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Captivated by the Rugged Cowboy

He finds a stranger in his barn but when Jake sees this beautiful woman, he knows he can’t resist helping her with anything she needs…

Nell, fleeing her treacherous uncle to claim her inheritance, seeks refuge in a stranger’s barn. An unpredicted injury extends her stay, and she finds herself captivated by a man she never expected to encounter…

Jake is a rugged rancher who vowed never to love again. His solitude is shattered when he finds Nell in his barn. Reluctantly drawn to her vulnerability, he battles his growing feelings for the spirited woman who unexpectedly enters his life…

When Nell’s uncle threatens to tear them apart, Jake and Nell must safeguard their love and protect their newfound happiness…

 

From a barn’s shelter to hearts intertwined,

Their tale of resilience, a fate so kind.

As shadows loom and dangers near,

Their bond tested, love so dear.

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.4/5

4.4/5 (122 ratings)

Prologue

Kerrville, Texas

1886

 

The orange glow of sunrise flickered into Jake’s half-opened eyes. He was surprised that dawn was breaking already. He didn’t feel as though he had slept for long; the muscles in his powerful legs still ached from the long day in the prairie. It had been hot, with the sun relentless in the ocean-blue sky, and the evening had been warm, too.

Nell had made a cold meat dish and some fresh lemonade, and they had sat together on the front porch, watching the moon slip over the edge of the horizon in silence, as usual. Also as usual, since the day that Nell stumbled into his life at the ranch, bleeding and in need of a safe place, Jake struggled with his feelings. He had been used to looking after himself for a long time, and Nell’s insistence that she should cook and clean while he watched was difficult for him to accept.

“Now you just sit there and drink your coffee. I can manage,” she had said, gently pushing his strong, solid body toward the kitchen chair.

He had sat down reluctantly, dragging the wooden chair his father had made to the edge of the room, out of the way of this whirlwind of a woman. Jake watched as Nell, with her short, shapely body, darted from one side of the room to the other, picking up plates and saucepans and sending them splashing into the sink.

Jake’s mind filled with the memory of his wife Emily moving around the kitchen, her swelling stomach, carrying the baby they both craved, grazing the edge of the kitchen worktop. She had been much slighter than Nell, taller with deep brown hair, so unlike the mane of blond that swung around Nell’s shoulders. Emily was upright and more elegant in her movements. Nell reminded him of a beaver weaving its branches to make a dam, scurrying from side to side in its determination to finish the task. Emily had reminded him of a graceful thoroughbred, placing her feet softly, silently, on the floor as she almost glided around him, catching his eye and smiling that beautiful smile that said I love you.

The guilt that Jake felt, enjoying watching Nell scrub the floor on her hands and knees, spinning across the room until it was spick and span, rose in him again. How could he enjoy the sight of another woman in his dead wife’s kitchen, using her utensils, brushes, and dustpan? Surely, he should feel guilty for entertaining the thought of holding Nell’s small hand in his, feeling her tanned skin against his sandpaper palm.

Jake shook his head, tipping the memory out of his mind and allowing his eyes to open just a little bit wider. He stared at the glowing window. What he had thought was the color of the heralding day was growing, filling the curtainless room. The shape of the ball of orange kept changing, licking the sky. Jake levered himself onto his elbows, straining to see from the window. The sky was still black. It was nighttime, not dawn. The colors in the sky deepened into a raging red, and instantly, Jake knew what that meant. Fire.

His swift movement from his bed sheets to the window was soundless. He grabbed his shirt as he moved, pushing his arms through the material and buttoning the front before he reached the wall. His feet found his boots. He could feel the heat of the fire as he threw open the window. There were voices, shouts, and a scream, an unmistakable scream of a woman. It was Nell.

Jake took just a few seconds to get from his bedroom on the first floor to the front door. His long, athletic stride took the stairs three at a time. Outside, the air was full of smoke. The fire must have started in the barn; he could hear the horses cry against the backdrop of the crackling inferno mixed with screams and frantic shouting.

“Jake! Jake!”

Through the swirling gray smoke, Jake caught sight of Nell, her skirt trailing in the dirt as two men dragged her toward a cart. Jake could see their guns. Then he caught sight of Sam on the ground a little way in front of him, motionless. The red stain around his head told Jake what he feared—Sam had been shot. He grabbed his rifle from behind the porch door, calling out as he ran.

“I’m coming, Nell!”

The men both turned, leveling their weapons at Jake. The whistle of bullets flew above him, mingling with Nell’s terrified cries.

“Jake! Jake! Are you all right?”

He raised his head in time to see the men wrestling with Nell as they tried to push her into the back of the cart. She was struggling, kicking, desperately turning her head toward him. He tried to stand up, but his leg gave way. He had to let her know she was not alone. His voice sounded strange in his head, and the words he shouted even stranger.

“I will find you, Nell. I will find you! We will be together—as man and wife!”

Nell stared at him. His words, so rare and unexpected, silenced her screams. Their eyes met, and he saw her nod. One of the men grabbed her by her hair, flinging her onto the cart. Jake heard the sound of the whip on the horses, the wheels of the cart spinning in the dirt as they started to move.

He had to stop it. He would easily catch the cart if he could get to his horse. He took one step forward, and then the unmistakable sound of the click of a gun trigger close to his head made him freeze. The ground seemed to be moving toward his face as the smoky scene swirled around him like a slow-moving carousel. Then… darkness.

Chapter One

Fredericksville, Texas

1885

One year earlier

 

“Well, Nell is an attractive prospect.”

The words floated across the hallway as Nell went up to her bedroom. She walked on tiptoe across the polished wooden floor toward the sound, pressing herself against the wall to the left of the open door to her father’s study. She reminded herself that it was no longer her father’s study.

He’s dead, and Mother, too. It’s Uncle Reg’s now.

Nell recognized the throaty voice of the town bank owner, Samuel May McKinney, a single man in his forties. She cringed inside at the thought of his unpleasantly moist skin against her hand as he held it—for too long—as he said good morning every time he visited the ranch, which recently seemed to be every other day.

Her uncle’s voice was almost a whisper: the hiss of a scheming snake.

“It is. Nell doesn’t have the usual kind of beauty of a woman of this county, but she is acceptable. She is a bit spirited, but I am sure you can handle that.”

Nell heard the smirk in her uncle’s voice.

She touched her long, blonde, curly hair. With her sun-tanned face and well-developed frame, she looked different from the Western women around her. She thought fondly of how much she had inherited her mother’s Germanic looks, including her stunning blue eyes.

“You bet I can!” The banker chuckled nastily. “It will be my pleasure, if you know what I mean.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be for long. Remember. There is a condition attached to your taking my niece’s hand.” Her uncle’s voice now held a note of threat.

“You can have your fun for a few months, then…”

Nell held her breath.

Her uncle was setting her up to marry the banker.

“I know. I know. Then, unfortunately, my new wife will have a fatal accident, maybe a fall from a horse; she’s not the best of horse riders.”

Nell’s heart raced as she absorbed the words.

What did he mean?

Nell suddenly felt weak, her legs threatening to give way beneath her.

Toughen up, girl. That’s what her father said to her when she said she couldn’t do something.

Her uncle raised his voice a little.

“No. It needs to be something a bit more definite. More than a few broken bones. More fatal. Maybe a fire…”

Nell’s chest pounded. She felt dizzy as she realized that instant what the words meant.

As well as marrying me off to the sweaty banker, my uncle is planning to kill me!

Although her father’s will had given her sole rights to all her parents’ extensive wealth, it was held in trust by her uncle until she turned eighteen, married, and pledged to run the family ranching empire, which would make her one of the wealthiest women in Texas.

He is planning to take my inheritance.

Her uncle was speaking again.

“Whatever the method, she has to die. Then you, the grieving widower, will have to leave town and move east to get away from the terrible loss and memory of your beloved wife.”

Her uncle laughed at this point—a nasty, guttural, mirthless laugh.

“Yes, indeed,” the banker said. “I will need to recuperate from the awful ordeal, and with the money you are going to kindly bequeath me as your niece’s distraught widower, I will find a comfortable life on the other side of the country.”

“Exactly. And I, as the only heir to my brother’s estate, will inherit it all. That’s the deal. Nell is due to be eighteen in a month’s time, so you don’t have much time to play the besotted suitor. I will talk to the reverend and ensure the marriage can proceed as soon as you place this ring on her finger.”

Nell froze.

What should I do? Rush into the study and tell him I know about his awful plan?

That was her first instinct, but she would be no match for either man if they decided to be aggressive.

Run to the sheriff’s office and tell him to arrest my uncle?

Would he believe her? He would probably think that she was just an unstable child who was still grieving for her parents.

Nell heard movement in the study. The men were walking toward the door. They mustn’t find me here.

Nell turned slowly, placing her feet carefully on the stone floor. She moved as quickly as she could toward the staircase. She took the stairs two at a time, lightly landing at the top of the staircase just as her uncle and the banker came out of the study. Treading carefully to avoid creaking floorboards, she reached her bedroom, opening and closing the door silently. Once inside, she leaned against the wood, breathing heavily, tears pricking at her eyes. Fear ran through her body.

Had they seen her? Did they know she had heard them? If they did, she was in immediate danger.

Her mind was still reeling from the conversation she had just heard. Nell knew her uncle was bitter that her father had not left the ranch to him in his last will and testament. He had made that clear when the will was read, and Nell found out that the ranch and everything in it was now hers.

“You’re just a child! What do you know about running a ranch? You can’t even ride a horse properly.”

Her uncle’s words rang in Nell’s head now. He was right about her horsemanship, she was no ranch hand, but to want to kill her? His resentment must run deep. Nell remembered one conversation she had overheard the months before her parents died between her father and her uncle.

“You have no head for figures, Reg, you know that. There is no point in being a member of the company board. You are more valuable to the firm out in the saddle.”

Her father’s voice sounded tired. Over the years, he had said these words many times to his brother in the best way he could, not wanting to hurt his feelings. Tears streamed down Nell’s face at her father’s kindness to his brother.

If only he knew what I just heard.

As unbelievable as it seemed, Nell couldn’t take any chances. She had to get away—now! She needed time to think about what to do and who could help her. If she could get to the next town and find somewhere to stay for a few days, she might be able to work something out.

Reaching into her closet, she hauled the carpet bag onto the floor. She couldn’t take much with her, just the essentials: a change of clothes, her hairbrushes, and her mother’s favorite book. Nell picked up the George Eliot novel Middlemarch from her nightstand. It was her mother’s prized possession. She made a young Nell promise to read it when she was old enough.

Sitting with Nell in the cozy kitchen, a small fire burning in the hearth, the smell of the fresh bread that her mother had just taken from the oven filling the gingham-curtained room, her mother described the characters and the scenery in the book.

“Promise me you will read it, Nell,” her mother had said, her azure eyes shining.

“I will, Mama, I will.”

There was nowhere that she would rather be than in the kitchen with her mother. It was the warmest room in their large house that her father had built years before. She felt safe there.

Nell had wanted to hug her mother then and feel her arms around her, but her mother had stood up from the table abruptly, patted her on the head, and left the room. So many times in her youth, Nell wished her mother was more affectionate. She had craved the warmth of their relationship, but her mother’s curt manner always swept away her instinctive emotional gestures.

Putting the book at the bottom of the carpet-bag, Nell grabbed some clothes from the dresser. The thought of her mother made her look in the mirror. Her hair was in its usual state of disarray, cascading over her shoulders and tumbling in a curly curtain almost to her waist. Her mother would not be pleased to see it that way. She grabbed her hairbrush, pulling the sharp spikes through the thick mass while her mind raced. What were her options?

Expertly, she plaited the unruly strands of hair, winding them neatly into braids, as her mother had done every morning, while the thoughts of how to escape spun around her head.

She had to leave the ranch. Escape to safety. Where? There was one place.

She would head there. Her first problem was getting out of the house without her uncle and the banker seeing her. She stepped quickly to the window, looking down at the yard in front of the house. If she could drop down onto the hay bales stacked by the wall, she could get to the barn.

She would have to take a horse. The thought terrified her. There was no other way. She had to do it.

Pulling the bedsheets off her mattress, she tied the ends together and carefully unlatched and raised the window. There was no one in the yard. Her uncle and his guest must have gone into the kitchen. Tying the end of the knotted material to the leg of the bed, Nell threw the other end out of the window. Staring down at the sheet as it settled against the wall. It was short of the hay bales by about fifteen feet. If she missed them, she would definitely hurt herself. She had no choice.

Aiming her carpet bag at the space in front of the bales, she stepped out onto the window ledge just as her bedroom door burst open. Her uncle and Mr. McKinney stood in the doorway.

“Nell! Get back inside, now!”

Her uncle’s face was red with anger. He started toward the window.

“NO!” Nell screamed the word as she grabbed hold of the bedsheet and shimmied down as fast as she could.

Her uncle shouted to Mr. McKinney, who was following him into the room.

“Get downstairs, outside, catch her! I will stop her little game.” As her uncle glared down at her, she could feel him tugging at the sheets, trying to make her fall. She reached the end of the material, her legs dangling in mid-air. Closing her eyes, she let go of the white cloth. She floated through the air before landing with a heavy thump on the edge of one of the hay bales. Rolling over quickly, she jumped to her feet and raced toward the barn.

“Stop, missy!” the breathless voice of the banker rang out across the courtyard.

Nell knew he couldn’t move as fast as she could; he was a weighty man. As she got nearer to the barn, she could see that the horses were in the paddock.

“Stop, Nell. You can’t get away!”

Her uncle’s voice floated across the yard, and she could hear feet pounding behind her. Her heart crashed against her chest painfully as she ran toward the paddock gate, her mind reeling.

If she climbed it, leaving it locked, she could give herself a couple of minutes, gambling on her uncle and the banker not wanting to climb over it and needing to unlock it to get to her. If she could reach one of the horses, mount, and ride to the gate on the other side of the paddock, she would be able to unclip it and escape.

The horses were spooked by the yelling of the two men and Nell as she ran amongst them, trying to grab one of their reins. They kicked their legs backward at her as they bucked, spiraling around the paddock in panic. Desperately crushing her fear of the animals down inside her chest, she grabbed a loose rein and pulled the horse toward her. Fortunately, it was one of the smaller breeds.

Nell swung herself over its back, clinging onto the rein tightly. The saddle had been removed when the horse had been placed in the paddock, so she slid across the animal and almost off the other side. She righted herself, pulling the rein sharply. The horse reared its head in protest.

She yelled, “Giddy up!”

Nell dug her heels into the horse’s side. He seemed as though he was going to buck, which would throw her to the ground, but instead, his head shot forward, his neck tightened, and he started to move.

“You can’t escape, Nell!” Her uncle’s voice was nearer now.

She glanced over her shoulder. He was fiddling with the paddock gate lock. She had been right!

Leaning over the horse’s neck, Nell reached forward as she approached the opposite fence. The gate catch sprung from its mounting, and the animal’s weight against it flung it wide open. Not looking back, Nell kicked the side of the animal again. It responded, increasing its stride and raising a dusty trail behind them. Nell’s heart pounded like a freight train as she clung to the reins. Her body was thrown from side to side, and she had to use all her effort to keep herself on the animal’s back. The horse’s speed terrified her, but there was no going back now; she had to escape. The loose plan swirled around her head.

If she could cross the flat, open plain and head for the small wood on the other side, there is a crossroad with four roads going in all directions. There would be no way of anyone knowing which road she had taken. Her uncle might think she would head out to the main town instead of the smaller place she was planning to head for.

The horse had been a good choice. It was fast for a small animal, pounding across the plain, responding to Nell’s shouts and cracks of the whip.

The wood was just up ahead.

Breathlessly, Nell pulled the horse to slow it down as they approached the trees; she had to be careful going through on horseback, realizing, too late, that the edge of the wood was littered with fallen branches. The horse reared, and without warning, Nell found herself in the air, then tumbling along the ground. Rolling over and over, pain ripped through her leg as it snagged against a branch. She saw the tree trunk too late to stop her head from hitting it with the full force of her body. In the distance, she heard the unseated horse’s whinnying disappearing into the distance. He had bolted.

Nell’s head pounded as she tried to sit up; blood trickled down her face. She wiped the liquid away, stumbling to her feet. She let out a loud yell. The pain in her leg and ankle was agonizing. She bit her lip, passing her hand over her forehead, which throbbed painfully.

Blood. Her head was bleeding badly.

She stared back through the trees. There was no sign of her uncle or the banker. She didn’t know how much time she had, but she had to get through the woods to the crossroads; it was her only chance. Her movements were slow; she felt disorientated. The ground seemed to move as she dragged herself forward. She wiped the blood from her eyes, shaking her head slightly to clear her vision.

At the three-road crossroads, she turned left, glancing behind. She tried to quicken her step, half-staggering, half-running alongside the track until she caught sight of the outline of a building ahead. After glancing once more behind, she stumbled on, tripping a couple of times and grazing her knee on the sharp stones before reaching the building door.

Mercifully, it was unlocked. Nell pulled the heavy wooden door open just enough to squeeze herself through the gap, closing it behind her. She leaned against the wood frame, her legs buckling, and sank to the floor. She mustn’t give in to the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm her. She must stay awake. Nell needed to be ready for whatever happened next.

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