She kissed him back, the butterflies in her stomach having gotten used to this by now, and for once, she happily enjoyed the sensation of having her world tipped sideways.
When the charming and powerful Jefferson McCormick arrives in the small town of Placer Creek, he threatens to throw away any chance Rebecca Pierson ever had for a future with the young and bold cowboy, Riley Sutter.
Thinking she has left the years of taking refuge in the town’s brothel house behind, she is ready to start a new life at the Triple T ranch with Riley. But just when he is about to confess his true feelings for her, the unforeseen happened . . .
. . . a big misunderstanding, perfectly planned by Jefferson to bring Rebecca closer to him, will drive Riley further away – but will put her life in danger.
And now Rebecca can’t believe her summer ended up full of danger, heartbreak and deceit.
Rebecca couldn’t remember a time when she’d ever felt so miserable or cold. Her hands seemed frozen, and her brain was foggy with a mixture of exhaustion, cold, and the events of the last hour of her life.
“Dear, lift your arms and we’ll help you get out of these wet clothes. There’s already hot water in the tub, and you can soak for as long as you need to get warm again,” Marjorie told her softly, pushing her hair off her face.
The older woman made a tsking sound when she spied the small cut on Rebecca’s cheek, and she gingerly felt around it before murmuring to Cora, who nodded quietly. “We’ll take care of that in a minute. Now, up you go.”
Rebecca felt the wet fabric of her dress pulled away from her body, and she struggled to help, but her body felt drained of energy and lacking in strength. She weakly clung to Marjorie’s shoulder once she had been pulled upright as her skirts were loosened and dropped with a wet thud to the wooden floorboards. “Sorry…”
“Don’t be. Although, I must admit to being curious as to how you came to be soaked?” Cora asked as she began removing the pins and braids from Rebecca’s wet hair.
“I fell in the river.”
“The river? Did your horse throw you? Should we be checking for other injuries?” Marjorie inquired.
Rebecca shook her head, “Nothing that adventurous, I’m afraid.” She explained about being stuck on the top of the plateau because of the snake and then her rescue by the Indians, all the while remembering Riley’s reaction when he and his brother had come upon them.
“I imagine Riley was very relieved…” Cora began to speak, only to stop mid-sentence a moment later.
“No, Riley was upset with me.” She shook her head, and Riley’s mother tried to defend him. “He was. He complained about how I looked, and then when he found me in the river, he yelled at me.”
“Surely not,” Cora gasped. “Riley would never—”
“But he did,” Rebecca assured her, feeling a fresh wave of tears dampen her cheeks. “I don’t know why he dislikes me so…I thought…” She stopped and gave a shake of her head, “I guess it doesn’t matter what I thought.” Rebecca sniffled and then turned her attention to loosening the ribbon on her chemise. It had tightened upon getting wet, and her cold fingers felt three times larger than normal.
Seeing her struggle, Marjorie gently moved her hands out of the way and quickly undid the knot with a gentle smile. Rebecca held back a wave of fresh tears as Riley’s mother tried to defend her son’s foul temper.
“Rebecca, Riley was overcome with worry when you didn’t arrive this morning. It was because of him that Morgan agreed to form a search party and go looking for you.”
“Why would he do that?” she puzzled, meeting the other woman’s eyes with a frown between her eyes. “Every time he talks to me, it’s to complain about something.”
“Every time?” Cora questioned as a knock on the kitchen door sounded, and Brianna walked inside with clothing in her hands.
Rebecca nodded and murmured, “Every time.” She turned her attention to Brianna and gave her a weak smile. “Hi.”
“Hello, yourself. I guess you thought visiting the ranch and going to Isabel would be too boring for you?” Brianna asked with a smile.
Rebecca chuckled and shrugged a shoulder even as she stepped over the edge of the tub and sank into the hot water. It stung her skin, but feeling the warmth was better than the cold chemise, and she closed her eyes for a moment and just enjoyed the sensation of being able to move her fingers again without it hurting. Once her shivers stopped and she could wiggle all of her fingers and toes again, she opened her eyes to see all three women quietly conversing in the corner.
Marjorie and Cora soon left, and Brianna scooted a chair over to the side of the tub. “So, what’s this I hear about you and Riley?”
“It’s okay. I thought maybe, at one time, that Riley and I might get along well, but today showed me that he and I would never work as a couple. I seem to irritate him at every turn, even when I’m not doing anything but trying to survive.” She pulled a face and leaned back in the tub, closing her eyes to shut out the questioning look Brianna threw her way.
Her friend was blessedly quiet for several minutes, leaving Rebecca alone with her thoughts. She kept thinking about the ride back to the ranch after Riley pulled her over onto his lap, but she was certain she was remembering things as she wished they were, and not how they truly were. Riley hadn’t held you and murmured words of comfort in your ear because he wanted to. You didn’t give him any choice in the matter. I’m sure he would have rather been dealing with that awful snake than having to take care of you.
Her tired brain kept confusing things. She had a brief recollection of Riley promising to always care for her and see to her safety, but then in the next flash of memory, he was glaring at her and scolding her for trying to take care of herself. She shook her head as a feeling of despair filled her soul. She wasn’t sure if the first memory was only wishful thinking or had really happened, but, given her experience with Riley when she was fully conscious, she was fairly certain it wasn’t real. No matter how much she wished it was so.
After their kiss the night of the Independence Day celebration, she’d been sure things between her and Riley would improve, and maybe they could stop poking at one another and give a future where they were together a chance. She’d been so happy to see him a few days later, but he’d pretended as if he hadn’t even seen her and had completely ignored her. Completely.
“That’s a mighty frown on your face,” Brianna murmured softly. “Want to talk about it?”
Rebecca opened her eyes and then shook her head. “Not really. I’m warm enough and should probably get out of the tub. I’m sure Marjorie wants her kitchen back.”
Brianna nodded and reached for a large bath sheet sitting on the table. “Here. I’ll step out and let you get that wet chemise off and dried. I brought you some of my clothing to wear while yours is laundered.”
“Thank you. I’m sorry to be so much trouble. I did bring clothing with me. It’s on the back of the horse…I’m ashamed to say I don’t even know her name.”
Brianna laughed, “I’ll see about retrieving your bag while you get dressed. I’ll also see if anyone happens to know your mount’s name. We can’t have you feeling bad because you don’t know what to call the animal.”
Rebecca blushed, “I never even thought about inquiring about the animal’s name before we discovered the large snake wanting to strike at her legs. She really was a wonderful horse. I felt bad for only being able to praise her with the word Horse.”
Brianna cocked her head and asked, “How do you know it’s a mare?”
Rebecca shrugged, “Only a mare would be so patient as to wait in the sun for hours without trying to buck me off and dash away. A male horse would certainly have gotten impatient.”
Brianna chuckled and then calmed herself. “Interesting viewpoint, and while I’d love to know if your thoughts on male horses might extend to all things male, I don’t believe we have time for that particular conversation right now.” Brianna handed her the bath sheet and then headed for the kitchen entrance, turning just before leaving the room. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Rebecca watched Brianna leave and then gave herself a good talking to as she dried off and dressed in the borrowed clothing. Luckily, she and Brianna were almost the same size. She wrung the water from her hair and began to drag the hairbrush Brianna had also left for her through the wet tresses. She used the extra minutes to mentally arm and protect herself. She was at the ranch now, and even though her arrival had been fraught with near disaster, there was no reason she couldn’t enjoy the next few days here. She’d just have to ignore Riley and, hopefully, the feelings she had for him would go away one day soon.
Riley looked up when the barn door opened, assuming Morgan had returned to give him some more advice on how to handle the situation with Rebecca. He was surprised to see Brianna coming toward him with a soft smile upon her face. He looked behind her, expecting to see Rebecca entering right behind her, but it appeared she’d come out here on her own.
“Brianna. What brings you to the barn?” Riley asked, coming around the borrowed mount to meet her in the center of the large structure.
“Rebecca said she had a bag with some of her clothing in it tied to the back of her horse?”
Riley turned and nodded, “Yes.” He retrieved the bag and handed it over, asking, “Is she going to be okay?”
Brianna gave him a funny look and then questioned, “Why do you ask that?”
Riley tried to hide the worry in his voice, “She was unconscious for most of the ride here. I wasn’t sure if she was just exhausted or ailing.” His voice came out harsher than he intended, and when he saw the look on Brianna’s face, he wished he’d held his question.
“She was tired and cold,” Brianna countered.
It was obvious that Brianna felt she needed to defend her friend. He nodded and then tried to explain himself. “Yes, I know. That’s why I’m concerned. I don’t know what she was thinking, sitting down in the river like that.”
“She sat down in the river?” Brianna asked. When Riley nodded, she pursed her lips and then asked, “Are you so sure it was voluntary and she didn’t just slip and fall? Rebecca doesn’t strike me as a young woman who would intentionally endanger her health.”
“Well…er, no?” he answered, remembering how clumsy she had seemed when she’d first tried to exit the water.
Riley wasn’t quite sure what to make of Brianna’s hum, but he held his tongue as he pondered her question further. Rebecca was a smart young woman, and yet, she seemed to find trouble on a consistent basis.
“She said you yelled at her.” There was an accusation in Brianna’s voice, and her posture demanded an explanation.
“I didn’t yell…well, not exactly. I was exasperated when I found her sitting in the middle of the river while we all were waiting on her. That water is mighty cold this time of year, and she was already overheated. She could catch a serious cold that way.”
“So, you raised your voice because…?”
Brianna’s question hung in the air and Riley struggled to find the correct words. After several minutes of silence, Brianna raised a brow in his direction, and he could only give her a sheepish half smile.
“Were you concerned for her?” Brianna inquired.
“Of course, I’m concerned for her…er, was concerned for her.” Riley cleared his throat and added, “That girl finds more ways to get into trouble than anyone I’ve ever met. I’m not surprised that she wandered up onto the only plateau in that stretch of land that hosts a rattlesnake nest.”
“She didn’t go up there on purpose,” Brianna reminded him, once again defending her friend.
“It shouldn’t have happened at all and wouldn’t have if she’d just have been reasonable and waited for me to escort her out to the ranch. She always wants to do things on her own.”
“And that is a bad thing?” Brianna asked.
“Not a bad thing, just not the wise thing since it always turns out badly for her.”
“Ah! Again, you’re concerned for her. Maybe your feelings for Rebecca are more than you are comfortable with?”
Riley looked disgruntled at Brianna’s insight and threw a look her way. “Did Morgan send you in here to talk to me?”
“Should he have?” she countered.
Riley shook his head, “Nah, it’s just…Rebecca makes me crazy.”
“You like her,” Brianna stated.
“Yes. I like her, and she knows it.”
“Have you told her that you like her?” Brianna asked.
“Not exactly, but she knows.”
“I’m not sure that she does. She seems to be under the misconception that you don’t like her.”
“What? How can she think that?” Riley demanded, shoving a hand through his curly locks. “She knows better.”
Brianna made a sound that she covered with a hand and then turned innocent eyes on him when he raised a brow in her direction. “I think maybe you should go back to the beginning where Rebecca is concerned. You two seem to be at odds for no reason.”
Brianna turned when she heard a voice calling her name from outside the barn. She smiled and then shoved Rebecca’s bag at him, forcing him to accept it or let it drop. “No time like the present to clear the air. She’s most likely waiting on the porch, as I didn’t bring her any shoes to borrow.”
With that said, Brianna turned around, her skirts swishing against her legs, and left him standing alone in the middle of the barn. Riley watched her disappear through the side door and then turned when he heard the voice call her name again, only this time it was much closer than before.
Before he could think of a proper response, the barn doors opened and in walked Rebecca, her damp hair secured once again in braids wrapped around her head, the borrowed clothes fitting her a bit loosely, and her stockinged feet…
Stockinged feet? She came out of the house, after being chilled to the bone, with no shoes to protect the tender soles of her feet. She is a walking disaster waiting to happen.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” Riley told her without thinking first, advancing on her with a steady pace.
Rebecca stopped at his words, her hands going to her hips and a mulish look taking over her face. “Riley Sutter, I’m just about sick and tired of being told what to do by the likes of you.”
She closed the distance between them and snatched her belongings out of his hands. “You don’t get to tell me what to do!” In her haste to retrieve her belongings, she stumbled slightly, dropping her bag to the hay-strewn floor of the barn.
“You don’t have any shoes on.”
“I am aware of that. I could hardly put those leather boots back on while they were still wet. Marjorie assures me they should be dry come morning.”
“So, you should be inside the cabin and not running around the barn in your stockinged feet.” Riley mimicked her stance, placing his hands on his hips and giving her a stony look.
“They’re my feet. What do you care if I walk around without my shoes on? Many of the Indians never wear shoes…”
“You’re not an Indian!” Riley fired back in exasperation. He was just trying to get her to see the dangers that might befall her without proper protection on her feet. As usual, she was being difficult and arguing with him. He raised his right arm and pointed toward the entrance to the barn. “Go back inside the cabin.”
Rebecca narrowed her gaze at him and crossed her arms over her chest, tilting her chin up just the tiniest bit. “Stop. Telling. Me. What. To. Do.”
Riley advanced on her, keeping only a few inches between them. “I’ll stop telling you what to do when you start using that beautiful head of yours to think correctly and stop endangering your person.”
“It’s my person to endanger…”
Rebecca stopped and Riley watched a flurry of emotions flash across her face, ending with one he assumed was embarrassment, given how red in the face she became. He waited patiently, clenching his fists by his sides when the urge to clasp her shoulders threatened his self-control.
When she opened her mouth, he prepared himself for another one of her tongue lashings, but instead, she hoarsely whispered, “You think I’m beautiful?”
Her words caught him by surprise. He nodded once and took another step toward her. He started to reach a hand up, intending to cup the side of her face, but he pulled his hand back at the last moment. His heart was feeling heavy as he looked at the hope displayed in her eyes, coupled with a heavy dose of disbelief. Disbelief he knew his words and actions had put there. It made his resolve to tell Rebecca how he truly felt even more firm.
“Rebecca, you are…”
“There you are,” Marjorie called out, coming through the side door into the barn and giving Riley a strange look when she saw how close they were standing. Feeling as if he’d been caught doing something he oughtn’t, he shoved his hands in his pockets and took a step back, feeling Rebecca’s eyes on him the entire time.
“Rebecca was looking for her clothing,” he explained.
“Well, she should be inside.”
“So, I’ve already told her,” Riley commented, inwardly groaning when he watched Rebecca bristle at his words. Any progress they might have made in their understanding of one another faded away before his eyes.
Marjorie came forward, stopping when she was between them. “Rebecca, I’ve fixed you a cup of tea to help finish taking the chill off.”
Riley knew the moment Marjorie realized Rebecca wasn’t wearing any shoes by her gasp. “Child, you get yourself back inside the cabin, right this instant. I won’t have you catching your death of a cold, not on my watch.”
“I only wanted…” Rebecca started to bend down to retrieve her fallen bag, but Marjorie stopped her.
“Don’t you worry about your things. Riley can finish bringing them up to the cabin.” Marjorie reached for Rebecca’s arm and ushered her out of the barn before Riley could get another word in. He saw Rebecca look back at him once, but the opportunity to tell her how he felt had slipped away.
He sighed, picked up the fallen bag, and turned his energies toward the horses. He removed the second bag from the back of Rebecca’s borrowed horse, making a mental note to speak with the Walkers about procuring one of their horses for her. They had several horses on the Triple T ranch, but none of them were gentle enough for the woman he planned to make his wife. He didn’t want to worry about her getting tossed because some small rodent spooked the horse when she was busy looking at the mountains or the wildflowers. Something he’d noticed Rebecca tended to do whenever she had the chance.
He headed for the cabin, avoiding the inquisitive looks that his father and uncle both gave him when he didn’t stop to talk on the porch.
“Where you off to?” his uncle asked with a knowing smirk on his face.
“Rebecca has need of the rest of her things. I think I’ll ride out and check the southern herd after that. Samuel said there was a portion of the fence down this morning.”
“Did anyone head out there to fix it?” Uncle Otis inquired.
“Yes. Samuel took two hands with him, along with some new timbers.”
“Good, that’s good.” The two older men shared a look, and then his father tipped his chin toward the door to the cabin. “Best get those things inside and then be on your way. Daylight’s almost gone, what with having to send out a search party and all.”
“Seems like that was unnecessary, after all.”
Riley looked between the two men, knowing they were baiting him and slightly confused at what they hoped to gain. When he saw both of them trying to hide their smiles, he decided whatever their objective was, it didn’t need to concern him. He shook his head and headed indoors. Cora was just coming down the stairs and immediately intercepted him.
“Are those the rest of Rebecca’s things?”
“They are. I was just going to give them to her.”
“No need. I’ll take them to her.” Cora took the bag from him and then proceeded to turn, effectively directing him back to the front door. “Thank you for bringing them in.”
Moments later, Riley found himself standing outside the cabin door, puzzled at how he’d come to be there. It was as if everyone was working together to keep him and Rebecca apart right now.
“When you see Samuel, tell him I’d like to talk to him after supper,” Otis called from his place on the front porch.
“What?” Riley asked, turning his head to see the two older men watching him. Again.
“When you get out to the others, tell Samuel I’d like to speak with him.”
Riley nodded absently and turned toward the barn. He was on Thunder’s back and riding away from the cabin ten minutes later, no closer to having told Rebecca how he felt about her. He couldn’t get the look on her face, when he’d mentioned he thought her beautiful, out of his mind. She’d been shocked, and he was certain it wasn’t because she’d never been called pretty or beautiful before. No, her shock was in the fact that he had called her beautiful.
He shook his head, knowing that mere words wouldn’t be enough to convince Rebecca he had feelings for her. His words had already caused too much damage, but his intentions had been in the right place. He’d have to work extra hard to convince her otherwise.
He found Samuel half an hour later, just finishing up the fence repair, and after a brief conversation with the men, he sent them back and rode a little further. The sun was already heading toward the mountains by the time he reined Thunder in and headed back to the buildings.
His time alone wasn’t wasted, and he spent some time practicing what he wanted to say to Rebecca when he saw her this evening. Her reaction to him earlier in the summer told him she did have some feelings for him; he simply needed to change how he communicated with her so that she would believe he had similar feelings toward her. The problem was that he always felt tongue-tied around her, except when he was criticizing her. Something he was going to try not to do again.
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