue as she tipped up her face and met his gaze.
His breath whooshed from his lungs. He stared, wideeyed, his vision pulsing black. White. Then splotching in an array of colors as he took in the woman standing before him.
Ivy. Grace. Harris.
He blinked hard in the hopes of producing some other image than her.
The one and only love of his childhood heart. His boss's daughter.
And the sole reason he'd suffered years of humiliation.
She stared at him for a long and lingering moment. Her lips parted and then fell open as wide as her sparkling eyes.
Zach's blood thickened in his veins as he met that beautiful, memorable springgreen gaze of hers. He'd never forget itwith just one glance his knees used to grow as flimsy as a blade of grass bent by the windjust like they did now. Nor had he forgotten the adorable way her pert little nose turned up eversoslightly. Or the way her full lips formed the most perfect Cupid's bow, begging to be kissed.
He worked a swallow past the lump that had knotted his throat. Battled back that familiar, thick, tonguetied feeling that strangled him even now. Struggled to keep all six feet of his workhardened body from trembling.
For over a year now he'd been foreman on John Harris's ranch, and for the first time since childhood he'd felt secure. Confident. But now.
Now with this girlthis woman'sappearance, he was catapulted back to nearly twelve years ago all over again.
He blinked back the apprehension she was sure to find in his gaze. Swerved his focus a block down the street where he spotted Beatrice Duncan beelining toward them, her short legs eating up the walkway with surprising swiftness as she aimed an overly eager, almost giddy look in his direction. He clenched his jaw at the woman's clear intent. But it was the woman in front of him that gave him pause.
"Zachariah Drake? " Ivy worked her gaze from his head all the way down to his toes and then back again in a slow, silent and wholly discomforting perusal. "Is it you?"
He stared at her, struggling to find his voice.
"Is it really you?" The buoyant sound of her voice disconcerted him all the more.
"Yes," he managed to force out. "It's me."
"What a surprise," she breathed, swiping a muddy hand across the front of her lavendercolored skirt. Her long eyelashes whispered down over those eyes of hers like tender branches bending to kiss the fresh green of a beautiful spring landscape. "I barely recognized you. It's been"
"Sssix years." Clearing his throat, his stomach convulsed at the way he could've rattled off the months, the days.maybe the hours since he'd last seen her.
But he was more disgusted with the way the one syllable had suddenly become three.
The sound of his broken speech raked over his hearing like a hundred pricking barbs. Surely it was a mishap. A blunder. There was no way, after all the labor, sweat and fortitude he'd poured into overcoming his stutter that it'd descend on him again like some dark and stormy day.
"It has been, hasn't it?" She lifted her chin in that stately way of hers. Fingered the wilting blue fringe dangling from the navy wrap that was now plastered by mud to her back.
He nodded, shoving his hands into his pockets as he hauled in a deep, deep breath, something he'd learned to do when he'd faced his stutter headon. Dragging his hands out of his pockets, he unfurled his tight fists one finger at a time. "What are you dddoing here?"
What in the name of all that was true!
There it was again.
He'd defeated this thing. Hadn't tripped up more than once over the past couple years. He could speak clearly. Wasn't given to stumbling. Or even pausing overly long.
He was fine. Just fine.
She tipped her head slightly. Furrowed her graceful brow.
Zach held his ground, even when part of him wanted to flee from her presence and from the haunting impediment. But he'd come too far over the past six years to let her shake his confidence, even if it was quite a shock to see her again.
His boss hadn't said a word about Ivy coming for a visit. In fact, Zach had only heard the man speak of his daughter once since he'd been working at the Harris ranch.
She lifted her hat from her head, exposing those silken auburn curls he'd stared at for hours on end when he was in school. "As you can see, I was stopping by the mercantile. That is until that bird"
"What I mean is
why are you in BBBBoulder?" His face muscles tensed.
She set a quivering hand to her neck. "I was stopping by to see if I could find someone who might be able to drive me to the ranch," she measured out as though he had a miniscule understanding of the English language.
Her placating tone grated his nerves. In school, he'd been ridiculed. Teased without mercy. Treated as though he couldn't read, write or add two plus two.
He hadn't been able to speak one sentence without stumbling over the words. And all because of this beautiful woman standing in front of him now.
She glanced around as though there might be a fancy carriage waiting to do her bidding. "My visit